Review of “How the Whip Came Back” (1970)


Gene Wolfe (writer).

Read in 2022.

In a future world where the USA emulates more successful Soviet economic policy, an observer is called to vote on a proposal to legalize slavery once again.

Wolfe alludes to Soviet work camps, popularized in the USA by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Wolfe’s vision of a decaying future USA is eerily believable and the connection made between prisons and slavery is obviously relevant, but oddly enough, the author does not mention that the US Constitution itself legalizes Soviet-like slavery in prisons, via the thirteenth amendment. By 1970, that amendment had already been law for over a century. There’d be no need for a national parliamentary vote on that subject, so it makes sense that the international agreement would come first. It’s also nice to see a pope reminiscent of the first one in Lord of the World (1907), but “How the Whip Came Back” is fairly typical magazine SF; Wolfe had not yet developed his schtick, and his number of 250,000 prisoners is too cautious an extrapolation for a dystopia. The real US prison population hit that number around 1975 and then went up to 1,600,000 in 2009.

text fiction