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Vidal, Gore

Entry updated 3 October 2022. Tagged: Author, Critic, Theatre.

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(1925-2012) US playwright, screenwriter, journalist and author, from the 1950s until 2003 resident in Italy, active from around 1945; though most of his work was nonfantastic, he is of interest in the context of this encyclopedia for a surprising range of works of the fantastic, exhibiting a cavalier intimacy with his material that makes it hard to think of him as a Mainstream Writer of SF. He is also of interest for several volumes of essays, beginning with Rocking the Boat (coll 1962) and assembled with new material as United States: Essays 1952-1992 (coll 1993), which contains responses to a large number of authors with entries in this encyclopedia, among them L Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Italo Calvino, Ursula K Le Guin, Doris Lessing, Mark Twain. The later essays assembled in The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 (coll 2001) are frequently apocalyptic, an intensification of his political and cultural pessimism also confirmed through several polemical collections published in the early twenty-first century, including Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated (coll 2002), Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (coll 2002), Imperial America: Reflections of the United States of America (coll 2004) and History of the National Security State & Vidal on America (coll 2014) edited by Paul Jay, where he hopes (for the last time) that "it is not the end of the road, even though there's every sign that it is not the yellow brick road up ahead."

Most of Vidal's large output of fiction is nonfantastic, though several make use of supernatural tropes, including A Search for the King: A Twelfth Century Legend (1950), which includes Werewolves and Vampires; The Judgment of Paris (1952), a Twice-Told version of the eponymous legend set in the modern world [for Twice-Told see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; and the second volume of the Myra Breckenridge sequence comprising Myra Breckinridge (1968) and Myron (1974). The first novel features a transgendered protagonist (see Transgender SF) but in a nonfantastic frame, while the second is a Timeslip tale in which Myron, while watching Siren of Babylon, finds himself translated to the 1948 Hollywood film set (see California) for the dreadful movie, which begins to recycle, seemingly without end; on his abrupt return to 1970s California, he finds himself in an Alternate World where a former cowboy star, now a transsexual, has become the governor of Arizona. An Evening with Richard Nixon (1972), though not sf as such, comprises an "entertainment" or theatre of the mind in the course of which many historical figures including George Washington join in a loose symposium-like conversation, all substantial passages being from the historical record (a list of participants is given on the dustjacket, which see).

Vidal's sf proper begins with a 1953 Goodyear Television Playhouse version for Television of Visit to a Small Planet, first published in Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays (coll 1956); the 1957 theatrical version was published as Visit to a Small Planet: A Comedy Akin to Vaudeville (1957), this version being reprinted as a Tie to the film Visit to a Small Planet (1960) directed by Norman Taurog. The versions are textually distinct; but in both an Alien, seemingly a child, Time-Travels in error to contemporary Virginia, his target having been the period of the Civil War; his experiences become vehicles for the transmission of Vidal's consistently savage Satirical take on America. Messiah (1954; rev 1965) is a dark Satire on Religion set in the Near Future, in which a creator of a death cult becomes – with the aid of the narrator (Eugene Luther, two of Vidal's given names) – a new Messiah who teaches a defeatedly secular America how to worship death. Kalki (March-April 1978 Playboy; 1978) mounts another assault on organized Religion, Equipoisal between fantasy and sf in its depiction of the Holocaust created by a Vietnam veteran who claims to be (it is a hoax that bears fruit) the god Kalki reborn.

Duluth (1983) presents a variety of fantasy tropes within an sf frame; members of the cast, after death [for Posthumous Fantasy, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], enter the world of a Television series set in a fantasticated Duluth, and after their death in the series enter the pages of a romance novel. Like Kalki, the novel ends in the obliteration of the human species, this time through an interaction between Computers and visiting Aliens: a problematical climax given that all the interacting realities in the tale have been composed for profit (see Postmodernism and SF) by one author, a female policeman who is also a character. Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (1992) describes St Timothy's writing (and hiding for posterity) a new Gospel at the behest of the ghost of St Paul, in order to protect Christianity from desecration at the hand of a time-travelling television crew which plans to film (and transmit back through time) the crucifixion of an (as it turns out) highly dubious Christ. The young protagonist of The Smithsonian Institution: A Novel (1998) is brought, again by Time Travel, back to 1939, where, buffetted by a maze of Alternate Worlds, he attempts to stop World War Two, only to find that he, and a passel of reincarnated Presidents, have entered a Godgame under the control of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian, who is attempting to dodge, on the behalf of everyone, the dreadful future in store for America.

For over sixty years Vidal served as a pessimistic, sharp-tongued, knowledgeable critic of his native land; his sf must be read as an attempt to dramatize this long jeremiad, through sustained and various depictions of what he might have called the reality diseases – and specifically described as a toxic Amnesia – that deformed Imperial America. [JC]

see also: Fabulation; Tales of the Unanticipated; UFOs.

Eugene Luther Gore Vidal

born West Point, New York: 3 October 1925

died Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California: 31 July 2012

works (selected)


Myra Breckinridge

  • Myra Breckinridge (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, and Company, 1968) [Myra Breckinridge: hb/]
  • Myron (New York: Random House, 1974) [Myra Breckinridge: hb/]

individual titles


nonfiction (selected)


previous versions of this entry

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