Book Review: Synthajoy, D. G. Compton (1968)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

I had not heard of the relatively unknown British sci-fi writer David G. Compton until I read a fantastic review by Ian Sales of Compton’s most famous novel, The Unsleeping Eye (1971) (his review and blog here).  In my normal circuitous fashion, I decided to read a lesser-known work of Compton’s first, Synthajoy (1968).  And, I was not disappointed, in the slightest…

Synthajoy combines an unusual (and occasionally challenging) non-linear delivery, an engaging plot, a realistic near-future technology, a female main character, and compelling characters.  A great UNKNOWN work.

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

Thea Springfield, a nurse, is interned in the Kingston center for supposedly killing her husband.  She undergoes Sensitape treatment — a technology that she herself had developed with her husband, Dr. Edward Cadence, and her lover Tony Stech.

Sensitape technology records various emotions — the emotions coursing through a jazz musician while he plays, religious experience right before the moment of death, love between a caring husband and wife, etc. — and is ostensibly developed to treat UDW (Uncompensated Death Wish — the unexplainable desire to die).  Sensitape also has lucrative commercial (and somewhat nefarious) applications…

Through a series of flashbacks over seven treatment days, Thea recounts in a spontaneous non-linear fashion the sequence of events leading up to the death of her husband.  Compton is quite ingenious in his use of flashbacks — often Thea inserts her own present opinions into the accounts of past events — in short, voiceover.  It takes around forty or so pages to tease out the main plot threads/characters because of the non-linear nature of the work — however, the persistent reader will be richly rewarded.  And of course, the adept use of the narrative structure adds depth to the characters…

Final Thoughts

For a science fiction author, D. G. Compton is quite the stylist.  In addition, his strong female protagonist, Thea Springfield, is not only refreshing but convincing.  Flashbacks in fiction (and film) are often poorly done — too frequently cringeworthy and contrived.  However, Compton’s usage feels natural, unforced, and I found that the limited viewpoint intensifies the experience.

The world we glimpse through Thea’s eyes is a bleak one.  UDW accounts for millions of deaths.  Their discovery of Sensitape has substantially reduced these deaths BUT the act of replaying someone else’s emotions, substituting someone else’s emotions for one’s own has far reaching and disastrous consequences…

By far my best sci-fi read of the year.  D. G. Compton is criminally under-read.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: Synthajoy, D. G. Compton (1968)

  1. That sounds really interesting – I’ll have to look out for this. Nice to see a female main character in sci-fi written by a man!

    I don’t suppose it’s still in print, is it?

  2. Hmmm, replaying sensory experiences is a somewhat common trope… There might be other more famous novels Dahlquist could have been inspired by. But I haven’t read ‘The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters’ — there might be other parallels.

    Synthajoy is mostly a character piece which is a really good thing since we rarely have female protagonists written by men — I found her convincing…

  3. Actually I am just reminded of the more recent book by G. W. Dahlquist, ‘The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters’, in which whole sensory experiences are stored in glass ‘books’ which can be re-lived by others. Maybe Dahlquist had read ‘Synthajoy’?

  4. A proto-cyberpunk novel that deserves to be rediscovered.
    The state of society is grim like a grey English sky. Technology is advancing, blurring the line between the mechanic and the organic, the private and the public, recording our thoughts and feelings and putting them for sale.
    As technology advances, our ability to cope with it and understand its implications, lags behind.
    One of Compton’s strengths is that he will take a single science fiction idea and place it within an otherwise entirely recognisable world. He focuses on this one idea and its effect on people, drawing his characters very well (and better than most science fiction writers.) His prose is also well above average for the genre.
    This novel should be part of Gollancz’s masterworks series. If you like Pat Cadigan or William Gibson, pick up a copy.

    • Yes, I quite enjoyed it. I agree that it should join The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe in the Gollancz Masterwork line. I notice that you submitted your comment twice — I deleted the second one and approved the first. The first time someone visits and leaves a post I have it set to manually approve it. Else tons of spam would get through…. thank you for all the comments!

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