Short Book Reviews: Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960), Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981), and Barry N. Malzberg’s Screen (1968)

Cycle: read a book, place it in the review pile, the immediacy of the novel fades slightly or the novel fights every moment of the review writing process (–> Priest’s masterpiece The Affirmation), never review it, feel bad that I never reviewed the novel, read less in order to catch up…

Result: less reading and more pouting.

Remedy: In order to catch up, here are short/less intensive reviews with links to in-depth analysis (if it exists).  Part I + II (books by Budrys, Strete, White, Bishop, etc).

1. Venus Plus X, Theodore Sturgeon (1960)


(Victor Kalin’s cover for the 1960 edition)

4.25/5 (Good)

I have long maintained an ambivalence towards Theodore Sturgeon’s short fiction which shifts from the “silly puppy” variety i.e. “The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (1949), to more serious literary experiments that tend to fall short, such as “Slow Sculpture” (1970)…  I have had more success with his novels: I have fond but fuzzy memories of More than Human (1951) which I read as a young teen and found The Cosmic Rape (1958) downright terrifying.

Venus Plus X (1960), nominated for the 1961 Hugo and apparently promptly forgotten, is the best Sturgeon novel I have encountered yet.  A thought experiment characterized by complex social analysis regarding gender (it was published in 1960! Think about that for a minute!) and a simple but ingenious structure, Venus Plus X deserves a longer review.  Thus, check out Jesse’s at Speculation—he too thinks the novel should be proclaimed as one of the highlights of Sturgeon’s illustrious career and as one of the radical ruminations on gender in SF.

Venus Plus X delightfully subverts (+ pastiches?) the standard “traveler plunged into the future” by including a parallel “narrative” (more a series of scenes) about contemporary (i.e. late 50s/early 60s) American life focused on traditional family roles.  What troubles me are the implications of the final reveal.  However, I will need to reread the novel (and perhaps some contemporary scholarship such as Justine Larbalestier’s 2002 monograph The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction) to understand what Sturgeon was reacting to and what he was proposing with his unsettling experiment.

2. The Affirmation, Christopher Priest (1981)


(Tais Teng’s cover for the 1981 Dutch edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

The novel I could not review.  I read The Affirmation (1981) as soon as I finished Priest’s near-perfect collection An Infinite Summer (1979).  Priest’s progression as a novelist shows leaps and bounds in sophistication and style over his first (failure) Indoctrinaire (1970).  As with many great novels, there is so much to discuss.  In The Affirmation‘s case, my entire review could focus on Priest’s exploration of the act of writing, or its ingenious mirrored structure, or the how it might not really be SF at all but rather, all a vast imaginary construct, a psychic landscape populated by figments who echo the real world.

It is into this land of figments, the so-called Dream Archipelago, where Peter Sinclair, a tormented writer, escapes.  His imaginary alternate, travels amongst the isles, encountering re-conceived versions of people from his own life.  He travels towards an uncertain “jackpot,” the erasure of his own memory…  As can be predicted, which world is real, and which is a fantasy comes as no surprise.  But the way in which Priest reaches this reveal, indicates the novel’s genius—SF tropes can be crafted to push a premise into even more unnerving waters.

If you are interested at all in serious mind-bending explorations of imaginary worlds and the act of writing, read The Affirmation (1981).  But, Priest’s tormented protagonist will not appeal to all….

I will leave it at that.

Jesse’s review over at Speculiction.

3. Screen, Barry N. Malzberg (1968)


(Uncredited cover for the 1968 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Barry N. Malzberg’s use of the language of erotic literature to craft nihilistic black comedies matured in his later SF works.  Screen, written for the controversial publisher of avant-garde literary fiction and erotica Olympia Press (first print of Nabokov’s Lolita, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, etc.), demonstrates Malzberg’s non-genre desires.  One of numerous novels he wrote for Olympia, some under pseudonyms, Screen was pitched to Malzberg by Maurice Girodas as it was an idea for a “book he could not get his other writers to tackle” (see this article for more on the press and Malzberg’s discussion of the book).  According to Malzberg, it was written in two weeks (!!) but never generated either lawsuits or the scandal Girodas wanted….

The premise:  Depressed man, who works for the Department of Welfare, obsesses over movies.  He is able to “project” himself into the film and “make passionate love to Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Brigitte Bardot, Sophia” and others (from Malzberg’s article “Repentance, Desire, and Natalie Wood”).  Sounds like a plot straight from the worst erotic fiction?

Malzberg’s creation: The tone establishes itself with the first line of the book: “Friday, it was YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW.  It was playing at the Jewel, a battered, faintly odorous theatre somewhere near the slaughterhouses […]” (1).  We are flooded with malaise and despair, the protagonist’s projections into movies slowly take over his life, the act of “entering” a film is an ecstatic moment: “Now, in the blackness, all things were truly possible” (7).  But also ultimately, an empty one…

The metafiction commentary on film are the highlights of the novel: for example, while projected into some post-war melodrama with Sophia Loren, our antihero laments, “What Sophia does not undestand; that she has never understood, is that this particular kind of plot imposes certain exigencies which, while they make the actors unhappy, cannot be helped” (16).

Rather than solely a pornographic adventure with famous actresses, Malzberg’s uncomfortable eroticism transpires in a theater filled with “a feeling of blasted hope” where “dim spaces [are] penetrated only by the ticking of the projector” (70).  Hopelessly addicted to cinematic worlds, our antihero “wanted to be only in a small theatre somewhere, a gnome huddle in darkness spinning my life away” (55).

Beautiful moments abound interspersed with cringeworthy sex scenes.  Again, the language of erotic literature repurposed for rather more disturbing ends—this is no paean to film, this is a lamentation, a demystification of the impossibility of it all that takes a hammer to cinematic illusions: the antihero transposes his own angst into his visions, he mutters at his lover Brigitte Bardot, “Your poetry is as execrable as your impulses, Brigitte,  There is nothing isolated about this ocean; it is filled with death.  Come back with me to the shore” (77).

For fans of Barry N. Malzberg only.  See my article, “Barry N. Malzberg (b.1939): Metafiction and the Demystification of the Cult of the Astronaut”, if you are new to his brand of fiction and are curious.  I probably will not be exploring more of Malzberg’s literary erotic fiction, but, it is fascinating seeing his ideas in embryonic form.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

46 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960), Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981), and Barry N. Malzberg’s Screen (1968)

    • Which Malzberg novels/stories have you read? (I might have asked you before, if so, my apologies).

      The place to start with Priest — > the collection I linked + The Inverted World. I enjoyed reading some of the Dream Archipelago stories in An Infinite Summer before reading The Affirmation (in the same conceptual sequence) — it certainly whetted my appetite.

  1. I did enjoy Sturgeon’s short SF during my early SF reading days,but it’s effects seem to have been ephemeral.I couldn’t get into “More Than Human”.I don’t know if I’d find this one any better.I don’t remember being all that keen on “If All Men were Brothers,would You let one Marry Your Sister?”,despite the maverick theme.

    I was a little dismissive of “The Affirmation” you might remember,but I did think it really was a very good novel,mysterious and lush as I recall.That’s why it attracted my criticism.I haven’t read it for nearly ten years however,and don’t own a copy,so my memories of it have faded,but it’s approach to the definition of memory and existence was excellent.

    • Maybe the time is ripe to pick The Affirmation up again. I’ll leave you with a beautiful moment:

      Peter and Seri wander inland on one of the isles:

      “Hanging from the lip of the water shelf was a bizarre array of household items. There, in the flow of water, someone had dangled an old shoe. Next to it swung a child’s knitted jacket, bobbing as the water turned it. Then there was a pair of sandals, a wooden matchbox, a ball of string, a raffia basket, a necktie, a glove. They had a faint sheen of greyness, unclearly seen as the watered poured through them. This juxtaposition had an eerie, unexplained quality to it, like a sheep’s heart nailed to a door, a token of ritual magic. Seri said: ‘They’re petrfying, turning to stone.’ ‘Not literally.’ ‘No… but there’s something in the water. Silica, I think. Anything hung in the water builds up a coating'” (77).

      I love it — encountering a pool with household objects covered with calcium. Beautiful. The memory (and “reality”) of objects encased, yet increasingly obscured by time.

      • I don’t remember that bit,or anything else so poetic.I just still have that feeling it was haunting and strange.There were no final answers.

        I probably will read more Priest one day.Perhaps his short fiction.

        • It’s filled with such moments. I was very happy reading it. Until I tried to write a review!

          I should compile a list of memory themed SF novels — this would be near the top, along with Michael Bishop’s Stolen Faces (1977).

      • The Affirmation is obviously more about individual memory, one man and his fractured psyche. Stolen Faces is more about what sections of society share collectively in their memory, which creates their identity. In Stolen Faces, each segment of society interpret the distant past, The Long Quarantine, in different ways. Those subjected to the Quarantine, although no longer afflicted, consider themselves rebelling—and in so doing recreating and reasserting their collective identity—by taking on the suffering of their ancestors although (*spoiler*) the disease is long gone.

        And of course, their society was originally modeled after the Aztecs, and they are obviously, NOT Aztec. So that cultural baggage, although foisted on them, is a key component to their collective identities.

  2. Your “cycle” made me laugh because I’m so familiar with it, myself! Thanks for explaining the premises and merits of each work. The Affirmation sounds like a worthy read.

    • It’s quite difficult as my reviews normally are between 1000-2000 words… I guess it’s the scholar in me trying to provide evidence for my argument about the work under discussion.

      Thank you for your kind words.

      And yes, if you’re into literature (especially of the experimental variety) more generally (as it does not “Feel” like SF at all) or Priest’s other more well known works (“The Prestige” — the one Christopher Nolan made a film adaptation of with Christian Bale etc, or The Inverted World) then The Affirmation is a worthy choice!

      • I always try to illustrate my critiques with examples, too. It makes for a richer reader experience, I think (not to mention writer experience. Writing reviews often gives me insights about the books I’m reading).

        I love most genres, although I read a lot more F/SF because that’s the umbrella genre I plan to write in. But really, it’s authors I enjoy getting to know; so if Christopher Priest is worth knowing, I’ll be excited to read his stuff. Thanks again for the introduction 🙂

  3. Sturgeon seems to me an unfairly neglected author, and it might be because he wrote only about 6 novels (The Dreaming Jewels, More Than Human, The Cosmic Rape [To Marry Medusa], Venus Plus X, Some of Your Blood, and Godbody). I think that’s right? (not incl. the westerns or undersea voyage books). And novels, rather than short stories, have simply been the major seller in SF since the 1950s.

    But – and I know I’ve written this here before! – I really do think Sturgeon excelled at the short story, esp. in that one decade of the 1950s. Yes, he did have a fairly short period of excellent writing, but it was a concentrated period (ca. 1950-1960): stuff like “The Golden Helix” or “A Saucer of Loneliness” or “The World Well Lost.”

    Yeah, I have “thing” for Sturgeon, no doubt 😉

    • I have a thing for his novels. Still not swayed by his short stories. No one can convince me that “Killdozer!” (1944) is actually good or deserved to be reprinted as many times as it was…. (and yes, I know you’re not trying to convince me on that point, haha).

      • No, you’re right on that count. Admittedly, I had to grit my teeth at times reading through some of those collections (e.g., where you read stuff Ted pumped out in the late 1930s and early 1940s; some pretty bad or dull stuff). But, my God, my hair stands up on end at the beauty of his language in an early work like “Bianca’s Hands” or “Bright Segment” (later one I think). *He was very, very skilled at dark/horror fiction; not sure how many folks realize that. And also very sensitive to sexual topics that were taboo in the 1950s and early 1960s (as you rightly note in your review).

      • I agree with you on Killdozer,despite being a big of Sturgeon. That was early 40s and he really did not find his style or subject matter until after World War 2.

      • Don’t believe I’ve read any of his stories (though I could be wrong). I believe I’ve read one of his novels… Can’t rightly dredge up the name of it, though it was pretty well done: I believe the plot had something to do with a world in which people are hired to keep the planet turning (?); different ranks of workers and engineers who are hired for the work. That sound familiar?… Just looked it up: “Inverted World.”

        • Check out my review of his collection An Infinite Summer (1979) if you haven’t already — highly recommended.

          But yes, The Inverted World (1974) is supposed to be wonderful. I haven’t read it yet.

          • Thanks. I appreciate the recommendation (and your excellent website). *To be honest, as I’m typing, I’m keenly aware that, at my back, I have a lovely little partly-filled bookshelf with… (just took a rough count) one- or two-dozen SF books that I’ve been meaning to read – for a couple of years, and WILL read; but I’m just in a different, oh, “vein,” I guess? Greek mythology, Western religion, etc. But once I find my way back to SF, I’m attacking that shelf with gusto – and then coming back here to draw up a very large inventory of MUST-READS!

    • Adam,his best period was between 1946-1962. After that he wrote much less often and not nearly as well. There were a few good stories of his in what is known as his Winna period. This is when he was living with a younger named by that name. That was 1969-1971 and included Take care of Joey, a great mainstream story,and the famous science fiction story Slow Sculpture.

    • His best work is from volumes 4-10. Despite some of the mentioned Winna stories he wrote that are split between volumes 11 and 12. And the last few stories in Volume 3 like Memorial and Chromium Helmet are what I consider transition works between his 39-42 stuff to his later style that starts in Volume with the very aptly titled Maturity. A far beter story than Killdozer but not as often reprinted for some strange reason.

      • Yep. After responding to your last comment, I started to remember a volume I encountered – the first Sturgeon collection I read… just a second… “The Worlds of Theodore Sturgeon.” That includes “Maturity” (1947), “The Sky Was Full of Ships” (1947), “There is No Defense” (1948), and “The Perfect Host” (1948). All excellent, as far as I can recall – and all from that post-WWII period.

        After reading this collection, I started to explore Sturgeon a lot more. I believe I have volumes I-V in that completed stories series. Looking forward to digging into the whole lot – maybe over the holidays? 🙂

  4. I should be catching up on my own reviews, but I’ve been diving into some of the blogs like yours I’ve been neglecting for months.

    As part of my general procrastination, I’ve been reading a lot of back issues of Galaxy’s Edge which has Malzberg’s “From the Heart’s Basement” columns on whatever he wants to talk about.

    I must say, I’ve not been generally impressed with his fiction. However, his essays have made me reconsider it. (I’m always working on reviews of some of his collaborations with Kathe Koja.)

    He does seem very interested in Hollywood and sf.

    My question to you, as someone who has read a lot of his fiction, does he view sf as worthless unless it deals with the themes of sex, death, and bitter failure? They seem to be tacit themes in his essays and his work with Koja. That doesn’t seem to totally gibe with sf criticism of his I’ve read. (And, as Robert Silverberg pointed out, Malzberg may not only be the sole defender of Mark Clifton’s They’d Rather Be Right. Malzberg might be Clifton’s sole reader.)

    • I recommend reading about Malzberg’s favorite authors — for example he loves one of my least favorite SF authors, Hal Clement, and Clement’s SF is sort of the opposite of sex, death, and bitter failure. That said, yeah, most of Malzberg’s fiction has similar related themes although I would argue it’s rather more complex than that (as my reviews, HOPEFULLY, make clear).

      As for Clifton, I’ve read Clifton’s Eight Keys to Eden (1960) and They’d Rather Be Right (although I was a teen and I no longer have my copy).

      • I have read some of Malzberg’s criticisicm, and it seems to me to have a studied imprecision and doesn’t seem to like sf much.

        Of Alfred Bester, he wrote in 2015: “What [Orson] Welles gave us, Thomson argues, was a facility so great, a voyage so dazzling, as to show us that film was inevitably a superficial medium, that it had no core. And this was what Bester, science fiction’s Orson Welles, demonstrated in the two great novels and dozen great short stories of the 1950s. He took the field to its furthest possibility and circumstance; he took us to the hall of the beasts and furies and demonstrated in the end that it was empty. There was no one there.”

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