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.
1. Venus Plus X, Theodore Sturgeon (1960)
(Victor Kalin’s cover for the 1960 edition)
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)
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.
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