(Robert Andrew Parker’s cover art for the 1968 edition)
2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)
E. G. Valens’ Cybernaut (1968), a narrative SF poem, translocates earth exploration metaphors into the endless emptiness of space with varying degrees of success.
The narrator’s deep space exploration–“Operation C / Exploratory / A first incision in the skin of time. / Objective: / Lay back the superficial tissue / Lay bare the cortex of / The galaxy” (13)–is not all triumph. Although our intrepid Cybernaut, “The New Columbus / Captain and commander of the Nina II” (10) returns from “the limits / Of the veriest unknown” (11), the sacrifice is extreme. After extensive psychological testing “interrogate/ Dig out / Snip samples / For emotional biopsy” (44), his superiors conclude “This man is mad / This poor man” (45).
I found the overt Columbus parallels, the self-identification of the main character and the name of his spacecraft, more like historical clubs hurled at the reader than carefully wrought metaphors to be digested and unpacked. In addition, weird 60s fashion metaphors of space only suggest so much: “The stars / Unsparking sparks / Are sequins / Stitched / To the black leather jacket of the universe” (12). Large sections felt amateur and lazy. One notable example concerns the rich potential of memory, and the specificity of character which can be conveyed by inherent deploying meaning-rich scenes from one’s past. Our Cybernaut out in the depths of space, attempts to suggest, via a memory, how truly empty space is in comparison to earth:
I never knew before what nothing meant.
Once long ago I heard a ruckus in the barn
and went with a lantern and looked and said
“There’s nothing here.”
Chickens and a harrow
Mice […]” (19)
This is so bland a memory! So unmemorable a comparison for the emptiness of spaces vs. the inhabited world of Earth! Blargh!
However, moments suggest more serious and introspective thematic content. For example, the suggestion that humankind is driven by the pure act of searching, “Major object of the mission nonetheless is / Search / For ways of searching” (13).
I did not have high hopes for the collection but enjoy tracking down the obscure and unread. Unfortunately, not all my “discoveries” blow be away. This is not Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967). I could not gather the enthusiasm to write more than short review.
Cybernaut is a slight work in the grand scheme of experimental 60s science fiction–it manages to evoke the basic emotional landscape of exploration and isolation in somewhat clunky strokes. It’s a curio of the age–if you’re a collector of curios or the smallish sub-genre of SF poetry, then perhaps track down a copy. You might be better rewarded by browsing various New Worlds volumes under Moorcock’s tutelage and finding the SF poems of D. M. Thomas and George MacBeth.
Tangent: Do you have a favorite SF poem? Do you know of other examples of narrative SF poems?
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(Back cover for the 1968 edition)
(Robert Andrew Paker’s interior art)