(Gary Viskupic’s cover for the 1st edition)
F. M. Busby’s Cage a Man (1973) is an exercise in discomfort and disorientation. A case study of the scarring effects of dehumanizing brutality at the hands of very alien aliens and the slow path towards recovery, Cage a Man successfully conveys the former and stumbles with the latter. Despite its flaws, Busby tells his tale with a punchy blue-collar intensity that does not shirk from squirm-inducing scenes of violence that create a man who struggles to regain what made him human.
Brief Plot Summary
Narrative pattern: Mysterious imprisonment. Dramatic escape. Dreams of revenge. Slow recovery.
Barton wakes up in an alien prison: “the first thing he noticed was that he was naked, along with everybody else” (1). He slowly realizes that he is but a rat in a cage—and the nature of the experiment and the experimenters are not entirely clear. He isn’t the only one bewildered and lost–gathered around him are the nude bodies (yes, there’s a lot of weird alien/human sex) of various humanoid groups. Busby tends to indicates the alienness of the various female occupants with descriptions of breasts…. He also learns of the Demu and their ideology that compels them to conduct their disturbing experiments.
The limited perspective, Barton’s observations are the sole way we learn about the world, creates a stressful and disorienting first third of the novel. Barton figures out how to defecate in his cell, how the alien captors control his sexual urges (and how he masturbates secretly rolled in a ball), how to feed on wall secretions, how to control his own hallucinations, how to survive, and (most importantly), how to die.
The focus shifts in the second phase of the novel after his dramatic escape (a tad ridiculous plot point that is still effective so I won’t give it away). With Limila (his love interest) in tow Barton must come to grips with the effects of his imprisonment. And those whom escape with him are likewise transformed beyond belief…. Seeping into his mind are visions of revenge unsatisfied by the violence he wrecked on the Demu during his escape.
As with the two previous F. M. Busby’s short fictions I’d read—“Tell Me All About Yourself” (1973) and “First Person Plural” (1980)—Cage a Man relies creating shock and discomfort in the reader. In “Tell Me About Yourself” a drug-bender results in a visit to necrophilic brothel. In the far superior “First Person Plural,” a “wiry, hairy, thirty-eight-year-old, smoker’s-coughing, horny Ed Carlain” wakes up in the obese body of a mentally handicapped young woman who had never spoken a word in her life. Cage a Man succeeds in this aim. I was possessed by a grim fascination at Barton’s initial explorations of his alien prison, the properties of the mysterious floor, his attempts to commit suicide, the reason the alien women placed in his cage, and the Demu modifications to the bodies of other humanoids…. Unsurprisingly, what Barton experiences at the hands of the Demu creates PTSD, and an undying urge to unleash acts of violent revenge. Flickering in and out of Barton’s experience are Vietnam war memories and his own acts of war perpetrated on others.
From Barton’s escape onward the narrative, which shifts towards far more complex concepts of “othering” and PTSD, loses a lot of its forward momentum, in part due to Busby’s blunt and clunky delivery which doesn’t work for introspective and tender scenes. For example, upon learning about the deaths of his parents Barton reflects “Well, it was all pretty much as he’d expected. Par for the course. Barton could find no emotional reaction to himself; it was as though his former life was someone else’s—a total stranger’s” (62). Tragic moments like this one end up lacking emotional power.
In addition, by presenting the alien Demu as looking similar to that of a human food source, the lobster, Barton’s acts of extreme violence no longer seem as barbaric. Imagine the horror if Barton ate an alien, cleaned its skull with his urine, and bashed the head of his young Demu captive (and threatening to eat her as well) in order to escape if they had been humanoid! Barton’s acts of violence feel cheapened and diminished. Was this intended? I’m not sure.
Barton’s own actions towards Limila echo Demu conceptions of non-Demu. Barton attempts to force Limila’s plastic surgery, a key part of her own recovery, to visually reproduce his own conception of the perfect human rather than Tilari woman: “‘Angrily she pushed his hands away. ‘I am Tilari woman, Barton. I will have Tilari breasts or none at all'” (88). I am not entirely sure what Busby intended to say. Are humans prone to Demu-esque interpretations of “alien”? Barton needs Limila for his own recovery. But, disturbingly, does Barton need her to look “human”?
I struggled to finish Cage a Man. The promise of the initial premise wore off leaving a complex scenario—Barton regaining his humanity—that Busby doesn’t successfully tackle.
I can only give the novel a lukewarm recommendation–and only for fans of 70s SF.
(Uncredited [initials FMA] cover for the 1974 edition)
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