Book Review: Electric Forest, Tanith Lee (1979)

(Don Maitz’s original canvas for the 1979 edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

“Two years,” Claudio said. “Wasted. I used to go hunting, searching. For someone like you, my Magdala. But you’re unusual, my dear. A freak. Hard to come by. And it had to be someone like you. A genetic mistake. An atrocity, crawling about its hopeless round. Devoid of normal self-preservative wariness. Mewing, inside its warped little soul, for rescue. Not quite human. Here we are (23).”

Tanith Lee spins a gauzy, sinister, and terrifying tale of manipulative resurrection. A brilliant inventor projects the mind of a grotesque social outcast into a new transcendent body—but this isn’t an altruistic act. There’s a plot afoot. Electric Forest (1979), a shimmery nightmare of psycho-sexual manipulation,  enters my pantheon of favorite 70s SF visions.

Electric Forest demonstrates marked improvement over Don’t Bite the Sun (1976). It’s more concise, disturbing, visceral, and mysterious. The Gothic sheen of the proceedings, the artificiality of it all, meshes well with the plot twist.

Highly recommended for fans of dark science fiction.

Note: I treat reviews as analysis. That means spoilers. My entire review format (below) is a spoiler. I, personally, do not care about reading plot points and twists but know some of you do (how else would I find worthwhile books?). You’ve been warned!

THE CAST

Ugly/Magdala Cled: In a society of “selective, artificial impregnation,” Magdala Cled is an oddity. Her mother, a licensed prostitute, and an unknown father “conceived [her] biologically” (4). Raised in a state children’s home,  Ugly (named by what others call her), was a physical “monster” (shuffling, squat) in world of “of regular features and well-formed physiognomy” (4). At 26, Magdala has never been touched, willingly. She spends her time avoiding the gaze of her tormentors,  pressing buttons at an automated factory, reading at the “electro-library” (13), and saving money for her once a month fresh food treat at the cafeteria…. Her conversation contains no extra words–the dialogue of a woman tormented by the world.

Claudio: Wealthy, disturbed, a developer of mind-projection technology…  His villa. shrouded and visually manipulated by the holostet field, parallels his nebulous ulterior motives. “’How would you like,’ he said distinctly, ‘to be beautiful?'” (16). He’s not altruistic. His hated of her stains his breath: “I’m rich, dearest revolting Magdala” (17).

Christophine del Jan: There’s another character in her research station…. and another top secret mind-projecting unit like Claudio’s.

THE SETTING

The planet Indigo and Magdala’s Accomat: The planet Indigo—aptly named–is wreathed with blue leaves and sapphire seas (20). A world of “untrammeled lust” (41)….. The majority of the population dwells in an automated city. The poor, like Magdala, live in Accomats: “Each apartment had a single main area three by four meters, with a bathroom cubicle half that size, and the normal accessories of food-dial, pay-dial and Tri-V screen, and limited furniture which unfolded from the wall (8).

Her few personal items are stashed away from sight: “The twenty paperback books, the minute deck of music cassettes, the limpid seashell from Sapphire Flats, the jade bead from Earth. And on the bed, somehow more naked than anything else, the sleek-furred simulate cat—a child’s toy” (15).

Like a town in a soap opera, at first glance it all feels and looks real.  As with the police who never appear in TV melodramas, and all the miraculous reappearances of “dead” characters, there’s another logic at play….

Claudio’s house: Outside the city-state, dispersed scientific facilities operate hidden technologies. The excruciatingly wealthy inhabit automated homes equipped with complex holodeck-esque technologies (82). Storms billow in from the seas causing the holostetic forests to fountain “viridiam and turquoise and rose-red light” through the “sinews of the trees” (83). In its depths, Magdala’s new body resides, serene, in its pillar.

THE PLOT

Magdala is approached by a Claudio offering an irresistible transformation. At his estate,  she beholds her new body:

“There was a woman in the pillar. She would appear to be about twenty-two or three years of age. She would appear to be alive, but surely could not be. Naked, she was like some glowing incandescent substance. Her open eyes were dark blue neons. Lustrous hair, a fierce blue essence of blue-black, altogether nearly more blue than black, almost navy in color, poured back from her forehead (24).”

Soon she emerges a new woman. Magdala’s mind “dreams” that it she in the new body. Her old body, a “gruesome crippled dwarf” resides in a “glazium mummy-case, roped and entwined by apparatus and glimmering tubes, coroneted by its silver skull-cage” (36). She remains linked to her old self. She must care for it — if its body dies so will her new one. And Claudio uses her dissociation and desperation for normal experiences to his advantage and readies her for an act of espionage. As the Claudio’s motives emerge, she attempts to exert herself…. but there’s another level to the experiment.

Final Thoughts

The entwined, parasitical nature of television and the “real” self-conception underpins The Electric Forest. Magdala, as she increasingly interacts with the outside world, starts to interpret her existence and new body through the lens of Tri-V dramas. She assumes how the beautiful women act in film is the way all women act. Paranoid scenes unfold. Claudio sends a man to his mansion and Magdala, desperate for human contact, muses “the man was attractive. She could likely seduce him, as the women in the Tri-V dramas” (41). In other instances, she finds herself mimicking the language of Claudio, her “inventor” (69). She plays the role he wants her to play.

The main narrative twist matches the thematic landscape, visual artificiality, scripted interactions, and  disquieting melodrama perfectly.  Twist endings for the sake of a surprise rather than an organic culmination of the vision are far less satisfying than this one.

This is a disturbing read. Claudio’s control over Magdala is psychological and physical torture. Claudio’s voice reeks psychotically: ““You are my marionette. Dance for me, and keep your mouth shut. Or I won’t be nice to you any more” (90). Magdala, desperate for a new life, sees Claudio as her deliverance despite his violence. She hates him. She needs him.

I’ll be reading Tanith Lee’s Day By Night (1980) soon.

(Tim White’s cover for the 1983 edition)

(Tim White’s original canvas for the 1983 edition)

(Jack Woolhiser’s cover for the 1st edition)

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Electric Forest, Tanith Lee (1979)”

  1. Really scary. I read the recently pubbed DOCILE, marketed with the catchphrase “there is no consent under capitalism”…an idea that’s really developed here as well, someone getting what she desperately wants but the price….

      1. It’s one of the few I’ve read. BIRTHGRAVE, THE GODS ARE THIRSTY, and THE SILVER METAL LOVER are the others. Of all those, this is tied for first with THE GODS ARE THIRSTY. Her writing style is as heightened in its affect as is Georgette Heyer’s though, of course, aimed utterly differently.

          1. It is straight-ahead historical fiction about the French Revolution. Actually really, really good. Maybe a bit far out from your wheelhouse, but worth at least a Pearl-Ruling.

            1. You are correct — out of my wheelhouse and interest. Alas. I cannot stomach historical fiction (perhaps related to me being a professional historian — hah).

              However, it demonstrates her ability to work successfully in multiple genres.

    1. I still haven’t watched Blake’s 7 — I tried a few years ago but couldn’t get past how low budget it was (and yes, I know that was part of its appeal).

      It’s a great novel. As my review attempts to make clear. Check it out!

      1. Now is the perfect time for a Blake’s 7 binge! And it just keeps getting better! The whole screwed up authoritarian take on the, ahem, “Federation”, is so wonderfully dark, and the freedom fighter heroes are a great 70s back hander to the militarism of Star Trek. Schlocky tv sf for sure, but the best of this bunch.

        1. Yeah, not sure I have the fortitude to get passed episode three.

          I love Star Trek — all of its incarnations (other than the recent movies). But, I watched Next Gen and the Original Series when I was a kid. Not sure I’d enjoy it if I approached it for the first time now.

Leave a Reply to kaggsysbookishramblings Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.