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Tuesday 21 May 2002

The Wonder of Anatomy

by Claude Lalumière

The workings of spaceships and the physics of interplanetary space leave me pretty cold. If that's what SF were about — as is popularly believed — I wouldn't be reading it, much less writing about it. SF is speculation. Take a premise that diverges from consensus reality, the more unusual the better, and make interesting characters have to deal with it. And, as far as I'm concerned, speculative topics don't come any more immediate and involving as when they concern the human body. After all, we've all got one of those, and, generally speaking, seem to be pretty confused as to what to do with it and how to feel about it: worship it, despise it, ignore it, hide it, mutilate it, be ashamed of it, play with it. Playing with it (and those of others) seems like the most sensible option, but, somehow, things are rarely that simple.

The Melancholy of Anatomy, by Shelley Jackson (Anchor Books, 2002)

Imagine "hearts bigger than planets" that "hang in the empty space between galaxies" ("Heart"). Or sperm that grows as big as buffalo ("Sperm"). Or a foetus who "floats outside your window while you're having sex" ("Foetus"). Or spontaneously combustible clothes becoming the latest fashion ("Nerve"). Or a society in which the sharing of phlegm is integral to social and sexual interaction ("Phlegm"). Perhaps you'd rather not imagine most of these things. No matter. Shelley Jackson has imagined them for us.

Her thematic collection, The Melancholy of Anatomy, contains thirteen surreal phantasmagorias in which body parts, bodily secretions, and bodily functions take on unlikely, recontextualized existences; inner, intimate processes become social and environmental events. Our bodies become the world. And our collective reactions to anatomy and biological processes are exposed, probed, exaggerated, reversed, and satirized.

These stories are often funny, often repellent (in a way that brings out the absurd and self-hating aspects of our repugnance), and, most of all, strangely beautiful. A fragile tenderness lies at the heart of even the most extreme of Jackson's visions. This book celebrates the human body, enjoining us to laugh at all the squeamishness that has been encultured into us, and then to endeavour to rise above it. It is emphatically sad, relentlessly bizarre, exuberantly joyful, and written in confident, matter-of-fact prose that emphasizes the evocative power of the author's ideas and scenarios.

This book is filled with memorable lines that are a delight to reread out loud for the sheer pleasure of hearing the words take on a tangible existence, of their delicate strangeness becoming that much more real: "thousands of humans have been swallowed by eggs" ("Egg"), "Nobody can remember when the sperm became large enough to see" ("Sperm"), "Since the foetus arrived, none of us have loved without regret, fucked without apprehension, yearned without doubt" ("Foetus"), "He celebrated by burning off all his pubic hair" ("Nerve"), "Sleep sometimes coagulates in the shapes of animals" ("Sleep"), "If the sky expresses its love in milk, then clouds are its organs of expression" ("Milk") are but a few examples; the book is a cornucopia of sensual cognitive dissonance.

Shelley Jackson is an author with a powerfully personal vision, a seductively confident voice, and a bold imagination. The Melancholy of Anatomy is a treasure chest of peculiarly touching tales. (On her website, Shelley Jackson's Ineradicable Stain, the author further explores her obsessions.)

A Mouthful of Tongues, by Paul Di Filippo (Cosmos Books, 2002)

Early in his career, Paul Di Filippo was associated, not altogether wrongly, with cyberpunk. Since then, he has gained a well-deserved reputation as a uniquely gifted satirist. What is less often mentioned, though, is that probably the most unifying aspect of his oeuvre is a passionate desire to see beyond consensus reality and imagine a better world. When not indulging in pastiche (and sometimes then too) Paul Di Filippo's fiction is often unabashedly utopian.

This utopian urge manifests itself most nakedly in Di Filippo's novella-length works. For example, in "Karuna, Inc." (in Strange Trades) Di Filippo imagines a corporation that is an alternative to the exploitative model of capitalism; and "Spondulix" (also in Strange Trades) proposes a new currency that threatens the economic hegemony of corporate capitalism. The protagonist of A Year in the Linear City, Diego, is a bohemian writer whose infectious joie de vivre spreads a refreshing alternative to the lifestyle enforced by the authorities of Di Filippo's fantastical linear city. However, one of Di Filippo's most powerful utopian tales is the short story "Campbell's World" (in Lost Pages) — in which a different breed of science fiction transforms the world into a compassionate place of technological and social wonders.

His third novel, A Mouthful of Tongues, sees Di Filippo once again exploring utopian visions. But the road to his ultimately delirious utopia is fraught with brutality and abuse.

In a near future in which a corporatized North America is over-obsessed with security systems and plagued with diseases, Kerry Hackett is an office worker who, after suffering a series of sexually abusive and humiliating events, merges with an experimental genetically engineered creature called the benthic. This hybrid, born from the violence inflicted upon Kerry, becomes a sexually rapacious and vindictive monster. It flees to the tropics, where a series of encounters will change not only its nature, but, ultimately, that of life on Earth.

A Mouthful of Tongues is both Paul Di Filippo's most ambitious work and his most successful. Its voice is boldly confident, its vision unremittingly focused. Its images are powerfully shocking and perversely inventive.

A Mouthful of Tongues indulges in an orgiastic excess of unlikely sexual encounters that challenge gender identities, sexual roles, and power structures. In this novel, sex is a weapon, a means, an end, and a process – depending on who wields it and why.

Simultaneously a brutal metaphoric condemnation of contemporary society, a cautionary tale, a pornographic odyssey, and a powerful vision of a seductive utopia that, collectively, we are too cowardly to embrace, A Mouthful of Tongues is repellent, yet titillating; violent, yet filled with a powerful and heartfelt scream for a better world. Urgent, extreme, unapologetic, brash, and densely packed with brilliantly twisted ideas, A Mouthful of Tongues deserves to be recognized as a masterpiece, as an exemplar of the path twenty-first century SF should follow.

A Handful of Classics

The Atrocity Exhibition (1990 Re/Search edition), by J.G. Ballard
This definitive edition of Ballard's New Wave classic includes new annotations and commentary by the author, four additional stories (three of which are not included in Ballard's recent The Complete Short Stories), a preface by William S. Burroughs (whose work partly inspired this book), disturbingly clinical anatomical illustrations by Phoebe Gloeckner, and photographs of architecture and phallic aircraft by Ana Barrado. In these coldly and mercilessly precise experimental fictions, Ballard investigates the recesses of our consciousness where anatomy and technology indulge in an orgy of desire and alienation. The extra stories include three stomach-churning, blow-by-blow descriptions of cosmetic surgery and "The Secret History of World War 3", in which the US populace is so obsessed by the detailed up-to-the-minute television reports of President Reagan's medical condition that it ignores a new World War. It's an impressive package, both beautiful and disquieting, as is Ballard's fiction itself.

The Wasp Factory (1984), by Iain Banks
Banks's first and greatest novel is a gender-bending modern gothic filled with bizarre rituals and personal mythologies. The story oozes bodily fluids, rolls around on crusty layers of bodily secretions. The Wasp Factory's careening narrative, sardonic voice, candid descriptions of bodily functions, psychotic energy, and grotesque inventiveness all combine to create an unforgettable novel.

Confessions of a Flesh-Eater (1997), by David Madsen
For Orlando Crispe, the egocentric gourmet protagonist of David Madsen's novel, "the consumption of flesh is essentially an act of love, a communion as intimate as the act of sex". This novel is the first-person confessional narrative of a man whose passion for meat achieves its apotheosis when he discovers the delicacies of human flesh. Includes recipes, should readers be tempted to savour those they love, hate, or fear. A deliriously scrumptious portrait of obsession.

Cock & Bull (1992), by Will Self
In the first of the two novellas that make up this collection, "Cock: A Novelette", Carol, who "always felt at some level less of a woman when Dan was around", grows a penis and rapes her husband. "Bull: A Farce" achieves symmetry with its companion piece: "Bull, a large and heavy-set young man, awoke on morning to find that he had acquired another primary sexual characteristic: to wit, a vagina." Later, his doctor, fascinated with Bull's new genitalia, rapes him. While rape itself is anything but a funny matter, these stories are nevertheless astoundingly funny — indeed, as funny as they are horrific. These are savage satires of contemporary sexual politics that pile up surprise upon weirdness, and atrocities upon disturbingly resonant absurdities.

Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution (1991), by Brian Stableford
Combining the societal phobia of genetic engineering with wryly intelligent satire, Stableford wrote of number of erudite, strange, and funny stories speculating on the reactions — both social and individual — to the new anatomical permutations made possible in his future scenarios of genetic engineering gone mad. Also includes two perspicacious philosophy of science essays (sadly somewhat marred by his insistent use of the patriarchal words "mankind" and "man").

A Dirty Pair

Michael Blumlein
If anatomical SF were a commercialized subgenre (biopunk?), then Michael Blumlein would be its William Gibson. His first novel, The Movement of Mountains (1987), is a profoundly moving tale of a medical doctor (Blumlein himself is a practicing physician) who treats a species of laboratory-created slaves, the Domers. His second, X,Y (1993), is a harrowing tale of altered genders and madness that uses Blumlein's trademark technique of juxtaposing biological exposition with dramatic narrative to powerfully frightening effect. His collection, The Brains of Rats (1990), contains a number of such stories, including "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report", which is a detailed description of the dissection of a live and unanesthetized President Reagan, whose body parts are then imaginatively recycled. Recent, as yet uncollected stories, like "Know How, Can Do" (2001), show Blumlein still finding inspiration within the biological sciences.

Philip José Farmer
For contemporary readers, it's quaintly amusing that Philip José Farmer's fairly tame "The Lovers" caused such a stir when it first appeared in Startling Stories in 1952. Back then, it didn't take much to cause a scandal (maybe things haven't changed as much as we sometimes like to think). Farmer, however, continued to push the envelope of how precisely and explicitly biological functions could be described in fiction. His "My Sister's Brother" (first collected in Farmer's 1960 collection Strange Relations) disgusted a few editors because of its explicit portrayal of eating... food — the other kind of eating would come in later works, as the title of PJF's 1969 novel Blown announces rather unambiguously. Another 1969 novel, A Feast Unknown (perhaps Farmer's chef d'oeuvre), pits doppelgangers of Tarzan and Doc Savage in a lurid battle of erections. All the writers mentioned here (and many more) owe at least an indirect debt to Farmer for his groundbreaking use of anatomy, sex, and biology — in terms of both his matter-of-fact directness and his drive to exploit the metaphoric power of the human body.

Despite the efforts of Farmer and his successors to make SF more viscerally exciting and pertinent, many genre editors still blanch at explicit anatomical detail (notice the large number of submission guidelines that say "no explicit sex" — but very few say "no explicit science") while enthusiastically presenting stories that describe in technopornographic detail how a spaceship's engine changes gears or how a gas giant burps. Can you tell how excited I am?

Claude Lalumière was a bookseller for 12 years. He is now a writer, critic, editor, and translator. "Bestial Acts", the first story in his Lost Pages cycle, has just been published in Interzone #178, April 2002. His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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