"You're a fool," Bjonn said. His face was flushed, and he looked more angry than I'd ever seen him. "You've lived from infancy on a diet of tasteless, tube-fed pap. You've never left the teat. You connect yourself to an 'evacuation unit' and your entire alimentary tract is plugged in, part of the circuit of an obscenely sterile machine. You're a product of conditioned reflexes, of compulsive habit patterns. No wonder you're so deeply neurotic!"
|Three dollars! That's why they call me|
"The Big Spender"
From its first page, By Furies Possessed lays on the traditional technological and sociological SF speculations: what will it be like to travel between the moon and the Earth, to travel in zero gee, to live on the moon? If the Earth becomes overcrowded, how will government and culture change? The novel is also full of psychology: in the first of 23 chapters we learn that our first-person narrator, Tad Dameron is claustrophobic, his fellow passengers on the Earth to Luna shuttle envy him because he gets waved through customs without having to deal with any paperwork, he envies his Luna-based colleague who has had more time in space than he has, and witness this colleague play mind games on Tad, criticizing him and trying to exploit his claustrophobia. When something unfortunate befalls this guy, Tad is torn between sympathy and schadenfreude.
The Earth has built seven interstellar ships in the last forty years, and one has just docked on Luna, bringing with it a passenger from Earth's first extrasolar colony, Farhome. This emissary, "Bjonn" (he has only the one name) is the first extrasolar colonial to ever visit Earth. (Farhome is like 15 years travel away, though for passengers it feels like only a few months.) It's Tad's job as a "Level Seven Investigator" from "the Bureau of Non-Terran affairs" to show Bjonn around the Earth, and, in the process, learn all about him and Farhome. But already on Luna and on the shuttle back to Earth Tad has begun to dislike this visitor, who is so tall and agile and self-assured. Envy again!
Back in New York (or "Megayork," as they are calling it in Tad's day), Tad introduces Bjonn to one of his colleagues, Dian Knight, an attractive woman who has always spurned Tad's advances. Bjonn and Dian disappear together, and the novel shifts into detective mode as Tad travels around the world, sifting through clues and interrogating people in an effort to find them.
As the story progresses we learn all about this future Earth and how radically different it is from our own. The world population stands at 37 billion, and is presided over by a socialistic world government which White metaphorically likens to a mother. There is almost no private sector, with most everybody working for the government or (Tad suggests this group is the "vast majority") living off "Public Care" and spending their time watching the "lulling opiates of public 3-D." (Professionals like Tad almost never watch 3-D, and if they do it is more serious private broadcasts that are only quasilegal.)
Most strange, and most indicative of the mother-baby relationship people have with the state, is people's attitude towards eating. People never eat together; in fact, the idea of seeing another eat or being seen eating disgusts them, and when Bjonn first invites Tad and Dian to share a meal with him they become physically ill. The citizens of the future take their meals in private little "eating cubicles," the same rooms they urinate and evacuate in, seated on a toilet, sucking algae from a tube that projects from the wall.
As we learn about this overcrowded future society, we also learn about Tad's own psychology, and I think to an extent Tad is meant to represent his society--his misfortunes and psychological problems are the result or a small scale version of Earth society's sociological issues. Family and community ties in this world are weak--Tad was separated from his parents at age six, people walking the crowded streets and riding mass transit never make eye contact (Tad dubs his age "The Age of Anonymity"), marriages are generally short term contracts, and when someone is nice to Tad, he tells us it is a surprise. Tad is not only claustrophobic, but also alienated from the natural world, finding the feel of sunlight or cool air on his skin uncomfortable and spending as much time as possible inside. As Tad conducts his investigation he is given the opportunity to see different sectors of society--he visits an artist living on the dole, a busy professional of the private sector who left her child to an orphanage so she'd have time to pursue her career, and attends a wild party of the decadent rich, an orgy where he becomes intimate with a porno actress, and performs in a porno with her!-- and we observe how classbound and divided Earth society is and how dysfunctional people's relationships are.
When Tad finally catches up with Bjonn and Dian they have started a church and their congregation is growing. Tad realizes that the church members are all carrying an alien parasite from Farhome, and when he discovers that his bosses at the Bureau have also been infected with these parasites the hunter becomes the hunted, and he desperately tries to avoid capture. But, in the end, he is persuaded that the alien parasite is not a parasite at all, but a symbiote that enhances its human host's perceptions and general health, including his psychological health. Tad joins Bjonn's group, accepting one of these "parasites" into his own body, and Dian becomes his lover. As the novel ends we know that Tad's many psychological problems are solved, and that soon, when everybody has taken aboard one of these alien symbiotes, the class conflict and alienation and other problems of Earth society will be solved.
An interesting way to look at By Furies Possessed is as a novel about science fiction, or perhaps as a novel in dialogue with other science fiction works. White includes quite a few references which feel like little SF community in-jokes. Early in the book there is a sort of satirical reference to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics and Richard Sharpe Shaver's claims about a malevolent subterranean civilization of "deros." A little later we meet a minor female character named Terri Carr--celebrated (male) SF editor Terry Carr co-wrote the novel Invasion from 2500 with White in 1964.
Most importantly, By Furies Possessed feels like a response to or mutation of one of the most famous SF novels by one of the most important SF writers, Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Bjonn does almost the same stuff that the hero of Stranger does--he is a human born on another planet and matured under the beneficent influence of aliens, and he comes alone to an Earth that has a sort of crummy society and sets up a church that has the potential to solve all Mother Terra's problems. One glaring "tell" is that the important alien ritual in Stranger is "the sharing of water," while the "sacrament" of Bjonn's church is the "sharing of food."
In the introduction of the 1978 edition of his 1967 novel Secret of the Marauder Satellite, White tells us that he first fell in love with SF when he read Heinlein's juvenile novels as a child, and that he took Heinlein's juveniles as a model when he wrote Secret. So it would be "in character" for White to have based By Furies Possessed in part on Stranger in a Strange Land. In many ways, of course, By Furies Possessed is very different than Stranger; Stranger is full of philosophical conversations and expressions of love, and it is clear from the start that the Martian is the good guy. White's novel is like a hard-boiled detective novel full of femmes fatale in which people are all jerks to each other, and White tries to keep us guessing about whether we should welcome Bjonn and his church or fear it. In fact, while Bjonn's character arc is somewhat like that of Smith from Stranger, it is also quite like that of Dracula in Bram Stoker's classic novel--Bjonn is an alien weirdo who comes to the Earth via a ship, hides out and begins converting people to his alien ways via an invasion of their bodies.
(There are quite a few SF books that feel like responses to Heinlein's work, like Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage and David Gerrold's A Matter for Men. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War was widely seen as a response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, though Haldeman denies any such intent.)
|Ugh, I never would have bought the|
book if the copy I found had this
cover--it makes the novel
look like it must be a bad comedy
I also thought White might be using By Furies Possessed to strike a subtle blow for the New Wave, or just reflect New Wave influence. One of Tad's many psychological issues is an obsession with space travel. As a child he collected model space ships and studied starship blueprints and covered his walls with pictures of astronauts, and as an adult he tries, without success, to get assigned to space missions. But at the end of the novel it is made explicitly clear that Tad's path to happiness is the exploration and mastery not of outer space, but of inner space, of his own mind. Tad's interest in outer space is, in fact, an illness! One of the tenets of the New Wave was that SF should focus less on traditional topics like space travel and more on things like human psychology, and White's book, though it does have space travel and aliens as important components, is primarily concerned with Tad's thoughts, feelings and memories, and the novel's story follows Tad's psychological journey--the uncovering of the reasons why he is so envious and so obsessed with space and his growth from mental illness to mental health--not a physical voyage to another star system.
(With its optimistic paradigm shift ending and straightforward detective-style plot structure and tone, By Furies Possessed is probably more traditional a piece of SF than either Stranger in a Strange Land or your stereotypical depressing and abstruse New Wave piece.)
White's style is good, brisk and clear, so (despite my initial worries) the story never drags or confuses. All the surprises, changes of scene (which I have not discussed here at all), symbols and SF in-jokes keep the reader interested. By Furies Possessed is a solid, readable, entertaining, piece of work.
Across from the title page of By Furies Possessed is an ad for other Signet SF we are assured we will enjoy. Top of the list is Mordecai Roshwold's Level 7, a book much beloved by Joachim Boaz and 2theD. Heinlein's famous The Door into Summer is represented, as well as a novel by SF giant Poul Anderson which I haven't heard of, A Circus of Hells. Another thing I've never heard of is Moon Zero Two; the book advertised here is a novelization by a John Burke of a Hammer film. Burke also did the novelization of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a bunch of short stories based on such Hammer Films classics as The Reptile and The Gorgon. Also promoted here in By Furies Possessed is Robert Hoskins's anthology The Stars Around Us. I own The Stars Around Us, but I don't think I've read anything from it yet.