Monday, December 9, 2013
Phthor by Piers Anthony
Phthor is the story of Arlo, a young man living alone with his parents in the tunnels and caverns of Chthon. This subterranean world is inhabited by many dangerous creatures, but Arlo is in psychic rapport with the god of Chthon (a sort of "mineral" entity, hostile to all life) which can control all the monsters and protect Arlo; Arlo, it seems, is the "chosen one" of the god of Chthon.
As the novel opens Arlo is 16, and meets, for the first time, another young person, a girl who calls herself Ex. Apparently, she has escaped from the prison section of Chthon. (Interstellar human civilization has abandoned the death penalty and sentences the worst criminals to life imprisonment in the caves of Chthon.) Arlo is fascinated by Ex, and rescues her from various dangers. She is also the cause of a rift that develops between Arlo and the god Chthon - she is, in fact, a sort of advanced scout for an all-female commando team from the planet Minion that is about to land on Chthon and try to destroy the god - the mineral sentience, it turns out, will soon have the power to kill all life in the galaxy.
Anthony includes in Phthor some of the sexual/erotic elements that have made his work controversial. He concocts situations in which sadism, masochism, incest, and sex involving minors is "natural" for some of the characters. The women of the planet Minion, for example, are emotionally telepathic, but perceive emotions in reverse, so that if someone hates them, they perceive it as love and enjoy it, while if someone were to love them, they would feel pain. These women are almost indestructible, and so can safely enjoy being beaten. A woman of Minion lives for centuries, always looking young and beautiful (of course), and when her husband dies, usually at around fifty, she takes her son as her next husband.
To what extent Anthony includes this sort of thing in his book to explore a bizarre alien society, to shock the bourgeois attitudes of the reader, and/or to appeal to people with unconventional sexual appetites, I cannot say. Anthony presents the incestuous desires of many of the book's characters as a direct challenge to traditional mores; Arlo, who has never left Chthon's caverns, learned to read from a compendium of pre-space age Earth literature, and we are reminded more than once of the incest taboos he learned from this compendium. Most of the human characters in the book are forced to choose whether to violate or honor these taboos.
Arlo's mother tells her son that "There is no right and wrong, objectively," and perhaps this is Anthony talking; Anthony certainly argues that in the war between Chthon and Life (and implicitly in any war) neither side is fully Good or Evil. Perhaps Phthor is meant to be a refutation of most or all ideas of morality, of Good and Evil. Anthony does seem to be using the novel to argue in favor of compromise and against war, and maybe he would claim he rests his argument on practicality, not morality.
Phthor also includes many references to Norse mythology, and showcases Anthony's interest in coming up with alien life forms with novel means of reproduction. The first half, in which Anthony introduces his strange setting and concepts is interesting, but the second half, with boring action scenes and a lot of dialogue as the mineral sentience Chthon and the alliance of Life both try to get Arlo to join their side in the war, drags a bit. I have to admit, the very end, when we don't know which side will win or if instead Arlo can negotiate a mutual peace, had me guessing.
I guess I'm giving Phthor a marginal recommendation. My life would be easier if everything I read was as obviously laudable as Gene Wolfe's Pandora by Holly Hollander or Tanith Lee's short stories, or as blatantly irritating as Judith Merrill's Tommorow People and Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon, but much of the fiction I read falls on the vague borderline between "acceptable" and "unacceptable."
I read the Berkley paperback, from 1982. The cover painting is by Clyde Caldwell. Through the 1980s my brother and I played lots of RPGs, mostly Basic/Expert D&D, 1st ed AD&D, and Star Frontiers, and we had a subscription to Dragon magazine. Caldwell was one of the artists who did work for TSR, and so we saw many of his illustrations. Caldwell always seemed to include in his depictions huge translucent gems, whether or not they were appropriate, and so my brother and I called him "The Gemster" and felt like art connoisseurs because we could always identify a specimen of his art.