Thursday, August 27, 2015

Electric Forest by Tanith Lee

"Grown skin and grown hair," he rapped out at her.  "Cellular growth after a blueprint in a growth tank, inner organs built like machine parts inside a machine.  Put together like a doll.  You're a clock, Magda. Vellum outside and tick-tock inside.  Tick Magdala. Tick tock.  You can do it all, Magdala.  You can even screw.  But don't foul it up for me."    

Another of my South Carolina purchases, the hardcover first edition of Tanith Lee's 1979 novel Electric Forest, published by Nelson Doubleday.  It looks like a previous owner inscribed his or her name on the first page, but this evidence of ownership was then removed by the expedient of cutting off the corner of the page.  Curious.

The wrap around cover illustration, with the subdued colors and odd perspective, is by Jack Woolhiser.  I am happy to have gotten my hands on a novel by Lee I had not yet read, of course, but seeing the perfectly composed and colorful illustration by Don Maitz on the DAW paperback has me wishing I had found one of those.  Maitz also, I believe, did a frontispiece for the DAW printing of Electric Forest, something I would like to see.

Something else I would like to see is an English version of the essay about Lee by MPorcius fave A. E. Van Vogt, which appears in the Italian edition of Electric Forest.  Knowing such an essay exists, and that (presumably) Van Vogt was a fan of Lee's, made me wonder about possible similarities between Van Vogt's and Lee's work.  I have to admit that, Van Vogt's writing typically being clumsy and confusing, while Lee's is generally so beautiful and clear, I had never really considered comparing them!  However, in the area of plot, I think we can see something like characteristic Van Vogt ideas in Electric Forest, and maybe in some other novels by Lee.

Magdala Cled lives in a future when the government closely monitors reproduction, and all births are supposed to be the product of carefully selected artificial insemination, guaranteeing that every baby is a healthy and attractive specimen.  Some traditional conceptions and births fall through the cracks, however, and our main character's mother, a government-licensed prostitute, had one of those, producing the severely deformed Magdala.  Lee does not skimp on descriptions of twenty-something Magdala's repulsive body, how her squat asymmetrical form lurches around the high-tech solar-powered city, from her button-pushing part-time job in a pristine factory to her periods of leisure in an"electro-library" and evenings in a tiny spartan apartment.  Magdala, abandoned by her mother at birth, raised at a callous government orphanage where the other kids beat her up, has no family or friends, but as the novel begins she is accosted by a very handsome and very wealthy young man.

Claudio Loro is an arrogant jerk, but also a brilliant scientist.  He has created an artificial body, that of a beautiful woman with blue-black hair and fawn freckles, and at his seaside estate and laboratory, a thousand miles from the city, he shifts Magdala's consciousness to this body.  He then provides her forged ID and a crash course in how to use the body and how to behave in high society.

We soon learn that the haughty Claudio hasn't performed this miracle of science out of charity!  Magdala's new body is a reproduction of that of one of Claudio's former lovers, Christophine del Jan, a rival scientist. Magdala is forced to impersonate Christophine and help Claudio outmaneuver other rich people and infiltrate Christophine's home and place of business, both of which are on a distant island research center.

Claudio plays a role in Electric Forest like that a femme fatale might play in a story with a male protagonist; he manipulates Magdala in part by keeping control of her real body (it resides in a sort of glass sarcophagus and requires regular maintenance; if it expires Magdala will die) and in part through a sexual hold on Magdala, who has never experienced physical affection before and is vulnerable to his charms.  Their relationship is a twisted, codependent one: the intellectual and glamorous Claudio has contempt for the uneducated and hideous Magdala, and is constantly insulting her, and Magdala in turn hates Claudio as much as she aches for his caresses.  Lee also works in one of her common themes, incest--sometimes Claudio presents Magdala as his sister, "Magda Loro."
"Hate," he said.  "Worlds have been conquered on the strength of that.  Hate me, Magdala, but hate her more."  He put his hand gently on her head.  Gently he said to her, "Share it with me, Magdala.  My hate for Christophine."
"Why?" she said.
"I informed you, you must not ask why, or what.  You are my marionette.  Dance for me, and keep your mouth shut.  Or I won't be nice to you any more."
One theme of the book, as the quoted passage above suggests, is hate, primarily hate born of envy.  Claudio remarks on the hatred of the poor for the rich, and when Christophine appears, she explains to Magdala that Claudio hates her (Christophine) because Christophine is smarter than he is. Claudio has his own version of the story, in which Christophine hates him because he is the smarter one.

The major theme of the book is the tension between reality and artifice.  The "electric forest" of the title refers to holograms of trees used as a decoration at Claudio's estate, and on the island research center.  Everywhere she goes Magdala encounters deceptive and/or decorative holograms of one type or another.  Claudio is described as a "magician," and spends the entire book deceiving people.  Magdala, who has never had a human relationship before, once in the Christophine body has to resort to saying things she has heard actresses say on TV.  Is Lee, by presenting us with these extreme cases of false identities and disguises, reminding us how artificial we all are, how we use clothes and cosmetics and words to present an image to the world that doesn't necessarily reflect our true selves?

In the final chapters of the novel Magdala must decide which of the two manipulative scientists to side with.  Then, in a crazy twist ending that reminded me of the surprises at the end of Lee's first big novel, 1975's The Birthgrave, and 1980's Day by Night, we find that Magdala's entire life is an experiment! Everything that we have seen has been an illusion, from the city Magdala lives in (a theatrical set!) to Claudio and Christophine (actors!)  The Earth government has run this vast simulation to study the potential of their new consciousness shifting technology for use in espionage in a cold war with other planets!

This bizarre twist, the revelation that the world is not at all what it seems, is one of the things that reminds me a little of a Van Vogt story.  Also reminiscent of Van Vogt are scenes in which Magdala finds herself in a confusing new environment, and has to trick its inhabitants into thinking she belongs there, and scenes in which she has to choose sides in a conflict about which she knows almost nothing.

Even if I was a little let down by the ending (all those characters I cared about were just actors?) I really enjoyed Electric Forest.  The characters are all interesting and alive, and Lee's style is rich but smooth.  Electric Forest is also the right length; it doesn't drag the way I thought Day by Night did. The story is full of suspense--the characters, living in a world full of illusions, in physical and psychological intimacy with people they hate, are all teetering on some brink.  Can Magdala really navigate this unfamiliar world in this new body?  What if she can't get back to the sarcophagus with her real body in time to perform regular maintenance?  What is Claudio really up to? When will the real Christophine appear and how will she respond to meeting her double?  I didn't want to stop reading because I was eager to find out what was going to happen next.

Lee fills Electric Forest with references and allusions to the Bible (Claudio suspects Magdala was named after Mary Magdalene), classical myth and European literature (Claudio compares himself to Pygmalion and Frankenstein, Christophine to Circe, and Magdala, with her need to travel with her coffin, to a vampire) and fairy tales ("Beauty and the Beast" is directly referenced, while a number of elements reminded me of the story of Cinderella.)  I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

A very good read.


  1. Time for me to start reading Lee. With the questions of identity and whether reality is real, it sounds like something Philip K. Dick would have written--kind of like Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Is that a valid comparison? Thank you again.

  2. Actually, it is probably time for me to start reading Dick. I'm basically totally unfamiliar with his work, having only read one book maybe fifteen years ago, about which I remember nothing, not even the title.