Friday, February 17, 2017

Synthajoy by D. G. Compton

"What you're doing to Tony there--can you justify that as satisfying a need?"
"Of course I can.  The need for innovation.  It's as potent as the need for sex, or for power."
Against his rationalizations I could only range a deep, instinctive repugnance.
As a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey I spent lots of time riding in the car on Route 80, travelling between home and my maternal grandmother's house. Nana, as we called her, had lots of cool old toys that I now see in antique stores, a round tin box full of like 12 pounds of fascinating buttons for us to sift through, and a bookcase full of hardcover books, including an encyclopedia published during World War II that, among other things, had black and white reproductions of Charles R. Knight paintings under the dinosaur entries, and a lot of those Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I bring this up not just because I like reminiscing about my prosaic childhood, but because it appears (according to this page at the New York Review of Books website) that critically acclaimed SF author D. G. Compton has done work for Reader's Digest Condensed Books as an editor and as a condenser!

Compton's first science fiction book published in America was 1968's Synthajoy, and this week I read my copy, the Ace Science Fiction Special edition with the cover by the Dillons.  I liked Compton's Steel Crocodile when I read it in July, so I expected to like this one as well, and I was not disappointed.  Joachim Boaz read Synthajoy in 2011 (check out his review here) and on this topic we are in close agreement--he also quite liked it.

Synthajoy is presented in the form of a first-person narrative from Thea Cadence, a nurse and the wife of Edward Cadence, a doctor and the co-inventor of Sensitape. The text switches back and forth between a day to day narrative of her confinement in a mental hospital, and flashbacks to what I think of as "the main plot," the story of the development of Sensitape and of Thea's relationships with Edward and with electronics expert Tony Stech, the other half of the Sensitape development team. The irony is that Thea is now receiving the very Sensitape treatment she helped devise with her husband Edward and his partner Tony!

Synthajoy sees use of literary or "New Wavey" techniques, like a sentence typed in undulating curves instead of on a level line, passages written in the form of a film script or a play, and sections and chapters that end in the middle of a sentence--many of these sentences are never completed.  Most importantly, the main plot is not related in strict chronological order.

The main plot: An increasing number of people in overcrowded England have come to feel life is not worth living, and they just lay down and, after a few weeks, even though their bodies are perfectly healthy, die. The medical professionals call this "Uncompensated Death Wish," or UDW, and over a million people a year are dying of it!  Edward and Thea Cadence treat UDW cases, one of whom is the Jewish owner of an electronics shop, Jacob Stech. Jacob's death inspires his son, Tony, to devote his electronics expertise to curing the disease, and together Edward and Tony invent a machine that cures UDW, Sensitape. Sensitape is a system by which people's thoughts and feelings are recorded and can be played back for others via a headset; the first tape, called Relaxatape, plays a recording of the brain waves of a person at peace, and the brainwaves of those who "listen" to the tape conform to the recording, forcing them to relax. Millions of lives are saved from UDW through use of such therapeutic tapes and Edward becomes a national hero, but the Sensitape team doesn't stop there.  Soon Edward and Tony are at the head of a major commercial enterprise, recording tapes of all kinds of experiences, from artistic creation to sexual intercourse, and selling the tapes and the machines needed to play them not only to medical institutions for therapeutic use, but also on the retail market for entertainment purposes.

While not a scientist herself, Thea is instrumental in the development of Sensitape; for one thing, she introduces Tony to Edward, suggesting that Tony ("the electronics king of West London") could be of assistance in overcoming apparently insuperable technical challenges faced by Edward.  As Thea begins to doubt the morality of Senistape, her essential role in its development burdens her with tremendous guilt. ("All this, the whole hellish structure, is my fault....I could have altered the fate of the human race.")  As she sits at the machinery with Edward and Tony while they record the brain waves of a couple having sex, she becomes vomitously ill.  She is in physical contact with a dying priest as his last thoughts are recorded and is a witness to Edward convincing musicians and artists to have their acts of performance and creation recorded.  And then there is a scene which explicitly tells us Sensitape is something like drug abuse, when gangsters who control the European heroin and cocaine trade knock on the Cadences' door and, guns drawn, demand they be given a cut of the profits of Sensitapes sold as a narcotic substitute because this product is driving the drug dealers out of business.

We've seen this sort of thing, artificial dreams or recorded thoughts used as therapy or entertainment/pornography/addictive substance more than once over the course of this blog's life, in numerous early '70s Barry Malzberg stories, in Lin Carter's 1968 "The Thief of Thoth", and Evelyn Lief's 1972 "Every Fourth House."  New Jersey's own Malzberg, one of the premier critics and historians of science fiction, in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, cites Peter Phillips as being the first to do this sort of thing back in 1948.

The human part of the plot concerns how Edward's and Thea's marriage is a cold sham, how Edward starts having an affair with the woman known as Mrs. X (the woman who was recorded for the sex tape--she has perhaps the highest sex drive in Britain!) and then Thea starts an affair with Tony.  Everything comes to a head after Tony dies in an experiment in which he "listens to" an experimental tape which Edward has prepared, Synthajoy, a tape which synthesizes various pleasurable and ecstatic experiences to create the ultimate pleasure, and Thea has a bad reaction to a recording of the emotions of a genius conductor leading his orchestra--she can feel the love of the genius for Brahms, and it makes her feel like an abominable interloper. ("To experience the tape was to trespass on that love....")  Edward is murdered; Thea tells us that Mrs. X, wanting to renegotiate her sex tape contract for a bigger share of the profits, killed Edward so she could steal the contract, but Thea herself is convicted of the crime. (All this adultery, murder, and murder trial jazz perhaps reflects Compton's career as a mystery novelist.)  Thea is sentenced to confinement in the very hospital for which she did interior design and subjected to the very sort of therapy she helped develop, compelled to experience tapes designed to induce contrition...or is it guilt?

In the last pages of the novel we realize how mentally unstable and how unreliable a narrator Thea may really be when she provides a different version of the story of the murder, we learn the truth(?) about her alleged frigidity, and, after spending the whole book talking about how she hates Sensitape and what it has done to British society ("hellish structure") and how she looks down on profit seekers ("To buy (with money) what Beldik had recorded (for money) was to compound a moral felony"), she declares she will perfect Synthajoy--the ultimate Sensitape!--and make a bazillion pounds selling it, apparently to get revenge on Mrs. X.  (Shades of Winston Smith!) To what extent has Thea always been flawed, and to what extent has the Sensitape therapy/punishment/brainwashing turned her into the troubled person we have spent this book with?

Synthajoy is a good novel and I enjoyed it.  The characters and their relationships are all believable and interesting, and all the literary touches (the somewhat experimental stuff I've mentioned, and also more conventional things like detailed descriptions of rooms and landscapes) aren't just showoffy frippery that obscure the narrative, but actually make the book more engaging.

Back of my copy
The science fiction elements are alright, but are secondary to the human drama.  The obvious novels to compare Synthajoy to are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but while those novels create rich fictional worlds and address, head on, important political and philosophical debates, in Synthajoy Compton doesn't really describe a world much different than our own or make a very direct or convincing moral or political argument.  The reviews from UK periodicals quoted on the back of my copy claim the novel is "horrifying" and "hair-raising," but I didn't feel that it was all that "horrifying" myself.  The England depicted by Compton isn't some kind of totalitarian nightmare; it seems like everybody whose brainwaves are recorded on Sensitapes, and most everybody who uses Sensitapes, is doing so voluntarily.  (As a convicted murderer, Thea is the exception.)

Compton's gripe seems to be that the people who produce the tapes are doing so for money, and that those using them are decadent sheep, the prey of manipulative sleaze merchants; Compton's complaints about Sensitape are reminiscent of the evergreen complaints we hear about drugs, pornography, television, rock and roll, comic books, etc., that these are shallow forms of addictive entertainment that turn their consumers into soulless zombies, or at least fail to elevate them the way high brow or wholesome art is reputed to by the intellectual elite or moral arbiters.  Synthajoy is an attack on capitalism and on innovation for innovation's sake, on business and science run amuck, and Compton's case is not based on logic or evidence or historical analogy--it is based on irrational emotion, the "instinctive repugnance" expressed by Thea in the lines I chose as an epigraph for this blog post.

A clue that the book is taking a conservative stand based on tradition or prejudice or some kind of "precautionary principle" is that the book's villains, those who keep promoting Sensitape and keep pushing the envelope, accuse Thea, our heroine, of being a prude, a puritan, or a reactionary, while calling themselves "progressive" and trumpeting how they are serving mankind even as they claw and scrape for money and fame.  

There are lots of thought-provoking things going on in Compton's book that are worth talking about.  As a man, the author takes a risk in writing a first-person narrative in the voice of a woman; and when I say "risk" I basically mean a risk that women will find his depiction of a woman unconvincing and that feminists in particular might consider it an outrageous act of misrepresentation or cultural appropriation.  (Let me repeat that from my perspective the character of Thea is convincing and compelling.) On the one hand, Compton does things with Thea that feminists may appreciate: her husband uses her to advance his career, he can be dismissive of her, and he can fail to recognize her contributions.  There's a good scene in which Thea enters the room where Edward and Tony are working on their invention; the men just met this very day, but Thea finds she is already treated as an outsider by them--among men she is "the other" despite her essential contributions and her previous relationships with them.  On the other hand, Thea says stuff like "No more or less than men, women judge you, dominate you, flatter you, compete with you.  But unlike men, their motives are unfathomable," her frigidity is a major plot point, she is a victim, she acts kind of hysterical, and much of what she tells us may be a self-serving lie.

While relationships between the sexes are at the center of the novel, there are also issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference presented in Synthajoy, and I have to admit I am not sure why these issues were presented (though I have a theory!).  The Steches, Jacob and Tony, are Jewish, and Thea's attitude about Jews is to see them as a sort of exotic species.  "I'd seen him [Tony] and his father together--there was a feeling between them my hospital experience had already shown me to be peculiarly Jewish."  After Jacob's death, Thea goes to visit Tony's shop: "I was there because I was cold, and already dead, and I wanted to see how Jews kept warm and alive."

There is also a minor black character, Dr. Mbleble, the giant ("six feet seven, with neck and shoulders like a big black bull") Nigerian sexologist who diagnoses Thea as being sexually dysfunctional because of what he calls "the repressive puritanism Mrs. Cadence was brought up under."  I probably don't have to tell you that the oversexed Negro is a sort of cliche.

My aforementioned theory is that a minor subtext of Synthajoy is of non-Christian, non-English people changing English society, and not changing it for the better.  Tony basically invented the Sensitape that changes English society in ways Thea finds so objectionable, and Mbleble spars with Thea's lawyer at her murder trial--he not only represents sexual license, but is a threat to her freedom.  The idea of the Jew as influencer is highlighted by this line: "'No strings,' he [Edward] said, spreading his hands in Tony's Jewish way."  Tony's "Jewish ways" are infecting English Edward!

I've already told you I see Synthajoy as an attack on capitalism and the profit motive, and I probably don't have to tell you that for centuries a standard trope among anti-Semites has been the image of the Jew as the cunning and ruthless businessman. Well, late in the novel we realize Jews aren't the only category of people Thea finds exotic and fascinating:
I occupied my time observing the other members of the board, businessmen, a phenomenon I had only recently come into contact with.  Everything about them fascinated me, the way they worked, what they thought, the faces they made.  Merchants, with merchants' eyes.
Here I will note that Mrs. X, another threat to Thea, is also a foreigner, though not a particularly exotic one; she is an American.  The United States, of course, is seen by many people as a sort of archetypal capitalist country, and it is common for people to characterize the U. S. A. as a place where the only thing that matters is money. According to my theory, the Jew, the American, and the black represent a new English culture, one based on technology, profit-seeking and sensuality that is killing the old English culture based on things like Christianity and classical music (over the course of the book a priest dies and a musician has a stroke in Thea's presence) and the heroism of people like Horatio Nelson, whose column is mentioned a few times. Maybe we should see this as a bourgeois or popular revolution against society's traditional elites?

As I have suggested, to me these (perhaps unsavory) elements of Thea's personality and/or Compton's beliefs serve to make her and the book more interesting, but it seems possible that other residents of our early 21st century might find them, as the kids say, "problematic."  Your humble blogger does not hesitate to recommend Synthajoy; it is a smooth and entertaining read without any fat or fluff that is also thought-provoking and rewards close attention.  Worth the time of anybody at all interested in "literary" SF or SF that touches on psychological or gender or race issues.

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