by Storm Constantine
Headline Book Publishing PLC, 1991
[Challenge # 1: A book that’s been on your TBR (to be read) list for over a year.]
British fantasist Storm Constantine is an acquired taste. Hermetech, published in 1991, is the one novel of hers I kept trying to start, and kept putting off. It’s one of her earlier works and plays with some of the same themes as her earlier Wraeththru trilogy and The Monstrous Regiment… sexual awakening/mutilation, the power of belief, a charismatic leader who is a little mad, and the need of the young and inexperienced to find their place among more worldly and sophisticated companions.
But boy, did it start off unpromisingly. The time is many centuries in the future and the Earth has been ravaged by environmental disasters. Most people live in domed cities with robot and AI servants. There’s a huge infodump off the bat about Naturotech, a “neo-pagan” group and its political arm the Tech-Greens, and an eccentric millionaire who created replicas of Stonehenge monuments complete with laser light shows and robot caretakers. Aimless, tech-savvy hippies roam the wastelands of this world like Burning Man refugees. One such group meets a teenage girl, Ari Famber, who has been genetically engineered by her scientist father to manifest “The Goddess” whenever she has sex. The group, headed by Leila Saatchi, Ari’s father’s ex-lover, asks Ari to join them and they journey to the city of Arkady where she is to lose her virginity and learn how to control her powers.
The concept was more science fantasy than science fiction, and hard to take seriously. In fact, SF author Bruce Sterling writes in a blurb that the author “… ignores every bourgeois rule of fiction” and that assessment is correct. Hermetech pushes buttons for both readers and writers.
Most of the book was travelogue. Leila’s band of misfits journey in two huge Humvee-type vehicles, manifesting petty rivalries and love triangles among themselves on the way. It’s a setting similar to the Mad Max-like Wraeththru world, but described in greater depth. The language borders on overripe, but it’s always entertaining, and there’s a well-worded psychological nugget of wisdom on practically every page. The cast of characters is large and the POV switches constantly, often in mid-page. It was jarring, but I was soon won over by the elegance of Constantine’s prose and the charm of her characters, who have high ideals but whose delusions are all too human. I’ve known people exactly like them. The book still feels contemporary, like it could have been written today. Only the addition of Smartphones would be needed to make it into a still-plausible depiction of the future.
That said, a lot of the book was plain silly. The scientific geniuses are never shown doing anything with actual science, for example… they schmooze, try to one-up each other, and do something vague with brainwaves and laptops. The plot is all over the place, some elements receiving a buildup but panning out to nothing, while others depended on unlikely coincidences. The book was far too long for what actually happens in it, yet, enjoyable for that. It was a tale of human relationships – a comedy of manners almost.
The plot has some classic Constantine elements in it which added to my enjoyment. Like Zambia Crevecoeur, the Goth boy prostitute turned artificially hermaphrodite. The character serves as window dressing in the story and I wonder if, in an earlier version, he was to serve as Ari’s first lover instead of the teen boy who eventually does. He is slashy fun to read about, serving as a more mature Wraeththru figure: the beautiful, damaged male who descends into Gothic pain and madness as he’s transformed into a SHe, the pronoun the author chooses to give him. It’s a female who makes him over through surgery: Jahsaxa Penumbra, a sex club owner. Her thoughts on this creature are exactly why I love Constantine’s writing: it’s very rare that female rumination on androgynous male beauty is depicted so lovingly and unabashedly.
|And what was it about Zambia Crevecoeur, archetypical street-urchin, cur-tempered to the end, that was so fascinating, so compelling for arch-madam, fantasy-spinner Jahsaxa Penumbra? A quality. She had simply defined it as that. The ache to touch, to sample, to receive any attention at his hands, so that even positive rejection would be a pleasure…it was for his face, his angles of flesh, his passage through space and time – a dance of movement. Zambia Crevecoeur, Jahsaxa suspected, did not naturally belong upon the street and doubtless had originally come from somewhere quite different. She knew many people came to lose themselves in Sector 23, but she suspected Zambia Crevecoeur had, in fact, found himself there. She also knew he could turn his attractiveness on and off at will, thus being able to hide effectively when it suited him. At present, it was most definitely turned off, turned inwards. She recognized the body language of self-loathing. Something would have to be done about that. The dog in him must be expelled. He must become cat: pampered, svelte, spoiled, confidant of his own unique beauty. It would be a pleasure to teach him that.|
The excerpt gives an idea of the elegant decadence of the novel’s tone, and perhaps of the author, when faced with the unobtainable magic of a Goth club denizen in full costume in his natural environment.
Zambia becomes the lover of Tammuz Malamute, one of the scientific geniuses of the story and, as it turns out, Ari’s father. This subplot, as with some others, could have been cut for a leaner novel, or better yet, Zambia graced with a story of hir’s own.
Other superfluous characters were downright annoying, like Reynard Lennon, Jahsaxa’s man-at-arms who enters the story in its last quarter, and leaves it abruptly, and a sewer-dwelling oracle that makes one or two pronouncements to no effect. Other characters could have been fleshed out more, like Nathan, the teen boy who is chosen to deflower Ari and activate her sex powers. Leila’s group picks him up casually along the way to the city two-thirds through the book and he is barely developed as a character. The plot could have been streamlined into a more cohesive book dealing with Ari’s coming of age; it might have even made a wonderful YA dystopian novel, if the very adult sexual travails of its characters were excised.
The novel’s ending was also something of a cheat, though not unexpected. It ended the same way as each book in the Wraeththru trilogy did and The Monstrous Regiment… with a magical ritual turned battle that neutralizes the villains in a deus ex machina blowout and leaves the main characters to pick up the pieces. We never get to find out if Ari’s powers are enough to heal the ravaged Earth as was hinted at, or who or what is now a danger to her. We never got a sequel. But I can’t complain too much, as with Constantine the journey is pretty much the destination.