Retrospective: Cluster

“In Canopus I learned that to be humanoid was not to be superior; in Spica I found three sides to any question; in Polaris I appreciated circularity.” (Flint of Outworld)

No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and for the life of me I don’t get it. It’s better than a lot of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. Some of the ideas went over my 12-year old head and surprised me on the reread 40 years later. I suspect the name of Piers Anthony puts people off, and understandably. His Xanth series has gotten out of hand and was never that good to begin with. But the ’70s were his golden age, and the Cluster trilogy needs rescuing from obscurity. The three books are Cluster (1977), Chaining the Lady (1978), and Kirlian Quest (1978), and this retrospective honors the first for its 40th anniversary.

The premise of the series is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel given the problems of every other method. Teleportation is too expensive (costing up to trillions of dollars per person), freezer ships too dangerous (1 in 3 lifeforms perish en route), and lifeships too slow (decades have passed by the time passengers disembark). Spiritual transfer allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances — safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. That’s a bold premise for science fiction, and it allows Anthony protagonists whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess.

In Cluster that protagonist is Flint, a Solarian (human) recruited by his government to bring the secret of spirit transfer to the other spheres in the Milky Way. (See image left: sphere Sol is the galaxy’s human sphere, which contains “our” solar system.) The mission is to liberate the spheres from isolationism and unite them in cause against the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda already has the technology for spiritual transfer, and is plotting to steal the Milky Way’s energy sources. Flint’s soul is sent to various spheres, and he is chased by the soul of an Andromeda agent who is also in the disguise of native hosts. The result is an unusual space thriller featuring a reckless hero unsure of himself, as he finds himself hostage to the views, impulses, and feelings of his host bodies. He has a particularly grand time shagging his way through the Cluster.

Shag hero?

That’s sort of what Flint is. In three spheres (Spica, Polaris, and Mintaka) he engages in sex, and in the case of Spica he becomes a rapist, forcing himself on others not once or even twice, but an outrageous three times. The Spicans are fin-propelled humanoids who live on water planets, and their species consists of three genders: Impacts, Undulants, and Sibilants. Sexual intercourse is a three-way affair, impossible with two, but compulsive the moment a third appears, and so most areas on the planets are zoned so that only two genders are allowed together at any time. The presence of three makes sex literally impossible to resist for all members, as one takes the role of the sire (“father”), another the parent (“mother”), and another the catalyst. Intercourse involves the merging of the chests/torsos of all three, initiated by the catalyst who throws itself at the other two, so that the flesh of all three mesh and heave and overlap. When sex is completed, a chunk of flesh breaks off mostly from the sire, and some from the parent, producing the offspring who is nurtured by the parent. What’s interesting is that the genders don’t determine the sire, parent, and catalyst; it’s rather the position of each and the manner in which they come together. An Impact can be a sire just as easily as a parent or a catalyst, and same for Undulants and Sibilants.

Flint, in the body of an Impact, comes upon an Undulant and Sibilant, and is assaulted by urges he can barely comprehend. He instinctively assumes the role of the catalyst, launching himself at the other two, merging and sucking their flesh into his, and in the end leaves the Sibilant (the parent) with a child. That’s his first rape. He is later arrested for his crime by two Impact officials, and evades them by doing the unspeakable in that culture – having sex with two individuals of like gender. Here’s how that rape is described:

“Whereupon he invoked the most disgusting crime of which a Spican sapient is capable. He fushed [homosexually raped] them. He visualized them as a Sibilant and an Undulant, himself as the catalyst, and puffed out his body perimeter to intersect theirs. He overlapped them both, then contracted, hauling them together inside his flesh. The act was appalling. Only in the filthiest of jokes was it even conceivable. A wave of intense revulsion almost overwhelmed the mind of his host. This was despicable homosexual rape! But Flint, desperate, forced the two to intersect each other. Then he expelled them violently, firing them through the water, linked to each other. Both Impacts were unconscious, overcome by sheer shock and horror. And Flint was now twice guilty of a capital offense. His Impact brain urged immediate penance in the form of suicide. He hated himself, but he swam on.”

It’s worth noting that in the Cluster spheres homosexuality seems to be a universal taboo, and while some have claimed this reflects a homophobia on the part of Piers Anthony, it makes perfect sense regardless. The primary drive of every species is to reproduce; same-gendered sex would be reviled as abnormal by at least many intelligent lifeforms who can form concepts, at least until they evolve by more open-minded concepts.

As if that weren’t enough, Flint rapes a third time, when he discovers an Undulant named Llynana whom he suspects is possessed by a kirlian transfer like himself — and that she is the same entity who had followed him to sphere Canopus and tried to kill him. He drags her to an area where they find a Sibilant, and positions himself so that the Sibilant is forced to be the catalyst, himself the sire, and she the parent:

“The throes of mergence were upon them. Llyana was struggling. ‘This — this — I am being violated!’ she protested. ‘Who are you? What are you doing?’

” ‘I am Sissix the Sibliant,’ the catalyst replied. ‘Let the inquest show that I did not seek this union. Nevertheless I do not protest it; you are both handsome specimens.’ Actually the catalyst had little reason to protest; catalysm was as close to completely free pleasure as the world provided. The parent was responsible for the offspring, and the sire gave a healthy chunk of his flesh. The catalyst experienced the same triple orgasm but without penalty.

” ‘Your motions only enhance the interaction,’ Flint told Llyana, knowing this was like telling the victim of ongoing rape not to struggle.

” ‘This — this is mating!’ she screamed, shocked. They were all now overlapping each others’ nervous systems. Flint had never before experienced such extreme pleasure. In the human body, the joys and pains of various experiences were actually self-generated. No actual transfer of sensation occurred, merely external stimulus. But here there was the enveloping joy of literal mergence, of becoming one with one’s species. Sissix and Llyana pooled their nervous impulses with Flint’s to make a symphonic unity of amazing depth and intensity. In his first rape, when he had been the inadvertent catalyst, he had been too revolted by the concept to appreciate the pleasure; now he relished it.”

And because the literal fusion of Spican intercourse is spiritual as much as biological, Flint is able to ascertain that Llyana’s soul has indeed been supplanted by that of an alien agent, later confirmed to be from the Andromeda galaxy. But even more: his rape of Andromeda/Llyana carries a devastating consequence. Forcing a child on her, the Andromeda agent becomes hostage to the emotional bond between her host body and the child, which prohibits her chasing after Flint’s soul to another planet. To her outrage, she feels compelled to stay inside Llyana on the Spican planet and nurture this undesired child. This shows how risky possession is: the hard-wired instincts of the unconscious host can override the will of the possessor.

Flint is a bastard in his parting blow. “Enjoy your motherhood,” he tells Andromeda, who can only swear at him furiously (to which he amusingly scolds her, “Please, not in front of the child”). Rape heroes are rare these days in sci-fic and fantasy, having gone out of fashion since the pulp years. While rapists have become more common as lead characters since Game of Thrones, they are usually understood to be vile. Flint is more like Conan than Jaime Lannister, someone you thrill to, and that sort of protagonist tends to be resented today.

Sexual debt

In the sphere of Polaris things go the consensual way. Flint is learning to discipline his foreign impulses, but he is also greeted by the tender Polarian whose life he saved at the start of the novel. She saved his life too (they were attacked by a wild beast on his home planet), and in Polarian culture, mutual aid escalates debt rather than cancels it, requiring an abatement through the act of sex. That was impossible on Flint’s planet, since Tsopi had physically traveled there as a Polarian, and obviously different species can’t cross-breed. With Flint now inside a Polarian host, Tsopi makes her claim on him.

“You and I saved each other’s lives, and so we owe each other our lives. A mutual debt, very hard to repay. Now, in your thrust culture [Solarian], you would call that self-canceling. Equal and opposite forces. But in our circular culture [Polarian], it starts quite a spiral. Equal and opposite thrusts applied to two sides of a wheel and make it roll twice as fast.”

The “circular” mindset mirrors the Polarian physiology. They look like huge dinosaur droppings at first blush (see image below), with wheels on the bottom and small communication balls on top of their trunks. They roll, not walk, and their thinking is less straightforward, their attitudes as a result more open-minded. Tsopi explains how Polarians live through cycles of relationships rather than lasting ones:

“You [Solarians] are an expansive, extroverted species, but also strongly introverted, alienophobic. Your mating pattern reflects this. You seek a stranger for the purpose of procreation, then establish lifelong liaison with that stranger. To us that seems extreme. We [Polarians] prefer familiar matings, but we form no restrictive relation. Our love is intense while it endures. At the end, there is a child, and all debts have been expiated by that act of creation. The chapter is finished; we never mate again with the same partners.”

Flint, moved by this, agrees to satisfy the debt between them. Here is the sex scene:

“Tsopi laid down her provocative taste, and Flint augmented it with his own. The two trails fed off each other, building up the mood layer by layer as the two wheels spiraled inward toward the center. At last they met. Flint’s trunk and Tsopi’s tail twined together, and their two balls touched each other in an electrifying spinning kiss. Flint found that his body needed no instruction. As with Solarians and all other species both sapient and animal, nature sufficed. Yet the steps of it astonished the human fragments of his mind. For at the height of his passion, Flint lay down and released his wheel. He had not realized that this was possible; he had supposed it was an inseparable part of his anatomy. Now it rolled slowly across the floor away from him leaving him lame.

“She lay down opposite him and moved close. Flint took the exposed portion of her wheel into his vacant wheel chamber. The sensations were intensified excruciatingly, for they were direct; her secretions with his without being diluted by an intervening surface. Trunk and tail reached around to twine together, drawing the connection tight.

“Now the real action began. The rim of Flint’s torso met the rim of Tsopi’s, sealing all the way around their mutual sphere, so that none of it was exposed to the air. The two of them spun it, rapidly. More rapidly than possible in any individual situation, for the wheel controlling mechanisms of both parties were operating in tandem. The wheel spun so fast in grew warm, then hot. Both Flint and Tsopi excreted extra fluid to bathe that sphere in its sealed chamber and alleviate friction, but still the heat increased. At last something within the wheel reacted. There was an electrochemical shift, as of a fire flaring up. It was the climax, that first stirring of buried animation. There was an instant of almost unbearable rapture as the shock went through the mass, then exhaustion.

“Flint and Tsopi fell apart. The wheel rolled free of both of them, steaming. And while they struggled to regain their strength, complicated by the absence of their wheels, through which they normally ate, respired, and eliminated, the loose mass began to shake and flex as though something inside were trying to get out. It did not break open like a hatched egg; it elongated and unfolded, stage by stage, until it emerged complete, sculpted by the hand or wheel of nature: a young Polarian.”

Flint then reclaims his wheel, while Tsopi, now wheel-less, removes his communication ball. In Polarian sex the male becomes mute afterwards (until he grows another communication ball), while the female suffers confinement: the removed communication ball is inserted down below to become her new wheel, that she can barely be upright on until it grows to full size. There’s a biological symmetry to this — the seed starts with the male’s communication ball and eventually becomes a female’s new wheel, varying the gene pool, since the same couples never mate twice.

The Polarians seem to be Anthony’s secret heroes — Tsopi in Cluster and Llume (especially) in Chaining the Lady. I like the idea of circular thought culture and wish the author had developed it more. It’s noted for example how sex-debt is alien to humans like the concept of voting makes no sense to a Polarians, for whom the interests of a single individual take precedence over the will of the majority. When Flint counters how stupid that is — that government must be democratic and serve the good of the greatest number — Tsopi explains that Polarians have a natural inclination to overcoming disagreement through accommodation and mutual respect. It’s a great idea to run with, but it’s kept in the abstract.

Genre blending

After being mired on Spica for months (thanks to Flint raping her and giving her a child), the Andromeda agent is able to break free of her host and continue her mission against the Milky Way — this time as an impersonator rather than a possessor. When the Nathian government discovers an ancient site of technology on the planet of Hyades, the Milky Way governments send representatives to investigate — from Canopus, Sol, Polaris, Antares, Spica, Nath, Mirzam, and Mintaka. Flint is the Sol rep, and they are in their true forms, having been teleported rather than soul-transferred. When they arrive, the Mirzamite is found slain, and the mission turns into a murder mystery. It’s clear the killer has to be one of them since there are no life forms on Hyades. But who of the seven and why?

It’s good genre blending and keeps you guessing until the reveal. The seven members cross-examine each other, querying alibis, testing their knowledge of the species they claim to represent. Later the Antarean is found dead, and it still looks like anyone could be the killer. The Mintakan finally slips by saying “concurrence”, which is the term used by Andromedans to voice agreement — as Flint knows, having dealt with the agent before — and it dawns on him that the Mirzamite was killed right away because Mirzamites are the only species who know what Mintakans really look like (because their spheres border each other). The “Mintakan” is none other than the Andromedan agent in its true form. Challenged at last, she dishes out some serious whup-ass, taking down the Spican, Polarian, Nathian, and Flint himself before the insectoid Canopian — the only remaining survivor — is able to destroy her.

That’s not the end though. In the final chapter we get to see what Mintakans really look like, as Flint wakes up inside the body of one. He died in the Hyades showdown, but the activated technology beamed his soul to the (supposed) world of his killer — his last dying thought. The Mintakans are by far Anthony’s most memorable creation, amalgams of musical instruments; they speak with music, create it as they move, open doors with song, and exude it like Solarians exhale carbon dioxide.

“His body was astonishing. Whenever he moved, he jangled, beeped, and boomed. His several feet were little clappers, supporting a triple web of taut wires like three harps. Fitted within the inner curves of these were tiers of drum diaphragms. Strong tubular framing provided resonance for moving air with reeds. In short, he was an animate orchestra. He had some kind or sonar/radar perception, and used it to orient himself. This had to be a Mintakan host. The ancient arena had really been a transfer station whose destination was controlled by the thought of the transferee. He was thinking of Mintaka as he died — and here he was. His human body had been blasted apart, and no one at home would know what had really happened to him. He had, in his fashion, gone to heaven.”

Except that the devil has ridden his coat tails. The Andromeda agent is there right beside him, also having been killed in the Hyades battle and soul-transferred. As they argue with each other, their hatred lessens, partly in the knowledge their souls will soon die since their native bodies have, but also as they become attracted to each other in the Mintakan form:

“As he played his comment, she accompanied with a haunting tune of agreement. The sheer beauty of the impromptu startled him. When Mintakans communicated, they really did make music together. It was far superior to the human forms, both as dialogue and music. In that affinity of sound, he realized how lovely she could be when she chose.”

And with that, in the final pages, Flint and his nemesis come to an understanding. They agree the ancient secrets they discovered are too dangerous in the hands of either galaxy. Before dying, they mate — consensually this time — and produce an offspring who will become the ancestor of Melody of Mintaka, the protagonist of Chaining the Lady. What fails in trashy Harlequin romances (women who reconcile or fall in love with their rapists) works in a context of inter-species hosting, where biochemical thought patterns are radically altered.

Verdict

Take Cluster off your shelf and relive Flint’s galactic mission. It’s a great novel for its interrogation of inter-species perspective, the premise of spirit possession, and arresting portrayals of alien sex. Throw in an explosive murder mystery, and you have a mighty damn good story.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

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