The Sewer Orgy Revisited

It would appear that the sewer orgy scene from Stephen King’s It has been on everyone’s mind. For the past few weeks, my blogpost on the sewer orgy (posted in April) has been getting loads of hits. Today, for example:

Read the post here if you missed it before. And remember, the sewer orgy won’t be in the film released tomorrow. Which is a shame, because it’s the novel’s most important scene, though admittedly understandable. In the 21st century, no studio would dare take on the subject of an 11-year old gang bang.

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Science Fiction Pick List

To complement my eight fantasy picks, here are my sci-fic choices. I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to sci-fic. You won’t find anything by Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven here.

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1. Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The sequels aren’t so impressive. Only the first book makes my list.

2. The Gap Cycle, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse hell to achieve justice. No one has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane; the narrative crescendos enough to give you panic attacks. I was hyperventilating during the race to escape Thanatos Minor. Every corner of that planetoid remains burned in my mind’s eye, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I love the central character of Angus. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of free will I feel for him. The Gap Cycle is a brilliant space opera about evil authorities, and terrifying aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. I doubt I’ll read anything like it again.

3. Cluster & Chaining the Lady, Piers Anthony. 1977, 1978. No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and it needs rescuing from obscurity. It’s better than many of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. The premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it 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. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows Anthony protagonists (Flint in Cluster, Melody in Chaining the Lady) whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess. The first two novels are the ones that make my cut. In Cluster Flint shags his way across the Milky Way, experiencing a rich variety of alien sex, and his mission ends on a murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the reveal. In Chaining the Lady the Andromeda Galaxy acquires the capability of forced possession, and Melody must go undercover on a battle ship to find out who the involuntary hosts are before their possessors take over the Milky Way. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details.

4. Ubik, Philip Dick. 1969. Only recently have I been turned on to Philip Dick, and Ubik is his best work, set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik is a pure mind fuck, and while it may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.

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5. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. 2011. This novel will give you an orgasm if you grew up in the ’80s playing D&D and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of reality. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. The virtual recreation of the Tomb of Horrors is for me one of the most gratifying chapters I’ve read in a novel.

6. Hyperion-Endymion, Dan Simmons. 1989-1997. The four books are almost equally good while stylistically different. Hyperion is a Canterbury Tales-like recounting of six stories, told by each of the Shrike pilgrims. The Fall of Hyperion takes these strands and runs them into a single blistering narrative as the fabric of the universe is torn apart. Endymion picks up centuries later, in a regressed universe ruled by the Catholic church, and consists of a river chase through portals to different planets, reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The Rise of Endymion involves the defeat of the church and a woman’s sacrifice to the Inquisition. My favorite is The Fall of Hyperion — Simmons never takes his foot off the gas in that book — but they all make this cut. I could never fully understand the Shrike, the spiked humanoid that seems to be a force for good as much as evil. He impales victims on his Tree of Pain, and gives them the “Merlin sickness” (a reverse aging process by which after being touched, every morning you wake up a day younger with no memory of the lost days nor anything that had happened since being touched; to the horror and pain of family and friends who have to explain every morning what happened to you, as you regress back to a teen to a kid to a baby). It seems to be a program designed to ensure the evolution of the AIs while also keeping them in check, and it helps people as as often as it hurts them depending on its perceived goal.

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7. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are top-notch survivalist sci-fic. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.

8. The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold. 1973. It’s surprising how good this book is considering the skeleton narrative. It’s a novella with a single character (aside from the brief appearance of a lawyer) and has a rather staged feeling to it. But it takes on enormous themes — time travel, paradoxes, free will — as the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. And it’s a love story at heart, as the man falls in love with himself in various time streams. He starts as most people would do if they suddenly acquired a time-traveling device: betting on sports events he already knows the outcome to, making himself a millionaire. But as he becomes gradually bored by wealth, he decides that he wants to have sex with his past and future selves, including mass orgies with himselves from different time streams. Eventually, as he changes events in so many time streams he creates a female version of himself, with whom he has a child. It turns out to be a very powerful narrative of a man searching for self and meaning, not to mention coming to terms with his homoerotic desires, which in 1973 was an unusual move in a novel. I was once asked the five things I would do if I could go back in time, and indeed the two at the top of my list were to make more money for myself, and to bang myself.

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.

Fantasy Pick List

A fantasy pick list from me is almost pointless, because aside from one obscurity it’s all the classics. So in my commentary I try to explain why these retain greatness in a genre flooded with formula and hack. I’m not biased toward any sub-genre. Represented here is mythic fantasy, portal fantasy, political fantasy, pulp fantasy, science fantasy, and coming-of-age fantasy. But none of this is popular fantasy. If you like the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, the Kingkiller Chronicle, the tales of Drizzt, well, then this list isn’t for you.

See also my science fiction list.

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1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Christian readers have claimed that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo are Christ-figures, but they actually show the need for Christ as Tolkien saw it — noble and courageous, but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. That’s why Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.

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2. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-1983. Of the three chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, it depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a cross genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring, and it’s depressing as hell. The Wounded Land may well be the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree is even more mind-blowing, and it was an important milestone for me in my teen years. It turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit so that Linden can heal the Land. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.

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3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Vols 1-3), George R.R. Martin. 1996-2000. Lord Lard may have lost his mojo in the recent volumes, but the first three remain the best political fantasy you’ll ever read, and the third in particular, A Storm of Swords, moves like a juggernaut. It’s famous for the Red Wedding, but the entire novel is a roller coaster of brutal twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous two volumes, everything explodes, with the Others assaulting the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assaulting the Wall, and Jon going from renegade to lord commander while nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon who roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you hate to love, and it pays off the developments of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that are almost just as excellent.

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4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really is how our world began. The theme is the Fall, which shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. The battles of Beleriand are epic and I hope to see one or more of them filmed someday, especially Fingolfin’s single combat with Morgoth. His death demoralizes the elves for the rest of the age, as it does to me whenever I read it.

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5. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.

6. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. 1980-1983. Fans pour over this masterpiece like biblical exegetes do the letters of Paul. But really, I would advise not thinking about it so hard, at least not on first reading. Just take the story in. The narrative is immersive, the dialogue (which never flags) rich and organic, and Severian’s journey so phantasmagorical that you won’t want the spell broken by studying as you read. Severian ranks with anti-heroes like Covenant and Elric, a torturer exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, and then sent to a city far north to assume the role of a public executioner. It’s a task he takes on willingly, but his ambitions are divided when he allies himself with an insurrectionist, falls in love with a young girl he accidentally resurrected (with an artifact he needs to get rid of but can’t), and wants to make peace with a woman who keeps trying to kill him. His ultimate trial is for nothing less than a new sun to save the planet. Fans keep debating if this is fantasy or science fiction. On the one hand it’s set on our planet (“Urth”) a million years in the future, with guns and spaceships; but few can access the technology, and there are also enchanted relics. The magical elements, the regressed medieval culture, and the mystical nature of Severian’s quest align with fantasy more than science fiction — it’s really “science fantasy” — and spread over four volumes, it’s the best the sub-genre has ever offered.

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7. The Seven Altars of Dusarra, Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players.

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8. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. I’m not a huge Narnia fan let alone enjoy kids books, but I do love The Last Battle. It might seem odd to compare it to Stormbringer (#5) but it is about the world’s destruction, and for a children’s book it certainly doesn’t soft-peddle the apocalyptic horrors. Precious Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s cute little wayward animals are thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft — she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex. If all of this seems monstrous, that’s much the point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypses serve a hyper “justice” that redefines the word. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something never seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a cracking suspense piece, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious though in a very distressing way. Kids have been traumatized by this book and I’m not surprised.

The Best of Stephen King

In my coming of age years I read Stephen King religiously. Then two things happened: he began to change, and so did I. His change was for the worse, as I saw it; I was acquiring a taste for authors with more subdued writing styles. A lot of the King classics didn’t age well for me, and the new (post-Misery) stuff seemed twice as bad. But I kept reading him anyway. King was a part of me, for all his garrulous excesses, and I still respected his imagination. The upcoming It film prompted me to revisit his work and see what has aged well.

As I worked on this list, it struck me that Stephen King is at his best when he’s least like Stephen King — when he’s doing something different, or going outside his comfort zone. I’m sure many King fans will disagree with that, and with my rankings, not least my omissions of what are widely considered his finest works. I have always found The Stand (1978) to be way over-hyped. Many critics thought Duma Key (2008) was a return to form, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I did enjoy the time-traveling blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011) but was underwhelmed by the final act. Here are what I consider to be the jewels of the Stephen King canon.

[See also: Peter Straub Ranked.]

wizard and glass1. Wizard and Glass, 1997. 5 stars. The ’90s were the sewer of King’s career, but this one exception shines like a thousand suns. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love affair, and the tragedy that made him so hard and unforgiving. King said he was scared to write it: “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated.” He finally locked himself in motel rooms and tried as a 48-year old to capture what romantic love looks and feels like to those of age 17. I’m 48 myself now, and I still say with confidence that King nailed Roland and Susan on all the right notes. Wizard and Glass an incredibly well told story about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion and measurable characters. Rhea the witch-hag is one of King’s best creations of all time, but then so is Aunt Cordelia with her sanctimonious “thee’s” and “thou’s” — and for that matter everyone else in the Barony of Mejis. King shows us a dystopian world where everything is rushing to oblivion. It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and I wish the other Dark Tower books offered this quality of storytelling. The first one does (see #4 below); the second and third are okay; the fifth through seventh are garbage. Let the record state clearly that for all the problems of the series, it has its moments, and Wizard and Glass achieves a tragic greatness seldom reached by the most aspiring writers.

PetSematary2. Pet Sematary, 1983. 5 stars. King thought it was too scary to publish, and he eventually released it only to fulfill a contract obligation when he couldn’t finish another book on time. Think about that: a novel “too scary to publish”. Imagine if The Exorcist film had been shelved at the advice of those on the production team who thought it was too unspeakably obscene? And this gets to the root of my problem with King. When he finally nails it, he doubts himself. Pet Sematary is the perfect horror novel. The writing is incredibly disciplined, with no narrative fat or self-indulgent digressions; the story is told with surprisingly un-Kinglike economy. And it has room for profound reflections that either didn’t impress me or went over my head as a teenager. Now approaching 50, I’m rather shaken by Pet Sematary‘s themes of death and grief. Resurrection is a precious idea in our western heritage, and King gives it a truly terrifying twist. Pet animals come back to life when buried in this cemetery, but as sluggish and stupid versions of their former selves. Human corpses return as grotesque blasphemies who know and broadcast everyone’s most vulgar secrets. The novel’s point (which King didn’t like) is that “dead is better” than what lies beyond, but we’re powerless against our grief; it consumes us to the extent that we’ll do anything to get loved ones back no matter what’s lost in translation, and what takes its place. The death of Louis’ two-year old son and his unspeakable resurrection is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read, and King did right by his nihilistic conclusion.

3. ‘Salem’s Lot, 1975. 5 stars. After forty years ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of the best American novels. Every vampire tale after Dracula stands in its shadow. And unlike my other top five choices, this novel is “pure” Stephen King — the purist Stephen King book that was and ever shall be — written in his particular colloquial voice that has the power to engage and annoy. But it was his first novel (he started writing it before even Carrie), when he had himself under control, and so the style isn’t weighed down by the later self-indulgences. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot for the sixth or seventh time, I found myself marveling over its craft. Of all the undead — ghosts, zombies, mummies, etc. — the vampire is the best but hardest to do justice by. The aristocratic model is cliche, the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is silly, and the tragic Hamlet figures out of Anne Rice get old very fast. King showed how to take the creature seriously: keep it off-stage until at least halfway through; peripherally sight its lair, and let atmosphere do the work; make the creature mean — sadistic and vindictive. When Barlow finally appears, he drips menace in all the right shades of subtlety and blunt aggression. There are scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot that haven’t lost their capacity to terrorize, the number one for me being Matt Burke climbing the stairs at night, “the hardest thing he had done in his life”, holding on to his crucifix, looking down at the guest room slightly ajar, suspecting, knowing, the awfulness that has invaded his home.

the-gunslingers4. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 1982. 5 stars. Before it turned into a “Stephen King” franchise, Roland’s story was the most professional thing King ever wrote, and in my opinion deserves being classified as literature of enduring value. It was originally published in five parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, starting in the ’70s. King refused to release it as a novel, because he thought the story had limited appeal and wouldn’t please his mainstream readers. And here we go again, as with Pet Sematary. When King strikes gold by crafting the perfect novel against his own voice, he gets cold feet. Not only that, he later (in 2003) published an alternative version of the novel to align it with the later franchise — in other words, King-e-fying the voice, and, outrageously, changing things for the worse. George Lucas sanitized Han Solo by making Greedo fire first; King pulled his own Lucas by sanitizing Roland in the village of Tull. In the original, Roland cold-heartedly guns down his lover when she is seized by someone to be used as a human shield; she begs him not to kill her but he does so anyway before killing her captor (and then virtually everyone else in the town). In the revised version she has been driven mad and begs Roland to put her out of her misery. I’m flabbergasted when people like Lucas and King emasculate their own perfection. That’s a way of saying stick with the original Gunslinger. It’s a haunting quest across wastelands and scorched civilizations to make the world right again, a brilliantly meshed genre of post-apocalyptic, western, and fantasy. Then read Wizard and Glass (see #1) for Roland’s tragic backstory. You can ignore the rest of the series.

5. Mr. Mercedes & Finders Keepers, 2014-2015. 4 ½ stars. I didn’t think King had it in him to write mysteries, but the first two Bill Hodges novels proved me wrong. They’re his most disciplined works to date (even more than The Gunslinger, I think), and King admitted how difficult they were to write: “I just can’t fathom how people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson and Ruth Rendell are able to do this in book after book.” It’s just too bad King was unable to keep this up to the end of his trilogy: he ruined the third book, End of Watch, by resurrecting the Mercedes killer and falling back into his supernatural comfort zone. Had he stayed in genre, the trilogy could have ended up a masterpiece. Throughout Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers (they’re equally good), King keeps his plot tense and reverses expectations to extremely good effect. Each novel opens in 2009, with the recession at its worst; a job fair is about to be held at a sports stadium, where hordes of the unemployed line up in a queue; dawn breaks, and a Mercedes car barrels out of the fog into the crowd, killing eight people and wounding fifteen. Each novel then follows the plot of different characters who were present at the slaughter, with retired detective Bill Hodges and his friends getting tangled in both. Some of the best scenes involve the Mercedes Killer and Hodges chatting in a private online forum, engaged in a deadly game of verbal chess, and the killer getting so incensed at Hodges’ taunts that it takes him five minutes to type a single-sentence reply because his hands are shaking so badly. I couldn’t put either of these books down, and it’s a long time since I’ve been able to say that about Stephen King.

talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. The critics blasted this, and even after thirty years I can’t make sense of it. King teamed up with my favorite author to write a splendid epic about a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College in Iowa, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of the midwest, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, but the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise grand epic. The sequel is Black House (2001), which doesn’t make this cut though I’d probably put it at #11. Objectively it’s better than It but I couldn’t bring myself to omit that one. (The writing on display in Black House is even better than that in The Talisman; the plot is an ultimate let-down for involving the problematic world of King’s Dark Tower series, when these books should be about the Territories only.) Don’t listen to the critics; The Talisman is excellent and for the most part has aged really well.

misery7. Misery, 1987. 4 ½ stars. The last novel of the “classic King” era is one of his best, and involves only two characters in a single setting. It’s possibly the best bottle drama I’ve read in a work of fiction, and it’s too bad that when King tried this sort of thing again in Gerald’s Game, the result was nothing but pages of waste. Misery is top-notch suspense all the way through, about a psychotic woman who has rescued a wounded man who happens to be her favorite author, and then forces him to write the sequel novel he never intended. Along the way, she alternates between smothering him with fan-affection and cutting off pieces of him when he displeases her. The novel examines dependency — the way writers depend on fans, as they depend on him, and also drug dependency, as Paul is fed pain killers by his psycho-fan. It’s also a fascinating (and rather transparent) look at the way an author’s mind works when trying to overcome writer’s block and undo his literary mistakes without cheating the reader. Authors are at their best when they write from experience, and in Misery King exploits everything his fame, drug addictions, and writing challenges have done to him. It’s a special novel that was universally praised by the critics, and as I said it marked the end of period of King’s towering greatness, following his longest and most ambitious book It (1986), then followed by one of his longest (and by far his shittiest) book ever The Tommyknockers (1988). I’d be immensely proud if I could ever do so much in short space like Misery.

8. The Shining, 1977. 4 ½ stars. Let me dispel all doubts as to where I stand in relation to Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s is the masterpiece, and King is a fool for his life-long career of blasting it. His corrective version for TV proved that even more: it was faithful to his book, yes, but horrible because of it. This is what novel purists and authors like King don’t get. The worst screen adaptations are often the “faithful” ones — the ones that avoid creative interpretation. Literal adaptations hang on every element of the text, with the result that it fails to become a film in its own right and forces the unforceable into a new medium. Only in rare cases is a novel tailor-made for a film (The Exorcist, The Road, for examples). The Shining cries for all sorts of changes, and yet King just spat it back like a stage play. Audiences deserve better, and Kubrick delivered a piece of artistry beyond criticism. King couldn’t see that because he could only see what was lost in his own precious vision. That’s what happens, Mr. King, in a good adaptation: some things are lost, and better things take their place. Jack Torrance’s psychological dysfunction and inner turmoils work well on the page where you can inside someone’s head; a film demands something different. Kubrick did what any great filmmaker aspires to, and if not for The Exorcist his adaptation would stand as the greatest horror film of all time. All of that said, the novel is obviously excellent. But if I had to choose between losing the novel or Kubrick’s film in a trip to the moon, I’d lose the novel. Kubrick outdid King, and I think the knowledge of this is what really, privately, sticks in Stephen King’s craw.

The+Dead+Zone+[front+cover]9. The Dead Zone, 1979. 4 stars. King thought this was his best novel until he wrote Lisey’s Story (2006), and this is how he described it long ago: “The best I’ve done so far is The Dead Zone because it’s a real novel. It’s very complex. There’s an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels.” I see what he was getting at. In college I recommended The Dead Zone to a friend who wasn’t a horror fan but wanted to read a Stephen King novel to see what all the hype was about this author. This novel came to mind without hesitation. It was King’s first number one bestseller on both hardcover and paperback lists, and it took an exceptional risk of making the protagonist an assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald. Granted the political target is more like Donald Trump than JFK, a killer is still a killer. On top of that, Johnny Smith is a failure. For all his diligent planning, he botches his assassination attempt and dies for it, to be remembered as a crackpot who couldn’t even succeed when he had the upper hand. I will say that The Dead Zone resonates in spades under a Trump presidency and is worth reading (or rereading) for that reason alone. And I repeat my earlier advice to anyone today who has never read Stephen King but wants a taste of what makes him so good without the more terrifying brutalities of Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, and The Shining. Make The Dead Zone your point of entry.

10. It, 1986. 4 stars. It may be the quintessential Stephen King novel, but that speaks against it as much as for. The excesses of King’s writing style are at their most unrestrained here; he shouts at the reader, and digresses from digressions; he’s all over the map. And the formula of sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces, with points of view diluted across multiple characters hasn’t aged well for me. (‘Salem’s Lot still works, but that’s the exception.) The loser kids are too good to be true: they speak in ways that sound contrived, and even some of the dialogue given to adult characters isn’t convincing. But I can’t possibly leave this book off my list. It was a milestone for me for its examination of childhood fears and innocent beliefs which make anything possible. The story is set simultaneously in 1958 and 1985, and I have to admit the way King segues from one period to another, often mid-sentence, is an effective narrative device. The novel contains King’s most controversial scene of the six boys gang-banging Beverly (they’re all 11 years old). Not only is it an extremely well-written scene, it’s the heart of the book, and I’m enraged that the upcoming film by Andrés Muschietti won’t have it. After battling It in the sewers, Beverly invites her friends to bang her in a quasi-mystical ritual, and that orgy represents many important things, not least the kids’ first stage on the road to losing the power of their childhood and becoming learned but lesser adults.

Stan Uris and the Sewer Orgy in Stephen King’s It

It has long puzzled fans of the novel It why Stan Uris is the only one who kills himself when his childhood memories come flooding back. The other six kids’ encounters with It were as bad as Stan’s, and they weren’t driven to suicide. Something in particular pushed Stan over the edge, but the novel doesn’t explain what. Fans of the novel have tried:

(1) The usual answer is that Stan is the most skeptical member of the Club, relying on logic and reason more than anyone, and is the least of the seven willing to accept that It actually exists. Thus he was too emotionally fragile to face It a second time.

(2) However, it is also implied that Stan was the only one who had somehow become aware that It was female (and pregnant), something that Bill, Richie, and Ben learn in their second encounter with It as adults. Thus Stan chose death over returning to Derry to face the ancient terror that could lay eggs and multiply its terror a thousandfold.

The first suggestion is likely true, but if the second is also true, then it raises an interesting point about the sewer orgy. Stan would have probably freaked out over the idea of gang-banging “Queen” Beverly. She would have come across as a grotesque parody of It, orchestrating her own sex-rite down in Derry’s sewers, and in a mystical orgy that defies the sense and reason he holds precious. Beverly’s seduction of him would have probably amounted to a rape, and a more traumatic one than Eddie’s and the others’.

Many readers seem unaware that what Beverly is doing in the sewer orgy amounts to rape, but the text makes it pretty clear that it is, as I will show below. I’m not saying Beverly is a monster by any means. Eleven-year old kids aren’t accountable in the way adults and even teenagers are. She is actually easy to empathize with when she dominates the boys, because what she is ultimately doing is reclaiming something from an abusive father — her sense of self that her father diminished. Granted she is doing this at the expense of someone like Eddie, but even if she is wrong, it is the sort of wrong that should be weighed according to how we judge young kids who aren’t yet wise in the ways of the world.

Here is the text describing the first orgy act, with Eddie. My notes in bold follow the non-consensual elements.

Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him in the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.

“What do you want?” he asks her.

“You have to put your thing in me,” she says.

He tries to pull back but she holds him [using force] and he subsides against her. She has heard someone — Ben, she thinks — draw in his breath.

“Bevvie, I can’t do that. I don’t know how –“

“I think it’s easy. But you’ll have to get undressed.” She thinks about the intricacies of managing cast and shirt, first somehow separating and then rejoining them, and amends, “Your pants, anyway.”

“No, I can’t!” [“No” means “no”.]  But she thinks part of him can, and wants to, because his trembling has stopped and she feels something small and hard which presses against the right side of her belly. [Rapists justify themselves this way when victims are betrayed by their bodies. Eddie’s body is saying yes, but his mind is saying no.]

“You can,” she says, and pulls him down. [The rape is now in session.] The surface beneath her bare back and legs is firm, clayey, dry. The distant thunder of the water is drowsy, soothing. She reaches for him. There is a moment when her father intervenes, harsh and forbidding, and then she closes her arms around Eddie’s neck, her smooth cheek against his smooth cheek, and as he tentatively touches her small breasts she sighs and thinks for the first time, This is Eddie, and she remembers a day in July — could it only have been last month? — when no one else turned up in the Barrens but Eddie, and he had a whole bunch of little Lulu comic books and they read together for most of the afternoon, Little Lulu looking for beebleberries and getting in all sorts of crazy situations. It had been fun.

She thinks of birds; in particular of the grackles and starlings and crows that come back in the spring, and her hands go to his belt and loosen it, and he says again that he can’t do that; she tells him that he can [again overriding his protests], she knows he can, and what she feels is not shame or fear now but a kind of triumph. [Some might see this as a shameless rapist reveling in her conquest.]

“Where?” he says, and that hard thing pushes urgently against her inner thigh.

“Here,” she says.

“Bevvie, I’ll fall on you!” he says, and she hears his breath start to whistle painfully.

“I think that’s sort of the idea,” she tells him and holds him gently and guides him. He pushes forward too fast and there is pain.

Ssssss! — she draws her breath in, her teeth biting at her lower lip and thinks of all the birds again, the spring birds, lining the roofpeaks of houses, taking wing all at once under low March clouds.

“Beverly?” he says uncertainly. “Are you okay?”

“Go slower,” she says. “It’ll be easier for you to breathe.” He does move more slowly, and after a while his breathing speeds up but she understands this is not because there is anything wrong with him.

The pain fades. Suddenly he moves more quickly, then stops, stiffens, and makes a sound — some sound. She senses that this is something for him, something extraordinarily, special, something like… like flying. She feels powerful: she feels a sense of triumph rise up strongly within her. [Reveling in her dominance.] Is this what her father was afraid of? Well he might be! There was power in this act, all right, a chain-breaking power that was blood-deep. She feels no physical pleasure, but there is a kind of mental ecstasy in it for her. [Confirming what specialists say: that for a rapist it’s the display of power, more than any physical pleasure, that gratifies and excites.] She senses the closeness. He puts his face against her neck and she holds him. He is crying. [He could be traumatized.] She holds him. And feels the part of him that made a connection between them begin to fade. It is not leaving her exactly; it is simply fading, becoming less.

When his weight shifts away she sits up and touches his face in the darkness.

“Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Whatever it is. I don’t know, exactly.”

He shakes his head — she feels it with her hand against his cheek.

“I don’t think it was exactly like… you know, like the big boys say.  But it was… it was really something.” He speaks low, so the others can’t hear. “I love you, Bevvie.”

Her consciousness breaks down a little there. She’s quite sure there’s more talk some whispered, some loud, and can’t remember what is said. It doesn’t matter. Does she have to talk each of them into it all over again? Yes, probably. But it doesn’t matter. They have to be talked into it, this essential human link between the world and the infinite, the only place where the bloodstream touches eternity. It doesn’t matter. What matters is love and desire. Here in this dark is as good a place as any. Better than some, maybe.

It’s a very well written scene, and again, in the context of the novel, Beverly’s thrills of triumph and dominance are more aimed at “getting back” at her horrible father than degrading any of the boys whom she considers her best friends. Eddie might not see it that way, of course, though he seems to have pulled through okay.

After Eddie, Beverly has sex with the other five boys — Mike, Richie, Stan, Ben, and Bill in that order. King skips over descriptions of Mike, Richie, and Stan (covering all three of them in a couple paragraphs), and describes the last two boys, Ben and Bill, with elaborate detail like Eddie. With Ben it begins as a rape, where like Eddie he protests but is overruled and compelled against his will. But halfway through it turns consensual — right after “power” shifts from Beverly to Ben (“She feels her power suddenly shift to him; she gives it gladly and goes with it.”) With Bill, the group-leader, the sex is consensual from start to finish.

It would have been interesting if King had written elaborate orgy scenes for the other three boys, especially Stan, who I can only imagine would have strongly resisted Beverly’s intentions. Who knows, it might have shed light on his suicide.

Dragons and their Riders: The Rape-Premise of Mating Flights in Pern

dragons-mateI’m rereading the Dragonriders of Pern and realize that I’d forgotten some of the details about the telepathic bonds between dragons and their riders. I remembered that the dragons communicate fluently in human language but only telepathically, and only with the rider they bonded with after hatching. And also that they can teleport instantly over long distances that would otherwise take days or weeks of flight, which allows them to burn Thread out of the sky in many places at once. And that they can time travel — though that’s extremely dangerous.

I also vaguely remembered the way the dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons: The riders of the mating pair are overcome with sexual desire for each other, often against their will, sometimes hardly aware of what they’re doing. When it’s bronze on gold, it’s rather “standard” because gold dragons are queens, bronzes are males, the gold dragonrider is always a woman, and the bronze rider a male. But when it comes to the “lesser colors” — browns or blues mating with greens — it’s a bit murky and only hinted at in the early novels. Green dragons are females like the golds, but their riders are male. (The only female dragonrider is the one who rides the gold queen.) Which means that the human riders of the green dragons succumb to homosexual sex with the other dragonrider (regardless of their actual orientation) when their green dragon is being mated by a brown or blue. I’d missed this before, because it’s hardly evident. Green and blue dragonriders are regulated to lesser background characters, and I suspect that McCaffrey didn’t want to underscore the theme of homo-eroticism in any case. Back in my day homophobia was pretty strong.

The way it works is this. In the communities of dragonriders (the weyrs), it’s understood and accepted that sex during mating flights is not an option. Anne McCaffrey has said, “the dragon decides, the rider complies.” Dragons mate when they need to, irrespective of their riders’ wishes or sexual orientation, and the riders are overcome by urges they can’t physically control. In other words, the dragon-mating ritual is based on a rape premise (for the human riders), albeit one that is socially accepted. There is “consent” of sorts, in advance, but most people today would consider this the equivalent of something like marital rape.

pernese_dragon_sizes_by_sporelettMcCaffrey has also said that when they hatch, the dragons at least try to bond with a rider of “appropriate” orientation. So in other words, green dragons (which are female) will at least try to bond with a gay man. Blue dragons (which are male, but mate only with greens, never golds) try to bond with gay or bisexual men. Brown dragons (which are male, and usually mate with greens, but sometimes golds if they are big enough) try to bond with heterosexual or bisexual men. Bronze dragons (males) bond exclusively with heterosexual men, and the gold dragon (the queen) bonds exclusively with heterosexual women.

As she wrote more books for the series, McCaffrey fleshed out the history of why green dragons choose male riders. Originally that wasn’t the case. Green dragons used to bond mostly with females, until the practice was stopped because of the way dragon teleporting induces miscarriage in human riders — i.e. fetuses in the human womb can’t handle the “between” interval in teleporting. Given that green dragons are 50% the dragon population (blues are 30%, browns are 15%, bronzes 5%, and there is one gold per weyr), that’s half the fighting force required to burn Thread out of the sky. So the green dragons began bonding with males instead — gay if possible to make the mating rituals more tolerable.

I find all of this to be more fascinating than I remember as a kid, probably because at the age of 11 or 12, most of the character psychology, sexual tensions, and other adult themes went over my head. Let it not be said that homosexuality isn’t present in any classic fantasies from the 60s and 70s. And if at least 50% of the dragonriders are gay/bisexual, that’s not even a minority!