Update: Well, pooh; I wasn’t supposed to post till tomorrow; but then I hit the wrong button. Duh.
Anyway, we’re doing a roundtable on Fandom Confessions — embarrassing things we liked back when. Other folks will be posting through the week.
For a while there, Jack L. Chalker was probably my favorite sci-fi writer — maybe even my favorite writer, in some sense. I probably had…oh, lord, maybe 20 of his novels? Maybe more? I had the Four Lords of the Diamond series (4 books); the Well of Souls series (5 or 6 books); the River of the Dancing Gods series (3 books); the Changewinds Series (2); the Soul Rider series (5 or 6 books)…and there was another 4 book series I can’t remember the name of. Oh, yeah, and the two-book Shadow Dancer series. And a bunch of stand alone novels. So, yeah, more like 30 novels plus. I read most of them multiple times, too.
So what was the appeal, you ask? Chalker was a decent enough writer and plotter, with a fertile imagination. The Four Lords of the Diamond, series, for example, featured a single assassin whose mind was placed into four different bodies (one per novel) to kill the rulers of four different planets. The Well of Souls was about a single world divided into a bunch of individual (and I think for some reason hexagon shaped) territories, each of which was controlled by a different species, and often had different climates, different natural laws, etc. So, you know. It was kind of clever. Sort of. Right?
Whether or no, that was hardly the point. The point was…how to put this? Kink. The point was kink. Chalker was obsessed — literally — with sexualized mind-control, body-alteration, body-swapping, gender-swapping; pretty much the works. In the Four Lords of the Diamond series I mentioned above, for example, there’s an entire planet where people can swap bodies just by sleeping near each other for the night. The Well of Souls series features a computer that can alter reality, giving some of the characters tails, turning others into perfect sex slaves — that sort of thing. That’s nothing to the Soul Rider series, though, which includes bushels of magicians all transforming each other in spectacularly perverse fashion. In the first volume, one guy has his penis cut off; sometime later it’s magically grafted onto the privates of his girlfriend. Later, several women have male members magically placed in their throats (they poke out of the mouth when aroused. This makes conversation difficult, as you’d imagine, so the women are fitted with magic voice-boxes to allow them to speak.) And, yeah, there’s plenty of semi-explicit sex as well. Much of it involving mind-control of some sort.
So… I don’t know that I can very convincingly disavow my investment in these novels. Certainly, these are kinks I’m still interested in, in various senses. In writing about fecund horror or about women in prison movies or about Marston’s Wonder Woman, I’m still thinking about the kind of relationship between fetish, gender, control, and perversion which fascinated me in Chalker’s writing.
On the other hand, I’d have to say that I do think, at this point, that Chalker has a lot less to offer than Marston, or than Jack Hill, or than horror creators like David Cronenberg or online erotic horror writer Tabico. All of those folks, in various ways, acknowledge their personal stake in their fetish, while at the same time connecting the fetish to politics, to utopias, or to gender and feminism. The fetishes, in other words, open in and out at the same time; self and society mirror, conceal, or reveal each other. For Marston, submission is both a personal turn-on and the key to a more loving, more peaceful, female-ruled world; for Tabico, the annihilation of personality is both a kink and a vision of an apocalyptic annihilation of social taboos and (effectively) of gender; for Jack Hll, women in prison is both a feminist metaphor and an exploitation fantasy.
All of these artists are able to move back and forth between metaphor and kink, self and universal, in part through their use (more or less deliberate) of Freud, or of a milieu that accepts part of what Freud did. I have pretty mixed feelings about Freud myself…certainly, were I ever to see a therapist, I would not seek out a Freudian. I think overall that Freud was more an artist than a physician — which is why he tends to be a useful thinker for artists. For Freud, individual drives and desires were transposed onto more universal narratives. Freud had a belief — perhaps a faith — that one person’s obsessions had meaning. For Freud, narrative and character matter. It is narrative and character which link isolated dreams to universal myth. And when you read Marston, or Tabico, or watch Cronenberg or HIll, you do get the sense of both dream and myth; of narratives and characters that shimmer between personal fantasy and archetype. I guess this is most obvious in Marston’s Wonder Woman, with its gestures towards the same body of Greek myths that fascinated Freud.
Chalker very deliberately rejects all that, though. He’s not a Freudian; he’s a behaviorist. His books insist, over and over, on the maleability of human nature, and on the primacy of body over mind. The Four Lords of the Diamonds series, where the assassin’s mind gets placed in four different bodies — the ultimate point of that series is that the bodies win. The assassin, separated from his original body, subject to a different set of hormones, a different balance of brain chemicals, and a different set of experiences, becomes a different person. Chalker’s novels feel less like dreams, and more like experiments…or the hectoring arguments of some know-it-all pseudo-expert. Desire, personality, identity…for Chalker they don’t exist. It’s all just chemical reactions and deteministic happenstance. His own fetishization of control is just….
Well, that’s the thing. What is it? It’s clear why this kind of obsessive behaviorism would appeal to someone with a control fetish. You can make anyone do anything with a few chemicals and a little conditioning? Awesome! But when you start pushing a little, and wondering what’s so exciting about the control in the first place — well, Chalker doesn’t have much of anything to offer except a facile cynicism. “People suck, everyone wants to be a dictator” seems to be his philosophy, more or less…which, of course, elides the fact that it’s not everyone, or not just everyone, but him in particular who is obsessed with control.
Chalker’s books, in short, come across as deeply duplicitous. As a hard-core (ahem) materialist, his philosophy doesn’t really have a space for fantasy. But what he’s doing, obsessively, is fantasizing. The contradiction closes the novels off. Instead of weird, apocalyptic/utopian dream visions which open onto the mind of the author and the dreams of the reader, the books just sort of sit there in a self-satisfied oblivion of irrelevant crankery. The characters have philosophical and political debates (“is it okay to make someone a sex slave as long as they’re happy about it?” is a favorite theme) but they seem to mostly miss the main point (like, perhaps, “why are we, writer and reader, so eager to talk about sex slaves in the first place?”) There’s something of the neo-con about him; he’s always claiming to be facing up to the grim realities no one else will acknowledge, while simultaneously spinning out the most preposterous and transparent delusions.
Perhaps that explains, in part, my own relationship with Chalker’s novels. As I said, I read book after book, and I certainly knew why I was reading them…and yet, at the same time, I didn’t. I am, and was, a very verbal person, but I don’t think I ever, quite, articulated Chalker’s appeal, either to myself or to anybody else. With Chalker, I never had the exhilarated desire to explicate that I did after, say, seeing Cronenberg’s “Shivers”, or reading Tabico’s “Adaptation,” or reading Marston’s “Wonder Woman.” Part of that was no doubt being younger and generally less comfortable with sexuality. But part of it was that while Chalker’s books certainly had kink, they didn’t have any context for that kink, or any language in which to talk about it. As a result, he didn’t really point anywhere. When I saw “Shivers” I didn’t think — “hey, this is what Jack L. Chalker was talking about!” — and indeed, I don’t know that my reaction to Shivers, or Marston, or anything would have been especially different if I’d never read Chalker at all. I continue to have affection for his work, but considering how much of his prose I consumed, it’s amazing how little I seem to have gotten from it.
Just in case that wasn’t sufficiently humiliating, I should add that my all-time most dubious aesthetic faux pas was probably Billy Joel, with whom I was obsessed through much of high school and college. I had all the albums memorized; and even went to see him in concert. And yes, I was moved by the heartfelt rendition of Piano Man.
We shall not speak of it again.