Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Warbles and Bots: Out of the Hive


What happens to humanity when it "adjusts" to hive living? 

Some writers write to earn a living. Others write because they've got to get something out of their system. When it comes to science fiction, I've learned to be leery of successful commercial writers. Not because they're bad, necessarily, but because I'm almost sure to be bored by them. My favorite authors tend to be the ones who wrote themselves out fairly quickly, expending their visions in an explosive spurt, leaving behind rich mines for more conventional writers to exploit. Their work might be naive or outre, but to me that's just part of their charm.

It was a different time. A time when sci-fi
still brought terror, wonder, and arresting
strangeness to the reader. A time when a
publishing company could proudly decorate
its books with Magritte-esque parades of

schlubby naked nebishes, and people would,
apparently, still buy them.
I'd say that Thomas J. Bassler, M.D., who wrote under the pen name T. J. Bass, sits squarely in that category. I was recently reminded of his work by Fletcher Vredenburgh's review of Half Past Human over at Black Gate. I'd never that novel before, but I had enjoyed The Godwhale a long time ago.

Bass's career spanned only six years, lasting from 1968, when he sold his first story, until 1974, when The Godwhale was published. He wrote only the two novels I've mentioned. Both take place in a far-future earth in which the vast majority of humankind's teeming trillions live in a global subterranean society called the Hive. I can't really compete with Fletcher's review, which I think captures the spirit of the books perfectly, and I urge the reader to go take a look at that if interested. Instead, as usual, I'll just natter on about what strikes me about them.

Part of what makes Bass unique / bizarre is his habit of describing everything, from sex to warfare, in medical terms.
When he flashed his helmet light down, vertigo gripped his cardio-esophageal junction. (Half Past Human, p. 96)
Perhaps this is just a reflection of his day job, but it has the effect of making his characters seem like rats in a gigantic, not-very-ethical experiment. Overall, Bass writes with the air of a physician conducting the examination of a patient, gently squeezing pustules and prodding necrotic tissues with a cool detachment. His outlook isn't grim or moralistic, and the weird, disgusting scenes he describes are often quietly amusing as well. In general, Bass isn't so much sounding an alarm as saying, more or less cheerfully, "Hey! Let's see what happens if we extrapolate this trend in our society!" Which, in a way, ends up being much more disturbing than the hysteria of other entries in eco-science fiction.

It's hard to select a favorite passage. Many stand out in one way or another. So let's just look at the scene quoted above, in which a Hive inhabitant goes "ratting" in the dark, dusty world of 'tween walls, hoping to score some extra "flavored calories."
He dust-waded along the top of a large pipe. It was hollow. Voices and and shuffling vibrated. It was a crawlway. The larger rats became more numerous – and bolder. They remained stubbornly in his path until he nudged them with his toe. They wouldn't be too tasty. The sweet stink of the nests hit him. Moist and dripping, the huge cool sphere of the membrane filters loomed ahead. The city's sweat condensed and trickled down the sphere's outer sphere – providing drops of drinking water for the rodents. [...]
Selecting a large nest he thrust in his hand. Expecting mother-with-food, the soft young rats swarmed onto the glove. He pulled out three handfulls and squeezed them through the sphincter of the anoxic bag. Their squirming and squeaking ceased. (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The hunter goes on to have his catch pressed into moist wafers. He shares them with a friend, who savors "the salty fluids, tangy viscera, and iron-rich muscle and blood" (HPH, p. 99). They go on to discuss his friend's devotion to Dabbing ("'Dirt, adobe, and bamboo – DAB'"), a stress-reducing quasi-religious practice.
"The most important thing [...] DAB protects you from is suicide. That is the number one killer. Inappropriate Activity – old I.A. Without DAB your ectodermal debris sensitizes you. All your skin scales, hair and skin oils get into the house dust and feed the mite, Dermatophagoides. The mite acquires ectodermal protein antigens. As you live with the mite and breath [sic] in dust – mite fragments – you build up antibodies against them. Antibodies against your own ectodermal antigens. When the titre gets high enough the antibody cross reacts with your own neuroectoderm – your brain. Hence the logarithmic correlation between crowding and I.A. Between house dust sensitivity and suicide. Humans who nest with rugs, drapes and stuffed furniture have the highest suicide rate. Humans who live with dirt, adobe and bamboo the lowest." (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The "erotic" scenes retain a certain tenderness, despite being described in the same oddly technical terms.
"I am going to enjoy living with a man who is good with his hands," she said. Taking his wrists she moved his trembling hands over her tunic. Her soft erogenous zones radiated warmly. His autonomic synapses struggled with the increasing excitement. Passion flared somewhat erratically, and then, abruptly, faded. While he stood there, the heat in his loins faded away – leaving fatigue. [...]
"You have just recently polarized," she consoled. "Your meld reflexes need time to synchronize. We will work on it, and it will improve." (Half Past Human, p. 18)
Half Past Human takes place in and above the Hive's vast subterranean network of shafts, tubes, and cubicles, following the intersecting lives of large class of characters: artificially prepubescent nebishes, polarized males and females, paleolithic warriors and wizards, ageless wanderers, earnest mecks, and, of course, G.I.T.A.R. and Olga. The Godwhale, on the other hand, takes place mostly in the ocean. The main character, if it has one, is Rorqual Maru, a lone cyborg whale-ship plankton harvester bent on aiding humanity.

But the story begins much earlier in time, following the adventures of the hapless hemihuman Larry Dever, who starts his career by getting cut in half in a singularly stupid accident. Thanks to medical advances, he doesn't die, but his quality of life isn't what it was.
Larry turned on his refresher and grasped a ceiling rung of his horizontal ladder. The mannequin walked away slowly, pulling flexible tubing out of his various surgical stoma. Sucking  sounds. Drops of urine and feces soiled the meck's breastplates with yellow and granular brown. Larry progressed across the monkey bars to the hot shower, where he emptied his visceral sacs down the drain. (The Godwhale, p. 23)
Life isn't so pleasant for Larry without his lower half, despite his talking prosthesis.
"This is great! It feels like I am really running. It's the lactate you're putting in my Blood Scrubber. Now if you can just give me back my sex life."
Mannequin shared and updated with distant Library. "That too can be arranged; a mechanical penis for me and midbrain electrodes for you. Meck sex can be pleasant with a wired reticular system."
Larry grinned, assuming that he was the object of a very funny robot joke. (The Godwhale, p. 16)
Larry eventually enters suspended animation, hoping for a future "cure" that doesn't involve raising and harvesting a clone of himself. He awakens instead in the decidedly unpleasant world of the Hive. He escapes, coming into contact with Rorqual Maru, a spunky little meck named Trilobite, and a race of humans adapted to life underwater, teaming up with his latter-day genetic progeny: a gargoyle Tweenwaller named Big Har, and a bio-engineered superman known as A.R.N.O.L.D. (Augmented Renal Nucleus Of Larry Dever) who becomes King of the ocean and sometimes thinks of himself as a chicken.
"BACK OFF!!" shouted ARNOLD, riled to the point of hearing "cluck, cluck" in his subconscious. (The Godwhale, p. 167)
I read The Godwhale back when I was in college. Then I went to grad school and purged my shelves of such oddities. But now it's back. Rereading it has been a bit strange, because I'm realizing that I must have internalized more of it than I'd thought. Taken together, Half Past Human and The Godwhale amount to the most bizarre, disgusting, wonderful stuff I've read in quite a while.
A hundred miles up-sump the sewer conduits sang with pneumatic belches of dead city gases: incoles, skatoles, methane, ozone, and carbon monoxide. [...] 
Their mold-flecked dinghy drifted sideways, its bow wedged into a raft of nondescript, floating debris. Hemihuman Larry hunkered down, swatting flies. The blackness and echoes told them nothing. Their progress was marked by aerial mycelia which swept across the boat's wet ribs and snagged in their hair. Persistent swarms of sucking botflies hovered over them. Their throbbing backs sponged-out with bots and warbles – the cutaneous abscesses that contained the vigorous fly larvae. 
"The damned itching is getting worse," complained Larry. "A new crop must be maturing." He wiped his hand across his scaly, lumpy back, breaking open pus pockets and catching the wriggling, bristly maggots as they emerged. "Damn!" He rubbed at the pasty crusts of pupa cases, wings, legs, and dermal scales. (The Godwhale, p. 78)
They're both a bit hard to follow, partly because they bristle (sorry, bad word choice) with technical terms, but partly also because the action jumps around a lot, leaping across years in fits and starts, hopping from character to character without any kind of clear direction. But, that comes with the territory. And they certainly don't shy away from questions of human sexuality, bioethics, philosophy, and religion, posing quandaries without providing solutions. What is humanity? What is the individual's meaning and worth? You could say that the books are a prolonged and poignant evocation of the anxiety of anonymous, post-religious Man and the terrifying, faceless masses that surround him.

The little I can find about T. J. Bass himself raises more questions than it answers. Who was he, really? What was he trying to do with these novels? Did he accomplish it? How did his writing fit in with the rest of his life? He died in 2011, having written nothing else but a diet and exercise book, and that was in 1979. That's a long time ago! Did he try and fail to get published again? Or did he just move on with his life? For that matter, can you imagine a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or physician in our own time, with little or no experience in fiction, penning an eccentric novel laden with precise technical knowledge and actually getting it published? Such a thing would be relegated to an online discussion board somewhere, to be skimmed by a few people and then forgotten.

Times have changed.

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