[Sep. 21, 1960] If you can’t beat em… (Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X)

Ted Sturgeon wrote a book about sex.

It appears that Sturgeon has always wanted to write “a decent book about sex,”–how it affects our society, not the act itself.  At least, that’s what Sturgeon says in the post-script of his strange new novel, Venus Plus X.  Well, it is a decent book (pun intended), and Sturgeon has a lot to say about sex and the relations of the genders in its 160 pages.  Some of it is told, some of it is shown; the end result is a fiction-buffered sermon not unlike the kind Heinlein likes to concoct. 

First, a Cook’s tour of the plot.  Venus is really two concurrent stories.  The “A plot” involves Charlie Johns, a bit of a lover, a bit of a loser, snatched from present-day America by a band of futuristic hermaphrodites called Ledom.  These are not aliens, mind you–just a new variety of genderless humanity.  His kidnappers ostensibly have the most benign of intentions for Johns.  They simply want him to observe their society and give his opinions; whereupon, he can return whence he came.

Ledom (the place and the people share a name) is a technological wonderland.  The Ledom obtain limitless power from the “A-field,” which generates energy from a matter-antimatter reaction, the antimatter being (tautologically) generated by the A-field.  This makes possible structures built in the shape of cornucopias balanced on their points.  Food is abundant, delicious, and perfectly tailored.  Transportation is as instant as one would like.  Most importantly, the lands of the Ledom are completely shielded from the outside world.  It is always sunny in Ledom, and no harmful elements can intrude.

This seeming paradise is also sociologically perfect.  There is no War between the Sexes.  Indeed, there is no violence at all.  Mating is completely consensual and pleasurable, but it is not the driving force nor the pinnacle expression of love for the Ledom.  Children are raised in common, and all are taught to eke a living from the soil, even in the presence of the bounty made possible by the A-field.  Thanks to the other great Ledom invention, the “cerebrostyle,” education can be implanted directly in a Ledom’s mind.  This frees people to pursue the careers for which they feel most suited.

Sturgeon gives each episode of Johns’ journey loving, perhaps overindulgent, attention.  The clothes, the food, the buildings, the pottery, the incessant singing of the children, the worship of the children by the adults (the only kind of religion in which the Ledom indulge), all get pages of description.  The impression one is left with, that one is supposed to be left with, is that through the elimination of gender and by learning from humanity’s mistakes, the Ledom have created Heaven on Earth.

As counterpoint, Sturgeon gives us the “B plot,” which appears in vignettes alternating regularly with the pieces of Johns’ story.  Told in the present tense to further stress its otherness, it is a slice-of-life portrayal of two families living next door to each other in near-future suburbia.  In this thread, Sturgeon points out two concurrent trends: the increasing convergence of male and female roles, and the reactionary reinforcement of “traditional” gender identities.  In the former, we see the genesis of the Ledom; in the latter, we see the strife the Ledom have apparently avoided.

Also highlighted are our (1960s American) hang-ups regarding the physical act of sex.  Again, the Ledom have avoided them, but at a price you and I might be unwilling to pay. 

In presenting the book as I have, theme-first, if you will, it must sound frightfully dull.  Well, it is, in some parts.  Even Sturgeon’s unquestioned gift for the written word cannot completely sugar-coat this horse pill of sociology.  The great mystery driving the story (and one is mostly aware of it thanks to the dramatic blurb on the back of the book) is only revealed and then quickly resolved near the end.  As a result, there isn’t a lot of a plot to the story, nor much build-up. 

That said, the questions posed are fascinating, and if the reader doesn’t leave with profound insights on gender relations, s/he will at least come away with profound insights on Ted Sturgeon. 

Three and a half stars. 

Note: The title of the story is derived from a passage in the book.  At one point, Johns wonders how to represent the gender of the androgynous Ledom: “They used to use the astronomical symbols for Mars and Venus for male and female…What in hell would they use for these?  Mars plus y?  Venus plus x?”

This pedant thinks it makes more sense to say “Mars plus x, Venus plus y” (after the sex-determining chromosome).  Perhaps “Venus Plus Y” was a less appealing title.

Note 2: The book can also be purchased here

10 thoughts on “[Sep. 21, 1960] If you can’t beat em… (Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X)”

    1. Actually, I was particularly thinking of how both men start from the assumption that the modern US is the one and only human culture.  Though I do feel even the style and content is more Heinleinian than some of Sturgeon’s shorter fiction.

      Thanks for this interesting review!

  1. Hmm, perhaps the best part about this book is that Sturgeon doesn’t get too Freudian with his subject matter. That’s been an unfortunate trend in recent years in the more literary forms of science fiction. Nothing wrong with psychological studies, it’s just that Freudian theory seems to be on the way out and most layperson’s understanding of it is crude at best.

    I suppose Ledom is meant to be “Model” backwards, in the vein of Erewhon and Llaregub.

    The title could be using X as in the unknown in algebra, I suppose. Or there’s the fact that if you say the title out loud it’s easy to hear “sex” (or to see it written, though the typeface choices here interfere with that). And, as they say on Madison Avenue, sex sells.

    In any case, this is certainly better than Phil Farmer’s new book with a sexual theme. I’m not sure if Flesh is out yet or not (I saw a galley), but it seems mostly to be an excuse to write sex scenes.

    1. I picked up a copy from the local bookseller a few weeks ago.  I guess a lot depends on distribution, warehousing, deliveries, and how often the booksellers get new stock.

      We have smut laws here in Arkansas, and I’m pretty sure the bookstore I patronized could be fined for having that book on the shelf.  Well, if any of the smut-sniffers noticed.  Nobody pays much attention to science fiction, other then looking askance at the lurid covers some of the pulps have.

      All that aside… the story is very weak.  I don’t know if it’s something Farmer had laying around that he added some “SF” to so he could sell it, or it’s a Dramatic Statement by his publisher, or they’re trying to “push the limits”, or whatever…  the result really wasn’t even titillating, or perhaps by then I was so bored I didn’t care.

      If you’re embarrassed to ask for access to the shelf behind the counter, there’s not enough sex to make “Flesh” an acceptable substitute.  And the story is so bad it’s not worth much for entertainment.  It’s certainly nothing like “The Green Odyssey” or any of his short stories in style; I actually wondered if it was written by someone else.

      1. Ha! Maybe he’s auditioning to write some of those under the counter books, like Bob Silverberg is doing (one hears things). It’s apparently pretty lucrative.

        Since our host has put us in a musical mood, my thought was Cole Porter: Authors who once knew better words/ Now use four letter words/ For their prose.

        1. Lawrence Block has been doing that too, except in reverse.  He started off writing “racy” stories, but he just collaborated with Donald E. Westlake on two crime stories, and supposedly will be writing more in that genre.  I would have guessed the other stuff would pay more than crime novels, but what do I know…

  2. I thought this was an extraordinary novel, quite daring in its ability to force the reader to take a hard look at the way things are in our society.  In its frank condemnation of societal misogyny, in particular, it almost seems to be a forerunner in what we might call “second wave feminism” (to distinguish it from the suffragettes.)

    1. I agree.  I particularly liked the bit where the dad is all loving with the daughter and then distant with the son.  The son then smacks his sister with a pillow, and the father can’t figure out why.

      The B-plot had a lot of interesting insights.

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