Geoff Ryman, 2001

Being the most beautiful creature in the history of the world seems like it'd be pretty cool, but from the day she was hatched, Helen of Sparta had a rough life. Before she even reached puberty she'd been kidnapped by Theseus; her husband was chosen for her in the ancient Greek equivalent of a reality show; then Aphrodite awarded her as a prize to Paris, who carried her off to Troy. Or did he? Herodotus and Euripides tell the story a little differently. By their account, Paris stopped in Egypt on the voyage back — and unbeknownst to Paris, there Helen stayed. Returning with him to Troy was an eidolon conjured up by Hera. Eidolon: image, idol, apparition, ghost, astral double, phantom copy. Fuck puppet.

Lust is a novel about a scientist named Michael Blasco who discovers that he can create an eidolon of anyone he wants, living or dead, real or fictional. They appear out of thin air, with the memories and drives of the originals, though with one small addition: the desire to fuck Michael. Oh, and it turns out that there are no consequences — with a wave of his hand he can make the copies, which he calls "Angels," disappear, and the world gradually resets to the way it was before the copies arrived and only Michael is the wiser.

This power comes to Michael unexpectedly, and I enjoyed Lust most when Ryman is in Pattern 14 mode and has Michael methodically exploring the parameters of this miracle. You might expect that I'd enjoy it most during the detailed sex scenes that follow from each experiment; after all, I like sex, and I like Ryman's writing at least sometimes, so it'd seem like a natural. There's just one problem: Michael, like Ryman, is gay. And that means that my reaction to the sex scenes can be summed up in one word:

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same." Nevertheless, it's hard not to project yourself into the world around you. It's a reflex that we foster in small children — "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" — because until they develop that small measure of empathy they are basically monsters. And once that reflex is established it's hard to turn off. To a great extent it's what makes fiction work: we react to the events of the story along with the characters, imagining how we'd feel in their places. (And when their reactions don't like up with ours, it's disconcerting. It's what makes the opening to Albert Camus's The Stranger so effective: "Mom died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know." Upon reading the first sentence, you automatically, if only subconsciously, imagine your own mother's death and how that felt or might feel... and with the second, you begin to realize that the narrator isn't nearly as shaken up as you are.) Certainly erotica functions this way — if you're not imagining yourself in the place of one of the principals, receiving those sexual attentions, then what's the point?

Lust is not erotica, exactly, but it is wall-to-wall sex. Gay male sex. You read the descriptions, and reflexively, ask yourself how you'd feel in the characters' places, sucking off Tarzan, getting fucked in the ass by Picasso. And if you're a straight male, the answer is that you're completely revolted by the idea. I mean, that's a tautology — if you find the concept at all appealing, then by definition you're at least somewhat queer. I'm straight, so, yes, I was thoroughly squicked and found the book pretty hard to take a lot of the time. At one point I was sitting at home reading the book when my Skype window started flashing; it was Elizabeth trying to send me a file. I opened it up, and it turned out to be a picture of one of her dolls. And after a few chapters of Ryman's novel, even that approximation of the female form came as a pleasant shock: Oh yeah! Humans can look like this, too! That's much better!

I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting to squick. Everyone's squicked by something. In fact, I think it's important to acknowledge it for what it is. For unacknowledged squick, I would submit, lies at the base of a lot of anti-gay sentiment. Yes, there are all sorts of rationalizations floating around out there — people like Orson Scott Card will blather on about how the breeding pair is the fundamental building block of the hive community and that we accept alternative household models at our peril — but I find it hard to believe that such arguments are the product of pure rational analysis. I think it's much more likely that those who make such arguments think about guys having sex, subconsciously imagine themselves being one of those guys, are totally grossed out, and think that anything that could produce such immediate, powerful revulsion can't just be a matter of personal taste — it must be wrong. So they cast about for plausible-sounding rationales to justify oppressing an entire class of people.

A few months ago I went to Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco town and had a panna pizza with spicy cauliflower. The restaurant filled up shortly after I arrived, so I got in plenty of people-watching as I ate. At the front of the line of people waiting for a table was an older couple, late forties or early fifties, and criminy, they were all over each other. The woman was sitting in the dude's lap and he was totally getting his grope on. There was some tongue action and you could hear slorping noises. Meanwhile, at the table across from me were a couple of guys with crispy haircuts and shiny clothing. I got the sense that they were a gay couple on a date and since they were like six feet away I couldn't help overhearing snippets of conversation that confirmed my guess. And they didn't touch each other at all. They were very, very careful about not touching each other. It was like there was an invisible chaperone with a tape measure making sure that they maintained eighteen inches of separation at all times. And I remember thinking: This is San Francisco. Castro Street is five blocks away. California recently joined the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003), Massachusetts (2003), Spain (2005), Canada (2005), South Africa (2006) in allowing same-sex marriage. That's nice, but we still have a long way to go so long as we live in a society where gay people feel they have less of a right than heterosexuals to be affectionate in public. I can't say I'm all that eager to watch guys making out in restaurants, but my desire not to be squicked is completely unimportant compared to their right to equal access to all aspects of the public sphere. Besides, the Midlife Crisis Twins feeling each other up were no small source of squick themselves, so the squick ship had already sailed. (Say that five times fast.)

And now, the spoilers

Unfortunately, Lust adheres to a tired formula: at the start of the novel Michael is impotent, and only by using his miraculous power to come to terms with A Dark Secret In His Past will he get boners again. It's basically Ordinary People, only with sodomy instead of psychiatry. And instead of losing his brother in a boating accident, he tried to give his father a handjob.

So at about the midway point of the novel we get a long flashback to Michael's youth. Though he spends most of it in Britain, he starts flying out to Oceanside every other summer to stay with his father, a US Marine. Before long he has hearts in his eyes and is plotting a path to a future in which they live together as a married couple. One night he can't take it anymore, sneaks into his father's bedroom, and starts stroking his father's dick. His dad wakes up, shoves him away, yells at him, and breaks some of his stuff. Michael runs away and picks up a rock and breaks his own nose with it. That's a good start, but my understanding was that in such situations you're supposed to gouge your eyes out.

The book's treatment of this episode makes the agenda of Lust pretty clear. The ultimate message is that Michael's actions, which have mortified him into impotence and which are presumably extremely disgusting to the reader, are really no big deal. Incest, you say? Well, what's so wrong with that? After all, the main reason for the incest taboo is to prevent one's offspring from inheriting too many recessive genes — not an issue in a male-male coupling! Molestation, you say? Hey, Sgt. Blasco's a big boy — he should be able to deal with the occasional sexual advance without freaking out. After all, if it weren't for grabbing other people's junk without permission, no one would ever get laid, right? (The book's preferred terminology for Michael wanking his father in his sleep is "making a pass.") No, the book concludes, all Michael really did was squick someone. And that's no crime.

Then it gets even worse and turns into a mishmash of parallel universes before devolving into a disquisition on how gravity and thought, are, like, the same thing, maaaaan! It says something about a book when it contains a scene in which the main character, trying to summon the most desirable female he can think of, calls forth Jessica Rabbit — and that's not the most embarrassing part.

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