Not long ago, I was given a whole set of Piers Anthony’s Space Tyrant books by a well-meaning friend who thought my recently-decimated library could use a boost. (He cannot have read them). Being unacquainted with Piers Anthony as a writer, and ever a sucker for space-opera, I eagerly dove into the first volume, Refugee.
Ye Gods. . .Where do I begin?
To pilfer a passage from Roger Ebert, I hated this book. Hated, hated, hated it. It is the worst book I have read in quite some time. Worse than The Residential Tenancies Act. It is depraved. It is despicable. It is, at times, laughably amateurish. For all this, its author is highly successful, and continues to sell books to a devoted fanbase. This to me, is astonishing.
I was actually moved to write an Amazon review for it. Here’s what I put:
“What we have here is a character who: watches his sister raped, watches his mother raped, watches his father disemboweled, and only towards the end remembers that he has a laser pistol in his possession?
This is a book in which the plot largely depends on the idiocy of its characters. Whose staggering ineptitude and incompetence, painstakingly conveyed in three hundred pages of the most clumsy, leaden prose I've ever read, has one screaming at the pages in exasperation. The only plotting Anthony seems to care about is piling miseries upon his characters, contriving ever worse ways for them to suffer and sadistically depriving them of any agency. It becomes apparent early on there will be no pay-off, no redemption, not even sensible action.
Don't read this expecting fun space-opera: what you get rather is a kind of pulp torture porn, replete with rape, cannibalism, incest, pedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia references.”
I’m not joking – each of those show up. Not all are portrayed as graphically as the near constant rapes, but they are alluded to, in passages so brief and so pointless, yet no less stomach-churningly nasty for it, one wonders why the author bothered with them, unless churning the reader’s stomach was exactly what Anthony wanted. Was it? To heap violence and depravity on the reader until they cry “Uncle”? I shudder to think what Anthony’s horror fiction must be like…
To be clear, the problem here is not that Anthony is sexually explicit, nor that he wants to bring up certain topics (though to no apparent purpose). For serious writers, no topic is out of bounds. But subjects like rape need to be handled with incredible sensitivity. Rape is real, and ruins who-knows how many millions of lives. It is not something to be trifled with. It is not a plot device. It is not motivation for vengeful characters. It is not a short-cut to gravitas, and it is most certainly not a subject of titillation. It is not to be handled lightly.
Even if I grant Anthony the benefit of the doubt, and assume he wanted to write a serious book about a serious subject (albeit very misleadingly marketed by the publisher), an author who includes lines like “I’m here to keep you from getting raped – unless you want to” rather seems to lack the requisite sensitivity. Any male writer who presumes to speculate on the female reaction to the experience of rape – not just an individual character but the generalized universal experience – is taking upon himsel on an almost impossibly delicate task. Does this sound delicate to you? The sheer ineptitude of this work keeps it from sounding anything but sleazy.
Which brings us to the laser-pistol. This is not a small detail. When fictional characters consistently, even insistently, fail to follow the most obvious course of action or even attempt the most basic solution to their problems, or when an author has them simply forget the options available to them. . .at some point you can’t suspend your disbelief anymore, you can’t believe in the characters anymore, you can’t give the author any more free passes.
In a bazaar reversal of Chekov’s law, Anthony’s protagonist is provided with a laser pistol, which, despite constant threats to him and his loved ones, it never occurs to him use. It’s not like he forgets about it either. On something like seven different occasions (I lost count) after each successive family member is raped, killed or mutilated, he laments “if only I had my pistol”. By which point the reader can only scream at the page:
“Well why the fuck don’t you???”
Anthony provides no reason. There are any number of narrative devices he could have invoked – the charge was low, the kid was a bad shot, the pirates shot first – but he doesn’t bother. I can’t help thinking he’s just taking the piss; setting up audience expectation in a painfully obvious way, only to violate it. It’s all fine and good to violate audience expectation, except when it makes no fucking sense. It erases empathy for a character who won’t even attempt to defend his family. It’s a massive distraction. And, if it is a piss-take, then it’s not taking this most serious of subjects seriously is it?
How seriously can the author be taking things when he has the protagonist announce the death of thirty people with “there’s good news, and there’s bad news”. Could this line be anything other than a joke?
Or are we to believe that a small community of widows and orphans, having lost thirty of their adults on a dangerous alien planet, would send thirty more out after them? Really? Really???
Or when the protagonists mother goes missing on this alien world: does he really wait to refurbish his spaceship before going to search for her? (he has a skiff by this time – again, it doesn’t occur to this idiot to use the technology at his disposal).
I could go on and on. Are there really no such things as radios in this world? Why can’t they lock their spaceship doors again? What the hell was the point of that fake but not really fake hijacking at the end? Just about nothing makes sense. Those are just the plot points – I haven’t even started on the prose style yet. I don’t to know how a hoverboard works, I only need to know if the bad guy fell off. . .
Bad plotting, bad prose and impossibly problematic subject matter form a kind of unholy trinity, feeding off and enforcing each other until it all snowballs into an avalanche of “yuck”. It’s not that good writing would have saved the book, but I can’t help thinking that a better writer might not have been quite so ham-fisted with it. The prose certainly makes it all the more cringe-worthy. The plotting and sheer implausible idiocy of the characters makes it impossible to take anything within it seriously. And this fixation on rape and pedophilia only ever comes across as creepy.
There’s another thing too. Piers Anthony is not a nobody. He is (or was) a very big selling writer. And a significant part of his audience appear to be young people. I remember Piers Anthony’s Xanth books prominently displayed in my Grade 7 library, and eagerly devoured by the 12 and 13 year girls in my class. So. . .an eager young reader relishes the fantasies of Xanth, spots this title in the bookstore, with an astronaut on the cover and her favourite author’s name in exciting Buck Rogers front. . . you see where I’m going here? There’s no reason writers who’ve written for children can’t cross-over into adult fiction, or vice-versa. (Roald Dahl comes to mind). But when a book is marketed as space opera, a genre widely believed to be harmless and kid friendly, and there’s no attempt to represent the contents of this book accurately, it does feel like something sinister has gone down. A trojan horse if you will.
Perhaps Anthony can’t help how his books are marketed. But he did write the damn thing. . .