Thursday, July 12, 2007

Conquest of Life

It’s always dangerous to revisit books you liked in your youth. Nevertheless, I’ve recently reread Conquest of Life by Adam Lukens. I first read this sometime between 1960 and 1962, so I would have been 10-11. That means that I missed, among other things, some pretty obvious references to sex and further hints of sexual deviance.

“Adam Lukens” was the nom de plume of Diane Detzer de Reyna, which pretty much exhausts my knowledge of the matter, though I think I remember Dick Lupoff once telling me that she’d been from Florida. I was already aware of the idea of “authorship” by then, so I also read several other books by “Lukens,” including one I’ve not managed to obtain, Sons of the Wolf (about werewolves who are part of a movie production on Mercury, as I recall).

The words-in-a-row writing of COL is pretty good, with dialog that’s believably from human beings, provided you don’t consider how far in the future the book is supposed to be. How far? The heroine, Shorty, is from one of the star colonies. Earth is now, well, basically a sort of theme park, the theme being Hedonism. Say it’s a planet-wide version of New Orleans (before Katrina), although one never gets a sense of planetary, or even urban scale. The final “battle” scene, for example, consists of a few hundred people fighting.

In fact, there are a number of traits in the book that bespeak a southern U.S. origin, including the sparseness of the cast (even the urban south was pretty small town in 1960), as well as the basic setup.

The setup is, Shorty has inherited “Kris” an artificial man, a la Frankenstein, in that he’s manufactured from the body parts of dead humans. His memories have been wiped and he’s conditioned to obey his master or mistress. He can feel emotions but is constrained not to show them. He’s also “infinite” i.e. unaging and possibly immortal, except that, after 30-40 years, the artificial men become “unstable” and are usually destroyed, i.e. killed.

Kris is 40 years old. We learn from internal monologues that he’d like to die, there being no real attraction in being an immortal slave.

Shorty immediately decides that the artificial men are people, and sets out to prove it, which she does in remarkably short order, by, among other things, getting Kris to slap her. It isn’t quite as coarse as this in the book, I’m just making part of the superstructure a little more obvious.

Shorty then goes about collecting as many of the “undependable” artificial men as she can find, soon filling the mansion that she has inherited, and which she and her uncle, cousin, etc. live. During this process, a visit from a star captain who is obviously smitten by her, makes plain that she has some, um, intimacy issues, caused by a trauma (vaguely described) that took place out in the Colonies. So she cringes at the captain’s touch, but has no such problem with Kris or the other artificial men.

Okay, that little bit went right past me when I was 11.

Most of Earth’s inhabitants, or at least those near Shorty and Kris, are devotees of “Night Palace Life” which is basically a sybaritic existence devoted to mindless pleasure, or sometimes mindless destruction. At one point, some Night Palace “Playmates” toss a firebomb into a plastic jungle structure near Shorty’s house and nearly kill her. Kris, of course, saves her life. Events soon swing out of control, because it’s getting out that Shorty is demonstrating that the artificial men are actually real people, which might very well throw a monkey wrench into Night Palace life, given that one of the main jobs given to the artificial men is that of gigolo.

Again, at 11, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why all the artificials were men, and their users were all women. Of course, if it were otherwise, it would have been a considerably different story.

Anyway, their lifestyle threatened, the “Playmates” launch an assault on Shorty’s home. The artificial men, led by Kris, fend them off, but Shorty is killed during the fighting. Kris goes to the developer and demands that he put Shorty through the process, all except the memory wipe and obedience conditioning, of course. Shorty comes out the other side as “infinite” as Kris.

So they live happily ever after. Literally.

Well, there we have it. A man, stronger, smarter, better looking, and practically immortal, who is locked inside of his own conditioning, unable to express emotion, and despairing of life. A woman who has her own demons, risks everything to reach the man, unlocking his potential and winning his undying love.

There are, of course, more plot holes than I can enumerate, none of which I noticed when I was 11, and actually, none of which bother me particularly now. This is an allegory as much as anything else, and repays the rereading.

Ah, one other thing. One of the artificial men is found to have serious whip marks on his back. Just another echo from the Old South.

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