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Flesh and Gold, Phyllis Gotlieb, TOR, 1998, 286 pp.
The most recent novel from Phyllis Gotlieb, Flesh and Gold, comes in a handsome dustjacket and covered with accolades. Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert J. Sawyer seem to agree that Gotlieb is a wonderful writer, and almost every blurb mentions science fiction and poetry in the same sentence. What's all the fuss? Isn't science fiction supposed to be dead? And poetry... which rational, utilitarian person in their right mind would care about poetry in this day and age? And so the extreme rightness, the superb grotesqueness of this novel comes as quite a shock, like being dunked in ice cold water after a baptism of fire. Flesh and Gold is one of those "difficult" novels that makes no apologies to the reader for its intensity and layered effect. It's a trade-off, because the rewards here are different in nature than a more typically narrative-driven novel. Whereas lazy science fiction transcribes the story arcs of today onto the future, Flesh and Gold makes everything new (a statement which I will have to qualify later) -- "Make it new!" has been the cry of artists and writers in our bizarre and tortured century, and Gotlieb doesn't hesitate to use the genre at hand for the same purpose.
Flesh and Gold begins on the planet of Khagodis with two characters named Nohl and Ferrier, facts which Gotlieb puts in the byline. She continues this practice throughout the novel, one of the ways she builds her poetic prose into a novel length structure. Sometimes these bylines can be misleading -- the Prologue says "Khagodis: Nohl and Ferrier" but the important character here is Kobai, an amphibian being. Kobai is the hinge point of the entire novel, a kind of trigger for a odd series of events. Skerow is a Khagodi judge who sees Kobai swimming in the window of a brothel, and Skerow's reactions trigger investigations and reprisals in a dizzying circle. The Zamos crime organization has its tendrils everywhere, and it puts Skerow to the test, along with all the others fighting on the side of justice. The plot ends seem to wrap up too quickly, especially after the harrowing events that preceded it. But Gotlieb uses Kobai to give Flesh and Gold some closure, in an ironic way that ties back to the beginning.
It's difficult to discuss Gotlieb's characters without commenting on her excellent world-building. Little of her speculation is new, in the sense of an idea that no one has ever thought of or written about before. But what redeems the novel, and in fact helps it transcend most of its kin, is how Gotlieb takes each element and wraps it up into an organic whole. Character is tied intricately to biology here, just as plot carefully proceeds from character. The alien races range from the outlandish to the outrageous to the piteous. For example, the main Lyhhrt character in Flesh and Gold gives us some fascinating insights into some bizarre physiology and psychology -- the Lyhhrt are small shapeless mounds who manipulate robot-like shells with pseudopods. All Lyhhrt want to join together in a telepathic union on their homeworld, but this particular Lyhhrt makes some odd choices (like the scene on page 269 where it and a human undergo some hasty surgery... I don't want to say more). This example also shows how careful Gotlieb is to avoid a common fallacy for writing alien races, that is making them all share a common trait. No society is monolithic, and the Lyhhrt here agrees with some of its kin but also acts much differently than others, all variations proceeding in some way from the interaction between biology and environment. The Lyhhrt's actions are as important to the plot as Skerow's or Kobai's or any of the other government agents or Zamos villains. The cast is large, but the trail of connections leads back to Kobai rather clearly, through Skerow and various other strange aliens.
Gotlieb's writing style is vivid, with the kind of attention paid to each particular word more common to poetry than to science fiction. But what makes Flesh and Gold so exciting is its hybrid strengths. Gotlieb knows the genre inside out, and everything computes together, everything from echoes of the linguistic innovations of A Clockwork Orange to nimble social depictions in the vein of Tiptree and Le Guin. And the opening passage of Chapter One is as good an illustration as any of this combination: "Starry Nova was a name stuck on the port city of Fthel V by Solthree jokers. The Russian words stary novy, old new, where there were no visible stars and nothing was new, gave a good sense of the grubby middle-aged facility" (13). And Burgess has put his mark on the word "rozzers," which Gotlieb uses a few times in the same Russian context later on. Gotlieb also equals or betters Tiptree in the effective use of human and alien sexuality in the service of the story -- Gotlieb never blinks in her descriptions of depravity, giving the underworld in Zamos control a grittiness seldom matched in science fiction futures.
Flesh and Gold is a relatively short novel, but Gotlieb's writing gives it huge impact. I loved the experience of reading this book for the first time -- it reminded me of the times many years ago when I was first reading science fiction (and would do foolish things like reading the seventh book in the Amber series without reading the preceding six...). Am I more jaded these days? Perhaps. As Victor Shklovsky (a Russian formalist coincidentally) would say, the role of art is to help us perceive a thing as if for the first time. And science fiction, the fiction of the new... what is its role? I feel that Gotlieb has amply demonstrated its role with this excellent novel.
Last modified: October 7, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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