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Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things
     Cythera
Richard Calder
St. Martin's Press, 409 pages
     St. Martin's Press, 311 pages

Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things
Cythera
Richard Calder
Richard Calder grew up in northeast London. He started writing fiction at about 14 and got more serious about it at age 18. In the mid-70s, he went to university in Brighton. His influences include Marcel Proust, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake. For some time, he lived in Thailand running a little general store. His novella, "Lost In Cathay" is part of his next novel, Frenzetta.

Richard Calder Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Richard Calder Interview
Excerpt: "Lost in Cathay"
Calder Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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The story goes that in rejecting J.G. Ballard's auto- (in the literal sense of vehicular) erotic novel, Crash, an editor commented that the author should seek psychiatric help. If that editor ever read Richard Calder, he would undoubtedly recommend immediate institutionalization.

But as R.D. Laing used to argue, in a lunatic reality only the crazy people are sane. As crazy as Calder's fictional reality (actually, there are multiple, though linked, realities) may be, it aptly reflects our own materialist-narcissistic culture. Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things depicts a mid-21st century society consumed by its own consumerism: "designer dolls" (fully functioning androids) transmit a virus through sexual relations with humans that eventually infects female offspring, slowly transforming these children into dolls, beginning at about the time of puberty. Hence the term, "Dead Girls" (and, as you might gather from the full title, the virus progresses to cross genders). The metamorphosed dolls gradually turn completely into automata, and die by their early 20s. They are virus carriers, and consequently under quarantine, although some manage to escape to Thailand (some things in the sex business never change). When the Human Front gains political power, it is no longer a question of quarantine, but of eradication.

Did I mention that Calder has written a love story? With a happy ending, no less.

Calder's work has been variously described as "cyberpunk" (which has become a catch-all term for any non-linear narrative that in any vague way deals with techno-biological enhancements of humanity), "splatter-punk" (explicit sexually-related violence), and vampire fiction (the mutation of girls into dolls includes the growth of fangs to suck blood and infect humans). Perhaps it's not surprising that Calder has inspired yet another in the now rather tired series of "punkisms" -- this time, it's "necro-punk" (a character performs cunnilingus on the removed sex organs of his deceased doll girlfriend, to give you an idea). My own take is that Calder is an avatar of Philip K. Dick, employing these various genres to further develop notions of alternate realities and states of being, mixed with a hefty dash of Eastern mysticism. (I resist calling that "Dick-punk," as much as I like the double entendre.) In an interview with Richard Calder, he cites as influences Marcel Proust, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake, as well as Buddhism, which helps gives you a picture of the strange brew here.

Reading Calder is tough-sledding for a variety of reasons. The explicit violence can be off-putting, although it's hardly gratuitous. Indeed, the detailed descriptions of murder and evisceration eventually become tedious, taking to an extreme our own culture's obsession with violent images and subsequent desensitization to brutality.

Another is the curious fact that Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things was originally published as three separate volumes of a trilogy. While Dead Girls could stand alone (not an uncommon trait for most trilogies), Dead Boys not only seems an unfinished work (also not uncharacteristic of trilogies), it is virtually incomprehensible without the framing first and third stories. Needless to say, Dead Things won't have near the impact it does without reading the first two stories. Someone randomly picking up Dead Boys could easily fail to get through the first few chapters; moreover, I suspect the same bewilderment could happen to someone who had already read, and even liked, Dead Girls. My advice: hang in there. The rewards are there in reading this as a single, complete (409 page) novel, if you're willing to undergo some difficult parts. Of course, that's the way it is with a lot of literature, you know, like the things you have to read in college. But don't let that put you off, either.

Cythera is published as a novel, although the narrative is constructed the same way as the trilogy -- three stories (with different narrators) of seemingly disparate characters and events that ultimately link-up. There's considerably less graphic violence, although we're in the same fictional world of Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things; indeed, Cythera features two minor characters from the earlier work, and it might be difficult to follow certain parts without first having read the trilogy. Even then, it's difficult to follow in parts.

Cythera posits several Earth realities (numbered 1, 2, and 3), which may or may not be computer-generated simulacrums, that begin to interact with one another. Computer programs (called ghosts) from Earth-2 have managed to download themselves as corporeal beings in Earth-1. One character pursues his relationship with a ghost by committing suicide and downloading his consciousness into Earth-2. Meanwhile, a film producer who believes he's been abducted by aliens and had his consciousness altered in some insidious fashion is searching for Earth-3, thought to be an ultimate reality called "Cythera."

I'm unsure of what this name is supposed to mean. The way it is pronounced -- sith-er-ah -- connotes "synthetic," and certainly there is a lot synthetic in the novel, from the ghosts and automata to the concept of reality itself. There's nothing about the title I could find that might be related to Oriental mythology, which you might expect given Calder's interest in Buddhism. There might, however, be a Greek connection. According to Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (and thanks to Neil Walsh for pointing this out):

"Cytherea is a surname of Venus, from the city of Cythera in Crete, or from the island on the south of Laconia, now Cerigo."
Given the obsession of Calder's characters with finding true love -- albeit in bizarre ways -- the association with the goddess of love makes sense. Considering also that the last third of the book takes place on an island called Kithira and that in the original Greek Cythera would also be pronounced with a hard K sound, this admittedly obscure reference may not be so much of a reach. As to what the title of the planned sequel, Frenzetta (tentatively slated for December release), is supposed to mean, I haven't a clue.

By the way, this is also a love story.

I haven't even begun to touch on the various tropes and themes Calder's work deals with. Often, he's quite funny. There are a host of sly allusions to pop culture, SF, pulp, and noir movies. At times he seems compelled to make obvious his otherwise obliquely stated themes, which I think distracts a bit from the effect, as if he needs to make sure we "get it." At times, I'm not always sure I've gotten it, but I also think that's part of the point.

In my review of The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, Thomas Disch champions Edgar Allan Poe as the originator of science fiction, as opposed to Mary Shelly's more literary Frankenstein. One element that Calder certainly shares with Poe is what Disch describes as "grossness" -- vivid descriptions of putrefaction and death that make the reader uncomfortable not only within his own skin, but within larger human society. In this, Calder succeeds only too well (in the Dead trilogy, there's a joking reference to a dance club with an "Edgar Allan Poe" motif). In Cythera, however, the connection with Frankenstein -- and literary ambition -- is all the more clear. The search for Cythera begins and culminates in Antarctica, reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein's own final chase of the monster in the frozen tundra. Equally significant, at one point the major character is addressed as "a monster."

Make no mistake about it, this is a literary work in the fine tradition of Mary Shelley. If you have any interest at all in science fiction that presents serious art, you must read Richard Calder. As Herman Melville might have said, prepare for some rough sailing, but the prospect of transcendentally tranquil seas on the horizon make it well-worth the voyage.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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