Hermetech, Storm Constantine

Hermetech, Storm Constantine (1991)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

There are many reasons for setting up a small press publishing company, and hopefully at some point I will get to talk to Storm Constantine about hers. But one of the obvious reasons for doing so is to bring good books back into publication. Constantine is doing this with books like Ian Watson’s BSFA Award winning novel, Whores of Babylon. But she is also able to do it with her own books, and that means that Hermetech is once again in print.

All things considered, Hermetech is still my favorite Storm Constantine book. Granted Constantine has matured as a writer in the last 13 or so years. There are slabs on infodump in there that I am sure she’d be more careful with these days. But its essential tightness of plot (yes, it is a stand-alone novel) remains, and idea-wise the rest of the world has in some ways caught up with it. Most importantly, perhaps, I think that Constantine’s themes of gender and magic actually work better as SF than as fantasy. Let me talk about the book, and hopefully it will become clear.

“A ground mist, morning white, hid all but a suggestion of landscape. A dreamer could imagine green fields might lie there, trees with leaves, even animals moving slowly over the grass. Concentrate hard enough and the smell of living plants might be conjured up. A psychic could probably manage it; someone good with ghosts.”

Theme one is a world ravaged by technology. When it was far too late, mankind turned back to Gaia, but their worship has little effect on the planet. Even the appliance of science to environmental ends seemed to have very little effect. The primary philosophy of the Tech-Green movement is for mankind to move into space and let the planet heal herself in her own time. The less wealthy, the Naturotech, travel the world in gypsy-like convoys, surviving by scavenging and re-cycling, and worshipping at artificial henges they have constructed. Much of this is rather reminiscent of the techno-greens in Gwyneth Jones’s Bold As Love series.

“The angels of climate control have freshly misted the streets tonight. If Arcady has to have low-life areas (and what city doesn’t?), the streets should always be damp at night. Clusters of translucent, ceramic globes hang along the warren of boulevards and alleys, like fizzing crystal balls, gossiping prophecies. Blue-white radiance that should be bright, but isn’t, making the sidewalks gleam.”

Theme two is city life under the domes. Those who cannot afford or do not wish to flee into space, and who don’t fancy taking their chances outdoors, can huddle under the domes and rely on technology to pretend that all is as it once was. The economy hasn’t failed, yet. And certain parts of the economy, you suspect, will never fail. The oldest professional will also be the last, and modern bioscience can do wondrously inventive things to the body.

Theme three is magic: sex magic to be precise. Ewan Famber, the golden boy of the Tech-Green movement, had this theory that the solution to mankind’s problems was not in meddling with the environment, but in meddling with themselves. He believed that by tapping into the psychic energy produced by human orgasm you could, quite literally, change the world. All that was needed were a few subtle neurological and genetic modifications, and of course a few necessary blocks to prevent the little goddess coming into her powers before she has learned to control them.

We have characters now. Ewan Famber is long dead, killed in a freak accident in space. But his wife and daughter survive him, eking out a miserable existence on the company pension. Living too are his former assistant and mistress, Leila Saatchi, and his ex-boss, Quincx Roirbak. Leila has resigned from Tech-Green and now leads a Naturotech convoy called Star Eye. Quincx has just retired, and lives in luxury in Arcady where he carries on his scientific studies as a hobby. Both of them wait anxiously for the time when Famber’s daughter, Ari, reaches puberty. They owe it to their old friend to see the girl through the process. Besides, their scientific curiosity has been pricked by the records that Famber left.

Theme four is just sex. On the streets of Arcady there walks a young man who is nothing but trouble. Zambia Crevecoeur has ambitions well above his abilities and considerable pride. Sadly, neither of these are enough to keep him out of the clutches of the successful club owner, Jahsaxa Penumbra. For Zambia is a very pretty boy, and Penumbra wants him in her stable of whores. Having reduced him to penury and desperation, Penumbra presents the offer that he can’t refuse. There is a new surgical technique that allows for implanting additional sexual organs in the body, for creating a new kind of human that is neither male nor female and is able to please either, or both, or several.

To some extent Hermetech is just a classic Constantine novel of sexual confusion and jealously, but there is rather less of that than in many of her books. Furthermore, Crevecoeur is not the subject of the novel, but rather a means by which Constantine can embroil her characters in unsavory goings on and danger. And unlike most SF authors who deal with such subjects, Constantine is also aware that changing gender is no trivial matter: she has Crevecoeur go through substantial counseling and neurological re-programming before he is able to come to terms with his new body.

But this, as I said, is a sideline. The main thrust of the novel involves Ari and her journey from isolated country girl to the big city, and from frightened teenager to confident woman. Hermetech is a coming of age novel, but it is one that suggests that the coming of age process is not just something that individual humans have to do, but something that is a necessity for the entire race.

“Order froze the world, Ari, and those who set themselves up as leaders of society used everything they could to control people around them. Humanity’s excursions into its own future became entirely cerebral. Science developed. The province of the mind. People strove to be free of Nature, seeing it as something outside of themselves. Its innate chaos repelled them. Soma, or body, and bodily functions, were regarded as unclean or shameful. Their gods became sexless, spirit without flesh, without fleshly drives, pure thought. And people strove to emulate their creation, while telling themselves they were striving for purity as possessed by the entity or entities that had created them.”

So there is a little preaching along the way, but it is preaching that we would do well to listen to. Even if we don’t subscribe to Constantine’s theories about the magical powers of sex, we can all recognize how much we have become detached from our physical reality, and from the planet that gave us birth. And besides, along the way Constantine gives us some great science-fictional imagery.

“The jellycrusts, scorning the protection of traveling within armoured trucks, walked the dry lands in ragged groups, pushing or dragging their belongings in carts and sledges. Their skins were concealed by a thick, insulating gel once manufactured for military use. Since then, the jellycrusts had bought up all remaining stocks of the stuff, slapping it onto their integument, where it accumulated the dust and debris of the desert lands; hence their nickname. It reminded Leila of certain larval creatures who once lived in freshwater streams, and which perhaps still did somewhere, who attached stones and water rubbish to their skins, making a shell to live in.”

So there we have it, a stand-alone science fiction novel that encapsulates most of what is essential about a Storm Constantine book and does so effectively and elegantly. These days, of course, SF publishing tends to be rather too prudish to cope with the likes of Zambia Crevecoeur, let alone sex magic, so it is left to small presses to provide an outlet. It is good that they do.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.