An Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul

madmenAn Exercise for Madmen, Barbara Paul (1978)
Review by Joachin Boaz

Barbara Paul’s An Exercise for Madmen, a retelling of Euripides’s ‘The Bacchae’, follows an established narrative pattern: Stranger enters community with dangerous knowledge. Community reacts with suspicion but soon the stranger, despite claims of goodwill, begins to wield greater and greater influence.

In this case, a priapic-Romance cover “ideal” alien man named Zalmox (masculine to women, feminine to men) gets an entire community to have great sex with him and everyone else… And he brings magical alien apples, apples that cure madness…

Location: the Pythia Medical Project, “an isolated place [far from Earth] where research could continue uninterrupted without any immediate danger to human life”. Experiments on humans and animals abound on Pythia.

The cast: Pythian society falls into four main categories: the scientists, the test subjects, the technicians, and the sentient animal helpers (chimps with human hands). And Jennie Giess does not fit. She is an original test subject of Pythia raised away from Earth, her “parents were a sperm-and-ova bank in New York”. Depressed, drifting, prevented from returning to Earth by manipulative scientists, she is the only non-essential personal on the planet. Jennie spends her time writing about Pythia for Earth audiences and teaches the few children who do not show a propensity for science (a future where the liberal arts are no longer taught to all? perhaps that is why they are utterly unable to assess the morality of their often egregious experiments!). Jennie’s boyfriend and various ex-boyfriends add drama. There’s Sam Flaherty and his webbed feet, and Pythia’s leader Thalia, Jacob the intelligent chimp, children with blue and green cancer resistant skin, Dan the cybernetic man who controls the functions of the station…

And then there’s Zalmox, “an agronomist” who travels, with his space apple plants that cure schizophrenia, across the cosmic reaches bringing his endless libido to all. At first he causes a general fog of pleasantness to seep over the stratifications of Pythian society easing relations between groups, the experimental children and normals, etc. But soon a descent into bacchic chaos begins: a cataclysm of threesomes and other pairings with all genders and combinations and ages… The ramifications of this societal transformation are not as innocent (and “liberating?”) as Pythia’s inhabitants seem to think. But the power Zarmox exudes, seduces.

Two central elements prevent An Exercise for Madmen from failing completely. First, the two main women characters buck standard 70s SF trends. Thalia, the leader of the Pythia settlement, must make the hard decisions when the world is crumbling around her irregardless of her own personal safety. Jennie Geiss, depressed, dependent on drugs, aimlessly moving through a sequence of lovers, is not a traditional SF character – and I found the descriptions of her depression honest and affective: “A careless word, an unintentional snub, a short answer, the casual cruelty of other insecure souls in search of ego—boost almost anything was enough to make her withdraw into her herself even more during the day” [p 42].

Second, although the descent into bacchic chaos laboriously dulls the senses – there are only so many scenes of excess, partying to the cosmic beat of the stars stars piped over Pythia’s communication systems, and piles of naked people doing strange things to each other one can tolerate – the aftermath acts as a form of shock treatment. The tone shifts. The trauma sets in. The characters realize their agency and complicity in causing the chaos. The punch aches.

The novel’s final moments are weakened by a case of over-explanation in the form of Jennie Giess’ self-analysis (that doubles as the author’s statement of intention) as she contemplates her fate. A self-analysis that lays out the work’s allusions to and intellectual descent from classical authors should be apparent to a reader with some grounding in the classics and do not need to be spelled out in excruciating detail:

“Oedipus blinding himself in order to see … Gregory Samsa’s parents pretending they have no cockroach son. Different ways of coping with the incompatible. The healthy, unafflicted body has no need to cope: our long his of “coping” is symptomatic of – what? A terminal case of life? Sophocles, Shakespeare, the Pear poet, Swift, Kafka – five brilliant diagnosticians of human malaise. (We also have quacks: John Fletcher, August Stridenberg, Kurt Vonnegut)” [p 165]

I wonder in what category this novel lies.

My biggest frustration concerns the integration of experimental “meta” passages into the narrative. As the novel “rewrites” the play ‘The Bacchae’, Paul tries to put a more modern spin on the original notion of “script” by creating jarring filmic interludes. In Barry N Malzberg’s The Inside Men (1973) the filmic moments serve to show how the character views his own role, the invented movie as propagandistic filter. In Langdon Jones’ short story ‘The Eye of the Lens’ (1968), the camera lens, as a metaphor for God/an all-seeing entity/the sun, “sees” in a Godard-esque exercise that reduces narrative to a highly fragmented and symbolic sequence drenched with religious (and anti-religious) undertones. Paul’s script chapters, detailing the confrontation between Thalia and Zalmox, do not add to the story’s craft or generate a meaning-rich layer of complexity.

A series of surreal scenes and nonsense paragraphs, for example, one that repeats the letter “p” indicate the final descent into chaos: “I perpetuate the pattern. There’s a positive purpose propelling me – pushing, persuading, prolonging my problem” [p 148]. Yes, it’s a pattern!

As these two examples indicate, Paul moves half-heartedly in many different directions. The ideas unfurl in a logical sequence but do not meld together in meaningful or artful ways.

Not recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other suspect Ruminations.

Bibblings, Barbara Paul

bibblingsBibblings, Barbara Paul (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

After nearly five years reviewing for SF Mistressworks, not to mention some of the research I’ve done for my own writing, I had thought I was reasonably well-informed on women science fiction writers of the twentieth century, especially those who had published novels. Even so, Barbara Paul was a name that had slipped me by, even though two of her novels – including Bibblings – were published in the UK. Having said that, she managed to produce five sf novels between 1978 and 1980, and a Star Trek novelisation in 1988, before turning to writing murder-mystery novels, which she continued to do until 1997.

Bibblings is Paul’s third sf novel, and it’s an entertaining mix of first contact, sf puzzle-story, and light humour, with a likeable narrator/protagonist and a central conceit that’s not at all difficult to figure out… although it does suffer from being somewhat lightweight. The narrator, Valerie Chester, is a member of a six-person team in the Diplomatic Corps of the Federation of United Worlds. Lodon-Kamaria is not in the Federation, but it does possess extensive deposits of alphidium, which the Federation wants. Unfortunately, the two nations of the planet, called, er, Lodon and Kamaria, have been in a perpetual state of war for generations. And the alphidium is beneath the mountain range which forms the spine of the continent they share, and the barrier between the two nations and the battleground on which they fight. Valerie’s team has been sent in to try and effect a peace between the two countries – or, failing that, to recommend which one the Federation should “assist” in defeating the other.

Unfortunately, a problem quickly presents itself when the team land in Lodon: the Lodonites are either insane or blind drunk, and when they’re not blind drunk they’re insane. Only the neuters, the race’s third gender, are unaffected – and they spend all their time looking after the others and keeping them topped up with the local whiskey. Not only does this make diplomatic relations difficult, but Valerie and the rest of the team cannot even understand how the Lodonites have managed to keep the Kamarians at bay for so long.

So they visit Kamaria… and it couldn’t be more of a contrast. The Kamarians are smart and well-organised, entirely sober and completely sane. However, they can’t remember what triggered the war between the two nations, but they do know the Lodonites cannot be trusted and any sort of peace is out of the question… Oh, and there are these small golden birds, the bibblings of the title, everywhere…

When the Kamarians make reference to a “time of strength” and a “time of weakness”, and the diplomats notice that all the Lodonites fighting in the mountains are neuters, whereas the Kamarian soldiers are male and female… And then the Kamarians start preparing for the impending migration across the mountains of the bibblings by laying in stores of food and jars of whiskey…

To be fair, the focus of Bibblings is never on solving the puzzle. Two of the diplomatic team are medical doctors, and they quickly discover the organism carried by the bibblings which causes the periods of madness and lucidity. And the fact it’s linked to fertility. While a medical solution is quickly proposed, getting the Lodonites and the Kamarians to cease hostilities once they will no longer each suffer a “time of weakness” each year proves somewhat harder to implement.

Paul’s prose is light and readable, she doesn’t make a nine-course banquet out of the relatively simple puzzle presented by Lodon-Kamaria, and she works through the political and diplomatic consequences of the solution with internal consistency and common sense. Perhaps the set-up is not entirely plausible – the fact the Lodonites and Kamarians have never progressed beyond a slow war of attrition in the mountains as a solution – and even the similarity of the two races to human beings is never commented upon (despite the presence of a neuter gender). As backgrounds go, it’s sketchy at best; Paul spends much more words on detailing the characters and biographies of her six diplomats. Which gives the odd impression that Valerie is telling this story to someone – but it’s never explained who. It is, to my mind, one of the chief failures of first-person narratives – they’re cheap story-telling because they’re easy to write, when they should only exist because the viewpoint is crucial to the plot. But, as they say, Your Mileage May Vary…

Bibblings is not a book which asks to be looked into too deeply, but that’s equally true of a vast proportion of the science fiction corpus. It’s an entertainingly light and fast read, and it has not appreciably dated. True, the neuters get short shrift, and a running joke about the diplomatic team being nicknamed the “Anglo-Saxon Invaders” really should have been avoided… But Paul’s prose is assured, her plotting doesn’t miss a beat, and though the novel is only 169 pages everything the plot needs is in there. Those were the days, when novels didn’t need to be the size of Zeppelin hangars in order to tell a story set in, or on, another world. Admittedly, authors often managed such short wordcounts by presenting the entire universe as little more than middle America in different coloured hats – and Paul is no less guilty here than others of her time. But size isn’t always a virtue. Nor, for that matter, is brevity. Bibblings is a fun read, but it’s not a book to set the genre alight, either back in 1979 or now. And, sometimes, we have to be content with that.