I had been in bed with Paul Thomas Bumford, my Executive Assistant. He was an AINM-A, an artificially inseminated male with a Grade A genetic rating. We had been users for five years, almost from the day he joined my Division.
Paul was shortish, fair, plump, roseate. He wore heavy makeup. All ems used makeup, of course, but he favored cerise eyeshadow. Megatooty, for my taste.
Strangers might think him a microweight, effete, interested only in the next televised execution. In fact, he was one of the Section’s most creative neurobiologists. I was lucky to have him in DIVRAD.
The narrator is one Nicholas Bennington Flair; he’s young, brilliant, anethical, powerful, rich, gorgeous; that’s the opening to chapter X-2, which starts on the third page of “Mr. Bestseller” Lawrence Sanders’ 1975 novel, The Tomorrow File. It’s not, let’s get this out of the way, a very good book—it’s your basic beach-blanket brave new clockwork 1984, a dystopic vision of a far-flung future (1998!) full of kinky sex, freighted slang, and petroleum-derived foodstuffs. “Every year our bread became fouler and more nutritious,” says Nicholas, and that pretty much sums up the book’s moral tone. —I read it not too long after I saw that TIME magazine cover, somewhere between 11 and 12: old enough that I’d read any number of trashy potboilers in which men and women occasionally did the oddest and most obliquely described things to each other in and amongst the action and skullduggery; young enough that I was still trying to figure out exactly what. The mechanics were problemmatic: which was doing whom where, exactly? And in God’s name, why?
(Oh, shush. I was shy and bookish and a late bloomer.)
So meeting Nicholas Bennington Flair pretty much for the first time like that, having him so casually announce
I had been in bed with Paul
when just moments before he’d been flirting outrageously with his boss, Angela Teresa Berri, Deputy Director of the Satisfaction Section of the Department of Bliss (formerly the Department of Public Happiness, formerly the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare)—“Her nipples were painted black, a tooty fashion I found profitless”— It was another door, another seed, another bite, another slippery inch down those slopes. To have gone from zero past that image straight to a protagonist so openly, unapologetically queer! And more to the point: the protagonist of a Zukunftsroman. —Had Nicholas been narrating a contemporary beach-blanket thriller, he’d’ve been an alienating figure. No matter how exotic the locale, he’d’ve been insisting he was with all his queerness here and now, and I could look around me and see that this was not so. But science fiction—specifically, future-fiction, no matter how ham-handedly wielded, no matter that his once-future is now our past—SF gives him a certain license. He’s insisting that he and all his world could be, and inviting you to step awhile in his shoes and see the sights.
(We’ll leave once was for another time, and let’s not even try to tackle phantasy’s always already. —While the pieces of this essay-thing lay fallow, Jo Walton went and said the following, as neat as you please:
At twelve, The Dispossessed turned my head inside out on politics, making me question everything I’d seen as axiomatic. At fourteen Triton did the same on sexuality. What SF did was made me consciously aware of how the world was, of the things the world accepted as normal, and made me constantly question those things instead of taking them for granted. All SF did this for me. Heinlein did. Asimov did. Niven did. SF gave me the worldview of “this is a way of arranging things” rather than “this is the way things are.”
(So there you go.)
Which is not to say that The Tomorrow File is a very queer novel, mind. Sanders was “Mr. Bestseller,” after all; he’s not out to freak the punters, much less raise their consciousness—just titillate ’em on their beach blankets with a mere soupçon of épater. Nicholas talks a mean game—
“I’m bisexual,” I admitted. “By intellectual choice and physical predilection. I think most objects are, admittedly or not. The sexual preferences of obsos were conditioned by biological necessity and hence by society. Neither prevail today. Efs can procreate without sperm. The preservation of species is no more vital than its limitations. Now we can indulge our operative natures, which are androgynous.”
“What does all that mean?” she asked.
“That I like to use both efs and ems.”
“Oh, yes,” she breathed. “Use me.”
Ah, amour! —But! The only em Nicholas ever actually “uses” in the course of the book is young, effeminate, pudgy Paul, his assistant, his foil, his nemesis; him alone, as opposed to a score of efs, from the tootily black-nippled Angela to a couple of distressingly declassé Detroit girls. And while the book entire is something of an exercise in clinical detachment, it’s still telling that there’s not the slightest spark of lust or desire or longing in how Nicholas deals with Paul: he sees him; he just doesn’t want him. Only their final encounter is described with anything approaching the particularity of Nicholas’s encounters with those varied and sundry women, and that enough to make it clear it’s Nicholas who tops, while Paul Bumford bottoms. Our narrator’s essential masculinity, you see, has thereby not been compromised: buggering a subordinate is still splashing about in the shallow end of the genderfuck pool, a step or two beyond a couple of it-girls lugging it up on the dancefloor for the benefit of Mister Kite. —Also, and as another for instance, there’s the problem of the book’s only authentic queens:
Through the trees, drifting, came the two young ems, neighbors who had so amused my mother. Wispy creatures from the adjoining estate. Both barefoot, wearing identical plasticot caftans decorated in an overall pattern of atomic explosions.
They were carrying armloads of natural flowers: something long-stemmed and purple. They asked if they might leave them on my mother’s grave. I nodded. They put them down gently.
“She was a beautiful human being,” one of them said. The one with a ring in his nose.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Who were they?” Paul breathed when they ran away. Startled fauns.
“Friends and neighbors,” I said.
“The kind of ems who give homosexuals a bad name,” Paul said. “Flits.”
“You’ve changed,” I told him. “You wouldn’t have said that a year ago. In that tone.”
“‘When I was a child,’” he quoted, “‘I spake as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.’”
“Now I’ll give you one,” I said. “‘Upon what meat doth this our Cæsar feed, that he has grown so great?’”
It can’t help sniggering, this book; pointedly opting not to judge the morality of the characters, the actions, the era it pretends to find so morally empty. Sanders, after all, is very good at letting his audience feel superior to the people who are indulging in the very vices they themselves would indulge in, if they had a chance. (How else does one become Mr. Bestseller?) —What’s significant is that for once bisexuality—a man’s bisexuality—is presented as one of those vices. What’s significant is that Nicholas’s relationship with Paul is vital to the book: while Nicholas himself might tell you it was wanting life to have more charm that was his downfall, or perhaps a morbid conviction that the only worthy moral verities are those drawn from an obsessive contemplation of the works of Egon Schiele, we know it’s the way he treats Paul throughout that’s key to where he ends up, and why. —And keep in mind: I was 12, maybe 13, and trying to fit together a couple of very big pieces of how the world works that had rather haphazardly been given to me: it is possible for men to like other men; here, then, is a man who likes other men; here is that man in a relationship with a man he likes. Heady stuff.
So—mediocrities and problematizations real and manufactured aside—I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Because Nicholas Bennington Flair did not insist he was what he was, but instead that he could be what he is, if only the reader would let him, he became in an odd sort of way the change some wanted to see in the world. My world, if nothing else, became bigger because of him, and this book, and for that I have to tip my hat. Right time, right place, maybe; maybe my world would have achieved its intended size some other way, if I hadn’t found this book at the bottom of that paper bag. To quote Delany, stupidity is “a process, not a state”—
A human being takes in far more information than he or she can put out. “Stupidity” is a process or strategy by which a human, in response to social denigration of the information he or she puts out, commits him- or herself to taking in no more information than she or he can put out. (Not to be confused with ignorance, or lack of data.) Since such a situation is impossible to achieve because of the nature of mind/perception itself in its relation to the functioning body, a continuing downward spiral of functionality and/or informative dissemination results. The process, however, can be reversed at any time…
Maybe. But for all its flaws, The Tomorrow File was the key that opened the door; it’s what got the job done. Kudos.
Did it? —Get the job done, I mean. It takes a special sort of hubris to label homophobia qua homophobia as stupidity, shamefully toeing the dirt across from the blissful state of ignorance I’d been in, before I read Mr. Bestseller’s dystopia. —Whatever epiphany I might have realized in those tweenage days, it wasn’t until Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand that I understood—that I knew, in my bones—that a man liking another man was no different than me liking, say, Eva. And that was in my senior year of high school. Sophomore year, and altogether elsewhere, there was that unfortunate incident after a biology class, involving Bobby Brown, and that song Craig had put on a mix tape. “Hey there, people, I’m Bobby Brown,” I sang—sneered, really—“some say I’m the cutest boy in town,” and then I was on the floor having crashed into a lab table on the way down. Bobby stood over me, glaring, which was shocking—he was such a quiet, geeky guy, so much so that a quiet, geeky guy like myself felt perfectly—safe? justified?—in, well, mocking him. A startled faun. Where the hell had that tackle come from? He stormed out of the classroom as I pulled myself to my feet. —And if you’d asked me at the time I’d’ve said I don’t know, I had no idea, and if you’d asked me at the time I’d’ve said that wasn’t what I’d meant at all. It was just the congruence of the name. Mean-funny. You know?
But now I’m not so sure; I remember that little surge of spiteful triumph, that snigger just before he knocked it out of me, a rush that was as out of all proportion to the stupid, stupid joke as his sudden burst of anger. Why had I felt so safe? So justified? Why had he felt so threatened? “Oh God I am the American dream…”
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