Tainted Love

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So, I have been on reading a lot of novels about cyborgs recently for a project I am working on.  One book that came multiply recommended was The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey.  Like Ender’s Game, this is a book that I had heard about for years but never actually read.  Overall, I was entertained but ultimately disappointed — though perhaps unfairly (more on that later).

But first, a bit about the book.  The premise of the novel is that severely physically disabled persons are fitted to command space ships as a way of providing them “life” and mobility that they would not otherwise have had.  Their bodies are left complete and encased in the center of the space ship and obviously there is a great deal of training that goes into it.  It is interesting that McCaffrey suggests multiple times that the bodies are intact — so clearly cyborg by extension rather than revision.  Our protag — Helva, in this case — cannot live without the ship but somehow her “essential” humanness is preserved — literally in fluid.  Very womblike.

Each brain ship as they are called are paired with a brawn.  Hijinx ensue. 

Ok, now on to my unfair criticisms: 

Unfair, first off, what I read as a novel was originally a series of short stories.  Expectations for continuity, characterization, etc are much different in a novel than short stories around a common character.  It was exactly these things to which I thought the novel gave short shrift.  Her first brawn, Jennan, was very important to the entire set but only appeared in the first.  The development of their relationship was brief but yet the emotional attachment she had for him influenced her throughout.  Further the establishment of her as “the ship who sang” and why that was significant was there but not fleshed out (no pun intended) enough.  I was wanting more. 

Secondly, unfair, because not only did I read in a different format but 47 years after the publication of the first story.  While it no doubt broke much of the ground that later cyborg novels plant their seeds in, there were things that gave me pause.  For instance, here is Helva, smart, powerful, with all the possibilities for independence (from running missions without a brawn to when she fulfills her contract and work for herself) and she chooses, nay desires and needs, a male brawn.  She accepts temporary and female brawns very reluctantly.  And, there is an emotional need for love that is being fulfilled no doubt.  But, it seems to resonate more as gendered rather than cybernetic.  Helva willingly places herself under the control of men and seems happy doing it — especially given the last chapter where she selects a brawn who does not fit the physical profile of typical brawns (an aptly named group) and she joy with which she describes being bossed around by him at the end of the book.   I must keep in mind that this series of stories was started in 1961 and 1969 so in a very different in terms of gender.  And, to be fair, Helva does outwit her superiors to get the man she desires — which was more subversive in the 60s than today. 

Oddly, the man she chooses is obsessed with her, wanting her to know she looks like so he constructs a model based on her DNA and claims that she is beautiful.  He also knows the code which would open her shell (metaphor, perhaps?) and be able to physically see and hold her — though that would apparently kill her.  Thus, he has to love her purely emotionally.  This clearly bothers him since he is an apparent playboy and spends the night before joining her at “pleasure establishments.”  Thus, he does have to come to grips with his physical versus emotional desires.   You know, the more I write about this book, the less disappointed I am.   Perhaps, there is a suggestion here about what makes a good marriage.

One final note on covers:  Though I am not sure whether or not McCaffrey oversaw the cover art for her novel or not.  I found these two covers for the book particularly interesting. 

I find this first cover to be rather loaded visually.  It deals directly and oppositely with the question of physicality in the novel.  Helva is literally disembodied from the ship (which would be her actual appearance) and she apparently is Farah Fawcett (or at least has her hair).  No question here, Helva is still pretty and thus valued according to those parameters.  Secondly her body disappears into the landscape with two well-placed and exploding volcanoes — mixing both the maternal and the sexual.  Finally her actual body — the ship — is quite phallic and positioned not to represent her but rather the brawn perhaps.  Ultimately the cover is quite dissonant with the novel for me.

The second cover comes from the edition I read.  Here, again, Helva has long flowing hair, quite pretty with striking eyes and lipstick.  So, again, the focus on her physicality, something none of the characters — including Helva — can ever know.  Unlike the previous cover, she is connected to the ship.  However, notice that her face appears in the white exhaust of the once again the extremely phallic ship.  It does not take much imagination to see what is being suggested here.  In order for this to happen, she is looking backwards not forwards – despite the movement of her hair.  Finally though the positioning could always be worse, note the number and proximity of the planets on the cover. 

This is by no means an exhaustive search of covers but these cover do suggest something quite different from what is encountered inside. 

 

   

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One Response to “Tainted Love”

  1. Pseudonym Says:

    I am going to start writing a book about a Farah Fawcett-haired spaceship as soon as I can come up with a plot. The sequel to that book will feature 2 other feather-banged spaceships who are ordered around by a benevolent, disembodied male spaceship. I might as well be printing money!

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