The Rainbow Cadenza, by J. Neil Schulman, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, 303 pp., $15.95.
Dystopia, the imaginary world worse than reality, may be as old in literature as utopia. In fact, the two are identical in the earliest example I know of, Plato's Republic. Not many of us today would want to live in that grim collectivist state.
Deliberately created dystopias appeared from time to time in the following millennia, usually as satires. After the First World War they really began to proliferate, and most of them were no longer in the spirit of fun or of moralizing. Rather, they became vatic. They described grisly futures that could conceivably develop out of the present. Surely this tells us something about the 20th century.
Looking closer, perhaps we can even learn something about different periods, of a decade or so, within that century. From the start, in several tales, H.G. Wells forecast devastating international conflicts. Aldous Huxley's self-petrified hedonism in Brave New World is a kind of epitome of the Jazz Age, as George Orwell's 1984 is of the Cold War era.
The mid-'50s saw such works as Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, about managerial overgrowth, and Frederik Pohl and C.L. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, wherein the consumer culture has run wild. Later, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up concerned itself with what we are doing to our planet. Meanwhile, nuclear doomsdays have been crowding the newsstands. I know this thought is an oversimplification, but still, it seems as if each epoch has had its characteristic dystopia, writing large its deepest fears.
If so, in The Rainbow Cadenza J. Neil Schulman has touched yet another nerve. The damned book haunted me for days after I read it. Not that it's a plausible prediction of what we are going to become—no science fiction story is, or ever has been. But this one makes some mighty disturbing suggestions about what we are: above all, in our latter-day obsession with sex.
Lest that put you off, let me hasten to add that it's a good, exciting read. The characters and their milieu come alive—you'll get to care about them. Schulman is extraordinarily inventive of the details that make a setting not only different from here-and-now but believable and fascinating. There's a lot of humor, mordant and otherwise, including a lot of puns, subtle and otherwise. While the story spans about 20 years, on the whole it keeps moving, and the pace accelerates.
The background is too complex for me to do more than hint at it. Besides, finding your way around in it makes for quite a voyage of discovery. Civilization has survived at least two major wars, gained a world government of sorts, and progressed far in most material respects. Pollution, disease, and related problems appear to have been overcome. Spaceflight has opened the wonders and wealth of the solar system to humankind. Biotechnology allows people to do everything from deciding the sex of their offspring to living healthily past the century mark and, under the right conditions, reversing death itself.
Yet this is a society as cruel and degraded as Nero's Rome. Males outnumber females seven to one-Schulman explains how that came about—with strange results, among them the drafting of young women for a term of service in public brothels. Resisters and other nonconformists, like ordinary criminals, lose all legal rights and become Touchables, subject to commercially sponsored execution in microwave ovens for minor infractions, or to rape, torture, and killing for sport. To identify both them and the privileged, electronic devices are implanted in children, linked to a global computer network. The catalogue of horrors goes on.
Almost everybody takes these horrors for granted—which may be the ultimate horror. One person argues at length that the system is good, demanding minimal sacrifice for the benefits it confers. Most whom we meet are decent and well-meaning by the standards of their time; some are in an absolute sense. Joan Seymour Darris, the heroine, is downright lovable, as are certain of her friends. The most evil character, at least on center stage, is her kinswoman Vera—but she is desperately unhappy, warped by circumstance, not choice.
The book follows Joan's career in lasegraphy, light shows having become as developed an art form as ever music was. The narrative is structured accordingly and contains several beautiful descriptive passages. Hope endures in the space colonies, which have gone their various independent ways. I wish the author had told us more about the libertarian one.
I also have a couple of nits to pick, notably Schulman's placing a geosynchronous satellite above the latitude of New(er) York and a colony at the L-2 point of the Earth-Moon system—that is not a stable position. A larger flaw is his interruption of things, chiefly in the earlier chapters, with long expositions in his own voice.
But this is praising with faint damns. Here, in his second novel, J. Neil Schulman has given us not only a fine story but a great deal to think about—perhaps especially if we consider ourselves sexually unprejudiced. Whatever he does next, which may well be as different from either foregoing book as they are from each other, it should be an event worth awaiting.
Poul Anderson is the author of Orion Shall Rise (just published) and other science-fiction novels, as well as short stories and several nonfiction works on space.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Newest Map of Hell".