Alph by Charles Eric Maine
Ballantine Books, 1972
Price I paid: none
The four hundred and fifty-fourth microcytological transfer succeeded—it produced a cell with the basic forty-seven chromosomes, the masculinegenetic structure.
In other words, a living male embryo.
A special laboratory was set up for the care and growth of this embryo, known as the Alpha project. With specially trained cytologists. And special guards. Why not? The world had not seen a “man” in over 500 years.
There was no telling what the strange creature might do…
Well, folks, it’s time for part two of the World Without Men saga…sort of. I mentioned last week that I basically got two copies of the same book, one from 1958 and the other from 1972, and that the latter was a rewrite and update of the former. That latter book is Alph. I’m have to say that it was a very, very different book. It was even just a tiny bit better, although it certainly had problems of its own.
First up, though, if you haven’t read about World Without Men, I recommend you hop back a week and check out that review before you read this one. I expect I’ll reference it a few times.
The cover of Alph is not nearly as great as the cover of World Without Men. While the earlier book had a cover that was somewhat cartoony and featured a woman being totally shocked at the existence of a wing-wang, Alph’s cover is a bit more evocative, I guess. Thing is, while the cover of the 1958 version of the book was pretty spot-on in terms of actually being a depiction of a scene from the novel, this cover depicts something that is not only not a part of the book, but misses the point. The cover seems to suggest a world that goes “Remember men? They were so great. I miss them and the things they did.” It also suggests a world where all the women stand arms akimbo with one hip thrust out. Not sure what’s going on with that, other than being somewhat titillating.
And bubble domes! There were no bubble domes in the book.
But the part I mentioned about missing men, that’s not in the book either. While the whole point of science for a long time has been the resurrection of the male genome, it’s not out of a sense of nostalgia. It’s a bit weirder, something to the effect of a world computer trying to give all the women something to do for a while.
In the review of World Without Men, one of the things that bugged me was that it was written non-chronologically in a way that felt lazy, after which it didn’t resolve into anything satisfying. The 1958 version of this story left off on a cliffhanger, I suppose, but again it just felt lazy instead of tense.
Alph managed to avoid that particular pitfall. For one, it was paced better and fell into a more chronological order. At first I was convinced that that was all the author changed, as the first two sections were direct lifts from the previous book.
See, I’d describe the chronology of World Without Men as something akin to 4-1-2-3-5. What Alph did was take sections 3 and 5 and put them at the start of the book.
Alph starts by describing the last man on Earth. His name is Gavor and this section is lifted almost straight from the 1958 version of the book, with maybe a few rewritten sentences, so I don’t need to describe it in too much detail. Basically, though, Gavor gets tired of being farmed for his gametes and decides to make an escape. He does some terrible things, after which the woman running the show basically says “You wanna escape? Be my guest.” and opens the front door. It turns out that this containment area is in Antarctica, so he steps outside and freezes to death.
We now jump 500 years into the future. I thought maybe this was a baby step toward the time of World Without Men, but no, this was a change. Whereas WWM took place five thousand years in the future, Alph takes place five hundred years in the future. Not certain what drove that change, other than maybe in the first book the author overestimated the amount of time it would take to develop certain technologies. Funnily enough, he did it again, because some of the crazy advanced technology these women are using is either commonplace or surpassed by 2014. It’s one of the hazards of writing science fiction, I suppose.
So in WWM the researchers hit a breakthrough when they found a frozen man and were able to harvest his gametes. In Alph it is made explicit that the man they found was Gavor. Section 2 of this book is lifted from the final section of WWM, so I was starting to get a little bit curious as things developed in much the same way. A baby boy is produced, it is ordered destroyed for some reason, a woman named Koralin steals it and runs away, and society starts to collapse.
When I’d finished World Without Men, I’d wished that the book had been the story of the collapse of society and the development toward bringing men back into the species. Well, hold on to your butts, people, because that’s what we get in Alph.
In many ways, this book is more a sequel than anything. The bulk of this book is entirely new, cribbing only its first two sections to set up the story. The whole bit about Sterilin is dropped, although it gets mentioned once or twice. There’s no trace of the “Nature is compensating for sterile women and that’s why we’re only giving birth to women” bit that so bugged me from the first book. I think Charles Eric Maine got a little bit better at science in the intervening fourteen years.
What about that whole 47/48 chromosome dichotomy that was so annoying? It’s still there for the first little bit of the book, but then it gets dropped. Eventually the book is talking about X and Y chromosomes in a way that makes actual sense. Things are looking up.
Oh, before I forget, reader Joseph Nebus had a comment on the post for World Without Men that I want to share:
For what it’s worth, there was a slightly embarrassing bit of confusion until the mid-50s where humans were thought to have 24 pairs of chromosomes, for 48 altogether. In defense of science of the first half of the 20th century, chromosomes are really hard to count. It’d take a fairly plugged-in science fiction writer to know that it had dropped from 24 to 23 pairs of chromosomes as early as 1958.
Joseph went on to explain that the whole “Men have 47, women have 48” thing is still pretty wacky though.
For a book that is ostensibly about the creation of the first man in 25 generations, the actual created man is in the background for the bulk of the book. I thought that was pretty neat. The book is instead about things like political and sociological ramifications. The ruling government collapses after the revelation that there is a male in the world, and we get to learn about the woman who led that revolution against the world brain and the oppressive government that carried out its orders. That government gets replaced by one that is actively in favor of returning to the old male/female system and throws its full support behind the, well, harvesting of the male, who later gets named Alph because he’s something like the Alpha prototype or whatever.
I’m sad to report that the rest of the book is pretty dull. One of the first new bits of story we get is a classroom scene.
I have a love/hate relationship with classroom exposition scenes. On one hand, they’re a fairly effective way of feeding the audience (and the class) some basic information about the society we’re reading about, stuff you can’t expect an adult member of that society to be only now learning about, or even discussing, because it’s the kind of information that is taken for granted. Plus you can do the thing where one of the students is heavily focused on and we get a character introduction, usually in the form of asking questions, often uncomfortable questions, that give the audience the idea that this kid is smart and sassy and is likely the protagonist or will grow up to be the protagonist. It’s efficient, and that’s why you see it a lot.
On the down side, they’re overused, and they’re very often boring. I guess that makes sense. Class is usually boring, so classroom exposition scenes would likely be boring too. And there are hazards. There’s the question of how old to make the fictional class compared to the level of information they’re receiving. Done right, you can sneak in a lot of extra information. Elementary school kids learning about procreation? Boom, you’ve got a quick way of establishing that this society has got a different attitude toward sex. Done wrong, and you start to wonder why high schoolers or college students are only now learning about, say, the founder of their society.
The greatest hazard is, of course, that it drags on entirely too long. This is the trap that many classroom exposition scenes fall into, and Alph is no exception. We get a lot of historical information, much of which was copied from World Without Men, but we also get some new information dealing with the fall of the previous tyrannical computer government and its replacement with the “Reversionist” government, which has the goal of reintroducing men to the population and bringing back heterosexuality into the world.
One of the students in that class goes on to become a carrier for a few baby boys after Alph gets to the point where he can provide the necessary ingredients. She’s deemed genetically superior, although it’s interesting that that doesn’t translate to being super smart or beautiful or anything. She had a fantastic genotype, but not necessarily the perfect phenotype, because genes don’t really work that way.
Along with her story, we get some parts about the re-invention of the strap-on dildo. It’s a bit weird. Even with the knowledge that a male has been brought back to the world, heteronormative relationships are still a strange concept to most of the women in the world. A few, though, develop a concept known as “simulo,” which is meant to help society readjust to the old way of doing things after five hundred years of lesbianism. What’s really creepy about it is that the women who develop simulo are either psychotic themselves or are convinced that all heterosexual intercourse is rape, because that’s what they do. They find women who might not otherwise be interested in the concept, get them drunk, and violently force themselves on them. It’s very disturbing and actually horrifying, because it’s not really played as a terrible thing. It’s not played for laughs by any means, but the mental trauma is downplayed a bit.
Well, I say that. The woman I was talking about earlier, the genetically perfect one, whose name is Lycia, gets raped by a woman named Marvin. Lycia commits suicide following the incident.
I’m really not sure what the point of all that was, but I felt that way about a lot of this book.
It’s Koralin, the woman that first stole Alph from the laboratory where he was produced, who gets him in the sack for the first time. There’s this whole sequence where she teaches him how things are supposed to go, because it was deemed unnecessary to teach him much of anything up to that point. All of his sperm was collected via artificial methods so that the X chromosome-bearing sperm can be separated from the ones with Y chromosomes. Doing things the old fashioned way was deemed a waste of gametes. Still, as he gets older the government has a real problem figuring out what to do with him. His many, many male children are genetically superior to him due to the completely logical rules of eugenics, so his sperm isn’t even needed anymore. Koralin feels like she needs to do something, anything, to keep him healthy and happy, since he is after all a human being, so she takes him to bed against direct orders.
Alph develops a taste for the Horizontal Batusi, as you might expect, and so teaches it to the other women he has to deal with. Pretty soon women are lining up at his door for their first taste of man-flesh, and the book ends with this incredibly adolescent sex fantasy.
Uuuugh, what the crap.
You know, it’s interesting: this book dealt less with science than the other one, and where it did deal with scientific concepts it was more accurate by far. It also continued the story past the cliffhanger ending of World Without Men, as well as tightening up of the storytelling and dropping a lot of needless historical exposition.
And yet in plenty of ways it was a worse book. It just didn’t go anywhere. We get to learn the story of the first man after 500 years of a woman-only world, and all he does is sit in a lab until women start banging him. I suppose the story is more about the effect of his mere existence than his direct actions, but that’s not satisfying storytelling. Plus it turns out that the effect of his existence is just that women stop being lesbians and start liking penises again. That doesn’t even make any sense, much less convey any kind of idea to take away.
The level of sexism stayed about the same. There’s still that bit about how men are the explorers, the conquerors, and the go-getters of society, all of which was lost when man went extinct, leaving women to take care of the planet until they got back and generally doing a good job of it. Society, while a bit tyrannical, is at least stable. Nobody wants for anything and everybody’s pretty happy, I guess. It’s a sort of positive sexism, which doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable. It’s still ludicrous to assume that women don’t want to be astronauts or generals or any of that due to some kind of genetic impulse.
So the question of which book is better is a hard one to answer. They were both severely flawed books, but in different ways. And that’s interesting! You can look at the flaws and see the development of not just the author, but also our own culture. The first book was pretty cagey about describing things like sex, although it was a bit daring in its mentioning the concept of lesbianism. It was a product of the fifties, from its moralizing to its science.
Alph, on the other hand, is a product of the early seventies. World Without Men had all these bits about how The Pill was going to destroy the world. Alph was a bit looser (and often a lot more explicit) on describing sexuality, and it didn’t seem to think that widespread sex-having was the worst possible thing that could happen to our society. The science was somewhat updated along with real-world discoveries, although it still wasn’t perfect or even consistent. There was no attempt to describe why men had died out in the first place, which was a better option than trying to come up with some weird Nature Goddess Deemed It explanation.
So there you go. Fourteen years can make a world of difference when an author writes the same book twice. I have to wonder what prompted Charles Eric Maine to revisit the concept. Was he that unsatisfied with the first book? Was money involved? Did he need to make a quick car payment?
I’m genuinely curious.
4 thoughts on “Alph”
I wonder about the rewriting of the book. It’s always curious when an author goes back and redoes a book.
I’m disappointed the cover doesn’t match the content well, though, because that’s the sort of book cover that speaks to my youth.
Have you read Edmund Cooper’s horrid take on a world without one of the genders SF novel Who Needs Men? (1972) It’s rather infamous…. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?9020
I have not read that, but I’m intrigued.
In the words of John Clute at SF encyclopedia (a notoriously nice publication): “In general, however, Cooper’s later work lacked much joie de vivre, and although accusations that he was anti-Feminist have been denied by some critics, it remains the case that his statement about women in a man’s world – “Let them compete against men, they’ll see that they can’t make it” – is difficult to spin into a very useful contribution to the long debate. A persistent edginess about women in power becomes explicit in Five to Twelve (1968) and Who Needs Men? (1972; vt Gender Genocide 1973), and surfaces less aggressively in Merry Christmas, Ms Minerva! (1978), a Near Future tale set in a Britain dominated by trade unions. These attitudes were neither politic, in the heightened atmosphere of the 1970s, nor in fact intrinsically becoming.”
I suspect the rest of us would find Cooper’s polemic egregious. Even in his earlier works, which I have read a few, there’s a certain uneasiness which clearly blossomed into full out sexism in his later years.