Crystal Phoenix

Crystal Phoenix by Michael BerlynCrystal Phoenix
Bantam Books, 1980
Price I paid: 90¢

In the brave new world of angels and procurers, rent-a-death prostitutes will let you sexually abuse them, and even hack them to pieces, for a fee. In anticipation of your own death, be sure to keep up payments on your life-crystal. After you die, you can again enjoy life to the hilt in a very attractive new body with your memories intact. Young body, old memories. Violent death is the ultimate repeatable pleasure.

I guess this review might warrant a content warning, although I also get the feeling that the “sexual violence” angle was played up in the synopsis, which leads us to the question of whom this book was marketed toward. I mean, there are some gross bits, but not nearly as many as I thought there would be. Is that a good thing? I have no idea.

The book was not awful. It had some flaws that I’ll discuss, but at least at no point was it suggested that the crazy stuff going on in this future society was in any way acceptable, nor was it preached against in any kind of heavy-handed way. The upshot of that is that it took the third annoying option: none of it made any difference.

This book isn’t the story of a messed-up future society where violence against other people is a commodity. That part is there, but it’s more like a shell over the actual plot, which is a standard revenge one that wasn’t handled well and took far too long to get going.

The first half of this 214 page tome is just character development. There’s a little exposition but not enough to be a flaw. We learn, though context and character interaction, a lot about this segment of a future society and I’ll even say that a lot of it was well done. One gets the feeling that the author came up with all of that stuff first, decided to write a book about it, and them realized about halfway through that maybe there needs to be a plot to go along with all this worldbuilding. It’s a pretty common situation.

Our protagonist, sort of, is a guy named Dennis Lange. I say “sort of” because it took a long time before the book narrowed down its focus enough to make it clear that this is the guy we’re following. It spends a lot of time in the heads of other characters, ones that eventually work their way into Dennis’s story, but for the first act or so seem incidental. I wondered for a long time whether this book was going to have an ensemble cast. It did not. Our point-of-view glimpses of these characters all but faded entirely after the halfway mark.

Dennis is a procurer, which gives me a chance to talk about what this book is mainly about.

Suppose that a character we’ll call “Archie” is on the tail end of his life. He’s lived a long while and nature has taken its course, or maybe he’s sick. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he’s kept up payments on his life-crystal. What this thing does is it scans the brain and makes a copy of it, memories and all. Should the worst happen, Archie has backed up all his files.

While it turns out that he’s kept up payments on that front, it also turns out that it also costs money to be “reconstructed.” There are clones involved, and DNA, and all that kind of thing. Archie’s old memories are put into this clone, up to the point where you last saved your game. That’s where our procurer, whom I’ll call Belisarius, steps in.

His job is to put Archie in contact with an “angel.” This angel, whom we’ll call Cecil, has a bit of a kink. He likes to brutally abuse and murder people. Normally that would be bad, but in this society he has an outlet. He pays Belisarius a large fee to hook him up with Archie. Part of this large fee goes toward paying down all of Archie’s reconstruction costs. Cecil gets to torture and kill Archie however he likes, no questions asked. Archie gets a free reconstruction at the end of it all, and didn’t even have his life crystal updated to include the torture and murder, so he doesn’t even remember it when he steps back into the world in a fabulous and healthy new 25-year-old body.

And that’s the book. See you all next week!

I kid. There’s more. Like…ten pages more. Of plot. Not of writing. There are about a hundred pages left of that.

When I started reading I expected a lot of this world to be really offensive, but honestly it wasn’t. Sure, it’s weird. But the joy of science fiction is that it allows us to examine questions of ethics and morality in a different light. Nobody actually dies, and in fact they benefit and don’t even remember the process. And nobody goes into it unwillingly. There are lots of papers to be signed and waivers to be waved. Is a society that gives the violent this kind of outlet to be reviled?

Could this be some kind of commentary on…video games?

Perhaps the fact that Michael Berlyn, the author, also designed and programmed games at Infocom could shed some light on that?

I’m gonna run with a solid maybe.

While all that stuff is being established we also learn that Dennis’s wife, Kira, really doesn’t like what he does for a living, and it’s eating them both up inside.

Here we cut to the plot-containing portion of the novel. It turns out that Dennis is really good at his job. There are people who don’t like that fact, namely a pair of procurers named Freddie and Mara Frank. Mara is the brains behind their operation and she devises a scheme that should get Dennis out of the procuring business…for good.

If there’s a part of the book that’s genuinely offensive, it’s this part. Instead of going for Dennis, they kidnap his wife. They know a guy that forges a lot of those waivers and forms they need for her to be legally killed and reconstructed, and they do so. They do it violently, with a lot of rape before setting her on fire, and they make Dennis and us watch the whole thing. And then she’s reconstructed and gets to find out about it all over again, this time with all those forged forms showing that Dennis himself set it all up.

That’s the third fourth of the novel. The last section is just revenge plot. Dennis decides that he’s not only going to kill the Franks, he also wants to kill the two guys that the Franks got to do all the bad stuff to Kira. And he does it over the course of about fifty pages, and it’s not satisfying because I never really felt anything for Dennis or his relationship. I mean, yeah, what these bad guys did was terrible, but really all we know about them and their terribleness is that they did something to Dennis’s wife, which means she’s nothing more than a woman in a refrigerator for the purposes of this plot and that makes everything about this narrative even worse.

And nothing about Dennis’s revenge is engaging or entertaining. There are narratives where we get to see a lot of planning and how our hero reacts to things not going his way. In a way a proper revenge narrative is really a heist narrative. Well, Dennis’s story would be akin to a heist movie where the plot is “Walk into the bank and take the money and leave.”

He murders one guy by calling his workplace and telling his boss that the guy is a fraud. So the guy gets fired. And he snaps. And he goes to a club to confront Freddie Frank about that, thinking that Freddie is behind it for some reason, and in the meantime gets himself killed.

The other guy is a little better. He’s got this immortality kick, so Dennis sabotages his life crystal so the next time he goes to back himself up, it kills him instead.

He bashes Mara Frank’s head against a tree.

And then he throws Freddie Frank’s body in the grave with her.

And that’s the book.

The one thing that kept coming back to me as this book came to its end was that it really wasn’t a science fiction novel. It was a regular old book that took place in a science fiction setting. Some people might wonder what the difference is, but I assure you, it matters to me.

A good sci-fi story happens because of the setting, which includes things like technological advances and societal shifts and all that kind of thing. If you can take out the science and the story makes sense, you did it wrong.

Let’s look at Crystal Phoenix as an outline without any of the sci-fi elements:

  1. A guy has a job that gives him trouble with his wife.
  2. He is good at his job.
  3. A competitor decides to do something awful to his wife in an effort to get the guy out of the job.
  4. The guy kills the competitor in revenge.

“But what about the life crystals and stuff?” you might be asking. Sure, they were a pretty neat idea, but did they really matter to the story? It made little difference to the narrative that Kira came back from the dead after she was killed. That’s another point that shows how horribly her character was used. She dies, comes back, and does nothing else to further the plot. She could have stayed dead and the story would have progressed in exactly the same way.

Dennis used some futuristic devices to get his revenge, but really they were just guns. The only one of his revenges that used the setting at all was when he killed the guy with his own brain-scanner. I’ll give the book a nod for that.

I spent a large part of this morning creating a convoluted analogy where this kind of book is like a piece of candy with a chocolate coating that makes you think it’s going to be all chocolate but then it turns out to have nougat or something inside. I gave up after the analogy got too convoluted and I’ll just leave you with this:

A good science fiction book has chocolate all the way through it.

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