Chrome by George Nader
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978
Price I paid: none
In the future, there will be only one taboo: to love a robot. But in the desert hideaway where Chrome and the warrior King Vortex meet, a bond between man and machine is unknowingly taking shape. . . a bond that will ignite intergalactic violence and bring Earth once more to the brink of total destruction.
So this review warrants a little bit of backstory.
I’ve been watching old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show with my roommates while we eat supper. A few weeks back we watched the first-season episode “The New Doctor,” where this new doctor (hence the title) moves into Mayberry and it looks like he’s putting the moves on Miss Ellie and Andy gets all jealous.
Whenever I’m watching old shows like that I like to look up who played the guest star of the episode, mainly so I can see if they were ever on Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. This particular actor, George Nader, was in neither, but Wikipedia was kind enough to let me know that he wrote a single science fiction novel. Of course I had to look it up. And now, thanks to Knox County’s interlibrary loan system and the good folks at Louisiana State University, I’m reviewing it.
Note on the back matter: I nabbed this particular summary off of Amazon. I make no guarantees to its accuracy. Likewise I nabbed cover art for a different edition from the ISFDB because their other scans were not so good. The copy of the book I read was missing its jacket, so I didn’t have any of that on-hand.
Okay, we ready?
For a number of reasons I was hoping this novel would turn out to be a lost classic. For one, it’s―as far as I know; correct me if I’m wrong―the only book I’ve reviewed here that was written by a gay man about gay stuff. George Nader was never openly gay during his acting career, but came out after his good friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985. I suppose that means he was still being discreet when he wrote this book, but golly, you wouldn’t think that when reading it.
A side note: I’m a pretty standard white male cis-het. I try to be a good ally, but there’s a lot I don’t know so I’m not going to try to speak for anyone who isn’t me. If I say something stupid, it’s coming from a place of ignorance, not hate, and I ask that you correct me so I can learn.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about a 369-page hardcover novel that is, I estimate, about 120 pages of hardcore gay sex.
Our hero is the titular Chrome. He’s a cadet in the Space Administration of S.O.R.A., the Society of Restructured Americas. The book takes place about 200 years in the future. Earth has made contact with the greater universe, specifically with a government organization called the Confederated Galaxies. Earth isn’t quite a full member of the Confederated Galaxies yet, but one of the ways it gets its people out there is with the Space Administration.
One of the last tasks a cadet in the Space Administration undergoes is working as a servant for some nonhuman for a specified time. That’s how Chrome meets Abd H’Lokk-Mond H’Zum, whom Chrome later names King Vortex because it’s easier to pronounce.
At first Chrome has no idea what King Vortex is or what’s his deal. All he knows is that the man is incredibly attractive. Chrome has to fight his attraction for a while―he has a job to do, after all―but he finds it incredibly difficult.
Chrome’s job is to give massages. He’s got a Gift, which is basically the paladin 1st level spell Lay on Hands. His touch, judiciously applied, can heal people.
King Vortex’s problem is that his hands are messed up somehow. He doesn’t talk about it. All Chrome knows is that Vortex’s hands are encased in metal cylinders, so he can barely take care of himself.
Chrome is at first a very likable character. He’s cheerful, helpful, and does his work without complaint. Things go a different direction in the second half of the book, but at the start, I rather liked him. Vortex, on the other hand, starts out as cold and harsh, but mellows as time goes on.
For such a long book, it really takes a while for major events to happen. Basically, the first half of the novel involves Chrome and Vortex getting to know one another better. They grow to appreciate each other, and Chrome realizes he’s falling in love. There’s a problem, though, in that Chrome starts to think that Vortex is a Robot.
Robots in this book aren’t clanky metal people. They are, in fact, pure human. They’re just genetically created humans, grown in vitro. Something went wrong when the first Robots were created, though. They have no compassion, no empathy, no cares at all about anything other than themselves. They will fight for self-preservation, but that’s all. They’re extremely dangerous. It’s broadly hinted that they just don’t have souls.
As a result, it’s highly illegal to love a Robot.
I assumed this struggle would be the whole point of the book. Chrome’s illicit romance with King Vortex would be a stand-in for the plight of gay men and their own struggles to love whom they want to love. For a while, it was looking like that would be the point of the book. It went weird, though.
Chrome and Vortex finally reveal their love for one another and have sex. Lots of times. There’s lots of gay sex. Did I mention that already? It bears repeating.
Now, what was confusing me about this narrative was that it seemed to be casting homosexual relations into a new light by porting the idea over into the illicit love between a man and a Robot. What confused me, though, was just the fact that there was so much gay sex in this book. It’s one thing if you use science fiction to get that point across by, say, having a human male love an alien female or whatever. Getting your point across without making it explicitly gay. Star Trek in its many iterations did it all the time. This book didn’t seem to be doing that.
In fact, in Chrome’s world, everyone seems to be quite comfortably and happily bisexual. There’s never any comment on the fact that men are having sex. It’s just there. It’s pretty refreshing, honestly, but it doesn’t jive with the message I thought this book was supposed to be getting across.
It reminded me a bit of latter-day Heinlein novels, except where Heinlein’s characters would give lip service to being happily bisexual and then have lots of straight sex, George Nader’s characters actually went ahead and did it. A lot.
So around the midpoint in the novel, things take a dramatic shift. Vortex’s cabin in the desert gets attacked by somebody and Vortex is apparently killed. Chrome tries to fight against it and is knocked out.
He wakes up later in a hospital and then we get a big old exposition dump. We learn that Vortex isn’t a Robot. Chrome is.
I want to make a hilarious pun on Philip K. Dick here but it’s offensive and probably hurtful.
Chrome is part of a new attempt at creating Robots that don’t have the limitations of the earlier variety. He has to prove that he can, among other things, care about other people. This whole thing, from start to finish, was meant to test that. All the warnings about loving a Robot that Chrome ignored, the cold treatment he got at the beginning of the book, and several other things were just attempts to prove that Chrome could in fact be trusted to care about people. He was pronounced a success.
It turns out that King Vortex wasn’t killed in the attack. It also turns out that Vortex does truly love Chrome and wants to take him back to his, Vortex’s, home planet. And it also yet again turns out that the nickname Chrome gave him had truth to it: Vortex is, in fact, a king. He’s the leader of a caste of intergalactic society called the Warriors.
Most of the rest of the book consists of varieties of exposition dump. In terms of story, it mostly goes that Vortex wants Chrome released to him while S.O.R.A. gives him the runaround, often saying that they’ll do it and then changing their minds at the last minute.
There’s this long diatribe from one of Chrome’s friends about how S.O.R.A. has turned Earth into a “garbage planet.” It has lowered the standards for humanity. Apparently one of its sins was…wait for it…encouraging the mixing of the races. Homogeneity is terrible for humanity, according to this guy.
Another friend, this one a Warrior, explains that humanity started to fail when it granted equality to women. See, the best and brightest of women, who would have given their smart genes to boys who could go out and do stuff, decided not to have children and instead selfishly use their brains and bodies to do stuff themselves. As a result, humanity has gotten stupider and stupider.
Basically this book turned into an even more mean-spirited Idiocracy that also happened to have an extra-large dollop of misogyny, sprinkled quite heavily with gay sex.
Again, this book did not go in the direction I thought it would.
The rest of the book is less what I’d called a “narrative” and more what I’d call “a series of connected events.” Characters stop being characters and start being cardboard, and whatever this book was supposed to be telling me got lost in a haze of double-dealings and treachery and other such events that I couldn’t really keep track of and were never quite resolved to my satisfaction.
It turns out at some point that Chrome has children from a pre-book situation where a bunch of beautiful women captured him and taught him of this human thing called unprotected sex. This was apparently intentional. The children are all in hiding now, and we never quite get any information about them.
There’s a guy named Rover that Chrome gets stuck with who is apparently only there to teach Chrome that it’s possible to experience love and human touch without a sexual response. But to what purpose? I don’t know.
Oh, and at another point S.O.R.A. fakes Chrome’s death, so Vortex basically says screw this planet and hurtles off into the universe.
Until the end when it turns out that Vortex knew all along that Chrome was alive and they get to go off into the universe together.
And that’s about all there is to say.
I’m not sure what to make of this book. It started off promising. It could have been an excellent science fiction morality tale about how Love is Love. It could have been really timely and appropriate for readers right now. But it wasn’t. It was all over the place and it didn’t really come together all that well to make any kind of statement.
I wanted to like this book, and I kept looking for reasons to think it was going to redeem itself, but alas, it never did. I’m not hostile to it, just disappointed.
Sam Delany, this guy ain’t.
If you’re particularly curious about this book, I’d say the first third or so is worth checking out. The book is divided into three sections, so stick with the first one. It’s a really sweet sci-fi romance that just happens to involve two men. It works. There’s no shame, no hiding, no denial of feelings. I liked it.
After that the book falls apart and I don’t know what to make of it anymore. Maybe you do? Let me know!