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Sunday 25 October 2015

Going Down… Beneath the Bermuda Triangle

I’ve just read two stories – a longish novelette and a shortish novel, both dating from the 1970s – by an author I’d barely heard of, called Jane Gallion. Previously I’d only seen her name in the context of a notoriously violent post-apocalyptic novel called Biker, which dates from 1969 and is still banned in the UK. But the two stories I did get hold of are quite different in tone, and it’s a shame they’re not better known. They’re both clever, well-written and interesting, and the longer of the two is bordering on a masterpiece.

To start with the shorter story – it’s called “Beneath the Bermuda Triangle” and it was published in the June/July 1979 issue of Galaxy magazine. This was a few years after the Skull the Slayer comic series I mentioned earlier this year, and it’s just as wacky a take on the Bermuda Triangle mystery. It’s got jewel-smuggling hippies, malevolent aliens, survivors from Atlantis, underwater pyramids and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

As far as I can tell, “Beneath the Bermuda Triangle” is the only story Jane Gallion ever wrote that doesn’t have any sex in it (apart from a couple of indirect references to Tantric Sex). But there is a tenuous connection to the world of erotica. The stand-in editor for that particular issue of Galaxy was “Hank Stine” – an alter-ego of Jean Marie Stine, who used the same byline on one of the avant-garde erotic novels published in the late sixties by the short-lived Essex House imprint (see my post about The Geek by Alice Louise Ramirez). Jane Gallion’s Biker was another Essex House novel – and according to an autobiographical note, she also worked as an editor there. At the same time, she seems to have been active in science fiction fandom – see this photograph of her (there were other links between Essex House and science fiction – Philip José Farmer also published several novels with them).

The novel I just read, and found so impressive, is called Going Down. In her autobiographical note (which dates from 1990), Jane Gallion says the book was written for Essex House but never published (partly because it broke two of their house rules – “no humour” and “no politics”). However, it was eventually published as an ebook in 2001, two years before the author died.

Unlike Biker (which is available as an ebook in America but not in Britain), Going Down is listed on the UK Kindle store, which is where I got it. I don’t think the listing does the book any favours – there’s no cover image or preview, the blurb is misleading and it’s classified as erotica, which it isn’t really – it’s a dystopian SF satire in which sex (or the suppression of sex) plays a significant role.

Going Down is written in the kind of avant-garde literary style that was popular in the early seventies – all in the present tense, and with no quotation marks around dialogue. In that sense, and in other ways, I found the style reminiscent of Barry Malzberg, who was one of the big name writers of the time. Thematically, on the other hand, the novel is closer to Philip K. Dick – all about a sharply stratified future society in which information is tightly controlled, and the government knows more about you than you do. The book’s structure is also reminiscent of PKD, with the point of view alternating between three different characters – one high up in government, one at the very bottom of society, and one who is a major figure in the (ultimately fruitless) rebel movement. Also, like both Dick and Malzberg, the novel has a strong undercurrent of humour, even though it’s basically a very angry book.

I mentioned science fiction portrayals of the future last week – and Going Down is one of the most prophetic I’ve come across. The society it describes is ultra-capitalist and ultra-puritanical. The government has electronic spying machines everywhere, ready to pounce at the first hint of subversive or “perverted” behaviour. Giant corporations charge people (who are always referred to as “consumers”) for absolutely everything – including having sex and going to the toilet. If you try to avoid paying for something, it’s a serious crime because it “damages the economy”. Also prescient (given recent headlines) is the utter hypocrisy of the ruling class, who impose puritanical laws on ordinary citizens while indulging in the most disgustingly obscene behaviour themselves.

Although Going Down was originally written in the early seventies, I’m not sure if it was revised for its ebook publication in 2001. If it wasn’t, then it contains one amazingly prescient reference. I can’t remember anyone back in the 1970s worrying about Genetically Modified crops, but one of the characters in the novel does. It’s in a scene between a high-ranking member of the government, named Hennering, and his boyfriend Penrod (“a slender lad of eighteen”). Hennering wishes to deep-throat a certain part of Penrod’s anatomy after said anatomical part has been thrust up a chicken’s backside:
The pullet had been organically raised. Penrod refused to have anything to do with a chicken exposed to genetically engineered or chemically adulterated food. He was afraid it might give him high blood pressure or possibly a rash. There’s a lot of that around. But Hennering made sure the bird was clean before he gave it to Penrod. Heavens to Betsy, he couldn’t have Penrod catching anything, could he?
This scene struck me as doubly prophetic – not just the reference to genetic engineering (and pathological aversion thereto), but also the way a conservative politician indulges in behaviour that’s so perverted it wouldn’t even cross a normal person’s mind. Remember this news story from a month ago?


Anonymous said...

Andrew, I've never heard of 'Biker' but I'm amazed that any novel could still be banned in this day and age - what on earth does it contain that still keeps it banned ??? And that mention of GM crops in the '70s might not be so unusual - a few years ago I saw an episode of 'Rising Damp' from circa 1976 where Rigsby says that deodorant is damaging the environment - I didn't realize that people were so enlightened back then !

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin, that's interesting.

As regards Biker, I guess I don't literally mean "banned" in the sense of "banned by law", but just that British retailers refuse to sell it. The book is available in the USA but not from any UK websites. I've noticed the same with other books and DVDs that might be (ignorantly) viewed as pornographic.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I see. I looked on Google Play Books and there was nothing at all by Jane Gallion - it's just a thought but could it be that 'Biker' isn't banned, it's just that it hasn't been included because it isn't considered interesting or even known about ? I only mention it because I've read reviews of books (in such places as Fortean Times) only to find that the e-book version isn't available on Google Play - there was nothing controversial about the books in question but they just weren't there to buy.

Andrew May said...

You've mentioned books not being on Google Play before, Colin. If I understand correctly, publishers have to submit their books to Google Play (just as they do with Kindle, iTunes, Waterstones etc) after which they are assessed for suitability before being listed. So non-listing may mean either that they are deemed to violate some terms & conditions (i.e. "banned"), or that the publisher simply didn't bother to submit them. Jane Gallion's ebooks were produced a long time ago (2001 - very early in the history of e-publishing) so you may be right that it's just that they have been forgotten or overlooked.