Venus Plus X
A few overtly utopian novels have endured through the years, most notably Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, memorable for its scope and craft. However, many more have become relicsamong them, perhaps, Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X. Sturgeon's unsuccessful utopian science-fiction novel was published in paperback in 1960, sold poorly, and pretty much disappeared from sight. It was a fate that reportedly hurt Sturgeon, who had labored over it and distilled the novel's philosophies from reading William James, Erich Fromm, and Margaret Mead, among others. Perhaps the novel's ambition is what earned Venus a spot in David Pringle's canon-making 1986 book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. But sometimes ambition isn't enough.
The plot is this: Alien, bigendered humanoids have snatched Charlie Johns from Earth and invite him to tour their world, Ledom, and learn everything about it before they teleport him back. In Ledom, Charlie finds, there is no strife, no want, no pollutionnone of the ills of home. Through action that cuts between sexually harmonious Ledom and sexually schizo Earth, and through Sturgeon's rather pedantic hand, the reader comes to learn that Earth's problems have everything to do with a bad mix of power, shame, and sexthe result of Mars and Venus declaring World War III, literally. But there are compelling mysteries in the novel, which end up being truly bizarre sci-fi twists: How did the Ledom become bigendered, and why are they so interested in Charlie?
Concerned primarily with issues, utopian novels are reactionary, locked in the ideologies of the times in which they are written. Ideologies don't make good plots, and lasting characters can never be merely props for a message. Venus Plus X suffers more from the latter of those problemsit starts slow and tumbles over clunky sci-fi passages. But it's interesting to read Venus' sexual commentary in the wake of a second wave of feminism, the gay liberation, and the sexual revolution of the '60s. Obviously, in 1960 the novel was way ahead of its time. It has lost some of that power, but its critique of American prudence still holds.
When he stuck to good stories and good characters, Sturgeon was a lot better than this. This year Vintage Press, which has been reissuing classic SF, published three other Sturgeon novels that are more worthwhile; most explore his obsession with extraordinary children and ordinary grownups in extraordinary situations. To Marry Medusa is about an intergalactic "hive-mind" (one mind that controls several bodiesa common SF metaphor for totalitarianism) that finds a home in a drunken louse. The Dreaming Jewels follows a battered and gifted child who joins the circus. Sturgeon's best and most enduring work, More Than Human, about a gang of superchildren, won the International Fantasy Award after it was published in 1953. Any of these novels make a more persuasive case for Sturgeon's gifts than Venus Plus X.