Avon/EOS, 1997 (1998 reprint), 438 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78205-7
Science-Fiction used to be devoid of sex. Aimed at a teen market and conscious that any risqué content could provoke a backlash from parental authorities, magazine SF was kept suggestive, but mostly clean. While often ludicrous, this wholesome spirit helped the genre mature intellectually, a lot like the teens who were reading the magazines.
Things changed in the sixties, with new authors and new markets. For the first time, SF was a genre that could be sold in books, and with this new readership (well, often the same readership, but now older) came the freedom to experiment with new things. Including sex.
The so-called “New Wave” not only brought a new writing style to SF, but also added a sexual dimension to characters, who could now consume their lust after triumphing from impossible odds. A few writers never caught on; some succeeded brilliantly.
And so SF evolved.
Or devolved, according to some. The plain good old wholesome field of SF was now awash in sexual perversions and evil thoughts. The old stuff was clean, PG-rated and completely safe for children. The new stuff was decidedly different.
Today, things are more balanced: While the newness of perversion has worn off, characters haven’t gone back to their eunuch selves. SF is now comparable to mainstream literature (and considerably tamer than romance!) in terms of sexual content. But there are occasionally a few novels that bring back all the excesses of the sixties, making readers and reviewers question the appropriateness of SF’s sexual revolution.
Alpha Centauri manages to ruin a potent Science-Fiction novel with incessant sex… and that takes some (misguided) talent. What could have initially been a reasonably good and original novel about humans exploring Alpha Centauri is now peppered with thoroughly unpleasant sexual issues.
Now, your reviewer isn’t a stranger to porn, but only the sickest wacko could find arousing material in Alpha Centauri. One character is of both sexes, and he’s the healthiest psyche aboard. Another has been ritually abused by her own family as a child. Another is psychologically programmed to have sex with every crewmember in order to infect them with a sterility-inducing virus. Another is insanely jealous. Another has affective disorders. Quite a bunch of dysfunctional astronauts for a single mission.
All of which, still, could have been handled in a mature fashion. But not with Barton and Capobianco: At almost every single page, the sexual dimension of the story is brought up. Again. Again. Again, until the frustrated reader can’t do anything but scream out “Enough, already!” Every single character in Alpha Centauri is obsessed with sex, and most of this obsession is definitely not healthy, enjoyable or even necessary. Sex is pain. Sex is anguish. Sex is death. Sex is everywhere.
Yes, there’s another story in Alpha Centauri, about a bunch of human discovering a fallen extraterrestrial civilization on Alpha Centauri, and them using hyper-advanced technology to reconstruct images of them, but you have to wade though pages of unpleasantness to discover it. And when you do, it’s only to find out that the aliens are at least as seriously screwed up -in, yes, a sexual sense- as the humans of the story.
In the end, Alpha Centauri isn’t completely worthless, for it teaches an interesting insight in the workings of SF. If sex remained taboo for so long, and isn’t that important even today, it’s not because SF-fans were immature, because sex is immoral or because editors were prudes: It’s because sex bogs down a story and teaches nothing new. It hinders SF’s natural strengths and annoys the reader.
Got that, author-boys?