Bantam Spectra, 2005, 451 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58776-5
It’s summer and I’m mellow, and that just may be the only reason why I’m still amused by C.J. Ryan’s generally deplorable Dexta. Some books are mesmerizing because it’s hard to believe how ludicrous they are, and Dexta falls squarely in that category. I suspect that the story of how that book was purchased, edited and marketed by Bantam Spectra is a lot more interesting than Dexta itself.
Where to start? Oh, I know: Let’s first tackle the irony of purchasing this book.
You see, I’ve been feeling guilty of not reading enough female authors. I thought I’d make an effort and so purchased two unknown SF novels by an equally unknown “C.J. Ryan”. In Science Fiction and Fantasy, first initials are often a reliable indicator of female authors: From C.J Cherryh to J.K. Rowling, many female authors were/are advised to use initials as so to “not scare off the boys”. I assumed that this would be the same and thought I’d bravely do my part to support SF written by women.
How hilariously wrong this would turn out to be.
Dexta takes place in a universe a thousand years in the future, at a time where the human empire reigns supreme over thousands of planets. Naturally, such machinery of government requires a bureaucracy, and it’s the lower rungs of the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs (Dexta) that we find our heroine, Gloria VanDeen. As the manager of a handful of planets, it’s her job to solve the problem when extraterrestrial natives take up arms against their human masters.
So far, so dull: there isn’t much here to distinguish the premise from countless other mid-list SF novels. One would think that a twenty-first century SF novel with this conventional starting point would use it as a pedestal from which to question the assumptions of imperialism, or as a framework on which to hang the weirdness of a very different future. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted where C.J. Ryan would take this novel. Because within pages, it’s clear that Dexta has taken a turn for the bizarre.
There’s the power-fantasy element, for instance. Not only is Gloria VanDeen a living DNA-sculpted goddess (perfect “coffee with a little cream” skin, “gracefully flowing blond tresses the colour of honey”, “intense sky-blue” eyes, “high and broad” cheekbones, etc. [all P.16]), but she is the emperor’s ex-wife and is succeeding brilliantly in Dexta despite a rough first year.
How rough? That’s where Dexta really dives into bizarro-land. As described in the novel, Dexta’s environment is so competitive that its inner rules allow for rough play and aggression at the lower levels of its hierarchy. Quoting the book’s logic, “sexual harassment and intimidation were simply part of the game at Dexta” [P.53] Chapter 4 describes an organization so fundamentally dysfunctional that it suggests an elaborate satire: “Sleeping with a superior at Dexta was a normal and accepted part of life… there were no formal rules governing sex at Dexta, but everyone knew what was expected.” [P.58] There is some thin justification about how Dexta discourages its lower-level employees from forming stable relationships with people outside Dexta, but the damage is done: There’s no way such an organization (one financed with public money, no less) could hope to exist a long time.
Described like this, from afar, this could be satire… if only it was written as such. There is a very long sequence describing the “Dexta Bestiary” [P.49-53] that feels like an inner-office joke taken too far and then taken seriously for the rest of the novel. What little we get in term of self-awareness about Dexta’s dysfunction comes very late in the novel, as the heroine is basically told “ha-ha, you passed our hazing rituals!” Every character’s mention is tagged with his or her level within the Dexta Bureaucracy, which is obviously very important in the scheme of things. Chapter 4 sets up a particular gag: “Assault was forbidden against either a superior or a subordinate. But staffers at the same level could and often did resolve disputes through sheer force. [P.51] You won’t be surprised to learn that it lead to a good old-fashioned cat-fight in Chapter 20: “You’re a Thirteen, I’m a Thirteen… if we can’t resolve our differences calmly and rationally, Dexta has a time-honoured alternative” [P.316].
But that’s small potatoes compared to the fascination that the author seems to have for describing what little clothing Gloria chooses to wear. It may seem like an exaggeration to say that her physical appearance or wardrobe is lauded every five pages, but let me just go through pages 100-120:
- “[He] noticed Gloria. Her ran his eyes over her quickly.” [p.103]
- “…a wide, plunging neckline that left her breast almost completely uncovered”. [p.105],
- “Ah, ladies, he cried, you look exquisite.” [P.106]
- “…those tits of yours won’t get me babbling the way they did with young Olivera.” [p.109],
- “Standing before the mirror, she pulled some fabric farther apart, completely exposing her nipples.” [P.113]
- “Gloria… I appreciate your interest, and under any other circumstances, I would appreciate the excellent view of your breasts” [P.114]
- “She was wearing a loose, nearly transparent white shirt, unbuttoned and knotted at the waist, and… denim blue jeans. Gloria’s were tight and rode low on her hips, a fetching five inches below her navel.” [P.117]
Throughout the novel, we’re told all about her outfits, her hair, her curves, the way he adjust her clothes to be nearly transparent, or how she makes strategic use of her pubic hair. I have quotes for that too: “She looked at herself in the closet mirror and saw that a single stray pubic hair was curling over the top of her skirt, golden and obvious against her cocoa-toned flesh. She rather liked the effect.” [P.60] Later: “Her blond pubic delta at the junction of her long, silken thighs, and her round, firm breasts were entirely uncovered. She stood before him and let him get as good a look as he wanted.” [P.324]
The rare passages that aren’t from Gloria’s point of view are no better. Later in the book, a superior reads one of her memos and is impressed that “Her brains were obviously as good as her breasts” [P.374] A few pages later, the emperor himself gravely remarks “Did you see her? Did you see those tits of hers? How in hell can I compete with that?” [P.382]
Hurrah for Gloria VanDeen, symbol of female empowerment.
It may be meant as a Statement of some sort, but it frankly comes across as puerile and embarrassing. There’s a Mary-Sueish vibe to Gloria that gets stronger as the novel unfolds, along with an overall feel of creepy bafflement. Despite living in a society without nudity or sex taboos, Dexta’s male characters seem easily swayed by an attractive woman showing some skin and hinting at further carnal knowledge. It’s not only insulting: it’s bad writing and lazy plotting. Once, just once, I would have liked Gloria to face down a gay or happily married man who would just look at her and say “lady, you ain’t all
Throughout, Dexta teeters on the edge of being soft-core SF sex novel. Gloria has a fling with the emperor (her ex-husband), reflects on the many people she’s had to sleep with at Dexta, has a relationship with a handsome outdoors type, shows her body as a social favour to keep up the morale of the troops [P.355] and entraps an enemy by soliciting date rape. (“Gloria cried out involuntarily as he reached the blond tangle of her pubic mound. She felt his wet, slick tongue on her, and then his short, pudgy fingers, stroking and probing and finally penetrating her.” [P.328]) A powerful aphrodisiac is a key plot driver on both the meta and the micro level. Throughout the novel and despite the so-called permissiveness of Gloria’s universe, “having sex with” is a crude and constant shorthand for the fact that two characters have a strong relationship of some sort. Usually a relationship that works to one person’s advantage, or can be exploited by a third party.
It gets better, or worse, late in the novel as Gloria arranges for storms to be transported around the planet. Whenever the torrential rain starts falling… she strips down naked and starts a good-natured mud fight with her female assistant in front of soldiers: “Gloria brought Petra down with a Qatsima move and both of them were soon rolling around in a puddle, shrieking and giggling madly. Gloria gained her vengeance, ripping Petra’s clothes off as the delighted Marines watched.” [P.360] I swear I’m not making any of this up, nor stealing from porn movie script. (For one thing, there are no lipstick lesbians here despite the girl-on-girl mud-wrestling: the vast majority of the actual or implied sexual relationships in Dexta are strictly heterosexual. It could be all of them, but I’m not re-reading the entire book to check.) A plot twist in the last few pages of the book has Gloria rewarded for refusing to sleep with a superior, but by that point we know what this novel is really about.
So, soft-core porn or not? The excerpt speak for themselves, but if Dexta wanted to be a naughty care-free sex satire, it keeps misplaying in tone: As mentioned above, Dexta is heavy on coerced sexual relations, twisted power dynamics, attempted rape and a general feeling of distastefulness. Enough to darken any fun (or, heck, any arousal) one could get from the constant sexual content of the book.
It’s hard to get a naughty thrill out of a novel that reads as if it came out of a cesspool of dominance power games. Dexta is a rude awakening for those who think that SF has become more sexually mature over the past few years: part of it read like adolescent fantasies, while others just make one reach for soap and a hard brush. Say, has anyone seen John Norman shopping a new Gor novel around lately?
The emphasis on really stupid plot points is enough to make us think that yes this may be meant as a serious SF adventure novel. The background never holds up to scrutiny, and the details give the impression of a fake lazy future with no internal coherency. For instance: The native rebellion, set a thousand years in the future on a planet far away, relies on good old AK-47s. Manhattan/America is still the centre of human civilization. There are mentions of a brand-new religion called Spiritism that reaches “more than 70 percent of the Empire’s human population” despite doubts regarding its origin. But, hey, why worry since it has no nudity taboo and “no one had fought a religious war on Earth for more than a thousand years.” [P.32] Handy!
And ooh, don’t get me started on the complete lack of perspective on the colonial imperialism issue, or the way the extraterrestrial natives are described as being small, furry, primitive, stupid and smelly. Just don’t.
Other issues abound, but I’ll make an even bigger fool of myself if I kept treating this novel like a colourful piñata of silly treats. I’m sure that a Dexta fan, somewhere, can argue at length about how this isn’t meant to be taken seriously, shouldn’t be considered as anything but “good fun” and really doesn’t try to describe humanity as we know it. They’ll have a harder time convincing me that the novel is conventionally interesting: The obvious plot peters out and struggles to reach the finishing line. Without the naughty material, there wouldn’t be much to distinguish this book from countless other manuscripts languishing in the slush-pile.
So that’ll do to explain why, despite enormous misgivings regarding just about every aspect of Dexta, I’ll hold off on calls for mass bonfires. It certainly had its entertainment value… though maybe not in the way that the author intended. On the other hand, Bantam Spectra has dirtied its hands by touching this novel: Dexta wouldn’t have been surprising as a self-published novel, but coming from what’s still known as a major publishing house, it’s an embarrassment. Who acquired this book? Who edited it? Who thought it would reflect well on the brand of the Rooster? I keep feeling there’s a heck of a story under the surface, a Big Name under the shadows or else an intricate joke that I can’t grasp at the moment. Did it, at the very least, sell?
No one will be surprised to learn that C.J. Ryan was (and is still, two years later) a pseudonym for, and I quote from randomhouse.com, “an author who lives and works in Philadelphia” with no further detail except the added gender-specific note that 2007’s Burdens of Empire “is his fourth science fiction novel.” In a way, I’m happy for Ryan’s true name to remain shrouded in mystery. This way, we can project our own wishes on “his” identity, from a young inexperienced macho geek to a frustrated middle-aged government bureaucrat to a skilled feminist writer brilliantly undermining the clichés of misogynistic SF. I don’t know who C.J. Ryan is, and I’m not sure I want to know —though those things eventually come out sooner or later, often to everyone’s embarrassment.
[August 2007: Glorious Treason, the sequel, really isn’t much better. It improves nothing (except for a lighter touch on the Dexta bestiary metaphors) and feels a lot uglier. It lazily re-uses a Gold Rush theme and setting without bothering to add SF elements, and barely delivers the outline of a thriller plot. On the other hand, almost all of the naughtiness of the book is tainted with either coercion or manipulation, leaving little harmless fun. The violence is harsher, the scenes generally duller and this time we know exactly what C.J. Ryan is all about… Frankly, there’s little to recommend here, and it will take a while before I even want to touch another Ryan novel.]