Thorns by Robert Silverberg
While this blog is mainly about vintage sleaze books with a strong focus on Robert Silverberg’s many pen-names from 1958-1964, and as “notes” toward my monograph-in-progress, Sin, Sleaze and Silverberg, I also want to examine his science-fiction written at the same time or shortly thereafter, and compare the works.
Thorns was published in 1968 (Ballantine Books) and contains some elements found in his sleaze books, namely a suicide and sex. In a lot of his sex books, someone near the end kills themselves or tries to out of despair and/or rejection, which happens in Thorns. There’s a plenty of sex, hinted or direct, in this novel, but “grotesque” sex — an astronaut went to an inhabited world and the beings there did surgical experiments on him, creating him into “a monster” that certain human women find oddly sexually appealing. He is paired up with a 17-year-old girl who is a virgin mother to 100 children — earth scientists took eggs from her ovaries for a genetic experiment, gestating the children in six months; she finds herself wanting her babies, lost in the world of being a celebrity freak as the Virgin Mother. She has tried to kill herself twice.
The two are interstellar “stars,” celebs, and a rich mogul pairs them up for publicity, for a narrative of unlikely love among the famous, and the public is fascinated . They fall in love. They are tabloid fodder. Themogul is also an “emotion vampire” — a psychic succubus — who feeds on their pain and needs it like a drug. The more their pain is in public view, to more he has access to it.
This novel left me disturbed, and few fiction books do that to me, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I am aware of such psychic vampires — I have encountered these types, and I know these people are in the entertianment business as the character in this novel is. The astronaut’s altered body could be a metaphor, it could be like Michael Jackson’s plastic surgrey that made him in the end look alien, grotesque, and unhuman, yet his fame increased over it.
Thorns was nominated for all the awards and is considered a classic “New Wave SF” book, breaking from old confinements of the genre — there are no heroes in the traditional sense, there is no happy ending. This is a bleak novel and a commentary on the cult of fame, not unlike the current fascination with Michael Jackson’s death.
The title refers to the thorns on a cactus, and how they penetrate your skin, make you bleed, and cause pain — pain lets these two people know they are alive and still human.
Perhaps it does have a “happy” ending — the lovers unite, freak and lost little girl, and they murder the psychic vampire so he will never hurt anyone — or them — again.
But what was Silverberg warning us in this cautionary SF tale? The dagers of cult of personality, the dangers of too much power, the dangers of scientific genetic experiments? This is a dark vision of the future.