There are few books I am super eager to read. I’ve got a zillion reading projects going on and pick the next book more on plans and associations than moods.
However, when I saw that Tom Purdom’s collection of future Casanova tales had been collected, I was … pleased. And it got moved up pretty quickly on the reading stack … though I didn’t beat Paul Di Filippo’s review out. But then he’s a professional reviewer, and I’m an amateur (in, perhaps you will conclude, every sense.)
It’s a decent review with a good description of the four stories’ background and plot, I’ll cover some of that, but, in my afterthoughts, I’ll concentrate more on critiques and comparing the book to other Purdom stories.
First, though, as per the usual drill, is the quick, short, off the cuff (meaning without consulting my betters like Di Filippo) first thoughts on the work followed by more details and spoilers.
Review: Romance on Four Worlds: A Casanova Quartet, Tom Purdom, 2015.
The themes: the rapturous duets of lovers, the pursuit of love, and the technological discordances that threaten both.
From the forests of a Mercury habitat to the Kuiper Belt, Joseph Louis Baske devotes his life, like his 18th idol Giacomo Casanova, to the pursuit of women. Not merely the physically beautiful, but the competent, the intelligent, the graceful for beauty has many manifestations. The thrill of Joe’s consummation may last only 45 minutes … or years, but a fleeting emotion of such power is still a real emotion.
His secret, he tells one of the many men who asks about it, is not the sex he offers. It is the talk, the companionship, his concentration and fascination, treating his lovers as real women with “desires and needs of their own”.
But things are getting harder for Baske. He’s a 1998 product of random genes and a time of “parental whims and biochemical accidents”. But the women he woos across the 21st century are increasingly the result of checkbox genetic selection and personality modification. Can the pursuit of love survive in a world where one can choose to dampen the call of sex? The growing gulf between the ramshackle and slow mind of Baske and the engineered brilliance of the women he pursues? The criminal opportunities of modeling and manipulating personalities? The angry psychosis of men thwarted, by superior rivals, in the ancient, powerful search for love and sex?
When humans become instruments tuned to self-chosen desires, how long can they — and will they — sound together in the harmony of romantic love?
Other themes besides the old ones of sex and love sound in the background. Economies where necessities are provided now have more time for struggles for status and the control of others. Not only does Baske have plenty of opportunity to play his beloved Bach, he also practices his other talent, escape and evasion, in the various tactical combat puzzles of each story when his amorous pursuits are threatened.
Additional Thoughts and Criticisms (with Spoilers)
These stories were written between 1995 and 2004. In his afterword, Purdom talks about the real Giacomo Casanova and his fascination with him starting in Purdom’s teenage years. When he returned to writing science fiction in his fifties after a long absence from the field, it appealed to “Tom’s romantic instincts” to use Casanova as a model for Joseph Baske.
As Di Filippo noted in his Asimov’s Science Fiction review of Purdom’s Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Starships (which I’ve reviewed earlier),
Tom Purdom hauled himself back on stage, in a world and field that had changed immeasurably—a field that had essentially, save for old-timers, forgotten him—and proved himself utterly cutting-edge and au courant.”
An element of transhumanism shows up here, specifically the systematic modeling of mental traits and personalities and the ability to manipulate them. Oh, there are other modifications that play a more peripheral role. There’s the assassin Denko who has been engineered to be a killer, bodyguard, and, perhaps, sex toy. Baske himself has (of course) the ability to completely control his sexual responses and a “musical performance system” enabling him to believe his beloved Bach sonatas on a “short-necked, lightly strung 18th century” violin. At one point, he adds a few inches to his height.
But, as Di Filippo’s review notes, Purdom’s future and its tech is “not as complex or ramified as the future imagined by Hannu Rajaniemi—nor as sometimes willfully opaque”. Purdom is considering just as important and complex of ideas, he’s just stripped them of the scientific jargon currently coding for those hopes.
A Musical Structure
Calling this a literary sonta was not a cute reviewer trick. I think Purdom used the structure of a Mozart-era sonata in developing the story in these four novellas. (He was a classical music critic for many years and is an amateur musician.)
“Romance in Lunar G” (all the titles cleverly evoke music and have multiple resonances) starts out with a Baske of 80 plus years, in good health given future medical care, and pining for Malita, sort of a future version of a novelist. Malita, however, is not that interested in him. She is more interested in Wen, a future politician and journalist. And both Wen and Malita have cranked their sex drive down so as not to distract them from their work. Baske’s friend, Shezuko, who knows Baske better than any other woman, gently mocks his obsessions.
All comes to nought. The whole party, on a lunar excursion, is kidnapped in a political coup to be effected by the reordering of Wen’s personality to be more sympathetic to the Copernican industrial complex who has designs on a particular lunar city. After Baske helps the party escape, Malita and Wen romantically bond, and Baske’s romantic agony is unabated. Indeed, he contemplates a form of suicide, a re-altering of his personality to get rid of this romantic and sexual longing he’s had for women since age seven.
Baske’s psychic deliverance comes in an unexpected package: the assassin Denko. Once she sought to kill Baske. But that was just business, and, after watching him play Bach, she has become romantically interested in him. A brief liaison follows of which Baske only notes her intense, long orgasms and the hours she listened raptly to him play his violin.
Thus, the first part introduces our themes: the implications of personality modification — voluntary and coerced, the growing gap behind Baske, a man not old in his body but the quality of his mind. Personality modification partially thwarts him in the pursuit of Malita. But his old interest in Bach gains him a new lover.
“Romance in Extended Time” is set in a Mercury where control of artistic award committees is worth having firefights. Tagging along with an Elector enroute to casting a vote in person on that committee, Baske is more interested in Ling, the Elector’s aide, an alert, sensual looking woman (Baske believes the personality is mirrored in the face) of many intellectual interests which she pursues in her free time. While fleeing pursuers, they injure the scion of a local, elite family. Baske successfully negotiates Ling’s penalties down.
The two do become lovers but not for long. Ling, raised with the belief that her engineered intelligence was the next stage in evolution only to learn, when confronting children coming after her, she was just “a tiny little interim phase”. She is crippled by the knowledge she can not compete as an equal. Baske eventually convinces her, before they part, her life can have purpose even if her betters will come to inhabit the solar system.
But it’s the introduction of a discordant note, a concern which will return in the remaining stories. At story’s end, Baske takes up with a woman even older than him, a survivor of the mid-20th century who lives her life as a tourist in an alien country.
“Romance with Phobic Variations” has Baske being the target of a con. If you can model personalities and mold them, why not analyze Baske’s type of woman and create his ideal? And use the ideal to wheedle money out of him? Baske only learns this because of Sori, the latest in the world’s bright youths. He’s actually the son of Baske’s first desire, Denava, before swindler Nento crosses his path and turns his head.
Sori models Nento’s criminal personality and notes that, as “molecular technology” has provided the necessities of life for all, economics has lessened as a motive for crime with the social motives of control and revenge becoming more prominent. This new theme will play a role in the last story. In a final confrontation with Nento, Baske still finds himself hard put to resist her requests. He angrily tells her she conned him by modifying herself to please him. As if your other lovers didn’t in some way, she retorts.
Sori also becomes an eager student of Baske’s techniques. He may be a bright young man, but he lives in a world of many rich, older, and more experienced men as romantic rivals.
The final story, “Romance for an Augmented Trio”, plays on all the themes of the earlier stories: Baske’s anxiety over what the increasing intellectual gap between himself and younger women means for the pursuit of his life’s goal, the question over whether modifying your personality is adaptive or smart or a sort of suicide, and the sexual frustrations of young men and its pathological consequences.
Baske has become the sole companion of Ganmei, the most brilliant and alien of Baske’s lovers. They are in a spaceship bound for the Kuiper Belt. To keep Baske from being underfoot and bored, she has placed a secondary personality in him that is content, when booted up, to spend months playing music. Except, Baske has made some attempt to change his ways. He plays Debussy now and with a different style violin. When they want to spend time together, Ganmei activates Baske’s basic personality.
Their ship is pursued and captured by Red Boots, a man of the serial killer or rapist personality type. He wants to sexually humiliate Ganmei, irrationally claiming he wants to prove the superiority of machine intelligence to evolved humans. Baske and Ganmei hatch a plan and defeat Red Boots with Sori’s help.
Ganmei, the product of oh so careful genetic engineering and controlled upbringing can’t fathom the chaos the ancient sex drive unleashed in Red Boots, the product of chance and not engineering.
So Baske explains it to her. Scared by the power and the chaos sex can unleash, she forswears it for about a year. Eventually, she literally embraces the patient Baske.
In the end, the “obsolete human and the future human” play Bach together.
These stories take place over decades, and Purdom does present a changing society technologically, culturally, and economically.
Each of these stories has one of Purdom’s characteristic tactial puzzle — it’s not for nothing Baske notes he’s an expert at escape and evasion. Most of the tactical puzzles have Baske and companion trying to reach an objective before an enemy force cuts them off. And weapons are created on the spot in two stories, another Purdom plot motif.
The More Humane Purdom
Critic John Clute has said Purdom’s fiction has a certain “innovative coldness“. I know what he means though I still admire much of Purdom’s recent fiction.
The Baske stories, narrated in first person by such a singular and honest person with a self-deprecating and sincere voice, are warmer than other Purdom stories that examine similar themes.
The struggles that still go on over status and art and the desire to control others are seen in all these stories and also Purdom’s “Fossil Games”. The questions of what it means when you alter yourself to be a loyal lover — or are the subject of such a person’s devotion, is covered in “The Path of the Transgressor”. Both stories are in Lovers & Fighters, Starships & Dragons.
Links to more reviews of Tom Purdom works exist at the Tom Purdom Project page.