My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry continues.
Review: “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”, Brian Stableford, 1987.
While the preceding “Bedside Conversations” featured, in a sense, a child conceived sans sexual intercourse, this story is definitely concerned with sex (and, secondarily, procreation). Also, while “Bedside Conversations” handwaves its application of genetic engineering away with the phrase “tissue reconstruction”, this story is more specific in its biological speculations.
The story opens with a discussion about people cursed with surnames having unfortunate historical associations, specifically Hitler and Quisling. Some change their names. Others adapt a “an attitude of defensive stubbornness” against the “mockery of the world”. Others see it as a curse and a challenge to heroically rise above the name. The name Casanova does not come with such associations. Men carrying it can see it as carrying a “mystique” which they could “wittily exploit”.
But our hero, Giovanni Casanova, is not one of them. He is born in Manchester, UK on Valentine’s Day 1982. (Stableford actually says February 14th thus leaving the irony for the reader to catch.) His father was from a line of impoverished intellectuals unable, due to circumstances, to live up to their potential. He migrated to Manchester in the Depression to escape Fascist Italy. There, despite his good looks, he lived in “placid monogamy” after he married local woman Jenny Spencer. In the tradition of a “traditional working-class family” then, social mobility was regarded as being for sons only. Jenny was an apprentice hairdresser at 16, married at 17, and a mother at 18.
Giovanni was cursed with looks and physique that were a “non-starter” in the romantic field. He can’t even flash his dark eyes. A bout of childhood measles left him very myopic and slightly crossed eyes hidden behind thick lens. (This is rather autobiographical. Stableford has written that a bout of childhood measles left him with very bad vision.)
Starting early, many, many people will note Giovanni doesn’t look like a Casanova. By age 17, his tangle of dark hair is already starting to thin. There is then a bit that be more autobiography on the part of Yorkshireman Stableford or reflect his training in sociology or both:
The class culture of England had proved remarkably resilient in the face of erodent egalitarianism of the 20th century, and bourgeois morality never did filter down to the poorer streets of Northern England, even when the old slums were demolished and new ones erected with indoor toilets and inbuilt social alienation. . .. very few girls preserved their virginity past the age of fourteen, and many a boy without a CSE to his name had done sufficient research to write a PhD thesis on sexual technique by the time he was old enough to vote.
Casanova wishes he could be swept away by this “flood of eroticism”, but no girl will sleep with him. For the local girls, it’s a fine joke to say “no” to a Casanova. By the time he is 17, he is “self-loathing” and with “incipient paranoia”.
However, Casanova has a very good mind. In university, he takes up biochemistry, “the glamour science” of the day. He understands theory and has a deft hand in the lab. He manages to befriend a couple of girls in college, but they only want to be his friend and not sleep with him. Casanova can understand why and becomes increasingly aware of the mockery of his name.
He channels his efforts into “animal engineering”. His doctoral research was devoted to the development of
artificial cytogene systems which could be transplanted into animal cells without requiring disruption of the nucleus or incorporation into the chromosomal system.
By operating on specific cells, he sidesteps the technical problems and ethical dilemmas of working with zygotes and embryos.
There’s a big biotechnology boom going on, and several companies try to recruit him. A couple of recruiters almost seem ready to ply him with sexual favors, and Casanova is chagrined when they don’t. Finally, he accepts a job with Cytotech Inc. in California.
In his Beverly Hills mansion, its improbably named president, Marmaduke Melmoth (certainly a playful allusion to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer), lays out his plans for Casanova: he wants him to work on developing aphrodisiacs. Cancer treatments can only be sold to those with cancer. Extending lifespan is fine, but people want to be able to enjoy that extended life. The world really needs “better beaver-traps”. Do that, says Melmoth, and he’ll make Casanova a billionaire.
At first, Casanova is a bit nonplused. He tells Melmoth that scent isn’t as crucial in sensing the world for humans as insects, so pheromones seem a dead end. Melmoth, a typical executive, waves away the difficulties and says he hires people to do difficult things. Casanova accepts the challenge.
Taking advantage of his new opportunities as a big man in the company, Casnanova loses his virginity when he sleeps with a 17-year old lab assistant, also a virgin. In his relationship with her, he concentrates on his sexual technique to “grotesque extremes” and can’t shrug off the feeling she laughs at him in private. He takes to visiting prostitutes, but, after the third visit, decides celibacy is for him. Even to himself, he’s starting to seem ludicrous.
The cosmetic industry has, for centuries, been exploring visual enhancements to attractiveness, so that doesn’t seem a fruitful path. Finally, Casanova settles on touch. He found a protein then
“encoded it in the DNA of an artificial cytogene which was tailored for incorporation in subepidermal cells, whose activation would be triggered by sexual arousal. The protein itself could then be delivered to the surface of the skin by the sweat-glands.”
Apprised of this, Melmoth understandably asks why not just bottle the substance. Because, says Casanova, it won’t survive being denatured and bottled. Besides, the whole point is to surreptitiously employ it. This is a product for the few, not the masses. Melmoth tells him that, if he’s going to be charging exorbitant prices, Casanova has to make sure it works and has no side effects.
Casanova talks of planned clinical trials, but, really, he’s already using himself as a guinea pig. The sight of an attractive woman evokes the scent. Women, after he contrives to touch them, find themselves associating his touch “with the most tender and exciting emotions”. While they don’t find Casanova “conventionally attractive”, they do find him “rather fascinating”. Within three weeks, he beds eleven women.
But his satisfaction doesn’t last long. He feels that not only has he cheated his bedmates into their passion but really isn’t giving them anything in return. In fact, they’re probably made unhappy by their romantic attraction to a man whom, rational assessment says, is an unsatisfying partner. And the women are all unhappily competing for him. Helpless passion, unrewarding sex, and jealousy is all they get out of it.
When Casanova’s product is marketed, Cytotech makes a lot of money. But Melmoth has another problem. Casanova’s chemical may be fine for “getting the slots in the sack” but what’s really needed is to “get the peg in the slot”. This being a pre-Viagra story, he asks Casanova about Spanish Fly. Casanova goes over the problems with that chemical. Make a better version, commands Melmoth.
So Melmoth synthesizes two new hormones, a set of “trigger hormones for feedback control” and a cytogene to modify the pituitary gland. What he invents – and tests on himself with genetic implants – is complete conscious control of erections. They can be held as long as desired with as many orgasms as desired. And you can learn the system with a week of biofeedback.
Casanova’s no longer a callow youth but now a man in his thirties. Satisfaction lies, he thinks, in the monogamy of his parents. So, he rationally sets his eye on his accountant Denise. They marry and have a daughter. Denise gets post-partum depression. And, while hooked on Casanova’s aphrodisiac, she finds her sex life a bit of a bore. Her emotional responses to Casanova become “perversely confused”. Casanova feels guilty about this. He genuinely loves Denise and thinks he’s her “betrayer and destroyer”. Seeing Casanova unhappy, makes Denise unhappy and an emotional feedback cycle of misery ensues.
Things get so bad, Casanova confesses everything to her one day. Her love for him undergoes “a purely psychosomatic transformation into bitter and resentful hatred”. She divorces him and sues him for “biochemical interference with her affections”.
And, of course, Cytotech’s product then makes the news in the 2010s. Feminists are not happy that, for almost 20 years,
the world’s richest men had been covertly buying biotechnologies specifically designed for the manipulation and sexual oppression of womankind.
Casanova becomes a devil figure to the world, and Denise becomes a temporary saint. Suits are filed against men using the product, Cytotech, and Casanova. But Melmoth fights back. It wasn’t only men, he points out, that bought Casanova’s chemical. Women did too and were satisfied customers. And what about cosmetics? Are they not a product designed to enhance sexual attractiveness? Casanova’s crime, says Melmoth, is that his product works way better than cosmetics. And what about Casanova’s erection enhancements? Were not women satisfied by the result? Melmoth also promises to get Casanova working on enhancements for women so they can enjoy “the conscious generation and control of bodily pleasure”.
The furor dies down, and Casanova, now in his forties, gets to work fulfilling Melmoth’s promises. His mental faculties may be in decline, but his greater wisdom and knowledge make this his most fertile period. He develops a “new spectrum of hormones and enkephalins” that give people
orgasms and kindred sensations more thrilling, more blissful, and more luxurious than those . . . crudely hewn by the hackwork of natural selection.
Giovanni has created “a vast new panorama of masturbatory enterprise”.
His work is attacked. Cynics say he’s destroying romance, wiping out “sincere affection” and mechanizing ecstasy. Critics charge he’s fatally undermining the “mystique of sexual relationships”. Pessimists fear sexual intercourse will be replaced by masturbation. That, of itself, won’t lead to the end of humanity since artificial wombs now exist.
But the public doesn’t care. A “promised land of illimitable delight” awaits.
Of course, Casanova tries out the modifications himself. A life of celibacy and masturbatory delight appeals to him now. But, it turns out, humanity does not turn away from intercourse because it offers more than mere pleasure. It offers “closeness, intimate involvement with another, empathy, compassion, and an outflowing of good feeling”.
Casanova decides to marry again and sets his chemical lure on three women. It gets him nowhere. They know what he’s up to and merely thank him for his interest. Increasing promiscuity has destroyed the power of his aphrodisiac. The public is now satiated by it. Frustrated by its inefficacy, people use it more and more often.
And not just for sex but to promote general goodwill in others. The world, it seems to Giovanni, is undergoing an epidemic of good feeling. He tracks the news. Wars are going down as is terrorism and crime and participation in violent sports. The effects of his work result in Casanova getting the 2036 Nobel Peace Prize.
Giovanni has now grown into his looks and surgery has eliminated the need for glasses. He notices more and more women using his aphrodisiac chemical on him. But it’s not sexual interest but general admiration for his work. “He loved eveyrbody and everybody loved him.”
He even marries again – to a Manchester girl who looks like his mother did when young. It is a contented marriage with children, favored by “most delicate psychochemical stroking”, “beautiful duets” played on Giovanni’s “ingenious hormonal instruments”, and affection “entirely a triumph of the will” and beyond mere “chemistry and physiology”.
They were able to live happily ever after.
And so was everybody else.
Thus the story, as befits its tone and structure and hopeful conclusion, has a fairy tale feel to it. I’m assuming that the broad speculations Stableford gives us are based in real biology. But I question his psychological extrapolations. The population of the West increasingly, I’m told in the news, shuns sex with other people in favor of masturbation performed with unenhanced biology (except, perhaps, Viagra). How would the erotic delights of Stableford’s future, even if shared, not lead to the decadent “lotus-eating” end of human civilization?
Coincidentally, I happen to be reading Mattias Desmet’s The Psychology of Totalitarianism as I do this post about nine months after reading Stableford’s story. The philosophy Mark expounds in the collection’s earlier “Bedside Conversations” is close to what Desmet refers to as “mechanistic materialism”, an ideology of “scientific-fiction” that pretends to more knowledge and quantitative exactness than it has. From reading some of his non-fiction, I get the impression that the Stableford of 1987 adheres more closely than not to that ideology. (His later The Darkling Wood may intimate a change from that.)
Here’s a passage from chapter 2, “The Artificial Society”, of Desmet’s book that coincidentally mentions artificial wombs and touches on the use of metaphor to defend older ways of doing things:
The synthetic womb is not as far away as we think. The only thing required to persuade a society that is gripped by the mechanistic ideology is a slew of “experts” daily presenting statistics and data in the media, informing us that artificial wombs protect fetuses a few percentage points better against viruses and pathogens than the not-so-sterile mother’s body. Within this logic, anyone who chooses natural pregnancy will be considered unfit as a parent – such people would expose their child to unnecessary risks, even before birth. Whether dissident voices could override such logic remains to be seen. Life itself can be defended only in terms of metaphor and poetry, yet these usually sound less loud than the monotonous droning of mechanistic arguments.
Stableford, in the ending of this story, steps back from that mechanistic position somewhat. Intercourse, old fashioned bonding with sex, is not rejected because of its unquantifiable and ancient benefits. Stableford sees this ancient, primal activity as enhanced but not replaced, and that is in keeping with his general attitude on technology and its benefits, his anti-romantic rejection of unaltered nature. His “beautiful duets” is a metaphor for an ancient, unrationalized pleasure. But, of course, it ends up being rationalized by Giovanni.
On a stylistic note, I’ll note that this is, ultimately, a utopian story, but Stableford avoids the boredom of that sub-genre by showing the birth of the utopia and not much of the utopia itself.