My look at the story’s in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.
Review: “Cinderella’s Sisters”, Brian Stableford, 1989.
This 1989 story is more humane and emotional than the collection’s preceding “Bedside Conversations” and “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”. I suspect it makes that impression because, unlike those stories which feature, respectively, a man in strange circumstances and a strange man, this story centers around multiple people. Specifically, it’s a tale of sibling rivalry. Our siblings are the sisters Jeanne and Aurora Dark, two fraternal twins.
This story has even more of a fairy tale structure than “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”. Not only is there the title alluding to a fairy tale, but the opening is “Once upon a time . . . “.
Aurora is blonde and blue-eyed. Jeanne, the youngest by minutes, is brown-eyed and brown-haired. Their parents are fairly wealthy since Grandfather Dark made a fortune in the “bioengineering business”. Other children envy them for their wealth, but it is nothing compared to the envy each sister has for the other.
Stableford says the ultimate reason for this probably goes back to their in-utero competition for resources. Their mother says Jeanne will never forgive Aurora for being born first.
By age five, it’s very clear that the girls are, each in their own way, very plain indeed. They are “big for their age, with wide shoulders and fat legs, with broad features and lumpy chins”. Aurora’s dark eyes are slightly protruding giving her a permanently hostile look. Jeanne’s blue eyes are narrow and shifty looking. At school, they are known as the “ugly sisters”. Since they are bigger than the boys, they are able to defend each other, but, at home, they are back to their competition.
They miss no opportunity to express “scorn and disgust” for each other, particularly about each other’s eyes. However, secretly, each is convinced she is the uglier. They are not, by nature, vicious and are of “fairly placid” in temperament, charitable and not humorless.
Adolescence makes them more self-conscious. Their mother told them they would “grow into themselves”, but that doesn’t happen. They reach their full height early and are cursed with “massive shoulders, hardly any breasts, and thighs like wrestlers”. Unlike their fairy-tale counterparts, they have no Cinderella to focus their gripes on. But Cinderella, or, rather, the feminine ideal she represents, does live in their minds, a standard they can never measure up to.
In their teenage years, the sisters sexually compete. Aurora takes the path of promiscuity, but she’s treated with “appalling contempt before, during, and after the event” by the boys she sleeps with and feels “horribly humiliated”. In opposition, Jeanne scorns her by remaining a virgin.
By the age of 18, both are tempted by suicide but resist since that would somehow make the other a winner. Then they inherit a fabulous sum of money from the trust their grandfather set up. Now with money no limit and able to make their own decisions, they compete in the area of beauty, a competition aided by the booming bioengineering industry and its applications to cosmetics and plastic surgery. Bodies aren’t reshaped now by scalpels but expensive and delicate biological tools that reset metabolisms, reshape bones and knit muscles and ligaments around them, that make breasts into any desired contour.
Each picks a different cosmetic clinic and heaps large amounts of money on them. Aurora goes for very pale skin, black hair, redder and slimmer lips, a thin straight nose, and eyes far enough back in her skull to seem to always be slightly and mysteriously shadowed. Jeanne goes for golden skin, hair even lighter and with a metallic sheen, and wider irises.
Continuing their old ways, Aurora takes a series of lovers among the “wealthy and the wise, the famous and notorious”. Jeanne carries on a succession of flirtations that never end up in bed. They compete in business enterprises and by collecting various things. Non-material, one-of-a-kind art objects are bestowed on both by lovers. Aurora plays Cleopatra in a holographic epic. Jeanne plays H. Rider Haggard’s She and is the only real actor in the movie. It’s a competition for celebrity status. Both become dedicated followers of fashion, an industry that begins to use its own version of bioengineering.
Having achieved the object of beauty, they now seek an endowment of talent from bioengineering. Aurora’s physique is remodeled to be that of a ballerina’s with light playing in interesting ways on her artificial skin. Jeanne has her voice altered to be a noted singer. Aurora eventually gets married to the world’s smartest man, a theoretical physicist. It’s not marriage she wants as much as an astounding wedding. Jeanne finally marries to satisfy her romantic longings, a match with an heir to the Spanish throne.
The one area they don’t compete in is with children. Neither wants. They fear their miserable childhoods will be replicated.
Bioengineering racks up more successes: artificial photosynthesis, biological desalinization, and, most importantly, the rejuvenation of cells. The latter is achieved when the twins are 43. It’s very expensive, but they can afford it. However, neither feels the need at that age. They do invest, however, in the “Hiroshita technique” that reverses aging.
At 48, Aurora begins to see the marks of time on her face and talks to a specialist about getting the Hiroshita technique. It can be done, she’s told, but it comes at a price.
What the rejuvenation technique involves is restoring tissue-cells to the primitive, undifferentiated state of blastular cells, in which state they can divide repeatedly. These blasturised cells are then allowed to colonise the working tissues, destroying and replacing older cells. It’s basically a carefully controlled kind of cancer.
Old cells can be replaced and “junk” flushed from them, but it can’t fix DNA copying errors in the rejuvenated cells. The process may make a 60-year-old woman look 25 again, but’s only going to be 25 more years until she’s back to looking like 60. And that’s with normal cells. Aurora’s cells have already undergone a lot of alterations. She can be made to look 20 again, but it’s only going to take 15 years to arrive back to “real old age, and then “the end of the road.” Aurora’s fine with that tradeoff. But there’s more. Those rejuvenated cells are going to express what’s in her genes, and that means she’ll look like she did at age 20 without all the modifications she’s had done. Aurora thought being rejuvenated would be another victory against her sister but not on those terms.
When they are 53 and beginning to look haggard, the similar paths of the sisters’ lives change. Jeanne does opt for rejuvenation. Having become used to being beautiful, she cannot face returning to “mediocrity”. In two years, she’s on her death bed. She makes of her dying “a great tragedy, keeping herself fully in the public eye”.
She is very close to death when her “ugly sister” comes to visit her. At last, the two are no longer competing and can “meet one another honestly”. Jeanne, the former singer says, in a “weak and whispery voice”, “I won didn’t I?” Yes, she did, agrees Aurora.
The concession brings no joy to Jeanne, and they embrace. Aurora asks if she still looks beautiful, and Jeanne agrees that she does. Looking at her sister, Aurora realizes she doesn’t look that bad, and the image that comes to her mind is not the modified Jeanne but the sister of her childhood.
Jeanne brings up her mother’s old comment about how she wouldn’t be content even if she beat Aurora to the grave. But, she says, she is content, and says Aurora lived her life the right way. She chose to live and not die for vanity. Aurora says she doesn’t mind Jeanne’s contentment. She just wishes it could have been with life and not in death. Then she says,
I think we’ve both been martyred, in our different ways. Like Cinderella’s ugly sisters mutilating their feet to try to fit that stupid glass slipper.
Aurora asks after Jeanne’s husband, “Prince Charming”. “I think, on the whole, I’ve done more good than harm, and he’s been very good for me.” Jeanne asks about Aurora’s husband. After her beauty faded, Aurora began to think he might love her for herself. It’s nice to abandon the “fetish of finding a new lover every week” for the contentment of marriage. Thus, like “A Career in Sexual Chemistry”, this story finds value in the ancient institution of monogamy. (Even “Bedside Conversations” has monogamy, but Mark’s marriage ends after his decision.) Jeanne hopes Aurora won’t waste her “new youth”.
Jeanne is increasingly exhausted and says it’s close to midnight. Tearfully, Aurora says,
You don’t have to worry about midnight. . . . I’m the one that had to turn back into a pumpkin. You married the prince, remember?
Jeanne agrees but says that “damned glass slipper never fit. Not really.”
Taking Jeanne’s hand for the last time, Aurora says,
I know that now. Cinderella was always going to win, whatever we did. In the future, though, things will be different.
This implied that the sisters are martyrs because of the technological limitations of their time. People will not have to go through, in the future, what the sisters did. Living for beauty may have vanity for them, the implication is, but it won’t be in the future. Perhaps if children are born innately beautiful . . . ?
Jeanne dies a few weeks later.
The final two paragraphs are:
Aurora didn’t have the option of living happily ever after, but she lived as well and as happily as she could, for as long as she could, and she made a pretty good fist of things.
It wasn’t enough to score a point of Jeanne, but it certainly was one in the eye for Cinderella.
Stableford, in that conclusion, makes a rather stoic point about doing the best with what we have though we could, through discontentment, seek more. Here contentment through beauty alone is fleeting. But won’t be in the future, Aurora hints, though that future does not seem to have arrived by story’s end.