My look at the stories in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.
Review: “The Invertebrate Man”, Brian Stableford, 1990.
There is a minor theme in science fiction involving the peculiar psychology of scientists. As Stableford himself said in 2016’s New Atlantis, Vol. 1:
the image of the scientist has always been tainted by a hint of wizardry, so the reputation of would-be wizards, both real and fictitious, has always been tainted by a suspicion of madness.
You can see some of that peculiar psychology t in some of the collection’s earlier stories (“A Career in Sexual Chemistry” and “The Magic Bullet”), but this story features two odd scientists and is also more sardonic than those tales.
Our hero is Patrick O’Connell. When he was five years old, he fell on a thumbtack, and it pierced his knee. It brought an overwhelming, seemingly unending stream of tears. At first, his parents were sympathetic then, finally, annoyed. Fatefully, Patrick hears his father tell his mother one day “I don’t care what you say . . . that kid has no backbone.” From then on, whenever he gets hurt, Patrick cries a lot.
Of course, this makes him a target of school bullies. Like his parents, his teachers are initially sympathetic but their patience is not endless. He isolates himself from his “dangerous peers”, reads a lot, and wanders the woods around his small town in California.
One day, a school therapist, “going through an Adlerian phase and … finding inferiority complexes everywhere”, diagnoses Patrick as having one. That statement doesn’t have the desired effect. He decides to have a better inferiority complex and learn to assert his superiority in all situations. He notices a great many people have phobias about insects and spiders, and he decides to start collecting and learning about those creatures that, like him, “have no backbone”. He even likes to handle poisonous spiders to creep people out. He will become the Invertebrate Man.
He majors in zoology in college. He takes up master degree studies in the genetic engineering of invertebrates. His interest in that specialty comes the work of one John McBride and his work on silkworms and increasing silk via genetic engineering. Patrick takes a job with the IBEX Corp where McBride also works. When he requests to work with McBride, he’s asked if he realizes McBride lives in Baltimore. And that’s not Baltimore, Maryland but Baltimore in Cork County, Ireland.
The IBEX complex there is extensive and pursues a variety of genetic engineering projects in genetically engineering mollusks and invertebrates. It’s built on the site of an oil refinery IBEX had there and then refitted for its new purpose. The locals, with varying degrees of humor and hostility, refer to the complex as the Frankenstein Factory and the scientists there as Doctor Frankensteins.
McBride considers himself a “broken wreck of a man” because of living in Baltimore. He asks Patrick about his Irish surname and asks if his ancestors were from the area. Patrick has no idea. His family paid no attention to their genealogy. McBride says the locals will still probably “take” to Patrick. Then he asks if Patrick is a Catholic or Protestant. There’s Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists McBride tells him. Patrick probably will fit in as the former. On the other hand, McBride, descended from Ulstermen, is despised as the latter.
Patrick does come to be seen as a “voluntary Irishman”. Back in the days when IBEX had an oil refinery on the site, lots of housing was needed for workers. Now that staffing needs are less, and some of the houses built for those workers now house scientists and locals paying cheap rents. Both McBride and Patrick have apartments in the same house where also live the large and vocal Flynn and Flanagan families. They treat Patrick well but are constantly making gibes against McBride about being a Frankenstein and creating monsters, so McBride spends most of his time locked in his ground floor apartment. Another scientist, specializing in engineering mollusks, is Annabel Crozier with whom Patrick falls in love.
Patrick expected McBride to be an “aloof and distant figure, calm and abstracted, ruthlessly and inhumanely efficient”. Instead, McBride is “paranoid, hyperactive and hard-drinking”, “jovially manic and angrily melancholic”, and capable of much work. Besides working on pheromones to lure insects into traps and pesticides, McBride continues his silk research; a project to produce royal jelly, beeswax, and honey without the need for bees; and the medically beneficial effects of arachnid toxins. (The latter he frankly admits he is keeping secret from other employees so he can eventually win a Nobel Prize in medicine.)
A project more dubious is engineering a species of butterfly to produce any selected picture on its wings. However, IBEX isn’t interested in art projects let alone avant-garde ones. McBride also does some private research in his locked apartment.
Unlike Patrick, McBride says he doesn’t have a “rich love life to occupy his time.” Patrick senses McBride bitterly resents Patrick’s romance with Annabel but not because he has his eyes on Annabel. For herself, Annabel tells Patrick that McBride did have a romance with another scientist, but she left the complex to return to America. It was then McBride took up heavy drinking.
When McBride passes on his silk project to Patrick, he tells him the secret is to make bigger silkworms. When Patrick mentions the well-known metabolic problems gigantism imposes on invertebrates, McBride tells him to ignore the criticisms of old monster movies. Simply insert a gene into them for hemoglobin production. “Don’t underestimate your playmates, Patrick. . . . Remarkably adaptive, invert eggs.”
The two’s mutual respect grows over time. Patrick comes to like McBride very much and feels pity for the way the Flanagans and Flynn treat him.
The pity disappeared, though – never to return when he found out what McBride was doing in the cellars of the old house where they lived.
After a year of knowing McBride, Patrick finally learns his secret one night when he’s with a drunken McBride in a pub. McBride starts out by saying that the quicker nuclear war wipes out man, the better. “It’s the invertebrates’ world. Humans are just a temporary aberration.”
After they go back to their house, McBride asks Patrick to join him in its cellar. He wants to show him something. McBride has been engineering gigantic spiders, some of them poisonous. He’s even modified some to have patterns like human faces on them. The spiders are kept in glass containers. IBEX didn’t let McBride pursue this work, so he did it on his own. “Twelve years work, Patrick – me magnum opus. . . . They said it couldn’t be done.”
It’s clear that McBride’s hints to Patrick about inducing viable gigantic insects were based on his own work. Patrick asks McBride why he did this. “All genetic engineers are monster makers,” replies McBride.
You know that, Patrick. ‘Dr. Frankenstein, I presume . . . ‘ You’ve heard it all. ‘Made any good monsters today, Doc?’ But you understand, Patrick, what’s involved. Works of art, dear boy. Some day, when all oil painting is forgotten, the world’s great artists will be working in living clay.
Patrick asks if anybody else knows about this. McBride did show his work to someone else once, “but she didn’t understand”. That would be McBride’s former girlfriend. Patrick finds himself adopting the humorous tune one might use with a madman and says it’s brilliant work. But is it dangerous? No. Well, a the spiders are a little more dangerous than their normal sized counterparts. The glass containers are filled with oxygen rich air. Even with hemoglobin, the giant spiders can’t last long in normal air. When he needs to work with one, he just stuns it with some nitrous oxide. McBride even has a couple of giant black widows.
Patrick asks what McBride intends to do with his creations. “I don’t intend to do anything. . . . It’s art for art’s sake.” (Thus highlighting that the peculiar psychology of some scientists resembles artists in some ways.) It occurs to Patrick that the IBEX complex with its rational projects is representative of McBride’s consciousness. This messy subterranean project represents McBride’s subconscious “populated by the unrepressed forces of creativity which knew no guilt or social responsibility”. McBride represents the dark side of some scientific researchers, research to see if they can and not questioning if they should.
You don’t like people very much, do you, John? . . . What is it that you’re afraid of, that makes you so desperate to show that you don’t share their fears?
McBride responds “Don’t be a prick, dear boy. It doesn’t suit you.” Perhaps thinking of their similar psychology, Patrick agrees that it doesn’t.
A week later, Patrick tells Annabel what he saw. She is horrified and tells him he has to inform the head office. That, argues Patrick, would destroy McBride and give the company a bad reputation. The work is obscene, says Annabel. It will set genetic engineering back 20 years. What, responds Patrick, about those researching biological warfare? McBride may talk favorably about human extinction, but he doesn’t work to make it more likely. McBride’s work is good work, “pure genius”. Annabel asks how he can live with those creatures in the same house they live in.
If Patrick won’t tell the head office, Annabel will. Patrick says he respects McBride. Yes, the Flanagans and Flynns call him a mad scientist, but they think of Annabel and Patrick the same way. As scientists, Annabel and Patrick should know better. He understands McBride because it reminds him of his younger days studying spiders. Is Patrick testing her, asks Annabel, to see if she’ll recoil in horror – or is he testing himself to see if, as an impartial observer, he’s as crazy as McBride? She gives Patrick an ultimatum: tell McBride, within five days, to get rid of the spiders or she’ll call an exterminator. Patrick says he doesn’t know if he can.
Then Annabel unknowingly brings up an old taunt:
I guess it’s okay for an Invertebrate Man to be short of backbone, but we Mollusc Girls have hard shells.
Three days go by. Patrick never does know if he would have confronted McBride because, on the fourth day, there’s an accident. Some of the Flanagan boys break into the basement and accidentally rip up some electrical wires and oxygen leads, and a fire starts trapping a Flynn baby on the top floor. Seeing giant spiders on the staircase, no one else will go in.
As an Invertebrate Man, Patrick knows what to expect. In a fairly long action sequence, Patrick, armed with a fire extinguisher to drive the giant spiders away or make them supine, rescues the child. He goes back into the house, with no fire extinguisher, to rescue McBride. Carrying him out, a giant black widow spider drops on them. Knowing spider behavior, they manage to not provoke it into biting, and some spiders get stomped by Patrick. Recapitulating history, Patrick again falls on a tack, again on the knee. He starts crying incessantly, but, outside the fire, it’s written off as the effect of smoke.
The story ends happily. The spiders are gone. McBride continues his work at the complex. Annabel and Patrick marry, return to California, and have children. The Flannagan and Flynn families send them Christmas cards every year addressed to “Dr. and Dr. Frankenstein”.
In this story, Stableford doesn’t emphasize the economic benefits of genetic engineering much more than other stories though Patrick and McBride are both involved in it.
Besides the horrific spiders evoking primal fears, the primary emphasis is on the psychology of the scientists.