“The Furniture of Life’s Ambition”

My look at Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection continues.

Review: “The Furniture of Life’s Ambition”, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

While this is the most humorous story yet in the collection, it’s actually a horror story, a conte cruel. While we get plenty of background details about the uses this world has put genetic engineering to, speculatively it’s actually concerned with, ultimately, the manufacture of furniture from genetically engineered animals.

Our story starts out with a cri de coeur from our protagonist William Morris telling his wife Judy that he just can’t take it anymore. He has to get out. She represses a sigh, as she is wont to do on such occasions. While she loves William, he can be “very tiresome”. She tells him he’s just having a bad day.

He goes on about how the world is standing on the threshhold of a “new scientific revolution”. 

Our entire technological repertoire stands to be transformed in the space of a single lifetime – my lifetime. 

Instead, his employer Plasmotech has called him into a meeting to design a new kind of fish meat. All they care about is meeting consumer demand. “It’ll be kid stuff.  . . . one bloody supermarket novelty after another.” 

Judy knows she has to resist jokes about loaves and fishes. She loves William. He’s handsome and probably the world’s best genetic engineer. He’s also been spoiled from birth, “petulant, horribly jealous, and prone to outrageous tantrums”. Because of his looks and mind, people are willing to humor him. 

Then we get some background on this world. Plasmotech specializes in producing meat and diary products without the benefit of animals. Genetic engineers in the generation before William found out how to switch on and off the genes that create the specialized cells for organs. A cow’s egg is modified to a milk-making organ of a single muscle as large as a cow. It’s a future of vat meat grown in nutrient baths of carbohydrates with minerals and proteins provided by genetically engineered fungi. 

What William was the first to do is figure out how to overcome specialised cells. He discovered how to “neotenise”  the specialized cells to grow very large indeed. “Cowbags” and “skyscraper steaks” were the result. His second major breakthrough was how to have egg production without chickens. Using

general-purpose silicon chips and standard organo-metallic synapses developed for medical purposes, [he] had managed to fit simple multi-tissue entities with inorganic ‘brains’, adding just sufficient controls to allow the entities to function. 

The result is the Heavyside Layer, a chicken the size of a car, fed by intravenous drip, that can lay 400 eggs a day.

But William has imagined other possibilities that Plasmotech isn’t interested in. Judy tells him food production is important, but William says more could be done with his technique. But all Plasmotech can think of is food. And he can’t leave. William doesn’t control the patents on his techniques. 

Judy settles William down her usual way: “caressing him soothingly with her gentle hands, in her own peculiarly distinctive fashion”. She reminds William that he can’t go solo. His kind of work requires very expensive tools. Maybe, William says, he could go to America and get some venture capital. American companies are always trying to recruit him. Moving to America doesn’t interest Judy. She has family ties there, likes England, and works as a broadcaster at the BBC. She suggests he talk to “a rather charming man” she met recently while working on a story: Peter Peregrine Marshall. He’s a London financier. Then Judy “abandons herself to passion”. 

William does meet Marshall, and it will be a fateful meeting. After William makes his proposal, Marshall tells him he hasn’t thought it through. William counters that he’s thought all of it through. He has come up with the basis for a “new industrial revolution”. England has to make sure it’s not left behind again by Japanese and American companies. Marshall says William’s failure of foresight is an old story. 

It’s not that William doesn’t have a vision. Or that he couldn’t realize it. But, as a miracle worker, William needs “a very costly magic wand”. Plasmotech has a narrow and unimaginative range of products because that’s how they recoup their investment for William’s work. William’s vision of “new kinds of houses, new kinds of mining, a new transport system” is achievable in 30 or 40 years. But how is the company going to make money in the meantime? If William wants to start a new company, he needs a product ready to sell tomorrow. 

William expected this argument. After all, he is a genius and understands “something of the ways of the wicked capitalist world”. He wants to make furniture. Marshall regards this idea with contempt. For his part, William detests Marshall’s polish and smoothness and men who make money by “playing games with other peoples money”. But William continues. He talks about how vat produced leather is a major market now. He can design a superblastula that forms into an armchair or couch with its own leather covering. You can use a silicon chip to provide a “primitive nervous and circulatory system”. Furniture could adapt itself to an individual user, provide the desired temperature and softness. “The ultimate in home comfort: adaptable furniture with inbuilt central heating”. Williams could use his own techniques, and their use wouldn’t violate Plasmotech patents. 

Marshall asks about nutrition for the furniture. Monthly injection, replies Marshall. Wouldn’t such furniture make people uneasy? That’s what marketing departments are for. It’s also safe. It won’t give off toxic fumes like conventional furniture. And the furniture can be cheap. First chairs then people’s “entire enivornment” is William’s plan. 

A business venture is formed. The two men don’t much like each other. In some ways, they are very different, in some ways too similar. William hates Marshall for his cupidity. Marshall hates William’s unwordliness. Both are handsome, ambitious, and competitive. 

The chair is a wild success and very profitable. It becomes a status symbol not because it’s expensive (it’s very cheap), but it shows that its buyers are chic. William becomes famous, rich, and finds himself compared to that earlier William Morris, also a furniture designer. The good looking Judy becomes famous as does Marshall. The two men are rarely seen together though. William sees Marshall as a parasite. 

William researches other areas, produces more patents, and becomes determined “to do what no man had done before in the usurption of godlike powers”. An intelligent man, he tells people, now can only see the “poverty and narrowness” of Creation. 

But then we get a repeat of the cycle with William complaining to Judy one night in bed that he can’t go on. This time, instead of having to answer to a boss, he’s pestered by the needs of all the people he administers in his ventures. Judy resolves not to make jokes about disciples, the hazards of being worshipped, and crucifixion. She tries to comfort him by telling him how people depend on him now. Marshall, he complains, thinks “he has a mortgage on my bloody brain”. William talks about moving to Arizona. Judy likes the idea of moving to America even less than before. 

She’s been having an affair with Marshall for several years aided by William’s “nobility and commitment” to spending so much time his lab. As before, Judy begins stroking William “in her own distinctive fashion” though she is rather bored with the process now, and it’s a bit mechanical now. Still, William quiets down again. Surely, thinks Judy, he doesn’t notice even if he is a genius. 

Another scene is repeated. It’s a meeting between William and Marshall with the latter again saying William hasn’t thought through his idea. Now William knows that Marshall’s expression conceals betrayal and deceit. He has a report from a detective about Marshall’s affair with Judy. It seems that William wants to concentrate on pure research and have no administrative duties. No more work on adaptive furniture, “waste-disposal units, no more living light systems, no more biotech batteries”. Marshall knows the pressure William has been under, that he’s not like ordinary men but a genius. He knows what is good for William. “Judy knows, Billy, and we’ve talked about it. Trust her. Trust me.” He just wants William’s help to “keep it on the rails” until projects can be turned over other people. 

William says he’s always trusted Marshall and appreciates him. To show him just how much, he invites Marshall into his “inner sanctum”, William’s lab that no one has ever been allowed to enter. In the lab, besides the usual equipment for genetic engineering, is a Morris chair, and Marshall sits in it. 

(Spoilers ahead)

As usual, it’s very comfortable and begins adapt to Marshall’s body. He comments on the nice texture. A new model, he asks? Yes, says William. Made just last week. It’s a new design. The basic design principles aren’t new to him, but programming the chip was hard. 

It’s not made from a “cowbag” is it, asks Marshall? (William hates that term.) No, says William. another chair? No. “It was Judy.” 

When Marshall tries to get up, the chair shifts in shape to grip him in place. He notices it’s covered in hair matching Judy’s. William says it’s a very advanced chair. If he concentrates, Marshall can detect a pulse. It has better nervous and circulatory systems than the usual Morris chair – and way better musculature. William then picks up a remote control and hands begin to emerge from the chair’s body. Two grip Marshal’s wrists, two more grip his torso, and two more start groping his crotch. Two more hands grab Marshall’s head. Marshall wets his pants, but William says the chair can take care of that. The hands undress Marshall. 

I understand that you have frequently benefited from my wife’s caresses. . . . I have always felt that her touch has its own quite distinctive quality. No doubt you agree. I have treasured that talent of hers, and I assume that you do too. We two are the only connoisseurs, I think. 

Marshall begins to feel sick at this fondling and starts to scream. Hands from the chair clamp over his mouth. He bites them. The chair doesn’t stop, only quivers.

It continued with its insistent caresses and its lascivious appreciation of the naked body which it held captive.

When Marshall gets an erection, William mocks him, asking him if he sees the potential of this new design and a new sexual revolution springing from it. 

William commands the chair’s hands to retreat, and Marshall barks a cliched exclamation that William won’t get away with this. 

And he doesn’t. 

Judy’s and Marshall’s disappearance is noted; William’s private lab is searched. “The longest and most confused trial on record” results. 

Are Judy and Marshall dead? Ultimately, Marshall is convicted of just grievous bodily harm.  Cynics claim the jury (which includes eight women) were swayed by William’s good looks and sympathy with his jealousy. Some hope the verdict and its slight sentence mean that William can get back to making new invenstions for the benefit of mankind. 

At trial’s end, the Court has to decide what to do with Exhibit A: a love couch, half with silken blonde hair, half with red hair, and containing two hearts “beating as one”. 

While it’s a horror story centering on William’s revenge, there is plenty of note here, especially in the production of food in this future. No doubt, the vision would creep out many today who protest our milder versions of GMO foods. I’m not sure that the genetically engineered meat here, which would seem similar to our vat grown meat, wouldn’t run into the same technical problems for economic production. Yes, it can be done, but, right now, not at economically competitive cost. And I wonder if Stableford’s mechanistic vision misses some quality in the meat only produced by traditional animals.

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