“The Fury That Hell Withheld”

My look at the tales in Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry continues.

Review: “The Fury That Hell Withheld”, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

The Furies of Classical Mythology were not unleashed to punish faithless lovers, but to persecute undutiful children. In that tarnished Golden Age the fiercest hatreds and most awful jealousies were stored up in the bonds of maternal and filial affection.  . . . our nascent Golden Age, when men are beginning to acquire godlike power over the organic and inorganic alike, is in its fashion a Promethean Era. The tales we must tell of the time that is soon to be may echo in many ways the tales the Greeks and Romans told of the time behind them, and it again is a question to be asked what kind of Furies Hell has saved for the special damnation of men in the future.

This is a coldly intellectual and ironic retelling of the myth of the mother-murdering Orestes connected to the Greek myth of the Furies 

After a prologue including the above, we are introduced to Adam Emden, the most prominent hero of the “biotechnological revolution”. He was one of the first to apply genetic engineering techniques to cure injuries, augment the body’s powers of self-repair to heal wounds, regrow lost limbs, and repair damaged organs. A “sculptor of human clay”, he causes human tissue cells to “revert to blastular innocence” and then grow and respecialize for the desired effects. 

Besides his medical accomplishments, he also became famous for being the leading combatant in the Patent Wars which took his work from expensive, proprietary technologies to cheaper, widely available treatments. He spent so much time in the courtroom he took a degree in law as well as medicine. He is revered and widely known figure.

Before the Patent Wars, he married Clementina. They have two daughters, Phoebe and Alexia, and a son named Aristide. Given his celebrity status, they live in the public spotlight, and it affects them all in different ways. Alexia, the youngest, becomes her father’s assistant and tries to shield him from publicity as much as possible. It’s a job her mother originally and unsuccessfully tried to perform but lacked the “necessary commitment” and skill to do. Aristide tries to model himself on the father he idolizes. “no one has ever desired more ardently to be a genius.” He is particularly interested in extending his father’s work on cancer treatments. 

Things do not go so well for eldest child Phoebe. Unable to emulate Aristide or Alexia, she feels she is a failure. Eventually, she falls into drug use and a “black market psychotropic drug of particularly vicious character” gives her a fatal disease even her father can’t treat. 

Adam’s devotion to work allows little time to grieve. Alexia and Aristide also have no “time or energy to spare in exhausting themselves with sorrow”. Clementina, like Phoebe never able to fashion her own life apart from Adam, finds a ”strange kind of opportunity in grief”. 

She also feels lonely. Adam is off fighting his Patent Wars with Alexia’s assistance. She begins, perhaps not consciously, to blame Adam for Phoebe’s death and her own wretched state of grief. Clementina takes a lover, Joseph Hess. Unsurprisingly, he shares Clementina’s hatred for Adam.

Hess is a bioengineer for the corporations Adam battles in court, and he’s quite a successful one specializing, like Adam, in reverting cells to the blastular stage and then “respecializing” them for desired purposes. Granted, his spectacular experiments are ethically questionable. Hess merely regards his critics as moral cowards. His most famous experiments involve

the decomposition and respecialisation of brain tissue in living animals which had been taught various skills and responses; by this means he sought to discover the extent to which behaviours were hardwired into the brain, and in what ways learned behaviours were stored. 

While he was never allowed to experiment on a human, he has publicly claimed that, if anyone could have cured Phoebe, it would have been him. Of course, Adam finds this strongly objectionable, but Phoebe believes it. 

Hess’ and Clementina’s affair doesn’t stay secret long, and Adam moves out of the house. He doesn’t even care enough to actually divorce Clementina, and this sends her into a fury. It is a fury that becomes murderous. It probably would have stayed a mere thought and not a deed if not for Hess. While Hess hates Adam and that’s why he joins Clementina in plotting Adam’s murder, his motive is pride, the same pride that relish the moral outrage of those who attempt to reign in his “blasphemous research”. For Hess, the idea of killing the secular saint Adam – and getting away with it despite his obvious motive – moves him to plot with Clementina. 

Adam is lured back to his old home where Clementina and Hess stab him to death. Using his bioengineering knowledge, Hess causes Adam’s blood to unclot and his wounds to be repaired. Adam’s body is placed back in his residence where, it seems, he died of a heart attack. 

Aristide and Alexia do not protest that finding, but they don’t accept it. It’s not an immediate suspicion, but it grows the more they have to do with their mother after Adam’s death. It’s not that Clementina shows no great grief or inherits their father’s estate. It’s what happens to her relationship with Hess. 

The two develop a mutual antipathy now that they are no longer bound together by the object of their hate. Clementina is annoyed by Hess’ egotism at the successful murder. Hess regards the hatred Clementina felt for her husband a “pitiful thing”. 

Aristide, knowing of Hess’ scientific specialty, begins to suspect what was done. He and Alexia plant some stories in the press that their father did not die of natural causes. On the pretext of ending these rumors, they get a court order to exhume Adam’s body. Aristide does the autopsy himself and announces, publicly, the verdict of death by natural causes was right. Privately, he and his sister have confirmed their suspicions. Alexia spent a lot of time with her father and noticed that scars on his chest were missing on the body. They were erased by Hess’s biological tinkering.

They aren’t going to the police though. “They had their own ideas about justice.” They aren’t going to forgive their mother any more than she forgave her husband for Phoebe’s death. Alexia already resents her mother because she sensed that her father was bitter over his “sexual estrangement” from Clementina, and, however close she was to her father and a replacement for her mother, she definitely didn’t have an incestuous relationship with him. Aristide doesn’t quite idolize his father as much as his sister, but he believes the “art and science” of his father has been used by Hess not just for murder but “a Satanic desecration” of his father’s work. 

Five pages of this 31-page story are taken up with a cold discussion between the siblings how they will take their vengeance. They become Furies. They agree the circumstances of their father’s death must be kept hidden, and so must their vengeance. It must be vengeance wrought with their father’s tools. His hand, says Aristide, must wield the literal or metaphoric knife.  While their father’s body had been in the grave a few weeks, Aristide found a few cells that were still retained their “biochemical functioning”, and he took cells of all tissue types and stored them in a culture to be revived again.

(Spoilers ahead)

Can he grow a whole new body, asks Alexia? No, damage in the cells’ nucleic acids renders the cells incapable of reproduction. Aristide can revert them to a blastural stage and then respecialize them to the desired form, but there is only enough tissue to create something the size of an apple. Could he form hands, his sister asks? No, there is no way to carry out that old idea from supernatural fiction — murderous, disembodied hands. They would have nothing to activate them, no leverage to operate with.

Aristide proposes a poetic form of justice, something that metaphorically appeals to the siblings as “scientific sophisticates”. Their father’s cells will be the means of vengeance. After their vengeance is wrought, they will reveal what has been done to their victims. Also being sophisticated, Hess and Clementina will see the mythic poetry in their fate. 

Pleading they want to be reconciled to their mother, they invite Clementina to dine at with them at Aristide’s home. Clementina isn’t told Hess was also invited on the pretext that her children are sorry for the rift between the two-ex lovers. Dinner is served and, afterwards, Aristide makes a speech that starts by mentioning the Furies of myth and the story of Atreus who was summoned to feast with his secret enemy and fed his own children. 

Aristide says he’s not going to bore them with how he knows they killed his father. They, no doubt, want to know the means of the vengeance. Aristide has, in their meal, fed them cells from his father’s body. But they are not normal cells. They’ve been engineered to generate powerful cancers in the murderers’ guts, resistant to the body’s normal defenses, and they will rapidly turn other cells in their bodies cancerous, a metaphorical version of them cannibalizing themselves. Cancer is, after all, a specialty of Aristide. He invites Hess to try and prove himself the better scientist, but he doesn’t think he will succeed. Aristide doesn’t think even he could cure them. 

Aristide says to Hess,

I trust that you will not take the easier way out – to kill yourself, as an act of tormented euthanasia, might endorse the ancient opinion that whom the gods destroy, they first make mad, but I think we live in more civilised times nowadays, and you are a man of science, are you not?

Clementina and Hess go and don’t seek retribution. Hess even tries to save Clementina as well as himself but to no avail. Shame prevents them from revealing their punishment and the reason for it. 

Stableford’s concluding paragraph may reflect his antipathy towards religion, but it can also be seen as irony in a story that shows, in the Promethean Age, the old resentments and murderous intents still exist. On the other hand, and this I suspect his Stableford’s intent, the damage from those emotions is more limited. 

No Erinyes ever appeared to harry Aristide and Alexia, despite the fact that they had murdered their mother. If, in some secret recess of their minds, they were troubled by guilt, they gave no outward sign of it. Hell, it seems, is now constrained to withhold its Furies, at least until death delivers us to the court of divine justice; and given that we live in such civilised times, how can we possibly believe that it does? 

Besides a tone that frames this as a retold myth, Stableford is rather schematic about outlining his characters’ motives and emotions though he often qualifies the descriptions such as this about Alexia: “She had always believed, probably correctly”.

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