Okay, finally, a book I don't have to discount on the basis of it being a great book with an absolute shambles of an ending. A book I can feel proud to recommend despite it being one of the sickest books I have had the pleasure (and it was a pleasure) of reading. And maybe that's the point, that it's influential for not only the science fiction genre and the underground element of "bizarre fiction", but that it's also influential for the extreme horror genre, since it features one of the best gruesome operatic revenge stories this side of Sweeney Todd, only with a casual eye towards the kind of brutal grotesquerie that only the works of less well-known weird fiction like Geek Love and Freaks 'Amour (among others) can provide. While the book's plot is something of a series of potshots in a dark room centered around the titular doctor and the young man who is his assistant, the images are strong ones overall and stuck with me well after finally closing the pages. Even if I didn't necessarily understand the climax.
For those willing to brave the bizarre and sometimes downright sick and depraved (all good things in my opinion) world of the Interface and its inhabitants, you will find a hell of a good read, and one of the most shining examples of American dystopian fiction. For those who want something with a little less military grade hallucinogens, dying alien gods, and prostitutes destroying their own brains with permanent and harmful drugs, then you should probably look elsewhere, or at least get this out of the library before making a decision to commit fully to this classic act of lovingly poetic depravity.
More, as always, below.
“Life's nothing but the beating you take before you die. And I've died so many times already. Killed and lost so much..."
Opposing Adder and his indecent and horrifying freedom are the Moral Forcers, a fanatical cult of violent white-coated thugs under the rule of John Mox, a televangelist with ties to the Greater Production Corporation in the Orange County area. Where Adder advocates freedom of the flesh to the point of self-destruction, Mox advocates the opposite, a kind of purity that relies on giving up even one's own carnal desires and equipment, complete annihilation for moral devotion. These two men form opposite extremes, each contributing to the further decline of the urban sprawl they fight over in their own special way.
Into this tableau enters one E. Allen Limmit, a former brothel administrator for the Greater Production Corporation's giant chicken farm. Limmit has a very nebulous plan that involves a boot knife and moving to the interface, a plan complicated when a GPC executive asks him to deliver a mysterious briefcase to Dr. Adder. Adder takes Limmit under his wing as an assistant, getting him to help with various tasks with an eye towards further entrenchment in his business. But what both Adder and Limmit fail to realize is that they are pawns in a much larger game, a game played among the rich elite, and among the forces of the Midwestern Liberation Front, and all throughout the interface. And before they're through, Limmit will have to discover things he never even realized, things that draw the men closer and closer to a confrontation with John Mox and GPC.
So first things first, Dr. Adder is a misanthropic sociopath. There, got that out of the way. He hates women, he hates men, he hates gay people, he hates kink, he hates straight people, he sneers at people who have sex, and he thinks he's above the people that he surgically mutilates into their new shapes. There is not a single person in the entire novel he feels anything approaching empathy for, save maybe near the end of the novel. Much like The Stars My Destination, Adder is a deliberately unsympathetic character, Limmit kind of is, too, actually, considering he doesn't seem to view women as anything but objects and has a latent giant chicken fetish. But let's be perfectly honest here: You are not supposed to like these people. The central characters are two villains and an antihero because it's that kind of book. It's that kind of society.
But with that out of the way, there's something important about these characters-- well, two of them if not the third. They change. They actually change and grow over time. Limmit, who spends a lot of the book making nebulous plans and not actually taking a side, is actually the deciding factor in the final battle at the end of the book. Adder abandons his messianic sociopath persona and, though still a massive misanthrope, seems poised to actually truly help people in some way other than destroying them. This is, in some ways, a story about people abandoning the flawed coping mechanisms and cynical worldviews that kept them just as bound up as Mox and GPC's machinations. It's a different kind of story from the usual cyberpunk tropes because it shows the characters being bound by their cynicism and pessimism, rather than it being a useful survival tool. In fact, it's the one character who isn't a complete cynical shit who gets through the story intact. Maybe it's because it was written in the early Seventies when people were just starting to slide into cynicism, but for such a dark novel, it's got some incredibly optimistic flourishes.
It's also vivid. I think this is the thing I love most about K.W. Jeter-- the visuals. And for something so lurid and grotesque, Dr. Adder really puts it over the edge. There are descriptions of surgeries, of extreme body modification, and of The Visitor, which is something I wouldn't dare give away to anyone. The set piece that closes out the first section of the book ("Proud Flesh") is a brutal and bloody riot in the streets that manages to seem lurid without giving up any sense of consequence. The operations Dr. Adder performs are suitably stomach-churning and give off the exact vibe I believe they're supposed to-- dark, disturbing, and a little of 'why the hell would you want to?' The feel of the book, thanks to the visuals, has a grimy, pulpy sort of way about it. Everything feels covered in dirt and grit, and the parts that aren't are so polished that it feels like there's something inhuman and grotesque about them. The Orange County segments especially, with their pill-popping disaffection and the sex bot theme park.
And in the end, it's a brilliant book that's worth at least one read. If you can't get past the disturbing imagery and the rampant hatred of humanity as a whole that permeates a lot of the book, then this probably isn't for you. However, if a story of a creepy fallen messiah fighting a man who may only exist on television, a story that features giant talking chickens and amputee transgender prostitutes doped up with military-grade drugs doesn't frighten you away, there is a lot to like about Dr. Adder. A lot to dislike, but a lot to like.
And again, the only thing you have to lose by reading is time.
- Heathern by Jack Womack
- Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
- City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
AND MANY OTHERS
*In my circles, ADR stands for "Additional Dialogue Recording", which made the book a little hard to read.