Go ahead. Read it. Just don’t send me your psychiatric bills.
-from the Analog review of Antibodies
Welcome back, dear Coilhaüsers, to All Tomorrows. This time we’re going a bit outside of our usual Deviant Era range to take a deep, long (yeah, you’ll never forgive me) look at David J. Skal’s 1988 novel Antibodies. A little later than the usual works, yes, but if anything gets captures the guts of Deviant Era’s transgressive glories, it’s this pitch-black wallow on the wrong side of Transhumanism.
Skal, mostly a horror historian, wrote only a handful of science fiction novels, and this was the last. It’s not hard to see why. Antibodies is a horror tale in future clothing: a detailed examination of how nasty it gets when humans try to permanently scrap flesh for metal, and how easily believing plebs are still led to the slaughter by their puppet-masters.
I’ve recommended a lot of disturbing books in this column and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon, but I will warn you right now: Antibodies is not for everyone. It is a deeply disturbing, brutally unsparing book. The anonymous reviewer from Analog wasn’t fucking around. This is a tale with no mercy and no illusions. You’ve been warned.
She moved as if in a dream, and it was your dream, though at that point in time neither of you knew that the other existed or mattered at all.
She was a slim girl with smooth skin and wide eyes- too wide, people often thought– and her delicate bones pressed out against the membranes of her wrists and ankles. Stress points, she regarded those spots. The places of greatest mechanical wear.
She moved in front of her bathroom mirror, the dream deepening. The wide eyes remained motionless, dilated, fixed on her reflected image as she slowly rotated her head, first to the right, then to the left. The eyes held steady as gyroscopes. Unblinking. She was beyond blinking.
She had wakened early, automatically and before the alarm clock–she was superior to such things now. The changes had been slow in coming, and painful, but this morning she knew from the minute she opened her eyes that things were going to be different forever. She was detached now. Objective. It had been difficult, to be sure, but she had endured the trials and now would be rewarded. Today, when she woke just seconds before the alarm sounded– anticipating the mechanism, eclipsing it– she knew that she had won.
That’s Diandra, a young artist and, as it’s revealed through the course of Antibodies, a severely messed up human being (along with everyone else in this novel). Diandra is a devotee of the Cybernetic Temple, which promises its followers transcendence through technology: machines don’t die, they just upgrade.
The Temple is a darker spin on the evolving idea that, through technology, humanity might evolve past its former physical boundaries. In Skal’s world, Diandra meets up with Venus Tramshell, a designer who (it’s rumored only, naturally) severed her own arms off so they could be replaced with more advanced technology. The “antibodies” or “robopaths,” people who feel more in common with machine than human, are “proliferating at an alarming rate” in this not-too-far-past-tomorrow world.
Throw into the mix the shadowy backers behind the Temple and the utterly psychotic therapist Julian Nagy (the line between the establishment and the cults are nonexistent in this book) and you have a recipe for 220 pages of pure, mind-battering horror.
That’s what Antibodies is, at its heart: a horror novel. There are no heroes here, only the deluded and the ruthlessly predatory. But for all its Gran Guignol touches, Antibodies hits home. In a rush to the future, it’s easy to forget or ignore the wreckage that draws in the alienated and insane into any dream that offers them easy transcendence from their previous lives.
Skal is not afraid to go any direction, enough that by the end of the book, you’ll probably feel disgusted both with the olde fleshe (“Hell, they act like they own us. We essentially have no control over our own bodies.”) and its shining steel alternative (“from a great distance in her mind, she felt or dreamed she felt cool mechanical arms encircling her, stroking her, kneading her in a way that no human hands ever could, or ever would.”)
Antibodies is out of print, and hard to find today. It’s not difficult to see why: it is a thought-provoking book, it is an important book. I’ve never met anyone who said, with unabashed glee, that they liked it.
We do live in a brave new world, of magnificent sprinters with no legs, of old iron, new flesh and limitless potential. Oddly, this makes the uncomfortable truths of Antibodies all the more essential: there will still be lies and there will still be those that believe them, and others that profit, leech-like, off their worship. No matter how much steel we have inside us, how much technology we create, the old demons are still waiting, just over the horizon.
Question: As technology, especially prosthetics and cybernetics, becomes more and more advanced, what kind of union (if any) do you think human flesh and machine will have? Will it be unholy or glorious?
On a slightly less bleak note, dear readers, I have a (relatively) new blog, The Breaking Time that I’m writing and updating, nearly every day. So if you’re interested in the fractured age in which we find ourselves, and in its implications and possibilities both beautiful and terrible, do take a look.
Plus there’s poetry on Fridays, ye philistines.