All Tomorrows: Antibodies

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.

At last.

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.

10 Responses to “All Tomorrows: Antibodies”

  1. Jerem Morrow Says:

    I still get slightly hopeful when I see others’ eyes light up at the mention of a bright and shining utopia, where we’re all flying around via cybernetic limbs, sleek jetpacks and flying cars. But I’d wager there’s more truth in your words. It’ll be steam powered hoohas and greasy electric uber schlongs battering us against the broken windows of disused skyscrapers.

  2. the daniel Says:

    “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.”

    I got that far and bought the book from Amazon before continuing with the review. That’s the kind of mood I’m in i guess ;)

  3. Richard Says:

    “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.”

    Firstly, thanks for writing this great column!

    This isn’t a comment on Antibodies, which i’d not heard of, let alone read, before this column (I’m going to rectify that second part as soon as I can!), but more on the paragraph quoted above, which made me think about some things…

    I’m about the same age as Neuromancer, or a couple of years younger. It strikes me that in all that time, the entire trend in (science) fiction has been towards warning, or exposing the dark sides in things, or making previously ‘innocent’ ideas edgier. And none of those things are strictly bad when handled well. Some of my favorite stories basically follow the line that human nature won’t change through technology, or social developments, or whatever. Transmetropolitan would probably be a case in point, and I still love that story. It is just that when the lustre has been taken off everything all we have at the end is cynicism and doubt and the There Is No Alternative ideology prevalent today.

    I know that utopian fiction can often be patronising, or sanctimonious, or skirt horribly close to crypto-fascism. But it would be nice to read some science fiction that wasn’t seeking to expose illusions (whether or not they were actually real) but to show what might be, could be, or simply what the writer would want things to be like…

    (There are of course several wonderful books written in the last thirty years that do just that, before anyone points them out!)

    …because i’m not necessarily sure that the tide of awfulness in fiction really reflects the human condition. I mean, if the contents of this blog prove anything, it’s that there’s plenty beautiful and creative in the world, as much as there is all that over-hyped evil and depravity.

  4. Sparrow Says:

    But the sad thing is that utopia just doesn’t make as good a story as distopia.

  5. D. Says:

    i think their union (of man and cybernetic/prostetic tools) will be necessary at some point (as it is nowdays, though limited as they are), but i can’t see anything evil about that. i can’t imagine anyone, who would for example voluntarily surrender their sense of touch for a pair of cybernetic arms. especially because they would need further cybernetic surgery to make the body capable to deal with the extra weight and the physical strein. and we’re talking about normal lifting capabilities and such, not super-strenght (howerver cool that would be). will it be glorius? well the first guy who ran track with prostetic legs was disqualified for being like 150% faster then the able-bodied runners. i hope it will make disabled people more accepted (and cool looking).

  6. David Forbes Says:

    Jerem: Oh, we’ll probably have both aplenty. Don’t you worry. For the record, I think Skal’s vision is about as unlikely as the shining utopia. As with most big changes, it will probably be some measure of “all of the above.”

    the daniel: Heh. Excellent. My work here is done.

    Richard: Thank you for a fascinating comment and observation. I regret I didn’t reply to it more quickly, it’s been a busy time lately.

    “the entire trend in (science) fiction has been towards warning, or exposing the dark sides in things, or making previously ‘innocent’ ideas edgier”

    I don’t think so, at least not anymore. When I browse a sci-fi section today, I see a lot of bad fantasy epics and a huge, bomb-laden ton of crap military sci-fi. Both are building illusions as fast as the wallets of the unthinking will let them.

    However, “busting your illusions with a wrecking ball” was a big trend during the Deviant Age I mostly focus on in All Tomorrows, and in occasional works (like Antibodies) that have captured its spirit since.

    Antibodies is an unusually bleak example, hence my multiple warnings. But I don’t think what that revealing illusions has to go hand in hand with “cynicism and doubt and the There Is No Alternative ideology prevalent today.” Alan Moore’s work is a prime example of the possible synthesis: unafraid to knock down walls, but still aware of the power and beauty of a good idea.

    But most writers aren’t Moore, and the usual problem is that the essence of a good story is conflict. People want to get visions beyond their daily lives, to feel or experience something more visceral and extreme. That’s why sex and violence have been enjoying a posh spot in our collective minds since Euripides, and aren’t ever going to leave.

    Plus, a good writer (an honest one, at least) isn’t able to turn away from possible flaws in their own visions or goals. If, for example, I was to write a story about a future I’d like to see, I don’t think I could stop from realizing “Well, this part could totally go to hell or backfire… and wouldn’t that make an interesting tale?”

    Personally, I think humanity could have a second Renaissance in the coming years, but we’re still going to be us, and there’s no escaping that (remember, the Renaissance was full of turmoil and violence). Better to face it head-on, and that’s what the best illusion-busting writing does.

    A prime exhibit here is a beautifully written book (that I can’t stand) by Ursula LeGuin called The Dispossessed. LeGuin’s an amazing, nuanced writer and it’s a valiant attempt at a utopian sci-fi novel, but it shows the many, many problems with the genre. She ends up turning a massive blind eye to some realistic problems with her situations, resulting in ultimately unbelievable characters. In the end, her “utopia” isn’t a place I’d ever want to live (or that would last a year freed from the auctorial hand).

    However, a few writers have pulled off the nigh-impossible. I’d advise you to check out Samuel DeLany’s Trouble on Triton, which features a future world with many aspects the author clearly considers desirable, but simultaneously busts utopian illusions and doesn’t shy away from conflict or hard questions.

    D: I think their union (of man and cybernetic/prostetic tools) will be necessary at some point

    Will it? Maybe, I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of possible paths in the future.

    i can’t see anything evil about that.

    In and of itself, there’s not. Consider that the same amazing advances in biology and chemistry that made possible life-saving medicine also opened the door to biological warfare.

    Humans will find a way to fuck, murder, exploit, build, heal and create with any new tool they find, often all in the same breath. One can hope that the destruction will be outweighed by the positive impacts, but there will be backlashes, psychotic uses and unintended consequences. It’s naive to see our species behaving otherwise.

    i can’t imagine anyone, who would for example voluntarily surrender their sense of touch for a pair of cybernetic arms.

    Then you really should read Antibodies. It will be shockingly easy to imagine afterwards.

    well the first guy who ran track with prostetic legs was disqualified for being like 150% faster then the able-bodied runners.

    Not so, though the story of Oscar Pistorius is glorious (he wasn’t the first). Pistorius’ combination of training, talent and determination, along with state of the art prosthetics, placed him on roughly even footing with many other world class runners: his prosthetics are more efficient in some ways, but he has to use dramatically more upper-body power than runners with flesh and blood legs. However, after he got the decision to bar him from Olympic tryouts overturned, he wasn’t quite able to make an qualifying time.

    i hope it will make disabled people more accepted (and cool looking).

    I’ll just leave it at saying Aimee Mullins is right

  7. Ade Says:

    I must read this!

    Though not a book, Texhnolyze tackles some similar themes in a cyberpunk fever-dream that inspires more questions than answers. Here too people deliberately hack off their limbs to be fitted with more advanced prosthetics. One character actually claims it’s the next step in human evolution.

  8. Slinka Says:

    I read Antibodies in my youth (over 20 years ago!) and should probably give it another read to see what I get out of it, now being an adult and pro-transhumanism. The ending though, with the tricycle, will always be the strongest visual a book has ever given me.

  9. Antibodies, by David Skal (1988) K | The Black Letters Says:

    [...] discovered this book through a Coilhouse link Emera flinged my way over a year ago and behold, it bobbed up to the surface of my 100+ TBR pool [...]

  10. Adriano1977 Says:

    Hey David,
    I bought the book based on this review and I do not regret it one bit! Beautiful, twisted little parable! Incidentally, it reminds me of the infamous movie Tetsuo The Iron Man, which I also happened to love and loathe at the same time.
    I am also not convinced of the encessity of physical integration of the body and the cybernetics. Who knows what we’ll discover/invent and which direction our species will go in a long time? provided we survive the century, of course! Anyway, I believe the cultural implications of the growing exposition of humans of a lower and lower age to technologies of any kind will impress changes big enough on mankind’s mindset and cultural set. I am no dinosaur, but still, there are 4-year olds who have less trouble learning to operate and then operate a cumputer mouse than I had at 5 times their age, when I bought my first PC! Italian kids have cell phones so early even I look at them funny and a couple of years back I ended up looking for HTML tips on the blog of a 13 year old kid!
    Of course it mainly and simply is a knowledge gap, but the hints and implications of the growing span of the cultural gap even between very close generation sure is fascinating-verging-on-scary, isn’t it?

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