The possibility of knowing yourself: Geoff Ryman’s Lust

Geoff Ryman’s Lust is a very difficult book to talk about. It begins “Michael was happy”, which turns out not to be the case. Michael is a scientific researcher, who has a grant to begin a new project. He’s a complex man, he’s half-British and half-American, he has difficulty with loving himself and other people, he’s gay and he’s impotent. He acquires the power of summoning a copy of anyone he desires, whether it’s his straight trainer from the gym, a thinly-disguised Jessica Rabbit from the cartoon, Picasso, Lawrence of Arabia, Alexander the Great, or somebody he met for five minutes in Thailand on a long ago holiday. Whoever they are, they’re willing, eager even, to have sex with him. He can make them vanish again when he’s had enough of them.

But it’s all more complicated than that. This sounds like the premise for gay pornography, but in fact this book isn’t erotic, is only sometimes romantic, and is actually about the kind of choices people make and the kind of lives they choose and how nothing is unambiguously good or bad. It’s a character novel about Michael, and it’s a science fiction novel about the summonings and their implications. It’s a brilliant book, I like it a great deal and have read it several times. The thing it is most like is Grimwood’s Replay; if you like the issues raised in Replay, you’ll also like Lust.

The British publisher of Lust, Flamingo, clearly had no idea of how to market it. They didn’t know that the audience for this book was in fact me. I think they may have thought it was gay pornography. There is enough gay sex in it that homophobes would have a problem with it, but it isn’t sex written to be titillating at all. The cover, with the suggestively arranged cucumber and tomatoes, was in fact so embarrassing that when I bought Lust I took it up to the counter underneath the other book I was buying that day (Gaiman’s American Gods) so I wouldn’t be seen with it. When I took it out of my bag to read on the train the other day I found myself trying to keep it flat, for the first five minutes until I was so absorbed I utterly forgot about everything outside the book. The real problem here isn’t me. I can cover it with brown paper if I want to—and I did buy it. I bought it because I already really liked Ryman’s earlier work. The problem is people who wanted gay pornography (“four letters, infinite possibilities”) and were terribly disappointed, and the people who hadn’t read Ryman before and who might have seen this and been put off. It doesn’t seem to be in print, and that’s a pity. Someone should bring out a new edition with a cover with somebody looking at himself in an infinite selection of mirrors that all show different people.

Spoilers follow, but not the sort that spoil the reading experience.

What makes this work is that Ryman has thought through all the implications of the copies, which Michael calls “angels”. Michael is a scientist, and he experiments to find out the edges of his magical power—which is what for me makes this science fiction and not fantasy. The power is fantastical, and the scientific explanation is stupider and more handwavy than if it was called magic. I’m normally terribly forgiving of handwave explanations that make emotional sense within the context of the story, but I think Ryman by calling the entire SF community on the rigor of their science has put himself in a position where his own science handwaves should be held to a high standard. “They come from the other 90% of the unused potential of your brain” is just bafflegab. They’re magic. But there is that attempt at explanation, however lame, and once given the impossibility of being able to summon anyone you desire, Ryman treats it seriously and sensibly—it’s all consistent and fits together. (Though if something backed up would vanish when the angel vanished, I’m not sure why code written by an angel and copied by a human by hand wouldn’t vanish too. Where’s the distinction there? But that’s my only quibble.)

Like Replay, Lust works as a set of variations on a theme that together illuminate the theme. It is about what Michael wants, what he desires, but what he desires isn’t sex with an infinite number of strangers. He wants to come to terms with his life. The most powerful part of the book is where he explores what could have been—if he’d been straight, if his father had responded when he made a pass at him instead of freaking out. This is intense stuff, and we get it after we know Michael well enough that we care about him. There’s also the way the angels interact with his real life, with his relationships with his boyfriend and his mother—and also his work. Ryman does a clever sleight of hand with his work and the way stories don’t mention people’s jobs except when it’s convenient to make us as startled as Michael is when he realises that he hasn’t been going to work and applying for grants. We learn early on that Michael could pretty much have as much meaningless sex with random strangers as he wants in the real world—if he wasn’t impotent—and what he really wants is what almost everyone wants connection, love, somebody to talk to. Lust is the story of Michael’s journey from being content with a life of compromises to a life of knowing himself.

As you’d expect from Ryman the writing is effective and evocative. This is a book that draws you in and completely absorbs you. If you like books about people’s lives and how they cope with weird powers, and if the idea of men having sex with each other doesn’t utterly squick you, I highly recommend it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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