Ben Babcock's Reviews > Sex and the High Command

Sex and the High Command by John Boyd
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's review
Oct 16, 09

bookshelves: via-io9, own, 2009-read, gender-issues, not-anyone-s-cup-of-tea, science-fiction, 2009-worst10
Read in October, 2009 — I own a copy

Practically an historical artifact to me, Sex and the High Command was educational even though it was not entertaining. It reminded me that there's a sharp difference between books set in the Cold War written during the Cold War and books set in the Cold War written after the fact. Reading it while discussing The Left Hand of Darkness in English class, I was struck by the similarities in the two novels: both are about gender issues, and both are a product of the 1960s. But that's where the similarity ends.

Sex and the High Command definitely reads like the sort of pulp sci-fi novel that made it difficult for the mainstream audience to take science fiction seriously, the sort of novel against which Ursula K. Le Guin was campaigning, both thematically and structurally, when she came out with The Left Hand of Darkness. Now, I haven't read much pulp sci-fi. That was part of the reason I elected to read this awful book; I also saw it featured in an io9 triviagasm about parthenogenesis and decided to check it out. I'm aware there's probably much better pulp sci-fi, stressing that "better" is an incredibly relative term. . . .

The description is very sparse, so I'll deviate from my normal reviewer schema and give a brief plot summary. It's contemporary 1970s America. Captain Ben Hansen of the United States Navy is just returning home from an eighteen-month tour of duty off Antarctica. While he's been away, a scientist by the name of Dr. Henrietta Carey has perfected an orgasm-inducing parthenogenesis drug marketed under the name "Vita-Lerp" and colloquially called a "V-bomb." As a result, America's women are flocking to the FEM—Freedom, Equality, and Motherhood—party to support Carey as a presidential candidate and literally eliminate men as superfluous quantities. Hansen falls in with several high-ranking military officers and key cabinet members to plot how to take the United States back from these crazy manslaughtering women.

Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

Let me set the thematic elements aside for the moment and solely focus on how badly written the book is. To be fair, I have read worse. John Boyd actually has a very good command of the English language, both in vocabulary and syntax. It's clear he loves describing naval operations in detail; he doesn't just say "the ship docked" but spends entire pages showing us the operation. Those more interested in reading naval fiction might get more out of this book than I did.

As a story, however, Sex and the High Command severely lacks anything resembling a sensible plot or realistic character development. Again, my context is a little vague here. What resources I could turn up seem to indicate that this isn't satire, but it belongs to a school of sci-fi that's tongue-in-cheek in its approach, bordering on absurdism but not quite philosophically adept enough to earn that label. It reads like a Saturday Night Live sketch that's 212 pages long and has also ingested steroids.

To be clear, I'm not ragging on absurdist-flavoured fiction. I'm a huge fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; while I couldn't quite get through Catch-22 the first time (I was only in grade 6, so I figure I have an excuse), I'm going to try again soon. But even absurdist literature might have a point—this book does not. Both its characters and its plot are utterly superfluous; excise both from the book and the same story, minus the fanciful names, remains in its questionable glory.

Most of Sex and the High Command is dialogue, and most of that dialogue makes no sense whatsoever. I spent all my time as bewildered as the main character, Captain Hansen, who also has no idea what is going on. Normally, this shared bewilderment creates a sense of empathy between reader and protagonist. To some extent, that's true here—Hansen's probably the least worst character in the book—but any hope of identifying with Hansen is scuttled in the very first chapter by the way he arrives home after his tour of duty, waltzing into his house and expecting his wife and daughter to be waiting for him, full of analogies about how he runs his home like a boat. Right. I'm aware that this is probably just the novel showing its age combined with my inability to put myself in a 1970s male mindset, but I was prejudiced against Hansen from the start.

The trouble is, Boyd's straw men feminists (pun intended) are so flimsy that it's impossible to identify with them either. The reader is left watching insane protagonists—the de facto leader of whom is intent on nuking the continental United States—and even more insane antagonists. The method by which the women gain power, forcing the incumbent government to flee to Greenland, is specious at best. I'm not even going to talk about how the incumbent government was planning to stay in power by conspiring to get a redneck elected president in return for finding him a virgin redneck girl to marry. Only the FBI agent sent to find said girl beds her before bringing her back, and then the redneck and his new bride die when their yacht sinks while they have sex. Oh, and a grammarian literally dies of a heart attack from hearing the redneck put four prepositions at the end of a sentence.

Yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

Since the dialogue is so confusing and the actions that dialogue seems to precipitate make no sense, I spent the majority of the book turning the pages and remarking, "This book is FUBAR." Ordinarily, that's not a good thing, and Sex and the High Command is not one of those rare it's-so-crazy-it's-brilliant exceptions. It is FUBAR.

Thematically, this book is a mess. I will ignore the fact of its anti-feminism—declaiming that would be futile—and focus only on the unrealistic portrayal of its feminist antagonists. Yet another one of those pesky relativistic qualifications: the feminist movement as we know it today was very young in that era, and it's not like Boyd could go online and do a couple hours' research on the subject (the non-existence of the Internet was also probably an obstacle to such an endeavour). And the movement was scary to those in power, as change always is. Still, Boyd grievously misrepresents the feminist platform.

The most striking example comes toward the end of the book, after the women have assumed power and are making it ever harder for men to be men and small green furry creatures from Alpha Centauri to be small green furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. Boyd has the women, led by the "Mother Presiding" Dr. Carey, hyper-feminize America. And in so doing, those same women are behaving like non-feminist women who just happen to have homicidal urges any time they see a man who isn't blindly docile to the New Logic of women. Whereas feminism now focuses on gender equality and eliminating difference, Boyd's feminists exhibit traits that modern feminism claims exist primarily because of male dominance in society—ergo, in a female-dominated or gender-equal society, those traits would be minimized or non-existent. As a result, while Sex and the High Command probably stands as an interesting example of how reactionaries viewed the fledgling feminist movement of the 1960s, it's hardly a valid critique of that movement.

So, Sex and the High Command is neither an intellectually-stimulating polemic nor a rousing adventure novel. It has no interesting characters, very little clever or even cogent dialogue, and a distinct absence of plot or true resolution. So already, this book has managed to alienate the two largest (non-disjoint) sets of SF readers: those who seek profound themes and those who just want to relax and read a good story. Only those interested in historical artifacts or people like me, who will read something that they suspect is awful just for that suspicion, will find this book appealing. But that may be optimism on my part.

Because repetition is key: yes, it's as bad as it sounds.

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