tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > Golden Vanity

Golden Vanity by Rachel Pollack
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
534016
's review

really liked it
bookshelves: sf

review of
Rachel Pollack's Golden Vanity
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - March 13, 2016

It's strange to me to divide authors into categories like "women" & "men" or "black" & "white" but it's done all the time by almost everyone. If I find myself primarily reading bks by white male authors then I feel like I'm neglected a world of other possibilities, other PsOV. SO, I'm looking at used SF bks & I'm picking out ones by women authors that I'm not already familiar w/ & Rachel Pollack is one of them.

This bk's from 1980. Perhaps my 1st impression was that Pollack has really internalized some qualities of the 'pulp' writers, qualities that I enjoy, & that she's doing a bang-up job.

"The spaceport. "The great glory of our age," as the government called it, the "monster" as everyone else called it, covered half of what used to be the Bronx (how eagerly the army had tossed out the people), filling the razed streets with wonderful searchlights, shiny new buildings—and four separate police forces marching along the borders like hunters protecting a settlement from wolves." - pp 19-20

The mood is set, as w/ all government or big money imposed 'urban development', there's a subtext of victimization of the poor: a highway divides a small neighborhood, permanently cutting it into 2 halves now cut off from each other; a stadium evicts people from their homes, homes they've lived in for decades if not generations; a sports center displaces thousands from the Hill District in Pittsburgh, adding insult to injury, African American contractors aren't working on the job but get insulted, instead, by the white racists who are. Pollack has a politically informed realistic perspective.

"He remembered the women, his Aunt Marilyn among them, who had originally bought, rented, or occupied these old buildings years ago in the hope of building a "liberated community."

""We just want some peace," Marilyn had told him. "We just want to be left alone."

"For awhile it almost worked; when the governments saw the buildings restored, crime lower than anywhere else in town, and the sidewalks adorned with red and yellow flower pots, it eagerly offered money and technical help in the hope the women would establish a peaceful alternative to the feminist bombings and assassinations of the late eighties." - p 20

"feminist bombings"?: That's a 'nice' change from the more commonplace 'terrorist bombings' trope & not so unrealistic considering the female participation in militant leftist groups. People like Ulrike Meinhof (Red Army Faction), Ann Hansen (Direct Action), Zohra Drif-Bitat ([Algerian] National Liberation Front), Marilyn Buck, etc, etc.

I found the following to be a 'pulpish' touch - partially b/c of the 'in-joke' reference to SF: "A lot of the bored drivers moonlighted by working for one of the eight hundred or so intelligence agencies which spied on the port and visitors. Ridiculous, Hump scolded himself, straight from the teev; the florid-faced pudgy-fingered driver with the marbly eyes fixed on page 104 of "Great Erotic Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century" hardly looked like a secret agent. But Hump was too schizzed to make sense." (p 26)

So, what's Pollack's story? I wasn't previously familiar w/ her & I'm enjoying the writing so I look her up online & find that she's primarily known as an expert on the Tarot & hasn't written that much science fiction. I find that interesting b/c if SF's a 2nd profession then she's doing a pretty good job of it.

Having spent 19 years of my adult life in inner city BalTimOre where the quantity of panhandlers is phenomenally large I found this description of Vanity, a being not from Earth, & an American street beggar amusing:

""He saw her miss a step but before she could answer, a long-haired drunk in an old blue sweater and navy pants stepped in front of them. "Can you help me out with a little bread?" he asked Vanity.

"Vanity looked at Hump. "Bread?"

""Split," Hump said, picking up the old slang.

""Come on, man, help me out."

"Gari scuttled forward. "Get lost, creep," he growled. "She's protected." He turned to Vanity. "The younger generation," he said scornfully. "They don't understand. How can you make a society without rules?"

"Vanity touched Gari's arm. "It's all right," she said. She took out a little book from the soft bag (leather? plastic?) tied around her waist. "What's your name?"

"The drunk squinted suspiciously at her. "Alan," he said. "Alan Jacobi."

"She leafed through the book. The wind stirred her gold hair and the loose shiny sleeves of her blouse/ "Exactly," she said. "Alan Jacobi. Didn't I loan you three dollars two days ago?"

""Yeah." He grinned. "An interest-free loan, you said. But you know the cost of living these days."

""Of course," Vanity said. "I would like to help you, really I would, except you haven't paid me back yet for the other loan."" - p 45

Consider this: "Universal Grammar (UG) is a theory in linguistics, usually credited to Noam Chomsky, proposing that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into the brain. It is sometimes known as 'mental grammar', and as opposed to other 'grammars', e.g. prescriptive, descriptive and pedagogical. The theory suggests that linguistic ability manifests itself without being taught (see the poverty of the stimulus argument), and that there are properties that all natural human languages share. It is a matter of observation and experimentation to determine precisely what abilities are innate and what properties are shared by all languages." ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Univers... ) Now consider this excerpt from Golden Vanity:

""How come you speak English?"

""I learned it. Obviously."

""How? Swallow a pill?"

""Don't be silly. All spaceships carry deep learning sets, but a language doesn't take much. It's just a local use of deep speech."

""Oh of course. What's that?"

""Basic language structured into human brains. Any real language is derived from that." - p 56

As Hump tries to help Vanity disguise herself on Earth this happens:

""And you've got to change your clothes, maybe even wear some make-up."

""Animal grease? You really want me to look like an Earth woman?"

""Listen you, the day will come when Earth beauty will set the standard for the whole galaxy."

""I hope I'm glad."" - p 60

I think many SF writers enjoy imagining future &/or non-Earth fashion scenarios:

"It was evening here and in the neighboring sectors, for the people flashing past AAri's car had forsaken their uniforms for the flamboyant costumes currently fashionable. AAri made a face at a group of young people lounging near the air tunnel, their heads adorned with glowing cultures of S'suseranian color worms." - p 68

Pollack's got a good sense of humor about many things. I particularly liked this passage where the technologically superior non-Earthling attempts to break into a New York City house:

"Unhurriedly the alien took some sort of think handgun from inside his shirt. Laser probably, because he used it to cut a hole in the door, though Jacobi didn't see any beam of light. The alien reached his hand inside as if to open the lock, but a moment later withdrew it. try again mister, Jacobi thought, you'll never get a New York lock open that way. The alien ran his gun up and down the door, just inside the locks. Jacobi heard a hiss and then the door swung open." - p 87

As a 62 yr old whose friends are mostly at least 20 yrs younger than me, I have a hard time finding anyone to do ANYTHING w/ me. One of the things I like to do is go walking in the park. When one acquaintance told me that she was currently underemployed & had plenty of 'free time' on her hands I invited her to go for a walk in the park w/ me. She replied w/ a kind of horror & asked me WHY I wd ask her to do that. Being the rebellious little bugger that I am I was tempted to parody her apparent fears by replying: "B/c I want to rape you & transmit my leprosy & AIDS as well as get you pregnant, why do you ask?" However, since I'm not quite as prone to feeding into other people's negative fantasies as one might think, I simply replied: "Why do you ask?" The point is that I find that I really don't know many people who appreciate just how refreshing for the mind & body a walk in the park can be:

"On either side of the narrow corridor the metal doors leaked solitary noises from the cubicles. Most of the Workers spent their planet hours dancing Ghost, a practice the Gardener detested. When he could he spent his time in woods or at least parks, even places like the blue moss caves on Hrrhrrhrrhrru, anywhere growing. On so many of the worlds, however, the companies had sliced every tree and scrub fern within a hundred dots of port, so where else could you go but the Refuge?" - p 91

- "dancing Ghost" meaning getting high on a particular drug of that name. I can easily imagine the more feeble-minded in our current society "dancing Ghost" by being couch potatoes rather than daring to get their shoes muddy.

One of the characters is thinking about selling her house: "Too big, she thought. She'd sell it, she really would, except, well, where else could she go? Apartments had gotten so scarce, even in a small city like Beacon, seventy miles north of new York." (p 96) Why Beacon? In 1980, when this bk was published, Beacon was, indeed, a "small city". In fact, it still is.. but now it hosts Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, the museum for the Dia Art Foundation's collection of art from the 1960s to the present - this, despite its population being estimated at 15,541 as of 2010 when I was there. In 1980, Dia:Beacon didn't exist, it wasn't created until 2003. As such, Pollack's choice of Beacon has a strange resonance today given Dia:Beacon's cultural importance.

Pollack's description of underground evasiveness for security's sake is impressive:

"A few minutes later they took a southbound New York train that required they change in Harmon, where they left the platform and bought a ticket north for Albany, the state capital. In Albany they walked from the train station to the bus station, where they bought a ticket for Boston. They got off at Springfield.

"Tired, the trudged through the small city, impatiently snapping at each other until at last they found the address Gloria had given them, a small apartment building in a shopping area. In front of the house sat a parked car tow or three years old. With a set of keys Gloria had given them Hump and Vanity drove the car out of town to a rundown motel called The Springfield Rest. It was early evening." - p 109

"Hump stared at the book, Chronioun's Political History of the World. Tskes her course work seriously, he thought. He opened it to where his hand still held the place.

"A squeamishness gripped his groin, spreading upwards to his stomach. He skimmed the passage, read it, read it again. It told the story of Cortez, how he and his conquistadores stole all of Montezuma's treasures, and then, their greed satiated, Cortez and his adventurers slaughtered the Golden Emperor and all his court." - pp 117-118

Maybe that's one reason why I prefer the history of art to other histories: one can focus more on the creation of amazing & interesting things. Unfortunately, even artists can't be trusted to not be genocidal megalomaniacs. Look at Hitler, as much as people want to deny it, he was an artist.

"Chronioun's Political History of the World" seemed fictional but I looked it up anyway in case it was based in something I'm not familiar w/. As far as I can tell, it isn't.

Pollack gives a good description of paranoia, maybe she was once a pot smoker, eh?!:

"For just a moment the Voice, that alien creature that had filled his mind the past weeks with thoughts that didn't belong to him, whispered in his ear, "He's waiting for you. he just wants you to expose yourself, then he can take you to the old places beneath the building, where no one will ever find you. The torture places. He and Vanity arranged it all. Cixxa told them how. Cixxa ordered them."" - p 119

The non-Terrestrials of Golden Vanity are less the invading insectoid/tentacled green meanies of common association here to kill off the humans so they can inhabit the planet themselves & more like today's 'free market' multi-national corporations: looking to mine the resources & enslave the local population:

"["}If Jaak wanted he could have burned the entire planet. Instead he stripped it for minerals. Wherever he found what he wanted he first killed all the plant life. That not only made it easier to mine, it made sure the people wouldn't refuse the powder food he offered them, especially after all the animals had starved to death. They didn't clean up the rotting bodies, by the way. They simply mixed immunizers into the food, and left the people to cope with the smell. of course, without the plants, they had to doctor the air for oxygen, but that didn't require much to make it livable. Not pleasant, just livable. Naturally, Jaak worked the seas as well as the land. AAri once told me the dead fish floated up for years. Along the way, the company analysts decided that hcKou didn't need so many people. So they got rid of some, half, tow thirds. Don't ask me how. Maybe they just gave them as food to their workers someplace else."

"Hump moaned. He thought of Cortez and the Aztecs.

"Vanity went on. "But then another study indicated they weren't getting full fuel efficiency from the workers left over. Not because of any resistance, just because of human limitations. So they brought in genetic engineers. A few changes over a couple of generations—they were quick breeding them, by the way, speeding up pregnancy and then rushing the infants into adulthood by growth hormones and injection learning—"" - pp 125-126

Sound exaggeratedly grim? Of course it is, as David Brin has written about John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up that makes this a "self-preventing prophecy". In other words, if people can see that humans are capable of doing things like maybe they'll try to 'cut it off at the pass'. Unfortunately, as is pointed out in Alfred W. McCoy's excellent The Politics of Heroin, when US covert forces were convincing farmers in Laos to switch from their rice food crop to their opium non-food crop they became dependent on US airdrops of rice to enable them to eat. Non-cooperation meant bombing & no food. It's not that different from the scenario envisioned above.

Aboard Vanity's spaceship, Hump finds "some sort of projector and small stock of cassettes". (p 130) Again the publication date on this is 1980, only 36 yrs prior to my writing this review - not really that long ago. &, yet, can you imagine someone writing about "cassettes" in such a way now? That's practically like imagining the astronauts getting around in their space ship by horse & buggy. How long will it be before wireless transmission & holograms seem ridiculously anachronistic? 10 yrs? 20?

""Tell me about the Daniks," Vanity said.

""Delighted. The Daniks take their name after a man named Erick Daniky or something like that a number of years ago, before the companies arrived. He claimed that aliens visited Earth thousands of years go and gave rise to the gods pictured in the various religions. Space gods, he called them."" - p 135

Unlike "Chronioun's Political History of the World", the "Daniks" really are based on something specific - in this case on the theories of author Erich von Däniken, who wrote a bk entitled Chariots of the Gods?.

"(He remembered the summers spent with his parents and their neo-Irish Renaissance friends at a lake they'd renamed Innisfree, though sometimes they called it Baile's Strand.[)]" - p 159

More research to be done. I already 'knew' about Innisfree:

"* Inisfree, a fictional village in Ireland, which provides the setting for the award-winning film The Quiet Man (1952).

"* Isle of Innisfree (pronounced with a sh sound for the s), a song recorded many times since 1950, about an exile thinking on his Irish home. Inspired by and featured in the same film.

"* A small uninhabited island in Lough Gill, Ireland, featured in the poem Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats" - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innisfree

partially b/c I gave a reading at a poetry bkstore of that name in Boulder, CO, on June 1, 2011 (https://youtu.be/iWwMJDdEGr8 , https://youtu.be/SeKRPVGa_ko , https://youtu.be/9GohN-MtOMg ) but I'm not familiar w/ "Baile's Strand" so I researched that & learned that "On Baile’s Strand" is a play, as with the poem mentioned above, by Yeats & using Irish mythology.

As Hump has to learn to fantasize, he shapes his fantasies to be more 'eco-correct': "Annoyed, he reconstructed the room and the window and looked through to an ivory bathtub with platinum fixtures (wealth again. Maybe he should sell Vanity after all. Make a hell of an auction.) Make that a marble tub, he didn't want to hurt any elephants. Okay, a huge cool tub in a room, or maybe on an open patio, surrounded by giant tropical plants." (p 163) Such a concern for elephants seems a little precocious in 1980 but not that much so - still, enuf to make me sit up & notice.

Pollack has fun w/ her writing. She has her non-Terrestrial character muddle up Earthling expressions:

""I thought you said you didn't have any aids."

""Yes. Well, I lied."

""What a unique experience. Why?"

""I was a duck."

""What?"

""Scared."

""Oh, you mean chicken. Chicken of what?"" - p 165

The author's bio at the end says:

"Rachel Pollack lives in Amsterdam, Holland, where she lectures and reads Tarot cards as well as writes books. Born in Brooklyn just before the Japanese surrender in World War II, she grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, and went to NYU and Claremont Graduate School. While writing she has supported herself as an IBM production planner, a university lecturer, a dishwasher and bar cleaner, a squirter of patchouli oil in little brown bottles, and a maker of cheap jewelry. She has traveled through most of Western Europe and before moving to Holland lived in London for a year." - p 227

I like it. The 'art' of writing bio blurbs interests me. When one reads them in the back of literary magazines most of them run along the lines of: 'So-&-so won the Such-&-Such prize in XXXX. S/he has been published in the _____ Journal, [etc].' In other words, it's strictly dullsville & gives the reader a pretty good idea that the writer is more interested in getting grants than they are in having any talent. At least Pollack mentions "patchouli oil in little brown bottles" - thusly placing herself in the absurd world of people-who-do-stupid-things-to-make-a-living.

I'm sure Pollack's a boon to the Tarot world but she's also a boon to the SF world. I just hope she writes more SF before she goes to her reward in the great rotsville of tomorrow. I look forward to reading it all.
1 like · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Golden Vanity.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 7, 2016 – Finished Reading
March 13, 2016 – Shelved
March 13, 2016 – Shelved as: sf

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Victor (new)

Victor I love her fantasy novels, too, fwiw, as well as her run on Doom Patrol in the 90s. She was a teacher at my last college & is incredibly sweet, smart, & funny.


tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE Thanks for the personal report. I'm starting to write a review of her "Unquenchable Fire" but I'm not really in the mood for writing reviews so I don't know how long it will take me. I reviewed her "Temporary Agency" too.


back to top