Venus Plus X
by Theodore Sturgeon

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Pyramid: New York; 1960
160 pages

November 2006

A split-personality utopia

One man's utopia may be another's dystopia, or even his or her own dystopia. Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon is a split-personality utopia, in several senses.

The novel is told along two threads. The main one involves an apparent time-travel snatch of a contemporary man into a futuristic utopian enclave. Sort of a man who awakes situation, wherein the narrator views with wonder while not doing much of anything himself. This smallish utopia, Ledom, is distinguished by human inhabitants who are bisexual: that is, having characteristics of both sexes physically in each body. According to Sturgeon here, this physical bisexuality, upon a clean social slate without history, will result in happy and fulfilled people.

No conflict? No jealousy? No ambition? — Really? Surely Sturgeon knows better than that. In fact, the emotional sensitivity and subtlety of perception that are so striking in Sturgeon's shorter science fiction are absent.

The catchy title Venus Plus X would have been more accurate if it were Venus Plus Y, or Mars Plus X: that is, an XXY chromosome combination. But these might not have seemed sufficiently sexy and science fictional.

Ledom folk enjoy a lot of arts and crafts, and singing on the lawn. Science is allowed, but one must wonder about the integrity and stability of a society whose entire human history must be locked away into oblivion. Such a cultural disaster is an extremely high price to exchange for the placid joys of arts and crafts in the park. Even if you really like singing on the lawn.

And is a society without sexual difference supposed to be fun? It would take a lot of crafty singing to make up for it. I'm surprised that Theodore Sturgeon of all people would attempt to describe such a society as a goal for anyone.

The lesser novelistic thread is episodes of a couple of contemporary families, with their petty conflicts, jealousies, and ambitions. This seems like Sturgeon trying to write like Philip K. Dick, wryly and satirically of our own quirks; but not succeeding. This interleaved material is presented as supporting evidence of what's wrong with our everyday society, but otherwise unconnected to the primary story line.

Isolating utopias & dystopias

H. G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods is written in a more old-fashioned style, but with a grander vision than Sturgeon's here; and it has a plot that moves. Robert A. Heinlein's futuristic but more realistic semi-utopian Beyond This Horizon also deals with eugenics, and besides is fun to read.

Utopians, and even more-so dystopians, tend not to be comfortable with neighbors. Often with good reason, for their managed societies tend not to be stable, and much less stable if there are attractions next door like money or sex or refrigerators. Like Wells' and Heinlein's, like Eden or Atlantis or Shangri-La, utopias tend to be safely isolated on islands in sea or space or time (a past Golden Age), or beyond a barrier (like the Soviet Union).

Fans of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged may recognize in the set-up of Venus Plus X a variation upon the arrival of Dagny Taggart at Galt's Gulch. Sturgeon himself was more impressed by Rand's earlier The Fountainhead (1943) than by Atlas Shrugged (1957). The latter was published just a few years before Venus Plus X, inspiring some genre science-fiction responses; it also is a study in utopia and dystopia.

This isolation issue (whether via desert or ocean, space or time or dimension, wall or law or secrecy) is fairly basic (if not strictly essential), and thus a foundation of utopian credibility. A notable virtue of Sturgeon's novel is that he may have solved the barrier problem with a more science-fictional thoroughness than Rand applied to it.

In a Postscript, Sturgeon says that Ledom "comes from a can of my favorite tobacco spelled backwards." Maybe; or maybe that's just the author blowing smoke, a-funning us. I think Ledom might as well be the standard usage of the word model backwards. Ledom fails as a utopian model society, and unfortunately Venus Plus X also fails as a novel.

For Sturgeon completists only.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

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