Synthajoy by D. G. Compton was first published in 1968. It is the first thing that I have read by Compton. I read the 1968 ACE Books edition – in hideous brown. I wish the little cube of art at the bottom was the whole entire cover. Everything I read about this novel tells me it is a “forgotten” novel – even in items that are quite forgotten themselves. So, basically, this is a forgotten novel, which was “forgotten” back in the day and still has not been remembered. For the life of me, I cannot imagine why? It seems perfectly like something that the contemporary world would love to “rediscover” and gobble up.
This is a difficult review for me to write because the book was difficult for me to read. I know why this book was difficult for me to read, but I can certainly see how well it was written and how many readers might not find it difficult to read whatsoever! I rather want to give this novel a two-star rating – simply because, for me, reading about the very personal, human, and relational aspects of a very small group of people bores me to tears and is more or less incomprehensible to me. I said this about another recently reviewed book: I am far more interested in the big picture, the effect on technology to society, than the micro picture (the interpersonal relationships of the individuals who developed the technology). However, I fully recognize that a majority of readers really do understand and enjoy the opposite. The above is somewhat key to reading my review. Readers may find my review callous, but it is honest.
Who even lets autistic Russian Thomists read novels like this? Where is censorship when you need it? Sheesh!
Synthajoy is about the creation of technology that allows essential psychological experience to be shared and transmitted between humans. The vital word there is ‘essential.’ The technology, supposedly originally developed to assist in the care of mentally ill patients, allows for the essential transmission/experience of particular “senses/emotions.” The hardware is a sort of tape-deck (look, it was the 1960s!) which is attached to a helmet-headphones set up. The patient dons the helmet and nodes are affixed to their skull. Very much like “virtual reality” but more like “essential reality transmitted virtually.” Then the patient runs the tape on the tape deck and experiences whatever is on the tape. This is a pretty neat and awesome science fiction concept.
Imagine the possibilities: transmitting specific emotional states – joy, guilt. Providing specific experiences – the moments of aesthetic creation by composers, painters, et al. Or how about specific actions? The moments of death, sexual intercourse, murders murdering, etc. All captured and transmitted into the patient’s psyche. Of course, this sounds exciting and great – because originally the technology is to assist with the ill and infirm. But then money enters the scenario and it is realized that this technology can be marketed and traded.
It is one thing to purchase a recording of a musical performance and have the experience of listening to the music. It is another to actually purchase the psychological experience of the musician/composer actually making that music.
Anyway, even when morality concerns are raised the ambitious and strategic inventors of the technology are able to argue that they are supplying for the needs of an overcrowded and saturated society. After all, it takes place on tapes and in the mental realm only.
The story is told in first-person narrative by one of the three individuals who developed the technology, a nurse named Thea. The novel takes place in the near future, in the Kingston, a hospital, in which Thea is being treated. She was the co-worker and wife of the main inventor, Edward Cadence. Thea shares her narrative in a non-linear manner, via flashbacks and odd jarring memories. Why? Because as part of her treatment at Kingston, she is only awake and semi-lucid for a few hours a day. This sort of storytelling was extremely well-written and it makes the narrative and scenery seem incredibly realistic. Frankly, I rarely read anything that is so disjointed and yet written so skillfully.
Thea is a smart woman – smart in the old 1940s sort of connotation, not just the synonym for intelligent. Thea is insightful and savvy. She is no bumbling intellect. I love her formal attitude, her official manner, and her rapier-like usage of conversation with her fellow characters. Compton wrote Thea perfectly; letting us hear what she says aloud and what she keeps to herself as a seamless and fascinating whole.
However, ninety-percent of this novel is Thea remembering and explaining her relationship to Edward as the development of the technology took place and, therefore, the effect that this technology has on her career and her marital life. There is a subtle complexity to the way in which Compton wrote all of this. And I am sure it is very good. Excellent, even. Yet, at its base, this is a novel about interpersonal human interactions and no matter how awesome it was written, it is still incomprehensible and boring to me in many places. Often, in her flashback narrative, Thea shares with us what she must consider to be integral moments and while each should provide the reader insight and clues and data, I was unenthused and frustrated.
Literally, I cannot imagine why this novel has not been made into a film. It is perfect for that sort of psychological film that would do great on the screen. It is complex and subtle and winds around itself and its so full of interpersonal character relationships that even I can see that it would be great as a film. Motives, ambitions, affairs, formal arrangements, and wry, slightly inappropriate humor; dark moments, tense moments, etc. It screams to be a movie. (Which actress could pull off a spot-on Thea?)
I am sure there is a lot to like about this novel. I am certain that it is well-written. However, there is a lot of it that I found tedious beyond compare and that I recognize as “some-thing,” but yet cannot fully grasp. I like Thea, but after reading the novel, I confess I do not understand a single thing about her. If quizzed, I would not be able to explain anything that she shared.