I've recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas, and all my books are still in boxes. Since the only consideration in packing the books was making sure no one box was too heavy, I haven't got the foggiest idea where any particular book might be. So when I want something to read -- a daily occurrence -- I just open a box on top of one of the many stacks and rifle through it.
Using this method, I came upon a book I not only had never read, but don't even remember acquiring: Synthajoy, by D.G. Compton. (In fact, even though I somehow ended up with a copy of the book, I knew nothing about Compton, a British writer who has been honored by SFWA as an Author Emeritus.)
What I discovered was something I've decided to call an "unintentionally feminist" novel; that is, a book that makes a distinctly feminist statement even though I don't think that was the author's purpose.
The book, which was first published in 1968, is about a doctor who develops "sensitape," a recording of brain processes that can be played for others. Using sensitape, one can listen to great music with the mental processes of a great musician. Of course, it's only a matter of time before the doctor adds "sexitape" to the mix.
What makes this novel feminist is that it is told from the point of view of the doctor's wife -- a nurse, of course. Compton does an excellent job of developing this character, Thea Cadence. She rings true to me, as a woman of the changing times of the mid-60s. (The novel isn't particularly clear about when it's set, but I'd guess it was intended to be the 1990s, more or less. However, outside of sensitape, Compton didn't bother to create too many new technologies. Nor did he assume any changes in gender relationships -- another reason I'd call this book "unintentionally feminist.")
Thea starts out besotted by her husband and eager to help with his work, but gradually begins to think the work is wrong. Her doctor husband's treatment of her is emotionally abusive -- she is useful to him, and that is all she is. The doctor is a classic ambitious man who considers himself a genius and neither respects nor loves anyone else.
I've no way of knowing what Compton was thinking when he wrote the book, though I assume from the context he thought the doctor was a bastard for the way he treated his wife and a dangerous man for the way he developed his invention. But it is easy to view Thea's experiences through a feminist eye, to see her as a woman sucked in by the modern version of the traditional wife -- a useful support tool for a genius -- instead of pursuing any work of her own. And one can also view her as someone blinded by the love myths of the time, and a passive participant in her own life.
The book is written in a complex format: Thea has been convicted of killing her husband and is being treated in the clinic she helped found with guilt sensitape. She has few periods of actual consciousness, so the story is told through her memories as they come to her (in the disordered way of memories). The whole truth doesn't emerge until the end.
The whole truth is important to what I assume was Compton's purpose, but it's not to the feminist reading of the book. If one applies a feminist eye to Thea's life, a different understanding emerges, one that fits in well with the ideas of The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex.
My feminist impression has more to do with the overall effect, rather than any particular sentences in the book, though there is a nice fantasy sequence in which Thea imagines being tried by women, who acquit her on the grounds that her husband deserved to die.
One passage that struck me particularly might be considered feminist, though it could equally as well reflect what I'd call Sixties values. Thea says of another male character in the book -- a decent man:
He was a man whose work was his life, yet the outcome of this work was inconsistent with everything he believed most deeply. This dichotomy I found infuriating.
I've noticed a similar attitude in many men over the years, and now see it in many professional women as well. They throw themselves into their jobs, and tamp down any questions they might have, perhaps convincing themselves that their doubts are not important when it comes to earning a living.
At any rate, this novel provides a great deal of food for thought and is worth a look. It's out of print, but used copies seem to be available.