Sunday, February 10, 2008

Unintentionally Feminist: Looking at Synthajoy by D.G. Compton

By Nancy Jane Moore

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.


Timmi Duchamp said...

I recall liking Synthajoy enough to want to read more Compton, so that I picked up a couple more of his novels in a used bookstore when I ran across them.

The December 2007 issue of NYRSF, by the way, has an interview of Compton by Darrell Schweitzer. Judging by that, I suspect he intended his book to be feminist (though it might have been a rather rudimentary sort of feminism from the vantage of 2008 although not, perhaps, for the 1960s, when the book was first published). At any rate, in the interview Compton characterizes himself as a feminist:

"My wife once got rather worried looking at my oeuvre in general. Most of them {his novels} end with the woman dying or being put in a mental home or being carted off, or whatever. One reason for that of course is simply because I use so many strong central women characters. I was a feminist almost before the word was invented. I have always been pro the woman's place in the intellectual and power-structure off the world. I do remember early on over the first three or four, I read several reviews speculating on whether D.G. Compton was a man or a woman. I was really very pleased by them. [Laughs.]

"Q. Budrys talks about that in the introduction to Synthajoy. He cites a line in which the female protagonist notices she is sweating under her bra, and something about worrying about her shoe size, and this is not something that would come from male observation.

"Compton: Well, there you go. I am glad I fooled him too.

"Q. You only did it briefly. Is this all from a sense that women aren't empowered enough in society, or that women aren't represented enough in fiction? There was a time in which science fiction notably did not have a lot of women in it.

"Compton: When Hodder published The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe they said 'You can't have a woman's name in the title. It's science Fiction. You can't.' As simple as that.

"I am simply a great admirer of...Oh, God...womanliness. A woman's views, a woman's position."

My edition of Synthajoy (which I believe is the same as yours, Nancy, since it has the same cover) does not have Algis Budrys's introduction.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

There's neither an introduction nor an author bio in my copy, and I only found a few details online -- book titles and bare facts. Not knowing anything about Compton, I didn't want to leap to any assumptions about his feminism, but I was very impressed by his ability to write a complex and very realistic woman character.

It certainly wasn't rudimentary feminism for the 1960s, but I suspect one needs the perspective of the intervening years to see the feminist angle. I would still speculate that he was primarily writing a real character than making a feminist point per se, and that the feminist point gets made by readers looking at that realistic character at the current time.

I plan to look for more Compton myself. The writing was quite complex and knowing that he wrote real women characters at a time when most male authors didn't bother or wrote fantasy versions makes him very appealing as a writer.

D G Compton said...

Shamefully, I've only just today (4th Oct,'13) become aware of Aquaduct, when Googling my name led me to your 2008 blog. Obviously I'm delighted to read your kind words, and to be enlisted as a feminist, unintentional or otherwise. It's the thought that counts. A propos of which, the thought was partic- ularly there in my later book, Nomansland, yet word trickled disturbingly back to me that US feminists were (ideologically, I think, rather than aesthetically) displeased by it. Did you ever come across it,I wonder? It's a while back, I know, but I really would like to understand how I failed there. By the way, I've never been involved in a blog before - you've given me the courage to dare.
Thank you. D(avid) G Compton

D G Compton said...

I wonder if my yesterday's note got through to you, or made any sense if it did. I don't think I included any context - I'm the D G Compton who wrote Synthajoy way back in the 60s, and my reference was to your blog of 2008. I wonder if you noticed last autumn's media excitement when Bertrand Tavernier's 1980s film of my Katherine Mortenhoe novel (another of my ill-fated heroines) was digitised and re-released to considerable critical acclaim, together with a nice paperback of the book. I was certainly an aware feminist by the time of its writing. David Compton

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I'm pleased that you found this post. On re-reading, I think unintentional is not the right word here. A more accurate description would probably be to say that the book was secondarily feminist. My thought was that the primary purpose of the story was not the feminist thread, but the moral issues. But it makes sense to me that you came to it with a feminist sensibility, since Thea was fully developed and dealing with the feminist issues of the day. I found the book both thought-provoking and enjoyable.

I have not read Nomansland or Katherine Mortenhoe, but I have discovered that you've released them in Kindle versions, so I'll get a chance to read them now. And I'll look for the movie.

Glad you waded into blogs!