Strange Horizons, August 5, 2013

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Strange Horizons, August 5, 2013

“Complicated and Stupid” by Charlie Jane Anders

Reviewed by Daniel Woods.

In Charlie Jane Anders’s convoluted tale of love, lust, and manufactured happiness, society is losing its human element. The world is a chemistry lab: a living study of pharmacokinetics, set in the ruins of a crumbling ecosystem. Today, Benjamin Furst does not love his wife, and goes to a doctor to see if it can be cured.

This is a difficult story, in which science has created a clinical relationship between the body and the soul. Benjamin complains of lost love, so Dr. Minter peers down his esophagus, to see if there is a sadness lodged at the back of his throat. When it seems the cause of his malaise is not “pharyngeal,” medication is prescribed, to reinstate the love between man and wife. Here, Anders takes her cues from the work of Philip K. Dick, but produces a rather watered-down exploration of the “body vs. soul” argument. Her “love pearls,” for example, are a reduction of the Penfield Wave Transmitter in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it is disappointing to see so much in this piece that is derivative. Indeed, some of it is quite lazy – the “Bigsphere” for example, an all-purpose SF tool, feels undefined, and hastily included.

Nevertheless, Anders does offer a few ideas of her own, and her presentation of “filth” is particularly vivid. Sex and violence are mashed together in the bluntly named “concussion-gasm.” The nasty, sexual enjoyment of the Beercake provides us with lust and gluttony, all rolled into one delicious treat. Even the character names sound like the punchlines from a series of dirty jokes (Patricia Vicious, the pornstar who headbutts her partners, etc.). In short, human filth seems inherent, unleashed by the dissection of the soul. No two characters better portray this than Benjamin and his wife, whose love becomes something chemical and dirty.

And yet, for all its complexity, I feel no empathy towards the characters. No investment in the fictional universe. Here, plot is usurped by concept: we gaze upon artificial love, hyperreality, strange images. The gerbil in its nest of porn, or the ecstatic death of the newly reaffirmed Mr. and Mrs. Furst. This creates a certain amount of confusion for the reader, and perhaps that is Anders’s point – that we are all “complicated and stupid” creatures. But, this remains a soulless tale that bewilders more than beguiles. “Complicated and Stupid” is a curious juggling act of recycled concepts, contained within an awkward narrative. In that sense, its title is arguably more appropriate than the author might have intended.