As a teenager I was a huge science fiction fan, though a bit of a selective one. I watched Star Trek Deep Space 9 and Voyager religiously, spent over a year reading everything Larry Niven wrote including all of the spin offs, caught every movie from Starship Troopers to Star Wars, and even tried to write my own stories. The latter of which we’ll pretend never happened. I read other authors as such as Jerry Pournelle. I own two of Herbert’s Dune books but at the time never got into them. I was probably too impatient and immature at the time. Likely. I plan to revisit Dune for this blog before long.

One book that caught my eye–it was bigger than the ones around it–was Phyllis Gotlieb’s Flesh and Gold. The reviews inside and on the back cover promised aliens, rich imagery, action, and what titillated my teenage mind: sex. Fabulous. I snagged it from Borders and began reading it at my late grandmother’s home right before I left for my first year of college. There’s a still a photo of me on her porch with it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but as I began school and the change and adjustments of college steam rolled me, I never managed to finish. About halfway through it got shelved, only to be brought out here and there over the next eleven years with repeated failures at getting to the end.

That was until a week ago. I plowed it in two days and fully regret taking so long to finish such a thrilling story. It’s like a nourishing acid trip. We’ll pretend I know what an acid trip is like. Or, one could say it’s like broccoli covered in Pop Rocks; exciting, colorful, but not so devoid of substance that guilt sneaks in afterward. It’s The Secret of NIMH as opposed to A Troll in Central Park.

Here’s the book:

It’s one of those larger paperbacks that flops open with ease.

While sex plays a huge part in the story–a good portion of the narrative is set within a brothel–this isn’t eroticism in any way, nor is it pornography. The sex is raw, dirty, grungy, and in the background. People take advantage of each other. They deny intimacy. They do it just to get their rocks off. Others are genetically designed for the sole purpose of satisfying every bizarre and illegal pleasure in the universe. Think of everything on the internet, then multiply it by a score of alien fetishes. This includes a snuff film with a topless mermaid and a violent sea creature. The closest we get to any real sensuality comes from an illusion that ends before it begins. It’s an uncaring, primal world.

Violence colors the world too, but like the sex, most of it’s away from the immediate action. We get a few bar fights and an assassination attempt, but the rest happens around the characters, related by mouth, or seen from security cameras. There’s murder, torture, and an overall lack of empathy for life for anyone in the way of another’s goal, both good and bad. No one seems to have a close friend. Relationships at best come from past acquaintances, exes, and a pair using each other to get what they want. It’s enough to taint with cold cruelty.

Despite that, Gotlieb’s rich use of the language and interesting characters makes it a joy to read. She’s a poet first, novelist second. One of the leads, Skerow, a lizard like alien woman who travels the galaxy as a judge, is also a poet. She writes to calm her mind and we see her work often. It comes from a form of three lines, using one, three, and five syllables in any order. The work has a simple, zenlike quality. Even when harsh there’s beauty. We also get longer poetry along the streets of Skerow’s home world.

The aliens are as rich as the writing, and even the humans are exotic. Many dye their hair and skin. Women are often bare headed. The Lyhhrt are particularly fascinating, living balls of protoplasm with a collective consciousness and great spirituality. They manipulate robot-like bodies to get around and have contracted themselves into slavery far from their home world where detachment from it drives them to madness. One can never tell if they’re friendly or dangerous. Fortunately, Gotlieb avoids pulling a Brian Jacques and shows each species to be complex. There’s no sole evil or virtuous alien.

The story does bog down a little in the last part but the conclusion is satisfying. I was disappointed that just as one character’s story was peaking in interest it stopped. Perhaps we’ll get more in the sequels. Otherwise the pacing was great and it’s been a long time since I’ve had this much trouble putting down a book. The writing draws you into the world and holds firm. It’s highly enjoyable and recommended. Unfortunately the series appears out of print so it needs to be ordered online. In fact, I never saw the sequels even when they were released, but they exist according to online book sellers.

It’s also sad that both the author and her husband passed away in 2009. I wish I had finished the book sooner. It makes me think of when I first started reading it over a decade ago at my grandmother’s house. Today I wish that I had called her when I had the chance.

****1/2 of *****