“In measuring a circle, begin anywhere.”—Charles Fort
“I’m glad I’m not bisexual. I couldn’t stand being rejected by men as well as women.”—Bernard Manning
Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) has a relatively simple narrative. A young man named Charlie Johns awakens in a world called Ledom, scooped up by the inhabitants (also called Ledom) with a device he takes for a time machine. The Ledom tell Johns he’s been brought to Ledom to judge their society. And as he does, Johns has progressively more shocking discoveries about the place and the people. The whole thing then wraps with a shocker ending that I personally guessed in advance, though that didn’t diminish my (continuing) evaluation of the book.
The biggest shock comes to Johns early on: the Ledom are all hermaphrodites. They possess both the ability to inseminate and become pregnant—something that Johns is surprisingly cool with for a man from 1960. The Ledom culture is also quite advanced. I was particularly drawn to their education device, called a “cerebrostyle,” which can both record knowledge and implant it directly into the brain. Johns receives a schooling on the whole history of sex, gender, and reproduction in “homo sap” versus the Ledom (by the way, have you looked at that word backwards yet?) in a matter of moments, for example.
But Johns’ story in Ledom isn’t the only narrative in the book. Sturgeon alternates these chapters with a series of vignettes of a 1950s nuclear family wrestling with the differences and similarities between men and women. Readers may be a little perplexed by these scenes, until the end of the book when we find out…
I honestly don’t know how I feel about Sturgeon’s novel. I’ve been trying to think of it in context. In 1960, the sexual revolution hadn’t happened yet. Science fiction novels were often still boring boys adventure fantasies. And the complex unraveling of sex and gender that came with the New Wave and Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness was still a few years away. So I applaud Sturgeon for his adventurous storytelling relative to the time. I also found the novel to be extremely readable, and it only took me a couple of sittings to read it from cover to cover. On the other hand, I found something lacking in the book, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. Somehow, I just wanted it to be more.