In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a 1970s dystopian novel in which sex has become the new religion
The population of the world has reached 8 billion. Overpopulation and Malthusian fears that the world’s natural resources will run out are very real. Parents are limited to having two children; if a woman falls pregnant with a third, she must have it aborted, and to fail to do so is a crime. The word ‘triplet’ is a curse word, as are ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’. Love is little more than Freudian ‘sublimation’ of sex: an unwholesome and undesirable state. ‘Eros’, too, is a curse word, replacing ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘God’. This, too, is hardly surprising: Eros has become the god of this future dystopian world, and the Christians have been consigned to the margins. Men go to brothels and pay women not to have sex with them, craving some time with women where sex is the one thing not on offer. This truly is, as the blurb on the back jacket of my battered old second-hand paperback copy (pictured below right with friend of Interesting Literature, Clyde the cat) proclaims in large capitals, ‘the world turned upside down’.
This is the setup for a lesser-known dystopian novel of the twentieth century, Love Conquers All (1974). The book’s author, Fred Saberhagen (1930-2007), was a prolific writer of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, probably best-known for his Berserker series (which prefigured later tales of machines-gone-wrong probably best exemplified by the Terminator films) and the Swords trilogy and subsequent eight-part Lost Swords series of fantasy novels. I enjoyed these novels a great deal as a teenager, not least because of the clever concept behind them. I’ll have to write about them some time, but Love Conquers All, the subject of this week’s Secret Library column, dates from 1974, nearly a decade before Saberhagen’s Swords series began to appear. And unlike them, it’s not fantasy but dystopia – something of a one-off in Saberhagen’s considerable oeuvre. But, like Saberhagen’s other work, the novel has a strong central concept which is immediately arresting. If the Berserker novels were about the dangers of too much clever technology, Love Conquers All is about the price of too much sex – in the media, in advertisements, in culture, in everyday life (especially with too many different people).
Of course, to put it that way makes the novel sound prudish, but that isn’t how it reads. The book is not an anti-sex book, nor an anti-abortion book, although both are obviously key themes of the novel, and it is a dystopia that Saberhagen depicts. But the book isn’t preachy. It was Gene Wolfe, who also wrote much SF and fantasy, who observed that ‘almost any interesting work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it really says.’ And the book’s fascination with sex might as easily sound prurient rather than prudish, in less deft hands than Saberhagen’s. Saberhagen did have limitations as a storyteller, but strong central concepts were what he excelled at, and he depicts this unsettling world in which sex – which could be thrilling and beautiful – has become as ordinary and commonplace as eating or sleeping, in such a way as to make it clear that excess is the real enemy to a healthy society, because it kills the very thing it arose from, like some hungry parasite.
The protagonist of Love Conquers All, Arthur Rodney (Art), is an unremarkable-looking middle-aged American living at some point in the twenty-first century, when overpopulation has made the United States enforce a two-child policy. Art and his wife Rita already have two small children together when Rita discovers she’s pregnant with a third child – a child the US government won’t allow her to have – and she promptly goes on the run, determined to save the child from being terminated. Art wants his wife to be safe, first and foremost, but as he pursues her, he comes to agree with her that their unborn child should not be terminated simply because it’s a case of ‘third time unlucky’ for the child. We also follow Art’s friend, George Parr, and his relationship with his wife Ann; there’s a touching moment where, as schoolchildren, the two experience a rite of passage together on the night of Ann’s school prom. Rather than go to the ‘orgy’ of prom night, Ann stays home with George and gives herself to him – her, that is, rather then just her body; her self, her soul, the rest of her, the greatest gift she has to give. Love Conquers All is full of such interesting inversions of the status quo.
I could find only a handful of reviews of Love Conquers All online, including an astute one on Goodreads (pointing out that Saberhagen’s novel appeared just one year after the historic Roe v Wade trial in the US). Another reviewer points out that, although the book jacket trumpets Love Conquers All as being ‘in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984’, the novel can hardly compare with those titans of dystopian fiction. But it is in the same tradition, and fans of dystopian fiction, or people who feel that perhaps the modern world has become too sexualised at the risk of numbing us to the true beauty of all things truly erotic, may well find it of interest and worth seeking out in a second-hand bookshop.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.