Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, January 4, 2015

1971: Gray Matters (Hjortsberg, William)

Intentionally whimsical, but errant and purposeless (3/5)

I, like many other browsers of the science fiction stacks at the wonderfully smelling secondhand bookstores, have never heard of William Hjortsberg. Those same people probably also love taking a chance at pulling down a book by an obscure author from the 1970s. The cover may had been intriguing enough, but it was the synopsis that hooked me.

As it turns out, Hjortsberg is a name of little lasting permanence in the world of SF. Aside from Gray Matters, he only had two other novels in the span of a decade: Alp (1969), which seems to be a humorous story of sorts, and Falling Angel (1978), a detective novel infused with witchcraft, voodoo, and horror and was made into the movie Angel Heart (1987) with Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet. Around the same period, Hjortsberg also published five shorter works between 1973 and 1985 which are SF-themed, none of which I’ve ever come across.

Rear cover synopsis:
“It is the twenty-fifth century. People have been reduced to Cerebromorphs—disembodied brains stored in tanks and wired to computers, passing from layer to layer, awaiting liberation at the top level as enlightened beings rehoused in new perfect bodies. But there is one brain that engineers a spectacular escape—with bizarre and tragic repercussions for its fellow Cerebromorphs.”


Denton Kalbfleischer (nicknamed Skeet) was only twelve when the plane he was in crashed into East Cicero, in which he was the only survivor—barely. Near death with broken bones and ruptured organs, with no family to sign off on his behalf, and without any choice in any regard, Skeet’s brain was removed and placed in limbo yet alive. The science of the era was unable to communicate with the floating hunk of gray matter, so it remained in a class container gathering dust as a curiosity. Nearly thirty years later, technology progressed to the point where communication could be held; Skeet’s first words: “What time is breakfast?” (18). Later, he was also the first mind to be linked to the System and stored away.

Obu Itubi was a Nigerian sculptor from a couple of centuries after Skeet. Much later and stored as a digital mind, Obu spends his time researching bee dancing patterns and other insect movements for the sake of art, but this dalliances aren’t appreciated by the Auditors, the slightly-more enlightened minds which govern the time and activities of the lower-caste minds. Though he may not be the most conversant in the matters of the Zen koan, he is a crafty man with a will… and there happens to be a way. His rebellious idea of escape from the System is absurd since he’s only an immobile brain, but the maintenance robots are open to human command and susceptible to errant orders. Ensconced in a metallic hopper, Obu makes his escape while wreaking havoc upon the facility which houses all the System’s brains… and the untold award of reaching enlightenment—perfect human bodies for use upon the virgin earth.

Meanwhile, Vera Mitlovic is a Czech actress of certain reputation on the silver screen and on the satin sheets; as she loses herself in narcissistic nostalgia, an Auditor chides her for not taking her daily meditative exercises for the last three days and cuts her off from the hypnotic mirror of her past.  Even though she was beyond geriatric when she had her cerebrectomy, she still experiences loneliness and relives her experiences with past lovers, past husbands, past abuse, and past murder. Her loneliness and experience (ahem) make her suitable for a memory-merge with the young, na├»ve Skeet. As he has been unable to reach transcendence through normal means even after completing numerous doctoral degrees and as his true ambition is to be a cowboy, the Auditing Committee decide that he must experience his first sexual encounter in order to mature and, hopefully, attain a new level of awareness. Once together on a virtual island, their mutual eagerness soon earns Skeet “another merit badge, one not awarded by the Boy Scouts” (52).

As Obu makes his escape from Center Control, he leaves explosions blossoming behind him. The surges of power that result from the concussions strike through the circuits of the System and causes damage to many pieces of hardware and, notably, one piece of wetware—Skeet’s brain, which becomes a cinder at the bottom of his brain’s tank. This leaves Vera alone on her virtual island, yearning for the eager young kisses of her inexperienced lover. After some time, her direct Auditor—ex-pilot Phillip Quarrels (and ex-lover, actually)—decides to memory-merge with her at timed intervals in order to assess the progress of young Skeet. When he learns that Skeet has disappeared from the memory-merge, his attention turns to the cherubic delights of the reverse-aging Vera. As she relives her nubile lust, her mind also returns her to her past tragedies with men. Here, Phillip is a willing participant but an unwilling victim.

On the surface of the earth, Obu has taken his metallic hopper into the forested unknown. His hopper, meant for the level surfaces of the underground Center Control, is unable to nimbly navigate the rocky terrain and he ends up tipping over, rendering the robot incapacitated and with limited power to sustain him. Luckily, a band of transcended humans discovers the overturned robot and extract Obu’s brain. Patient, saintly, and enlightened yet simple and practical, the scantily clad humans take Obu’s brain back to the Center, where they witness the carnage of the structural damage and the fleshy debris of the bodies that had been meant for the ready minds of the Cerebromorphs. Picking through the mangled bodies, the small band of humans choose one for Obu’s transferences, which the Center reluctantly allows him even though he’s not one of the transcended. Out on the surface of the earth, Obu first relishes his freedom but then resorts to his un-enlightened corporal vices of drink and lust.

As Vera and Phillip tackle their existential lives in virtual reality through Vera’s passion and verbal circumlocution, Obu and his newly found fellow un-enlightened partner tackle their own corporal existential lives.


At the age of 28, Hjortsberg, through careful consideration, pinpointed his desired writing technique: in his own words, he would make “the whole thing up from day to day without a clue what would happen next. I wanted only to surprise myself”. Writing along these lines on whim, he says it took him a year to write Gray Matters… that amounts to half a page per day on a whim for the 160-page novel. It certainly reads like it was written by the seat of his pants. The beginning is objective and technical, sparse with dialogue—all a sandy foundation for a whimsical novel about every character having a hot spot in their britches for some coital action (of one sort or another).

At first, the whimsical dalliances of the author are good (a fairly non-descript adjective but it feels right to use here). I can be fun at times: the zany idea of a mind hijacking a mechanical servitor, blindly winding through the corridors of the underground Center, placing bombs behind it and leaving a path in its wake, then coming out into the sunshine only to tip over helplessly. But the whimsical misdirections and humorous misgivings are eclipses by the looming intention of thrusting as much sex as possible, from as many characters as possible, into as much of the plot even though it makes very little sense in the end—again, here comes the whim.

It’s not just sex though. It’s too descriptive and, shall I say, deviant to be a whim. Perhaps most of the plot was whim—certainly—but this attention to detail to the superfluous sex scenes distract from the core message intention direction body of the so-called plot. Many, dare I say all, of the scenes raise an eyebrow or two… perhaps this is why Playboy printed a condensed version of the story and award the author with a Playboy Editorial Award for Best New Fiction Contributor.

(1) Eyebrow arch level 2/5: Just a quarter of the way through, we meet our first passing thought of Vera’s past-time sex life, where she recollects one past lover, “who lashed her naked breasts with his gift offering of long-stemmed roses” (39).

(2) Eyebrow arch level 4/5: In the very next paragraph, he remembers “her second husband’s playful habit of sharing her with his Great Dane” (39).

(3) Eyebrow arch level 1/5: A little later, along on the virtual beach with the sun and wind caressing her hair, “She runs her hand down across her tummy and the fuzz of maiden floss, cupping her sex, which hungers like the mouth of a raging vacuum cleaner” (46).

(4) Eyebrow arch level 5/5: Phillip dreamily thinks of the exploits he has shared with the nymph Vera, specifically,

Vera’s trick of inserting a knotted silk scarf into his rectum (first lubricating the way with her ingenious tongue) and reaching behind as she rides him like a piston-powered jockey to remove it, one knot at a time, at the onset of his climax. (126)

That last one was the butt of in-the-know office jokes for a good day or two—classically bad!


But it’s not all bad, I mean, the beginning is enticing and Obu’s revival into human form is interesting, but the errant directions of the author’s whim is purposeless. If this is a measure of Hjortsberg’s other work, then there’s little to look forward to expect bizarre plot whims and bizarre sexual whims. Methinks I’ll pass on the rest of his bibliography.

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