Geoff Ryman’s latest novel, though not strictly science fiction, is based on a simple scientific hypothesis: what if you could sleep with anyone? And, in the best scientific tradition, this is no mere thought experiment ...
Michael Blasco has a more-or-less comfortable life. He’s a government-funded scientist investigating neural pathways in chicks, and his partner, Phil, is a successful artist. True, Michael has more than a few unresolved problems, but they don’t intrude into his daily life - until one evening when his gym instructor performs an impromptu strip on the platform at Waterloo, apparently as a direct result of Michael’s unspoken wish.
Experimenting with his new-found gift, Michael discovers that he can call up an avatar, or Angel, of anyone - man or woman, alive or dead, real or imaginary, gay or straight. Other people can see the Angels, but forget them instantly once Michael’s banished them. If this were a pornographic novel, the plot development would end there, with Michael dealing with his assorted sexual problems in a remarkably pragmatic fashion. (This is a man who’s got himself a Viagra prescription to enable him to enjoy the Angels properly). Michael has great fun summoning up cartoon siren Taffy Duck (‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way’), Alexander of Macedon (a filthy, drunken barbarian), and Lawrence of Arabia (barking mad). The cameo appearances of cultural icons - occasionally pseudonymous, as with the thuggish Castro brothers from popular soap Down Our Way - are keenly observed and richly comic.
Because Lust is a novel by Geoff Ryman, applauded for his unflinching examinations of the horrors (as well as the humour) of the human situation, it is not only a sexual comedy, but also an experiment concerning morality and maturity. Gradually, instead of playing, Michael becomes more critical of the miracle and begins to use it to ask questions that ultimately lead him to know and accept himself. The darker aspects of his past are brought into the light, and - with the help of the Angels and the changes they’ve inspired him to make in his real-world life - he is at last in a position to live life to the full, unhampered by past mistakes and pain.
Lust is a light-hearted novel with an unexpectedly happy ending, but it has its own heart of darkness. Many readers, unfamiliar with Geoff Ryman’s previous work and enticed by the glossy, Man and Boy-style cover, will abandon the story when Michael confronts the worst spectres of his past. It’s not fun: it’s not supposed to be fun. Only by coming through that experience, though, can Michael achieve his full potential: this is an exemplary as well as an entertaining novel. Few authors have the skill to weld the nastier aspects of human life so delicately into a larger story: that Ryman achieves this with compassion and poignancy is even rarer.