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Scorpianne
by Emily Devenport
Roc, 256pp
Published: 1994

Wow, Emily Devenport progressed quickly and greatly. This unrelated third book to her first two has a serious edge from the get-go and it only becomes edgier as the pages turn. Like all good science fiction, the questions it raises aren't just about what's going on in the book, though it does generate a lot of those, but also about what's going on outside it in our world and in our possible future.

Our lead is Lucy Cartier, who's a sex worker, a 'video prostitute' whose work is done with machines controlled remotely by clients. We join her on a regular session with the Punisher (no, not that one) and, only three pages in, her machine's penis sprouts razor blades and slices up her rear end. Murder by sex machine! Well, attempted murder, anyway.

So Lucy goes to see Linda Tree, who's also suing Machine Co. for mangling her body. Linda is a 37-year-old woman with a nine-year-old kid, but future tech has enabled her to look the same age as her daughter. That's weird and it throws some of those questions out early. For instance, are you a paedophile if you have sex with a hooker who looks underage even if she's far from it? How about if you do it remotely through a machine? If so, is it paedophilia for that 37-year-old to want sexual release? How else can that be achieved?

And is it important that we don't discover why Linda has been rejuvenated to age nine at this point and we only realise the reason much later on in the book? That answer shows up when Lucy meets her forgotten mother who's also living in a prepubescent body because youth technology works better on bodies that young, to the degree that immortality is possible if only under those circumstances. Lucy's mum might look eleven but she's over three hundred, lives on Mars and runs a multi-planetary company, in whose labs she's able to design a well-endowed slave to service her sexually at a moment's notice. How do we apply our morals here?

I should mention that, while Lucy gets raped by a remote controlled robot, finds that she'd lost much of her memory after spending eighteen months in regeneration on Mars after contracting the blue clap and so forgot that her best friend on Earth was her former lover who gave her that disease, the most outrageous ideas here are surely that the future Arizona has a serious infrastructure. We spend the early Earthbound chapters in Tempe, Glendale and Phoenix, which are linked by an underground train and mostly contained beneath a weather dome which has simulated stars decorating its interior. I can buy everything else here but Phoenix actually building something that substantial feels like a real stretch.

You might be wondering where the Scorpianne of the title comes in and that's a pretty fair question. She spends much of the book as a sort of boogeyman character, but gains meaning towards the end after revelations I'm not going to touch for spoiler reasons. There are many revelations in this book and they fuel its development in stages, pausing only to allow us a little time to come to terms with the ideas in play.

I can totally see where the multiplicity within 'Medusa Uploaded' came from now; Devenport was juggling ideas and even subgenres within a single book as far back as 1994. Frankly, had I read this when it came out, I'd immediately have seen 'Shade' and 'Larissa' as dated, even though the latter was a year old and the former only three. They feel like products of their time, while this is a set of extrapolations forward. Unlike them, it fails to wear the nineties on its sleeve as a badge of honour. Devenport clearly wanted to shed that in favour of a flight of edgy imagination.

And so to the questions.

The surface story here, of course, focuses on an array of questions for Lucy. Is her mother really her mother? Is Rico, the Martian pilot for whom she quickly falls related to Joe, whom she left behind on Earth? Who is Scorpianne and who is she working for? Why is Machine Co. not on Mars and why does its technology lag so far behind Designer Gene Co., its apparent parent?

However, we're asking much deeper questions too, mostly about identity.

What does colour mean when you can change it through a simple procedure? How you would you treat black people who choose to become white or white people who choose to become black? How would you know what colour anyone truly is? Would that end bigotry? What does age mean when youth technology allows you to be whatever age you wish? What do relationships mean, not just sexually but within a family? How do you interact with your mother when she looks like she's eleven years old? How would she interact with you? And, of course, what does sex mean under these circumstances? How would you redesign your body, not just your face but your genitalia? How would we look at a hermaphrodite when we have no idea if they were born that way or if it was a surgical choice? At what point would someone be more than (or less than) human? Should we even care?

Devenport gets edgier here than many might think she needed to, but I'm not so sure. How do you interact with someone who's spent 38 years as a professional sex worker but might actually be a virgin? Even the mutual masturbation scene makes sense, given later context, and the sheer quantity of ideas in play mean that almost the moment it ends, one of the two characters involved is removing the skin of the other. That's freaky but it aids the tone.

All bets are off in 'Scorpianne' and I like that a lot. I also like that Devenport was able to spin off into so many truly wild directions from a grounding in a place as recognisable as the Phoenix metropolitan area. It's surely easier to achieve sheer flights of fancy way out there in the depths of space, like 'Medusa Uploaded' did on a generation starship. For me, having that physical grounding really helps connect wild extropolation to the level of humanity we recognise today.

I enjoyed 'Shade' and 'Larissa' but I enjoyed this an order of magnitude more and I'm looking forward to 1996's 'Eggheads', Devenport's fourth book, which I'll tackle next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Emily Devenport click here

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