“Crystal Phoenix” by Michael Berlyn (1980)

(This is 2018 Reading Challenge Book #4.) 

For “The Adventure Gamer”, I have been reviewing Infocom text adventure games from the 1980s. If you are not familiar with the genre, these are games without graphics where you interact with them only through text commands like “pick up the key” or “eat the sandwich”. Sometimes called “interactive fiction”, the form branched out from its Dungeons and Dragons-inspired roots to mysteries, science fiction, pirate adventures, and just about everything else. Since the best “interactive fiction” games were well-written, Infocom experimented with hiring real writers to design the stories, working with their programmers to implement them. Although bigger names would come later, the first writer that Infocom hired was Michael Berlin, a science-fiction writer from Brookline, Massachusetts, who had at that point had published three novels and two computer games. Because of his mix of experience both writing stories and writing software, Infocom felt he was just what they needed. I’ve reviewed the first two (of four) of his games with Infocom already, but as I am about to play his third, now seemed like a great time to dig into his published work starting at the beginning: 1980’s Crystal Phoenix. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected.

I’ll start with the nice stuff: Berlyn writes decent prose and he’s an excellent world-builder. This story takes place in a dystopian near future, but almost a suburban dystopia. There’s no world-ending war, just technology leading to a culture of consumption and drug addiction. Since this was written in the late 70s, there are no computers or networks, but Berlyn did imagine self-driving cars, packed shopping malls, virtual reality headsets, phones with screens, and similar trappings… not to mention rampant sexism. The two key technologies that shape his world are a “crystal” (from the title) that can be used to perfectly capture a person’s memories and personality and a nearly-magical cloning process that can bring a dead person back to life in their own 25-year old cloned body (for a fee), provided you have enough original DNA and are keeping up the payments on your crystal. This is a convenient safety net against accident– you essentially “back yourself up” before you go to work– but it also breeds a culture of “haves” and “have nots” as not everyone can afford a crystal. So far so good.

Berlyn takes this idea to a very dark place. In this future, not only are drugs and prostitution rampant (and legal), but the story revolves around a particularly gross form of prostitution: murder-sex. Down on their luck people that want to start a new life but cannot afford to be reborn are paired with rich psychopaths (called “angels”) who essentially rape and murder them for money, sometimes with excruciatingly detailed tortures. The victim is backed up before the event so they do not remember any of it afterwards, they just get a new body and potentially some spending money. Berlyn doesn’t shy away from depicting these details, even having some of the prostitutes killed in this way be underage. It is disturbing and I never want to think of these scenes ever again. Berlyn even goes into the heads of the psychopaths and show just how deranged they are. There’s probably some metaphor hidden here where we’re supposed to be thinking about how the rich today abuse the poor, but it’s hard to think about it while reading a scene of someone being tortured to death.

If you are still with me, this is the part where you might want to stop reading.

I’m not going to do the plot justice because I’d have to read it again to see how some scenes at the beginning tied into the events at the end, especially as he has several viewpoint characters and it’s easy to get them confused at first. These are Oleo, the primary murderous psychopath that literally gets off on killing people slowly and painfully, Dennis, a “procurer” who essentially lines up people to be killed and the people to kill them, and Freddy, another “procurer” and Dennis’s competition. Unknown to Freddy, Dennis wants out of the business and to rekindle his relationship with his wife, although she also suffers from severe drug addictions. He and his wife finally reconnect, but it doesn’t last long. After Dennis stole one of Freddy’s clients, the latter gets even by having Dennis’s wife kidnapped, raped, and murdered in front of him. She hadn’t backed herself up in a while so she doesn’t remember that they reunited, and legally they are now divorced. She gives Dennis ten days to prove to her that they really did fall back in love, but he then immediately leaves her on a forced vacation in Mexico City while he returns home to systematically murder everyone involved. He turns Oleo’s crystal into a deathtrap and forces Freddy and another accomplice to dig their own graves. Two other accomplices are killed in equally grisly ways and all killed in ways that they cannot be brought back. The book ends with he and his wife together again, but Dennis has secretly gone crazy and can’t touch his wife without imagining her being killed. The end.

The book is dark. Very dark. There is no one to root for because even the good guy is a snuff-pimp and ends up an insane murderer by the end. The first half of the book meanders as it introduces the characters and setting but once the plot thickens, it moves at a good pace. I would get more out of a re-read, especially the beginning sections where I was tangled with too many viewpoint characters, but I don’t have the stomach for it. I can’t really say that I recommend this book to anyone. It was competently written and the world is interesting, but I do not feel that these were necessarily the right characters or events to introduce this world.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. “Captain  Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)
  2. “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)
  3. “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa (1994)

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