A shorthand description of the Sime-Gen series is “Science Fictional Vampires,” but the stories are far from being that simple. The Simes, human mutants with tentacles housed in their arms, can only live through drawing life force from the Gens, who have the appearance of normal humans but are also mutants. The series explores, very deeply, a range of issues raised by one portion of humanity requiring another portion of humanity as food, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and their struggles to achieve a balance. As you might imagine, the baseline issue is power: one part of society has it, another appears not to have it.
The first novel, House of Zeor by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, was published in 1974 (she had begun writing it in the late 1960s). It led to a series of novels by the same author as well as some collaborations with Jean Lorrah. In addition, there was and is extensive fanwork related to the series, including a large number of print fanzines. For quick reference: A General Overview of Sime~Gen by Linda L. Whitten. Series website. Some fanwork is also available online.
My history with the series is very brief. Long ago I was staying with friends-of-a-friend for a weekend event. They had a number of the books, perhaps all of them. I read one, or possibly two (they aren’t very long). I then forgot about them until a year or so ago, when a friend decided to reread the entire series. I became interested, and started with House of Zeor, the earliest published.
I found many, many points to ponder in House of Zeor, because in my view it mirrors and interacts with second-wave feminism, in particular with feminist thought on sexuality and power relations. At the same time, the text seems curiously blind to other ways that it represents aspects of sexuality, gender, race, and colonialism.
In later novels of the series, I’m told, there is more exploration of what power the Gens hold, but in House of Zeor, the focus is on the predatory power of the simes, seen through the eyes of a gen named Hugh Valleroy. In his world, most simes live by killing a gen every few months. While searching for his gen girlfriend, who’s been taken captive by simes, Hugh must work with Klyd Ambrov Zeor, who is working to create a society in which simes do not kill. Klyd is one of a rare minority of simes, called channels, who can take energy from gens, store it within themselves, and then feed it to other simes. Klyd’s goals are made more complex by the rarity of his mutation. Hugh, beginning from a place of fear, comes to believe in Klyd’s goals.
I find it fascinating how the author explicitly excludes sexuality from the Sime-Gen feeding relationship. Klyd laughed…. “Channels are virtually incapable of anything but a vigorous, if intermittent, heterosexuality.” At the same time, the author used language that can easily be interpreted as sexual, some of it even closely akin to language I have seen in romance novels.
I was especially reminded of 1960s and 1970s romance novels that featured socially and sexually powerful male figures—often referred to as “Alpha Males”–paired with naïve, younger, less socially powerful women. These male figures generally take the lead in the sexual aspects of the relationship, and are often forceful about it due to the heroine’s lack of experience or her “secret desire” to be dominated. Given that these novels are contemporaneous with House of Zeor, I don’t think it’s farfetched to assume a connection, whether conscious or unconscious.
Klyd held out one steady hand in a matter-of-fact gesture that lulled Valleroy’s distrust. An attacking Sime, hungry for a Gen’s selyn–the very biologic energy of life itself–didn’t ask consent before moving in for the kill. For a moment, Valleroy felt a strange confidence in the channel…”Mr. Valleroy. I feel your fear of me…and fear brings out the beast in a Sime….”
Klyd points out to Hugh, “You’d have to learn not to fear [Simes] or be constantly in danger of attack…unless you were rendered low-field by transfer.” Transfer means that the gen has given energy to a sime. I couldn’t help but equate this statement with gender relations, something like the false statements used to blame women for being attacked by men: “You can’t be scared of men or they’ll attack you…unless you keep your personality under wraps/wear concealing clothing/don’t try and take jobs that belong to men.”
Later, Hugh has his first close look at the unique feature of sime anatomy, which reminded me of a romance heroine’s first view of an erect penis, and her first (traumatic) experience of sex.
He’d never actually seen Sime tentacles so close, and the reality sent his skin crawling. Six tentacles to each forearm, two “dorsal” along the top, two “ventral” along the bottom, and smaller ones, laterals, always sheathed except in selyn transfer, along each side. Retracted, they lay along the forearms from the elbow to wrist like ropes of gnarled muscle. But when extended they were like pearly-gray snakes, supple, muscular, and hypnotically fascinating.
And later on: Valleroy could appreciate how vulnerable a Sime must feel with those nerve-rich laterals unsheathed. He could see it in the almost imperceptible trembling of the soft pink flesh. And yet, these organs were the most deadly survival equipment possessed by any species on the face of the earth.
…Valleroy sat down hard in his chair. “…The last time a Sime touched me…like that…it was horrible…I want to [donate energy], but I don’t know if I’ll be able to bring myself to do it. I get shaky just thinking about it.”
…[Klyd] took Valleroy’s hands, twining tentacles around the Gen wrist. “You see what I mean?” Valleroy flinched away from the Sime’s hot touch, his heart again racing painfully. The muscular, handling tentacles were covered with an incredibly soft, dry, smooth skin like a velvet sheath over steel. They left a lingering sensation on Valleroy’s skin that made his hair stand on end.
The text demonstrates that there can also be pleasure involved in transfer, at least for simes; the inexperienced gen is excluded. Again, the language used reminded me of romance novels.
“Klyd works dispensary every day so that each of us gets a turn with him every few months. And his touch is like…” [The sime] trailed off, enraptured by a distant vision of paradise.
Valleroy prompted, “Like what?”
“Oh,” she said shaking her head sadly, “you wouldn’t understand.”
Klyd’s physical description reinforced my impression of romantic heroes: “distinctive features—aquiline nose, sensitive lips, concerned brow, intense chin and jaw line….”
It isn’t much later in the novel that women came into the story with any significance.
Hugh has these thoughts concerning his girlfriend, Aisha: “Her conventional Gen background had given her conventional Gen ideas. She couldn’t understand Simes enough to analyze them like that. It was one reason he’d never been able to talk marriage to her…or to any girl he’d ever met.” Aisha does not actually appear in a scene until perhaps the last quarter of the novel, and though she does accomplish one important act, she feels superfluous to the story as a whole, an afterthought. Meanwhile, Klyd’s wife, Yenava, is not even mentioned until about halfway through, and she only appears briefly in a couple of scenes, one in which she, extremely pregnant, is working as a teacher of children and one in which she has an argument with Klyd.
[Yenava] threw the folder she’d been carrying to the floor at Klyd’s feet and broke loose from his grasp. “You…unfeeling…beast!” Without waiting for a reply, she tore out into the colonnade and was gone. Klyd parted the hangings she’d left swinging in her wake and called after her, “You’re tired. You’d better get some rest!”
She then dies offstage, in childbirth. The cause of her death is lack of Klyd’s presence to ease her through complications; he’s been delayed in his mission with Hugh. To me, the lack of female characters was telling. It was as if gender relationships were entirely set apart from the gen-sime thought experiment, even though the influence of sexuality on the novel’s central problems, to me, seems obvious.
…But I have gone on long enough for now. Stay tuned for the next post, going live Wednesday, about male/male relationships in House of Zeor.