So. Doctor Adder is one of those classic books that nobody seems to have heard of. I know I hadn’t. I’d say that’s because it’s a definite “go for the extremes of content” style book but as it’s sf it doesn’t get the credit that stuff like American psycho does. I myself had only heard of it recently, and a friend who Is a huge fan of 60s-80s sf hadn’t heard of it either.
And despite its completion in 74 and publication in 84 Dr. Adder is still a 60s book.
It’s one of those books that took forever to publish because it was “ahead of its time”, initially because of the explicit content but lit crit types who call it “ahead of its time” now generally refer to how it prefigures what became cyberpunk.
Adder is contrasted with John Mox, televangelist extraordinaire and a sworn enemy of Adder, whose MoFos (moral forces) roam the streets in an attempt to “clean things up” while LA’s denizens entertain themselves by murdering Mox’s minions.
Allen Limmit is ready for bigger things. Approached by a representative by megacorp GPC with an offer he can’t refuse, Limmit heads to LA to sell the contents of a mysterious case to counterculture icon Dr. Adder, master of elective surgery.
Dr. Adder specializes in body modification of prostitutes. Using a drug that allows him to see into their unconscious minds, Adder can discover what extreme bodymod will most satisfy both the prostitute and their customer. Usually this involves amputation.
So how is it?
It’s a tough question to answer. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether it was incredibly misogynistic or a satire of misogyny. The truth is it’s somewhere in between. Female characters are generally treated as disposable props, both by the characters and the narrative itself.
It reads like Chuck Pahlaniuk was asked to revise a Philip K. Dick novel. That Philip K. Dick is a character in the novel just emphasizes this point.
Above all things, Dr. Adder is a satire of LA and Orange County. Adder himself operates in the Interface, the area where the Orange County privileged come to amuse themselves with the slum-dwelling inhabitants of LA. So from one perspective, what is going on is that women subject themselves to severe disfigurement in order to please the wealthy Orange County types. The “people torturing themselves in order to fit the image that the wealthy want for their entertainers” thing is almost too obvious. So the disposability of women could be argued as another facet of that critique.
The thing I find most interesting about Dr. Adder is the things it says about science fiction, literary criticism, and education. Limmit’s collection of science fiction novels gets referenced several times in passing, but an incident at an Orange County high school gets really close to an explicit acknowledgement of what Jeter is going for here.
The world of Dr. Adder is portrayed explicitly as one where the warnings of sf novelists were ignored. Jeter seems to acknowledge fiction as a means of social change, but that the power of fiction can be gutted when it becomes too “safe”. SF works as a force because it is slightly dangerous, outside the mainstream, but in the world of Dr. Adder it has been neutered and society is the worse off for it.
What fascinates me about the way this works is how accurately it mirrors some of my views on the issue and on the problem with institutional learning facilities*. In Dr. Adder, SF doesn’t fail because the writers change, or because of pressure to be “politically correct”, or because of government censorship. SF fails because it becomes accepted by the establishment. Once sf becomes “required reading” it ceases to be interesting and readers stop engaging with it. Limmit explicitly references Shakespeare as another writer whose work was neutered by mainstream acceptance. This has happened with Opera and what is now called “classical music” as well. In many ways, this is what happened to most of the late-20th century counterculture movements – they were accepted into the larger culture and subsequently lost their ability to be a force for change.
In this sense the “shocking” content can be seen from another direction: Jeter writes a story featuring a variety of grotesque fetishes as a way of warding off sanitization. The casual misogyny, intense violence, and bizarre sex may narrow the potential audience but it also serves as a means of preventing high school English teachers from being able to assign it as required reading.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the best way to kill a child’s interest in reading is to put them into a literature course. In general, you can’t dissect something that isn’t dead without killing it in the process. Pennac’s Rights of the reader should be mandatory for would-be literature professors. Yes, I realize the irony. I also abjure consistency.
This is one I do recommend, but not casually. There’s something of an inherent risk recommending a book that prominently features amputee fetishism.
I recommend it for anyone into transgressive literature in general, fans of Warren Ellis (especially the living stereotype who came up to me and said “you ever read Transmetropolitan? Spider Jerusalem, he’s just like me”), Garth Ennis, Brett Easton Ellis, whatever.
Cyberpunk fans and classic sf fans get a slightly more cautious recommendation depending on what other stuff they’re into.