Venus On the Half-Shell
A lot of what we’re doing in The Unwritten is exploring the relationship between fiction and reality – and the ways in which the one can influence the other. But just recently I’ve been looking at fictions that are at two removes from reality instead of one – in other words, fictions written by fictional characters, or by real characters within a fictional universe.
The two that I’ve actually been reading this week are Venus On the Half-Shell and The Iron Dream.
Venus On the Half-Shell is a sci-fi novel written by Kilgore Trout. Kilgore Trout is a fictional character created by Kurt Vonnegut, and appears in one guise or another in most of Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut uses Trout’s absurd, single-idea stories in the same way that Melville and Sterne use digressions, to add richness and nuance to the main story and to point up its themes. Usually each story will get about a paragraph of summary. For example, in Breakfast of Champions when two characters are failing to connect, Vonnegut will break off and say something like this (roughly paraphrased):
“Kilgore Trout wrote a story once about a race of aliens who communicated by farting and tap-dancing. One day they sent a ship to Earth, and the captain saw a house on fire. He ran into the house and up to the bedroom of the couple who owned the house, where he tried to warn them about the fire. But when they woke up and found an alien farting and tap-dancing in their bedroom, they beat him to death with their bedside lamps. As a result, the fire consumed them and they died.”
You get the picture – and you can see why the stories are usually dispatched in this very brief way: each of them is a use-and-throw-away idea, and you get the impression that most of them would make fairly clunky and inept stories. In fact, in the fictional universe that Vonnegut creates, the only way Trout can get his work published is to send his manuscripts to a company that prints pornography. Trout’s stories are the filler material between photo-spreads – a terrible fate. And as Vonnegut is at pains to point out, Trout’s stories never have the slightest suggestion of sex in them.
It was Philip Jose Farmer who decided to roll out the Trout opus to a wider audience. With Vonnegut’s permission, he took one of the many Trout stories mentioned by name in Vonnegut’s novels and turned it into a novel, which was published as Venus On the Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout. It was just a mind-game, essentially – a further riff on the game that Vonnegut himself was already playing when he used Trout in his novels.
It’s a great idea, but (in my opinion) it’s not a great novel. From the start, it reads like something written by Philip Jose Farmer rather than by Kilgore Trout. In fact, it’s Farmer doing Vonnegut, right down to the riff of having a fictional author (Jonathan Swift Somers) whose works are summarised at various points in the novel. It has homages to Slaughterhouse 5, introducing beings who live in non-linear time, and it brings in huge cosmic questions in banal, deadpan ways.
The thing that spoiled the joke for me, though, is that Venus On the Half-Shell has sex scenes. Farmer likes human/alien sex (umm… in his books, I mean) and he couldn’t resist the urge to slip a little in here. “She snuggled up against him, kissed him, and the end of her tail caressed his throat, his chest, his stomach, the insides of his thighs, and tickled his genitals.” But the whole irony of Trout being published in porno books depended on his work being as asexual as a prayer book.
So it was kind of a missed opportunity, in some ways, but you have to admire the basic idea. Why shouldn’t fictional characters write books? Why shouldn’t you put words in the mouths of some of characters you love, or hate, or are just plain fascinated by, and use them as stepping stones into weird, meta-fictional places that might turn out to be well worth exploring?
And so we come to The Iron Dream – the lost science fiction masterpiece of Adolf Hitler. But tomorrow. I’d like to give you time to meditate on that one a little…