Review of “Salmonella Men on Planet Porno” (1977)

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Tsutsui Yasutaka (writer).

Read in 2022.

A small team of scientists explore the surprising ecology of “Planet Porno” on an urgent mission to find an abortifacient for a colleague.

This is the titular story in a collection, and the only story in that collection that feels like the normal SF of the period. The long speculative and scientific discussions on the local wildlife are interesting. It is unusual for Tsutsui to include any such material or any conventional worldbuilding. His slapstick style and strong characters make the exposition seem less dry than, for example, the corresponding sequences in The Ultimate Weapon (1936), but the core idea behind the material is weak.

In short, “hippies” exiled from Earth settled the planet when its native life was primitive. Under unknown circumstances, they used genetic engineering and telepathy to establish a utopian ecological superstructure where sex replaces many terrestrial interactions, including predation. In this system, human DNA is foundational to macroscopic life, rape is the only form of violence, inter-species sex is apparently common, and the resulting hybrids are infertile. A semi-species resembling a lemur—but called a “nursery spider”—adopts the hybrids, reshaping them to become asexual and like itself, while the native humans use the MacGuffin abortifacient to control their own population.

Incidentally, the planet is apparently located in a system of at least two suns, interacting in such a way that each day is two hours long throughout the story, though it varies over longer periods of time and presumably at other latitudes. It may not be apparent from Andrew Driver’s English-language translation, but when the narrator refers to the suns as “golden balls”, that’s a sexual pun, from the Japanese word kintama (金玉), meaning testicles. The local scenery is sexualized beyond the ecology as well, most prominently at “Mount Mona”, a mountain where the wind makes a feminine moaning noise.

The purported utopia is obviously cracked, and not just from a feminist perspective. Quite apart from the rape threat, it’s also associated with Uncanny Valley aesthetics and the warping of the mind right down to its fundamental drivers. Tsutsui’s colonists are essentially the lotus eaters of Homer’s The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE): They act as if they have found unconditional happiness, but the audience is expected to reject that happiness as creepy and prefer familiar labour. This is along the lines of Matango (1963) and The Parasite Murders (1975). Referencing Freud, Tsutsui knowingly builds a metaphor for inhibition that is the most elaborate I’ve seen up to this point in literary history. The story is improved by the use of worldbuilding to achieve that goal, and the image of life swarming on Planet Porno is certainly a vivid example of New-Wave science fiction.

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