I've talked before about SF authors setting their sights a little too high, and some of the novels nominated for the Hugo or Nebula getting by more on concept than actual delivery. In my review of 'Dark Universe' I talk a little about Samuel Delany's opinion on 'story' and 'writing' and why I think he's wrong to say a novel's delivery cannot be exceeded by it's concept. I might be putting words into Delany's mouth (I had trouble finding the actual quote), but either way Void is a good example of the concept, no possible story could live up to the originality of the idea. This is a story about spaceships piloted by orgasm. Let that sink in for a second. No actual story could live up to that, could it?
This story has a spaceship piloted by orgasm and a Captain so enthralled by a woman, so consumed by her that he is willing to sacrifice his spaceship, passengers, and himself just to give her what she wants. This book doesn't just have sex scenes in it, this book is about sex, around sex, on top of and underneath sex. There's no way to extract the sex from this novel without completely changing the story. It's there on the first page and it's there on the last. It's as if someone challenged Spinrad that he couldn't write a compelling novel that was intrinsically about sex and he used the nuclear option to prove them wrong.
People have found this novel offensive or distasteful, but some people have felt that way about most of the author's writing. Spinrad was a big proponent of the ‘New Wave’ SF movement going on in the 60s and 70s. New Wave strove to intentionally push the boundaries of what could be written about in SF, going out of the way to shock readers. Not necessarily a good thing, but many of the books that were adherents of this, some almost banned at the time, are more curious than offensive now (Spinrad's most famous novel 'Bug Jack Baron' is a good example of this). On the other hand Void Captain, which came out several years after the heyday of the New Wave, would have offended people no matter when it was written, and that's probably a good reason why it's mostly unknown. People have been offended by books with a lot less sex than this one.
Long passages of the book are given over to either descriptions of sexual acts or orgasms themselves. Some of these work out better than others. One would assume that these scenes would be salacious and pandering, that the actual sex scenes in the book border on the gratuitous, but they don't. The style and tone in which Spinrad presents the topic almost precludes any notion that this is pornographic. The best way to describe his writing style is 'detached.' Spinrad has the narrator maintain the tone of a captain throughout the novel. Even as his life spirals out of control and he agrees to destroy everything he has worked for to help his mistress 'Go On' and commit a form of sexual suicide the narrator's voice never changes.
This style is wordy, and strange enough quite formal. This can be off putting, and can read somewhat dated, but readers should note that this is a style Spinrad affects for this story, his other works like Jack Barron are written in a completely different tone. I think the tone of the novel does a good deal of the work in helping the story not devolve into farce or pornography, something that could have easily happens with a lesser writer. By working so hard to keep the narrator dignified in speech throughout the novel, even as he loses all his dignity in everything else, does a lot to maintain balance in a book that gets pretty out there.
The style also does the work of presenting the future as an alien place, foreign to us. The characters in the story choose their own names, and any introduction between two characters begins with the sharing of names, and how each character settled upon the names they have. Spinrad injects foreign words and phrases into the daily conversation of his characters, something he also has done in 'Child of Fortune.' It is not as distracting as it sounds, and does a lot to contribute to the tone I was talking about.
The story is interesting in that the narrator lays down the entire tale on the first page. There is no suspense regarding what will occur, only how and in what manner it will be presented. The novel begins with the captain sharing his 'name story' with the reader, followed by a quick section in which he lists the action of the novel. Nothing is hidden, if readers were expecting some major twist or surprise from the book they will be sorely mistaken, Spinrad plays no tricks and the entire tale is there at the beginning. It's an interesting tactic on Spinrad's part, and I thought it played to the novel's strength and originality.
This novel sits in my brain, and I cannot and probably will never be able to separate how good the story actually is from how original and fascinating I find the concept. A lot of time I read novels off the list of Hugo and Nebula nominees and find a real masterwork that has been sadly forgotten, think 'Stations of the Tide' by Swanwick. A lot of others are middle of the road SF whose authors were popular years ago, their work still worth a look but nothing to scream about. Occasionally, I'll find something like Void Captain, which defies categorization. Something truly original doesn't ever come in a form you would expect (obviously), and people rarely know how to judge it. Despite being a book over twenty years old this is still one of the most original works I've ever read.
Does 'The Void Captain's Tale' set it's sights too high? Maybe, maybe not. Like I said, I don't know if any novel could live up to the promise and originality of that premise. But the novel is good and gets points for being both classic and postmodern, oddly enough. Does it strive to be shocking? Yeah, a little, I have to admit the ending where the captain sets out to sleep with every woman on his stranded ship so as to figure who would make the best replacement pilot felt a little weird. But if a novel this original and out there can't exist in the halls of Science Fiction then where can it?