Book Review: The Seedy


A version of this review was originally printed in Ethel the Aardvark, fanzine of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club.

THSDNWRWTM1969.jpgThis post’s rummage through the MSFC library shelves represents a return to that purveyor of suspect sf, Panther Books, and their 1969 edition of Robert Ray’s obscure and worryingly titled The Seedy.

Fifteen-year-old Tim is a ‘seedy’, one of a rare breed of man in a (curiously pre-decimalised) future who still carries functioning spermatozoa. His kind are walled up in fertility clinics where they provide IVF material for sterile couples in want of children, but do so in an utterly clinical manner for although they are not themselves sterile they cannot become sexually active. (The science behind this is never entered into.)

During a psychoanalysis session, Tim’s doctor is encouraged to let him out into the world of ‘randies’ and ‘queers’: respectively, heterosexual and homosexual sterile men with sexual appetites. (There are women about too, but they don’t get categorised for some reason, and everyone is cis-gendered for all we know, as one might expect of a novel published in 1969.) The rest of the slender novel represents Tim’s day trip, in which he tries to pass for an eighteen-year-old ‘randy’ but ultimately outs himself and faces the consequences.

This is a novel that seems to be trying to make a point about sexual politics. Its tone is mature and its vocabulary ‘educated’ – in the sense that the term was meant in 1960s Britain. But Ray, like Frank Crisp before him, doesn’t know how to handle his sf concept and ultimately fails to make any kind of visible point at all.

Worse is that so very little happens. This is a problem I have with a lot of ‘day in the life’ books: they manage to choose frightfully mundane days from the lives of their protagonists. For Tim this is an unusual day, but he ends up spending far too much of it sitting around and talking about the novel’s sf hook with the people he meets. It’s stuff they should already know, and that we’ve been led in the opening chapters to believe Tim will be pretty familiar with too. And it only goes as far as describing the social structure Ray has invented while never bothering to explain its cause.

Events turn physical later in the novel, leading Tim into a few rough scrapes that include a lapse into unconsciousness – and one of the most misplaced shifts in tone I’ve ever read. For a single chapter, Ray shifts from his peculiar brand of ‘pub realism’ to a dream sequence in which Tim casually chats with God. On its own it’s an intriguing device, but sandwiched into The Seedy it’s the bite that leaves a funny aftertaste.

Characters are sketched mostly as types: the ‘randies’ tend to be working class Londoners, the one key woman is mothering, and so on. Curiously for a 1960s book with a slightly proselytising tone, ‘queers’ emerge with dignity. Homosexuality is accepted in Ray’s society as a matter of fact and there are no homophobic elements to speak of in the narrative. There is “a gang of drug-taking ‘queers’” present, but their drug dependency is never put down to their sexuality. My only gripe with Ray’s depiction of ‘queers’ – aside from the fact that he doesn’t use the word as broadly as actual society does today – is that he never considers them as parent material.

I came away from reading The Seedy with the feeling that the author was trying to demonstrate he could write about sexual politics in a frank and non-sensationalist way, and that he felt the creation of a particular speculative society would best make his point. What that point is I’m not sure, but it seems to have much more to do with class than sexuality. While trying to appear sexually liberated in his choice of content, all Ray really manages to do is look old-fashioned in his top-down study of the habits of the ‘lower classes’. A contemporary veneer to mask some very staid thinking.

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