The Best Kind of Loving Is The One That Hurts

The High Couch of Silistra — Janet E. Morris
Silistra Quartet, book 1

High Couch

1977’s The High Couch of Silistra is the first volume in Janet Morris’ Silistra Quartet. It’s also proof that not every reviewer should review every book, because the market it caters to, the BDSM crowd, is not one to which I belong. I’m mostly blind to whatever strengths this work may have.

The ancient Silistrans used their impressive technology to scour their own homeworld. A handful survived in underground refuges. When the surface of Silistra recovered and the descendants of the survivors emerged from their warrens, they vowed to never again become dependent on technology.

Silistrans are hardy, long-lived, and thanks to that ancient war, infertile. High technology might have dealt with the fertility issue. The Silistrans chose an entirely different solution.


Society centres in large part on the Wells, brothels at which all the best women serve; the unworthy are consigned to life as “coin girls,” a miserable existence indeed. If any Well woman is impregnated by a client, the man gains possession of her and all the wealth she has earned in the Well. Few are so lucky.

Well-Keepress Estri is an orphan. Her mother died in childbirth. The identity of her father is a mystery. How much of a mystery becomes clear when she receives a message from her long dead mother. Estri’s father was no Silistran; Estri’s mother slept with him knowing that any resulting child would kill her. Estri has a grand destiny, perhaps one worth the sacrifice of her mother’s life.

Between Estri and that destiny is a difficult quest that will take her away from her familiar Well and across the harsh, violent world that is Silistra. Along the way wait humiliation, sexual assault, brutality, and always, the possibility of a violent death. But she will also encounter love and, unexpectedly, the companionship of true gods.

 ~oOo~

Silistra’s human population appears to be screwed, unless Estri somehow wins the secret of high fertility from her father. No, don’t jump to conclusions: there’s surprisingly little incest in this novel for a Disco-Era softcore smut book. Zero, as far as I can tell. There is enough background info, however, to indicate that birth rates are well below replacement levels. Long lifespans can slow the decline, but alas, Silistra’s homicide rate is even higher than Midsomer’s.

Janet Morris has an interesting publication history. Have a chart. Unless my editor turns it into a graph.

[Editor’s note: James, James, would I do that to you?]

[James’ note: graphs are cool but I’ve never learned how to create them in Libre Office.]

Decade

Novel

Anthology

Short Story

1970s

4

0

0

1980s

22

8

38

1990s

6

0

10

2000s

0

0

0

2010

1

6

12

In the 1980s, Morris was one of Baen’s go-to authors. She wasn’t entirely dependent on Jim Baen’s apparent fondness for her work. Ace and DAW also used her fiction (generally in concert with authors better known than Morris is today). That pattern might mean she wrote quickly and delivered reliably, which editors and publishers approve, but ultimately sold poorly, of which publishers disapprove. The sudden road-bump in her career appears to be coincident with the improved sales tracking software that savaged the careers of a number of mid-list authors.

The resurgence? That would be ebooks, I bet. Any living author who isn’t working to get their out of print backlist out as ebooks is leaving money on the table.

If I recall correctly the history of Bantam Books, Fred Pohl bought High Couch. However, I am going to blame this book’s existence on Donald Wollheim and DAW Books, whose adoption of the Gor books (starting with the eighth book in the Gor series) showed there was a market for BDSM sword-and-sandal planetary adventure fiction. There were a number of series that appeared to be various publishers’ attempt to build on that market. This is one of them.

John Norman’s Gor was aimed at men unreconciled to the 19th Amendment. While this constituency is still with us, there existed (and exists) a substantial market among women for BDSM-themed F&SF. This may be why most of the examples of this genre that I can think of are books by women like Tanith Lee, Jo Clayton, Jacqueline Carey, Anne Rice, Sharon Green, and Cecilia Tan. To quote a comment from my editor to a now-deleted footnote:

[Editor’s note: no, it’s that women like BDSM porn. As witnessed by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and bodice-rippers in general. But it’s important that it be written from a female POV. As in “I am being forced to endure this extremely satisfying orgy, which is just what I like but dare not demand.”
Everybody knows that it’s usually the sub who really controls the scenario, not the dom. At least in the consensual BDSM scene.]

Some of you may be reaching for the buy button on Amazon on the strength of the above. I should add “soft-core” to “BDSM sword-and-sandal planetary adventure fiction”. Don’t expect HBO-style or Starz-style explicit sex scenes or even Beeline-style porn (a historically significant American pornographic novel company, about whom I can find no links to which I am comfortable linking). This book was intended to be sold in mainstream stores, not grotty Times Square adult book stores. The novel is extremely rapey, but also soft-focus. On the plus side, that means there’s room for plot and world-building, details more focused erotica often eschews.

Estri may have a great destiny and she may set out on a grand adventure. But don’t expect a grand feminist icon. Estri is remarkably passive. She has to be nudged by her dead mom and her dead mom’s sex tapes1 into embracing her quest. Along the way, she is dependent on a variety of male protectors, most of whom treat her abominably. Happily for the men, Estri secretly likes abuse, as do all women (or so she claims) and happily for Estri, it all works out in the end.

I can’t recommend this. In addition to Estri’s passivity, Morris’ prose is lifeless and turgid, although I will grant her stock backward world has some points of interest. Extra points because I didn’t see the twist of who or what Estri’s father was coming. People looking for this sort of thing would be better off looking through Tanith Lee’s early works or perhaps Jo Clayton’s. Or if your tastes are contemporary, Jacqueline Carey’s oeuvre.

The High Couch of Silistra is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: While I see why some parents create birth videos to share with their traumatized children, it may be that conception videos are a step too far.


Comments

  • Joseph Major

    There is a tradition of science-fictional societies being unable to plausibly function because of some political, social, or biological factor. But the author thinks the description of whatever is ever so cooool.

    As I recall, given the low fertility rate and the low population density, the chance of even meeting the One You Can Breed With is about zero.

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