Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review of Man in a Cage by Brian Stableford

There is the classic scene in Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee enters a room of mirrors.  His scratched and bleeding body caught in a prism of reflections, he loses himself for a moment, his brain in panic in the existentially ambiguous, claustrophobic space.  Make the man a schizophrenic, lock the door, send the room hurtling through space and you’ve got Brian Stableford’s intelligently complex, psychologically alinear, and finely crafted Man in a Cage (1975).  Deservingly re-released by Open Road Media this year, it’s a character study incorporating and transcending the individual to comment on humanity. Smoothly shifting gears between perspectives, delicately poetic yet unforgiving in tone when the situation requires, the novel is an overlooked masterpiece of science fiction that, like Bruce Lee, is forced to look at itself from multiple perspectives to find some semblance of truth.

Locked up in a dangerous maximum security prison for more than ten years is the schizophrenic homicidal maniac, Harker Lee.  Even the guards suffering mental lapses due to the harshness of the conditions, Lee steels himself to the exigiencies of life, letters and journal entries to himselves the main stress relievers.  Gangpressed into civic duty one day, however, the space program has had repeated failures sending sane men into hyperspace and believe that “Space drives men mad.  Hence send a madman. What harm can it do him?” Wary of ulterior motives yet desiring freedom, and all the while warring with the carousel of voices in his head, Lee’s excursion with Project Titan will make him or break him, humanity’s fate tied to his own.

Freedom and captivity far from objective, the person in prison can say autonomy exists within the bounds of their cell walls while the person on the street may regret being earthbound, unable to fly like a bird. Man in a Cage thankfully explores this subjectivity in terms far more subtle and insightful than that sentence.  Working acts of legerdemain with confinement, freedom, psychosis, and sanity, Stableford digs at their meanings, not in individual terms, rather in relationship to one another, and all from an interior view to the human psyche.  Masterfully braiding three narrative strands, the reader gets a look into the realities (strong plural) of Lee’s existence, an engaging, thought-provoking story the result.

As such, Man in a Cage does not deserve the fate time and reader awareness have allotted it.  And it’s tough to say why.  Certainly it is literary genre—the side of science fiction which naturally gets less attention than more flashy, accessible mainstream efforts.  But there have been sophisticated novels recognized by the field in the past, and there’s no reason why Man in a Cage cannot achieve this.  The use of language is rich yet smooth, the narrative is structured perfectly, theme is effectively presented in terms of first, second, and third person perspectives to achieve the desired “person/mirror room/truth beyond” effect, and the plot gently escalates to a phenomenally realized conclusion that burns like a dynamite fuse in terms of narrative revision, expression of philosophical concerns, and relevancy to life here on Earth.  This is a major work of sf, no false reflections.

In the end, Man in a Cage is an intelligent, multi-faceted (literally and figuratively) examination of the human psyche through the barriers imposed on it by material space and its workings within the limits it knowingly and unknowingly imposes on itself.  Fascinating for Stableford’s ability to slip in and out of perspectives, a sublime experience for the easy color and flow of language, and insightful into the condition of being human, it is highly recommended for the reader of speculative fiction who enjoys a tussle getting at the sub-text of a novel and a slingshot ending that propels the mind to greater heights of thought. A densely poetic, philosophical work, it deserves significantly stronger attention from the genre community.

I end this review feeling I’ve failed to do the book justice.  My gushing unfocused, for a better—and more concise—view, see the following from Kirkus.



  1. Jesse, this sounds like my type of book. I cannot wait to get home and read my copy. I was so frustrated with Stableford's work in the past -- half baked ideas, cobbled narratives that were disjointed but in an inarticulate and ham fisted way... This sounds like his serious attempt to write a masterpiece. And of course, seems inspired by Malzberg.

    1. @Joachim - Interesting considering the three Stableford pieces I've read have all been really good: the novel above and two novellas: "Les Fleurs de Mal" and "Mortimer Gray's History of Death", the latter of which covers very similar material but is superior to Silverberg's Sailing to Byzantium, interestingly. That being said, I've made a semi-calculated effort to avoid his more center-of-the-genre work, knowing I'd probably have the same reaction as you...

      P.s. I just had a look at Stableford's backlist on isfdb and I'm floored by the amount of non-fic he's written about sf...

    2. Stableford also publishes a lot of out of copyright French SF -- and writes the intros to those volumes. Is that what you're referring to?

      I've not read those. I've read Journey to the Center -- which was Ringworld-esque with all the flaws and none of the wonder. And, his supposedly solid The Florians, the first of the Daedalus Mission series, which was a biological mystery which blathered about biology and forgot about everything else necessary for a solid novel.

    3. Isfdb only gets you so far, but based on the fact the works are listed under non-fiction and that the titles seem very scholarly (e.g A Clash of Symbols: A Study of the Works of James Blish or The Dictionary of Science Fiction Places), it would seem to me that it is more than his translation work. In fact, given the fact about twenty non-fic titles are listed, it would seem he's very heavily involved in the study and documentation of speculative fiction, not just the creation thereof.