SF Formulas Repurposed: Walter Mosley’s “Stepping Stone/Love Machine”

By Derek MausJuly 1, 2013

SF Formulas Repurposed: Walter Mosley’s “Stepping Stone/Love Machine”

Stepping Stone/Love Machine by Walter Mosley

LIKE MANY OTHERS who comment on Walter Mosley’s work, I feel almost obliged to qualify any observations I make about his copious body of writing that falls outside the parameters of the crime fiction through which he originally caught the public eye and on which the lion’s share of his literary reputation rests. I have no doubt whatsoever that Mosley gets tired of such qualifications, especially since the forty books he has published in the twenty-three years since Devil in a Blue Dress first appeared include several works of “literary” fiction, a young adult novel, an awkward foray into erotica (he called it a “sexistential novel”), and six books of speculative fiction, of which Stepping Stone/Love Machine is the latest. I find myself doing the “Although Mosley is best known for…” shuffle despite the fact that I firmly believe that some of his most powerful prose appears in works like RL’s Dream, Blue Light, Futureland, Workin’ on the Chain Gang, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, and the criminally underappreciated The Man in My Basement, none of which fall under the heading of crime fiction. Given that I greatly admire contemporary writers such as Colson Whitehead and Lydia Millet in part because they frustrate their readers’ desires to read more works just like the ones they have already written, I find it extremely difficult to justify why I still append a caveat whenever I write about Mosley’s “other” work.

Stepping Stone/Love Machine reminds me, alas, of why I do it. The third in the Crosstown to Oblivion series of novellas printed back-to-back in a tête-bêche format alluding to the classic Ace Doubles SF paperback series of the 1950s and ’60s, this book simply does not cohere into anything more than the detritus of a man who I suspect of having more ideas for stories before breakfast than I have in a decade. Ideas, even interesting ones like these, by themselves do not good stories make, and neither of the two tales that Mosley stretches to more than 130 pages sustains sufficient narrative momentum over that length to reward the reader’s curiosity. Where the earlier two volumes in this series — The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin and Merge/Disciple — largely succeeded as platforms for extending Mosley’s politics and philosophy into speculative contexts, Stepping Stone/Love Machine ends up feeling much like the “filler” used to pad an album out to conventional length. Mosley’s prodigious output — he has published six books just since the start of 2012 — results occasionally in a lamentable sloppiness that is very much in evidence here.

Of the two stories, Stepping Stone comes closest to achieving the metaphysical-speculative tenor that Mosley masterfully employed in Blue Light and Futureland. The story’s protagonist, Truman Pope, is a beleaguered worker in a massive corporation (a set-up that Mosley has mined repeatedly through the years). Mysteriously orphaned and “tagged as a slow learner and mildly retarded” at a young age, Truman is raised by his stern yet loving aunt, Tiny. Virginal except for a somewhat manipulative relationship a decade earlier, Truman for the most part passes his days in an unremarkable and solitary existence, occasionally interacting with his fellow mailroom workers in a friendly, albeit cursory manner. One day, though, he hears a voice behind him while riding an elevator on his mail-delivery rounds. Stepping aside, he sees an alluring young woman in an odd yellow pantsuit step past. Intrigued by her appearance, he holds the elevator door open with his mail-cart while he ponders speaking out to her. As he does so, though, he not only notices that the young woman has improbably vanished, but also realizes that the stationary elevator is full of impatient executives, including his immediate boss, Miss Metcalf, who incongruously develops a vendetta against the otherwise nondescript Pope.

Identifying herself only as Minerva, the young woman Truman saw stepping off the elevator reappears to him several times as he resists Miss Metcalf’s efforts to discipline him. Having had unexplained moments of “wide perception” in which “the world became larger and more intricate” throughout much of his life, Truman is not sure whether Minerva actually exists or is a hallucination hinting at undiagnosed insanity. Recalling the benevolence of a teacher named Alana Boucher who helped Truman overcome his learning disability as a child, Minerva not only assists Truman in avoiding Miss Metcalf’s wrath, but also helps him to understand that there is much more to him than either he or his co-workers perceive.

What ensues from a somewhat belabored beginning — it feels as though Mosley has included about twice as many subplots in this story as he needs — is a careening quasi-apocalyptic story of awakened consciousness and regeneration that deploys a number of conventional SF tropes in serving as a vehicle for Mosley’s familiar (and commendable) sympathies with the outcast and downtrodden of the world. The main problems with the story arise from the jarring contrast between the affectingly insular world of Truman’s life before Minerva and the cosmic scale of the revelation that Mosley unleashes near the end of the story.

Of course, carpenters, hobbits, bored teenagers cleaning farm-droids, and computer hackers chasing white rabbits have all risen from humble beginnings to become saviors; unlike its ancestors, though, Mosley’s story insists on the presence of its mythic implications rather than developing them in a compelling fashion. Mosley articulates both the exposition and the conclusion of this story in an engaging manner, but the narrative integument that supposedly binds them together is in turn bewilderingly oblique and obvious. When he is not shoehorning in a sympathy-provoking contrast between Truman’s benevolent sensitivity and his employers’ corporate inhumanity, Mosley is repurposing SF formulas that evoke Blade Runner at their best and the Left Behind series at their worst.

Whereas Stepping Stone ultimately is more uneven than unfortunate, the same cannot be said of Love Machine, a story that rivals only Killing Johnny Fry (the aforementioned “sexistential” novel) in its capacity to induce cringes. Unlike that earlier work, though, the philosophical dimensions of Love Machine remain superficial and do not make up for its egregious stylistic shortcomings. The plot of the story centers on the interaction between an ambitious young executive and scientist named Lois Kim and an eccentric genius — who also happens to be physically huge — named Marchant Lewis. Lewis invites Kim to experience a new piece of technology called the Datascriber that the corporation for which she works is interested in acquiring. Kim initially believes that Lewis’s device is able to create a neurological linkage between two individuals physically connected to it, but it soon becomes apparent that his discovery has much greater implications related to an artificial gestalt consciousness that Lewis calls the Co-Mind. Lois runs away from her work and her unsatisfying relationship with a Mark Zuckerberg-like techno-playboy named Grant Tillman, eventually falling in with a coterie of unusual characters that have been incorporated into Lewis’s hive-mind.

Regrettably, this is where an already formulaic tale becomes laborious and distractingly tin-eared. Not only does Mosley constantly refer to these characters with ethnic epithets that are strikingly unnecessary after their initial use — e.g., “the young Hispanic man from the day before” and “the Arab-French girl was gazing into Lois’s eyes” — but he also undermines his most potentially engaging scenes with an uncharacteristic infelicity of expression. For example, when Cosette, a semi-feral (and seemingly perpetually naked) nymphet living in Lewis’s house, and Lois meet in the hive-mind and partially lapse into the consciousness of a coyote that has also been absorbed into the Co-Mind (don’t ask … just don’t), Mosley initially avails himself of the opportunity to imagine the experience of seeing the world from a radically different perspective. Although not stunningly original, this part of the chapter is reasonably well-rendered. The whole scene devolves grotesquely, however, when Lois perceives Cosette, both partly in their coyote-consciousness, nursing a litter of puppies. This image somehow becomes an entrée for a muddled homoerotic interlude:

“She whimpered on the hotbed earth then Cosette/coy licked her neck. Lois/coy got up gratefully pressing her head against her friend. They licked each other and rolled together. They whimpered in happiness at finding a friend again.”

This rapidly deteriorating scene ends with quite possibly the worst use of the word “discharge” I have ever read, and (after succumbing to the soft-porn cliché of a knee-buckling orgasm) Lois flees from her semi-coy mistress to deal with these newly experienced ramifications of Lewis’s invention.

The resolution of this story — strongly reminiscent of Neuromancer and Contact, among other works — ultimately is buried beneath the combined weight of well-trodden narrative ground and wooden language that reduces the characters to the level of cartoons. Mosley has demonstrated that he is capable of so much more, and I relieved my disappointment with Stepping Stone/Love Machine by rereading the nine interconnected speculative stories contained in Futureland, a book that demonstrates much more strikingly why I still believe Mosley will ultimately be remembered not simply as a writer of crime fiction. His copious departures from that realm should not be judged overly harshly because of the occasional misfires brought about by his experimentation and his breakneck writing pace.

LARB Contributor

Derek C. Maus is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York College at Potsdam, where he teaches an abundance of literature courses on topics ranging from science fiction and mythology to women's writing on war and exile. His research predominantly focuses on satire, including subversive satire by both Russian and American writers during the Cold War, contemporary African American satire in a range of media, and the works of individual satirists such as Nikolai Gogol, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Pynchon, and Colson Whitehead. He has also co-edited a collection of scholarly essays on the works of Walter Mosley that was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2008.


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