Dr. Adder is as trashy, stupid and fun as you’d expect from a book deemed too controversial to publish for 12 years.
On one hand, Dr. Adder‘s importance as an early cyberpunk dystopia exceeds its entertainment value. K.W. Jeter wrote it in 1972 while attending college, but it wouldn’t be published until the cyberpunk explosion in ’84. Because of this, the obsession with technology, the casual violence, the Interface-as-Sprawl et al., are all prescient forebears of some of the themes dominating contemporary sci-fi.
But is it a great novel? Not really.
E. Allen Limmit is a naive, dumb kid with big dreams. The abandoned son of a brilliant scientist, he hopes to use his heritage as a means of conning millions from the titular doctor, an amoral Christ figure for the slums of L.A. Limmit leaves behind his shallow life overseeing a desert brothel — a perverted place dedicated to the quirkiest quirks of sexual desire: Giant, genetically-modified chickens. What he takes with him, and what he hopes will make his millions, is a broken cyber-weapon invented by his deadbeat dad, a laser-firing ‘flash glove’ (straight out of ’70s camp) capable of turning its agent into a weapon of mass destruction.
The self-serving, obnoxious Dr. Adder is a brilliant surgeon specializing in body modification for the prostitutes across L.A.’s slums — a precursor to Gibson’s Sprawl known here as the Interface. For someone meant to be like Christ, Adder’s a callously evil, uncaring, misogynistic bucket of amorality start to finish, and Limmit’s con doesn’t quite go as planned, pulling both characters into a battle over the souls (and money) of the Interface with John Mox, Adder’s rival and CEO-slash-religious leader.
The ultra-violence and gross sexuality still hold up as over-the-top, but it’s more quirky cartoon than outright obscene.* Characters are seemingly driven by a young writer’s snark and sadism more-so than individual goals: Limmit is an unfeeling, dumb vehicle being pushed around by the plot, barely stopping to form a single thought; Mox is a shadow of evil in religion and capitalism; Adder’s, frankly, boring and nearly as dumb as Limmit (I don’t buy his brilliance in the least); all the women are walking sex organs — sometimes quite literally — and vehicles for kinky sleaze.
So Dr. Adder isn’t driven by its depth of character, it’s not driven by its attacks on consumerism and religion; it’s driven, to some degree, by a handful of clever technological ideas, like uploading human consciousness to early computers (long before it was passe), but mostly it’s driven by its extremes — and that it shouted those extremes first. Excessive drug-use, sex, violence, and misanthropy fill every page, and under all that the snark and self-importance of a young writer. Despite the mountain of excesses, the dystopian streets and sewers of L.A.’s Interface provide a wildly entertaining ride. As the laser-glove is unleashed and a corporate war between Adder and Mox’s church heat up, the Interface is hit with a deluge of corpses and gore.
Dr. Adder isn’t the great piece of fiction that Neuromancer or Green Eyes would be in 1984, but if you can look past its faults, past the sleaze and ultra-violence, past the atrocious cover art†, you’ll find a fun ride that holds up pretty danged well after 40 years.
- Sam Delany also beat these extremes by a few years, writing Hogg — possibly the most shocking novel of the 20th century — in 1969. Hogg was similarly held up by its violence and sexuality, unpublished until 1994.
† Dr. Adder‘s always had the distinction of having rough cover art, but the current stock artwork’s atrociousness is something to behold, and its design seems like the norm for Jeter’s self-published books: Random models — always women — eyeing the camera seductively, with minimal background art. Sometimes just a stock photo of a motorcycle that isn’t even the right dimensions for a book cover. His cover art is wild, and never has anything to do with what’s inside.
An aside: Jeter’s e-books end with a disclaimer offering readers free additional e-books for public reviews. (Whether you liked or hated his books, he says he doesn’t care.) I made the mistake of asking Jeter about his stock photo choices in my request, and, wow, he was so insulted by my question — and my associating Dr. Adder with cyberpunk — that he threw out the free e-book offer in my case, and, in very strong words, essentially insulted my intelligence and understanding of his work (and, by George, he would never deign to dabble in cyberpunk so how dare I use that word). My question may have been obnoxious — I don’t know how it couldn’t not be, tbqh; I remember struggling to word it in the nicest way possible — but his response was so fucking mean, I’m still a bit thrown by it after a year. What’s even more odd, I think, is that he also said Yes, these covers are supposed to look terrible: Trashy is the style he’s going for and it should have been obvious to any dimwit. Honestly, as much as I enjoyed this, I’ll probably stick to looking for his other influential cyberpunk novel, the Glass Hammer, exclusively in used books shops, if at all, based on that vicious shit.
3 thoughts on “Cyberpunk Roots: Sleaze and cyberwarfare in Dr. Adder (1972)”
I might suggest that Charles Platt’s The Gas (1968) might predate Delany if we want a shocking SF (ish) book… it generated a publishing scandal when it hit the shelves.
Great review! I haven’t read it yet — but I always contemplate purchasing a copy when I scroll through my wishlist.
Thanks for the suggestion — and wow it’s obscure! I’ve added it to my wishlist, but with how rare it seems…I hope more of Platt’s books are re-released in the near future!
Not sure I’d recommend Dr. Adder, tbqh, but I got really, really turned off of Jeter after the encounter with him — my experience of the book is all conflicted and nonsensical now that I found him to be a bit gross.
(I still want to find a copy of the Glass Hammer p. dang bad! That got the nod from Bruce Sterling as his best way back when.)
Not sure I’m going to read The Gas….
I have a love hate relationship with Platt. The City Dwellers was a magnificent novel (I haven’t reviewed it yet) — yet the short stories I encountered in numerous New Worlds anthologies were poor in comparison. And of course, my infamous review of Platt’s The Garbage World (he certainly liked SF dripping with filth and sleaze — although this one is for teens).