Robert Silverberg's sobering Thorns holds up chillingly well after all these decades. A dark pastiche upon Beauty and the Beast, Thorns confronts the thorny issues of how those who find themselves outside the norm of human society can be coldly exploited by said society through promises of belonging. It seems almost appallingly cynical on its face, but the story ends up a brave affirmation of individuality and strength through adversity, with a climax that is heartening without succumbing to sentiment.
Minner Burriss and Lona Kelvin are two of society's outcasts. Burriss was a deep space explorer abducted by aliens during a visit to their world, and horrifically transfigured by a battery of appalling surgical experiments. His body is now that of a monster, his organs strangely different, his every movement painful. (One might think that such an act would provoke interstellar war, but Silverberg isn't really after that theme so he never goes there in the first place.)
Lona's situation is more psychologically devastating. The subject of a
strange fertility experiment in which hundreds of eggs were harvested
from her body and artificially gestated, she finds herself in the unique
position of being the mother of literally a hundred virgin births. Denied
access to any of her offspring (bad for the experiment, they say), she
is scarred so deeply by her feelings of uselessness and loneliness she
becomes a suicidal basket case.
Both of these unfortunates come to the attention of media tycoon Duncan
Chalk, something of a freak of nature himself. Possessing an empathic
ability to absorb others' pain, he machinates a meeting between Lona and
Burris. Promising her custody of two of her babies, and him the possibility
of revolutionary surgery restoring him to a human body, Chalk is all too
aware that any budding romance will be doomed to failure. All that Lona
and Burris really have in common is their pariah status, after all, but
their relationship will be good for his media business at first. (Silverberg
presaging reality TV here.) And sure enough, the public at first cannot
get enough of the new couple. But when it all begins to go south, Chalk
will have Lona's and Burriss' anguish to feed upon.
Lona and Burriss know they are being manipulated, but can they find it
in themselves to beat Chalk at his own game?
There is much that is, sadly, all too true in the way Silverberg dispassionately
portrays the darker side of human nature. Burriss and Lona find themselves
the center of attention wherever they go, but to everyone — whether
the wealthy who feign politeness or the general public who openly jeer
— they are never more than a curio. At no time are they real people
to those who get their entertainment from following their romance, a charge
you could level against the actual culture of celebrity worship that permeates
the shallowest areas of our landscape. (When some famous actress goes
anorexic, do the people who hang on every word about it in the tabloids
really give a damn about her as a person?) People have a sad and
sick tendency to revel in others' misfortune, and this was a fact perhaps
even more blatant at the time Silverberg wrote Thorns — when Vietnam,
the Summer of Love, and the civil rights turmoil were at the forefront
of world chaos — than it is today. But today, perhaps it's even
more dismaying, because — as Silverberg depicts it in his story
— it's become so slickly packaged.
The relationship between Burriss and Lona is constructed believably, considering
how easily it could have become a minefield of unintentional comedy. It
begins with a tentative sweetness that ultimately resolves in a connection
between two people coming together practically for reasons that they have
no one else, reasons bolstered by cruel promises. (Only one scene comes
off as dated and silly, a short catfight between Lona and another woman
masochistically attracted to Burriss.) And there is a sense of inevitability
when the rifts begin to appear. But the climax, as I noted, satisfies.
Silverberg has navigated his way through Thorns without really
ever getting stuck on any, the hallmark of a strong natural writer in
control of his craft. Pain is instructive, after all.