Anthony arrived on the science fiction scene with quite a bang with this novel. So much of a bang that it was nominated for the 1968 Hugo award, losing out on the award itself only to another truly brilliant work, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light.
Anthony introduces a multitude of ideas in this work: a flower that shows whether or not your significant other truly loves you, a galaxy-spanning 'message' that kills humans in its path by hypothermia, a naturally formed inorganic based consciousness, a type of grub that quite literally eats absolutely everything. But the most significant idea is a genetically modified type of human, the minionettes, all physically identical and the very picture of absolute female perfection, who have their emotional circuits inverted, where the kindest thing you can do to them is hate, abuse, deride, and punish them.
Anton Five, knowing nothing of her true nature, has the misfortune to fall in love with one of these minionettes, a love that is an obsession, a mixture of real love and conflicted hate, as the object of his emotions, after only three brief encounters, goes to space. It becomes his mission in life to track her down, even at the expense of his farm and a rejection of freely offered true love by a daughter of the family of Four. And due to this obsession, he eventually is sent to the prison planet Chthon, where the prison is the naturally formed caves and tubes formed by ancient volcanic action and that no one has ever escaped from. Within this prison are real monsters, truly horrifying and very unique, many of which are seen only from offstage or half-seen, and the very indistinctness this lends to these creatures adds to their effect. Some of the images of this section gave me nightmares for years after the first time I read this book.
Anton is a fully delineated character, not very likeable - in fact he's amoral, selfish, a loner, single-minded, and at least something of a psychotic. But there are occasional glimpses of a different man hiding inside, one capable of giving and receiving love, who knows pity and can empathize with other's misfortunes. The story, outside of all the fantastic ideas so casually tossed around, is really about his development into a fully rational human who can allow his emotions full sway when appropriate.
The story construction is rather unique, using both flash-backs and flash-forwards from his time in prison. This is deliberately done, as there are a set of parallels/contrasts between the actions in the prison and the actions at other times in Anton's life, which help illustrate the man and his changes. This construction has the disadvantage of lessening the suspense, but the added meaning given by this structure more than compensates for this. At least part of this book can be viewed as an allegory for the travels of a man through the stages of life, and Anthony buries quite a bit of symbolism inside his creations.
The power of this book resides in the changes Anton goes through and its tremendous imagery coupled with some truly different and unique ideas. Be prepared to put as much effort into reading and comprehending this book as it would take for a classic 'literary' novel - this book is a far cry from the grade-B space-operas of yesteryear.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)