Richard Bowes published Feral Cell in 1986. It’s set in 1999, the last year of the second millennium, in New York City, which is starting, to “go bad” as many other cities before it have. It’s not clear exactly what is making the city go bad. Is it the strange weather, as summers grow hotter and winters grow shorter and drier? Is it the selfishness and complacency of the wealthy and the desperation of the young people? Is it the use of more and different drugs? Robert Leal, a self-described “game-master” who produces elaborate fantasies for bored wealthy people, is too busy with his own problems to think much about it, but in Chapter One, when a strange boy appears out of thin air to threaten him with a bone weapon, he has to accept that strange things are happening in his city.
Leal has distractions: physical pain that is a harbinger of a serious illness; a legal entanglement with another game-producer, Jackie Fast, who is on trial after a “player” was found dead during one of her fantasy scenarios; and a rivalry with a megalomaniacal millionaire, Benjamin Mangin. Leal begins to worry when he sees more and more people who are shadowy and indistinct. Meanwhile, Leal’s long-dead friend, a cult musician named Chris Kane, is somehow turning up in the background vocals of other people’s music.
Leal soon discovers that his world intersects a reality called Capricorn, and that some people — those who are very ill — can see across the transept into Capricorn. Some can cross the transept and travel between the worlds, although they look like spirits in the alternate reality. Chris Kane, the musician, is a resistance fighter in Capricorn, trying to protect the Caprii from a vicious group called the Undying Cabal, led by the millionaire who is challenging Leal. Kane’s resistance group calls itself Feral Cell, and they call our world Cancer, symbolized by two crabs with claws crossed and touching.
In the wheel of the western zodiac, Capricorn and Cancer are directly across from one another. Summer solstice ushers in Cancer while winter solstice is the first day in Capricorn. Cancer has a doubled meaning in this book though, since Leal is dying of it, and Kane comments that a cancer cell is a feral cell. Jackie Fast and Chris Kane both imply that “recruiting” someone to come across the transept is like giving them cancer. It was never clear to me whether the disease is literally passed from person to person like a cold or if that’s just a metaphor.
Once you travel across the transept, you need something to ground you there. It can be a weapon, like the bone gun Leal inherits, but the easiest way is to drink the blood of a person or an animal from that world. The Blood of the Goat and the Blood of the Crab became pretty familiar beverages as this story progressed. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. As symbolism, it got pretty heavy-handed.
Benjamin Mangin comes from Capricorn. Mining our reality for technology, he brings it back to Capricorn and uses it to enslave the Caprii. Blood of the Crab, drunk in Capricorn, confers long life if not outright immortality, and the members of the Undying Cabal want immortality. Leal is soon enlisted in the battle to slow Mangin’s conquest in both worlds, and it becomes clear gradually that Mangin’s corruption made the cities of Manila and Berlin “go bad.”
This short novel is quite complicated. I read the whole first chapter — the limo, the drugs, the costumes, the surfer-kids with neon-paint graffiti — trying to figure out what was going on. At the end, I’m not completely sure it works. The performance art, the kids-on-the-street strategies and the heroic self-sacrifice near the end made the book a gripping read, though. Leal, who is self-involved, self-destructive and not very likeable at the beginning, becomes more sympathetic as he goes through the ordeal of anti-cancer procedures.
The best part is the layering of worlds, when Kane and Leal can see Capricorn from Cancer, and Cancer from Capricorn. People in elevators appear to float in front of them. The wall of Leal’s bedroom is an oak tree in Capricorn. The multiple plays on “cancer” and the depiction of a city awash in narcissism, instant gratification and greed is quite well done. Kane and Leal are children of the nineteen-sixties, old rebels trying to bring back the revolution, and that’s really sweet.
Bowes successfully creates a new sub-genre in fantasy: performance-art-fantasy, a cousin to rock-and-roll fantasy. The images of wealthy, imaginatively bankrupt fortysomethings playing Capture the Flag are sardonic and deftly drawn. In the last third of the book, Kane talks about what’s really “going bad” in the city: that the kids “have been squeezed out. People in their forties have the interesting jobs… People in their thirties have boring jobs that pay well. There is nothing left for the kids. Artists are middle-aged. Business people guard their preserves. The only thing they like about kids is the way they look.”
At the end, though, it appears Leal has accomplished nothing. Mangin regains power in both worlds; in Cancer, Leal’s friends are at risk and New York is sliding towards martial law. So, what was the point of all that pain, all that strategizing? I don’t get it. Feral Cell is a good adventure, but reads best as an indictment of the 1980s culture of selfishness and an elegy for the lost idealism of the 1960s.