Book Review: The Garments of Caean, Barrington J. Bayley (1976)

(H. R. Van Dongen’s cover for the 1980 edition)

3.75/5 (Good)

Barrington J. Bayley’s novels — I’ve reviewed Collision Course (1973), Empire of Two Worlds (1972), The Fall of Chronopolis (1974), The Pillars of Eternity (1982), and Star Winds (1978) — are characterized by extremely inventive concepts, generally poor characterization, and an uncanny lightness combined with a dose of visceral brutality.  In the works of his I’ve read so far he never leaves the galactic empire/space opera format and is utterly uninterested in extrapolating potential or possible future technology.

Along with Doris Piserchia’s The Billion Days of Earth (1976) and Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s The Light That Never Was (1972), The Garments of Caean is one of the most off-the-wall strange space operas I’ve read from the 70s (key word: ‘strange’).  Of the three, The Garments of Caean most successfully integrates a though-provoking overarching social science fiction theme: the power that external ornament–in this case clothes–plays in manipulating, controlling, and forming body image + self.  Imagine a society where the garment maker “supplants the functions of psychiatrist, priest, and molder of public opinion [...]” (31)!

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

There are two main plot narratives.  The first concerns Peder Forbath and Realto Mast — partners in an expedition to pillage a crashed Caeanic ship containing a hull full of rare prossim (a mysterious cloth) vestments.  Peder, a sartorialist on Ziodean, descends to the planet’s surface in a soundproof suit (due to “infra-sound” emitted by the planet’s denizens).  In the vessel he discovers a fantastic and highly prized Franchonard suit made of prossim — one of the prized objects of Caean.  The plan is to sell off all the cloth back on Ziodean but Peder keeps the suit for himself.

Caeanic clothes have the power to amplify, manipulate, and even create a particular body image.  They raise awareness of the world around you, they heighten your charisma, and, when removed, the wearer feels less than human.  When Peder puts on the Franchonard suit he becomes “a new Peder Forbarth, upright, rational, and aware, the kind of Forbath he liked to imagine in himself were in possession of his latent qualities” (41).  The clothes serve as the “appropriate interface” to “exteriorize these formant inner powers” (41).

Caeanic society, placed at opposition to Ziodean society, argues that “the Art of Attire is held to be a practical, extrovert method of fulfilling life, and not to rely on introspective mood changes” (32).  Ziodean society is incredibly suspicious of Caean because they believe that the clothes are simply “mood drugs” (32) which cause the wearers to become no more than clothes robots.  The Ziodeans are convinced that the Caeanics are plotting war.

Bayley’s images are often delightfully fun.  Because Caeanic clothes have the power to create the man, Bayley often personifies them — “the closeted smell of cloth greeted him.  In his imagination the population of garments huddled on their racks, like a close-packed army on parade, seemed to welcome him” (37).

The second narrative strand follows Amara, a sociologist explorer on the interstellar vessel Callan.  This expedition was sent by Ziodean to investigate the origins and nature of Caeanic society.  Amara, although particularly unintelligent for large portions of the narrative, is by far the most substantial female character in any of Bayley’s novel’s I’ve read to this point. He has a notorious problem even incorporating “token” female characters into his work.  Thus, I considered the presence of Amara, whose revelations lead to the great revelation moment at the end, an added boon.

Amara discovers a strange race of metallic Russian speaking humanoid formed individuals that live in space.  They decide to capture one of the humanoids.  Her crew believes that the space-suited individual, named Alexei, is simply a man inside of a suit.  In haste and without sufficient investigation, they hack the metal suit and discover that not only does Alexei believe that his metal external self is his natural external self but promptly goes into shock when he sees his “inmost innards” (30).  Eventually Amara realizes that Alexei’s “body-image of himself doesn’t include anything we would recognize as a human being.  When he thinks of himself as a person, the picture in his mind is that of the suit’s exterior.  Probably he isn’t even conscious of his biological body, except as a sort of internal organ or essential core” (49).   Bayley has the unfortunate tendency to over explain his themes as if they are not obvious enough — for example one character proclaims, “God, where does the suit end and the man begin?” (49).

Amara discovers that Alexei’s people were Russian descendants.  Alexei’s bitter enemies, the cyborgs (who have adapted their bodies with metal objects to live in the void of space) are descendent from the Japanese.  And Caeanic society was created by members of Alexei’s people who removed their suits and created prossim clothes to serve a similar purpose!

Final Thoughts

The voyage of the Callan in its quest to find the origins of the Caeanic people is by far the most intriguing aspect of the work.  Bayley’s philosophical ruminations on the metal bodies of Alexei’s people (their newly born babies are placed grow within metal suits!) can be a tad obvious but insightful nevertheless.  Bayley pairs Alexei’s people who derive their self-image from their metal exteriors (unknowing of the nature of their interiors) with Caeanic society and their obsessions with clothes and the power their exert in creating their “selves.”  This is placed in opposition to Ziodean society which derives their nature, supposedly, purely from their inner being.  The cultural clash between the two philosophical world systems —  Caeanic vs. Ziodean — form the core of the novel.

The novel loses some of its power in the last quarter.  The great reveal leaves something to be desired.  It has the unfortunate side effect of weakening the philosophical discussion by applying non-human agency to the equation.  The entire work is told in a lighthearted almost whimsical manner.  Despite the social science fiction core, the work never departs from pulp stylings, pulp characterizations, pulp planet landscapes (a planet filled with layers of flies!)…

Egregious H. R. Van Dongen cover aside (unfortunately, I own that edition), I recommend The Garments to fans of unusual space opera, bizarre social science fiction, and Bayley completests.

(Tony Robert’s cover for the 1976 edition)

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1978 German edition)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Garments of Caean, Barrington J. Bayley (1976)”

  1. This one sounded so intriguing that I looked it up in the local, then state library catalogs. There were only a few copies listed, but one of them was at my school district’s high school — and they actually had it on the shelf. I can’t imagine that it gets checked out, or how it survived weeding (we having pretty small libraries.) I’m going to try to read it over Christmas break. I sounds delightfully insane.

    1. It is delightfully insane. What’s so jarring (I forgot to point this out in the review) is the fact that so many of the characters are offhandedly insensitive, brutal, uncaring etc — yet, the work is told with such a lighthearted tone that the disconnect makes it all the more bizarre.

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