Written in 1974 by my friend and colleague Thomas Page and just reissued by alternative press Trashface, The Hephaestus Plague is an incredibly ingenious, complex, and technically rich sci-fi thriller. That's because Tom has always been fascinated by entymology--he's a bug freak. If it crawls or slithers or hisses or stings or bites, he wants to study it. So, right off, it's a guy thing. The stereotypical female won't be in the same room with a spider, much less be delighted if one scampered over her body. Tom, on the other hand, has been seen at book signings posing with a friendly tarantula on his arm.
But let's get back to the sex. This story is not just a guy thing--it's an all-guy thing. There are no significant female characters in this book. In the jargon of the movie business, there are a few "walk-ons." The two notable ones are a farm wife and a suburban housewife. Both live in their kitchens and make things for their dominant males to eat. And, of course, they complain bitterly about the bugs, demanding that their protective men get out there and do something. Were this book written today, in the post-feminist era, Parmiter's lab assistant Metbaum would have probably been female (assuming Parmiter himself weren't transformed into a buggy babe). This choice not only would have contributed to gender balance but also would have added an element of sexual tension not unheard-of in the postmodern workplace. A sweaty Metbaum with a swollen chest in a wet tee shirt would certainly change the story dynamics. But Parmiter is such a geek and so intensely focused on the biology under his microscope that he wouldn't notice.
The more significant implication of the book as written is that science, investigation, risk-taking, and intellectual curiosity are essentially male traits. Mind you, I'm not saying that--the book is.
And although female human characters don't figure strongly into the plot of The Hephaestus Plague, the female role in biology is central to its theme. In fact, a female insect (fondly named Madilene by Parmiter) is a star of the second half of the book. She gives birth to an egg case containing a second-generation hybrid strain of bugs that are--and I'm not exaggerating here--capable of replacing humans as the rulers of the planet. (The allusion to Mary Magdalene is apt. Much of the story is set in the rural South, and its fundamentalist Christian overtones figure strongly in the apocalyptic tone of the story. When Parmiter wonders whether God will give up on humans, Metbaum quips that one of the super-intelligent bugs might just be the "next Jesus.")
No, I take that back. God is probably having a good laugh. It's all about adaptation and survival. It's incredibly arrogant for humans to imagine that they are the masters of the Earth. Tom Page reminds us that Nature is always experimenting with what comes next. But we might not be included in those plans. Death is essential and inevitable.
And, you guys will be pleased to learn, so is sex!