Review: Sexuality, spirituality and reflections on the human soul in J. Neil Schulman’s The Rainbow Cadenza, the 1984 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Here is an Appreciation of J. Neil Schulman’s The Rainbow Cadenza, the 1984 Prometheus Best Novel winner.

Also included below: Schulman’s Prometheus Awards acceptance speech, presented Aug. 31, 1984 before an audience of more than 2,000 sf fans at LACon, the 42nd annual World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles, Calif.

By Michael Grossberg

“If nothing is sacred the human body is sacred.” – Walt Whitman, “Children of Adam”

Much of the sexuality in The Rainbow Cadenza deeply disturbs, shocking readers with its graphic intensity, Yet this unusually adult coming-of-age novel, boasting some of the most scatological material to be found this side of Krafft-Ebing, arguably has no gratuitous sex scenes.

Instead, J. Neil Schulman integrates his disquieting eroticism into a complex narrative about a future Earth where birth-control advances have had a radical and damaging effect on human relationships, sexual equality and personal rights.

Given the development of such an unbalanced society, the novel’s often perverse sexuality should not surprise us. After all, the sexual act is a mirror. In reflecting consciousness and character, it offers a highly revealing glimpse of its participants’ humanity (or inhumanity).

At its best, of course, the sexual act can be a deeply satisfying expression of romantic love and spiritual intimacy, or at least a mutually enjoyable experience between consenting adults.

At its worst, the sexual act can be perverted into a neurotic and symbolic act, communicating hostility instead of affection, revenge instead of respect, dominance and submission instead of acceptance, anger and range instead of bon fide sexul passion. All this, and more, can be found in the diverse sexuality of The Rainbow Cadenza, a morality play in which those who allow themselves to be corrupted by powerlust soon find their sexual lusts corrupted as well in the inevitable workings of karmic justice.

If, as the 19th century British classical-liberal historian Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” then, as Schulman shows, power also perverts – and absolutely perverts not only sexuality, but every other dimension of family relationships and community life.

Joan Darris’ heroic quest to free herself from authoritarian patriarchy is no more and no less than an act of self-assertion and self-defense against legalized rape – and rape, the ultimate obscenity, isshocking and must continue to be so in any civilized society.

According to the conventional Judeo-Christian morality that unfortunately still casts its bleak anti-sexual and anti-rational shadow over our age, what is shocking is not the violence which objectively defines the so-called sexual act of rape, but such socially defined perversions as heterosexual or homosexual sodomy, which are stigmatized as “unnatural” in part because of their presumed statistical infrequency.

Schulman on the other hand, is wise enough and tolerant enough to understand that true perversion has little to do with the type of sexual act engaged in, but everything to do with the consciousness and intent of those who engage in it – and especially with whether their acts are voluntary or coerced.

The Rainbow Cadenza dramatically conveys the anguish and needless suffering caused by authoritarian personalities and authoritarian politics, ranging from illicit or socially sanctioned isolated acts of sadistic sex to the impersonal institutionalized violence of a future military draft that forces women to “make love, not war.”

In so doing, the author brilliantly communicates one of his major themes: tht rape is not the only form of “rape” worth opposing. Any infringement of individual liberty constitutes a kind of rape, no less vivid and violent for being non-sexual.

With “the emperor’s new clothes” stripped away by Schulman’s insight, every coercive intervention, private or public, is revealed to be an aggressive act of dehumanization and humiliation by one individual, or group of individuals, against other individuals – most often, predictably, the weak, the poor and the powerless.

Such violations of the human spirit can and do warp an individual, a family or an entire society. And the destructive results may take generations to abate, as the neuroses and sins of mothers and fathers are visited upon their daughters and sons.

Vera’s abusive and exploitative relationship with her younger sister my be “far more brutal, and far more hideous’ than some readers may wish to see, but it remains a chillingly accurate portrayal of the devious lengths to which some people will go to inflict on others the buried primal pain that they can not permit themselves to feel.

By writing with such white-hot radiance that he overcomes the reluctance of even the most squeamish reader to empathize with Joan’s persecution and humiliation, Schulman illuminates the repressed childhood traumas and complex subconscious motivations that warp human rationality and may provide the neurophysiological underpinnings of authoritarianism.

In his classic 1951 book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer described the authoritarian personality as one which emerges out of profound frustration: the inability to live one’s own life creatively finds some small compensation in the struggle to control, or sabotage, the lives of others. Vera’s lifelong struggle against Eleanor and Joan (and against herself) is a compelling re-creation of the authoritarian personality.

Schulman’s portrait of evil is filled with tragic understanding, but imbued with a righteous justice rather than a false mercy. There is no excuse for the kind of hidden cruelty in child rearing – exemplified in Vera’s treatment of Joan – that appears to be a major antecedent of our society’s widespread violence and child abuse.

None of this is to claim, simplistically, tht sadistic sex and poor toilet-training, alone, lead to the kind of coercive political systems in which, as Ringo Starr once observed, “everything the government touches turns to shit.” No need to go that far to acknowledge the implicit truth in Schulman’s multigenerational family saga: that there are intimate ties between the psychological traumas of childhood and the petty (and not so petty) tyrannies of adulthood.

The Rainbow Cadenza is a psychosexual thriller that breaks new ground in unveiling the hidden roots of oppression within the maturation process. By projecting a future in which parents can generate virtually identical genetic copies of themselves through parthogenesis or cloning, Schulman throws into stark dramatic relief the ongoing struggle of children to separate and individuate from their parents, as well as the less natural struggle of some parents to live through their children, pressuring them to live selflessly – without a Self.

Joan’s successful quest to find herself, and Vera’s similar but aborted quest to escape the fate of becoming Eleanor’s “carbon copy,” serve as a symbolic future microcosm of the two basic alternatives facing humans today as in every generation: to grow from dependent childhood to independent adulthood, or to fail to grow up at all, never experiencing full individuality.

Why do most people submit to unjust authority, following orders all the way to the concentration camp, or worse, following orders to send others to one in their place?

And why do other people resist authority? What are the connections between psychological repression and political repression? Even in the late twentieth century – by no accident, the century of both total war and the totalitarian State –  these very much remain open questions, despite the intriguing non-fiction speculations of Wilhelm Reich, Stanley Milgram, Arthur Janov, Stanislav Grof, Nathanial Branden, Peter Breggin and Thomas Szasz.

By tying together the personal and the political in his fiction, Schulman communicates fascinating pre-scientific insights that shed light on this dark phenomenon. By linking Joan Darris’s struggle for political freedom to her struggle for personal liberation, Schulman hints that the shortest distance between authoritarianism and a fully free future may not be a straight line but a spiral – a fusion of the political and the personal based on the recognition that any successful revolution for freedom must be accompanied, if not preceded, by a revolution in consciousness.

Schulman’s projected 22nd century world may be more prosperous and peaceful – and even, in some ways, “freer” – than our own, but, Schulman asks, at what psychic cost?

He answers that question by balancing his exploration of sexuality with an exploration of the creativity involved in developing the art form that gives his novel its name.

Like sex, art is an arena in which one’s deepest values – and deepest value-conflicts – can be spotlighted. Focusing on both sexuality and creativity, Schulman succeeds in exposing the devastating consequences of authoritarianism in that most personal of all realms: the human body/spirit.

The result is a startlingly original novel of ideas in the best tradition of romanticism that goes beyond traditional romantic subject matter to embrace a rainbow of diversity, from the depths of sexual perversion and blocked artistic accomplishment to the heights of romantic ecstasy and creative self-expression.

Like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, John Dos Passos, Ayn Rand, Ken Kesey, Samuel Delany and other distinctively American and individualistic novelists, Schulman’s passionate commitment is to self-expression, self-discovery and self-fulfillment, no matter what the authoritarian obstacles.

His novel thus lies squarely within the mainstream of the often misconceived and minimized American literary tradition, which in its dazzling variations has always embraced the struggle for individuality as its central theme.

If America uniquely has been the culture of the “self-made man” – a popular colloquialism quite properly born on these shores – then American literature is the story of individuals creating and re-creating themselves.

That is one reason, I suspect, why so much popular American literature is science fiction – preeminently the modern genre of secular transcendence and unchained human potential – and why so much of that fiction of the future explores themes of individualism and libertarianism, the ethics of the future and the politics of full-fledged adulthood.

Many libertarian novels have dramatized the more visible social consequences of authoritarianism, showing how coercive government intervention destroys prosperity, sabotages peace, and sacrifices civil liberties.

Schulman’s novel dramatizes authoritarianism’s less visible consequences for the individual, showing how the States institutionalized aggression warps sexuality, saps creativity, perverts relationships, weakens families and replaces the benevolence and sympathy that healthy human beings naturally feel for each other with an insidious “every man for himself” attitude that is the inversion of true individualism.

Such harmful personal crises may be less obvious than the war, mass murder, monopoly privileges, recurrent depressions, and runaway inflations brought about by the State throughout history, but they are no less significant, for such psychic wounds eventually dissolve the voluntary social bonds and trust networks that sustain civilization itself.

The Rainbow Cadenza – hailed by Nebula-winning sf writer Gregory Benford as “an original and thoughtful book which raises questions that have not appeared in fiction before” –  is a passionate testament to the sacred importance and irreplaceable value of every human being, the ultimate foundation of individualism and individual rights.

Schulman’s genius as a novelist lies in the way his story makes us feel the scars on the soul that result when individual rights are violated and human dignity is raped…

The Rainbow Cadenza not only powerfully portrays the evils of authoritarianism, but also offers its readers an inspiring example – through the character of one of literature’s most memorable heroines – of the vast potential that freedom, and the thirst for freedom, can unleash in the human spirit.

Joan Darris loved the lights so much that she created a rainbow. Schulman loved liberty so much that he created The Rainbow Cadenza, a cautionary tale with a timeless message we ignore at our peril: “Warning: Coercive Government May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

(Note: This appreciation is a slightly edited version of Michael Grossberg’s afterword to the first 1980s paperback edition of The Rainbow Cadenza.)

Biographical note: In addition to his Prometheus Award for Best Novel for The Rainbow Cadenza, J. Neil Schulman (1953-2019) also won a Prometheus Hall of Fame award for his novel Alongside Night.

Schulman also wrote two novels that were selected by Libertarian Futurist Society judges as Prometheus Awards Best Novel finalists: Escape From Heaven (in 2003) and  The Fractal Man  (in 2019).

J. Neil Schulman’s Prometheus Award acceptance speech

J. Neil Schulman in the 1990s. (Creative Commons license)

Here are J. Neil Schulman’s remarks upon accepting the 1984 Prometheus Award on Aug. 31, 1984 at the Friday night opening ceremonies of LA Con, the 42nd World Science Fiction Convention, before an estimated audience of more than 2,000 people in Anaheim, Calif.

“Science fiction stories are about ideas – and the ideas that people have determine what sort of world they will live in.

I wrote The Rainbow Cadenza to destroy an idea by reducing it to absurdity. The idea; the rights of the individual should be sacrificed when the greatest good for the greatest number demands it. This idea is the justification for every violation of human rights on this planet today.

What I did in The Rainbow Cadenza was the take the sixties’ slogan ‘Make Love, Not War’ at face value. I show what sort of lousy world we’d have if – in the name of “the greatest good for the greatest number” – people stopped demanding that young men be drafted to Make War, and instead demanded that for three years young women be drafted to Make Love.

I hope this logical absurdity horrifies you even while you smile. If it doesn’t horrify you, I wrote The Rainbow Cadenza to show why it should: my young draftee is a woman whose artistry with lasers can make rainbows of hope.
If it does horrify you, I wrote The Rainbow Cadenza to show why drafting anyone to Make War should horrify you even more.

Above all, I wrote The Rainbow Cadenza because each artist – in whatever medium – has a powerful weapon to fight what Thomas Jefferson called “every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” and nobody had to draft me for that.
I volunteered. Thank you.”

* Other Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society(LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners.


Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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