There is a Monty Python sketch from 1969 called “Candid Photography” (or sometimes simply “Nudge, Nudge”), in which a young rake interrogates an older, conservative man about his sex life by means of cryptic but increasingly crude double entendres. The punchline is that the young rake has never actually had sex, so his allusions are cryptic because he doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to suggest anything real. The eroticism in Claude Lalumière’s fourth book, a collection of linked short stories recounting the history of the fictional city-state of Venera, is of a similar character. Lalumière gives the reader a lot of juvenile winking and nudging – throwing around allusive words like “perverse,” “sensuous,” even “erotic” itself – but precious little else. When he does deploy specific language it’s less titillating than a relief; the reader keeps thinking the grown-ups might have finally arrived, but alas they never do.
Vague language plagues the pieces in this book. Many of them read more like plot summaries for longer works than fully fleshed stories. Two are literally just descriptions of books or films from the fictional world of Venera, which is a kind of dream version of Venice existing in a reality that is almost – but not quite – our own. These descriptions include warped versions of several J.G. Ballard books presented as the oeuvre of one Bram Jameson. That Ballard is cited as an inspiration for Venera Dreams in the book’s acknowledgements is ironic, given that hyper-specificity is a hallmark of the late British writer’s work.
Most of the pieces in Venera Deams involve a fictional hallucinogenic spice called “vermillion,” but because Lalumière doesn’t present a coherent baseline from which to characterize the extent of the hallucinations, they frustrate rather than fascinate. The stories span a number of genres, from steampunk spy tales to mysteries, horror, and superhero adventures; vermillion is used to fracture those genres in unexpected ways. But more often than not, the new structures collapse into shapelessness.
Venera Dreams is an ambitious book with a strong premise, but Lalumière’s execution falls flat at almost every level and the result is juvenile, shapeless, and dull.