In this careening kitchen sink of a novel from 1969, we spend the majority of our time in the head of Gerry—rapist, murderer, sociopath, racist, and desperate player of The Game. The Game, a sort of Pokémon with human targets, is the only upward path for the poor in the far-future year of 2004 where the US and Russia have been devastated by a pandemic unleashed by the Chinese, the Chinese in turn have been nuked by the French, and the French have taken over the world.
Our second protagonist is a member of the new French nobility, 26-year-old Nicole, who is involved in an incestuous triangle with her mother, “a knockout blonde Snow Queen,” and her brother, equally golden and decadent. “The sight of his huge, shockingly beautiful face and coarse blond hair, his blue eyes with their yellow-striped centers and their vertiginous intensity, let her endure the long evening meal with some calm.” He’s waiting to be posted abroad; Nicole doesn’t know what she’s waiting for.
Meanwhile, on Venus, Franky is living a hippie fantasy with a band of exiles from Earth, tripping on Viz-Nez and grooving with the dinosaurs.
Only on page 72 does Miller finally put the engine of the plot in gear as the three protagonists meet up at the Hunt School in Mérida. Each is in pursuit of Suan N.Y., the most notorious of the Chinese war criminals, and that quest will take them the rest of the novel and send them to Venus and finally to the twilight zone of Mercury.
This is the sort of pseudo-SF that drives some fans crazy, convincing them that a mainstream writer has invaded their dancefloor without bothering to learn the steps. Yet there is ample evidence that Miller is having fun with genre conventions rather than acting out of ignorance. For example, she uses the term BEM without defining it (for those of you who don’t know, it’s a fan initialism for “bug-eyed monster”). Dinosaurs on Venus and the twilight zone on Mercury were staples of SF before science deprived us of them.
Who is this Jimmy Miller, anyway? Per the Encyclopedia of SF, she was born Jane Curley, and was married to Warren Miller, the criminally underrated author of THE COOL WORLD and FLUSH TIMES who also wrote the superb SF novels THE SIEGE OF HARLEM and LOOKING FOR THE GENERAL. She clearly expects you to keep up with her erudition, wit, and wordplay—for example, significant passages in French and Spanish are not translated. Her prose is luminous and rhythmic throughout, as in this description of the long voyage to Mercury:
“[T]he hunt…had taken them here, away from their planets, plummeting them out where their senses answered there was no floor to the universe, only blacker blackness. No visit to the Eiffel Tower had prepared Nicole for the acrophobia of the ship, and Viz-Nez had only indicated to Franky where space began.”
At some point I began to suspect that the brutal sex, the incest, the drugs, and the bloodshed were meant not only to épater la bourgeoisie but to camouflage Miller’s own sentimentality. And as the characters move ever closer to the cleansing heat of the sun, Nicole does stand up for herself against Gerry’s sexual assaults, Franky finds enlightenment, and an unexpected character finds a path to redemption.
THE BIG WIN is very much of its time, and your enjoyment of it may depend as much on your willingness to overlook the author’s all-too-frequent insensitivity as it does on your appreciation of love, peace, and idealism.
In the case of Jimmy Miller, count me in.