Space Relations by Donald Barr. Image: Becky Ferreira
A pagoda-like tower stands in the foreground of the book’s cover, with a spaceship flying behind it in the distance. The book’s title, Space Relations, is spectacularly bland, but the subtitle—“a slightly Gothic interplanetary tale”—got me curious. Since it only cost $1.95, I bought the novel and a few other pulpy relics from John K. King Books, a cavernous literary landmark in Detroit.It was September 2018. I had never heard of the author, Donald Barr, or his more well-known son, William Barr, who would become the Attorney General of the United States in a few months.
Space Relations: A Slightly Gothic Interplanetary Tale was already something of a curio that was selling for between $6 and $30 in July. Today, however, the book is priced anywhere from $150 to $300 on eBay, and is out of print practically everywhere else.Why the price surge? The answer, regrettably, is Jeffrey Epstein, the alleged sex trafficker and convicted sex offender who died by suicide last Saturday at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.Epstein’s most notorious social connections included both President Trump and President Clinton, and he also mingled with prominent intellectuals and scientists like Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, and Marvin Minsky. But perhaps his earliest high-profile link is to Donald Barr, who served as headmaster of the prestigious Dalton School, a college prep school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from 1964 to 1974.In September of 1973, a year before his tenure at Dalton ended, Barr published Space Relations. The book is highly unsettling and depicts the rape of enslaved people, especially teenage girls, and other coercive sex acts for the dual purposes of entertainment and controlled procreation. Barr resigned from his position as headmaster in June 1974 due to disagreements with trustees “over budget priorities and his disciplinarian approach to substance abuse,” according to his obituary in The New York Times.Three months after Barr’s departure, Epstein started teaching math and science at Dalton even though he was a college dropout in his early 20s. He held the job for two years. Former students recall that even at that time, he displayed predatory behavior toward teenage girls.
It is not known whether Barr, who died in 2004, had a direct role in hiring Epstein.The Epstein-Barr connection, which weirdly mimics the name of a herpes virus, is a weak link compared to more substantive evidence of Epstein’s relationships dug up in flight logs, photos, and court filings.But in the wake of Epstein’s death, conspiratorial corners of the internet have noticed that the violent depictions in Space Relations somewhat echo his crimes and dark obsessions. A few eBay sellers have capitalized on this, going so far as to explicitly advertise Epstein in their product descriptions for the book.“Parallels have been drawn between the plot of the novel and the current allegations of sex trafficking brought against the now deceased Jeffrey Epstein,” reads one listing. Another seller confirmed in a message to me that the price increased because of these similarities between the novel and Epstein’s crimes.“Some say the book might be brought up as evidence in court but I don't necessarily believe that,” the seller said. “Very few copies in the world as you can tell."The novel is both comically amoral and insufferably pretentious. To be fair, these traits were common in 1970s sci-fi.The protagonist is John Craig, an Earth man in his 30s. After space pirates capture the passenger ship Craig is traveling on, he is sold into slavery on a planet called Kossar, a human colony run by seven oligarchs who delight in performing cruelties on their captives. The leaders are all male except one, Lady Morgan Sidney, whom the reader is immediately informed has “high breasts and long thighs.”
Craig ends up enslaved by Lady Morgan and falls in love with her. Though he is set up to be a kind of anti-slavery hero, he does not mind that she is a flamboyant sadist, and even enjoys participating in her demand to sexually assault an enslaved teenager at a clinic used to “breed” enslaved people.(I’ve tried to find interviews with Barr that might clarify his inspiration for the novel, but only came up with a 1986 essay he wrote for The New York Times about ideal books for young readers. “Adolescence appears to be a relatively modern invention,” Barr opines, “and the romantic wretchedness of it appears to be more modern still.”)By far the most disgusting aspect of the novel is its fixation on sexualizing adolescents, and its depictions of rape. Even the adult characters in the book are constantly infantilized. The novel is also rife with casually unsettling observations such as: “To me, pederasty seems utterly lacking in aesthetic appeal.”This seedy undercurrent of Space Relations is the main reason its value has jumped over the past few weeks, as the horrors of Epstein’s crimes have unspooled in the news cycle (Barr’s second novel, A Planet in Arms, is also selling for around $200).Rumors about the book have been floating around the internet for months, but have become more boldly conspiratorial since Epstein’s suicide. Of course, this gossip is simply speculation, and it bears repeating that the connection between Epstein and Barr is flimsy, and any link between Epstein’s crimes and the book’s contents even more so.Ultimately, Space Relations is a testament to how normalized it was, and still is, to sexualize minors and fetishize rape in science fiction. It also underscores how powerful people often act with impunity. After all, Barr wrote a novel filled with underage rape at the same time he was running an esteemed Manhattan high school, and he didn’t even feel the need to use a pseudonym.