The only problem with fastening onto an under-rated and/or relatively unknown author and hunting out their back-catalogue is that even the best of writers have the odd clunker in the past. Starmother is by no means a clunker, but it’s certainly not Van Scyoc’s best work. Having said that, Van Scyoc’s prose has always been a cut above that of her contemporaries:
“Beyond the perimeter of the barren circle, vines twined. Oddly shaped melons, yellow, green ,black, squatted beneath musty-looking gray-green leaves. Farther, a field of husky scarlet spears marched briefly beside the road, lancing the dull mist.” (p 7)
Jahna Swiss is a cadet from the planet Peace, sent to Nelding at their request to care for their babies. She finds herself on a wet and muddy jungle world with a population split into two antagonistic factions. There is “huttown”, a fundamentalist Amish-type community, fighting a losing battle against the changes Nelding is making to their crops and animals. And there are the “tanglings”, mutants who have taken to living in tribes in the jungle.
Jahna’s presence has been requested by Lord Beck, who straddles both camps but has a cunning plan to vouchsafe the tanglings’ future. It seems that a percentage of the babies born to the tanglings are “mouldings”. Whatever these babies experience during their first year changes them – if they live with those humans who have mutated to become “half-dirad”, a native Nedling jungle beast, then they become “mockdirad”. Beck wants these babies to spend their first year with Jahna, and so grow up to be educated and sophisticated young women.
Further complicating matters is a prophecy – as there so often seems to be in so many sf novels. Some of the tanglings think Jahna might be the StarMother, chiefly because she has nice blonde hair and because she came from the, er, stars. The Starmother will succour the tanglings’ babies and make them strong. Though there are those who are opposed to her interference in their affairs.
It sounds daft, but Van Scyoc manages to carry the concept without losing suspension of disbelief. Jahna, of course, knows nothing of Beck’s plans, and grows increasingly annoyed at his evasions. She’s also horrified at the mutant tanglings when she finally gets to meet them. But the more she learns about the tanglings, the more she comes to accept them for what they are, and the more she adopts the mantle of StarMother and realises her destiny lies in accepting that role. Because there is, at the heart of Nelding, a secret: the tanglings effectively have immortality, but the process is failing and the Starmother is needed to reinvigorate it. Not helping are the huttowners who despise and fear the tanglings, and so turn on Jahna when she proves sympathetic to the mutants.
Parts of Starmother are told from the point of view of other characters: a huttowner, Piety, and a tangling, Zuniin. Van Scyoc manages the differences between the three women well – and, interestingly, both Piety and Zuniin are opposed to Jahna’s presence, though they also hate each other’s people.
It is all too easy, I expect, to read something into Starmother‘s title and plot: young woman from civilised world comes to primitive place to mother savages and teach them the benefits of civilised practices. It could be the story of any missionary of the nineteenth century. Except Starmother is not at all that. Jahna does not “teach” the tanglings a better way to live, nor does she “go native”. She is, after all, only on Nelding because the tanglings demanded that she lend them her strength. Reading Starmother, it’s not hard to wonder if its story was indeed suggested by some Victorian missionary, and was written in direct opposition to the often patronising maternalism they practiced.
Starmother may not be Van Scyoc’s best novel, but it remains an interesting one and worth tracking down.
This review originally appeared in a contribution to the Acnestis APA in 2002.