Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, Suzette Haden Elgin (1979)
Review by Ian Sales
Elgin is perhaps best known as a science fiction poet, the founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and for the engineered language Láadan, which appears in her novel Native Tongue (1984) and its sequels. However, before both of those, she wrote a quintet of light-hearted space operas featuring the same central character in the same universe. Star-Anchored, Star-Angered is the fourth of these Coyote Jones books. The first, The Communipaths (1970), appeared as half of an Ace double, and the second, Furthest (1971), as an Ace Special, before Elgin moved across to DAW for the rest of the series.
Coyote Jones, the hero of Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, is an agent for the Tri-Galactic Intelligence Service. He is also mind-deaf. However, he is an extremely powerful mind-projector. He can’t hear, but he can shout really loudly. A new religion, the Shavvies, has appeared on the Novice Planet of Freeway, and the authorities of that world, who use tithing from the laity of the Old Faith to fund their upkeep, are getting worried. So they’ve asked the Tri-Galactic Council to intercede and send an agent to investigate the Shavvies’ leader, Drussa Silver, who apparently routinely performs miracles. Jones has been chosen for the mission, because his mind-deafness means he should be immune to any telepathic trickery Silver is using.
Disguised as a Student – there are only one thousand in the three galaxies, and they are much revered – Jones arrives on Freeway. The planetary set-up is explained to him, and then he goes off to infiltrate the Shavvies. His cover, however, is blown pretty much from the moment he arrived, but it doesn’t matter – the Shavvies welcome him anyway. An attempt to discredit him by drugging him and then putting him in a compromising position with the young daughter of one of the sector rulers fails as the daughter is far too sensible to fall for it or play along. Jones meets Silver and demands she show him a miracle to prove her bona fides. She does. He immediately realises she truly is divine and converts to the Shavvies.
Jones’ presence on Freeway was all part of a plot by a secret cabal of Freeway rulers. First they exacerbated the situation on their world in order to prompt TGIS involvement. Then they had hoped that Jones would arrest Silver and take her back to Mars-central for indictment. En route, she would be assassinated and the TGIS blamed. Once that plan falls apart, they try something different – and yet something that is likely all too familiar to most western readers.
Star-Anchored, Star-Angered is for much of its length light, almost humourous, in tone. Jones arrives at a university asteroid, where he will be briefed on his cover. Student garb exists solely of fake tattoos in the form of fauna and flora:
“If you think I’m strangely dressed, Citizen, you should see some of the others.”
“It doesn’t bother you to have a bee crawling up your penis?”
“That’s only a tattoo, Citizen, it’s not alive.” (p 8)
The tone remains once Jones arrives on Freeway – his arrival is comic, the world’s faux mediaeval society is shown to be more Disney than Middle Ages, and the various characters he meets are very broadly drawn.
But there are hints throughout Star-Anchored, Star-Angered that more is going on than just a humorous space opera story. It not simply that the final third of the novel positions Silver as a Christ-like figure, and even tries for a Judas-like betrayal. Each chapter is headed by excerpts from “external” texts, ranging from invented nursery rhymes to a poem by “s.e.” (Suzette Elgin, one imagines) to various passages from scholarly works. One of the latter is taken from Woman Transcendent by Ann Geheygan – a book which also features in a chapter of the story – and it discusses “surpassment”:
The state of surpassment, in which the spirit moves beyond its ancient boundaries and can no longer be affected by fear or pain or any other illusory perception, comes only with great difficulty to the male human … It is no wonder, therefore, that primitive man in his consuming jealousy of the ease with which the female could achieve what he did only so rarely and so painfully, did everything he could to conceal her natural abilities away for all time. (p 113)
While never categorically stated, it seems clear that Silver has attained this state (as had rare male messiahs in human history). Unfortunately, the idea is not really explored in Star-Anchored, Star-Angered - perhaps too deep an exploration of it would have sat at odds with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the novel. The ending, however, is far from cheery – Silver is killed but her murderer, who was intended by the cabal to be seen as a conquering messiah, chooses instead a life of penance.
On the strength of Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, I’m not really surprised Elgin’s Coyote Jones series has languished in obscurity for the past three decades. Having said that, worse books than this one have remained popular, or been judged sf “classics”, for much longer. Star-Anchored, Star-Angered is a light, fun sf novel which perhaps doesn’t quite know whether it really should be so light, but is nevertheless an entertaining read.