Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977)
Review by Ian Sales
According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Van Scyoc’s novels are “sometimes damaged by narrative longueurs” but possess a “capacity to evoke a sense of the deep strangeness of the Universe”. Cloudcry – not the strongest of Van Scyoc’s novels that I have read – is a case in point.
In a universe dominated by humanity, retired Authority Exploration Service expert Verrons has been diagnosed with “bloodblossom”, a mysterious and incurable disease. The Authority’s only response is to sequester those infected on isolation colonies, and so Verrons find himself transported to the jungle world of Selmarri. With Verrons is Tiehl, a member of a race of bird-like flightless aliens called Ehminheer and the first of his race to contract the bloodblossom.
As soon as Verrons and Tiehl are parachuted to the isolation colony, Tiehl runs off into the jungle, driven by a racial need for a perch and territory surrounding it. Verrons and a member of the colony called Sadler Wells (yes, really) are sent to fetch the alien. But Tiehl had seen what appeared to be deserted buildings in the distance as he descended on his parachute, though Selmarri was supposedly uninhabited. Together the three trek through the jungle, finding en route a race of primitive indigenes, and finally arriving at what appears to be pristine temple complex built on top of a constructed mesa. While Tiehl immediately claims a tall shaft in the centre of the complex as his perch, Verrons and Wells set about investigating their discovery.
Cloudcry is written from the perspectives of Verrons, Tiehl and one of the indigenes, Aleida. She is unlike the rest of her people and she dreams of flying through the clouds, powered by a light from a crystal. Meanwhile, back at the temple complex, Verrons and Wells have stumbled across a group of humanoids who, by playing alien flutes, cause the appearance of humanoid figures of light.
Cloudcry is a first contact story, though of a race that has fallen back into barbarism but has left behind mechanisms to return them to their prior greatness once certain conditions are met. By using the aliens’ point of view – a technique she has used before – Van Scyoc manages to add additional strangeness to her story, though not always to its advantage. Tiehl, for example, is little more than a plot-hurdle, his fierce territoriality hampering the attempts by Verrons and Wells to figure out the temple complex. Aleida is too primitive and too ignorant to understand what is happening to her. She is driven by her dreams, and they do little more than suggest what might be possible should she come into her powers.
These passages from Tiehl’s or Aleida’s perspectives often seem to hold back the story – and there are enough obstacles to the puzzle presented to the two humans – though they do add plenty of strangeness, colour and charm. As does Van Scyoc’s prose style. She has a tendency to verb nouns, and it is stronger in Cloudcry than I recall it being in other of her novels. It isn’t always successful: “But before Verrons could reach him, he hawked away.” (p 91); “It pillared her, hands at her side, head thrown back.” (p 139).
Van Scyoc’s real strength lies in her evocation of strangeness and, in that respect, her peculiar verbing writing style plays its part. Cloudcry, for all its relatively straightforward genre heartland plot, is a strange little novel, and when its prose works it works well indeed.