Assignment Nor’Dyren, Sydney J Van Scyoc

Assignment Nor’Dyren, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1973)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Sydney Van Scyoc’s Assignment Nor’Dyren (1973), inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), is a problematic yet generally enjoyable work. I found that Van Scyoc is unable to maintain the sense of wonder she conjures so vividly in the first third. Likewise, her prose tends to plod due to the descriptive restrictions she forces on herself (for example, describing each alien the main character encounters by their gender). Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Assignment Nor’Dyren to Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece — considered among the best science fiction works ever written — but the overwhelming impression is that of a poor copy.

Tollan Bailey, a blue collar mechanic possessed by a virulent strand of the Puritan work effort, is out of place in a future society characterized by of ever increasing automation and thus, massive unemployment. In order to keep the majority the people happy a substantial dole is provided. Tollan receives a stipend, housing, and recreational facilities from CalMega, a union of sorts, which “places” people in suitable jobs. In reality, most everyone is happy never doing any work and living off of CalMega “waiting” for jobs which will never come.

In order to keep up pretenses CalMega has a lottery which “assigns” a job which everyone knows is just a chance for an exotic vacation. Bailey is randomly chosen for an “assignment” to the backwater Civil Unity planet Nor’ Dyren ostensibly to assess the production of Nor’ Dyren’s factories. Tollan, to everyones shock and bewilderment, decides to do the assignment…

Nor’Dyren is populated by an alien species with three genders. Each family unit is comprised of one of each gender. Each gender has a predetermined social position and function in society. The Allegon are meek servants which care for the children. The Berregon are brute workers. The Gonnegon are the brains. Tollan soon discovers that this unusual society is in sharp decline — no one knows how to repair simple machines or even thinks to fix machines, buildings and factories are increasingly abandoned, cultural production is on the decline…

The plot abruptly shifts when Tollan accidentally kills an Allegon. The local court orders him to take the position of the Allegon in the family unit he’s destroyed. Tollan refuses to adhere to the rules of the culture and instead seeks to explain the decline of their society. It is the interplay between these two dominate plot narratives that Van Scyoc is never able to reconcile. The conclusion of the cultural impasse is reached in half-hearted fashion.

BUT The final mystery concerning the societal decline almost redeems the work.

The problems arise when Tollan Bailey shows no comparison for the Allegon he accidentally kills. This event is the central conflict but Tollan is motivated more by self-interest. This in itself isn’t a problem but comes off as a major recurrent inconsistency because Tollan genuinely cares about the aliens whose planet he’s been assigned.

This frustrating aspect aside, Van Scyoc does raise some interesting issues regarding gender. Tollan, immersed in an alien society with different customs, is forced to reconsider his own preconceptions (although he refuses to abide by their laws). Sadly, Van Scyoc infrequently considers these issues of cultural dialogue and cultural impasse and the few attempts come of as pallid. Van Scyoc is clearly cognizant of the many similarities of her work with The Left Hand of Darkness since she attempts to raise similar issues but it all comes off as a poor imitation. I still recommend the work for fans of social science fiction especially those exploring issues of gender. But, read Le Guin’s far superior The Left Hand of Darkness first…

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

The Beast Master, Andre Norton

The Beast Master (1959) and Lord of Thunder (1962), Andre Norton
Review by Jenni Scott

You might not be inclined to add Andre Norton’s name into a roll-call of science fiction names if you were asked to come up with one; partly because you might associate her with her more fantasy-based Witch World novels, and partly because you’ve probably forgotten coming across her books in the kids’ and teen section of your library. There were a lot of them, but they now come across as old-fashioned in tone – pulpy, chaste, science adventure stories that without the space trappings could be transferred almost whole into an American frontier milieu. Nevertheless, it’s not just as nostalgia reading that some of them, at least, are worth digging out.

There are various classic Norton titles that could be focused on further, but The Beast Master and sequel Lord of Thunder make good examples of the best of her work. (There are further Beast Master sequels that were written rather later – I assume they are less classic but haven’t happened to come across them to test that supposition.) First published in 1959, you may have seen the 1968 Puffin edition of The Beast Master in second hand shops – produced under the Peacock imprint, it is specifically branded as Science Fiction for young teens. Lord of Thunder was originally published a couple of years later in 1962, while the Puffin edition making a matched pair with the first book also came out in 1968.

The young reader picking these up was in for an exciting, atmospheric read. Heavily influenced by the American West, they are strongly plot-driven cowboys-and-indians style tales that nevertheless include something other than simple derring-do by way of interest. Genuinely gripping and atmospheric, the two Beast Master books show a very strong sense of place and geography, as the opening of Lord of Thunder shows:

“Red ridges of mountains, rusted even more by the first sere breath of the Big Dry, cut across the lavender sky of Arzor north and east. At an hour past dawn, dehydrating puffs of breeze warned of the new day’s scorching heat. There would be two hours – maybe three, yet – during which a man could ride, though in growing discomfort. Then he must lie up through the blistering heat of midday.”

They also include a strong sense of the importance of spiritual matters, of good and evil – though the characters both alien and human can make good or bad choices there is also actual evil afoot in Norton’s world, and of good that is ranged against it. Hosteen Storm, the eponymous Beast Master, is a Native American (specifically, a Navajo), and Norton projects extra sensitivities and abilities onto him by virtue of this status; whether wisely or not you can be the judge.

These two are very much “boy books” with a twist – the horned natives of the colonised world are the Indians, the Cowboys are not by any means clearly in the right, and greater forces than either are trying to manipulate them (although in some cases by means of pretty human villains). The character list is almost entirely male and the story is completely chaste without even a hint of romance; however, there is energy given to the development of comradeship between Hosteen and two or three of the other characters. Between that and the fact that there is plenty of the main character’s emotion and inner life depicted, a young female reader would also be likely to be enthralled (and the addition of various animals including a horse would certainly help).

A reader coming fresh to these books nowadays will find some aspects a little snigger-worthy, particularly Norton’s invented term of respect – “Gentle Homo”, indeed. (The feminine version, “Gentle Fem”, is only very little better.) The archaic language affected may also strike some readers as unnecessary, though I find it gives a strong stylistic effect that I appreciate. However, the plot zips along, the characters are interesting and involving, and overall it’s a very more-ish milieu that will keep you coming back for more.

Leigh Brackett’s Future History, part 2

Leigh Brackett’s Future History – Connecting the Stories: An Examination
An essay by Blue Tyson

This essay follows on from Part 1 here.

Part 2

Rio Bravos
There is no reason, in a creative mythography sense, that the adventures of sheriff John T Chance in protecting his town along with his friends cannot be included here, or even James Beckwourth’s frontier work. There is actually no direct mention of the historical 19th century at all that I am aware of in her stories other than these.

L.A. Confidential
As goes the Wild West, the same for the mean streets of 1940s USA and the crooks, cops, dicks, dames and other unfortunates in the following: No Good from a Corpse, Stranger At Home, Murder Is Bigamy, Red-Headed Poison, Murder in the Family, Design for Dying, I Feel Bad Killing You, No Star Is Lost and The Misfortune Teller, or even the late fifties in The Tiger Among Us, An Eye For an Eye, and So Pale, So Cold, So Fair. The sixties are represented by Silent Partner and The True Death of Juanito Rodriguez.

They Walk Among Us
The 1950s saw aliens with starfaring capability come into contact with humans who discovered what they were, but only in isolated incidents. Wisely, they appeared to have kept away from the big cities. Possibly due to the prevalence of too many smart investigators in places like Los Angeles that may have discovered them eventually and blown the whistle.

In 1950, a local Newhale reporter discovers the Hrylliannu using the area to bring people to Earth in ‘The Queer Ones’. In fact, there is even a hybrid child produced, but they cover their tracks well. This year also saw a Pennsylvania farmer and his children encounter joyriding alien children in ‘The Truants’. Parents from both worlds were happy for no-one to know about this.

Cornwall in 1952 sees Earthman Michael Trehearne discover he is of Varddan extraction in The Starmen Of Lyrdis. As such he possesses the mutant gene to allow him to survive their particularly exacting form of interstellar travel, over which they have a monopoly. As we see here, and with later human ingenuity on display, the Varddans are far from the only people with interstellar travel technology, so they rapidly become of little interest, barely a curiosity. Those that require genetic quirks to survive space travel are not going to be able to compete with the crews of ships that do not, by sheer weight of numbers.

The Coming of the Terrans
A detailed examination of the colonisation era of the Inner Worlds is beyond the scope of this article, but the collection above does give some dates:

There were conflicts and uprisings on Mars that were pro-native. The Martians were more technologically advanced and capable than the native Venusians, so did not suffer the same wars and brutal colonialist programs of slaughter and military action.

1998 ‘The Beast-Jewel of Mars’
2016 ‘Mars Minus Bisha’
2024 ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’
2031 ‘Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon’
2038 ‘The Road to Sinharat’

‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ would happen around these times as mention is made of the Shanga trade in that story:

“Stark realized now what secret vice Kala sold here. Shanga – the going back – the radiation that caused temporary artificial atavism and let men wallow for a time in beasthood. It was supposed to have been stamped out when the Lady Fand’s dark Shanga ring had been destroyed. But it still persisted, in places like this outside the law.”

So the later Stark stories ‘Black Amazon of Mars’ and ‘Enchantress of Venus’ should all be in this range, them or their expanded versions.

In ‘Cube From Space’, there is an encounter with representatives of two interstellar capable alien races: “I am Crom. I was king once, in a land called Yf. And they are the Rakshi. The time came when we had to fight them, we humans, because we couldn’t take any more.”

The Big Jump Outwards
Things changed considerably when the Cochrane Company make the breakthrough to discover a method of fast interstellar travel thanks to their engineer Ballantyne and his drive (The Big Jump). The failure of Barnard II as a colony and exploitation site because of the Transurane was never going to deter further exploration. Nor was the fact that prototypes will have problems. “… whole robot-shift for the drive had bugs in it. The relays won’t take the load. Rip it out and rebuild it …” Even though the Cochranes may lost the taste for it, others would not.

Planetary Survey
The Preliminary Planetary Survey revisits Barnard II in How Bright the Stars:

“It was a hellish world to be wandering on, this second planet of Barnard’s Star.”

“Man had finally made the Big Jump outward, with the Wenz-Boroda FTL (faster-than-light) drive, and the exploration of the galaxy had begun.”

The more stable starship propulsion technology had made this possible. Men could also live on Barnard II if they wanted to, but as Jerry Baird discovers, it is still pointless. The galaxy is a hostile environment, in general, but has countless other stars to explore.

Here man has been concentrating on nearby reachable neighbourhood stars, such as Altair in ‘The Woman From Altair’. One of the spacemen here actually brings back a wife from one of the Altairan planets, to tragic consequences.

Galactic Survey
So successful has man been at least with the ability to explore, if not the usefulness of end targets even getting to stars and planets without name so many have been visited. The Galactic Survey era shows the technology has been developed to enable ships to push past the nearby sites such as Barnard’s Star, Proxima and Alpha Centauri, etc.

During ‘The Shadows’ tired and disillusioned Exploration Team leader Barrier finds the remnants of a race destroyed by astrological catastrophe, and their faithful doglike servants.

“Maybe there enough worth in us that here and there some little world will give us another chance. Anyway, it’s nice to know there’s one place where we have some friends.”

An explicit reference to a far away settlement is given in ‘Come Sing the Moons of Moravenn’. The planet in this story has a topaz colored star in the vicinity of the Vela Spur, which could mean it is up to thousands of light years away.

However, things do change, as should have pleased Barrier greatly. There is a Galactic Union out there, and races involved in this organisation do come into contact with Earth and the Solar System. In fact, in ‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ Mintakan weather engineers on Earth have a violent encounter with nowheresville USA racist rednecks. As the engineer Flin notes: “It was his first big job on his own responsibility, with no superior closer than Galactic Center, which was a long way off.” Racism has always been in existence in the Solar System, but such recidivism again is not going to deter the benefits of expansion and exploration.

Sometimes though, it takes some special people becoming involved to sort some planets out. To whit, Simon Ashton and Eric John Stark in The Ginger Star:

“A newly discovered, newly opened world called Skaith that hardly anyone had ever heard of, except at Galactic Center. Skaith was not a member of the Union but there had been a consulate. Someone had called to the Union for help, and Ashton was the man who went to see about it.”

Stark leaves from Pax to head for Skaith. In ‘Last Call From Sector 9G’ we find operatives at Galactic Center:

“The city was beautiful. Its official name was Galactic Center, but it was called The Hub because that is what it was, the hub and focus of a galaxy. It was the biggest city in the Milky Way. It covered almost the entire land area of the third planet of a Type G star that someone with a sense of humor had christened Pax. The planet was chosen originally because it was centrally located and had no inhabitants, and because it was within the limits of tolerance for the humanoid races.”

“He was remembering how he had seen it when he was fresh from Earth, for the first time—the supreme capital, beside which the world capitals were only toy cities, the heart and center of the galaxy where the decisions were made and the great men came and went.”

Note that in ‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ there are Mintakan engineers working on Earth. In ‘Last Call From Sector 9G’:

“BAYA sat on the bed and watched him pack. She was from one of the worlds of Mintaka, and as humanoid as they came”.

The Galactic Center and Pax and the Federation of Worlds would appear to be the same. In fact this hard to find until New Year’s eve gives the greatest detail on the interstellar setting of any of the work, so is important from that point of view.

Interplanetary Wars
Even though expansion can take off some of the population pressure, resources are still an issue, and wars still happen. Mars is particularly water-poor when looking to rapidly increase population by colonisation.

While not a war, ‘Water Pirate’ is certainly about resources.

“It was early in 2418 that the Solar System realized that there was a Water Pirate. The great tanker ships, carrying water to the rich dry-world mines and colonies, began to vanish from the space-lanes, with their convoys. The Trans-Galactic Convoy Fleet, which for two hundred years had kept the space-ways safe, was suddenly helpless.”

The Earth-Venus War saw Mars neutral in ‘No Man’s Land In Space’, and Mars also fought against the Jovians with Earth and Venus as seen in ‘Outpost On Io’.

Mars fought a World War in 2504, then became embroiled in an Interplanetary conflict later in the 26th century and tried a disguised sneak attack on Venus, which was foiled in ‘Interplanetary Reporter’.

In ‘A World Is Born’: “who had conceived this plan of building a new world for the destitute and desperate veterans of the Second Interplanetary War”. It is not clear if this is meant to refer to one of the past wars, as a well understood by veterans term, or a completely new conflict. It is possible that the Second Interplanetary War meant is referenced in ‘Thralls Of the Endless Night’, with a documentary discovery:

“Treaty of Alliance between the Sovereign Earth and the Union of Jovian Moons, providing for Earthly colonization and development of the said Moons, and mutual aid against Aggressor Worlds.”

“…have taken the precaution of Halm, the treaty secretly in a ship of colonists, in care of the captain who knows nothing of its nature. It has been rumored that our mutual enemy, the Martio-Venusian Alliance, may try to intercept it, possibly with the aid of hired pirates. This would, as you know, mean war. It is my prayer that the treaty will safely…”

Stabilization and Desperation
Alpha Centauri or Die shows a Solar System government either disillusioned with interstellar travel, or perhaps having more jackboot clad reasons. They do not want the people to have the freedom to travel and communicate in an uncontrolled fashion. This is explained by the bitter would be escapees:

“But damn them all eternally, even so. Because of them all the Stabilization Acts had passed. Trade Stabilization. Population Stabilization. Crop Stabilization. The busy minds of the experts working. Take the manned ships out of space and there can’t be any trade wars or any other kinds of wars. The worlds can’t get at each other to fight. Stop expansion outward to the stars and eliminate the risks, the economic upsets that attend every major change, the unpredictable rise and shift of power. Stabilize. Regulate. Control. We may lose a few unimportant liberties but think what well gain. Security for all, and for all time to come! And the dark ships of the Government will keep you safe.”

“The populations of the Solar System had been carefully figured to the last decimal point and portioned out among the planets according to food- and employment-potential, so that nowhere was there a scarcity or an overplus, and nobody’s individual whim was allowed to upset the balance. If you wanted to change your residence from one sector or one world to another, the red tape involved was so enormous that men had been known to die of old age while waiting for a permit.”

If this sort of control is extended and expanded, then the consequences could easily appear in ‘Retreat To The Stars’. The 40th century shows a more extreme Soviet-like political structure in the Tri-State, compared to the more extreme right-wing colonialism or American style capitalistic expansion of earlier times. ‘In Retreat To the Stars’ there are a few rebels on an asteroid base still resisting state control. They are desperately building a starship to escape. The implication here is that starfaring technology is government controlled.

With a Future History of many centuries, cycles of political ideologies and experiments would not be at all surprising. Few dates are given in Brackett stories, so the Alpha Centauri or Die/’Ark of Mars’ situations could have been followed by relaxing restrictions and great expansionism again, cycling around again until the 40th century.

For example, A Peace and Happiness doctrine backed up by actual brainwashing technology saw President Hilton rule the Federation of Worlds in ‘Child Of the Sun’.

“There was no way out ahead, either. Mercury was there, harsh and bitter in the naked blaze of the sun. The ships of Gantry Hilton, President of the Federation of Worlds, inventor of the Psycho-Adjuster, and ruler of men’s souls, were herding him down to a landing at the lonely Spaceguard outpost.”

The Unregenerate rebels have almost lost completely and are also looking for a place to flee. “Unregeneracy was almost dead in the inhabited worlds.” Falken and Moore do so, and find an immensely powerful stellar energy being using a small world as a plaything, and hope to use him to help them survive Hiltonist oppression.

Two thousand years between The Coming of the Terrans and ‘Retreat To the Stars’ leaves a lot of time for things to change and plenty of chronological slots for the above to fit in.

On analysing the stories in this way, it does appear there is good evidence to include most of them in a coherent Future History.

Leigh Brackett’s Future History

Leigh Brackett’s Future History – Connecting the Stories: An Examination
An essay by Blue Tyson

Part 1
It is well known that Leigh Brackett has a group of stories that share a common setting, and that those are based on the planets of the Solar System, primarily on Venus and Mars. However, there is much other SF included in 50+ short stories and ten novels.

I thought it might be interesting to see what work might coherently fit in one Future History, even if it was never explicitly stated. I haven’t seen anything written talking about the interstellar and other stories in general, whereas there are good articles at Wikipedia about the planetary romance era.

Very few dates are given in Brackett stories, so this is an attempt at division into rough periods, in order. There is no mention of medical technology or lifespans given for humans, either, at least insofar as they may differ from the known range of readers of the times.

Elimination of Work
Firstly, there are definitely a small number of works that definitely do not. The novel The Long Tomorrow and its on-Earth postapocalyptic lost technology religious setting definitely does not.

Secondly, the short story ‘The Tweener’ has a soldier return from a Mars that is empty apart from some small rabbit-like native animals, that are actually discovered to be sentient. This is not relevant.

Thirdly, ‘The Citadel of Lost Ages’ is set on a future earth that astronomical calamity has caused to have a Darkside and a Lightside, like Mercury. There is no evidence of such directly in any work. It is in fact somewhat Planet of the Apes-like, Darkside notwithstanding, with hybrid beastmen running the planet, and humans as slaves. An outsider enters with forgotten knowledge, a trove of past human technology including atomic power. Nothing is mentioned of spacefaring or starship technology. Therefore it is extremely unlikely this story is relevant.

Fourthly, her last story, ‘Mommies and Daddies’ has a near future Earth dystopia ravaged by a drug destroyed populace and their abandoned children. Or at least the American part of this world is. This certainly does not fit with the rest of the Future History. Given these multiple bad times on Earth stories all do not seem to fit at all, it is presumably deliberate on her part.

Fifthly, ‘Runaway’ is obviously out thematically with its investigation of the psychological destabilisation of an accountant. Content makes this certain:

“He knew that Venus was important because it produced very large amounts of uranium, thorium, germanium, and a lot of other things that Earth was using up too fast. And that was all he knew, except that people had to live there under domes, and that it never rained.”

It appears that she did indeed intend them to share a common history and setting.

Creative Mythology
If you want to believe in this exercise, the greatest problem is the lack of explicit reference to the interstellar travel at the same time that there is intense focus on the local Solar System, so you have to get past that in a handwaving manner. Brackett of course was American, so you could perhaps assume that the Solar System chroniclers have the same intense inward looking focus that Americans do. The colonisation does have an American flavour. That is, making the happenings around other stars analogous to international affairs as far as interest goes for the average denizen of either at the time. There may also be author notes or mostly forgotten conversations that render this particular exercise moot, but these are unlikely to ever come to light to trouble us, given the passing of multiple decades already. Spaceports are mentioned often, without detailing the types of ships they serve. Certainly starships are given names like Stellar and Starflight.

One Million Years BC
Some background is given of Martian ancient history:

There is a reference to the Quiru living a million years ago or so, which sounds like an extremely rough ballpark figure. Rhiannon was a Quiru (see ‘The Sword of Rhiannon’).

“The Quiru, said the myths, had for that sin crushed Rhiannon and locked him into a hidden tomb. And for more than a million years men had hunted the Tomb of Rhiannon because they believed it held the secrets of Rhiannon’s power.”

Ancient Sea-Kings and Other Weird Tales
Much later, on a far wetter Mars the Dhuvians ruled an empire as seen in ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’. As told to Matt Carse:

“You know at least that since long ago there have been human peoples on our world and also the not-quite-human peoples, the Halflings. Of the humans the great Quiru, who are gone, were the greatest. They had so much science and wisdom that they’re still revered as superhuman.

“But there were also the Halflings-the races who are manlike but not descended of the same blood. The Swimmers, who sprang from the sea-creatures, and the Sky Folk, who came from the winged things-and the Dhuvians, who are from the serpent.””

An alien race with advanced technology was also living in the City of Shandakor, as per ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’. While not a million years in the past, tens of thousands of years it would have taken Mars to dry out.

Also The Thinkers, as mentioned in ‘Shadow Over Mars’ also likely also were around tens of thousands of years in the past:

“But these Thinkers have done a lot of good from time to time.”

Mak nodded. “Sure. Theoretically at least they guide the viewpoint of Mars-when they feel like bothering. It has to be some big important split, like the inter-hemispheric war back in Sixty-two Thousand and Seven, when the Sea Kings had trouble.”

As did the Prira Cen: “Ancient things. Things deeply buried, nearly forgotten, clouded by superstition and legend. Forty thousand years—” from ‘The Sorceror of Rhiannon’.

The serially immortal Ramas had also existed since long in the past as talked about in ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ / ‘The Secret of Sinharat’. The Rama Berild talks of just one relationship: “‘Delgaun has had me for a thousand years, and I am weary of him. So very weary!'” Given they are the last of their people, they must have existed a lot further back in the past.

Brackett appears to have liked Robert E. Howard and Abraham Merritt. As far as Howard goes, from ‘The Jewel Of Bas’:

“He gave them a lament, one of the wild dark things the Cimmerians sing at the bier of a chief and very appropriate to the occasion” and “The priests of Dagon, of all the temples of Atlantis, spoke against me. I had to run away. I roamed the whole earth before the Flood, carrying the Stone.”

Her husband, Edmond Hamilton, of course was a writer for Weird Tales, so these are likely a small nod towards a favored writer. A further nod to the Weird Tales boys: “Ciaran, because he was a gypsy and a thief and had music in him like a drunkard has wine, had heard it, deep in the black forests of Hyperborea where even gypsies seldom go.” ‘The Jewel Of Bas’ is itself set on a hidden world in the Solar System.

‘Lord of the Earthquake’ is an Abraham Merritt style adventure where two men enter a portal that takes them back twelve thousand years in the past to Ancient Mu. So a tribute by story type, with Brackett of course injecting one of her favored hardboiled misfit-types in the character of Coh Langham. There may even ben a Doyle influence : “I devoured Burroughs, Haggard, Balmer and Wylie, Doyle’s unforgettable “Maracot Deep,” with this exploration of the deep in a submarine. The same applying to ‘Out Of the Sea’, with its attack on the USA by human created sea monsters.

The horror story ‘The Tapestry Gate’ also has an otherworldly portal contained therein, but is utilised in an horrific vein, as opposed to fantasy adventure.

So Brackett has linked Mu, Atlantis, Cimmeria, Hyperborea and Lovecraftian Elder Gods in to the ancient background of her work.

There were no advanced technological or even literate cultures on Venus, so any history as yet known is limited to fragmented oral traditions, divulged grudgingly, if remembered at all, such as those of the Moon Cult.

A much harsher place than Venus, aliens such as Shannach, long-lived, may have been there in the past, but not literate natives, so nothing is known.

Dancer of the Sixth, Michelle Shirey Crean

Dancer of the Sixth, Michelle Shirey Crean (1993)
Review by Ian Sales

Prominent on the front cover of this massmarket paperback is the phrase “Del Rey Discovery”. This does suggest the publisher had high hopes for Crean. Sadly, Dancer of the Sixth is her only piece of fiction ever to see print. But perhaps it’s not entirely difficult to understand why.

The Dancer of the title is Auglaize DeWellesthar, a pilot in the Fourth Service. Or rather, she was. She was captured by the Confederacy’s enemies, the Karranganthians, during the battle later known as the Lioth Massacre, tortured and left for dead. Fortunately for her, she was found by members of the Sixth Service, who used their advanced medical technology to rebuild her in body and mind. Now, a supposed casualty of the war, she works under her nom de métier as a spy during the years of uneasy peace following the conflict.

That is until, one day, she witnesses an aircraft of the visiting Fourth Service Interplanetary Precision Aerial Demonstration Team leave a practice formation and almost crash near her. When the pilot exits the aircraft, Dancer finds herself confronted by… herself. The pilot proves to be Dancer’s cousin, Antonia, who has used her resemblance to Dancer to take her place in the Fourth Service. However, all is not well with the Aerial Demonstration Team, or aboard the starship in which it travels from world to world. The Team’s itinerary suspiciously visits only backwater worlds, such as O’Brian’s Stake (which is where Dancer is currently working). The new colonel behaves more like a villain than the commander of a prestigious display team. And it also seems the Team pilots have been drugged or brainwashed…

So Dancer takes Antonia’s place – or rather, reclaims her own real identity temporarily – and goes aboard the Team’s starship to investigate.

Dancer of the Sixth is an odd mix of romance and brutality. Dancer’s recovery after the torture is helped by her romantic attachment to her carer. But he disappears and she later attaches her affections to the Sixth Service’s commander, Michael. But their relationship remains unrequited. Much of this is detailed in the extended flashback which comprises the middle third of the book. It is the least interesting part of the novel.

Either side of this is the story set on O’Brian’s Stake. Dancer belongs to a long line of sf competent women characters; and it shows in the way she seems to take charge of every scene in which she appears. Yet this is also a carefully-designed function of her back-history. The Confederacy possesses six “services”, though only the last three are described – the Fourth, which operates aircraft and fighters; the Fifth, which crews and maintains the starships; and the secretive Sixth, which functions as a near-mythical secret service. The Sixth is also staffed almost entirely by Auryx, who are the products of a genetic engineering experiment generations past in empathy and telepathy (but the talents are now so weak, they’re almost useless). The Auryx are feared by both the Confederacy and the Karranganthians but, as Dancer discovers, they’re actually very competent and quite cuddly.

The villains of the piece, on the other hand, are nasty through and through. Crean’s husband was in the USAF, and it’s hard not to recast the Confederacy as the US (and the Auryx some noble super-competent group within it), and the Karranganthians as the USSR. Much of the enemy’s actions sound like the worst sort of propaganda, making them out to be a cross between pantomime villains and war criminals. It’s this brutality which sits oddly with the romance which forms the gooey soft centre of Dancer of the Sixth. It makes the novel neither one thing nor the other: it is not a romance novel masquerading as science fiction, it is not science fiction with a greater than normal romantic content. It means that, while the novel has its moments, the overall effect is somewhat like the orange cream in a box of chocolates.

Three months on

In lieu of a review today – because I’m only halfway through the book I was planning to write about today – here instead is a quarterly update.

SF Mistressworks has been going for three months now, and during that time posted sixty-six reviews (some were multi-parters) of fifty-six books by forty-three authors. The most reviewed writer is, unsurprisingly, Ursula K Le Guin with five; but Joanna Russ comes a close second with four. Gwyneth Jones had one review split across three posts, but counting that as one she also matches Russ with reviews.

There has been a wide spread of books covered. The earliest was Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis from 1926, and the latest Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love from 2001. Which does stretch the definition of “twentieth century” a little, but never mind. SF Mistressworks has chiefly reviewed novels, but also several collections, and one anthology, the excellent Women of Wonder: The Contemporary Years edited by Pamela Sargent.

Though the number of reviews posted per week has dropped to two a week, I have every intention of keeping this blog going. Unfortunately, to do that I need people to send me reviews. I’m very grateful for the ones I’ve received so far, but I still need more. I don’t want to be providing them all myself. So, volunteers needed, please.

Finally, I had always expected that SF Mistressworks would prove an excellent introduction to writers whose works might appeal to me, and that it would spur me – and, hopefully, others – to read more books by women sf writers. But in fact I’ve been surprised by the number of books I’ve put on my wants list as a result of reviews on this site. Several of the stories in Women of Wonder, for example, persuaded me to look for novel-length works by the authors. So SF Mistressworks is not just about the books that are reviewed here, it’s also about the ones that aren’t.