Lamarchos, Jo Clayton

LMRCHS6F1978Lamarchos, Jo Clayton (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s not easy being a special snowflake heroine in a space opera. Though such characters are usually gifted with great beauty, special powers, the fastest spaceship in twelve sectors, and so on, it’s also a life filed with rape, sexual slavery, rape, slavery and rape. Take Aleytys, the heroine of Clayton’s Diadem series of nine novels. Born on a backwater planet of an offworld mother and maltreated as a result, she eventually escaped with the help of interstellar master thief Miks Stavver. And with him, she now seeks her mother and her mother’s homeworld. Not only is Aleytys very beautiful, and a loving mother to her baby son, Sharl, but she is also Vryhh. This means she will live longer than other humanoids, is stronger and faster, has a better memory, and a natural affinity with machines. She also possesses the diadem, which gives her mental powers.

Despite all this, she spends some of the time in Lamarchos, as she did in the first book of the series, Diadem from the Stars, in sexual slavery. She is on the eponymous world to assist Stavver in stealing a bunch of poaku stones from the Karkiskya, at the behest of psychopathic mercenary Maissa and a returned native called Kale. The Karkiskya are interstellar traders, who have many worlds, Lamarchos among them, tied up in a monopoly. They trade the prized poaku stones for knives, which the Lamarchans use as a sign of manhood.

Aleytys is assisted in the mission by Lamarchos’ resident gods, the Lakoe-heai, who make her a gikena, a type of wandering healer witch-woman. Disguised as such, with Stavver, Maissa and Kale as her travelling companions, she makes her way to Karkys, where the Karkiskya live. En route, she heals a young native man, learns he was unjustly outcast from his tribe, takes him home, and as gikena proves his innocence. But he must serve her for an unspecified period as payment, and so continues on with her to Karkys.

The heist goes as planned, but then things go awry. Maissa makes off with the swag (and baby Sharl), leaving Stavver and Aleytys to face the music. They con their way out of trouble and set off in hot pursuit. Maissa has the only starship on the planet and has promised Stavver and Aleytys a trip offworld to I!kwasset. Before they catch up with Maissa and Kale, they run into the Horde, a near-mindless, er, horde of brainless savages who strip the countryside they pass though like humanoid locusts. Aleytys is taken prisoner and raped by the Horde’s master, who is enormous – in all respects:

He was naked. As grossly male as he was grossly huge. Aleytys suppressed an inclination to gape and contented herself with wondering what sort of woman could receive that bulk into herself. (p 164)

The answer is apparently herself. And she appears to suffer no physical damage from the act.

But. Maissa caught, booty regained, master killed and Horde vanquished, and it’s finally time to leave Lamarchos. Except here come the Rmoahl Hounds, indefatigable guardians of the diadem who want it back. Aleytys makes on last deal with the Lakoe-heai, and Maissa, Stavver and Aleytys successfully launch. Kale remains behind – Lamarchos is, after all, his homeworld, and the poaku stones stolen from the Karkiskya were really for him all along.

And then an epilogue has Aleytys drugged and sold into slavery by Maissa, ripe for adventure in book three of the series, Irsud.

There seems to be a tendency in some space operas – less so now than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s – for the protagonist to be some sort of super-powered Mary Sue. They are always beautiful, and they spend much of the time naked. To balance this, the author throws all manner of horribleness at them, usually at the expense of both plausibility and the reader’s feelings. Given all that has happened to Aleytys during the first two books of the Diadem series, it’s astonishing she’s not suffering from severe PTSD. Sexual assault is commonplace, yet the author has Aleytys blithely carry on as if each violent rape were no more than a minor plot hurdle. Humanity has apparently found some way to colonise the galaxy, and found itself among countless alien races – and yet every world is populated by barbarians, violence is endemic, and all races practice slavery…

This is not adventure. It may exhibit all the trappings of space opera or science fantasy, but the disregard with which Clayton hampers her heroine’s travails with rape, violence and slavery, and the unfeasible ease with which Aleytys recovers from each such assault, make of this book something far less savoury. It astonishes me the reader is expected to identify with Aleytys. While she certainly possesses agency – she usually saves herself; and others – it’s as if that could not be allowed on its own. There must be balance. Which, of course, is not something which typically applies to male protagonists in space operas and science fantasies.

If the Diadem of the Stars series is mostly forgotten these days, it’s no real surprise. In the twenty-first century, such grimdark genre fiction is typically fantasy rather than science fiction ,and the protagonist is usually the perpetrator of sexual assaults rather than the victim. This is, of course, no improvement.

2 thoughts on “Lamarchos, Jo Clayton

  1. I was never fond of the Diadem series. But if you read Seventies/Eighties historical saga romance, you will see that a lot of it consists of the heroine being beautiful and brave and traveling the world, while repeatedly getting raped, enslaved, mistreated, etc. Eventually the heroine gets some kind of happy ending with high status. Most feminist sword and sorcery stories of the Seventies and early Eighties follow the same pattern, although Clayton is the only sf writer who does it as much. (I seem to recall Tanith Lee doing it a lot also, although in a more believable way; and there was a five book fantasy series about some empress that also put her through all sorts of perils and rapes and pregnancies and affairs and so on.)

    I once got Jo Walton very angry at me by pointing out that rape is still used as a standard issue plot point in a lot of feminist sf/f even today, to the point that it should be listed as part of the Hero’s Journey for female heroes as the hero’s introduction or call to heroism; and that actually her first Arthurian book was no exception to the rule.

    No, it’s not a healthy sort of trope. But it’s a trope almost exclusive to feminist women writers.

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