The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein

outskirterThe Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

The somewhat off-putting title, The Outskirter’s Secret, makes perfect sense to those who have read Kirstein’s The Steerswoman (1989), to which it is a direct sequel. In that book, Steerswoman Rowan, with the help of Outskirter Bel, stumbled across a conspiracy involving wizards and a fallen Guidestar. While initially reading as fantasy, The Steerswoman gradually, and cleverly, revealed itself as science fiction. The wizards had advanced technology, and the Guidestars were some sort of geosynchronous satellites. But the aims of the conspiracy remained a mystery.

In The Outskirter’s Secret, Rowan and Bel are travelling east – through the Outskirts, which are inhabited by fierce nomad tribes – in search of the fallen Guidestar. Unlike The Steerswoman, this book makes no pretence of being fantasy. Instead, it describes a fascinating alien world through which the two must travel to unravel the mystery they uncovered in the first book. And while Rowan and Bel – indeed, all the cast – are extremely well-drawn, it’s the world-building in The Outskirter’s Secret which really impresses. The two books are also notably female-centric. Not just Rowan and Bel, but all the female characters have agency, and the Outskirters are wholly egalitarian. Many genre authors could learn a lot from the way Kirstein treats her cast.

While the Inner Landers have replaced the local ecology with their own – ie, flora and fauna recognisable to us – the Outskirters instead are in constant battle with their landscape. They cannot eat the various creatures, nor the redgrass which carpets the land. Fortunately, goats can eat redgrass, and the Outskirters can eat goats. This means that the various tribes of Outskirters travel about the land, denuding areas – and poisoning it with their own waste – and then moving on. As the land renews itself behind them, so it continues to support them.

Kirstein spends much of the story revealing the culture of the Outskirters, which itself is also a response to the landscape. Rowan and Bel are accepted by one tribe – after helping save a member who was attacked by “goblins” – and travel with them for several weeks. Rowan learns more about the Outskirters, and Bel explains the threat posed by the wizards and their conspiracy to them. At Rendezvous, a meeting of the tribes which occurs every twenty years and is usually signalled by strange weather, Rowan learns more about the workings of the Outskirts and the Face, the inhospitable region to the east of the Outskirts. From information given by the leader of a tribe of Face People, who are normally the Outskirters’ enemies, the steerswoman beging to put together the pieces of the plot.

It transpires that the Guidestars are not only required for the wizards to perform their “spells”, but also serve an important function in the slow terraforming of the world. The fallen Guidestar has caused this process to stop. The way in which The Outskirter’s Secret reveals how the terraforming works is extremely well done, but the reason why the wizards have interrupted the process is left for a later book.

Most of the novel covers Rowan and Bel’s stay with the Outskirter tribe. The steerswoman learns about their culture and about the ecology of the Outskirts. The nomads, their history and their way of life, provide clues, but Rowan figures most things out for herself – as does the reader. This slow process of revelation is one of the novel’s strengths, and Kirstein is clearly good at it. Rowan herself is an engaging character – clever, but not so vastly clever than the rest of the cast that she reads like a Mary Sue. In one telling scene, Rowan realises something important about Fletcher, one of the adopted members of the tribe. He is duelling another warrior – there’s a history of enmity between the two, but the duel is ostensibly for the metal sword wielded by Fletcher. As the two fight, Rowan analyses Fletcher’s fighting style, and comes to a realisation which affects the tribe, her personally, and indeed all of the Outskirter tribes. It also shifts the story into a higher gear, as the wizards promptly strike at the Outskirters and they must force-march to safety. Unfortunately, this does mean the final scene, in which Rowan and Bel find the fallen Guidestar, comes across as a little disappointing – especially since it doesn’t resolve the mystery of the wizards’ conspiracy. But the way the various elements of the ecology – including the Outskirters and Face People – are slowly revealed throughout the book as part of a terraforming process is very cleverly done.

The Outskirter’s Secret is, I think, a better and more likeable book than The Steerswoman – and not simply because it is more overtly science fiction. Though it continues to use the language of fantasy, what it describes is plainly sf, and for a clued-in reader the world-building as described suggests so much more than would be the case for a stock mediaeval Europe-derived fantasy world. When Fletcher is revealed as a “Christer”, who worships a single god symbolised by a cross, that small piece of background information implies something much greater – that there is a link between our world and the world of the two books, that the latter is somehow derived from ours. And since The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret are both science fiction, the implication is that their world is an alien planet colonised centuries before from Earth or some Earthly interstellar civilisation. Few authors can imply such depth of universe using such seemingly trivial details, but Kirstein is extremely good at it.

Both The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret are currently out of print, but they are still available in an omnibus edition, The Steerswoman Road. Go buy a copy.

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Endless Voyage, Marion Zimmer Bradley

endlessEndless Voyage, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1975)
Review by Ian Sales

Although strongly linked with fantasy – her most famous novel is the Arthurian fantasy The Mists of Avalon; and between 1988 and 1999 a fantasy magazine bore her name – Marion Zimmer Bradley is also well-known for science fiction, particularly her Darkover series. Between 1958 and her death in 1999, and over twenty-three novels and a number of short stories, two share-cropped trilogies and eleven anthologies, she wrote of events on a pseudo-feudal planet inhabited by several alien races and ruled by telepaths. She did also write other works of science fiction, and Endless Voyage is one of these. Originally published as the third book in Ace’s second series of Ace SF Specials, Endless Voyage was later revised and expanded under the title Endless Universe.

In the universe of Endless Voyage, a vast number of human-populated worlds are stitched together by Transmitters, which allow instantaneous travel across light-years. But the process requires Transmitters at both ends, and so virgin worlds must be reached the old-fashioned way. By spaceship. This is what the Explorers do. And when they find suitable worlds, they build a new Transmitter and open the world for settlement. Then a year or two later, they head off to find another virgin planet…

All this travelling through space means the Explorers experience years while decades pass for the planet-bound who travel by Transmitter. This has made a breed apart of them, as the narrator of Endless Voyage, Gildoran, ruminates in the novel’s first chapter. Occasionally, even Explorers decide to settle down and, within the space of a dozen pages, Gildoran mourns a failed relationship with a planet-bound woman, a fellow Explorer who chose to settle down on a planet, and a young man who saves him from a tricky and violent situation but is too old to join Gildoran’s ship, Gypsy Moth.

A protagonist who belongs to special group may be a science fiction staple, particularly of the genre’s early decades, but one or two artistic decisions made by Bradley regarding her Explorers are questionable. For instance, a life in space renders the Explorers sterile, so they must steal or buy babies from inhabited worlds. They prefer to buy, of course – though apparently selling babies is considered perfectly normal, and is done through businesses called “hatcheries”, where infants are picked out like supermarket produce. Not all such babies survive their early years aboard an Explorer ship – some even die, of mysterious causes, during their first launch. Those that do live are looked after by “Poohbears”, large ursine aliens about which the Explorers know nothing and are remarkably incurious.

Space radiation [sic] has also made the Explorers pale of skin, with white hair, irrespective of their original colouring. Perhaps thirty-five years ago, no sf reader would have remarked on a novel featuring special snowflakes who are distinguished by being white, but these days it is no longer acceptable. While some people of colour are mentioned in the story – including “big red men from Antares and small bluish men from Aldebaran” (p8)! – Endless Voyage is the story of the crew of Gypsy Moth

After some initial chapters introducing the set-up and characters, the Explorer ship discovers a new seemingly idyllic world and lands to investigate it. But, of course, nothing is as it appears, and the world proves as deadly as it is Edenic. It takes a while to discover what it is that’s giving the Explorers persistent headaches and a vague feeling of unease, and when they do learn it is more by accident than design. It takes them even longer to work out what killed two members of the crew – including the captain. The death of whom also forces a lottery for a new captain, and Gildoran is picked – the youngest person to hold the post, and the most inexperienced. As the situation worsens on the new world, leading to injury and further deaths, Gildoran tries desperately hard to hold the crew together and find the cause…

Bradley’s Darkover novels are still being produced – 2013 sees the publication of The Children of Kings, the second book of the second Darkover trilogy written by Deborah J Ross (both of which were allegedly “in progress” fourteen years before when Bradley died). Bradley also managed to edit four editions of the Sword and Sorceress anthology after her death. In other words, she has become a brand, and she is likely to be remembered for her contribution to fantasy and for Darkover and its countless sequels. This is just as well since Endless Voyage is not an especially good novel and, despite being published as an “Ace SF Special” is probably best left to languish in obscurity.

We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1977)
Review by Joachim Boaz

We Who Are About To… is the third of Joanna Russ’ science fiction novels I’ve read over the past few years. For some reason I was unable gather the courage to review The Female Man and might have been too enthusiastic about And Chaos Died. We Who Are About To… is superior to both (although, not as historically important for the genre as The Female Man). This is in part because Russ refines her prose — it is vivid, scathing, and rather minimalist in comparison to her previous compositions — and creates the perfect hellish microcosm for her ruminations on the nature of history, societal expectation, memory, and death.

Highly recommended for fans of feminist + literary science fiction.

The classic situation: multi-dimensional explosion hurls a spaceship en route to a new colony onto a barren planet. Due to the nature of starship travel (folding space) there is zero chance of contacting others. Rescue is never a possibility. The unnamed narrator, a musicologist, leaves an audio diary — her words, recorded in secret almost every day, is the version of events we read.

Russ manipulates this common sci-fi scenario. None of the characters have survival skills. The planet contains no aliens or fascinating vistas. Rather, a human drama unfolds — a twisted, dark vision. Be warned, Russ does not conjure the Star Trek miracle syrup plot device à la ”different characters who initially don’t like each other learn to work together and conquer the problem and conjure a communication device that rescues them from the clutches of certain death”. The reader knows the end result from the first sentence of the first page.

Similarly to D G Compton’s brilliant Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, Russ’ varied cast is adeptly characterized from the very beginning. {The cast} The women: the narrator (a baroque musicologist, an activist past, neo-Christian leanings, a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals), Mrs Valeria Graham (a middle-aged wealthy woman who purchased her husband and daughter, wears an Indian sari), Nathalie (a soldier trainee who despises civilians), Cassie (an ordinary woman, the only one whom the narrator cares for), and Lori (Valeria’s twelve-year-old daughter, hypochondriac, serial music lover, doted upon). The men: Mr Graham (strong, manly, plastic surgery), Alan (attentive, careful, polite, flatterer, in love with Lori), and John Ude (professor of ideas, evasive, The Smile).

The narrator suffers an acute crisis upon crashing on the planet due to the fact that no one will ever find them and that no one will remember them — the pharmaceuticals are close at hand. Added to that, the planet is alien, the planet isn’t Earth: “To die on a dying Earth — I’d live, if only to weep” (p 27). Is there any point in waiting to die? The others discover her drugs and take them away, or at least some of them.

The others delude themselves with visions of colonization, utopian societies, the innocence of primitives: “Day two. It began. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Everyone running around cheerily into the Upper Paleolithic. We’re going to build huts. We’re going to have a Village Fire that Lori Graham will tend because she is the Fire Virgin or something” (p21). Unfortunately, the gene pool of the survivors is too small to create a society. And, no one besides the narrator is too concerned with introducing children into the eventual horrors of life on the planet when the supplies and medications run out and they are forced to eat the potentially toxic plants. The visions of a proper society, a proper duty to propagate, are too ingrained in their minds — the women, viewed by the men as walking wombs, incubating the future… All the women besides the narrator decide to get impregnated — “John Ude was very tender and careful with his walking womb” (p59).

When it’s her turn, she drugs everyone and runs away… And when they wake up from their stupor they come looking for her. Her womb is prized.

“Next day, don’t know what day it is. Probably five. Who cares. If history were not fantasy, then one could ask to be remembered but history is fake and memories die when you do and only God (don’t believe it) remembers. History always rewritten. Nobody will find this anyway and they’ll have flippers so who cares” (p113)

The most powerful moments of the novel focus in on the painful isolation the narrator feels. Not only is she separated from Earth but her very words, recorded so diligently, will be read by no one. If a rescue party had the smallest chance of finding them long after their deaths then they would at the very least be a shred of history, a minute connection to others, but even that is impossible. The other survivors do not want to accept the inevitable and delude themselves with fantasies about creating a society even if it would doom their children to painful deaths. Their fantasies that do not accept the reality of the situation. The narrator wants to control the inevitable. And she takes matters into her own hands…

Russ’ prose tears into the heart of things.

“Cassie, Cassie, come out to play.

Come over for a chat.

I don’t mind if you’re rotting” (p133)

It is poetic and visceral and often, hilarious: ”Then [Lori, 12] added, without the slightest transition, ‘I like serial music. You know, the late twentieth-century stuff where it goes deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle for half an hour and then it goes doodle just once, and you could die with excitement’” (p52). For anyone who listens regularly to minimalist music… Well, I suspect you are laughing.

We Who Are About To… is the best I’ve read this year.

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

The Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent

shorewomenThe Shore of Women, Pamela Sargent (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

After a nuclear war and a long nuclear winter, small groups of people managed to survive in underground shelters. And once the Earth was habitable again, they ventured out – but by that point things had changed and the women were in charge. So the women built walled cities in which they could live, and all the men were sent out to fend for themselves in the wild. Thousands of years later, the sexes are completely segregated, the women living in technological luxury in their enclaves, and the men, controlled by their worship of the Lady, existing in small hunter-gatherer bands in the surrounding countryside.

Laissa, a young woman in one of the cities, witnesses the expulsion of a woman and her daughter for murder. They are sent out into the country, where they will likely die very quickly. Laissa is having problems with her own mother, who has delayed giving up her very young son. Male children are usually handed to men, who are called to their nearest city to be blessed by the Lady (and have their semen milked while they are drugged and enjoying VR sex). Laissa begins to question the way the cities are run…

Arvil is Laissa’s brother, though neither know it. He lives with a small band of men not far from Laissa’s city, and seems typical of his gender. One day, men on horses appear at the band’s camp and invite them to join their own camp, which is much, much larger. Shortly after Arvil’s arrival there, the big camp is destroyed by flying ships from the nearby city. Arvil manages to escape…

And subsequently stumbles across Birana, the daughter exiled earlier. Her mother has been killed, but her killers had fled on realising they had murdered an “aspect” of the Lady. Arvil, however, is more intelligent and questioning than most men. Thinking Birana is an aspect of the Lady, and so possesses her powers, he helps her. She even hypnotises him so he can convince the women in the city – who the men “talk” to via circlets in shrines as acts of worship – that she has been killed. Arvil and Birana, safe from pursuit by the women of the city, decide to head to the west, where perhaps a refuge of exiled women may exist. They pass out of the lands controlled by the women of the cities, and find several small agrarian male communities scattered around a large lake. An exiled woman lives, and is worshipped, in one of the settlements, and so Arvil and Birana join her.

But men being men, there is a price to pay for the safety the settlement offers. While Nallei, the exiled woman, keeps Birana safe, it’s a situation that can’t last forever. And when Birana finally overcomes her disgust of sex with a male, and begins a secret affair with Arvil, it comes as no surprise when she finds herself pregnant. Events come to a head, Arvil kills the jealous headman, and women from the nearest city attack and raze the settlement. Birana and Arvil escape and head yet further west…

Where they eventually reach the Pacific Ocean, and find a small band of men and women. But the men are in charge. Birana gives birth to a girl, but she wants more for her child then a patriarchal inbred band of seashore foragers, so she and Arvil head back to the interior intending to hand over the child to one of the cities. This is where Laissa re-enters the story. She has persuaded the city to allow her to camp out in a shrine and record the stories of the men who visit there. Birana and Arvil meet her there, tell their story – which becomes the narrative of The Shore of Women – and give her the baby to raise in the city. Laissa’s actions, however, cannot go unpunished, so on her return she is reduced in status and forbidden to have children. Birana and Arvil disappear off into the countryside.

Most novels featuring feminist utopias seem to set out to demonstrate that women do not need men – cf Sally Miller’s Gearhart’s The Wanderground – but in The Shore of Women men are very much necessary. The women use religion, and their technology, to control the men, but without them they cannot breed. Of course, this does not require actual physical contact – see the earlier mention of VR sex. The problem here is that while the men believe women to be divine, as in the many aspects of the Lady present in the shrines, they are also conditioned to see intercourse with women as something to aspire to, as a reward for worship. In their mean camps they may turn to one other for comfort and release (the novel is surprisingly coy on this aspect), but their society is still chiefly heteronormative, even if the women are not actually present.

It’s different for the women in their cities. They consider men to be little better than animals, and their society is built on relationships between women. Though they may use the male of the species to provide genetic material, it’s all done by machine, and any boy children they bear are sent from the city at a very young age (their memories carefully wiped so they don’t know what they’ve lost). This viewpoint is most forcibly expressed by Council member Eilaan, who seems so fierce an advocate of the city way of life that she reads like a deliberate foil to the more considered voices of Laissa, Birana and Arvil.

According to the story, this set-up has been in place for thousands of years, but there’s no real sense of history attached. Who built the cities? Who invented whatever power it is that keeps the flying ships aloft? When Laissa falls out with her mother, and her girlfriend dumps her because she has become “politically undesirable”, Laissa moves in with Zoreen. Who she normally avoided because Zoreen works as an historian. Zoreen also lives near the normal women of the city (Laissa and her friends are all upper class, “Mothers of the City”, the only women in the city permitted to have children). There’s a hippyish flavour to the lives of the normal women, but other than arts and crafts and food outlets, no real indication that they maintain and operate the various services of the city. It’s as if the enclave magically appeared and the women simply populated it.

The men’s society is no less realistic. Given the life they lead, it’s likely nasty brutish sorts would prosper, eventually leading to that type predominating. Any attempt at organisation, at creating larger settled communities, in which other male personalities might prove useful, are quickly destroyed by the women. And yet, despite all this, the system still manages to produce Arvil – who figures out human reproduction from a couple of remarks made by Birana, who works out how the entire society functions after inadvertently waking up while being milked of semen… Not only is he more intelligent than the other men, he is also sensitive and treats Birana like an equal. It is because of this that Birana eventually falls in love with him and overcomes her anti-male feelings.

Despite all this, The Shore of Women is an engaging story, even if the setting is not especially plausible. But that final swerve into reconciliation between man and woman feels too much like an undoing of the point the story initially seemed to be making. The sexes were segregated for the safety of the women, and human society has subsequently survived for thousands of years – unchanged and slowly stagnating, it is true; but the Earth is safe and the race is in no danger of self-extinction. To pretend all along that the women don’t know what they’re missing because they refuse to interact with the men directly contradicts what the cities demonstrate. Birana may have found true love with Arvil, but he’s hardly an average specimen of his gender – and, further, circumstances forced her to find some accommodation with the males of the species. It’s almost as if the story were suggesting male-female relationships were more fulfilling, carried greater emotional weight. It’s a conclusion that sits badly with all that has gone before. In fact, it feels banal, given the contortions placed upon history, society and human nature the setting requires. Disappointing.