Star Rider, Doris Piserchia

Piserchia - Star RiderStar Rider, Doris Piserchia (1974)
Review by Ian Sales

There is a tradition in science fiction of the fix-up novel, in which a writer cobbles together a novel out of several short stories, often adding linking text to create a single narrative out of the lot. Doris Piserchia’s second novel, Star Rider, is as far as I can determine not a fix-up novel. But it reads like one.

The novel breaks down more or less into three sections which, while they may share the same cast and setting, appear to have entirely separate focuses. In the first, the reader is introduced to Lone – later called Jade – a young female jak, and her mount, Hinx. Jaks are humans with the ability to travel the stars using some sort of mental power. They can only do this when they are riding a mount. (The cover art may show Hinx as a horse, but the text makes clear mounts are descended from dogs. Nor does Jade appear fifteen-years-old on the cover.) Using D-2, the jaks travel about the D-3 universe, searching for the mythical planet of Doubleluck. They are as a race fiercely independent and hedonistic. Jade is neither unusual nor – initially – exceptional. Piserchia presents the jaks much like riders of the old Wild West, even down to the debased English they use.

Jade and Hinx are followed and caught by Big Jak and his mount, Volcano. He has determined that she is potentially dangerous – and she proves it by discovering Doubleluck… Or rather, she discovers Earth, the origin of humanity, which is now a dead and ruined planet. So he traps her on a world with himself and mount-less jak called Shaper. The latter spends most of his time making hats out of metal, which block the jaks’ mental powers. Jade tries on one of the hats, but cannot remove it. She asks Big Jak to take her to Earth, which he does. She then spends several chapters trying to survive on the dead world…

But when Big Jak comes to rescue her, and uses a device from an Earth museum to destroy the hat she is wearing, they are attacked by dreens. Jade is captured, taken to the world of Gibraltar and put in an insane asylum. Apparently, the people of Gibraltar think the jaks should be “cured”, and so send their guardians and police, the dreens, out to capture them. Jade has been separated from Hinx but, unusually, she does not go mad as a result. Eventually, she is permitted to leave the asylum and enter Gibraltar society. Although the world has no government or leadership, it does not appear to be free or anarchic. Jade is educated and learns much of the world… and the dreens, who are its secret rulers. She also discovers that the dreens are spreading a rumour among the jaks that Doubleluck has been found. Without that to search for, they are committing suicide.

In the final third of the book, Jade steals a dreen mount and escapes Gibraltar. She finds Hinx and the two are reunited. They head for Earth, where Jade is convinced Doubleluck exists and is hidden. She finds it – a fantastic jewelled city inside a mountain. But the dreens have tracked her there, and with their leader Rulon – who wants to take Jade as his consort – they occupy the city. During her escape, Jade had found Hinx on the planet of the varks. These are creatures which appear to be part jet-engine, and much as mounts do they can telepathically communicate with jaks.

Eventually, the dreens come a cropper, Jade admits Doubleluck does not exist, but offers the jaks something better – she knows how to leave the galaxy, something jaks have been trying to do for millennia.

I’m not entirely sure a plot précis can quite get across the strange flavour of this novel. The weird swerves in emphasis during each of the three sections take some getting used to. And the opening section, with its varmintest varmints jaks and mounts reads like some bizarre pastiche of the Wild West for no good reason. In all other respects, Star Rider is very much a book of its time. Much of the story is carried in dialogue, the cast is entirely male but for Jade, and she is so exceptional she actually saves the universe. While Piserchia’s prose may be a little better than, say, Heinlein’s, and her imagination a great deal stranger, this is very much a heartland science fiction novel of the early 1970s. It’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure it would ever be called a good one.

Incidentally, while the cover art on this review shows the original Bantam paperback, it was later republished by The Women’s Press in 1987.

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