Irsud, Jo Clayton

irsudIrsud, Jo Clayton (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Irsud is the third book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem Universe series, featuring the beautiful Aleytys who apparently has to spend much of her life in slavery of one form or another in order to offset her super-special snowflake status. At the end of the previous book, Lamarchos, Aleytys had been sold into slavery by Maissa, who has kept Aleytys’s young son, Sharl. Irsud opens on the eponymous world, and it is the the queen of this planet who has purchased Aleytys. For a particular purpose. The nayids of Irsud appear human in almost all respects…

… her body heating a little as she noted the genital similarity to the men of her own species. (p 14)

… except they have antennae (or rather, antennas), compound eyes, and a society which sort of resembles that of hive insects… Well, they have a queen… And, er, that’s it really. They also have slaves – members of their own race from other communities, as well as hiiri, small furry aliens who, it is implied, are the native race of Irsud. Aleytys is a slave, but her role is somewhat different to that of the other slaves – she has been bought because the queen wants to use the young woman as a host for her egg. When the queen dies, her consciousness is stored in an egg, which is then surgically implanted into a host body. The egg grows thousands of tendrils into the body, and slowly takes control of it… before eventually turning into a larva which eats the body from the inside. Aleytys was specifically chosen as a host because the queen hoped her new adult form would incorporate Aleytys’s special snowflake characteristics.

The process takes a year, during which Aleytys is held a prisoner in the queen’s fortress, under the control of the kipu, the dead queen’s chief advisor. Fortunately, Aleytys persuades a male slave nayid – the queen’s ex-lover, in fact – to surgically remove the psi-damper the slavers had implanted in Aleytys’ shoulder, and which was keeping her in a lethargic and disassociated state. Once back in control of her faculties – and in communication with the three disembodied intelligences residing in the diadem, the device which “chose” Aleytys in the first book of the series and which gives her much enhanced psi abilities; once more compos mentis, Aleytys sets about plotting her escape… With the help of Burash, the nayid slave and now her own lover, and a slave hiiri (small furry aliens) who works as a domestic servant in the fortress but has contacts with the hiiri rebel leadership.

The kipu, however, is determined to keep control of Aleytys, as her own power depends upon the old queen’s survival. (The nayids, incidentally, are matriarchal.) Aleytys manages to persuade the kipu that the queen has “woken up” inside her, but the kipu is not fooled for long. Nonetheless, she chooses to go along with the pretence in order to maintain her position… But then one of the dead queen’s daughters tries to kill Aleytys – first using hired assassins, then with poison – so Aleytys arranges a meeting with the hiiri rebel leader… but they are all captured by the kipu and her soldiers…

There are an awful lots of words in Irsud describing Aleytys’ body and her beauty. She also seems to spend a lot of the time naked (as she is, in fact, on the cover of the book). Then there are her “powers”… These seem to grow in both breadth and potency as the story progresses. And Aleytys only uses them when the story demands it, often conveniently forgetting her abilities in some situations.

It all wears a bit thin after a while. There is a plot somewhere in Irsud, but its buried beneath endless paragraphs pointing out how special Aleytys is and, oh, what a wonderful and beautiful body she has. Given that, it seems churlish to complain that the nayid social structure and biology makes no sense – compound eyes on a humanoid? A queen who lays eggs in an alien race that has two functioning genders?

Sandals and spaceships, or swords and spaceships, has long been one of science fiction’s more problematic subgenres. Spun out of the planetary romances of the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but with a more science-fictional sensibility laid over the top, it seems to consist chiefly of space operas stories in which slavery is rife, violence is endemic, and women are treated like chattel. I find it hard to understand why someone would want to write such science fictions. What is there to be gained in imagining a universe in which slavery is acceptable and women have all the rights of domesticated pets? Not only is it deeply offensive, but it leads to super-special snowflake characters such as Aleytys – because it’s only by being super-special snowflakes can protagonists like her have sufficient agency in such settings to generate drama, or even melodrama.

Apparently, the Diadem books remained in print for over a decade, right up until 1990. I can’t honestly understand why.

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