Dangerous Games, Marta Randall

dangerous_gamesDangerous Games, Marta Randall (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Dangerous Games is a direct sequel to Randall’s Journey (1978), and begins seven years after the end of that book. Once again, the Kennerin family, owners and settlers of the world of Aerie, are the focus of the story. In the earlier novel, they rescued several hundred people from concentration camps on NewHome, shortly before NewHome’s sun went nova (fighting off an incursion by the NewHome military in the process). They also set about planting a crop whose harvested sap can be used as a conductor in electronics. By the time Dangerous Games opens, the Kennerins have a small fleet of starships, a processing plant, and a successful business. They get on well with Aerie’s native kasirene (large four-armed kangaroo-like aliens), although the Kennerin internal family dynamics are not so smooth.

The novel starts in the viewpoint of Sandro Marquez, whose family invented, and was very successful at growing and selling, the same conducting sap grown by the Kennerins. But the Marquez family proved too successful and was subject to a hostile takeover by the Parallax Corporation. Sandro is on the run after killing the Parallax agent, and is taken aboard Jes Kennerin’s ship as a “Second” (which appears to be a first officer). Jes, it seems, has a habit of picking up “strays” and taking them home to Aerie, where they settle and become part of the extended Kennerin family. Also aboard the ship is engineer Beryl, but Sandro can’t work out her relationship with Jes. She’s a nasty piece of work, although he finds her sexually attractive. When Sandro eventually reveals his background to Jes, he is taken to Aerie to tell the rest of the Kennerins – because Aerie is likely to be Parallax’s next target.

On his next trip, Jes’s ship breaks down and he’s forced to land at Gensco for repairs. There he meets Tatha, the cat-like woman depicted on the front cover of the book. She is a genetically-engineered native of a very early human colony. Parallax is in the middle of a plan to takeover Gensco. Tatha wants to leave but the inhabitants of Gensco make it very difficult for transients. So Jes takes her back to Aerie.

Some time later, the kasirene decide that Hart Kennerin, who had been banished from Aerie in the previous book, but allowed to return home years later, has not made reparations to the kasirene. As a teenager, he had experimented on kasirene pups – until now, the kasirene had been satisfied with the punishment meted out by the Kennerin family, but now they want more (hardly surprising: banishment seems a feeble punishment for his crimes). This situation is only made worse by a kasirene agitator who has been telling the others that perhaps they’d be better off if Parallax bought out the Kennerins.

Tatha then moves to centre-stage, as she feels the Kennerins have underestimated the threat from Parallax. So she sets about creating a situation which will prompt the Federation to interfere and prevent a Parallax takeover. But she can’t tell anyone, and many of her actions initially seem to be directed against the Kennerins. It is this plan of hers to which the book’s title refers.

Dangerous Games is, like Journey, a pioneer novel transplanted to a science fiction milieu. But where that first book saw the hardy settlers choosing their land and settling down to build their town – and also welcome new settlers, and fight off the local bad guys – this one documents the next stage of such a town’s inevitable history, the rise of the indigenes and the threat of takeover and/or occupation by the local rapacious “railroad company”. The kasirene, despite their appearance, are pretty much ersatz Native Americans and some facets of their culture are little more than that of assorted Native American historical culture with the numbers filed off. Even the argument about swapping one set of human occupiers for another is one that has precedent in American history. And if Randall paints the Kennerins as liberal, tolerant and benign “owners” of the kasirene planet, she frequently tries to offset this by showing how dysfunctional they are as a family.

But that too is simply part of the pattern. Melodramas and soap operas and pioneer dramas all seem to be powered by the internal dynamics of the central family, and the more dysfunctional that family is the more powerful the engine of the story. Randall’s world-building is relatively light – there’s enough scaffolding around the FTL, with its “tau” and “grabs”, so it doesn’t fall over and kill suspension of disbelief; but there’s little else in the book that differs much from the late 1970s. Some quick and dirty extrapolations now seem quaint, if not bizarrely wrong – data held on tapes, everything done on paper, no personal communicators, computers still expensive and discrete and not integrated into everything. Dangerous Games is science fiction as tales of other worlds and other times that will never come to pass, even though the reader is expected to believe – or at least suspend their disbelief – in such an eventuality. Given that this novel and its predecessor are about people and their interactions, rather than big ideas or mind-bending concepts, the essentially make-believe nature of the setting seems irrelevant. The same story could well be told in early nineteenth century North America, and very little in broad stroke would need to be changed. But science fiction allows more freedom, and Randall makes good use of it. True, Parallax is a staple cliché of many genres of fiction; and the narrative arc of Dangerous Games is far from unique to science fiction… But none of this spoils the book. If anything, Dangerous Games is a more involving read than Journey, and its story seems more science-fictional, its setting and narrative better integrated into the genre corpus.

I suspect Randall had more tales to tell about the Kennerin family but, except for a brief mention in A City in the North, their story ends here. To understand and enjoy Dangerous Games, Journey really should be read first. Although the packaging may not explicitly state it, the two books are very much a diptych.

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