Dreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre

dreamsnakeDreamsnake, Vonda N McIntyre (1978)
Review by Kate Macdonald

Dreamsnake (which won the Nebula, the Hugo and the Locus awards) is an eco-healthcare feminist novel, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world, in which communities have developed astounding gender-equal and sexual orientation-equal communities, but have lost much of the art of modern medicine. It’s a curiously divided setting: the villages in the mountains are medieval and pre-industrial; the towering guarded city called Center is intergalactic, since they host alien visitors and trade with them; and the nomadic communities wandering around the deserts are Bronze Age, only using knives. In The Exile Waiting, McIntyre’s 1975 first novel, which is set in Center, the space-ageness of the society is a total contrast to the outside world, without the midway points of a redeveloping civilisation that Dreamsnake presents.

Dreamsnake is about a healer, a travelling doctor called Snake, who arrives at a nomad community to heal a small boy of a stomach tumour. Her medicines are manufactured for her by her snakes, for this is how these healers make their medicine. She has three: a cobra called Mist and a rattlesnake called Sand, who make drugs from catalysts fed to them by Snake, according to the disease to be cured; and a dreamsnake called Grass, who is the anaesthetist. The dreamsnake can take away pain and give dreams, but it can also kill when it’s needed, giving a painless and easy death when there is no other way. There are no other heavy-duty painkilling drugs other than alcohol in this world (though they do have aspirin), so the dreamsnake is crucial. And this nomad group have never seen snakes used in medicine before, and are scared. The dreamsnake is killed when one of the boy’s fathers sees it snuggling up his son’s chest, as a comforting companion while he sleeps.

I said ‘fathers’ because this is a triploid society. Almost all the family groups and partnered parents are in threes, either two men and a woman, or the other way around. Children are born to the woman (some things don’t change), but all the extended family take care of the child. We get the impression that children don’t come along often, because this is a post-nuclear holocaust world. Mutations are feared and cast out by the people of Center, even though they inbreed among themselves without understanding the consequences. The knowledge owned by these different social groups consists of patches of very advanced science surrounded by swathes of ignorance, coupled with fear of the unknown, and a refusal by many to learn.

Outside the city, there are craters in the badlands where something large and nuclear exploded centuries earlier. Snake’s next patient, Jesse, fell off her horse there, and lay for a day in the radiation-soaked sand before being found. Without the dreamsnake, Snake cannot ease Jesse out of life while her body collapses in agony.

Without her dreamsnake, Snake is crippled: she cannot give relief, and she cannot ease death. She’s also distraught because the dreamsnakes are exceedingly rare. She cloned hers as part of her training, and no-one knows where they come from. Some people think the aliens brought them, and no-one knows where the aliens are. Center won’t let the healers into the city to talk to them. With Grass gone, Snake has no chance of getting another. And so she heads for her home in the mountains to work out what to do.

The novel tackles all sorts of social issues, but the principles for maintaining a strong and socially-responsible community are the most often invoked. This is an idealistic novel, an example of how a society ought to evolve, where equality is already a fixed part of social relations. The women are social leaders along with men: leading tribes, training doctors, running businesses, trading and running matriarchal family groups. Men are just as important, but the women have an equal share of the power. It’s a utopia struggling to emerge in a dystopia, though you’d need to read The Exile Waiting to realise quite how dystopic it is in that huge walled city, to understand better what the outside world communities are getting away from.

Social manners and conduct are extremely important. Snake is constantly coming across new social conventions because she has never travelled outside her mountain home before. Healers didn’t use to leave the mountains, so when Snake decided to explore, and look for new ways to help patients, she was an emissary into the unknown. We and her both; it’s a good narrative technique. The conduct rules in these small societies are designed to prevent conflict, and to maintain acceptable, safe living conditions. Some we can recognise from our own society; anyone fouling the water at a desert oasis will be asked to leave. No-one steals from someone else unless they’re crazy. This also impacts on personal relationships. The mayor of Mountainside spends half his time mediating and arbitrating to prevent conflict. The tribal leaders’ word is law, but they also work with a council and elders. Everyone has rights, and anyone violating those rights in a psychologically disturbed way (like in abusing children) has to go to something rather chilling called ‘the menders’, voluntarily or publicly. Mature teenagers are trained how to have sex, how to maintain control over their fertility. Girls can even bring on their own abortions, after a lot of training, presumably because of the frequent birth deformations that kill the babies beforehand: this is not a novel about Pro-Life or Pro-Choice, it’s too early for that. In some ways, this emphasis on behaving perfectly in a perfectly idealised society gets a bit too perfect, the people seem more like parables than characters. But there is enough erratic behaviour to add scratchy interest for development.

On her miserable way back to her teachers, Snake cures more patients, and meets people who show us more of this society, and wonders about the mystery of why her camp was attacked and shredded by a crazy desert wanderer. There’s a lengthy subplot about the mayor’s son in Mountainside, an outcast among his people, because he was unable to control himself, got his friend pregnant when they decided to have sex, and then she nearly died from the self-induced abortion she hadn’t been trained enough to control. He became an instant pariah: see how well women’s rights are regarded here? Trouble is, his rights, of being given the right training, were neglected, since Snake realises he was taught in an out of date way by a very old, revered and arrogant man whom no-one questions, and so he knows nothing of modern techniques. The scrotum needs heat, not cold, to reduce fertility. (I have no idea how correct this is, but frankly it doesn’t matter; it works perfectly in the plot.) But the point is, again, perfect knowledge is not always correct knowledge, and we all need to update our understanding, talk to other people, see what else is being discovered. As a metaphor for how society advances its knowledge in shut-off communities, it’s pretty effective.

Snake also rescues Melissa, another victim in Mountainside – my, this town certainly has some nasty secrets behind its perfect façade – a little girl who works invisibly in the stables, hiding because of her burns after the stables caught fire. The stablemaster takes all the credit for her work, and rapes her at will. Snake rescues her by adopting her as payment for curing the mayor of gangrene. Melissa will be Snake’s daughter and partner, using her street sense to offset Snake’s idealisation of her mission, and helps her to survive their travels.

The crazy person attacks Snake again because he wants the dreamsnake that he assumes Snake is still carrying in her snake bag, because that’s what all healers do. She realises that he’s been using dreamsnakes for drugs: he has bite scars all over his body. So this is interesting, that addiction exists in this perfectly idealised society. It feels like an infection from the decadent corruption of the city. Second, there must be hundreds of dreamsnakes somewhere if he’s been using them to bite him. Snake heads straight for the mountain where the crazy person leads her, and finds a crashlanded alien spaceship, some really extraordinary alien plantlife that is not so much invading the Earth, but adapting to it, enfolding itself into the earth and colonising it: we hardly notice this part of the narrative because by now we’re all keyed up looking for dreamsnakes and hardly have the attention to spare for McIntyre’s ideas about what is alien and what is natural. There is a great pit in the floor of the valley, and Snake and Melissa are forced into it to receive an indoctrinating overdose of dreamsnake venom, that will tie them both to the owner of the pit, and the dreamsnakes, forever, and make them his slaves. But in the pit, Snake works out the reason why the healers never been able to get dreamsnakes to breed, and how she has to save Melissa from an overdose of biting. It’s very tense. And there’s a muted love story in there too between Snake and a nomad that I haven’t even begun to tell you about.

Dreamsnake is a great novel: stuffed with ideas, and beautifully told, very satisfying, making you want more of this world. For that you’ll need to read The Exile Waiting. Go to McIntyre’s website for details of her short stories and uncollected writing, there’s a lot there to rootle around in.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.

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Mister Justice, Doris Piserchia

mr_justiceMister Justice, Doris Piserchia (1973)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Science Fiction’s “New Wave” – the more experimental period in the late-’60s, early-’70s – is full of now-forgotten authors, such as Doris Piserchia. Piserchia’s career took a while to blossom: while her first short-story, ‘Rocket to Gehenna’, was first printed in 1966, her writing career didn’t really get started until 1973. That was when she wrote her first novel, Mister Justice; after that, her career took off. In the space of ten years she wrote thirteen novels, most of them science fiction paperback originals for DAW Books. Her works saw her associated with the US New Wave; two of her later novels were horror, under the pseudonym Curt Selby. And her exit from the genre was as spontaneous as her entrance: her last book was released in 1983, and that was all – she never wrote another SF piece again.

In an America where the justice system seems to be breaking down, a time-travelling vigilante going by the name Mister Justice is striking at criminals: after photographing their crimes in the past, he arrives in the future to enact revenge. Most criminals meet the same fate as their victims, but after a plea from the President, they are found in front of police stations bound and gagged and loaded down with incriminating evidence. The authorities cannot allow this spate of vigilantism to continue, and a triumvirate of Secret Service agents take young supergenius Daniel Jordan and train him to catch Mister Justice – conscripting a superboy to take on a superman. Meanwhile, one criminal seems to escape Mister Justice’s best efforts, a kingpin named Arthur Bingle, another time-traveller who’s begun to take over the world.

That sounds like a very neat plot structure, but the novel has a number of entwined subplots. Daniel’s training begins at a special school for eccentric geniuses, where he falls into a romance with Pala, an eleven-year-old Swiss orphan. (Shades of van Vogt’s supermen mixed with Heinlein’s inappropriate romances.) Pala is kidnapped during Daniel’s investigation, which throws him into despair. Later in the book, the focus is on Bingle and his cronies as they consolidate power; the government and police have collapsed into little more than licensed brigands, and Bingle’s army of “Numbers” make their move. It’s not clear whether society was already collapsing when Mister Justice began punishing criminals, or if he was part of the tipping point that caused a loss of faith in the justice system; that said, it wasn’t in that great a shape to begin with, when Mister Justice exposes the vice president as a criminal that the justice department has no interest in prosecuting.

The prose style is… unique? Parts of it are very dry and pulpy, simple “He did this. He thought that.” sentences. They become a chore when ten of them are stacked together to form a paragraph. (This is very true for the first chapter and early parts of chapter two; if you bear with it, the writing does improve.) Other times, the prose has a murky, dreamlike quality to it, snippets of greater brilliance that build later in the novel. The characters speak in oblique dialogue, and while it’s easy to piece together their meaning at times, I always felt like there was more going on than the story was willing to tell me. The structure, on the other hand, is always a hot mess. Piserchia has odd preferences for structure and appears to despise paragraph breaks; at one point, between one connected sentence and another is an unannounced time jump of some six years. Some of this can be construed as New Wave experimentation, and with some patience and attention to detail most things are obvious even if they were not spelled out. But it makes the novel a challenging read when the book itself actively works against the reader.

I’ve seen several people refer to Mister Justice as Piserchia’s best novel, which leaves me very apprehensive: I have five more of her books, and if this one is the best I can’t imagine how the others are. Her imagination is beyond brilliant, and the plot is full of excellent elements – the premise is great, many of its plot-threads are full of potential, and with a little work it could have been a New Wave classic of crime and punishment, or a surreal homage to the pulps. It’s a remarkable book. But Mister Justice felt like a novel condensed into a novella, leaving valuable context on the cutting room floor. It’s almost too spontaneous and subtle for a casual read, and won’t go over well with readers expecting traditional structure and coherence, but it could satiate fans looking for a stylistic New Wave SF deep cut that most will overlook. There’s enough positive reviews on the Doris Piserchia website to tell me it does have its fans.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthew

prisonerPrisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998)
Review by Ian Sales

Three years have passed since the events of An Exchange of Hostages. Bench Inquisitor Andrej Kosciusko has spent those years as Ship’s Doctor aboard the Fleet cruiser-killer Scylla, fulfilling a medical role rather than a torturer’s one. As the second book of Matthews’s series opens, Scylla is part of a fleet currently annexing the world of Eild for the Bench. An Eildish scout ship manages to infiltrate the cruiser-killer, and Kosciusko’s Bond-involuntaries – criminals sentenced to slavery as his security guards, their behaviour managed by a “governor” – find themselves in the thick of the fighting. They acquit themselves so well the captain recommends Revocation of Bond, which would make them free men once again. While that works its way up the chain of command, Kosciusko and his Bond-involuntaries are assigned to Port Rudistal, where Kosciusko will hold the Writ of Inquiry at the Domitt Prison. He will in other words, be the prison’s resident torturer.

But things at the Domitt Prison are not as, well, innocent as they seem. En route from the port, the three cars carrying Kosciusko and his staff are attacked. A mine blows up the lead car, killing several soldiers… and one of the Bond-involuntaries, the one loved the most by Kosciusko, in fact. It is grief for this man which blinds the inquisitor to the true conditions at the prison. He is so set on revenge that he misses what is really going on. Such as, the prison staff are entirely Pyana, but the prisoners are all Nurail. The prison is “filled to capacity”, but every cell is over-crowded. Different prisoners seem to share the same name. The kitchen doesn’t look as busy as it should. And so on.

If An Exchange of Hostages was a nasty novel inasmuch as its protagonist was learning to be a torturer, and practicing his craft as the book progressed… Prisoner of Conscience is much worse. The Pyana treatment of the Nurail is brutal, a thinly-disguised science-fictional treatment of ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. Prisoners are used on work details on projects which will financial benefit the prison administrator, and then murdered if they’re injured or become too weak to work. Othe prisoners are tortured as punishment, or even just for pleasure by sadistic prison staff.

It takes Kosciusko a while to notice all this because he’s so torn up over the death of his Bond-involuntary. And once he starts torturing prisoners – but he does it legally because it is on Record and under Writ – then a lust to inflict pain comes over him, and between that and the crippling angst that follows, he’s not much good for spotting prison irregularities. But spot them he does, eventually. Unfortunately, the prison administrator has a plan to neutralise Kosciusko before he can declare Failure of Writ to the judiciary…

Despite opening with a space battle, Prisoner of Conscience takes a chapter or two to get going. Partly this is because Matthews throws the reader right in at the deep end, making use of terms which she leaves unexplained, such as “maintenance atmosphere” or “carapace hull”. They look like they should parse easily, but there’s something a little bit off about them. It’s an effective world-building technique, but it does require patience from the reader.

The writing is also a little clumsy in the first few chapters, certainly clumsier than I remember from An Exchange of Hostages, with far too much use of “would”, and a tendency to repeat things a little too often. Kosciusko’s somewhat garbled diction also proves more annoying than not. However, in the book’s favour, Kosciusko doesn’t come across as quite so special a snowflake as he did in the first book – although the remaining cast are a little flat and interchangeable. With the exception, that is, of the prison administrator, who is a complete monster; and his assistant, a Nurail trustee who has thrown in his lot with the Pyana, who spends the entire book admiring the administrator’s intelligence.

If Prisoner of Conscience is a slight dip in quality after An Exchange of Hostages, Matthews’s Jurisdiction series is still one of the more interesting to appear in US science fiction. Admittedly, the plot to this book is also quite monstrous, and sensibilities have changed such in the years since it was written that readers will probably struggle more with the atrocities it describes than they might have done in the late 1990s. But the books are definitely worth persevering with, and it’s a shame Matthews’s career seems to have imploded when Meisha Merlin collapsed shortly after the turn of the millennium.

The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey

the-ship-who-sang-1The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)
Review by Kate Macdonald

I’ve been reading one of Anne McCaffrey’s earliest novels, from 1969, The Ship Who Sang. It was first published as short stories in various SF magazines from the early 1960s. The stories are linked episodes in the story of Helva, a woman born with severe birth defects who passed the neurological tests to join the brain ship programme. She is encased in a titanium shell with neurological and emotional links to her spaceship, and travels the galaxies as a working vessel. She can talk to whoever she wants to by tight beam, she can magnify all her senses to know exactly what is going on in her ship at any level, and when she’s without human cargo she has the power to travel faster than any human normally could. Her eyes don’t work, but her visual senses are perfect. Her special talent is singing, which she does multivocally once she’s taught herself how to manipulate her voicebox and larynx with her implanted microphones. The technology McCaffrey invokes to suggest hi-tech solutions and a perfect match of body and machine are vague, but scientifically persuasive.

McCaffrey wrote in the fantasy and science fiction genres simultaneously. Once she became famous for her dragons of Pern books (fantasy) and had developed a canon, she co-wrote science fiction novels with younger writers, mainly to give them a boost, but also, I think, to refresh her own inspiration. Twenty years after the publication of The Ship Who Sang McCaffrey invented a new series of novels about the brain ships, by sharing her old idea with new writers, to give a good old idea new life for new readers (The Ship Who Won, The City that Fought, etc.). The Ship Who Sang is the only novel of the series by McCaffrey alone, and while it’s not the strongest in terms of writing, or emotional impact, it was a trailblazer, and has most of the best ideas and most inspiring science, written in a woman-oriented way.

So, Helva is the ship, but she works with a partner, called a ‘brawn’, a human pilot with whom she can partner till death, or can accept temporarily. This is an obvious analogy to a marriage, but since Helva is permanently sealed away from human touch, and would die if she were removed from her nutrient fluid, her relationships are working partnerships where the partners must be emotionally in tune without the help of physical contact. Partners can be in love with each other: Helva’s first partner dies on a mission, and several of the stories are about her struggling with her grief and desire for suicide. Brawns can develop fixations on their brain partners, which leads to dangerous situations, since they could, potentially, open the shell, with catastrophic results for the people, and for the Company’s investment in brain ship training and medical care. Brain partners like Helva have to be emotionally mature to handle the psychological demands of both physical confinement and separation from the human world, because you can’t run away from your mind. Relationships and how to negotiate them are the main focus in these early stories, using the male-female dynamic to show how characters differ as a reaction to personal trauma. The plots of the stories are very concerned with health: physical health, mental health, drug addiction, the maintenance of good gene pools on distant planets, the effects of unknown viruses, and the threat of psychosis. There is no heavy weaponry in these stories: all conflict is handled and resolved with psychology, and Helva’s manipulation of her own skills and toolkit.

The first story is about acceptance: humans accepting the brain ships as responsible adults, rather than indentured slaves of the Central Worlds, who are the equivalent of an intergalactic UN. Helva teams up with her first brawn, he dies in an accident, and she learns that her life is important without him. Helva’s grief is about the loss of a man she loves, but also about her need for companionship in her working life as well. The dynamics of how two people work together in confined spaces, in difficult situations, over time and space, where privacy and personal space are limited: all are tackled in this story, and in most of the others, with remarkable economy. You can’t help but be reminded that McCaffrey knows all this stuff from life. She was divorced, after all.

Mourning continues in the second episode, when Helva takes Theoda, a physiotherapist, to a planet where most of the population have been paralysed by a space plague. Her vision adjustments can detect microscopic reactions from these doomed people to the ancient techniques of rehab applied by the therapist, and this shows the survivors how they can rehabilitate their people, particularly the children who will relearn movement fastest: another triumph of an augmented human-machine response. Whether Helva’s contribution is because she is a woman is not the point. She’s interested in people, and supports the therapist’s mission by participating because Theoda interests her. Empathy, a need to help, a desire to assist, are not solely feminine characteristics, but in presenting them as so important, so crucial for the plot, and so desirable in a well-adjusted and normal person who happens to be female, McCaffrey shows us that women using such skills are highly valuable in society. (This was 1969, remember.)

The next story is the one has a B-movie plot, and a gratuitous use of Bob Dylan. I really don’t like it when real-world people are brought into fiction. It drags the plot back from imagination to dreary reappropriation, and it dates the story indelibly, producing an impression of lack of imagination rather than enthusiastic hommage. I’m sure I’ve seen this plot on Star Trek several times, and I think it pops up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well: a deranged brain ship mourning her dead brawn by enslaving the local population with her voice to kill themselves as a sacrifice to He Who Orders. Helva’s new brawn is a woman in mourning because her husband died before they could store their genes, and her disastrous first childbirth killed the baby and prevented her from having more. She and Helva have to pick up donations of embryos in plastic ribbon to repopulate a planet which lost its gene pool, and they are lured to a place where life is an abomination and death is an act of devout sacrifice, all aided by hallucigenic gases from volcanic eruptions. McCaffrey’s focus here is on motherhood and nurturing life: the ethics of creating test-tube embryos are easily upheld by having a very obvious villain object to them. The motherhood / midwife role played by two women who physically cannot have children is a very targeted way to concentrate on exactly what motherhood is, and what the body’s role actually is: another feminist debate.

The fourth story gives Helva more people to play with, a group of actors whom she is transporting across the galaxies to perform Romeo and Juliet to a planet of jellyfish who communicate in the language of physics. How would you enact “Soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” in equations? The actors, and Helva (she has perfect recall, she can play any part required, and it turns out she can act quite well) are transported into jellyfish shells to perform, and find the experience of exchanging energies in the performance of the play almost too overwhelming to survive. This story is about selflessness and ego, about denying your own needs for the benefit of others, or being totally selfish. The snottiest actor is an egotistical madam who specialises in ruining scenes and upstaging others to get her own way, and to prove her skills. (I should mention that McCaffrey used also to work in theatre: she’s writing off some old grievances here, I think.) Trouble is, to survive best in the jellyfish environment, ego is necessary, and what a shame that the egotistical one ends up trapped there, no longer able to use her body and physicality to attract attention, but must rely on her mental and emotional powers, finally forced to play true to her actorly skills.

Torture and sensory deprivation are the subject of the next story, and also attack. Helva gets kidnapped by a deranged brawn and has her synapses disconnected, she can no longer hear or see. She never could smell, taste or touch, so her only senses have been turned off. How she copes, and gets herself out of the situation, are down to strong willpower, inner mental resources, and intelligence, the management and recall of data that will give her an idea to neutralise her attacker, and allow help to come. How would you kill someone if you only had a voice? McCaffrey’s emphasis on self-reliance comes back again here: in this story Helva’s brawn is a total git, an arrogant, patronising male stereotype who thinks of Helva only as a sophisticated computer without a personality, and so she kicks him off her ship, divorcing him not so much for his personal failings and terrible judgement, but for failing to understand who she is and what she needs. If that’s not feminist action I don’t know what is.

The last story gives Helva a kind of closure, because she finally meets her man, her perfect brawn, whom we have encountered in all the stories so far, in a very traditional romance pattern: the one man with whom she is continually arguing is of course the one man for her. I find this disappointing because it’s so predictable. It’s also a reminder that all the authority figures in these stories are men: that is a feminist fail that McCaffrey went on to try to do something about in her later novels, but never really got a grip on. The Ship Who Sang is a great way to set out ideas, and to explore some really important ideas about women and power and strength, but if only she had continued in this way.

This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading and publishing.