A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

The world of Marah was settled by religious zealots some six hundred years ago, but shortly after founding their colony the men began to sicken and die. And so they discovered the world was home to a virus which kills nine out of ten boys when they reach puberty. And still does so. Now a small minority of men rules a much larger population of women, in a theocratic society spread across Marah’s single continent in a number of towns and ranches. As A Voice Out of Ramah opens, a starship has arrived at Marah, the first to visit the world since it was colonised. The starship is from a corporation which leases “shuttleboxes” to human colony worlds. These can be used to transport people and materials instantaneously from world to world – but, of course, there’s that virus, which must not be allowed to escape Marah…

Alesdra Pontokouros is the liaison officer for Intergalactic Communications ramjet Galactic Rose, and she has landed on Marah with a security officer. But then the security officer, a young man, is taken ill. The two of them are taken to the city of Gibeon, and handed over to Shepherd Jared, head of the local Temple and de facto head of the city. When the security officer dies of the virus, Jared is very much shaken by the death. So much so, in fact, that he rebels against the one thing that holds together Marahn society, its greatest secret – that the men developed a resistance to the virus within a handful of generations and now, six hundred years later, the Shepherds and their Deacons in the Temples deliberately, and randomly, poison ninety percent of the male children when they reach puberty.

Some authors might have made this annual near-genocide the point of their story, the horrible mystery at the heart of a repressive religious regime, committed solely in order to keep the men in charge. But Killough is telling a different tale. A Voice Out of Ramah is about Shepherd Jared, not Pontokouros – she is sent off to the capital, Eridu, to meet the Bishop, who delays his decision regarding the shuttlebox for no apparent reason. Jared decides it is time to stop the Trial, the killing of the boys, and he plans to do this by blackmailing the Bishop: he will tell Pontokouros the truth if the poisoning does not stop. Unfortunately, one of Jared’s Deacons has long been a rival, is in fact busy working to unseat the Shephard, and as soon as he realises Jared’s intentions, he seizes control and imprisons him. But Jared manages to escape. However, in order to confront the Bishop he has to travel several hundred kilometres across the continent to Eridu. The only way he can do this is to disguise himself as a woman (a not implausible disguise – Killough has laid sufficient groundwork for it to be physically believable). Of course, during his journey Jared learns the true nature of Marahn society – that the women may defer to the men in all things but they pretty much do everything they want anyway and the men’s power is mostly an illusion.

Having said that, the novel is not without its faults. That six hundred years, for one, feels too long an interval to be entirely plausible. Religious zealotry, and the theocracies it all too often generates, is a soft target and one at which science fiction has often taken potshots; but even so a society that has progressed so little over six centuries is not entirely believable. And, while Jared’s wish to end the Trial after witnessing the security officer’s death from the virus is an understandable change of heart, he overthrows his upbringing a little too readily when disguised as a woman during his journey to Eridu. There is a particularly well-drawn scene when the group of women with which Jared has taken refuge – they are driving some rapas (saurian riding animals) to market at a town several days’ ride away – and who are unaware of his masquerade, are visited by the male head of a local ranch. The man is arrogant, ignorant, and convinced of the sagacity of the advice he gives – it’s a classic case of “mansplaining”. It is this sort of behaviour we are expected to accept Jared dropped the moment he went into hiding.

And yet… The fact Killough has chosen to focus her story on the women-run society of Marah in order to show up the delusion under which the men rule, rather than make a meal of the Trial, the horrible secret at the society’s heart… this makes A Voice Out of Ramah a surprisingly fun and charming read. More than that, it’s a story about women and a society run by women – even if the chief protagonist is male – and it handles its social dimension with an appealing confidence and matter-of-factness. I had not really expected to like this novel as much as I did; but the more I read, the less important the somewhat simplistic theocratic framework became… the less of a hurdle the easy acceptance of the Trial became… the more I wanted Jared to succeed no matter the consequences – and Killough is very clear on the likely outcome of his plan. In fact, it’s the easy camaraderie of Marahn society outside the Temples that is one of the novel’s chief attractions. There are other elements which also appeal, such as the references to a “pre-Marahn” society, and even a visit to a city of ruins by Pontokouros and a Marahn guide.

For all its theocratic setting, A Voice Out of Ramah is  a very likeable science fiction novel. I don’t know if Killough has written more novels in the same universe, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for her other books.

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