Bibblings, Barbara Paul (1979)
Review by Ian Sales
After nearly five years reviewing for SF Mistressworks, not to mention some of the research I’ve done for my own writing, I had thought I was reasonably well-informed on women science fiction writers of the twentieth century, especially those who had published novels. Even so, Barbara Paul was a name that had slipped me by, even though two of her novels – including Bibblings – were published in the UK. Having said that, she managed to produce five sf novels between 1978 and 1980, and a Star Trek novelisation in 1988, before turning to writing murder-mystery novels, which she continued to do until 1997.
Bibblings is Paul’s third sf novel, and it’s an entertaining mix of first contact, sf puzzle-story, and light humour, with a likeable narrator/protagonist and a central conceit that’s not at all difficult to figure out… although it does suffer from being somewhat lightweight. The narrator, Valerie Chester, is a member of a six-person team in the Diplomatic Corps of the Federation of United Worlds. Lodon-Kamaria is not in the Federation, but it does possess extensive deposits of alphidium, which the Federation wants. Unfortunately, the two nations of the planet, called, er, Lodon and Kamaria, have been in a perpetual state of war for generations. And the alphidium is beneath the mountain range which forms the spine of the continent they share, and the barrier between the two nations and the battleground on which they fight. Valerie’s team has been sent in to try and effect a peace between the two countries – or, failing that, to recommend which one the Federation should “assist” in defeating the other.
Unfortunately, a problem quickly presents itself when the team land in Lodon: the Lodonites are either insane or blind drunk, and when they’re not blind drunk they’re insane. Only the neuters, the race’s third gender, are unaffected – and they spend all their time looking after the others and keeping them topped up with the local whiskey. Not only does this make diplomatic relations difficult, but Valerie and the rest of the team cannot even understand how the Lodonites have managed to keep the Kamarians at bay for so long.
So they visit Kamaria… and it couldn’t be more of a contrast. The Kamarians are smart and well-organised, entirely sober and completely sane. However, they can’t remember what triggered the war between the two nations, but they do know the Lodonites cannot be trusted and any sort of peace is out of the question… Oh, and there are these small golden birds, the bibblings of the title, everywhere…
When the Kamarians make reference to a “time of strength” and a “time of weakness”, and the diplomats notice that all the Lodonites fighting in the mountains are neuters, whereas the Kamarian soldiers are male and female… And then the Kamarians start preparing for the impending migration across the mountains of the bibblings by laying in stores of food and jars of whiskey…
To be fair, the focus of Bibblings is never on solving the puzzle. Two of the diplomatic team are medical doctors, and they quickly discover the organism carried by the bibblings which causes the periods of madness and lucidity. And the fact it’s linked to fertility. While a medical solution is quickly proposed, getting the Lodonites and the Kamarians to cease hostilities once they will no longer each suffer a “time of weakness” each year proves somewhat harder to implement.
Paul’s prose is light and readable, she doesn’t make a nine-course banquet out of the relatively simple puzzle presented by Lodon-Kamaria, and she works through the political and diplomatic consequences of the solution with internal consistency and common sense. Perhaps the set-up is not entirely plausible – the fact the Lodonites and Kamarians have never progressed beyond a slow war of attrition in the mountains as a solution – and even the similarity of the two races to human beings is never commented upon (despite the presence of a neuter gender). As backgrounds go, it’s sketchy at best; Paul spends much more words on detailing the characters and biographies of her six diplomats. Which gives the odd impression that Valerie is telling this story to someone – but it’s never explained who. It is, to my mind, one of the chief failures of first-person narratives – they’re cheap story-telling because they’re easy to write, when they should only exist because the viewpoint is crucial to the plot. But, as they say, Your Mileage May Vary…
Bibblings is not a book which asks to be looked into too deeply, but that’s equally true of a vast proportion of the science fiction corpus. It’s an entertainingly light and fast read, and it has not appreciably dated. True, the neuters get short shrift, and a running joke about the diplomatic team being nicknamed the “Anglo-Saxon Invaders” really should have been avoided… But Paul’s prose is assured, her plotting doesn’t miss a beat, and though the novel is only 169 pages everything the plot needs is in there. Those were the days, when novels didn’t need to be the size of Zeppelin hangars in order to tell a story set in, or on, another world. Admittedly, authors often managed such short wordcounts by presenting the entire universe as little more than middle America in different coloured hats – and Paul is no less guilty here than others of her time. But size isn’t always a virtue. Nor, for that matter, is brevity. Bibblings is a fun read, but it’s not a book to set the genre alight, either back in 1979 or now. And, sometimes, we have to be content with that.