The Sunbound, Cynthia Felice (1981)
Review by Ian Sales
Allis runs a successful tool and die company, but when her partner dies on a desert camping trip, and admits with his dying breath that he’s not from Earth, and then a pair of crew from his alien ship turn up and take her away with them… Daneth was a “star gypsy” and a “stone-carrier”. He was also co-captain of the Sovereign Sun, a spaceship which travelled throughout the occupied galaxy by harnessing the power of the solar winds for interplanetary travel… and using “gravity slips” for interstellar travel. And that “stone” which Daneth gifted to Allis on his death-bed is a telephathic communications device, rare enough to force the gypsies to kidnap her. To make matters worse, the Sovereign Sun‘s other co-captain Milani was Daneth’s lover, is also a stone-carrier, and bitterly resents that Allis now has Daneth’s stone. (When given with love, the stones live; otherwise they die.)
It’s an interesting set-up, made more so by the fact it is happening now out there – Earth is as we know it, or rather knew it in 1981, but the civilisation which spawned the gypsies and their ships, and the various humanoid races with which they trade, all exist out in the galaxy. Allis’s resentment at being kidnapped, her reluctance to accept the stone Daneth gave her, and Milani’s hatred of her for that reason are all excellent engines to drive a plot. But…
Well, there are a couple of problematical aspects to The Sunbound, and in this day and age it’s hard to overlook them. In the universe of the gypsies – who are all, incidentally, tall and pale-skinned, suffering genetic damage from years of space-based living, and have trouble breeding – trade between worlds is pretty much controlled by a race of humanoids called the Watchers. These were the first to realise the usefulness of the artefacts left behind by the long-vanished Quondam Beings (the results of a thesaurus search, if ever I saw one) and use them to build an advanced civilisation. And they’re still keen to find such artefacts – even if the host civilisation is not aware of what they possess. In fact, the Watchers stood by and let the gypsies destroy their homeworld in a nuclear war in order to profit in this trade, but those gypsies travelling between worlds survived… but had to sell the secret of the gravity slips to the Watchers to safeguard their survival.
It’s an interesting set-up, and used well, except… the Watchers are described as brown-skinned and turban-wearing, and they not only breed people for specific roles in their society but actually breed, or interfere in the womb as fetuses, their women to be mentally subnormal. One Watcher character even brags of one of his wives, “I put her down a while ago, when her vagina lost elasticity” (p 139). Seriously, WTF? And the mention of turbans and brown skin, the racial profiling, of the Watchers smacks of Islamaphobia, never mind racism.
That the plot later involves the crew of the Sovereign Sun being waylaid by pirate gypsies, and the survivors – which includes all the major characters – put to forced labour aboard the pirate ship, does nothing to offset the racist portrait of the Watchers. The pirates may be gypsies, and so white, and may treat the protagonists badly… but the villains of the piece are most definitely the Watchers. The pirates are irredeemably evil, but in this instance they’re acting under the instructions of a Watcher, and so their villainy is by definition an extension of his character.
The whole thing spoils what might otherwise have been a fun, if undemanding, science fiction novel if its time. True, the hatred between Allis and Milani begins to wear thin after a while, and the fact the two must eventually overcome their differences and cooperate is pretty much obvious from the novel’s start… And the general concept of the universe, with its Quondam Beings and assorted humanoid races living in their ruins, is intriguing… But the positioning of the Watchers as turbaned brown people who treat their women like pampered animals leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.
It’s a shame because Felice’s first novel, Godsfire, wasn’t half bad, and the novel following The Sunbound, 1983’s Eclipses sounds worth a read (Felice re-issued all her novels on Kindle in 2012 and 2013). I will continue to keep an eye open for her books, but I cannot in good conscience recommend The Sunbound.