The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973)
Review by Ian Sales
My previous experience of St Clair’s writing had been only with her short fiction, but I thought I had some idea of what her novels might be like. In fact, The Dancers of Noyo read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s sometimes hard to tell with US science fiction novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of his tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. Neither is the reader, as St Clair fails to explain the purpose of the dancing, or why the tribes – and it seems they all have one – each have an android Dancer. Because he refuses to dance, Sam is sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany.
En route, Sam begins to relive the lives of people from earlier – chiefly from last decades of the twentieth century – including a dead young woman being autopsied, and a man who may have been patient zero for the “bone melt” plague which drastically depopulated the Earth. Sam then meets up with the daughter of the man who invented the android Dancers, and she leads him to her dead father’s secret underground laboratory. Where Sam must defeat some of the monsters which roam the underground complex…
While The Dancers of Noyo opens much like any other science fiction novel of its time, with its Republic of California, and a village society which borrows freely from Native Americans, and feels much like hippy films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But St Clair doesn’t seem to know what story she is actually telling. The past lives experienced by Sam as he travels south don’t seem to belong to the main plot – which involves indvertently breaking the tribes free of the android Dancers. It’s all a bit Easy Rider, but with some weird science fiction twist based on the sort of secretive research programmes people believed governments were undertaking – not unlike the sort of thinking which inspired Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.
Unfortunately, the result is a novel which is very much a product of its time. It’s tempting to think she made up the story as she went along – common practice in sf in those days – but it reads more as if she couldn’t be bothered to turn a promising start into a plot that made sense. It was her last novel.