The Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey (1982)
Review by Mike Dalke
Prior to Anne McCaffrey’s death in November 2011, I had heard only good things about the author’s work – her ability to snare the reader with wonder and enrapture the reader in adventure. With her passing, I took advice from a number of posts on Amazon’s Science Fiction forum and bought one of the author’s novels: The Crystal Singer. The synopsis is obviously science fiction but the word “crystal” carries many fantasy connotations with it, a cousin of the science fiction genre which I scorn. When taking the rest of McCaffrey’s bibliography into scope, words like “dragon”, “unicorn” and “Pegasus” are notable, all of which instantly turn me off… but her popular Dragons of Pern series, often recommended by others, is a testament to her talent, so I assumed. Regardless, after two years of sitting on my shelf, the book found its way into my hands in December’s to-read stack.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Killashandra thought her world had ended when she was told she would never become a concert singer. And then she met the stranger from off-world.
He said he was a Crystal Singer – one of the unique ones of the Galaxy—and when Killashandra tried to find out what a Crystal Singer was the answers were vague, obtuse. All she could discover was that they were special people, shrouded in mystery, and danger, and beauty – and something altogether incomprehensible.
It was then that she decided she too must try and become a Crystal Singer.”
A promising student of vocal talent for 10 years, the culmination of Killashandra’s study ends with damning praise from Maestro Valdi: “You have the gift of perfect pitch, your musicality is faultless … But there is that burr in your voice which becomes intolerable in the higher register” (p 10). Her dreams shattered by her one mentor, she dwells upon a life of unfulfilled dreams and pathetic careers when compared to her idealized ambition of becoming a top-rank concert singer. Sulking at the Fuertan spaceport restaurant and sipping wine for her jangled nerves, her talent is serendipitously recognized when the piercing whine of descending craft disturbs her extra-perceptive senses and an enigmatic Crystal Singer named Carrik enters himself into her life, her abating lonesomeness, and her future.
Given ample warning of a Crystal Singer’s lifelong dedication to art and idiosyncratic solitude, Killashandra Ree (Killa) shrugs off the advice and follows a whimsy compulsion to attain the status of Crystal Singer. Her aspiration is multiplied by the luxurious lifestyle Carrik pours upon her and even more so by the unfortunate injuries he sustains when the faulty screech of an ascending craft predictably explodes, rendering Carrik unconscious and likely to never revive. Even with the Maestro’s damning words of a Crystal Singer as a “silicate spider paralyzing its prey, a crystal cuckoo pushing the promising fledglings from their nests” (p 33), Killa follows the disabled Carrik to the home of Crystal Singers – Ballybran – where she will strive to learn to become a Crystal Singer like Carrik.
However, one does not simply become a Crystal Singer. One must be accepted by the Heptite Guild (with its 4,425 singer members and 20,007 support staff) and, most importantly, one must be exposed to the planet’s crystal spore symbiote, a “carbon-silicate occurring in the unorthodox environmental economy of Ballybran” which improves human “visual acuity, tactile perceptions, nerve conduction and cellular adaptation” (p 72). The transition is not without its own peril, where some under its transition experience a failed change leading to sensual loss or even death; then there are others, a select few without any prerequisite for doing so, undergo a Milekey transition (named after one of the founders) where they exhibit no ill effects – only a greatly enhanced corporeal tactility. Killa, the envy of her fellow recruits, is lucky enough to experience a Milekey transition and is able to be first out in the field with crystals glimmering near her very eye: shards of pink, slivers of green and splinters of the most sought-after crystal in human space – the Black Quartz.
The crystals, some exclusive to Ballybran, are used in a variety of industries ranging from “integrated circuit substrates” to “musical instruments” and applied to “tachyon drive systems” (p 24). The legendary and outrageously expensive black crystal has its own specific function, a utilization which human space cannot live without: instantaneous communication across five hundred light years. When black quartz is segmented, the parts of the crystal are still “able to achieve simultaneous synchronization” (p 24) with its counterparts when subjected to “synchronized magnetic induction” (p 48), thus allowing for the “most effective and accurate communications network known in the galaxy” (p 121-122).
The cutting of crystal, whether the lowly pink or the resplendent black, is a solitary affair done by a singer in their own claimed tract on the planet. Killa already has the reputation of being resonant with Black Quartz having handled it from one singer’s supply whose ship crashed onto the Guild’s headquarters. With an uncanny inkling, Killa ventures out to stake her own claim on the planet of Ballybran where crystal could make her fortune or be her demise. Some of her former classmates steep in jealousy of her meteoric rise to minor singer fame; another more authoritative figure, Guild Master Lanzecki, first acts avuncularly towards the promising pupil but when her talents begin to develop, so too does their relationship.
Self-pressured by her quest for professional glory, clearly on the road to crystal fame, Killa does not indulge in childish temerarious acts of whim. Rather than openly socialize with her peers on a bonhomous plain, Killa is reserved, favoring her cultural sense of privacy, yet autonomously finds herself in submission to the electrifyingly erotic kisses of Lanzecki and the alluring captivation of the soulfully resonant Black Quartz. Her last prandial intemperance is Yarran beer. Frequently consuming the semi-narcotic brew, she doesn’t allow herself to gormandize herself into inebriation; reservation defines her.
Her ascent to singer stardom peaks when she is guided under the tutelage of the experienced yet absent-minded Moksoon. His grace of cut and dexterity of handling gives Killa what she needs for her first jaunt on her own tract of land, the same tract where the Black Quartz originated. Armed with her cutter, a piezo-electirc device tuned by her perfect pitch, Killa is ready to unburden herself of the surmountable debt which the Guild places on all cadets; Killa’s debt is soon to be absolved but her vernal duty to humanity nulls the bounty of her first crystal trove. Thence, after her debacle, Killa is called to duty during a time when all crystal singers are at their most vulnerable: Ballybran’s epic planet-wide mach storm during the three-moon syzygy and spring equinox.
Will this reprieve be a blessing in disguise?
According to The Crystal Singer’s Wikipedia page (see here), the novel is partly autobiographical as Anne McCaffrey herself had also trained as a vocalist but eventually “suffered a crisis when she was informed that a flaw in her voice would limit her in that avocation”… much like Killasandra. So, it seems McCaffrey attempted to intertwine part of her life story and the mysticism of crystals with speculative crystal science. Regardless of my distaste for crystals, lutes, cloaks, and other figurative fantasy language, The Crystal Singer is actually a solid through and through success with the only fault being repetitiveness.
According Google’s Ngram Viewer, “crystal” was a more popular word in literature in the early 1960s but much less than the 1970s and 1980s. I have a friend of an older generation who adores crystals and all their mystical properties. He’ll talk on and on about the benefits of using crystals and the auspiciousness of finding natural crystals. It really puts me off and I have no idea how he goes on about when I have nothing to add to the conversation without being rude and saying, “Jesus, that’s all bullshit!” Typically, when crystals are used in science fiction I see it as a weak inclusion to any plot, like no other idea could have been thought up; prime irksome examples of such are:
- the “crystal nodes” in Pohl & Williamson’s Reefs of Space (1963),
- the “mysterious alien crystal” in Greenleaf’s The Pandora Stone (1984), and
- the “crystal flute” in Van Scoyc’s Cloudcry (1977).
However, McCaffrey’s inclusion of crystals in her plot is central rather that peripheral, occasionally returning to the science or use of the crystals in her fictional universe. Because of Killa’s rapture singing and gazing at her crystals, because the Guild of singers is held almost sacrosanct, the mystical affiliation with crystal cannot be ignored. Not all applications of the crystal sound plausible, like the instantaneous transmission of data between sections of the same Black Quartz (quantum entanglement [Einstein’s spooky action at a distance]?). Crystals aren’t beyond the scope of our modern understanding of physics… I doubt any planet’s geography could produce physics-bending materials. Also, the cutting device which is tonally linked to the perfect pitch vocalist cutter sounds a bit silly, but I tried to put it behind me and be immersed in the fine narrative.
The narrative is very easy to become lost in for two reasons: first, McCaffrey’s writing is beautiful, engaging, emotive, and descriptive; last, McCaffrey is deft with her plot which has no notable crests or troughs in the “action”. The 302 pages feel like seamless plateau, far from featureless but even and tempered (not in the musical sense). Each of the thirteen chapters, lasting 22 pages on average, continue on without pause until its end, but even then the chapter divisions are flawless… more of a pause in thought than a chronological gap. It’s a breeze to read!
But her writing isn’t all flowers, crystals, and verbose language. McCaffrey has one knick in her grammar armor which annoys me greatly: she over uses the emphatic did before simple present tense verbs (verb 1). A smattering of examples: “I did remember that all right” (p 26), “I did tap data retrieval” (p 47), “She did cast surreptitious glances” (p 55), “her nervous system tingled with the after effect, she did groan” (p 63), “The drink did clear the last miasma of the threshold test” (p 63), “I did hear her come out” (p 93), “She did skim along the first ridges” (p 99). Either McCaffrey is being overly emphatic or she has chosen to present past tense actions by using did + verb 1 rather than simply using verb 2 forms. Either way, it got under my skin.
Lastly, it seems as if Killasandra likes her beer; more specifically, she likes loves Yarran beer. How much does she like it? Well, it’s mentioned 38 times (according to my count). Maybe the beer her more sociable, making Killa come out from her cocoon of privacy which she is used to thereby characterizing her as a butterfly. But 38 times? That’s a bit overkill.
If you’re not distracted by the emphatic use of did and the over abundant Yarran beer, then The Crystal Singer should be an easy, breezy read full of wonderment and growth. Don’t expect a crescendo, an escalation, a fitting conclusion, a chase scene or bodice ripping. McCaffrey sets the pace slow and steady, kind of like a placid boat ride with your grandparents… just shinier, more entertaining.
This review originally appeared on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature.