Aventine, Lee Killough

aventineAventine, Lee Killough (1982)
Review by Ian Sales

Short story collections set in a single locale are nothing new in science fiction – nor, indeed, in fiction as a whole. The same might also be said of stories set in an artists’ colony – whether it is St Ives, Cornwall, or Laguna Beach, California, or an entirely different planet altogether. The seven stories in Aventine are set in the eponymous town, located in the mountains an hour by “cabletrain” from Gateside, a galactic transport hub. An introduction expains how Aventine was once an artists’ colony but it is now chiefly populated by the rich and famous and reclusive – each story revolves around someone who is famous, although their narrators generally are not (all of the stories are in the first-person).

‘The Siren Garden’ is told by one of Aventine’s artisanal tradesmen. He specialises in “silicavitae”, singing gems, which are actually a crystalline lifeform. One day, the beautiful wife of a rich and pwoerful man walks into the narrator’s shop. She becomes fascinated with the gems, spending more and more time in the shop – and the narrator, of course, falls in love with her. She persuades him to design a garden of singing gems, and even finds a way to limit the gems’ sensitivity – as the sounds they make reflect the emotions of the people around them. Her motives, however, are not as pure as the narrator had believed… as he eventually discovers.

‘Tropic of Eden’ is also centred around a beautiful woman, and a narrator who falls in love with her. This woman is a famous actress, and the narrator is one of Aventine’s artists, a sculptor. She commissions a piece from him, a psychotropic sculpture. The more time he spends with her, the more he is puzzled by the actress’s young cousin – except, of course, she is not a cousin at all, as her close resemblance to the actress indicates.

‘A House Divided’ follows the same pattern of as the previous two stories: a beautiful woman moves to Aventine and one of Aventine’s male residents, who initially enters into a professional relationship with her, falls in love, and it all ends badly. The woman in this case has two distinct personalities – one which is in a fugue state when the other is dominant, while the other remains aware at all times. The first is frightened of the second, and although they have agreed to share their body, six months each per year, she is afraid the other is trying to take over permanently.

‘Broken Stairways, Walls of Time’ slightly reverses the pattern, inasmuch as the man is the visitor to Aventine and the woman the resident. However, they had been lovers years before – also in Aventine – and he has returned to record a holo symphony featuring some of the more indulgent architecture of the town’s wealthy homeowners. One of which is his ex-lover, once a famous singer but now a total recluse, who surrounds herself with holographic facsimiles of herself.

‘Shadow Dance’ returns to the template: the leader of a male dance troupe is commissioned to choreograph and stage a dance routine for a beautiful woman. The lead male dancer falls in love with the woman’s daughter, and the two decided to run away together. But once the mother learns of this, and accepts that her daughter’s life is her own, the romance is shown to be a sham (on the daughter’s part, that is) to provoke precisely that reaction. The troupe leader has artificial eyes, which can also see in the infra red, as can the mother, and the dance is designed to be seen at that wavelength as well as in visible light.

‘Ménage Outré’ features a famous novelist and his reclusive sister (she is, unlike all the other women in the collection, plain, and has not had “cosmetisculpture” or plastic surgery to remedy this, as is commonplace). A woman rents the property next door, and proves to be a famous cosmetisculpturer… who has surrounded herself with a coterie of grotesques – a hunchbacked dwarf, a snake lady, a lizard man, etc, people who have been surgically altered to be the opposite of standard ideals of beauty. Although the story is about them, they’re little more than ciphers, furniture agianst which the plot regarding the three main characters is played out.

Finally, in ‘Bête et Noir’, the roles are partly reversed – the narrator is a famous actor, who has come to Gateside to appear in a theatre verité play. She will play the lover of a trader who is forced to hand her over as hostage to his alien backer until he has sold a valuable cargo. Theatre verité uses no scripts, only rough notes on the plot, and detailed biographies. The actors take a pill, an “angel”, which creates the role’s personality. The director of the play, however, has more in mind than just impressing an audience.

As I read these stories, something about each one struck me as familiar. I’ve no memory of reading Aventine before – nor does it appear in my records, although I only began recording the books I read some two decades after starting to read science fiction. So it is possible I read this book sometime during the 1980s or earlier, and have since forgotten it. On the other hand, Eric Brown has written several stories, also set in an artists’ colony on another world, which are similar in tone and affect – and I know I’ve read those. But perhaps it’s simply that each story in Aventine seems to follow an established template – man meets beautiful woman (he’s usually a tradesman, she is someone famous), falls in love with her… only for it all to go horribly wrong. More than anything, the similarity of the stories makes the collection feel like a television series, one in which similar characters act out similar histories and so meet similar ends. And yet, despite that, Aventine is not a dull read. The prose is very readable, the individual situations different enough to be memorable, and the setting familiar enough to make the stories simple to parse. You could do much worse than read this book.

The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough

monitor_miners_shreeThe Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, Lee Killough (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Science fiction has in the decades since the first issue of Amazing Stories appeared published some books with cringe-inducing titles. Lee Killough’s The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree, while very descriptive, is by no means the worse… but it’s still a bit of a toecurler. The monitor is the official leading an expedition to study the Shree, the race native to the world of Nira – it is the monitor’s job to ensure the researchers do not reveal themselves to the primitive Shree. Unfortunately, they soon discover that the eponymous miners have already made a deal with the natives…

I have to wonder if the Star Trek movie Insurrection was not in part inspired by Killough’s novel, since the idea of secret research establishment spying on unsophisticated natives as protrayed here predates the movie. But there all resemblance ends. Because shortly after arrival on Nira, the research station is attacked, its staff gassed and abducted by a security team from the miners. But monitor Chemel Krar manages to escape. She is taken in by a tribe of Shree, who can fly and live in large caves in cliffs, and slowly learns their language… and what is really going on.

The miners struck a deal with the Shree a couple of centuries before, and have even fed them one or two ideas and items beyond the Shree’s current level of sophistication. But the Shree seemed to have accepted all this with equanimity, and have just been getting on with their lives. Their view of themselves and their place in the universe has not been adversely affected – mostly thanks to their reverence for Shishi’ka, a godlike figure (there are, incidentally, a few too many apostrophes in this novel). Krar learns that Shishi’ka is a real person – and works for the miners. He’s a member of a long-lived race, and was a member of the first mining party to land on Nira.

In and of itself, this isn’t that much of a surprise to Krar. Because every character in The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is an alien. There are no humans. Krar herself is a Cheolon, and one of her researchers was a Mianai, a race who routinely live for almost a millennium. And yet the aliens themselves are not especially, well, alien. There are references to their physiologies – Krar is fond of rubbing “a brow tuft”, for example. While this does make the characters symapthetic to the reader, there is disappointingly little strangeness on display.

And it’s not just a lack of strangness. There seems to be remarkably little jeopardy too. Though two of the researchers are killed early in the novel, and the rest are stranded among the Shree – Krar is separated from them quite early, and so is worried over their fate, but there’s no real sense they might be in danger. The source of their trouble proves to be a rogue agent of the mining company – those two earlier deaths were his fault, and now he’s afraid of the consequences should they be discovered.

All of this means The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree is, well, a nice novel. Which is damning it with faint praise, and quite possibly unfair. It’s an enjoyable novel, although not as appealing as Killough’s earlier A Voice Out of Ramah. In some respects, it feels like a novella stretched to novel length, since many of its beats and reveals are somewhat leisurely paced. The final chapter sees the status of the miners, and of the Shree and the planet Nira, regularised, and everything finishes on a happy note. So despite the events on Nira, this is essentially an optimistic sf novel. And that’s certainly something we need more of.

A fun, if lightweight, read.

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.