Dangerous Games, Marta Randall

dangerous_gamesDangerous Games, Marta Randall (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Dangerous Games is a direct sequel to Randall’s Journey (1978), and begins seven years after the end of that book. Once again, the Kennerin family, owners and settlers of the world of Aerie, are the focus of the story. In the earlier novel, they rescued several hundred people from concentration camps on NewHome, shortly before NewHome’s sun went nova (fighting off an incursion by the NewHome military in the process). They also set about planting a crop whose harvested sap can be used as a conductor in electronics. By the time Dangerous Games opens, the Kennerins have a small fleet of starships, a processing plant, and a successful business. They get on well with Aerie’s native kasirene (large four-armed kangaroo-like aliens), although the Kennerin internal family dynamics are not so smooth.

The novel starts in the viewpoint of Sandro Marquez, whose family invented, and was very successful at growing and selling, the same conducting sap grown by the Kennerins. But the Marquez family proved too successful and was subject to a hostile takeover by the Parallax Corporation. Sandro is on the run after killing the Parallax agent, and is taken aboard Jes Kennerin’s ship as a “Second” (which appears to be a first officer). Jes, it seems, has a habit of picking up “strays” and taking them home to Aerie, where they settle and become part of the extended Kennerin family. Also aboard the ship is engineer Beryl, but Sandro can’t work out her relationship with Jes. She’s a nasty piece of work, although he finds her sexually attractive. When Sandro eventually reveals his background to Jes, he is taken to Aerie to tell the rest of the Kennerins – because Aerie is likely to be Parallax’s next target.

On his next trip, Jes’s ship breaks down and he’s forced to land at Gensco for repairs. There he meets Tatha, the cat-like woman depicted on the front cover of the book. She is a genetically-engineered native of a very early human colony. Parallax is in the middle of a plan to takeover Gensco. Tatha wants to leave but the inhabitants of Gensco make it very difficult for transients. So Jes takes her back to Aerie.

Some time later, the kasirene decide that Hart Kennerin, who had been banished from Aerie in the previous book, but allowed to return home years later, has not made reparations to the kasirene. As a teenager, he had experimented on kasirene pups – until now, the kasirene had been satisfied with the punishment meted out by the Kennerin family, but now they want more (hardly surprising: banishment seems a feeble punishment for his crimes). This situation is only made worse by a kasirene agitator who has been telling the others that perhaps they’d be better off if Parallax bought out the Kennerins.

Tatha then moves to centre-stage, as she feels the Kennerins have underestimated the threat from Parallax. So she sets about creating a situation which will prompt the Federation to interfere and prevent a Parallax takeover. But she can’t tell anyone, and many of her actions initially seem to be directed against the Kennerins. It is this plan of hers to which the book’s title refers.

Dangerous Games is, like Journey, a pioneer novel transplanted to a science fiction milieu. But where that first book saw the hardy settlers choosing their land and settling down to build their town – and also welcome new settlers, and fight off the local bad guys – this one documents the next stage of such a town’s inevitable history, the rise of the indigenes and the threat of takeover and/or occupation by the local rapacious “railroad company”. The kasirene, despite their appearance, are pretty much ersatz Native Americans and some facets of their culture are little more than that of assorted Native American historical culture with the numbers filed off. Even the argument about swapping one set of human occupiers for another is one that has precedent in American history. And if Randall paints the Kennerins as liberal, tolerant and benign “owners” of the kasirene planet, she frequently tries to offset this by showing how dysfunctional they are as a family.

But that too is simply part of the pattern. Melodramas and soap operas and pioneer dramas all seem to be powered by the internal dynamics of the central family, and the more dysfunctional that family is the more powerful the engine of the story. Randall’s world-building is relatively light – there’s enough scaffolding around the FTL, with its “tau” and “grabs”, so it doesn’t fall over and kill suspension of disbelief; but there’s little else in the book that differs much from the late 1970s. Some quick and dirty extrapolations now seem quaint, if not bizarrely wrong – data held on tapes, everything done on paper, no personal communicators, computers still expensive and discrete and not integrated into everything. Dangerous Games is science fiction as tales of other worlds and other times that will never come to pass, even though the reader is expected to believe – or at least suspend their disbelief – in such an eventuality. Given that this novel and its predecessor are about people and their interactions, rather than big ideas or mind-bending concepts, the essentially make-believe nature of the setting seems irrelevant. The same story could well be told in early nineteenth century North America, and very little in broad stroke would need to be changed. But science fiction allows more freedom, and Randall makes good use of it. True, Parallax is a staple cliché of many genres of fiction; and the narrative arc of Dangerous Games is far from unique to science fiction… But none of this spoils the book. If anything, Dangerous Games is a more involving read than Journey, and its story seems more science-fictional, its setting and narrative better integrated into the genre corpus.

I suspect Randall had more tales to tell about the Kennerin family but, except for a brief mention in A City in the North, their story ends here. To understand and enjoy Dangerous Games, Journey really should be read first. Although the packaging may not explicitly state it, the two books are very much a diptych.

The Crystal Ship, Randall, Vinge & McIntyre

crystalThe Crystal Ship, edited by Robert Silverberg (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Only a handful of SF anthologies have hit print solely featuring women authors – none were published before 1972 and, surprisingly, few after 1980 (there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years). The Crystal Ship (1976) is one of these. It contains the three novellas by three important SF authors who got their start in the 70s: Marta Randall, Joan D Vinge, and Vonda N McIntyre. The latter two achieved critical success: Joan D Vinge won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen (1980) and Vonda N McIntyre won the Hugo for her novel Dreamsnake (1978). Marta Randall, on the other hand, despite her Nebula nomination for the intriguing Islands (1976) remains to this day lesser known.

All three of the novellas feature impressive female protagonists and narratives that subvert many of SF’s traditional clichés. All three protagonists are outcasts, striving against worlds characterized in turn by decadence, colonialism, and sadistic prison systems. Tarawassie in Vinge’s ‘The Crystal Ship’ is cast in the vein of Alvin in Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). She takes on the mantel of “the one who knows how the world really is”. The eponymous heroine of Randall’s ‘Megan’s World’ is shunned by her fellow humankind due to her mechanical and strangely-coloured body. She is accepted by the natives of a soon to be exploited planet and feels compelled to fight, in the final confrontation, against her own. It takes all mental and physical strength of Kylis in McIntyre’s ‘Screwtop’ – imprisoned for minor infractions including “stealing passage” on a spaceship – to not succumb the hellish environment of the world and the sinister whims of a particularly disturbed guard.

‘Screwtop’ is the highlight of The Crystal Ship. Neither Randall or Vinge can match the raw psychological power, evocative world building, and solid storytelling of McIntyre.

‘The Crystal Ship’ Joan D Vinge: In the past I have found Vinge’s works from the late 70s deeply flawed – for example, Fireship (1978) and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978). She would refine her style/characterizations in The Snow Queen Cycle of novels from the 80s and 90s. In a far future environ, a vast (mostly empty) crystal spaceship orbits a distant planet. The occupants of the vessel lived a drugged and satiated existence where they end their lives by jumping into a mysterious contraption called a “wishing well” (p 14). Like Alvin in The City and the Stars, Tarawassie sees the sad state of the world after her mother, who lives on the planet’s surface and refuses the life of the crystal ship, seeks to end her life in the wishing well. Tarawassie escapes the “Loom’s catch-spell of light/music” (p 19) and strikes off for the planet’s surface.

On the surface she encounters the “real humans”, ie some new strain of humanity (mixed with the native population?) with pouches, telepathy, and tails. These rat-like creatures believe themselves superior to the inhabitants of the spaceship. With the help of a native named Moon Shadow (*wince*), Tarawassie learns the true history of their peoples, and reason for the strange crystal ship.

‘The Crystal Ship’ is an inarticulate allegory with an intriguing premise but a flawed delivery. Moon Shadow’s “‘What it’ – he grimaced, concentrating – ‘what it – mean?’” (p 29) attempts at dialogue are beyond frustrating for the reader. The unease generated by the world and the hints of past cataclysmic confrontation are the most praiseworthy elements of the story. For die-hard Joan D Vinge fans only.

‘Megan’s World’ Marta Randall: Randall’s novella is on the surface a traditional SF narrative. Engineer Padric Angelo, whose past is filled with ignominy, lands on an alien planet in search of natural resources with an inept ethnologist who knows little about dealing with aliens. The ethnologist believes that it will be easy to convince the natives to desecrate their planet, ie just speak into the universal translator and they will think that the Terrans are gods and thus get whatever they want with superior technology.

And then Randall subverts the paradigm: the feline aliens are far from simplistic naturalistic aliens who are one with nature. Rather, they worship bloodthirsty gods and are stricken with internal political and social dissension. The biggest realignment concerns Padric’s sister, whom he encounters on the planet. Megan is “thin and immensely tall; has gray hair; a second and transparent set of eyelids set above liquid crystal irises that shift colors with changes in temperature and pulse in time to her heartbeat. Her bones are formed of high-impact, stress-resistant biosteel allow, and her bluntly shaped finger- and toe-nails are of a dully gray metal” (p 95). Megan was developed as an experiment in spaceship construction (integration of human with machine) – however, the experiment was a failure. She escaped the ridicule she faced by her fellow Terrans and fled via a stolen yacht. In part because she is accepted by the natives of the planet, she feels closely for their plight and the danger her brother represents.

The story is somewhat bogged down with needless exposition. Most frustrating is the lack of nuance dealing with the key themes of the novel – alienation, colonialism, etc. The frustratingly abrupt ending does little to ram home the more intriguing elements. Recommended with reservations.

‘Screwtop’ Vonda N McIntyre: is by far the most satisfying and evocative novella in the collection. Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood at spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redsun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, ie a designed super-intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.

There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships – for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info-dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s back-story. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heart-rending.

McIntyre’s Dreamsnake is the only Hugo-winning novel published between 1960 and 1980 I have yet to read. After experiencing the refined and psychological power of ‘Screwtop’, I desperately want to get my hands on a copy. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Islands, Marta Randall

islandsIslands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Joachim Boaz

One of the more effective ways to write about the ennui of immortality is often not from the perspective of the immortals themselves. Works like Raymond Z Gallun’s The Eden Cycle (1974) manage to convince the reader of the sensory overload generated by more and more baroque environments created by immortals desperate for something new and meaningful. But, like the immortal protagonists, by the end of the novel we are mentally exhausted and bored. Randall’s rumination is more modelled on James Gunn’s The Immortals (1962). Gunn’s near-masterpiece is less about mental states of the eponymous humans “blessed” with immortality, and more about the ramifications of their existence on the rest of society not “blessed” with such genetic structures. Randall’s Islands takes this formulation to its furthest point and generates a world where a single individual—the narrator – is the only one not “blessed” with immortality.

Tia is the only non-immortal alive. At seventeen she entered treatment expecting to live the life of an immortal but for some unexplained reason the treatment did not take hold, “You’ll live very well. But not youthfully. So sorry” (p 10). Due to medical advances, Tia can still expect to live at least two hundred years.

Just as the landscape of Earth – a mostly flooded world now (a past cataclysm is hinted at) – has changed from the world of our day, the successful implementation of immortality has irrevocably transformed their society. Intellectual advances have ceased, a profound malaise permeates. The immortals dabble in things like adolescents. They have passing interests in people, and activities, and expect to move on and experience new elements continuously. They obsess over beauty and perfection, and are terrified of decay and reminders that time, at one point, has passed.

All of these traits the immortals proclaim as virtues, Tia eschews. She narrates: “I carefully created a chronology for myself […] At two hundred I would be shriveled and tucked, seamed and weak and lined and dithering. At one hundred I would be caught between that state and the next one down, between middle-age and senility” (p 89). She is drawn to the dangerous. She observes herself age with obsessive detail.

She recounts how in her youth, before her ability to age became apparent, she ran away from Paul, her immortal lover, in part because of her grief and despair at the failure of the treatment and the fear that she will be rejected. She voyages to Australia where the “damaged” immortals live – those who have suffered horrific accidents and are no longer specimens of beauty and are thus considered outcasts. She then travels to the Moon where groups of immortals, who dare to be intellectually stimulating and create new and wonderful works or art, and even spaceships for the exploration of the stars, reside. But she fears her bond with Greg, her lover on the Moon, would be shattered if she reveals her secret.

At the “current” moment in the narrative, Tia joins the crew of the Ilium, an oceangoing vessel that transports immortals to the submerged islands of Hawaii where they pillage the ruins for knick-knacks and trinkets for their residences. Tia on the other hand, is drawn to the past, drawn to a past where time mattered. And in the ruins she discovers another metaphoric island, a hidden room with a strange promise.

Do not let the atrocious cover art dissuade you from picking up the novel. The covers for both the 1976 and the 1980 edition do not represent the contents in any meaningful way. The 1980 edition suggests a romance-tinged affair – the man in control, clutching the woman. Randall’s book is altogether more chilling, and sinister. Randall could not resist a few snarky comments on her webpage about the “the floating purple turds” attacking the ship on the 1980 Pocket Books cover and the generally horrid luck she had with cover art.

Randall’s title is perfect. Tia is an island among the immortals whose lives and outlook on the world aso much different than hers. The structure of the novel, short chapters never longer than eight or so pages, are non-linear island-like memories, cut apart and reorganized they would form a linear narrative. Separated from each other they form momentary impressions… Likewise, Tia moves from world to world, the strange outcasts in Australia, the facilities on the Moon, the Ilium vessel that voyages to the submerged cities of Hawaii, and the dark room submerged in the ruins, a hidden space, a secret island.

My only qualm, and at some points it was distracting to a fault, is the narrative’s slow descent into metaphysical hoopla. Cringe-worthy passages such as this one – “Touched it. Changed it. Affected its movements. Altered its pace. With my – mind? Consciousness? Spirit? Soul?” (p 152) – weaken the otherworldly feel, they cheapen Tia’s profound, and entirely justified, brooding. Tia’s deepening existential crisis is depicted with all the existential indicators and pseudo-mystical excess that threaten to overwhelm the reader with insincere pathos and melodrama.

But Randall can weave some beautiful scenes. For example, her Ballard-esque sequences of scavenging the remains of a ruined world beneath the waters to disturbing glimpses of Paul’s strange sexual obsession with decay when his own body is unchanging…

Unjustly forgotten, Islands is a solid example of the late New Wave movement. I will definitely look for a copy of A City in the North (1976).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

Journey, Marta Randall

JOURNEY1978Journey, Marta Randall (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Imagine some two hundred years ago there was a small fertile valley hidden somewhere in the mountains in the continental United States. A family from the East, heading west in search of a new life, stumbled across this valley and decided to settle there. They claimed ownership of all the land, even though there was a native tribe already in the valley – but the natives didn’t seem to mind, they were lazy and rootless anyway, and doubtless would be grateful civilisation had been brought to them had they actually thought about the matter.

Life goes well for the family – their name is Kennerin – and their tiny colony prospers. They make friends with the natives and, while they can’t pretend to understand their psychology, both parties seem to get on quite well with each other. Every now and again, a trader who travels the region visits, bringing news and much needed supplies. On one visit, he tells of a nearby town in the grip of an evil mayor, who has locked up many of the poorer residents in a concentration camp. The Kennerins decide to do something about this, and stage a raid on the camp, rescuing some 250 people. They bring these back to their valley. But the mayor is not done yet, and plans a retaliatory strike. On the trader’s next visit, the mayor commandeers his wagon, hides some soldiers in it, and sets off with a posse to take the Kennerins’ valley.

But two Kennerins were in the trader’s wagon, and they escape the mayor’s men – at least, one does; the other is captured. During the trip to the valley, he escapes and, in the process, triggers a landslide which seals the valley from the outside world… or at least until the federal government sends mining engineers to clear the pass.

Instead of a valley, imagine a whole world. With a small population of unsophisticated aliens. And the pass is a “grab”, which starships use to travel faster-than-light between star systems.

It’s perhaps unfair to show how Marta Randall’s Journey could be almost entirely transplanted to the Wild West of yore, without much in the story actually needing to be changed. But the paperback itself makes a point of this – the blurb on the front calls it “an epic novel of the last frontier”, and a puff on the back from John Jakes claims Journey “carries the family saga into an exciting new dimension”.

In fact, Journey carries its resemblance to a Wild West family saga more like a millstone about its neck. Far too many sensibilities have been carried across wholesale from the book’s inspirations, and they sit badly with the world-building. Take that “friendly tribe” mentioned above. In Journey, these are the indigenous alien race of the world of Aerie, the kasirene, who seem to resemble four-armed kangaroos but are very much intellectually on a par with the humans – indeed, the Kennerins have learnt the kasirene language, and the two groups treat each other like friendly neighbours. But. Aerie is still the Kennerins’ world. The kasirene have no say in the matter. Those rescued settlers – dissidents saved by the Kennerins when their home world’s sun threatens to turn nova – treat the kasirene with all the disdain and dislike early US settlers treated anyone who wasn’t a white Anglo.

The novel is structured as a series of incidents over a nineteen-year period, from “1216 New Time” to “1235 New Time” . It opens with Jason Kennerin’s rescue of 250 people from a prison camp on NewHome, and ends with the return of prodigal son Hart Kennerin. In between, we see the Kennerin family, and the new settlers’ town of Haven, grow. There are love affairs, marriages, births and deaths, and even an entirely new sport invented by the children of Haven (and specifically designed for mixed teams of human and kasirene). Some of the sections are written in the first person from the point of view of one of the Kennerins.

There’s no denying Journey is a well-written and readable novel. The prose may not shine, but it’s better than is typical for the genre. It’s just a shame the world-building is so weak. Randall did a much better job in A City in the North (and, in fact, that novel is takes place in the same universe). Perhaps that’s a result of Journey‘s template. Dragging across all those sensibilities from a pioneer family saga results in situations described in Journey which often leave a slightly sour taste. Perhaps the focus on the Kennerin family persuaded Randall she did not need to put as much effort into her universe. Some aspects of it should certainly have been reconsidered, however.

Even the last section of the book, titled ‘Spider’, which is set on an entirely different world, still features a type of a society far too popular in science fictions – the misogynistic theocracy, in which women are treated as chattel. Hart Kennerin, who had been exiled from Aerie for experimenting on kasirene (a crime surely deserving more than banishment), is now a gifted medical engineer of some description and becomes embroiled in a plot by the head of the planetary church to overthrow the Regent. The story doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the novel, although it does end with Hart returning to Aerie, unsure of his welcome but almost certain to be accepted.

Journey was followed by Dangerous Games in 1980. Randall went on to write one more sf novel, Those Who Favor Fire, a fantasy novel, The Sword of Winter, and a crime novel (as Martha Conley), Growing Light. She was also the first female president of the SFWA, holding that post from 1982 to 1984 (a further four women have held the presidency in the thirty years since).

A City in the North, Marta Randall


A City in the North, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

It sometimes seems that, at some point in their career, every Western science fiction author tries to write Heart of Darkness. For Marta Randall, that point came early – with her second novel, A City in the North. Though mapping Conrad’s themes of civilisation versus savagery onto a galactic stage now seems a trite and banal exercise, and literature no longer finds colonialism an acceptable subject, its appeal to genre writers of the 1970s and earlier is not hard to fathom. Science fiction is often about the supremacy of science and technology, and “primitive” cultures provided a cheap and easy backdrop against which to demonstrate this. Which is not to say that all such stories were lacking in subtlety or sensitivity. A City in the North is a story which treads a fine line between what was considered acceptable in the mid-1970s and what is considered acceptable in the 21st century, but is a surprisingly clever and subtle novel and a good deal better than any of its contemporaries based on the same theme.

Toyon Sutak and Alin Kennerin have travelled to the world of Hoep-Hanninah because Toyon has long had a dream of visiting the ancient ruins in the north of the planet’s only continent. The ruined city, Hoep-Tashik, is actually off-limits, but Toyon is a rich and powerful man and is sure he can sway the local authorities to give him permission. Hoep-Hanninah is a company world, administered by an ineffectual governor. It is also inhabited. The Hanninah are:

“squat, square creatures with long arms and bowed legs, covered with dark hair save for face, palms, soles, belly … Apes, they looked; apes, they walked, yet they had a name for themselves and their world, engaged in incomprehensible rituals, were sentient, aware of their own condition as living creatures on the way to death.” (p 10)

The humans find it impossible to believe that the Hanninah, who live a simple nomadic lifestyle, could have built Hoep-Tashik, and the aliens certainly refuse to explain themselves or describe their past. The Company employees on the world, seeing this, subsequently treat the Hanninah like either second-class citizens or clever animals – and that’s a narrative that’s all to sadly common in the real world.

Toyon gets permission to visit Hoep-Tashik, but only if he travels there by land. Meanwhile, Alin has been studying the Hanninah and appears to have some sort of unexplained affinity with them. The Company head on the planet, Haecker, has decided that Toyon and Alin are actually government spies, sent to discover what the Company is really doing on Hoep-Hanninah. When Toyon and Alin disappear from the governor’s house, having been offered a lift north by rogue Company driver Quellan, Haecker decides all three must be eliminated.

As the trio travel further north, they meet up with a tribe of Hanninah, and Alin begins to participate in their “incomprehensible rituals”. Clearly, the Hanninah are more than they appear to be. But Haecker is getting desperate, and he doesn’t care how many of the aliens die in his hunt for Toyon, Alin and Quellan.

There’s nothing new in the set-up of A City in the North, except perhaps the fact it’s set on an alien planet. The company outpost which rules a remote corner of some distant land has been a staple of both literature and cinema for decades. Throwing a pair of ingénus into the mix is par for the course. And as the story progresses, it is only expected that they should change just as much as their surroundings change as direct result of their appearance. Unfortunately, such stories are predicated on the superiority – not only technological, but also moral – of the intruders. They are played off against the company man, and the locals are typically little more than background colour. The plot of A City in the North, however, is very much predicated on the nature of the Hanninah. Haecker, the governor, Quellan, even Toyon and Alin, might well be stock characters, and they may be playing out a standard plot of Western literature, but it’s a plot that’s informed and progressed by the Hanninah themselves.

A City in the North is structured as a mixture of journal entries by Toyon and Alin, and tightly-limited point-of-view narratives by other members of the cast. Toyon is, perhaps, a bit of a cliché – the self-made zillionnaire who expects everything to go his way. Alin is better-drawn, with an interesting background – which, in fact, is used in Randall’s next two novels, Journey and Dangerous Game. For all that A City in the North may resemble a science-fictional Heart of Darkness, Randall has certainly put an interesting spin on her version, and that more than makes up for slight datedness in approach or sensibilities.

Marta Randall, a Mexico-born sf writer, seems mostly forgotten these days. While she only wrote six sf novels, published between 1976 and 1984, she was also the first female president of the SFWA. Judging by Islands and A City in the North, the two novels by her I’ve read to date, she deserves to be far better known. I can think of plenty of inferior writers of the same period whose books remain in print. If you ever stumble across a Marta Randall novel in a second-hand book shop, buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Islands, Marta Randall

Islands, Marta Randall (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Marta Randall’s debut novel, Islands, was one of many suggested titles which were added to the original SF Mistressworks meme list (see here), though both the title and the author were unfamiliar to me – and, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, to most sf readers. Which is a shame. Because Islands is a pretty good science fiction novel of its time.

The cover art may leave something to be desired (even though it’s by Vincent Di Fate) and the strapline of “She could love again, a mortal woman – in a world of immortals!” does the book no favours. It’s also completely inaccurate. But the prose within the covers is a degree better than was common among the more popular sf authors of the 1970s.

The book is set some centuries in the future, after a failed attempt to melt some of the polar icecap for water got out of hand and raised sea level by tens of metres. Around the same time, a scientist discovered a treatment which made people immortal. And so, at the time when the story of Islands takes place, a smallish population of immortal dilettantes wander about the Earth, treating everything they do like a hobby. If there’s one weakness in Islands, it’s that there seems to be no infrastructure to support this population of immortal wastrels. Where does the power come from? Who makes the spoons? Who grows the corn and bakes the bread?

Not everyone is immortal, however. There are occasional sports, for whom the treatment does not work. Tia Hamley is one such. She is aging while those around her remain forever young. Consequently, they find her existence disturbing. And she finds their presence equally unbearable. Much of the novel takes place on a trip to Hawaii to dive on the sunken islands and retrieve treasures – ie, junk from before “the Shaping”. The expedition – it is not the first Tia has been on – travels to Hawaii on a ship:

The Ilium is a broad-beamed cathedral of a ship, spired and buttressed, castellated, crystalline; a floating opera, a palace, a folly, an illustration from an ancient, fantastical story-book, a creation of God-struck coral. (p 21)

Once on site, the Ilium will dive to give easier access to the sunken ruins. While the other half dozen members of the expedition will use “bubble-suits” (some sort of force field), Tia does it the old-fashioned way: in scuba gear. During the dive, Tia discovers a strange building, and within it a secret room which teaches her a form of super biofeedback…

These chapters alternates with episodes from Tia’s past, in which she learnt of her condition, and tried to come to terms with it. These include a stint living on the Moon, and in a space station within the orbit of Mercury. The sections set on the Moon, while living with a “line-walker”, who is employed to check the miles of pipes on the surface – a job Tia herself takes – are among the more affecting in the book. Her lover, Greg, and his friends, build an interstellar slower-than-light ship and intend to leave the Solar system. They invite Tia to join them, but since she’s not immortal she refuses to go.

Meanwhile, the expedition to sunken Hawaii is complicated by the presence of Paul, an ex-lover of Tia’s. Of course, he has not changed while she has. And yet Paul seems – ghoulishly – drawn to her. There’s no rekindling of the romance, of course – and it’s only towards the end of the novel that Tia realises why Paul is attracted to her:

“I thought you might have ripped your suit, that you might have drowned.” His voice dropped an octave, reached me husky and dense. “I thought of you lying trapped in rocks with your hoses cut, or impaled by one of those big fish. I thought I saw you floating through the buildings with your face dead behind your mask, or your mask ripped off.” (p 138)

All of the characters aboard the Ilium are damaged in some way, and it is that, as well as Tia’s presence among them – or rather, what Tia represents – that brings events to a head. And results in the deaths of several of them. And catapults Tia, via the super-biofeedback she has learnt, to a new level.

The prose throughout Islands is good, but it’s the character of Tia which makes the book. As mentioned earlier, the worldbuilding is mostly weak – though some of the details are cleverly done. Some of the set-pieces from Tia’s past are quite effective, but in almost all cases it is the characters – well-written, rounded characters – which impress.

Though Islands may read a little dated in style to modern readers, it’s a good read. It’s shame this book appears to have been forgotten.