From the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton (1975)
Review by Ian Sales
In 1975, Ace decided to relaunch its series of Science Fiction Specials, a series which had been very successful during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That first series had published the likes of Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ and John Brunner, but the new series featured less well-known authors, such as Felix C Gotshalk, William Barton and Walt Richmond, as well as the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stanisław Lem and Thomas Burnett Swann. Mary Staton’s From the Legend of Biel was the first book of this relaunched series – which would manage only eleven books before ending – and one of three women to be included. (Although book 2 of the series, Red Tide, was by DD Chapman and Deloris Lehman Tarzan and it seems likely one or both were women, but I can find no biographical information on them.) From the Legend of Biel proved to be Staton’s only published science fiction – until the appearance of a novel in 2007 from Imaginal Fiction Press, Wilderness of the Heart – Seven Gates.
The cover art of From the Legend of Biel suggests the novel is heartland science fiction, perhaps even hard sf. And while it is certainly the former, it makes a stab at the latter but doesn’t quite pull it off. The book opens aboard PROBE IV, a somewhat unimaginatively-named spaceship sent by Earth to study “the planet MC6, which has architectural evidence of some kind of advanced life”. After three days there, the spaceship will head for the “dark space-cloud Vectus-Nurus 48” before a “sleep-freeze hop to the edge of the galaxy to probe a newly discovered solar system for signs of life”. Aboard PROBE IV are four crew and a survey team of four scientists, the latter led by Howard Scott. Staton introduces the survey team in a briefing in a conference room aboard the starship, which features Scott dwelling on each of the members and recounting their background and personality to himself. It’s a disappointingly clumsy technique. The PROBE IV narrative is presented in italics and comprises the bulk of the novel’s first seventy pages.
The “architectural evidence” discovered on MC6 by a previous mission from Earth are a series of complexes scattered about the planet’s surface. Each complex contains a number of geometric forms of unknown material and purpose, arranged to no discernible pattern about a very large dome – pretty much as the cover depicts. While exploring one of the complexes, the survey team finds an entrance into the dome, but can make no sense of its purpose or its workings. The interior is comprised of featureless white rooms connected by corridors, with openings which appear as if by magic, an elevator which seems to travel laterally as well as vertically, and a huge hemispherical chamber at the apex of the dome whose walls are entirely transparent from the inside. The team have only 72 hours to solve the mystery of the complexes, and it isn’t long enough. So they decide to take matters into their own hands and delay departure, against the wishes of the captain and crew. Hours before they were supposed to depart, they stumble across a chamber filled with hexagonal niches containing glass cards. Scott quickly figures out that the cards can be read by inserting them into a slot in a one-metre-high pillar in the centre of the chamber. The pillar then proceeds to transmit the history of the complexes to the scientists telepathically.
The domes were built by the Federation, a near-utopian human civilisation managed and held together by the Thoacdien, which appears to be some sort of super-computer or AI. Each of the Thoacdien worlds are numbered, and the story told by the glass card takes place on Thoacdien V. The drug Binol, which is later revealed to be “liquid information”, is fed to one hundred foetuses prior to birth as an experiment – it is normally not given to children until they are a year or two old. Some of the foetuses die, and the experiment is terminated by flushing Binol from the others. But one remains affected, and subsequently suffers from seizures. The Thoacdien reproduce artificially, and are then cared for by machines called “gladdins”. Each new birth is also attended by a mentor, who will then teach the child as they grow. The baby who has seizures barely survives, but after reaching the age at which she is no longer cared by a gladdin, she flees the dome. Her mentor, Mikkran, follows her to see that she comes to no harm and to teach her should she finally agree to it. The two wander for weeks, then cross a desert – nearly dying in the process – and eventually arrive at the mesa where the Higgittes live.
The Higgittes are also human, and were the original inhabitants of Thoacdien V. Most of them joined the Federation, but some chose not to. These relicts consider the people of the Thoacdien to be weak and “women”, while they are manly warriors. The Higgittes capture the child – now using the name Biel – and Mikkran, as well as another mentor and child from the Thoacdien who had come to the rescue them. The four are drugged and sentenced to death, but the drug doesn’t work on Biel, and she engineers an escape with the help of the Higgitte first warrior, who has fallen in love with Mikkran (it is not reciprocated). Unfortunately, Mikkran is killed in the attempt. Biel and the others make their way to the Meadows, where Biel is introduced to a community of artists who appear have rejected Thoacdien and live entirely under its radar. One of the villagers explains to Biel that the early introduction of Binol has resulted in her becoming entangled in time with another person – Howard Scott. Thoacdien then talks directly to Scott and tells him that MC6 is Thoacdien 75, and offers an invitation for Earth to join its Federation. Unfortunately, being telepathically told Biel’s story has killed Scott and left the rest of his team in a coma. So the PROBE IV crew blow MC6 to bits.
It’s difficult to describe From the Legend of Biel. Some of it is written as stream of consciousness, there are occasional pages filled with typographical tricks, and, of course, at least a third of the book is presented in italics. The prose is also mostly overdone:
All wait for the Thoacdien magicians to arrive and make their move. In the stillness, offended black cats of ideas and dreams have returned to Higgitte brains, have turned around dusting their places, have lowered themselves like camels, to stay. (p 248)
It’s a bit like reading an exercise by an overactive creative writing student with poor impulse control. While the plot seems relatively straightforward – and, to be honest, the secret to the mysterious complexes proves to be somewhat dull – the language used throughout the novel obscures as often as it informs. The level of invention on display also seems a little recycled. Thoacdien itself, for example, drpos communiqués into the narrative at numerous points, and they are presented like print-outs from some sort of 1970s-style command-line chat:
FROM: THOACDIEN–PRIORITY ONE.
TO: DOME COMPLEX 101-B, DOME COMPLEX 98-A, AND THE MEADOWS, THOACDIEN V.
SUBJECT: MENTORS MIKKRAN GOGAN-TOR AND LAN-BITEUS.
CHARGES 187-A-0037 AND XITR-MEEDE
COMPLEX 101-B: PROCEED.
COMPLEX 98-A: PROCEED.
MEADOWS: NO RESPONSE………………………………………….. (p 220 – 221)
And then there’s the plot… Which is basically Biel’s story, which is itself kickstarted by a framing narrative provided by the PROBE IV mission. But neither narrative actually resolves itself. The scientists do not figure out the mystery of the complexes – the answer is fed to them when they are telepathically told the story of Biel. And Biel’s story too is a consequence of Scott’s discovery in the dome on MC6, which makes the whole thing a paradox, and means the story doesn’t actually go anywhere. Biel’s story ends when the link between her and Scott is broken. This prompts Thoacdien’s invitation, but that’s meaningless because Scott is dead. More than that, the whole point of the novel is rendered moot when the PROBE IV crew destroy the planet.
It’s not hard to understand why From the Legend of Biel is obscure. True, there were worse sf novels published in 1975. But there were also some very good ones, such as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren. And, to be honest, From the Legend of Biel doesn’t really offer enough to make it stand out from the crowd. The prose seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction to the unadorned and bland prose so beloved of the majority of sf writers of the time, without actually managing the depth or felicity of New Wave writers. The near-hard sf opening also sets expectations the story later fails to meet, and the ending suggests the writer had no real idea how to resolve the plot. Disappointing.