Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
As a general rule, we prefer not to review books published as YA on SF Mistressworks although, of course, there has been a long tradition of “juveniles” in science fiction and many genre writers who wrote successful sf adult (ie, not YA) novels also wrote works aimed at a slightly younger audience. It might even be argued that, for example, the works of Andre Norton, although not published as such, qualify as juveniles. Indeed, some genre works originally published for an adult audience have in the past few years been re-released as YA – David and Leigh Edding’s Belgariad is a good example.
Skirmish, however, is the opposite. It was originally published in the US by Tor as a sf novel for adults, the first volume of the Skyrider quintet. In the UK, however, it was published by The Women’s Press science fiction YA imprint Livewire – which only ever published two books, Skirmish and Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones (which was written specifically for Livewire). Which makes for an odd YA line, as Skirmish is arguably not YA.
Melacha Rendell, AKA the Skyrider, is a pilot in the Belt. A recent war between the Company and the freelancers has left relations between the two somewhat strained. While Melacha, who is the best pilot in the Belt, works for the Company, she also smuggles supplies to freelancers. Nor did she fight during the war – a fact which some people hold against her. After a run-in with the Company’s Patrol, Melacha only just makes it back to Home Base in one piece, although her shuttle is wrecked on landing. She’s far from happy about this, especially since she might have made it if another shuttle hadn’t jumped the line to the launchpad. Melacha takes an immediate dislike to the pilot of that shuttle, Jamin… But the two are thrown together when the Company asks them to rescue a space liner with sabotaged engines currently falling into the Sun – Melacha because she’s the best pilot and the only one capable of docking with the runaway liner, and Jamin because he’s qualified to pilot a liner. Meanwhile, Melacha’s feelings toward Jamin have softened somewhat since she discovered that a) he’s a freefall mutant, who can only survive in a gravity environment thanks to a severe drug regimen, and b) he has a six-year-old son, Collis, who can’t survive in freefall.
Melacha demands a Falcon-class shuttle as payment, and in this spacecraft, newly named Defiance, Melacha and Jamin – and stowaway Collis – head off to save the liner. But a series of events threaten to sabotage the mission, and Defiance, and Melacha puts two and two together and realises that it’s not the Insurrectionists who sabotaged the liner as claimed…
While Melacha is an adult protagonist, and there’s little in Skirmish which is self-evidently YA, I can see why it might be seen as such since it really is quite simplistic. Melacha may be an engaging protagonist, but her love-hate relationship with Jamin runs on well-travelled lines. Her maternal feelings toward Collis, however, are a nice touch, and not so common among heroines of her ilk. The background, on the other hand, is a standard Wild West in space – the pilots even wear guns, although, bizarrely, despite only being stun guns it’s considered taboo to actually fire them. Otherwise, the politics are of the sort seen all too often in US heartland science fiction – bad Company, good pioneering freelancers, and the sort of “Rand lite” economic structures that are far too prevalent in the genre.
One piece of silliness in the book, however, involves those “freefall mutants”. In the universe of Skirmish, humans are split into three types: Fallers, Grounders and Floaters. Fallers have a gene which allows them to live in zero gravity, and they need drugs to survive in a 1G environment. Grounders, conversely, can live in zero-G for short periods, but need regular bouts in 1G. Floaters are equally at home in both, without penalty. Melacha is, of course, a Floater. It’s all complete nonsense, of course; and it was in 1985, when this book was originally published. The Asteroid Belt is also treated as though the asteroids were no more than a few thousand metres apart, rather than thousands of kilometres.
Skirmish is a light and quick read, and though Melacha is a likeable female protagonist with a great deal of agency, the science fiction furniture is a bit too well-worn for the book to stand out. The other YA novel published under the Livewire imprint, Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones, which was original to Livewire, is much the better book.