Dreamships, Melissa Scott

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

Judging by the gazeteer extract which precedes the opening of Dreamships, and which gives details of the world of Persephone, this novel is set in the same universe as Scott’s The Kindly Ones (1987), which also features a register entry on the world of its story. That, however, is all the two novels have in common as, while an interstellar civilisation is mentioned, the events of Dreamships take place on only two worlds.

Reverdy Jian is a pilot, contracted by the company she works for to fly a private starship from Persephone to Refuge and back again. The client, Medelia Mitexi, is looking for her brother, a gifted construct (sophisticated computer programs) designer who had a severe breakdown some years previously. Mitexi’s starship, however, is experimental – Jian and her crew only discover how experimental when they board it to begin their journey. The ship’s construct is borderline, if not actual, AI. And this is a problem because there is an ongoing campaign on Persephone by an organisation called Dreampeace to give AIs full rights. This is unpopular with most of the world’s residents as it would mean AIs have more rights than they do. (The obvious answer would, of course, be to campaign for more rights for humans as well as rights for AIs, rather than deny rights for AIs… but this is a US science fiction novel.)

During the journey to Refuge, Jian – and her two crew members Imre and Red – learn more about Manfred, the ship’s construct. Jian is soon convinced it is an AI. Which puts her in a quandary – she’s not a supporter of Dreampeace, on the contrary she opposes its aims, but she has been persuaded that Manfred doesn’t deserve to be treated like a computer program. Matters are only made worse when on the return journey from Refuge, Mitexi’s brother commits suicide in his cabin. This death gets the Persephone authorities involved and that, plus Dreampeace’s activism, requires Jian and her crew to sneak back into the city (Persephone’s only habited city is entirely underground).

Dreamships was Scott’s first novel to be released in hardback – as the ARC backcover blurb has it: “after a rapid string of successes in paperback, Melissa Scott … escalates into hardcover…” So it’s a bit of shame this novel isn’t a strong as the other two by her I’ve read. Much is made of the underground city, and the first few chapters are little more than travelogue, with Jian walking from one place to the other and so introducing the reader to her world. Jian is a strong and well-drawn protagonist, which unfortunately cannot be said of the rest of the cast (and Red, who is presented as mysterious for no good reason, seems to have been parachuted in from a Samuel Delany novel – not in itself a bad thing, of course).

Nor do the politics driving the plot make a great deal of sense. To some extent, this likely a consequence of American science fiction’s predilection for libertarian futures, a complete misrepresentation, if not a total romanticisation, of the pioneering days of the nation’s history. Even in settings where such a political situation would be unsustainable, such as those deeply reliant on life-sustaining technology, US sf novels continue to present neoliberal, libertarian, unegalitarian societies – which promptly forces the plot to jump through a series of increasingly implausible economic and political hoops in order to reach the desired conclusion. Dreamships frequently falls prey to this, trying to display a gritty realistic future which often comes across as more like the worst excesses of the present. This is not helped by the story’s continually shifting focus – is it about Jian? Dreamscape? the Mitexis? Or Manfred?

The Kindly Ones suffered from a lack of narrative cohesion, as if it were several stories poorly welded together, and so to does Dreamships suffer from the same flaw. It benefit in having a likeable protagonist, an interesting world, and some good ideas… but it doesn’t quite hang together with sufficient rigour – and nor does it make a virtue of its lack of rigour. I still like Scott’s novel and I’ll continue to read them, but I’ve yet to find one that really makes good on her evident promise.

The Kindly Ones, Melissa Scott

kindlyonesThe Kindly Ones, Melissa Scott (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

If I had discovered Melissa Scott during my late teens or early twenties, I don’t doubt I would have become a huge fan of her novels. There is something about the world-building in the two Scott novels I have read to date – Shadow Man and this one – which I find very appealing. But I am not a teenager or a young man anymore and my taste in fiction has changed, as have my expectations when I pick up a work of fiction.

This is not to say that Melissa Scott is a bad writer – I’d like to think I was not that undiscriminating a reader back in my twenties. On the contrary, she writes well and what she writes is readily recognisable as science fiction. But in The Kindly Ones, her setting seems to flex and warp at the behest of plot, rather than simply being something which enables it. And for that reason, I finished the novel less enamoured of it than I had been, say 100 pages in…

Orestes and Electra, the cold moons of the gas giant Agamemnon, were settled fifteen hundred years before, and in the centuries following a strict social code has evolved. The inhabitants of both moons are organised into five kinships, each ruled by a genarch, with associated Branch families, and strict rules of conduct. These rules mean that certain crimes or social infractions are punished by complete ostracisation. Those ostracised are deemed “dead” by the kinships and families, are referred to as “ghosts”, must wear a white mark on their forehead, and can only be acknowledged or spoken to by other ghosts, people who work as “mediums”, or those who have chosen to live outside the code, called para’an.

Another element of the code is legal feuding. When one kinship or family declares feud on another – ratified by the Ship’s Council, the ruling committee comprised of the five genarchs – that allows each of the feuding parties fight, inconvenience or aggravate the other in all manner of ways. Feuds are common, generally low-key, and have dominated politics on the two moons for over a millennium.

The narrative of The Kindly Ones is split between several characters. There is Leith Moraghan, captain of the six-weekly mailship; and Trey Maturin, an offworlder employed as chief medium for the Haxel Kinship; Rehur, twin brother of the Haxel demi-heir, an actor and “dead” to the kinship; and Guil ex-Tam’ne, a para’an pilot, originally from Electra. The first half explores the society of Orestes through these viewpoint characters, and it’s a nicely-written and engaging story.

Interestingly, Maturin’s narrative is the only one to use the first person, and no reference to the character’s gender is made. Trey can be read as either male or female – I assumed the medium was a man, even though later “he” has sex with Rehur. Other may read the character as female. I’m not sure it’s possible to say definitively which they are.

All this is just set-up for the actual plot. The Haxel and their mortal enemies, Brandr Kinship, have only recently resolved a feud. But an accident at a hoobey race (hoobeys are huge winter beasts, used to pull sledges) and its consequences provokes Brandr to declare feud once again. This time, however, the Brandr – in a move which seems to completely ignore the code as so carefully outlined previously – go for all-out war. They also start harassing the surviving Haxel ghosts – some of their soldiers actually torturing Rehur for information.

Up until that point, I thought The Kindly Ones very good. This was an interesting world Scott had created. The novel may have opened with an info-dump straight from a galactic encyclopedia, and some of the details of her world were a little dodgy – eg, mailship, mail carried electronically, so what need for longshoremen? And the technology too smacked of 1980s futurism, with storage devices known as “tapes”, weapons called “blasters”, and so on. But in terms of world and society, Scott had created something very interesting indeed. For instance, when Maturin witnesses a play starring Rehur, Scott makes it sound fascinating and manages to evoke the history of the artform.

And then the Brandr attack…

To make matters worse, Scott’s careful prose doesn’t appear well-suited to the military science fiction which comprises the second half of the novel. After the surviving principals have fled to Electra, they cobble together a fleet and army for a decisive strike against the Brandr. The trip back to Orestes, through one of the most dangerous sections of the ring about Agamemnon, is woefully short of drama. Scott writes too much, when she should be focused on the action. It makes for a dull couple of chapters.

The Kindly Ones is a book of two halves. The first half is good. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the second. It not only doesn’t seem to fit with the first, but the tone and style is also ill-suited to the story it tells. The Kindly Ones is by no means a bad book, but it could have been so much better. I still plan to seek out more books by Scott to read, and I suspect I will enjoy them – mostly – as much as I did this one.

Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott

Trouble and Her Friends, Melissa Scott (1994)
Review by Martin Wisse

Trouble and Her Friends is the tenth book I’ve read in my Year of Reading Women project and the first and only cyberpunk novel in the bunch. It’s a book I’ve long wanted to read, having heard nothing but praise for it over the years and seeing it compared to e.g. Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk novels. As I started reading it, there were two minor things that disappointed me: the first was the publication date, 1994, was much later than I thought, the second was the tendency of the covers to flake, something it has in common with other Tor books of that period. I’d always assumed Trouble and Her Friends had been published in the mid-eighties; certainly the setting is very eighties.

This matters because it means that not only is its future dated now, but it was already obsolete when it was first published. Trouble and Her Friends‘ vision of cyberspace is essentially an eighties one, where it’s important but largely unused by regular people, divided into discrete blocks owned by huge multinationals and hidden behind ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic)) to ward off hackers, who seem to be the only people behind corporate drones to use cyberspace. It’s obviously inspired by the BBS scenes of the eighties and indeed the main hacker hangout is called the BBS. Yet 1994 was the year the internet fully broke into the public consciousness, when it should’ve become clear that it’s the openness of the internet and interaction with other people on it that are its greatest strengths, far removed from the lonely adventures of isolated hackers battling in virtual reality with faceless corporate ICE software that most cyberpunk, including Trouble and Her Friends, offers — it’s probably no coincidence that it largely died as a subgenre in the mid nineties. What saves Trouble and Her Friends from complete obsolescence can be summed up in one word: politics.

Most cyberpunk writers sort of took their politics from Neuromancer, which never was much concerned with plausible future politics (indeed, science fiction as a whole has always been a bit weak in this regard). So you got a lot of adolescent posturing of the heroic hacking underground versus the big bad megacorps out to rule the world. What Trouble and Her Friends does that few other cyberpunk novels do is to look at the internal politics of that hacking underground itself. And by doing so Melissa Scott is the only cyberpunk author that actually understood and anticipated the dynamics of online groups, of how even in groups that define themselves as outsiders there can be people who are outside the group as well, because for one reason or another they are different from the dominating members of a given group. Not a new dynamic of course, as any veteran of a socialist or anarchist splinter group can confirm. Even in progressive groups race, gender and sexuality play a role, but most cyberpunk authors assumed that in the bodiless worlds of cyberspace these things would no longer matter. Melissa Scott was clever enough to know that this is naive at best.

Her heroines — Trouble and Cerise — therefore because they are female, lesbian and use the brainworm implant disdained by the overwhelmingly male straight old programmable elite, are low on the totem pole in the semi-legal hacking scene and hence vulnerable once new US legislation outlaws hacking outright. Trouble flees and moves deeper underground, while Cerise goes legit but is still vulnerable because of her questionable past, which her immediate superior at the company she works for uses to manipulate her. Trouble herself is not safe either, hiding behind an alias that if it would come to the wrong people’s attention would not last long.

And then a new Trouble appears on the ‘net, who is not just doing all sorts of highly illegal things, but boasting about it as well. Which is enough to bring Trouble out of retirement and Cerise back to her old life to bring this newby to heel. The old gunslingers return to fight it out one more time with the cocky new bravo….

Despite Trouble and Her Friends‘ outdated even at time of publication view of what cyberspace would look like, what Melissa Scott was better in than even many respectable non-fiction authors writing about the internet at the time, in that she saw that cyberspace would not stay an unregulated jungle forever. The plot of the novel is largely driven by the introduction of harsh, bad law that made most of what Trouble and her friends did on the net illegal overnight, something a lot of Wired were convinced off would never happen in real life, despite warning signs like Operation Sundevil back in 1990.

This combination of realistic gender and sexual politics and being clueful enough to realise that yes Virginia, governments can regulate cyberspace make Trouble and Her Friends worth reading. It helps that Scott can write well too, which keeps you reading though the plot is a bit thin.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

Shadow Man, Melissa Scott

Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Review by Ian Sales

One way to consider Shadow Man is: Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness through a funhouse mirror. It is also a more political novel than the political The Left Hand of Darkness. Comparisons are inevitable, even though LeGuin’s novel takes place on a world with one gender and Shadow Man takes place in a universe with five genders. Both novels have placed the treatment of gender – culturally and legally – front and centre.

In the universe of Shadow Man, the use of a drug to offset “FTL shock” has resulted in a far greater than normal incidence of intersex and hermaphrodite births (miscarriages are also correspondingly higher). The Concord Worlds now recognise five genders – woman, man, fem, mem and herm; respectively, she, he, ðe, þe and 3e. (Unfortunately, I kept on reading the pronouns referring to herms as if they used the Arabic ﻉ (‘ayn) rather than the numeral 3.) These five genders have led, in turn, to nine sexual preferences; and this has bearing on the plot of the novel.

On the world of Hara, a colony planet re-contacted 100 years previously after several centuries of independent development, the law and society only recognise two genders – man and woman. So the herms, mems and fems must take on the role of one or the other – though there is apparently a facility for herms at least to legally change gender. The Traditionalist Harans feel that true humans have only two genders, and they do not want to join the Concord. The Modernists want the other three genders to be recognised in Haran law. It is the battle between these two groups which drives the plot of Shadow Man.

Warreven is a herm, but legally male, and works as an advocate in the Haran legal system. Years before, 3e almost married the son of the Most Important Man – the de facto ruler of Hara – but 3e refused to change legal gender. Now, 3e fights for gender rights in the courts. Mhyre Tatian is the manager of a middle-sized Concord pharmaceutical company’s operations on Hara. The world’s biggest export is its drugs, all derived from the local flora. Also important is “trade”, which is prostitution, mostly involving the three genders not recognised on Hara.

Warreven is involved in a court case which looks set to play a major role in the fight for gender equality. But the Most Important Man doesn’t want that to happen, because as long as things muddle along as they presently are doing, a delicate balance between the Traditionalists and the Modernists is maintained. But his son, Tendlathe, is a staunch Traditionalist – a blinkered, chauvinist and conservative Traditionalist of the worst kind. In an effort to keep Warreven from the courts, the Most Important Man has him elected as his clan’s seeraliste, the person responsible for selling off the clan’s surplus crops. Meanwhile, the Interstellar Disease Control Agency, the organisation responsible for preventing the spread of diseases – a variety of HIVs were also created by the FTL drug – also wants to prevent that case from going to court for their own reasons. Tatian is caught in the middle as one of his employees is a key witness. When Warreven offers Tatian the entire clan surplus in return for the employee’s testimony, it kicks off a series of Traditonalist attacks on the Modernists and the “odd-bodied”.

Scott makes no concessions when introducing the world of Shadow Man. It’s straight in at the deep end. There are one or two info-dumps streamlined into the narrative, but they provide little more than local colour. The story is told from the points of view – alternating – of Warreven and Tatian. From Warreven, we see what it’s like to be a herm in a society that does not recognise it as a gender, and we get the politics which affects that. Tatian provides an outsider’s view of Hara and its culture. Though both mention at various points some physical attraction between them, it never amounts to anything.

As a science fiction novel set in a strange and interesting world, with a pair of likeable protagonists, Shadow Man succeeds. There’s an air of exploration to the story, as it spends a great deal of time savouring the culture of Hara before the somewhat abrupt final confrontation. Yet the action never moves outside the capital city, though places elsewhere on the world are often mentioned. It makes for a languid read, a story in which the politics of the climax seems to page by page subsume the story of Warreven and Tatian – in fact, for at least half of the book, they’re barely acquaintances.

But it is the gender politics for which Shadow Man is known, and I found them a little problematical in places. For a start, the thing driving the gender politics in the story is “trade”. It’s almost as if the odd-bodied genders are defined by the roles they play in prostitution. There’s a level of prurience implicit in the Traditionalist response to herms, mems and fems, and given the focus on trade it’s not hard to understand why they might hold such an opinion. Perhaps Shadow Man needed to show a Concord world’s society as contrast, because all the reader has with which to compare it is the situation in the real world. It’s also worth noting that the genders in Shadow Man are defined by biology – it’s the secondary sexual characteristics and equipment which determine which gender a person is. And while the book’s glossaries helpfully explain the nine sexual preferences – there is a glossary of Concord terms and one of Haran words – those sexual preferences make only a few appearances in the story. Haran society is dual-sexed, and the story treats all interactions as such, acknowledging the existence of sexual preferences beyond woman-man but not really exploring them. And this is in a novel whose story describes the start of a sexual revolution comparable to the fight for gay rights in the real world. In fact, Shadow Man‘s penultimate chapter is very much an analogue of Stonewall.

Literalising a metaphor is not uncommon in fiction, and is an excellent tool for commentary. I’m not entirely convinced that literalising sexual preferences as biological gender necessarily helps discussion, though in Shadow Man it has resulted in an interesting universe. It’s a pity Shadow Man doesn’t explore more of it. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel by any means. I enjoyed it and thought it good. I’d happily recommend it. I am somewhat surprised it has never been published in the UK. It seems to me it would fit in quite happily with a number of sf novels which have been available here over the years – not just the aforementioned LeGuin, but also books by Storm Constantine, Samantha Lee, Mary Gentle, or even Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy…

This review originally appeared on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…