Heritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz

heritageHeritage of Flight, Susan Shwartz (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

The Alliance is at war with the Secessionists and has been for many years. It is not going well for either side. Pauli Yeager is a fighter pilot aboard an Alliance battleship, operating in a flotilla of three such ships. But a battle with a Secessionist ship and its fighters goes badly, and Yeager’s ship is forced to flee. Since the ship is the only survivor of the engagement, the security marshal aboard decides to implement Project Seedcorn. The battleship is carrying a number of refugees from a world nuclear-bombed by the Secessionists, most of which are children. These, and a handful of the battleship’s crew – including its captain and Yeager – are landed on the uninhabited world of Cynthia and left to fend for themselves… in the hope they will found a new colony to provide cannon fodder for the ongoing war, or will at least become a last hidden bastion of the Alliance should the Secessionists win.

Unfortunately, it seems the initial survey of Cynthia was somewhat slipshod – the planet is inhabited. The colonists quicklyu establish relations with the primitive flying Cynthians. The other wildlife is less welcoming. A race of acid-spitting giant caterpillars called “eaters”, for example, kill several of the colonists, including the battleship’s ex-captain and head of the colony – forcibng Yeager to take over. She orders the eaters eradicated… before belatedly realising they’re the nymphal stage of the Cynthians. And since the Cynthians quite rightly object to having their young exterminated, Yeager decides the colony’s survival requires genocide of the entire race. Which they accomplish…

Some time later, a Secessionist fighterpilot crashlands on Cynthia, and so demonstrates that the Secessionists have been using mind-linked clones to fly their fighter craft. Originally part of a sextet, Thorn is now the sole survivor. His fighter group was attacked and destroyed by breakaway Secessionists – it seems their war on the Alliance has triggered a civil war. The colony welcomes Thorn, but he needs time to find himself… so he disappears into the mountains.

Then there’s an outbreak of illness/madness… which is discovered to be ergot-poisoning of the colony’s wheat. Everything they have built is pretty much ruined. The poisoning kills some, but the madness kills others.

The battleship on which Yeager served then returns. But this time it carries people from the Aliiance, the Republic (what the Secessionists called themselves), and Earth. The home of humanity had managed to broker a peace between the Alliance and the Republic. The moment they land, Yeager demands she be court martialed for genocide. No one else does, of course – they think she did what had to be done. But she’s been carrying the guilt for all the years the colony has struggled along and she demands justice.

Heritage of Flight is an odd novel. I have fond memories of Shwartz’s Arthurian fantasy/romance Grail of the Heart, but Heritage of Flight reads like a fix-up based in a universe that had been explored in greater detail elsewhere. And this despite being set on a world that is pretty much a tabula rasa. The colophon in my edition of Heritage of Flight reveals that two parts of it were previously published in Analog – although this does not explain why the other sections of the novel read like installments in a series. That episodic nature works against the novel’s plot – Yeager’s guilt over killing the Cynthians, for example, moves backwards and forwards into view depending entirely on the plot of that section… and yet the novel finishes with the implication it is the book’s major theme.

Some elements ofthe background feel a little too… Cherryhesque. True, if you’re going to steal, then steal from the best. But the Alliance / Republic thing feels like a cheap copy of Cherryh’s universe, without the depth she manages to give it. Yeager, however, is a little too thin for a Cherryh heroine – she seems driven by her love of piloting and her guilt over the genocide, but not much else. Few of the other characters rise above the level of sketches. In the novel’s favour, however, there is an extended scene – actually, it’s over-extended, as its purpose could have been served by half as many words – in which the colony celebrates KwaZulu. It is this festival, in fact, which leads to the ergot poisoning, and the effects of that poisoning are given in quite gruesome detail.

I admit I had expected more of Heritage of Flight, given my previous experience of Shwartz’s fiction. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Heritage of Flight is a solid piece of 1980s science fiction, without anything which might lift it above others of its type. It’s an entertaining enough read, but it’s bread-and-butter sf, nothing to set the genre alight, and it comes as no real surprise that it wasn’t reprinted until the SF Gateway picked it up in 2012.