Darkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc

darkchildDarkchild, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1982)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s tempting to describe Sydney J Van Scyoc as a solid mid-list science fiction writer of last century, but I’m not sure how true that it is. She was published throughout the seventies and eighties, although she began publishing short fiction during the sixties. She appeared in year’s best anthologies on several occasions, but was never nominated for an award. Her last novel, Deepwater Dreams, was published in 1991. During her career, she never seemed to be much of a “name” – you had to look for her books, in other words, especially in the UK ehere she was only haphazardly published. And I often did, because I thought her fiction worth the effort of tracking down.

Darkchild is the first book of the Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, which appeared between 1982 and 1984. Khira is the daughter of a barohna on the world of Brakrath. It is a cold world, and its people spend the winters in hibernation. They live in valleys, each one ruled by a barohna. And it is the barohna who makes life possible there – they can focus the sun’s energy into a sunstone, which is used to heat the valley so that crops may grow. When they reach adulthood, the daughters of barohnas go up into the mountains to kill, or be killed by, one of the fearsome beasts which live there. Killing one of the creatures triggers a physiological change in the daughters, giving them the power to control the sunstone. They then either return and take over from their mother, or found a new settlement in another valley.

Khira is spending the winter alone in the palace. Her older sister has failed her test to become a barohna, and everyone else is hibernating. One day, she finds a boy of her own age wandering the palace. She teaches him her language – he learns amazingly quickly – and befriends him. The boy is a Rauth image. A space-based civilisation called the Benderzic drop Rauth images, clones of a long-lost explorer called Rauth, on worlds to learn as much as they can… so the Benderzic can sell the data to anyone who wants to exploit the world.

Thanks to Khira’s friendship, the boy – she names him Darkchild – breaks his programming. But Khira has her own trial to complete – killing a beast on the mountain and becoming a barohna. And she doesn’t think she possess the necessary hard-heartedness to succeed.

Darkchild has two chief viewpoints – Khira and “the boy”. Some other characters have viewpoint chapters. One of these others is “the guide”, which is the personification of Darkchild’s programming, a sort of base personality which can take over should the Rauth image lose his focus on his mission. For much of Darkchild, the boy and the guide battle for control of the boy’s body and mind – and it’s a close-run thing. It is Khira’s friendship, of course, which proves the deciding factor.

The boy remains a cipher for much of the novel, and although a series of flashback nightmares fill in some of his background – not all of it, as his identity as a Rauth image is not revealed until near the end. But there is more to the boy than just being a human recorder, there is something he knows and he does not know what it means…

Van Scyoc’s strength has always lain in her depiction of alien societies – typically human societies on other worlds, but never based on some Earth culture with the serial numbers filed off (as far too many other science fiction writers tend to do). Perhaps the concepts which underpin the story of Darkchild are not entirely plausible – the change brought about in the palace daughters, for example; or the powers of the barohnas… But the society described by Van Scyoc which has grown around those concepts is well-handled and internally rigourous. It is a well-drawn portrait of an invented culture, and surprisingly effective despite being presented chiefly using only two characters.

Van Scyoc’s novels are also usually well-plotted. Though they have a tendency to resemble a travelogue, or anthropological guide, in their early chapters as Van Scyoc describes the world of her story, once the plot kicks into gear it moves smoothly from revelation to revelation. In Darkchild, there is first the mystery of the boy’s sudden presence in the deserted palace, then his origin, and the meaning of his origin as a Rauth image, and, finally, the puzzle surrounding the nightmares he experiences. It’s clear there is a story arc to the entire trilogy, even if the foreground plot of Darkchild is resolved by the end of the book.

Darkchild was followed by Bluesong (1983) and Starsilk (1984).


Assignment Nor’Dyren, Sydney J Van Scyoc

Assignment Nor’Dyren, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1973)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Sydney Van Scyoc’s Assignment Nor’Dyren (1973), inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), is a problematic yet generally enjoyable work. I found that Van Scyoc is unable to maintain the sense of wonder she conjures so vividly in the first third. Likewise, her prose tends to plod due to the descriptive restrictions she forces on herself (for example, describing each alien the main character encounters by their gender). Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Assignment Nor’Dyren to Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece — considered among the best science fiction works ever written — but the overwhelming impression is that of a poor copy.

Tollan Bailey, a blue collar mechanic possessed by a virulent strand of the Puritan work effort, is out of place in a future society characterized by of ever increasing automation and thus, massive unemployment. In order to keep the majority the people happy a substantial dole is provided. Tollan receives a stipend, housing, and recreational facilities from CalMega, a union of sorts, which “places” people in suitable jobs. In reality, most everyone is happy never doing any work and living off of CalMega “waiting” for jobs which will never come.

In order to keep up pretenses CalMega has a lottery which “assigns” a job which everyone knows is just a chance for an exotic vacation. Bailey is randomly chosen for an “assignment” to the backwater Civil Unity planet Nor’ Dyren ostensibly to assess the production of Nor’ Dyren’s factories. Tollan, to everyones shock and bewilderment, decides to do the assignment…

Nor’Dyren is populated by an alien species with three genders. Each family unit is comprised of one of each gender. Each gender has a predetermined social position and function in society. The Allegon are meek servants which care for the children. The Berregon are brute workers. The Gonnegon are the brains. Tollan soon discovers that this unusual society is in sharp decline — no one knows how to repair simple machines or even thinks to fix machines, buildings and factories are increasingly abandoned, cultural production is on the decline…

The plot abruptly shifts when Tollan accidentally kills an Allegon. The local court orders him to take the position of the Allegon in the family unit he’s destroyed. Tollan refuses to adhere to the rules of the culture and instead seeks to explain the decline of their society. It is the interplay between these two dominate plot narratives that Van Scyoc is never able to reconcile. The conclusion of the cultural impasse is reached in half-hearted fashion.

BUT The final mystery concerning the societal decline almost redeems the work.

The problems arise when Tollan Bailey shows no comparison for the Allegon he accidentally kills. This event is the central conflict but Tollan is motivated more by self-interest. This in itself isn’t a problem but comes off as a major recurrent inconsistency because Tollan genuinely cares about the aliens whose planet he’s been assigned.

This frustrating aspect aside, Van Scyoc does raise some interesting issues regarding gender. Tollan, immersed in an alien society with different customs, is forced to reconsider his own preconceptions (although he refuses to abide by their laws). Sadly, Van Scyoc infrequently considers these issues of cultural dialogue and cultural impasse and the few attempts come of as pallid. Van Scyoc is clearly cognizant of the many similarities of her work with The Left Hand of Darkness since she attempts to raise similar issues but it all comes off as a poor imitation. I still recommend the work for fans of social science fiction especially those exploring issues of gender. But, read Le Guin’s far superior The Left Hand of Darkness first…

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

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc

Cloudcry, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1977)
Review by Ian Sales

According to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Van Scyoc’s novels are “sometimes damaged by narrative longueurs” but possess a “capacity to evoke a sense of the deep strangeness of the Universe”. Cloudcry – not the strongest of Van Scyoc’s novels that I have read – is a case in point.

In a universe dominated by humanity, retired Authority Exploration Service expert Verrons has been diagnosed with “bloodblossom”, a mysterious and incurable disease. The Authority’s only response is to sequester those infected on isolation colonies, and so Verrons find himself transported to the jungle world of Selmarri. With Verrons is Tiehl, a member of a race of bird-like flightless aliens called Ehminheer and the first of his race to contract the bloodblossom.

As soon as Verrons and Tiehl are parachuted to the isolation colony, Tiehl runs off into the jungle, driven by a racial need for a perch and territory surrounding it. Verrons and a member of the colony called Sadler Wells (yes, really) are sent to fetch the alien. But Tiehl had seen what appeared to be deserted buildings in the distance as he descended on his parachute, though Selmarri was supposedly uninhabited. Together the three trek through the jungle, finding en route a race of primitive indigenes, and finally arriving at what appears to be pristine temple complex built on top of a constructed mesa. While Tiehl immediately claims a tall shaft in the centre of the complex as his perch, Verrons and Wells set about investigating their discovery.

Cloudcry is written from the perspectives of Verrons, Tiehl and one of the indigenes, Aleida. She is unlike the rest of her people and she dreams of flying through the clouds, powered by a light from a crystal. Meanwhile, back at the temple complex, Verrons and Wells have stumbled across a group of humanoids who, by playing alien flutes, cause the appearance of humanoid figures of light.

Cloudcry is a first contact story, though of a race that has fallen back into barbarism but has left behind mechanisms to return them to their prior greatness once certain conditions are met. By using the aliens’ point of view – a technique she has used before – Van Scyoc manages to add additional strangeness to her story, though not always to its advantage. Tiehl, for example, is little more than a plot-hurdle, his fierce territoriality hampering the attempts by Verrons and Wells to figure out the temple complex. Aleida is too primitive and too ignorant to understand what is happening to her. She is driven by her dreams, and they do little more than suggest what might be possible should she come into her powers.

These passages from Tiehl’s or Aleida’s perspectives often seem to hold back the story – and there are enough obstacles to the puzzle presented to the two humans – though they do add plenty of strangeness, colour and charm. As does Van Scyoc’s prose style. She has a tendency to verb nouns, and it is stronger in Cloudcry than I recall it being in other of her novels. It isn’t always successful: “But before Verrons could reach him, he hawked away.” (p 91); “It pillared her, hands at her side, head thrown back.” (p 139).

Van Scyoc’s real strength lies in her evocation of strangeness and, in that respect, her peculiar verbing writing style plays its part. Cloudcry, for all its relatively straightforward genre heartland plot, is a strange little novel, and when its prose works it works well indeed.


Starmother, Sydney J Van Scyoc

Starmother, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

The only problem with fastening onto an under-rated and/or relatively unknown author and hunting out their back-catalogue is that even the best of writers have the odd clunker in the past. Starmother is by no means a clunker, but it’s certainly not Van Scyoc’s best work. Having said that, Van Scyoc’s prose has always been a cut above that of her contemporaries:

“Beyond the perimeter of the barren circle, vines twined. Oddly shaped melons, yellow, green ,black, squatted beneath musty-looking gray-green leaves. Farther, a field of husky scarlet spears marched briefly beside the road, lancing the dull mist.” (p 7)

Jahna Swiss is a cadet from the planet Peace, sent to Nelding at their request to care for their babies. She finds herself on a wet and muddy jungle world with a population split into two antagonistic factions. There is “huttown”, a fundamentalist Amish-type community, fighting a losing battle against the changes Nelding is making to their crops and animals. And there are the “tanglings”, mutants who have taken to living in tribes in the jungle.

Jahna’s presence has been requested by Lord Beck, who straddles both camps but has a cunning plan to vouchsafe the tanglings’ future. It seems that a percentage of the babies born to the tanglings are “mouldings”. Whatever these babies experience during their first year changes them – if they live with those humans who have mutated to become “half-dirad”, a native Nedling jungle beast, then they become “mockdirad”. Beck wants these babies to spend their first year with Jahna, and so grow up to be educated and sophisticated young women.

Further complicating matters is a prophecy – as there so often seems to be in so many sf novels. Some of the tanglings think Jahna might be the StarMother, chiefly because she has nice blonde hair and because she came from the, er, stars. The Starmother will succour the tanglings’ babies and make them strong. Though there are those who are opposed to her interference in their affairs.

It sounds daft, but Van Scyoc manages to carry the concept without losing suspension of disbelief. Jahna, of course, knows nothing of Beck’s plans, and grows increasingly annoyed at his evasions. She’s also horrified at the mutant tanglings when she finally gets to meet them. But the more she learns about the tanglings, the more she comes to accept them for what they are, and the more she adopts the mantle of StarMother and realises her destiny lies in accepting that role. Because there is, at the heart of Nelding, a secret: the tanglings effectively have immortality, but the process is failing and the Starmother is needed to reinvigorate it. Not helping are the huttowners who despise and fear the tanglings, and so turn on Jahna when she proves sympathetic to the mutants.

Parts of Starmother are told from the point of view of other characters: a huttowner, Piety, and a tangling, Zuniin. Van Scyoc manages the differences between the three women well – and, interestingly, both Piety and Zuniin are opposed to Jahna’s presence, though they also hate each other’s people.

It is all too easy, I expect, to read something into Starmother‘s title and plot: young woman from civilised world comes to primitive place to mother savages and teach them the benefits of civilised practices. It could be the story of any missionary of the nineteenth century. Except Starmother is not at all that. Jahna does not “teach” the tanglings a better way to live, nor does she “go native”. She is, after all, only on Nelding because the tanglings demanded that she lend them her strength. Reading Starmother, it’s not hard to wonder if its story was indeed suggested by some Victorian missionary, and was written in direct opposition to the often patronising maternalism they practiced.

Starmother may not be Van Scyoc’s best novel, but it remains an interesting one and worth tracking down.

This review originally appeared in a contribution to the Acnestis APA in 2002.