Prisoner of Conscience, Susan R Matthews (1998)
Review by Ian Sales
Three years have passed since the events of An Exchange of Hostages. Bench Inquisitor Andrej Kosciusko has spent those years as Ship’s Doctor aboard the Fleet cruiser-killer Scylla, fulfilling a medical role rather than a torturer’s one. As the second book of Matthews’s series opens, Scylla is part of a fleet currently annexing the world of Eild for the Bench. An Eildish scout ship manages to infiltrate the cruiser-killer, and Kosciusko’s Bond-involuntaries – criminals sentenced to slavery as his security guards, their behaviour managed by a “governor” – find themselves in the thick of the fighting. They acquit themselves so well the captain recommends Revocation of Bond, which would make them free men once again. While that works its way up the chain of command, Kosciusko and his Bond-involuntaries are assigned to Port Rudistal, where Kosciusko will hold the Writ of Inquiry at the Domitt Prison. He will in other words, be the prison’s resident torturer.
But things at the Domitt Prison are not as, well, innocent as they seem. En route from the port, the three cars carrying Kosciusko and his staff are attacked. A mine blows up the lead car, killing several soldiers… and one of the Bond-involuntaries, the one loved the most by Kosciusko, in fact. It is grief for this man which blinds the inquisitor to the true conditions at the prison. He is so set on revenge that he misses what is really going on. Such as, the prison staff are entirely Pyana, but the prisoners are all Nurail. The prison is “filled to capacity”, but every cell is over-crowded. Different prisoners seem to share the same name. The kitchen doesn’t look as busy as it should. And so on.
If An Exchange of Hostages was a nasty novel inasmuch as its protagonist was learning to be a torturer, and practicing his craft as the book progressed… Prisoner of Conscience is much worse. The Pyana treatment of the Nurail is brutal, a thinly-disguised science-fictional treatment of ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. Prisoners are used on work details on projects which will financial benefit the prison administrator, and then murdered if they’re injured or become too weak to work. Othe prisoners are tortured as punishment, or even just for pleasure by sadistic prison staff.
It takes Kosciusko a while to notice all this because he’s so torn up over the death of his Bond-involuntary. And once he starts torturing prisoners – but he does it legally because it is on Record and under Writ – then a lust to inflict pain comes over him, and between that and the crippling angst that follows, he’s not much good for spotting prison irregularities. But spot them he does, eventually. Unfortunately, the prison administrator has a plan to neutralise Kosciusko before he can declare Failure of Writ to the judiciary…
Despite opening with a space battle, Prisoner of Conscience takes a chapter or two to get going. Partly this is because Matthews throws the reader right in at the deep end, making use of terms which she leaves unexplained, such as “maintenance atmosphere” or “carapace hull”. They look like they should parse easily, but there’s something a little bit off about them. It’s an effective world-building technique, but it does require patience from the reader.
The writing is also a little clumsy in the first few chapters, certainly clumsier than I remember from An Exchange of Hostages, with far too much use of “would”, and a tendency to repeat things a little too often. Kosciusko’s somewhat garbled diction also proves more annoying than not. However, in the book’s favour, Kosciusko doesn’t come across as quite so special a snowflake as he did in the first book – although the remaining cast are a little flat and interchangeable. With the exception, that is, of the prison administrator, who is a complete monster; and his assistant, a Nurail trustee who has thrown in his lot with the Pyana, who spends the entire book admiring the administrator’s intelligence.
If Prisoner of Conscience is a slight dip in quality after An Exchange of Hostages, Matthews’s Jurisdiction series is still one of the more interesting to appear in US science fiction. Admittedly, the plot to this book is also quite monstrous, and sensibilities have changed such in the years since it was written that readers will probably struggle more with the atrocities it describes than they might have done in the late 1990s. But the books are definitely worth persevering with, and it’s a shame Matthews’s career seems to have imploded when Meisha Merlin collapsed shortly after the turn of the millennium.
The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffrey (1969)
Review by Kate Macdonald
I’ve been reading one of Anne McCaffrey’s earliest novels, from 1969, The Ship Who Sang. It was first published as short stories in various SF magazines from the early 1960s. The stories are linked episodes in the story of Helva, a woman born with severe birth defects who passed the neurological tests to join the brain ship programme. She is encased in a titanium shell with neurological and emotional links to her spaceship, and travels the galaxies as a working vessel. She can talk to whoever she wants to by tight beam, she can magnify all her senses to know exactly what is going on in her ship at any level, and when she’s without human cargo she has the power to travel faster than any human normally could. Her eyes don’t work, but her visual senses are perfect. Her special talent is singing, which she does multivocally once she’s taught herself how to manipulate her voicebox and larynx with her implanted microphones. The technology McCaffrey invokes to suggest hi-tech solutions and a perfect match of body and machine are vague, but scientifically persuasive.
McCaffrey wrote in the fantasy and science fiction genres simultaneously. Once she became famous for her dragons of Pern books (fantasy) and had developed a canon, she co-wrote science fiction novels with younger writers, mainly to give them a boost, but also, I think, to refresh her own inspiration. Twenty years after the publication of The Ship Who Sang McCaffrey invented a new series of novels about the brain ships, by sharing her old idea with new writers, to give a good old idea new life for new readers (The Ship Who Won, The City that Fought, etc.). The Ship Who Sang is the only novel of the series by McCaffrey alone, and while it’s not the strongest in terms of writing, or emotional impact, it was a trailblazer, and has most of the best ideas and most inspiring science, written in a woman-oriented way.
So, Helva is the ship, but she works with a partner, called a ‘brawn’, a human pilot with whom she can partner till death, or can accept temporarily. This is an obvious analogy to a marriage, but since Helva is permanently sealed away from human touch, and would die if she were removed from her nutrient fluid, her relationships are working partnerships where the partners must be emotionally in tune without the help of physical contact. Partners can be in love with each other: Helva’s first partner dies on a mission, and several of the stories are about her struggling with her grief and desire for suicide. Brawns can develop fixations on their brain partners, which leads to dangerous situations, since they could, potentially, open the shell, with catastrophic results for the people, and for the Company’s investment in brain ship training and medical care. Brain partners like Helva have to be emotionally mature to handle the psychological demands of both physical confinement and separation from the human world, because you can’t run away from your mind. Relationships and how to negotiate them are the main focus in these early stories, using the male-female dynamic to show how characters differ as a reaction to personal trauma. The plots of the stories are very concerned with health: physical health, mental health, drug addiction, the maintenance of good gene pools on distant planets, the effects of unknown viruses, and the threat of psychosis. There is no heavy weaponry in these stories: all conflict is handled and resolved with psychology, and Helva’s manipulation of her own skills and toolkit.
The first story is about acceptance: humans accepting the brain ships as responsible adults, rather than indentured slaves of the Central Worlds, who are the equivalent of an intergalactic UN. Helva teams up with her first brawn, he dies in an accident, and she learns that her life is important without him. Helva’s grief is about the loss of a man she loves, but also about her need for companionship in her working life as well. The dynamics of how two people work together in confined spaces, in difficult situations, over time and space, where privacy and personal space are limited: all are tackled in this story, and in most of the others, with remarkable economy. You can’t help but be reminded that McCaffrey knows all this stuff from life. She was divorced, after all.
Mourning continues in the second episode, when Helva takes Theoda, a physiotherapist, to a planet where most of the population have been paralysed by a space plague. Her vision adjustments can detect microscopic reactions from these doomed people to the ancient techniques of rehab applied by the therapist, and this shows the survivors how they can rehabilitate their people, particularly the children who will relearn movement fastest: another triumph of an augmented human-machine response. Whether Helva’s contribution is because she is a woman is not the point. She’s interested in people, and supports the therapist’s mission by participating because Theoda interests her. Empathy, a need to help, a desire to assist, are not solely feminine characteristics, but in presenting them as so important, so crucial for the plot, and so desirable in a well-adjusted and normal person who happens to be female, McCaffrey shows us that women using such skills are highly valuable in society. (This was 1969, remember.)
The next story is the one has a B-movie plot, and a gratuitous use of Bob Dylan. I really don’t like it when real-world people are brought into fiction. It drags the plot back from imagination to dreary reappropriation, and it dates the story indelibly, producing an impression of lack of imagination rather than enthusiastic hommage. I’m sure I’ve seen this plot on Star Trek several times, and I think it pops up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as well: a deranged brain ship mourning her dead brawn by enslaving the local population with her voice to kill themselves as a sacrifice to He Who Orders. Helva’s new brawn is a woman in mourning because her husband died before they could store their genes, and her disastrous first childbirth killed the baby and prevented her from having more. She and Helva have to pick up donations of embryos in plastic ribbon to repopulate a planet which lost its gene pool, and they are lured to a place where life is an abomination and death is an act of devout sacrifice, all aided by hallucigenic gases from volcanic eruptions. McCaffrey’s focus here is on motherhood and nurturing life: the ethics of creating test-tube embryos are easily upheld by having a very obvious villain object to them. The motherhood / midwife role played by two women who physically cannot have children is a very targeted way to concentrate on exactly what motherhood is, and what the body’s role actually is: another feminist debate.
The fourth story gives Helva more people to play with, a group of actors whom she is transporting across the galaxies to perform Romeo and Juliet to a planet of jellyfish who communicate in the language of physics. How would you enact “Soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” in equations? The actors, and Helva (she has perfect recall, she can play any part required, and it turns out she can act quite well) are transported into jellyfish shells to perform, and find the experience of exchanging energies in the performance of the play almost too overwhelming to survive. This story is about selflessness and ego, about denying your own needs for the benefit of others, or being totally selfish. The snottiest actor is an egotistical madam who specialises in ruining scenes and upstaging others to get her own way, and to prove her skills. (I should mention that McCaffrey used also to work in theatre: she’s writing off some old grievances here, I think.) Trouble is, to survive best in the jellyfish environment, ego is necessary, and what a shame that the egotistical one ends up trapped there, no longer able to use her body and physicality to attract attention, but must rely on her mental and emotional powers, finally forced to play true to her actorly skills.
Torture and sensory deprivation are the subject of the next story, and also attack. Helva gets kidnapped by a deranged brawn and has her synapses disconnected, she can no longer hear or see. She never could smell, taste or touch, so her only senses have been turned off. How she copes, and gets herself out of the situation, are down to strong willpower, inner mental resources, and intelligence, the management and recall of data that will give her an idea to neutralise her attacker, and allow help to come. How would you kill someone if you only had a voice? McCaffrey’s emphasis on self-reliance comes back again here: in this story Helva’s brawn is a total git, an arrogant, patronising male stereotype who thinks of Helva only as a sophisticated computer without a personality, and so she kicks him off her ship, divorcing him not so much for his personal failings and terrible judgement, but for failing to understand who she is and what she needs. If that’s not feminist action I don’t know what is.
The last story gives Helva a kind of closure, because she finally meets her man, her perfect brawn, whom we have encountered in all the stories so far, in a very traditional romance pattern: the one man with whom she is continually arguing is of course the one man for her. I find this disappointing because it’s so predictable. It’s also a reminder that all the authority figures in these stories are men: that is a feminist fail that McCaffrey went on to try to do something about in her later novels, but never really got a grip on. The Ship Who Sang is a great way to set out ideas, and to explore some really important ideas about women and power and strength, but if only she had continued in this way.
This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading and publishing.
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
Review by admiral ironbombs
“God, I hate this place.
I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough.”
As often as she appears on “best SF authors you ought to read”-type lists, I get the feeling that Octavia Butler is not half as well-known as she ought to be. (Probably a perception issue on my part due to her showing up on all those “authors you’ve never read but should” lists… and because I think everyone should have read at least one of her books by now.) It’s a surprise to me; despite any flaws and quibbles with her novels, they’re some of the most thought-provoking and innovative SF out there. I’ve meant to re-read her Patternist and Xenogenesis series, but before doing so, there was one series of hers I’ve yet to read: Earthseed. It started with 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and continued in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, and would have continued with Parable of the Trickster if Butler’s writing career hadn’t been cut short at the age of 58.
Lauren Olamina grew up in the mid-2020s, watching the world deteriorate from the relative safety of her middle-class gated community outside of Los Angeles. Due to catastrophic climate and social change, society is coming apart at the seams. The new presidential administration has cut back investments in the sciences, and removed labor and safety regulations, in an attempt to “restore America to its former glory.” Police show up hours late, if at all, and cost too much for most citizens to use them. The firemen rarely show up at all – there isn’t enough potable water for drinking, so wasting it to put out fires costs an egregious sum. And there are plenty of fires from a new wunderdrug, said to make watching (and setting) fires “more enjoyable than sex” for its users. (Lauren’s addict mother took yet another substance while pregnant, which gave Lauren “hyperempathy,” a kind of mental link where Lauren feels the pleasure and pain of others.) And Lauren sees the first foreign corporations buying up American cities: “company towns” where the wealthy live in safety and security, and others can trade their labor for the privilege of living behind their sturdy walls.
This gated cul-de-sac has become the only family and world Lauren has known, a safe zone nestled in the anarchy, and its inhabitants soldier on against increasing adversity. Things are bad and are only getting worse, but the adults refuse to accept this societal decay as anything other than a temporary setback. Even Lauren’s father – a Baptist preacher and the community’s leader – is reluctant to admit the dark reality of everyday life. But thieves and arsonists keep breaking in; the deaths mount, as do the number of families leaving to work in corporate cities. Laruen’s family begins to collapse; after the community shatters from a series of attacks, Lauren heads forth from the wreckage with a multi-racial cast, reborn through change with new purpose: that of Earthseed.
Earthseed itself is hard to explain; it’s a religion Lauren builds as she struggles to understand it, a new God – a new philosophy – to help understand and guide her through this world. It’s both her construct and an outside force that motivates her. It’s a series of poetic verses which headline each chapter, the meaning of which builds as you progress through the novel. This recurring refrain is both explanation and teaser for the depth of Earthseed: “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars.” Earthseed is the crux of the novel, somewhat ironic given that it’s given second billing behind the apocalyptic setting and atmosphere. I’m a bit of an agnostic skeptic myself, and found Earthseed too ’90s New Age-y at times, even though Butler handles the subject with a gentle but firm hand. Aside from bringing manifest destiny to the stars, it’s a reaction to the only world Lauren has known, a religion that promotes tolerance and understanding to bind together the remains of a human race fractured along geopolitical, ethnic, and class lines. It raises a fascinating concept: what would the idealistic philosophy of this grim future be?
And it is one grim future, festering in the aftermath of an unexplained catastrophe – Butler is coy with details on how this world messed itself up, perhaps because the narrator herself is coming of age well after the decline started. Prepare for dogs running around with children’s limbs dangling from their mouths, teenage cannibalism, and a depressing amount of background rape (several of the characters in Lauren’s band are former sex slaves). Butler has a very cynical view of humankind, portraying it as willing to destroy itself and spoil its environment in a frantic scramble for self-preservation; her 2026 California is as brutal as Earthseed is optimistic. There’s this rich, intoxicating atmosphere of decay that pervades the novel, humanity clinging to the last vestiges of society. It’s shocking how vivid and plausible this future can feel, a nightmare vision extrapolated from our worst predictions for climate change and income inequality. Yet it also had elements that don’t feel at all realistic – things I wouldn’t hesitate to take a lesser writer to task over. It hasn’t rained in six years, but everyone has thriving citrus/vegetable gardens. In one or two generations, dogs have gone from loyal companion to roving in packs eating children. Society is all but gone, but people still go to work and get paid; everyone is scraping by without enough food and water, but Lauren’s group never lacks supplies since every fifty pages there’s a guy selling food out of the back of a truck. I could go on.
Truth be told, I found myself drawn into this novel, warts and all. I think the epistolary style works against the novel – it’s composed of diary entries written by a confused teenager, but it gives the reader an inside view of Lauren’s thought process. The aforementioned plot holes were nits I couldn’t help but pick. The narrative is distant and detached, as Lauren builds – finds? – her religion and explains it through emotionless journal entries. And the ending doesn’t give finality or closure, as this novel is just a few steps of the journey of Earthseed. Butler had a grand vision for the series, following in the wake of Lauren as humanity’s new messiah; Parable of the Sower is just the first step on a long, six-book journey that ended two books in. There’s a good article on the LA Review of Books that charts the intended progression, and makes me wonder how amazing the full cycle would have been had Butler been around to complete it.
Parable of the Sower tackles complex issues in a rich and disturbing apocalypse, a world that felt more real due to its detailed and diverse cast. While some elements were vivid and realistic, others are awkward and poorly thought out, and the author’s cynical view of humanity is a downer – with enough cannibalism, rape, and so forth to probably deserve a trigger warning. Still, I couldn’t put it down – I found it well-written and very readable; Butler has a strong, sure voice as a writer, and uses it to her full advantage as Lauren founds a new religion for all humankind. Parable of the Sower doesn’t rise to the same heights as Wild Seed or Kindred, but it offers some thought-provoking insight into religion, gender, and race in the dystopic remnants of society. I just wish Butler had been around to complete this series.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.
Synners, Pat Cadigan (1991)
Review by Ian Sales
As should be clear from the cover art to the left, Synners is in Gollancz’s SF Masterwork series, which makes Cadigan one of fourteen female authors among the seventy-eight authors in the series so far. Even more remarkable, Cadigan is one of the few female authors to succeed at writing cyberpunk, the subgenre of science fiction which did more to minimise the contribution of women to the genre than any other. As for Synners‘ credentials as a SF Masterwork… It’s certainly an accomplished novel, and there are definitely worse books already in the series. But, perhaps, by 1991 pretty much everything that needed to be said by, and in, cyberpunk had already been said. Given that, it’s not easy to determine what precisely Synners brings to the subgenre, or even genre. This is not helped by certain aspects of its world-building coming across in 2015 as somewhat quaint and dated. But that, of course, is an occupational hazard of writing science fiction, and it’s a remarkable novel indeed which won’t feel dated twenty-five years after being written.
The plot of Synners centres around a new technology, “sockets”, which allows for direct neural interfacing. But rather than in service to computer programming, this is used to experience entertainment media, especially “rock videos”. In the twenty-first century, this seems like an odd place to put the cutting-edge of computing, and from what I remember of 1991, the shine had long since rubbed off MTV. But there is also an Internet of sorts in Synners, and in describing this Cadigan proves almost prophetic in parts. However, the constant references to “datalines”, ie, landlines, feels a little dated in our current wifi world…
All of which is to say that the technology on which the story of Synners sits – and for cyberpunk fiction, this is no open landscape but a fully-populated mise en scène whose every element is important – is not the most convincing aspect of the novel. The aforementioned sockets, for example, are all but magical – no real explanation is given how their filaments might propagate through the brain to exactly the right areas for the sockets to be effective (although there are some convincing discussion of neurology). On the other hand, the computing mentioned throughout has the ring of believability – as of the state of the art in 1991, when 40 MB was considered a pretty hardcore harddisk…
But a science fiction novel is more than just the world of its story. Synners feels like it has… too many characters. It opens in a tattoo parlour in a run-down Los Angeles, and then bounces among a dozen or so characters, before the plot finally kicks into gear about a third of the way into its 475 pages. And even then, the focus is not entirely clear. There’s been a take-over of a video production company, EyeTraxx, by a media conglomerate, Diversifications, because EyeTraxx had a small medical research lab and that’s where sockets came from. In hindsight, this is not entirely plausible, but never mind. But the idea of a company which specialises in enhancing Hollywood studio films through the use of CGI is surely prophetic (rumour has it such firms these days are even used by celebrities for their private videos, such as those they take at birthday and anniversary parties).
In transpires that Diversifications’ takeover of EyeTraxx threatens the datalines. Because the brain of Visual Mark, EyeTraxx’s chief programmer, is somewhat overdeveloped in the areas where the sockets interact, so when he suffers a stroke while connected… and he has spent so much time connected he has pretty much spread out his mind through Diversifications’ many, many computers and computer systems… The stroke takes down parts of the datalines, and a second major stroke inflicts even more damage because it manages to mutate into a semi-sentient virus.
All this is told through the viewpoints of several characters, most of whom have little agency in the world of the book, although they do have agency in the narrative. They are drop-outs and hackers and the sort of people who spend most of their time at raves. But because they’re not driven by a need to increase market share or revenue, they’re the only ones who can see what the problem really is and so take it upon themselves to fix it.
Synners is far from being a bad novel. The prose is taut and well-written, and if the characters tend to blur together that’s more a consequence of there being so many than it is of Cadigan’s failure to make them distinct. The story takes a while before it picks up sufficient speed for narrative impetus to drag the reader along, but once it’s up and running it’s a fast read. It suffers a little because of its insistence that rock videos are where all the computing and artistic rebels can be found. And while much of the technology on display is plausible, if a little dated in places, some of it is a bit hand-wavey.
Synners deserves its spot in the SF Masterwork series – not because it was written by a woman, not because it is cyberpunk, and certainly not because it is a cyberpunk novel written by a woman… but because it snapshots in muscular but well-chosen prose a particular moment in science fiction’s history. And it does so in a distinctive voice. Worth reading.
The Moon and the Sun, Vonda N McIntyre (1997)
Review by Kate Macdonald
You know how it is when you had a favourite author, and millions of years later you wouldn’t be able to name her as a favourite, if asked cold, but if you saw a new book by her, you’d be heading for the cash desk? This could be risky: writers you revere in your teens may not be writing at the top of their game now, and you’d be a different reader as well.
I saw Vonda McIntyre’s name in a catalogue and was clicking Pay Now before I could blink. The premise of this 1997 novel that I had never heard of, The Moon and the Sun, sounded outstanding: Jesuit priest catches sea monsters for Louis XIV. I used to read her hardcore science fiction over and over. Although The Moon and the Sun is a counterfactual historical novel; the presence of sea-monsters reassured me that McIntyre would not be neglecting her speculative strengths. Halfway through, though, the plot had gone flabby because the heroine, Mlle Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, was doing too many things at once. She was feeding the sea-monster, composing music for the King, drawing her brother’s dissections, being a lady-in-waiting to Louis XIV’s niece, avoiding seduction by the wrong man, and falling in love with the right one. Finding enough new dresses to wear, sorting out her head-dresses, riding horses and the secret plot to free her Turkish slave are also on her to-do list. Her life is way too cluttered, and neglects the really strong part of the plot, of how to keep the sea-monsters alive.
This part is very difficult, since Louis XIV and the Pope both think that the sea-monsters contain an organ of immortality in their bodies. Marie-Josèphe has to really work on her language lessons with the sea-monster to find a way to keep them all alive, if only she didn’t have to do all the other court-related obligations as well. And be responsible for waking her Jesuit brother from over-sleeping when he ought to be attending the King’s levée.
McIntyre can write great fantasy, but this novel is not great historical fiction. The plot is good, but the historical clangers prevented me from the immersion I wanted into the world of the court. Louis XIV is far too familiar when he should not be, and since the language of court is French, it makes no sense for Marie-Josèphe to be teaching the sea-monster English: ‘Poissssson’, not ‘Fisssh’, surely? And yet, as if sensing the bagginess, McIntyre gets The Moon and the Stars on its feet to lift its skirts and take flight.
The urgency of the sea-monster’s survival compounds the dangerous political games played by the Comte du Chrétien to keep Marie-Josèphe in favour. The motif of damaged bodies (so many characters have impairments! This is definitely a novel for disability studies courses) transforms into hunting and betrayal, and the last section, which begins when the Queen of Sheba’s leopards are hunting the sea-monster in the Seine (one assumes), is totally gripping. Marie-Josèphe is a good strong heroine, and the sea-monster (who is a mermaid, but not the kind we expect to see in our dreams) is a wonderful, aggressive creation, except when she interrupts the narrative with her own thoughts. That wasn’t such a good idea, because the stranger and more alien she is, the more impressive she is as a character.
The Moon and the Sun has been made into a film, coming out soon, starring Pierce Brosnan as Louis XIV. Looking at the stills online, it seems clear that the film and the book have very little in common, and the film is not very interested in historical accuracy, but hey: it’s only a film, and it’s a good novel. Enjoy them both.
This review originally appeared on Kate Macdonald – about writing, reading an publishing.
The Highroad Trilogy (A Path of Stars, Revolution’s Shore, The Price of Ransom), Kate Elliott (1990)
Review by Electra Pritchett
Kate Elliott has spent the 21st century writing epic fantasy, so there are probably quite a few people unaware that she wrote science fiction novels in the 20th. But by dint of ebook distribution, all of Elliott’s SF backlist (some originally published under another name) is now available again: these are the three volumes of the Highroad Trilogy (as by Alis A Rasmussen) and the four Chronicles of the Jaran.
I picked the Highroad Trilogy as my introduction to Elliott’s SF because, unlike the Jaran books (which were published later but come first in terms of internal chronology), the Highroad books are complete in and of themselves, and because the protagonist of the trilogy, one Lilyaka Ransome, dissatisfied daughter of a mining clan on a barren planet in a backwater system, almost immediately leaves said planet on a chase after her kidnapped mentor. Like another more famous protagonist from a galactic backwater pulled off-world by figures from their mentor’s past, Lily quickly finds herself mixed up with a rebellion against an unjust intergalactic government, but over the course of the trilogy she also finds herself coming out the other side of that rebellion, along with the ragtag band of comrades she’s gathered along the way, and taking a more uncertain road.
If it weren’t for the fact that tastes seem to have swung away from this kind of vivid space opera – and the Highroad Trilogy certainly has a lot of verve for a set of 25-year old novels – there’d be very little in these books to date them; they contain all of Elliott’s signature strengths, just at shorter length. Her novels are remarkable for consistent inclusion of protagonists from a variety of backgrounds, many of them women and people of color, as well as for her depth of worldbuilding; in a science fiction setting, this means interesting, truly alien aliens with cultural depth and a variety of human societies with different histories, attitudes, and governments, as well as people within those societies with conflicting views, often to go along with their differing class backgrounds. It also means a lot of action scenes and space battles; Lily is a martial arts expert by long training, as is her mentor, and the friends she gathers around her all have their own, fully fleshed-out pasts, and the skills to go with them.
Another signature of Elliott’s work is her focus on social change, whether by means of violence – a revolution – or otherwise. Lily finds herself by chance and by principle allied with the galactic revolution of one Jehane, who proclaims that he wants to bring equality to the corrupt Central. It’s certainly true that things are bad for many people, including the oppressed human sect called the Ridanis, who are treated as omnipresent pariahs but have their own story of having come “over the highroad” and lost the way back – but with the prophecy among them that Jehane will come one day to lead them home. The support of the Ridani is crucial for the successes that Jehane achieves, but the prejudices against them go deep, and it’s part and parcel of Elliott’s grasp on how social change is actually accomplished that the narrative doesn’t minimize that.
Elliott has remarked that these books were partly inspired by Edmund Wilson’s history of revolutionary socialism, To the Finland Station (1940), which yields another perspective on Jehane’s revolution: he’s Lenin, and Lily and her friends wind up allied with his Trotsky, a true believer and the better man. That association sets them on a path back over the so-called highroad, back to the human galactic empire which the characters of the Jaran books were struggling to free from alien domination. Generations later, after the successful end to that uprising, Lily and her friends, used to violence, iniquity, and war, seem practically barbaric – which opens up a complex narrative dialogue about the use of violence itself, a dialogue the books are too canny to attempt to foreclose.
Overlaying a proletarian revolution onto a science fiction trilogy structure does interesting things to said structure, which isn’t entirely surprising given Elliott’s penchant for arranging plot and emotional beats at less familiar points than many other writers. Quite simply, she’s too good to fall back on the genre’s structural clichés, and this is another factor that makes the Highroad books still feel fresh.
The one dated element lies in the portrayal of Lily’s lover, Kyosti, who gets involved with Lily under false pretences and whose actions are revealed to be, given later revelations about his past, deeply problematic. Although Kyosti is in some ways a deeply romantic figure and the narrative by the end seems to have inflicted a kind of punishment on him for his actions, I didn’t share the full acceptance that Lily comes to. Elliott’s later works certainly contain much more complex deconstructions of this kind of mysterious love interest character.
That aspect aside, the Highroad Trilogy stands on its own without any knowledge of the Jaran books, and the books are well worth reading for their great characters, interesting plotting, and complex thinking about revolutions, violence, and social change – all with spaceships.
Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
And so the four books of the Compact Space series comes to a violent and confrontational end – although a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared six years later. But the jacket flap of Chanur’s Homecoming describes the book as the last of the series, and the story arc was begun in the second book, Chanur’s Venture, which in turn was catapulted from the first (and, I suspect, initially written as a standalone) book, The Pride of Chanur.
Humans have returned to Compact Space, this time in force. And it seems they have may have shot at a knnn ship, the knnn who are the most technologically advanced, the most alien and the most enigmatic. But there is also a battle for supremacy going on between two kif hakkikt, the mahendo’sat have been playing a long game in order to keep their own borders safe, and the ground-based hani are trying to arrest Pyanfar Chanur for various crimes she is alleged to have committed. In the preceding book, The Kif Strike Back, Pyanfar found herself allied with one of the rival hakkikt, Sikkukkut – or rather, a vassal of him – and part of the force which attacked and seized Kefk Station. But Sikkukkut’s enemy, Akkhtimakt, holds Meetpoint Station, which is where the humans may be heading for – or so Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friend, Jik, believes.
Pyanfar leads another force on an assault on Meetpoint Station, even though she knows victory will force Akkhtimakt toward hani space. But she has no choice, as Sikkukkut has threatened the hani homeworld, Anuurn, if she double-crosses him. And after Pyanfar’s ship successfully take Meetpoint, they have to leave immediately to chase down Akkhtimakt before he reaches Anuurn… and get there before Sikkukkut does. The journey, a series of hyperspace jumps with little time to recover in between is hard on the crew – although, fortunately, they have another hani ship’s crew acting as relief (as that crew’s ship was too slow for Pyanfar’s taskforce).
The closer she gets to Anuurn, the more Pyanfar realises what has been going on. She learns more about the kif – partly from the kif “slave”, Skkukuk, given to her by Sikkukut, and partly by observation and inferences. She also figures out what the mahendo’sat have really been up to. And when it comes to the final battle for Anuurn and Gaohn Station (echoing the battle which ended The Pride of Chanur), Pyanfar manages to defeat Akkhtimakt and then turn on Sikkukut… and she ends the single representative of the hani to all the other races of the Compact.
The plot of Chanur’s Homecoming is predicated on the psychology of the alien races in the Compact. While told from the point of view of the hani, and so making them the most understandable, Pyanfar also has to be able to predict what the kif and mahendo’sat are planning, and so she must also understand how they think. And then there are the humans, who, despite the presence of Tully aboard The Pride of Chanur, are the real aliens in this series. Even for Cherryh, it’s a lot to get across, and her typically brusque prose frequently isn’t quite up to the job. It’s not just the details of the space battles, which work well, but the many scenes of Pyanfar trying to work out who is doing what and how each of the major players think do more to confuse than elucidate the plot. This is not to say that the details Cherryh reveals are not interesting – the kif, who are the main villains of the piece, actually turn out to be the most original of all the Compact races, for example.
All the information Cherryh throws in, the plots and counter-plots, the strategies and conspiracies, serve only to convince Pyanfar there is a single course of action open to her, and which she promptly takes when all the various parties are gathered together after the battle on Gaohn Station to sort everything out. There then follows a nakedly sentimental epilogue, which demonstrates how much the events of the four books have changed the hani.
The four Compact Space novels are good solid science fiction of a sort that doesn’t really seem to be written any more. While the fourth book is somewhat densely packed, and that sometimes gets in the way of its action-packed plot, it’s nonetheless cleverly done. Rereading Cherryh – or, in this case, reading one of her books for the first time – reminds why I was a fan of her fiction back in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps not everything she wrote then has survived the test of time, but the Compact Space novels appear to have weathered the decades pretty well. They’re not twenty-first science fiction by any means, but they’re still readable and enjoyable sf, and probably better than a lot of science fiction published today.