The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett

best_brackettThe Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

These days, it’s likely Brackett is better known as the screenwriter of The Empires Strikes Back (and The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye and others). But back in the day, she was almost science fiction royalty, published in many magazines, a collaborator with Ray Bradbury, and married to Edmond Hamilton. And throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she churned out dozens of science fiction stories, most published in Planet Stories, and a handful of novels. Much of her output could be described as “planetary romance”, stories in which the planets of the solar system – Earth excluded – hosted the dying remains of ancient civilisations. Titles included ‘The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter’ (AKA ‘The Dragon-Queen of Venus’), ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’ and ‘Enchantress of Venus’, among many others.

These were stories in which adventurers sought alien treasures and became trapped by ancient curses, or the last members of a dying race managed to exact their final revenge. The sensibilities were pure pulp, but the prose was hard-boiled noir polished to a diamond sheen. Brackett was  very very good at what she did, and her nearest male rivals – including her husband – were no match. Perhaps the closest was CL Moore, Catherine Lucille Moore, with her tales of Northwest of Earth, or her superior space opera novel, Judgment Night.

Given the nature of Brackett’s science fictions, it’s no real surprise that despite her skill she is these days mostly forgotten. The style of what she wrote, irrespective of its quality, has fallen out of favour. The real indignity of this, however, is that other such progenitors, like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, whose writing was so vastly inferior, are still remembered fondly. Make no mistake: of the sf authors writing planetary romance or space opera in the 1940s and early 1950s, Leigh Brackett was probably the best.

And so it seems reasonable to expect superior stories in a collection titled The Best of Leigh Brackett. Which was, incidentally, edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. It would not be unreasonable to expect Hamilton to be in an excellent position to select Brackett’s best fiction. But this collection feels more like an attempt to show her range rather than simply showcase her best. It would also not be unreasonable to expect her husband of such motives in selecting stories for the collection.

Sadly, the end result does not play to Brackett’s strengths. There is some classic stuff here, science fiction of the 1940s/1950s that demonstrates it could be serious and superior pulp fiction, like the aforementioned ‘Enchantress of Venus’, or ‘The Jewel of Bas’, or ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’… These are hits of the pure stuff. Known planets of the solar system, ancient civilisations, magical technology… Planetary romance does not get better than this.

Unfortunately, The Best of Leigh Brackett also includes some of her “straight” sf stories, such as ‘The Tweener’ or ‘The Queer Ones’, neither of which compare well to similar contemporary material. If they suited at the time they were published, that’s one thing; but Brackett’s planetary romances are, happily, mostly timeless and still hold up well today…

Albeit perhaps not as well as Moore’s Judgment Night, which rings some changes which took nearly fifty years to take hold in the genre… And Brackett’s fiction was often so well-tuned to its time it now reads as misogynistic… But she had the elegiac tone down pat, and her evocation of long-dead cultures is second to none in genre fiction. There is perhaps a tendency to recycle plots, but no more so than is the case in hard-boiled detective fiction.

Brackett’s style of science fiction is these days considered passé, and was thought so when she returned to it in the late 1970s after a hiatus of a decade or more. It’s certainly true the genre has a tendency to faddish-ness, inasmuch as certain styles and “preoccupations” may prove more popular than others at various times… But good fiction is timeless; and the best fiction evokes timelessness even at the time it is published. Some of Brackett’s stories – and she liked to write at length, so much of her best fiction is novelette- or novella-length – has that quality.  Yes, it could be argued Brackett’s planetary romances were colonialist and orientalist; but because they were constructed to a specific pattern – albeit only inasmuch as they were seemingly patterned on ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’ by J Milton Hayes in much the same way Heinlein’s sf was apparently inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim… And the former being a pastiche of the latter… And both being imperialist and racist to a considerable degree…

Of course, this relies on a particular reading of Brackett’s fiction, or indeed of much American sf of the first half of the twentieth century, and it is perhaps unfair to complain of issues endemic to her entire generation. If Brackett’s fiction did not overcome those issues, it at least made them a mostly unobjectionable element of her stories. Her tales of Mars and its dying races are good stories, put together with enviable skill and economy. She even collaborated with Ray Bradbury – in ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’ – and her voice drowned out Bradbury’s.

During the 1940s, the two best writers of science fiction were arguably Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, and if history has not recorded them as such, that may well be due to their gender. Some male writers of the period went on to greater success – such as Asimov and Clarke – and so occluded better writers whose subsequent careers did not really survive the 1950s. But the history of women writers in sf is filled with examples who enjoyed historical success, only for their success to be forgotten in subsequent years in favour of the few male authors whose success continued into following decades. True, it also happened to male writers; but the many of the female writers thus forgotten were of better quality.

The Best of Leigh Brackett is not the best-named collection ever published. But Brackett was extremely good at, well, at what she was extremely good at. Her fiction is long out of print, bar collections from some small presses; although she did appear in the original Fantasy Masterwork series from Gollancz, with Sea-King of Mars, despite it not actually being fantasy…  But books by Leigh Brackett are not hard to find, and she is totally worth reading. She should be in print – more so than the likes of Asimov or her other contemporaries. If you see one of her books snap it up. You will not be disappointed.


The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair

dancers_noyoThe Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973)
Review by Ian Sales

My previous experience of St Clair’s writing had been only with her short fiction, but I thought I had some idea of what her novels might be like. In fact, The Dancers of Noyo read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s sometimes hard to tell with US science fiction novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of his tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. Neither is the reader, as St Clair fails to explain the purpose of the dancing, or why the tribes – and it seems they all have one – each have an android Dancer. Because he refuses to dance, Sam is sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany.

En route, Sam begins to relive the lives of people from earlier – chiefly from last decades of the twentieth century – including a dead young woman being autopsied, and a man who may have been patient zero for the “bone melt” plague which drastically depopulated the Earth. Sam then meets up with the daughter of the man who invented the android Dancers, and she leads him to her dead father’s secret underground laboratory. Where Sam must defeat some of the monsters which roam the underground complex…

While The Dancers of Noyo opens much like any other science fiction novel of its time, with its Republic of California, and a village society which borrows freely from Native Americans, and feels much like hippy films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But St Clair doesn’t seem to know what story she is actually telling. The past lives experienced by Sam as he travels south don’t seem to belong to the main plot – which involves indvertently breaking the tribes free of the android Dancers. It’s all a bit Easy Rider, but with some weird science fiction twist based on the sort of secretive research programmes people believed governments were undertaking – not unlike the sort of thinking which inspired Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.

Unfortunately, the result is a novel which is very much a product of its time. It’s tempting to think she made up the story as she went along – common practice in sf in those days – but it reads more as if she couldn’t be bothered to turn a promising start into a plot that made sense. It was her last novel.

The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ

hidden_side_moonThe Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There can be little doubt by now that Joanna Russ was one of the most important figures in American twentieth-century science fiction, although for many years, particularly afterward, her contribution to the genre was downplayed or ignored. Much, in fact, as she described in her important work, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Of course, she was not the only female sf writer to be “forgotten”. From the twenty-first century it seems like there was a concerted effort from the late 1970s through the 1980s to write female authors out of science fiction history. Only a few managed to hang on in there – Ursula K Le Guin, of course, who is often the only woman writer on so-called lists of “classic sf”. And this despite a huge number of female mid-list writers publishing throughout the 1980s, some of whom went on to bestseller status, like Lois McMaster Bujold.

Joanna Russ won four major genre awards, and was nominated 41 times, during her career; and yet by the turn of the century she seemed to be known only as the author of a little-read classic, The Female Man. In part, I suspect this was due to the fact she was a vocal feminist and feminist writer, and conservative sf fans, echoing a move in wider US culture, tried to demonise feminism and feminist sf. Fortunately, science fiction is a progressive genre, and many of its fans fought against this reactionary rewriting of sf history.

Having said all that, I still think Russ is under-appreciated. While her novels now often appear on “classic sf” lists, much of her short fiction output has been overlooked. And she wrote a lot of short fiction – fifty-six stories between 1955 and 1996. The Hidden Side of the Moon, a collection from late in her career, contains twenty-six stories published between 1959 and 1984. Some are less than a page long. Not all were originally published in genre venues.

Twenty-six stories is too many to cover individually.  Overall, they give an impression of fierce intelligence I don’t recall getting quite so strongly from other Russ collections (although certainly from individual stories). This is especially odd given I don’t believe the collection was curated, or its contents chosen for particular reasons. It may simply be a consequence of the fact that not all of the stories are science fiction or fantasy.

The opener, ‘The Little Dirty Girl’, is a chilling ghost story, told in epistolary style. In ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’, a female writer rails against society, before being told she should, in fact she will, use the nom de plume George Sand. ‘This Afternoon’ describes a play in a park, in which one of the actors plays a satyr, only he may not be an actor…

‘”I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!”‘ is a Cthulhu story. In fact, a number of the stories in The Hidden Side of the Moon play with, or reference, other literary works, something Russ did throughout her career. Given that ‘Window Dressing’ was originally published in 1970, in New Worlds of Fantasy 2, I suspect it’s not referencing the film Mannequin, although it shares the same story.  ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ is about a friend of the writer who is an anthologist of science fiction stories and, well, the title says it all. After reading the slushpile for the anthology, the narrator: “… that pile of rejected mss must have been the vehicle for a curse … How do I know? I began to write trash.” Some of which is then given.

‘Nor Custom Stale’, published in 1959, is the oldest story in the collection. It’s a variation on ‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster, although here it’s the reverse which is true, and which leads to a strange, inexplicable result. ‘The Experimenter’ is a sort of fantasy, but ‘Reasonable People’ is definitely science fiction. Russ’s stories – and these two are good examples – often seem to end on single lines which question everything has gone before. The final three lines of ‘Reasonable People’, for instance, go:

Isn’t it a lovely world?
And so it is. It is.
For reasonable people


Both ‘Visiting’ and ‘Visiting Day’, titled here ‘I. Visiting’ and ‘II. Visiting Day’, although originally published in 1967 and 1970, and ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’, which contains two stories, ”The Autobiography of My Mother’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ are more literary experiments than genre fiction. And yet, genre reading protocols still work on them – if anything, Russ’s genre fiction had a tendency to confound genre protocols more than her non-genre work did. Or rather, ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ can be read as genre; but something like ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (collected in Extra(Ordinary) People) is clearly genre but resists an obvious read.

The more of Russ’s fiction I read, the further I want to explore her oeuvre. From what I have seen to date, it is variable but, to borrow from Longfellow, “when she was good, she was very, very good”. But more than that, there was a fierce intelligence driving her fiction – and her non-fiction too, of course – and a fierce commitment to feminism evident in pretty much every word she wrote. As I have said before, the giants of twentieth century fiction we have been lumbered with are Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov; when the true giants were, and are, Russ, Delany and Le Guin.


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).


Falcon, Emma Bull

falconFalcon, Emma Bull (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

There is a type of story which appears in American science fiction with surprising frequency. The main character is a pilot of starships, and often the best in the story’s universe. They may or may not have once been military. But now they are very much at odds with the authorities. Falcon may have been published in 1989, suggesting Han Solo from Star Wars as the inspiration for such a character, but I suspect it stretches further back. Perhaps it’s a consequence of the romanticisation of jet fighter pilots during the Cold War; or the public adulation directed at the test pilots who became the early astronauts. Whatever the origin, there are plenty of examples in sf, written by both female and male writers. Most of these characters, as in the case of Niki Falcon in Emma Bull’s Falcon, are male; the only female examples which immediately spring to mind are Dancer in Michelle Shirey Crean’s Dancer of the Sixth, Gaelian YnTourne in Angel at Apogee by SN Lewitt, and Nicole Shea in Chris Claremont’s trilogy of First Flight, Grounded! and Sundowner.

Niki does not start Falcon as a pilot. He is Viscount Harlech, a prince of the ruling family of the world of Cymru. And there are no prizes for guessing which culture Bull has “borrowed” for her invented planet. Niki is something of a wastrel, with no interest in supporting his brother the ruler, Lord Glyndwyr, and much prefers to spend his time carousing in low dives in the capital, Canaerfon. And then he stumbles across what appears to be a plan to destabilise the government. But before he can act on what he las learnt, the Concorde attacks, kills his family and seizes control of the planet. Niki only just manages to escape.

The novel then jumps ahead several years. Niki is now Niki Falcon, the sole survivor of an experimental military programme to create a superlative pilot. The programme worked, but was expensive, dangerous, and, thanks to the drugs and surgery used, the pilots died gruesome deaths after only a handful of years. Niki does not have long left. He is now a pilot for hire, and is hired by Chrysander, a singer, for an unspecified mission… which proves to be breaking the blockade around Chrysander’s home world, Lamia. Because Lamia is under attack by the Concorde, who intend to massacre its inhabitants. And so Niki’s past catches up with him, and he reluctantly helps the Lamians to defeat the Concorde’s forces…

For all that Falcon is a very readable heartland sf novel, there’s little in it that stands out. Universes comprising worlds with monolithic cultures, especially cultures borrowed from Western nations, were common in science fiction throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, but the idea is now considered passé. Bull uses a variation on hyperspace, called Cheatspace, for her FTL, but it’s just semantics. In fact, Falcon is more or less bolted together from well-used tropes, some perhaps given a quick lick of paint to fool the eye as to their freshness. This is not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes, it’s all that science fiction readers want, even if it feels like squandering the genre’s potential.

There are a couple of good set-pieces in Falcon, and the characters are likeable. The prose is very readable. But it all feels a bit tired, and days after finishing the novel it’s hard to remember the details of the plot or characters. Bull did not return to the universe of Falcon, and most of her output has actually been fantasy. She is perhaps best-known for her debut, a fantasy novel published in 1987, War for the Oaks. A lot of her published work has been in collaboration with her husband Will Shetterley, including two anthology series, Liavek and Chronicles of the Borderlands.

Falcon is an enjoyable read, but a forgettable one. It’s good a for a longish journey, but it’s hardly surprising it’s pretty much forgotten these days.


Ghosthunt, Jo Clayton

Ghosthunt, Jo Clayton (1983)
Review by Ian Sales

Ghosthunt is the seventh book in Clayton’s nine-book Diadem series. The heroine of the series is Aleytys, an unsophisticated, and extremely beautiful, young woman from a low tech planet who becomes the inadvertent wearer of the Diadem, an alien device which contains the consciousnesses of three previous wearers. The Diadem also gives Aleytys psionic powers. After several books in which Aleytys was sold into, and then escaped from, sexual slavery, she now works for Hunters, Inc., who do exactly what their name implies – part-mercenary, part-private investigators, part-recovery agent, and very expensive. She also has a son, who is with his father on her home world. She knows the father hates her, and suspects her son will be raised to do the same. Except her son is not with his father…

Hunters, Inc. are contacted by the management of the Company resort world Cazarit. Several people have been kidnapped from it, and the world’s security has been unable to determine the perpetrator. Worse, they have an upcoming party of rulers from the Aghir, and they think the kidnapper will target one of them. Aleytys is reluctant to take the case, but thinks she detects the hand of an old friend in the kidnappings and so signs on, providing she gets to choose what happens to the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, Lilit, teenage daughter of one of the Aghir lords, is about to be married off to another lord. She hates her intended, her father, and pretty much everything about her world. It is a cruel place, in which the rulers live in luxury while those who mine the metals which have made the worlds wealthy live in poverty in a barely habitable alien ecosphere. Lilit is keeping a diary, and her writings in it explain her world and how she came to secretly join a rebellion against her father and the other lords.

Aleytys arrives on Cazarit, with her boss’s daughter as assistant, and immediately begins browbeating the local security staff into giving her full access to everything. They’re reluctant because their failure reflects badly on them, but she can’t figure out who the kidnapper is before he strikes unless she go where she needs and see what she wants. This turns into a guided tour of Cazarit, with its many islands, each of which is dedicated to a different type of entertainment – one for gambling, one for cruelty, one for drugs, etc.

The kidnapper is indeed Aleytys’s old friend Stavver, and he has her son with him and is teaching him the trade. Meanwhile, Lilit has decided to be a suicide bomber, and she will detonate the bomb hidden in her wedding finery at the celebration on Cazarit when she is presented to the lords of the Aghir and her new groom.

Aleytys quickly uncovers how the previous victims were kidnapped – the highly technological security team had looked for flaws in their system, and found none. The kidnapper pretty much climbed over a fence. They had not thought to look for such a low tech approach.

The plot takes its time getting to the climax, but when it does reach it everything goes pretty much as expected. Aleytys’s powers are dialled back in this novel, only making an appearance as and when required to help her do her job. Even her companions inside the Diadem – only two of them, as one has taken over another man’s body, as detailed in the previous book, The Nowhere Hunt – only pop up once or twice in the narrative. If Ghosthunt feels more like heartland science fiction than earlier books’ peplum space opera, there are plenty of flashbacks to remind the reader of Aleytys’s brutal past. And, of course, the worlds of the Aghir are equally brutal – I shall never understand the appeal of such societies in science fiction. Ghosthunt feels a more cosmopolitan novel than previous ones in the series, and the badinage between Aleytys and her assistant almost a faint tinge of Heinlein to it. Of course, she is still a super-special heroine with super-special powers, and they have a tendency to overwhelm the plot, which is likely why Clayton dialled them back in this novel.

Ghosthunt is one of the better entries in the Diadem series, though none of them can ever be called classic science fiction. It was followed by The Snares of Ibex and Questor’s Endgame.


Rimrunners, CJ Cherryh

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Bet Yeager is a vagrant on Thule Station, a decrepit space station off the main trade routes between Union and Alliance territories. She marooned herself there after escaping from Pell Station aboard a freighter. Each day, she visits the station office, hoping for a new berth to ship out on. But none is forthcoming. When a drunk surprises her in a public toilet – she had been sleeping there – and attempts to rape her, she kills him. Desperate for somewhere to lie low, she moves in with a sympathetic barman, but he soon turns abusive. And when he pushes her too far, she kills him too. So it’s a good job a suitable ship then turns up at Thule Station, Loki, and despite Yeager’s lack of official credentials, her captain takes her on as a machinist.

Loki, however, is not a merchant, but a “spook”, a ship with overly-powerful engines which can lurk ahead of warships and gather intelligence or provide early warning. Which means the regime aboard is tough, perhaps even tougher than on a military ship. Yeager is assigned to an off-shift, where she tries to fit in. But she’s not very good at keeping her head down, especially in a ship where the command crew seems to treat everyone like slaves, and feuding cliques have formed among the lower ranks. Her first move, for instance, is to defend a fellow member of her shift, Ramey, known as “NG” for “No Good”, even though he is treated with contempt by most of those aboard.

Ramey’s reputation is a result of a crewmember he was working with dying in an accident and, although it wasn’t Ramey’s fault, he was blamed. But sticking up for Ramey makes Yeager enemies among the crew, resulting in several fraught encounters in the mess and bunk-space the shifts share. It doesn’t help that Loki‘s operations are secret, its crew kept in the dark, and there seems to be some sort of battle for influence going on between two of the ship’s senior officers.

Fortunately, Yeager is more than she seems. She may have been hired on as a machinist, and have some experience in the role, but she is actually a marine. She was left on Pell Station when Mazian’s fleet was forced to withdraw (events described in Downbelow Station (1981)). She’s been trying to return to her original ship, but Mazian’s warships are renegades and wanted by both Union and Alliance. The captain of Loki has a plan to protect his ship in a forthcoming clash between other forces, and it involves Thule Station. It also involves Yeager, once the captain learns who she really is – he has two sets of salvaged marine powered armour. He needs Yeager to get them working…

Rimrunners is a prime example of Cherryh’s sf. It does exactly what she is very good at; and it’s flaws are those which are characteristic of Cherryh’s fiction. Yeager is a well-drawn character, and if she’s perhaps overcompetent at times, it fits with the story. The narrative, as in much of Cherryh’s oeuvre, is only the tip of the iceberg that is the novel’s plot. The reader follows Yeager as she interacts with Loki‘s crew and tries to figure out what the ship is up to, but what is going on outside the ship, and in Union-Alliance space, only comes into focus as the book approaches its end. (And, yes, it is, in part, a continuation of the events from Downbelow Station.)

The whole set-up aboard Loki, however, never quite rings true. Cherryh does an excellent job of depicting the technology and engineering, and if it’s a little dated that’s hardly unexpected (the treatment of computers, for example). But to treat a crew of seasoned professionals like galley-slaves, and to hand out orders that come across as dictatorial whim like some interstellar Captain Bligh… Well, it’s a miracle Loki has lasted as long as it has. After all, galley-slaves were never given shore leave when a ship reached port – although events in Union and Alliance space seem bad enough that no one would willingly strand themselves at a station. There’s always the example of Yeager, as detailed in the opening chapters, so show the likely consequences of such a decision. Nevertheless, life aboard Loki comes across as far too selfish and cutthroat for a vessel whose survival depends on the smooth working of those on board her.

It often seems as though science fiction sacrifices common sense for drama, even if Rimrunners, or indeed Cherryh’s entire Union-Alliance body of work, is set in interstellar space several centuries from now (albeit without any sort of rigorous extrapolation). Wars between planetary systems seem no more implausible than wars between nations either side of a great ocean, although the ability to prosecute such a conflict is entirely dependent on the technology of transport. Certainly such wars were fought in human history with much cruder technology than that on display in any science fiction novel – although in terms of journey time, the distance was effectively the same. A polished and professional crew, working smoothly in unison, much as you would find on a modern-day US Navy warship, plainly isn’t dramatic enough. (Nor, of course, would it hire on a random stranger at some out-of-the-way port, but never mind.) It’s possible life aboard Loki was inspired by life aboard eighteenth-century warships, and there is ample documentation, and no end of fiction, depicting how brutal such a life was. But that was a consequence of the society of the time, and the opening chapters of Rimrunners plainly show an egalitarian, if somewhat libertarian, space-going society. (I will never understand why libertarianism has proven so popular in American science fiction: it’s probably the least plausible, and least sustainable, political system for colonising other planets and running an interstellar polity.)

One of the things science fiction has been doing since its earliest days, and it’s slapdash even at the best of times, is forcing contemporary sensibilities onto an historical model, and then painting it all with a science-fictional gloss and sticking on a few techno-baubles. True rigour in world-building is rare. Having said that, the sort of immersiveness which requires such levels of rigour is a relatively recent phenomenon, so it seems a little churlish to complain of its lack in a twenty-eight-year-old novel. Rimrunners is Cherryh on top form, displays her muscular prose to good effect, showcases her ability to draw good characters, and demonstrates her skill at playing shell games with her plots. If sometimes the world-building creaks at the seams, or feels a little dated, then that’s a minor quibble.