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).

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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.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Ian Sales

The narrator, Mary, is a communications specialist on missions to visit planets inhabited by alien races. She uses her knowledge and skills – and, it is implied, some telepathic ability – to communuicate with the natives of planets previously unvisited. Memoirs of a Spacewoman recounts some of the missions the narrator embarked upon. And their consequences. It is a book clearly not written by an author steeped in science fiction, which lends the whole more of a fabulism air than a science-fictional one; but in contrast, it also covers areas not generally explored by actual genre writers.

The book is structured, more or less, as the reminscences of the narrator, often referencing later events, or commenting on the incidents being described. It does not really feel like a written memoir, as you’d expect from the title, as it’s far too chatty. And yet, although it has a sense of verbal narration to it, the prose is too clear and controlled to convince as speech. If anything, it makes the book a… friendly read, making it likeable even if other elements of the narrative might be hard to like.

There’s something very haphazard about the expeditions described by Mary, although the way her story-telling drifts from breathless to calm and considered from one page to the next probably makes the missions seem less organised than they actually were. (Although some of the events described were clearly the result of bad planning and/or bad leadership.) The aliens she meets are certainly inventive, and most definitely alien – there are no corrugated foreheads in Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Martians, however, are described as “in some ways so like ourselves”, but they communicate tactilely, even using their sex organs… a fact which makes human-Martian relations somewhat strained on expeditions… Among the aliens Mary meets are a race who are “distressingly like centipedes” and who live in transparent houses; a weird protplasmic blob which she has grafted onto her body; and, the mission which takes up the most of the book, a planet that is home to a race of caterpillar-like and butterfly-like aliens.

It’s these last aliens which Mitchison uses to illustrate the point at the heart of Memoirs of a Spacewoman. On first arriving on the planet, the expedition members find the caterpillars and determine they are sentient because of the patterns they make using their colourful droppings. Mary manages to communicate with the creatures, and they prove to be an unsophisticated race. Some time later, the caterpillars are attacked by butterfly-like aliens. The members of the expedition find this aggression baffling. (It doesn’t take them long, however, to discover that the caterpillars undergo metamorphosis to become the butterflies.) Mary manages to make herself understood by the butterflies, and learns that sometimes one of their number breaks out of its chrysalis with deformed wings. While the butterflies have lost all memory of their lives as caterpillars, they do know that they came from. And they blame the caterpillars’ habit of wallowing in stagnant bogs and making patterns with their droppings for causing the incomplete metamorphoses.

It’s hard not to read it all as an allegory for religious creeds and their concept of heaven. The caterpillars fear the butterflies, and yet they’re supposed to stop doing what comes naturally to them because the butterflies promise they will lives of joy after their metamorphosis – despite not presenting any evidence of this to the caterpillars. It’s not exact but the point is clear. And it’s reinforced by the rest of the book’s general message of peace and understanding.

Having said that, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is by no means a religious book, and presents its thesis in a form that is clearly science fiction – alien planets, telepathic communication – and was, in fact, first published by Gollancz, who put the phrase “her first science fiction novel” on the cover. Mitchison’s science fiction, however, owes more the British tradition from Lewis and Wyndham, than it does the US tradition which grew out of the pages of Amazing Stories. It lends the book, as noted earlier, a fabulist air, rather than scientific tale of derring-do the actual plot would normally suggest. But Mary’s breezy narration of events, and the almost child-like depiction of alien worlds, do not detract from the many serious points Mitchison makes.

Some of the attitudes in the book read a little dated, some are almost prescient. It’s an entertaining book, and a deal more thoughtful than its prose suggests. Mitchison went on to write two more science fiction novels – Solution Three (1975) and Not By Bread Alone (1983); but she wrote over forty novels, and around ninety books in total, between 1923 and her death in 1999 at the ripe old age of 101.

Heart of Stone, Denny DeMartino

heart_of_stoneHeart of Stone, Denny DeMartino (2001)
Review by Ian Sales

Philipa Cyprion used to be the emperor of Earth’s astrologer, but she fled the planet, and her job, after the murder of her husband, who had also worked for Emperor Theo. Now she’s been called back, because one of the emperor’s sons (has has over a hundred children) has been murdered, and the emperor thinks Cyprion, with her science of “the interplanetudes”, can solve the crime. To this end, he pairs her with a Terrapol detective called Artemis Hadrien – despite the name, he is male. Details of Prince Lundy’s murder suggest a link to the Waki’el, an alien race with which Emperor Theo is allied. In fact, he has such close ties to the Waki’el that he has a half-Waki’el daughter… And she becomes the next victim.

The Waki’el are humanoid, and either blue or cranberry-coloured (DeMartino seems confused as to what colour cranberries are), possess some sort of sternum ridges, and visible within the cage they form, an external heart. The female Waki’el also produce an addictive drug called “honey” in glands in their mouths when sexually aroused. Some of them produce an even more potent form of this substance, called “amber”. These last belong to a different caste to the ruling Waki’el, although they are born among them.

The plot of Heart of Stone is tied up in both the science of astrology as practiced by Cyprion and the life-cycle of the alien Waki’el. It’s all something to do with zero-point energy, or “creation energy”, and photons and the speed of light in this dimension and an alternate dimension where souls go when people die, and from where they are reincarnated… but the Waki’el apparently have a direct connection to that dimension. Except the current Waki’el leadership have been trying to take control of the zero-point energy, or something, by fitting “quantum pacemakers” to their external hearts, in order to extend their lives. They’ve been assisted in this by “balloon heads”, who are the super-intelligent but profoundly disabled results of humanity wanting “to see how a human fetus would form while stranded for nine months in the creation energy” (p 114). Also involved in the conspiracy is the emperor’s “executioner”, Cornelius Paul. The dead prince and princess were just collateral damage in the plot to seize control of the zero-point dimension and the Earth. Or something.

Cyprion and Hadrien learn all this during a visit to Arif, the Waki’el home world, in the Pleiades Star System (DeMartin probably means “star cluster”. They have travelled to Arif with Paul, although they are at pains to point out they are acting under the direct orders of Emperor Theo. Unfortunately, this seems to cut very little ice with the various people Cyprion and Hadrien interview… and their eventual stumbling onto the solution is more the result of Cyprion’s wild theorising on creation energy, the way in which the Waki’el interact with it, and the “tachyon pacemakers” designed and built by one of the Waki’el chief priests…

As if Heart of Stone‘s failure as a crime novel, and its frankly confusing science-fictional world-building, weren’t enough… DeMartino chose to make Cyprion British, and the Britishisms she uses throughout the novel are all… wrong. I can’t even tell if it’s done as a joke, they’re so completely tin-eared:

“… If I get the chance, I’m going to give the little bramble bunny a piece of me mind.”
“A piece of me mind?”
“And that’s another thing. Don’t go braying about me accent. I’m from East London. Get used to it.” (p 6)

Rhyming slang is used quite often in dialogue – and it’s often wrong, or a phrase you very rarely hear:

“… So, tell me. Which dustbin lids were they?”
“Dustbin lids?”
“Dustbin lids – kids,” I said. (p 11)

“Have you ever seen so many bobbies in one place, going about their trade like it weren’t nothing?”
Bobbies was short for Bob Hope which rhymed with dope. (p 138)

Some other British terms are mis-used – a “johnnie”, for example, is not a toilet…

“… so I hid in the johnnie for a while…” (p 19)

… “wank” is certainly not

I didn’t distract him by replying. It wasn’t so much because I didn’t want him wanking Hadrien but more because my brain had swerved into overdrive like a Rolls-Royce driven by a spoiled princess. (p 133)

I smelled his musky odor. It threatened to make me wank, but I held in the nausea, sitting back quickly. (p 161)

Some more mangled Britishisms – I suspect “tiddlywink” is supposed to be drink…

I polished off the rest of my tiddlywink before standing up (p 163)

… but the phrase is definitely “bread and butter”…

… no astrologer worth his bread and jam would say (p 175)

… and it’s “birthday suit”, but not “pony trap”…

“How dare you invade me privacy? I’m in me friggin’ fancy suit … if you ever come into me space uninvited again, I’ll rip off your Tommy Rollocks at the root and stuff them up your pony trap (p 177)

And even verbs get misused – Hadrien will have been grassed up… and…

I had a feeling that Hadrien had been grassed by one of the boys at Terrapol. (p 76)

I’d say Cornelius Paul is crapped up in the brain (p 188)

“Brahms and Liszt” means drunk…

“Are you telling us that Zebrim Hast has fed us a load of Brahms and Liszt?” (p 190)

And “septic tank” is rhyming slang for Yank, not the reverse…

” … it stinks like an overflowing yank in here,” I muttered (p 202)

As for the rules of cricket…

… and we found ourselves offside at the cricket match (p 205)

Philipa Cyprion is without a doubt the most unconvicing British character I have ever read in a book, and that’s in a story which itself doesn’t convince, set on a late twenty-third century Earth which doesn’t convince, and in prose in which all the cultural references are mid- to late-twentieth century, like Elvis Presley and Adolf Hitler…

A sequel to Heart of Stone, titled Wayward Moon, appeared in the same year as the first book. DeMartino had previously published a near-future urban fantasy quintet under her real name, Denise Vitola.

Dream Dancer, Janet Morris

dream_dancerDream Dancer, Janet Morris (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

I first stumbled across the middle book of Morris’s Kerrion Consortium trilogy, Cruiser Dreams, some time during the mid-1980s, and liked it enough to track down over the years the first and third books, Dream Dancer and Earth Dreams. Despite all that, it’s taken me until 2016 to actually get around to reading them… And now I’m wondering what I saw in Cruiser Dreams, because Dream Dancer is one of the worst-written books I’ve ever read. I find it hard to believe it was even edited.

The novel opens in Borlen’s town, New York, in 2248, on what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Earth, which is also a backwater property in a galactic polity of some sort. Three “enchanters” ride into town, and enter Bolen’s inn, clearly in search of “adventure”. But the situation turns nasty almost straightaway, two of the enchanters are killed, and the third only survives because he’s led out the back-entrance by the orphan girl who works as a skivvy at the inn. In return for saving him, she demands he take her with him when he leaves Earth – enchanters, it seems, are high-tech visitors from other worlds of the Consortium. The man, who introduces himself as Marada Kerrion, second son of the consul-general of the Consortium. Well, first son now, since one of the two enchanters left dead in Bolen’s inn was his older brother; the other was Marada’s betrothed. Not that Marada seems especially bothered by their deaths. The young girl is Shebat, fifteen years old, who has been used and abused by the regulars of the inn for years. Not that she seems especially traumatised by her experiences.

Marada adopts Shebat to protect her once the two reach Kerrion space – and it’s just as well he did, as Parma Alexander Kerrion, the consul-general, is not predisposed to take in a waif and stray from a primitive world, especially after losing his heir and a planned merger with the Labayas, a rival powerful family, by marrying off Marada to one of their daughters (she was other one who died on Earth). Morris introduces Parma to the reader while he is having a crap, leading to the line, “Parma got up from his defecatory throne” (p 39). As if that weren’t bad enough, Marris introduces Lorelei, the Kerrion “platform “(ie, space station) as follows:

“Above her head the sky rippled, a candent pewter pond. From glaucous downwarding curving hills around it shining villages like jasper berries seemed to hang suspended. Before her, a serpentine construction of shimmering glass and enchanted iron glimmering bright as silver crouched above the cinereous roadway” (p 19)

This isn’t “word salad” writing, it’s a complete abuse of vocabulary. It comes as no surprise that Morris later uses “irregardless” and thinks martial law is “marshal law”. The whole novel is like this.

It doesn’t help that the story is equally risible. Shebat grows up to be an absolute stunner – of course (although she’s only seventeem by the end of the novel). She also proves to have a natural aptitude for piloting, and as a dream dancer. And Parma has made her his heir, because Marada doesn’t want it and Parma doesn’t want the next eldest, Chaeron, to have it. Parma also gives Shebat her own ship, which she calls Marada, a state of the art cruiser. All starships in the Consortium are controlled by AIs in a sort of mind-meld with the pilot. Unfortunately, all this conflicts with the plans of the pilots’ guild, which has been conspiring for years to break the hold of the big families. So ‘Softa’ David Spry, top pilot of the guild and Parma’s private pilot, sort of kidnaps Shebat and hands her over to a dream dancer troupe in one of the low levels where the poor people and non-citizens live.

Dream dancing is illegal, and the pilots hope that Shebat will become so addicted to it, she stays disappeared. But, of course, Shebat proves so good at dream dancing she doesn’t even need the special equipment – and she produces a dream that is so threatening to the Kerrions that they clean out all the dream dancers – although not before Chaeron has rescued Shebat. And married her. (She’s still not quite seventeen, at this point.) Meanwhile, Marada has been married off to another Labaya daughter, but that turns out badly. In fact, everything starts to go wrong – and Shebat is bang in the middle of it.

Get over the fact all the characters are super-special at pretty much everything, and that unthinking acceptance of slavery and imposed poverty US science fiction seems so fond of depicting in its futures… then the biggest hurdle is the awful writing,such as,

“… when Selim Labaya had solicitously attended him on a walk through Shechem’s gardens, whose audacious expanse was full of flying things that shit whitely  on a man’s shoulder” (p 130)

or

“‘If you insist, prince of dalliance, pompous pederast,’ she snarled” (p 165)

It will be a while before I get round to rereading Cruiser Dreams. If ever.