Journey, Marta Randall (1978)
Review by Ian Sales
Imagine some two hundred years ago there was a small fertile valley hidden somewhere in the mountains in the continental United States. A family from the East, heading west in search of a new life, stumbled across this valley and decided to settle there. They claimed ownership of all the land, even though there was a native tribe already in the valley – but the natives didn’t seem to mind, they were lazy and rootless anyway, and doubtless would be grateful civilisation had been brought to them had they actually thought about the matter.
Life goes well for the family – their name is Kennerin – and their tiny colony prospers. They make friends with the natives and, while they can’t pretend to understand their psychology, both parties seem to get on quite well with each other. Every now and again, a trader who travels the region visits, bringing news and much needed supplies. On one visit, he tells of a nearby town in the grip of an evil mayor, who has locked up many of the poorer residents in a concentration camp. The Kennerins decide to do something about this, and stage a raid on the camp, rescuing some 250 people. They bring these back to their valley. But the mayor is not done yet, and plans a retaliatory strike. On the trader’s next visit, the mayor commandeers his wagon, hides some soldiers in it, and sets off with a posse to take the Kennerins’ valley.
But two Kennerins were in the trader’s wagon, and they escape the mayor’s men – at least, one does; the other is captured. During the trip to the valley, he escapes and, in the process, triggers a landslide which seals the valley from the outside world… or at least until the federal government sends mining engineers to clear the pass.
Instead of a valley, imagine a whole world. With a small population of unsophisticated aliens. And the pass is a “grab”, which starships use to travel faster-than-light between star systems.
It’s perhaps unfair to show how Marta Randall’s Journey could be almost entirely transplanted to the Wild West of yore, without much in the story actually needing to be changed. But the paperback itself makes a point of this – the blurb on the front calls it “an epic novel of the last frontier”, and a puff on the back from John Jakes claims Journey “carries the family saga into an exciting new dimension”.
In fact, Journey carries its resemblance to a Wild West family saga more like a millstone about its neck. Far too many sensibilities have been carried across wholesale from the book’s inspirations, and they sit badly with the world-building. Take that “friendly tribe” mentioned above. In Journey, these are the indigenous alien race of the world of Aerie, the kasirene, who seem to resemble four-armed kangaroos but are very much intellectually on a par with the humans – indeed, the Kennerins have learnt the kasirene language, and the two groups treat each other like friendly neighbours. But. Aerie is still the Kennerins’ world. The kasirene have no say in the matter. Those rescued settlers – dissidents saved by the Kennerins when their home world’s sun threatens to turn nova – treat the kasirene with all the disdain and dislike early US settlers treated anyone who wasn’t a white Anglo.
The novel is structured as a series of incidents over a nineteen-year period, from “1216 New Time” to “1235 New Time” . It opens with Jason Kennerin’s rescue of 250 people from a prison camp on NewHome, and ends with the return of prodigal son Hart Kennerin. In between, we see the Kennerin family, and the new settlers’ town of Haven, grow. There are love affairs, marriages, births and deaths, and even an entirely new sport invented by the children of Haven (and specifically designed for mixed teams of human and kasirene). Some of the sections are written in the first person from the point of view of one of the Kennerins.
There’s no denying Journey is a well-written and readable novel. The prose may not shine, but it’s better than is typical for the genre. It’s just a shame the world-building is so weak. Randall did a much better job in A City in the North (and, in fact, that novel is takes place in the same universe). Perhaps that’s a result of Journey‘s template. Dragging across all those sensibilities from a pioneer family saga results in situations described in Journey which often leave a slightly sour taste. Perhaps the focus on the Kennerin family persuaded Randall she did not need to put as much effort into her universe. Some aspects of it should certainly have been reconsidered, however.
Even the last section of the book, titled ‘Spider’, which is set on an entirely different world, still features a type of a society far too popular in science fictions – the misogynistic theocracy, in which women are treated as chattel. Hart Kennerin, who had been exiled from Aerie for experimenting on kasirene (a crime surely deserving more than banishment), is now a gifted medical engineer of some description and becomes embroiled in a plot by the head of the planetary church to overthrow the Regent. The story doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the novel, although it does end with Hart returning to Aerie, unsure of his welcome but almost certain to be accepted.
Journey was followed by Dangerous Games in 1980. Randall went on to write one more sf novel, Those Who Favor Fire, a fantasy novel, The Sword of Winter, and a crime novel (as Martha Conley), Growing Light. She was also the first female president of the SFWA, holding that post from 1982 to 1984 (a further four women have held the presidency in the thirty years since).