Dangerous Games, Marta Randall

dangerous_gamesDangerous Games, Marta Randall (1980)
Review by Ian Sales

Dangerous Games is a direct sequel to Randall’s Journey (1978), and begins seven years after the end of that book. Once again, the Kennerin family, owners and settlers of the world of Aerie, are the focus of the story. In the earlier novel, they rescued several hundred people from concentration camps on NewHome, shortly before NewHome’s sun went nova (fighting off an incursion by the NewHome military in the process). They also set about planting a crop whose harvested sap can be used as a conductor in electronics. By the time Dangerous Games opens, the Kennerins have a small fleet of starships, a processing plant, and a successful business. They get on well with Aerie’s native kasirene (large four-armed kangaroo-like aliens), although the Kennerin internal family dynamics are not so smooth.

The novel starts in the viewpoint of Sandro Marquez, whose family invented, and was very successful at growing and selling, the same conducting sap grown by the Kennerins. But the Marquez family proved too successful and was subject to a hostile takeover by the Parallax Corporation. Sandro is on the run after killing the Parallax agent, and is taken aboard Jes Kennerin’s ship as a “Second” (which appears to be a first officer). Jes, it seems, has a habit of picking up “strays” and taking them home to Aerie, where they settle and become part of the extended Kennerin family. Also aboard the ship is engineer Beryl, but Sandro can’t work out her relationship with Jes. She’s a nasty piece of work, although he finds her sexually attractive. When Sandro eventually reveals his background to Jes, he is taken to Aerie to tell the rest of the Kennerins – because Aerie is likely to be Parallax’s next target.

On his next trip, Jes’s ship breaks down and he’s forced to land at Gensco for repairs. There he meets Tatha, the cat-like woman depicted on the front cover of the book. She is a genetically-engineered native of a very early human colony. Parallax is in the middle of a plan to takeover Gensco. Tatha wants to leave but the inhabitants of Gensco make it very difficult for transients. So Jes takes her back to Aerie.

Some time later, the kasirene decide that Hart Kennerin, who had been banished from Aerie in the previous book, but allowed to return home years later, has not made reparations to the kasirene. As a teenager, he had experimented on kasirene pups – until now, the kasirene had been satisfied with the punishment meted out by the Kennerin family, but now they want more (hardly surprising: banishment seems a feeble punishment for his crimes). This situation is only made worse by a kasirene agitator who has been telling the others that perhaps they’d be better off if Parallax bought out the Kennerins.

Tatha then moves to centre-stage, as she feels the Kennerins have underestimated the threat from Parallax. So she sets about creating a situation which will prompt the Federation to interfere and prevent a Parallax takeover. But she can’t tell anyone, and many of her actions initially seem to be directed against the Kennerins. It is this plan of hers to which the book’s title refers.

Dangerous Games is, like Journey, a pioneer novel transplanted to a science fiction milieu. But where that first book saw the hardy settlers choosing their land and settling down to build their town – and also welcome new settlers, and fight off the local bad guys – this one documents the next stage of such a town’s inevitable history, the rise of the indigenes and the threat of takeover and/or occupation by the local rapacious “railroad company”. The kasirene, despite their appearance, are pretty much ersatz Native Americans and some facets of their culture are little more than that of assorted Native American historical culture with the numbers filed off. Even the argument about swapping one set of human occupiers for another is one that has precedent in American history. And if Randall paints the Kennerins as liberal, tolerant and benign “owners” of the kasirene planet, she frequently tries to offset this by showing how dysfunctional they are as a family.

But that too is simply part of the pattern. Melodramas and soap operas and pioneer dramas all seem to be powered by the internal dynamics of the central family, and the more dysfunctional that family is the more powerful the engine of the story. Randall’s world-building is relatively light – there’s enough scaffolding around the FTL, with its “tau” and “grabs”, so it doesn’t fall over and kill suspension of disbelief; but there’s little else in the book that differs much from the late 1970s. Some quick and dirty extrapolations now seem quaint, if not bizarrely wrong – data held on tapes, everything done on paper, no personal communicators, computers still expensive and discrete and not integrated into everything. Dangerous Games is science fiction as tales of other worlds and other times that will never come to pass, even though the reader is expected to believe – or at least suspend their disbelief – in such an eventuality. Given that this novel and its predecessor are about people and their interactions, rather than big ideas or mind-bending concepts, the essentially make-believe nature of the setting seems irrelevant. The same story could well be told in early nineteenth century North America, and very little in broad stroke would need to be changed. But science fiction allows more freedom, and Randall makes good use of it. True, Parallax is a staple cliché of many genres of fiction; and the narrative arc of Dangerous Games is far from unique to science fiction… But none of this spoils the book. If anything, Dangerous Games is a more involving read than Journey, and its story seems more science-fictional, its setting and narrative better integrated into the genre corpus.

I suspect Randall had more tales to tell about the Kennerin family but, except for a brief mention in A City in the North, their story ends here. To understand and enjoy Dangerous Games, Journey really should be read first. Although the packaging may not explicitly state it, the two books are very much a diptych.

Journey, Marta Randall

JOURNEY1978Journey, 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).