Dreamships, Melissa Scott

dreamshipsDreamships, Melissa Scott (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

Judging by the gazeteer extract which precedes the opening of Dreamships, and which gives details of the world of Persephone, this novel is set in the same universe as Scott’s The Kindly Ones (1987), which also features a register entry on the world of its story. That, however, is all the two novels have in common as, while an interstellar civilisation is mentioned, the events of Dreamships take place on only two worlds.

Reverdy Jian is a pilot, contracted by the company she works for to fly a private starship from Persephone to Refuge and back again. The client, Medelia Mitexi, is looking for her brother, a gifted construct (sophisticated computer programs) designer who had a severe breakdown some years previously. Mitexi’s starship, however, is experimental – Jian and her crew only discover how experimental when they board it to begin their journey. The ship’s construct is borderline, if not actual, AI. And this is a problem because there is an ongoing campaign on Persephone by an organisation called Dreampeace to give AIs full rights. This is unpopular with most of the world’s residents as it would mean AIs have more rights than they do. (The obvious answer would, of course, be to campaign for more rights for humans as well as rights for AIs, rather than deny rights for AIs… but this is a US science fiction novel.)

During the journey to Refuge, Jian – and her two crew members Imre and Red – learn more about Manfred, the ship’s construct. Jian is soon convinced it is an AI. Which puts her in a quandary – she’s not a supporter of Dreampeace, on the contrary she opposes its aims, but she has been persuaded that Manfred doesn’t deserve to be treated like a computer program. Matters are only made worse when on the return journey from Refuge, Mitexi’s brother commits suicide in his cabin. This death gets the Persephone authorities involved and that, plus Dreampeace’s activism, requires Jian and her crew to sneak back into the city (Persephone’s only habited city is entirely underground).

Dreamships was Scott’s first novel to be released in hardback – as the ARC backcover blurb has it: “after a rapid string of successes in paperback, Melissa Scott … escalates into hardcover…” So it’s a bit of shame this novel isn’t a strong as the other two by her I’ve read. Much is made of the underground city, and the first few chapters are little more than travelogue, with Jian walking from one place to the other and so introducing the reader to her world. Jian is a strong and well-drawn protagonist, which unfortunately cannot be said of the rest of the cast (and Red, who is presented as mysterious for no good reason, seems to have been parachuted in from a Samuel Delany novel – not in itself a bad thing, of course).

Nor do the politics driving the plot make a great deal of sense. To some extent, this likely a consequence of American science fiction’s predilection for libertarian futures, a complete misrepresentation, if not a total romanticisation, of the pioneering days of the nation’s history. Even in settings where such a political situation would be unsustainable, such as those deeply reliant on life-sustaining technology, US sf novels continue to present neoliberal, libertarian, unegalitarian societies – which promptly forces the plot to jump through a series of increasingly implausible economic and political hoops in order to reach the desired conclusion. Dreamships frequently falls prey to this, trying to display a gritty realistic future which often comes across as more like the worst excesses of the present. This is not helped by the story’s continually shifting focus – is it about Jian? Dreamscape? the Mitexis? Or Manfred?

The Kindly Ones suffered from a lack of narrative cohesion, as if it were several stories poorly welded together, and so to does Dreamships suffer from the same flaw. It benefit in having a likeable protagonist, an interesting world, and some good ideas… but it doesn’t quite hang together with sufficient rigour – and nor does it make a virtue of its lack of rigour. I still like Scott’s novel and I’ll continue to read them, but I’ve yet to find one that really makes good on her evident promise.

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The Kindly Ones, Melissa Scott

kindlyonesThe Kindly Ones, Melissa Scott (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

If I had discovered Melissa Scott during my late teens or early twenties, I don’t doubt I would have become a huge fan of her novels. There is something about the world-building in the two Scott novels I have read to date – Shadow Man and this one – which I find very appealing. But I am not a teenager or a young man anymore and my taste in fiction has changed, as have my expectations when I pick up a work of fiction.

This is not to say that Melissa Scott is a bad writer – I’d like to think I was not that undiscriminating a reader back in my twenties. On the contrary, she writes well and what she writes is readily recognisable as science fiction. But in The Kindly Ones, her setting seems to flex and warp at the behest of plot, rather than simply being something which enables it. And for that reason, I finished the novel less enamoured of it than I had been, say 100 pages in…

Orestes and Electra, the cold moons of the gas giant Agamemnon, were settled fifteen hundred years before, and in the centuries following a strict social code has evolved. The inhabitants of both moons are organised into five kinships, each ruled by a genarch, with associated Branch families, and strict rules of conduct. These rules mean that certain crimes or social infractions are punished by complete ostracisation. Those ostracised are deemed “dead” by the kinships and families, are referred to as “ghosts”, must wear a white mark on their forehead, and can only be acknowledged or spoken to by other ghosts, people who work as “mediums”, or those who have chosen to live outside the code, called para’an.

Another element of the code is legal feuding. When one kinship or family declares feud on another – ratified by the Ship’s Council, the ruling committee comprised of the five genarchs – that allows each of the feuding parties fight, inconvenience or aggravate the other in all manner of ways. Feuds are common, generally low-key, and have dominated politics on the two moons for over a millennium.

The narrative of The Kindly Ones is split between several characters. There is Leith Moraghan, captain of the six-weekly mailship; and Trey Maturin, an offworlder employed as chief medium for the Haxel Kinship; Rehur, twin brother of the Haxel demi-heir, an actor and “dead” to the kinship; and Guil ex-Tam’ne, a para’an pilot, originally from Electra. The first half explores the society of Orestes through these viewpoint characters, and it’s a nicely-written and engaging story.

Interestingly, Maturin’s narrative is the only one to use the first person, and no reference to the character’s gender is made. Trey can be read as either male or female – I assumed the medium was a man, even though later “he” has sex with Rehur. Other may read the character as female. I’m not sure it’s possible to say definitively which they are.

All this is just set-up for the actual plot. The Haxel and their mortal enemies, Brandr Kinship, have only recently resolved a feud. But an accident at a hoobey race (hoobeys are huge winter beasts, used to pull sledges) and its consequences provokes Brandr to declare feud once again. This time, however, the Brandr – in a move which seems to completely ignore the code as so carefully outlined previously – go for all-out war. They also start harassing the surviving Haxel ghosts – some of their soldiers actually torturing Rehur for information.

Up until that point, I thought The Kindly Ones very good. This was an interesting world Scott had created. The novel may have opened with an info-dump straight from a galactic encyclopedia, and some of the details of her world were a little dodgy – eg, mailship, mail carried electronically, so what need for longshoremen? And the technology too smacked of 1980s futurism, with storage devices known as “tapes”, weapons called “blasters”, and so on. But in terms of world and society, Scott had created something very interesting indeed. For instance, when Maturin witnesses a play starring Rehur, Scott makes it sound fascinating and manages to evoke the history of the artform.

And then the Brandr attack…

To make matters worse, Scott’s careful prose doesn’t appear well-suited to the military science fiction which comprises the second half of the novel. After the surviving principals have fled to Electra, they cobble together a fleet and army for a decisive strike against the Brandr. The trip back to Orestes, through one of the most dangerous sections of the ring about Agamemnon, is woefully short of drama. Scott writes too much, when she should be focused on the action. It makes for a dull couple of chapters.

The Kindly Ones is a book of two halves. The first half is good. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the second. It not only doesn’t seem to fit with the first, but the tone and style is also ill-suited to the story it tells. The Kindly Ones is by no means a bad book, but it could have been so much better. I still plan to seek out more books by Scott to read, and I suspect I will enjoy them – mostly – as much as I did this one.