Bluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc

bluesongBluesong, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983)
Review by Ian Sales

This is the second book in Van Scyoc’s Daughter of the Sunstone’s trilogy. It takes place on the same world as the previous book, Darkchild, a planet called Brakrath, and even references the people and plot of that novel. It also further develops the trilogy’s overall story-arc.

Keva lives among the fish-people but she is becoming increasingly convinced she is not of the fisher-people. She does not resemble them, and she has dreams that are plainly of places she has never visited. Eventually her mother confesses that a man rode through her village and left Keva, who was ill, to recover. But Keva’s mother left that village and moved to another, so she would never have to give up Keva. Who is now determined to find her father. So she runs away.

Keva is, of course, a barohna’s daughter, the child of one of the women who use the power of the sunstone to keep the valleys they each rule warm and hospitable. More than that, her father is a Rauth-image, a clone of a long-lost explorer, which are used by a space-based civilisation as covert recording devices, which gather information later sold to organisations who plan to exploit the worlds on which they’re used. This plan didn’t work in Brakrath, however, when barohna’s daughter Khira broke the programming of one Rauth-image – as recounted in Darkchild.

Keva finds herself in Brahrath’s desert region, where her father, Jhaviir, a Rauth-image (now adult), has left his barohna partner and is attempting to unite the warring clans of the region. He has created a settlement and issued an open invitation to any member of the clans. But a settled way of life, despite the advantages Jhavirr brings, is anathema to the nomadic warring clans, and Jhaviir’s people are continually raided. When Keva arrives, and begins manifesting her barohna powers, she uses them to assist her father and destroy the attacking clans.

It’s tempting to think Van Scyoc was riffing off Frank Herbert’s Dune with the setting of Bluesong, but The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – likely also an inspiration for Herbert – seems a closer match. The desert clans are fierce and fixed in their ways. And even though some of them unite to attack Jhaviir’s settlement, and are roundly defeated by Keva and her powers, the alliance is only intended to last as long as the battle. It does tend to make the desert clans somewhat of a caricature – which is not helped by the behaviour of those on Keva’s side – which is hardly a failing unique to Van Scyoc, and does at least give the setting a heightened “colour”.

For example, Keva is accompanied by a young man for much of her time in the desert, and he is a typical product of his society – an arrogant braggart, ignorant of everything but his culture, disparaging of other clans while begrudgingly acknowledging their martial prowess… But his heart is in the right place, and he soon comes to see the error of his ways. The fact Keva proves so powerful no doubt helps…

While searching for her father, Keva encountered Danior, the son of a barohna and a Rauth-image, and he accompanied her on her quest, even into the desert. Danior has been pl;agued by dreams of a swathe of silk that sang in an unknown tongue, on a world that is not Brakrath. It’s an artefact of his origin as the son of a Rauth-image, something one of them has witnessed, and Danior thinks it is a clue to the location of the lost explorer Rauth. It also provides the title of the novel.

This trilogy after two books is shaping up to be solid heartland science fiction. Van Scyoc was always good at depicting alien societies convincingly, and especially good at providing a rationale for why they were the way they are. Working over three books instead of just a standalone novel, however, she chosen not to deepen her exploration of Brakrath, although Bluesong does introduce the desert clans, but use the additional length to bracket her three stories with a single story-arc, related to the mystery of Rauth.

Second books in trilogies are generally acknowledged to be the least satisfactory of the three. When stories are stretched across three novels, the second novel generally sees the author getting everything into place for the resolution in the final book. Van Scyoc has neatly avoided this trap with her Daughters of the Sunstone trilogy, because it’s not really a trilogy. It’s three standalone novels, which share a setting and some characters, but also include some hints and clues to a background plot which develops over the three books. It’s an effective technique. The individual books work well enough on their own, although the trilogy story arc does add value.

Van Scyoc’s career may have characterised her as mid-list, but she always struck me as better than her mid-list contemporaries. She was neither prolific enough, nor successful with awards, and so seems mostly forgotten these days. Which is a shame. As is always the case, lesser writers prospered. Her books can still be found, although she has had nothing new published since the early 1990s. But they’re definitely worth reading.

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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).

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawna McCarthy

spaceofherownIsaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, edited by Shawna McCarthy (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

According to isfdb.org, between 1978 and 2001, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine published thirty anthologies of fiction reprinted from the pages of the magazine. The bulk of these were themed – Isaac Asimov’s Aliens, Isaac Asimov’s Mars, Isaac Asimov’s Sf-Lite (whatever that might be), Isaac Asimov’s Detectives and, er, Isaac Asimov’s Mother’s Day, among many others. It’s a little disappointing that Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own is the only women-only anthology they published, especially given the number of women the magazine itself published. And, it must be said, many of the choices for this anthology are somewhat, well, bizarre… Connie Willis is indeed a popular genre writer, but she is the only writer to appear twice in this collection, while Le Guin might arguably be said to be more popular (and surely they could have found a better story by Le Guin than the one they chose?).

‘The Sidon in the Mirror’, Connie Willis (1983) I’m not entirely I understand why this story was framed as science fiction. Certainly it has a science-fictional setting – the surface of a dead star… which doesn’t actually seem all that plausible – and the plot twist is enabled by a science-fictional device… but even that device isn’t entirely necessary. In all other respects, this is a Wild West story, and incorporates all the unlikeable sensibilities of such a story. A new “pianoboard” player has been hired by the brothel on Paylay, where minors “tap” the star’s surface and drill wells for hydrogen and/or helium (the story is not entirely clear on this). At the brothel is a blind girl, whose blindness was caused by a miner on another such dead star. The pianoboard player is a “Mirror”, which apparently means he inadvertently copies the mannerisms and thought-patterns of one of the people around him. I have no idea what the setting is supposed to be, it’s quite frankly too silly to be believable. And the Wild West brothel is a trope long past its sell-by date, even in 1983. A “sidon” incidentally, is some sort of ferocious creature, one of which the brothel’s madame kept as a pet… until it attacked her. A “sidon” is also a nickname for a well or “tap” on Paylay. I would not have expected Willis to have written this story.

‘The Sorceress in Spite of Herself’, Pat Cadigan (1982), is a piece of fantasy fluff. A woman who has a history losing things has just lost a pair of expensive diamond earrings given to her by her husband. She was intending to wear them for their anniversary dinner. Husband finds out, they argue, she explains her “talent” and even manages to demonstrate it with his wedding ring. Over dinner, they discuss her talent and the husband decides it’s triggered by swearing – when she says “damn” or “hell”, or anything like it, items disappear. Husband gets drunk, she is annoyed at having to drive home… Yes, it’s the obvious punch-line.

‘Night of the Fifth Sun’, Mildred Downey Broxon (1982). In a Mexican city, a woman who can trace her ancestry back to the Aztecs lies in a hospital bed in labour. There is also an old man, prepared to enact an old ritual which will rekindle a new sun – and it requires human sacrifice. Broxon evokes her time and place well, something I’ve noticed in other stories by her I’ve read.

‘The Jarabon’, Lee Killough (1981), feels very much like a science fiction story of its time, despite being set at some indeterminate time in the future – but this is no bad thing. Kele was a street urchin, but she was caught trying to rob a gangster’s car. He took her under his wing, and now years later she’s his best thief – and he needs her to steal the titular piece of jewellery from a courier while he is travelling FTL to another world. But in the universe of the story, passengers have to be drugged for “hyperlight” travel because it affects people badly. But the theft means Kele has to be awake during the trip. And so she learns that she’s hyperlight Tolerant, which is what pilots must be… and such people are rare. Kele is an engaging character, and if the mechanics of FTL feel a bit 1970s airline travel it doesn’t spoil the story.

‘The Horn of Elfland’, JO Jeppson (AKA Janet Asimov) (1983), reads like it was written a couple of decades earlier. A men’s club meets – they are all “pshrinks”, whatever that’s meant to be – and one of them tells an amusing anecdote about a patient. There is a gentle twist in the tale. Isaac Asimov used to write a lot of these, and they were never any good. Neither is this one.

‘Belling Martha’, Leigh Kennedy (1983), is one of several post-apocalypse stories in the anthology, although in one respect it’s an odd example of the type. Martha has journeyed home to Austin, Texas, after spending several years at the Central Texan Christian Reform Camp. Her father, who lived outside the city, has died, so she goes to live inside Austin’s walls with an aunt and the people who share her house. They all regard Martha with suspicion because she was a cannibal – those who live outside the cities routinely eat human flesh, and often kill people for food – in fact that’s why Martha was sent to the reform camp. The cannibalism adds a weird flavour to what would otherwise be a superior, if run-of-the-mill, post-apocalypse USA.

‘La Reine Blanche’, Tanith Lee (1983). Having just read a number of variations on this theme in Lee’s collection Women as Demons, I was not expecting much of ‘La Reine Blanche’, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it’s a clever little fairy-tale-like story. The young queen’s ancient husband has died and she has been locked up in a tower in a cemetery, where she is to remain until the end of her days. But a raven visits her and takes her out on a dream outing to a young and handsome prince, who falls in love with her. Like Cinderella, she makes her escape before dawn, and the prince spends the rest of his life pining for his vanished love… until many decades later he meets a young woman who resembles her in every way. But he dies shortly after marrying her, and she is then locked up in a tower in a cemetery where she is to remain until the end of her days…

‘Miles to Go Before I Sleep’, Julie Stevens (1982), is another post-apocalyptic USA story. The narrator is the mayor of a city, and she is making her way to a meeting of mayors in Des Moines City. But the people in the countryside blame the cities for the collapse of the country and civilisation, and kill any city-dwellers they meet. But the cities are not the hives of violence and depravity they believe them to be. Nonetheless, in a small village where the narrator stops en route, in disguise of course, the villagers catch a city-person, and violence ensues. This is one of those stories where you wonder why it was written as sf.

‘A Letter from the Clearys’, Connie Willis (1982). A second story from Willis, though I’m not sure why she should deserve one. Having said that, neither of her contributions are the dated fluff provided by some of the others, even if ‘The Sidon in the Mirror’ doesn’t make a great deal of sense. This story at least makes sense. It’s post-apocalyptic USA – again – and the narrator is the teenage daughter of a family who survived because they were holidaying at their lodge in the mountains. Now they live in fear of being raided by other survivors. The narrator visits the local post office every now and again to pick up issues of a magazine for a friend of the family who is staying with them, and on this trip she has finally discovered the last letter sent to the family by the Clearys – which explains why the Clearys couldn’t make it to the lodge. The story keeps its premise off-stage, and handles its centre-stage family dynamics well. It is far superior to Willis’ other story in the collection, but I find post-apocalypse stories banal and this one fails to rise above that.

‘The Ascent of the North Face’, Ursula K Le Guin (1983) is framed as a climber’s diary but it is abundantly obvious that the edifice being climbed is an ordinary house – but it is described as if it were a Himalayan mountain. I’m not entirely sure what the conceit is intended to convey, but as it is the story reads like a couple of pages of well-crafted fluff.

‘$CALL LINK4(CATHY)’, Cherie Wilkerson (1983). An engineer is working on a project to create computer simulacra of humans, but the only industry interested in such a project is the pornographic industry – so he’s trying to program virtual adult stars (female only of course, this is 1983 after all). But so far the project has met with little success – after a few days, the simulacra go “insane”. So the engineer is persuaded to allow his young daughter, who is dying of cancer, to upload her own personality as a template. And it works. A child’s mind is apparently plastic enough to maintain coherency in the computer. But after his daughter’s death, the engineer realises he cannot live with what he’s done, and destroys the computerised versions of his daughter. This story was an odd mix of nerdishly technical computer-speak and a hand-wavey premise. The daughter’s situation also added a note of over-heavy sentimentality.

‘Heavenly Flowers’, Pamela Sargent (1983), is one of those rare genre stories which features an old woman as a protagonist. And yet again we’re in post-apocalyptic USA, but this time the cause is explained – a nuclear war, possibly started by a briefcase nuke set off by a terrorist, but no one really knows. Each year, the survivors gather to celebrate their continued existence, to broker sex between those born since the war who have been least affected, and to fire the remaining nuclear missiles into space. The premise doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, but Sargent handles the voice of her protagonist well, and this is one of the few hopeful post-apocalypse stories I’ve come across.

‘Exorcycle’, Joan D Vinge (1982). Vinge is better known as a science fiction writer, but this story is fantasy. A director of a Shakespearean summer theatre company and his leading lady (also his wife) happen a man reciting from Hamlet who appears somewhat despondent and at a loose end. So they offer him a job. He proves to be an excellent actor, especially at playing Shakespeare’s ghosts. It transpires he is a ghost himself, and dates from Elizabethan times. But he feels he hasn’t caused enough suffering or performed any sufficiently evil acts in order to end whatever it is that is holding him to the earth. Much of the story is presented as flashback, with the framing narrative implying that the actor has gone into politics (perhaps even through possessing the president at a special performance put on for him by the director’s company).

‘Shadows from a Small Template’, Sharon Webb (1982). Steven Gordon has lost his daughter, but the technology exists to allow him to learn if she has really gone or if her “twistors”, which is what thoughts are made from, still remain. It is, of course, a fruitless endeavour, and Gordon’s wife, Anne, realises it better than Steve does. The premise for this is nicely wrapped around the domestic life of the Gordons, a dimension more sf should consider.

‘Packing Up’, PJ MacQuarrie (1981), reads like something from the 1950s. A middle-level manager in a plant of some sort has concerns regarding the industrial process and rings a psychologist’s telephone number. A second call and he learns something he had not expected. There is nothing in this story which would indicate it was published in the 1980s.

‘Blue Heart’, Stephanie A Smith (1982). So far, this collection seems to consist of silly fantasy stories, post-apocalypse America stories, and a few contemporary/near-future genre-light pieces. Actual heartland sf – despite the magazine’s name – seems in short supply. ‘Blue Heart’ is only the second story that fits this description. On an alien world, a woman who uses the Net to manage interstellar and interplanetary traffic in the system is approaching the end of her life. So she plans to upload herself into a robot body, the same as her companion. But he argues against it, pointing out that her new body does not possess the senses of her human body, and that she will be trading touch, taste and smell for immortality. It’s hinted that he’s a local, and that the traffic post is hidden from the locals, and he discovered it by accident – and was fatally injured in the process, hence the robot body. This is apparently only one of two short stories Smith wrote, which is a shame.

‘The Examination of Ex-Emperor Ming’, Cyn Mason (1982), is yet another piece of dated fluff. An agent of the Intragalactic Revenue Korps (why the “k”?) turns up at deposed emperor Ming’s palace with a demand for payment of back-taxes. Ming resists, is subsequently fined, and so bankrupted. But all is not lost as there is an organisation happy to employ someone with his experience and nature… Yes, it really is that corny.

‘The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air’, Mary Gentle (1983), is set on Orthe, the setting of Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987). It’s a polished piece, although the prose is not up to the level Gentle reached with Ash: A Secret History (2000). An Intendant of the Dominion visits an inner city on Orthe to determine whether or not the ideas it generates deserve Interdiction. The premise is not exactly subtle, or handled with any degree of subtlety, but the protagonist certainly is. This is one of the few stories in the anthology that’s proper sf, and stands out because of that more than perhaps it should.

‘Missing’, PA Kagan (1982), opens with the sentence, “I am writing from jail to acquaint you with important facts in this missing part crisis.” After a paragraph or two, it switches to journal entries, each explaining that something is missing… but not actually what is missing. And it’s only when you reach the last line that you realise. It’s a slight piece, but cleverly done – perhaps not hugely original, though previous examples have not hidden what it is that makes them different.

‘Fire-Caller’, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1983). I’ve been a fan of Van Scyoc’s science fiction for a couple of decades. She is very, very good at evoking alien societies, which is what she does here. The Pachni have been enslaved by the Washrar for several centuries; and when the Washrar want to rid themselves of unwanted slaves, they send them to the world of Tennador, where they are building their own society. But there’s more to it than that, as Pa-lil discovers when she’s sent to Tennador by her father and master. Because the Pachni actually have psionic powers – which the Washrar have been breeding out of them, but are still very much scared of. This is a typical Van Scyoc story, with a well-rendered alien society, a sympathetic female protagonist, and clear character growth from start to finish. Text-book sf.

There are also a pair of poems – ‘Ancient Document’ by Hope Athearn and ‘Stargrazing’ by Beverly Grant – neither of which are especially memorable.

I’m not sure what Space of Her Own was intended to achieve – that Asimov’s published sf and fantasy by women writers? Any awards shortlist would likely have demonstrated that. Perhaps, the breadth of genre fiction by women that Asimov’s published? But the stories in Space of Her Own are either fluffy fantasy, post-apocalypse USA, or heartland sf, so there’s not that much variety. There are some good stories in this anthology, but there are also a number whose presence, quite frankly, is mystifying. I am not, I admit, a long-time or regular reader of Asimov’s, but from the couple of dozen issues I have read over the decades, Space of Her Own doesn’t strike me as especially representative. Asimov’s first issue was published in 1977, so by the time of this anthology there were five or six years’ worth of material (around seventy issues by my count) to draw from, and consequently McCarthy’s selection feels somewhat disappointing. Of course, without analysing the contents of those issues myself, I can’t say whether McCarthy chose the best stories that met her criteria – ie. written by women –  but I would be surprised if they did.

Starmother, Sydney J Van Scyoc

Starmother, Sydney J Van Scyoc (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

The only problem with fastening onto an under-rated and/or relatively unknown author and hunting out their back-catalogue is that even the best of writers have the odd clunker in the past. Starmother is by no means a clunker, but it’s certainly not Van Scyoc’s best work. Having said that, Van Scyoc’s prose has always been a cut above that of her contemporaries:

“Beyond the perimeter of the barren circle, vines twined. Oddly shaped melons, yellow, green ,black, squatted beneath musty-looking gray-green leaves. Farther, a field of husky scarlet spears marched briefly beside the road, lancing the dull mist.” (p 7)

Jahna Swiss is a cadet from the planet Peace, sent to Nelding at their request to care for their babies. She finds herself on a wet and muddy jungle world with a population split into two antagonistic factions. There is “huttown”, a fundamentalist Amish-type community, fighting a losing battle against the changes Nelding is making to their crops and animals. And there are the “tanglings”, mutants who have taken to living in tribes in the jungle.

Jahna’s presence has been requested by Lord Beck, who straddles both camps but has a cunning plan to vouchsafe the tanglings’ future. It seems that a percentage of the babies born to the tanglings are “mouldings”. Whatever these babies experience during their first year changes them – if they live with those humans who have mutated to become “half-dirad”, a native Nedling jungle beast, then they become “mockdirad”. Beck wants these babies to spend their first year with Jahna, and so grow up to be educated and sophisticated young women.

Further complicating matters is a prophecy – as there so often seems to be in so many sf novels. Some of the tanglings think Jahna might be the StarMother, chiefly because she has nice blonde hair and because she came from the, er, stars. The Starmother will succour the tanglings’ babies and make them strong. Though there are those who are opposed to her interference in their affairs.

It sounds daft, but Van Scyoc manages to carry the concept without losing suspension of disbelief. Jahna, of course, knows nothing of Beck’s plans, and grows increasingly annoyed at his evasions. She’s also horrified at the mutant tanglings when she finally gets to meet them. But the more she learns about the tanglings, the more she comes to accept them for what they are, and the more she adopts the mantle of StarMother and realises her destiny lies in accepting that role. Because there is, at the heart of Nelding, a secret: the tanglings effectively have immortality, but the process is failing and the Starmother is needed to reinvigorate it. Not helping are the huttowners who despise and fear the tanglings, and so turn on Jahna when she proves sympathetic to the mutants.

Parts of Starmother are told from the point of view of other characters: a huttowner, Piety, and a tangling, Zuniin. Van Scyoc manages the differences between the three women well – and, interestingly, both Piety and Zuniin are opposed to Jahna’s presence, though they also hate each other’s people.

It is all too easy, I expect, to read something into Starmother‘s title and plot: young woman from civilised world comes to primitive place to mother savages and teach them the benefits of civilised practices. It could be the story of any missionary of the nineteenth century. Except Starmother is not at all that. Jahna does not “teach” the tanglings a better way to live, nor does she “go native”. She is, after all, only on Nelding because the tanglings demanded that she lend them her strength. Reading Starmother, it’s not hard to wonder if its story was indeed suggested by some Victorian missionary, and was written in direct opposition to the often patronising maternalism they practiced.

Starmother may not be Van Scyoc’s best novel, but it remains an interesting one and worth tracking down.

This review originally appeared in a contribution to the Acnestis APA in 2002.