A few months ago, I read and reviewed Mary Gentle’s 1983 novel Golden Witchbreed and reviewed it here. This week seemed like a good time to get around to reading the sequel, in which Earth representative Lynne de Lisle Christie returns to the world of Orthe after eight years, as part of a delegation intending to negotiate access to the ancient technology that litters the world. I knew, going in, that it was a book that divided opinions; I didn’t know much else. I discussed the book — up to and including the ending — with Duncan Lawie by email in November and December.
NH: We can take it in turns with the questions, but I’ll put you on the spot first with something nice and general: how would you characterise the relationship between Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light?
DL: It’s rather a cliché, but to my eye the pair are a diptych of innocence and experience, youth and age, certainty and doubt.
Golden Witchbreed is a First Contact book, with Lynne de Lisle Christie enthusiastically engaging with the world around her, taking chances, trusting fate, rushing in. The people of Orthe and the world they live in are there to be investigated and understood, even as they try to kill her or discredit and reject Earth’s influence altogether. As a reader, it was a chance to learn a world as Christie travels low tech through a full flow of seasons.
In Ancient Light, Christie returns, ten years older and every simple truth she thought she knew seems to be just one horn of a dilemma. She doubts her own mind, her motivation for being there. She spends much of the book caught between bad choices, accepting she can’t fight PanOceania, for whom she now works, and attempting to mitigate the disaster for Orthe of being controlled by a Company. She stands weary (at the age of 38!) before the vim and vigour of the youthful Company Representative, then uses her decade’s advantage to stare down this younger commander. With the resources of the PanOceania, the characters flit about the planet’s surface, never connecting, always controlling. The hard won knowledge from the first book is background knowledge, the people natives to be exploited or protected.
There seemed to be a lot more message in the second book, more science fiction, while the first was more of a planetary romance. But it’s a long time since I read Golden Witchbreed. Maybe they look more of a piece read closer together?
NH: I think they do. I’m not sure whether this is a function of the fact that I read them close together, or of the fact that I read Golden Witchbreed knowing there was a sequel (and a contentious sequel, at that) lurking in the background — but either way, I was aware of unanswered questions in Golden Witchbreed, issues to do with further contact deferred and not resolved. And so Ancient Light felt to me very much a natural extension of the first book, as the various tensions that the existence and nature of Orthe creates for humanity start to work themselves out.
I also felt the sense of Christie being more detached than in the first book, but I hadn’t made the literal connection that she spends the novel flying back and forth, rather than walking across the world; that’s a useful observation. It accentuates her increasingly fraught attempts to prevent the situation on Orthe degenerating into chaos. But I think you’re right to suggest that the humans move to the foreground — it’s perhaps something that starts to date the novel (I didn’t think Golden Witchbreed felt very dated at all), in that I doubt you’d get an sf novel so explicitly about colonialism nowadays without some attempt to represent the perspective of the colonised. I suppose Ancient Light offers that to an extent, through the memories of past Orthean lives that Christie has inherited, but they seem so exceptional that I don’t think they fill that role very well; of course in other ways it seems to me a very sophisticated take on colonialism.