Ancient Light

Ancient LightA 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.

Continue reading “Ancient Light”

The Ones That Got Away

Any cutoff point for a poll like this causes problems; ten years may be a neat round number to think with, but it does a disservice to books that lie just on the wrong side of the line. Based on the number of times they were nominated by mistake, plus the number of wistful wishes that the poll extended back just one more year, the following three books published in 2000 might have been, in a different poll, serious contenders.

Ash by Mary Gentle

Ash cover

2001 was the year of Big Genre-Crushing Books on British sf award shortlists: specifically, Ash and Perdido Street Station. Mieville took home the Clarke, of course, while Ash walked off with the BSFA — you wonder whether a reversal of those fortunes would have changed the way the decade looks now. Online commentary on the book is relatively scarce, but thanks to the internet archive we can still watch John Clute wrangle with it:

Very simply, Ash works.

There is much more to talk about: the brilliance of the conversations and debates; the astonishing clamour of combat; the roundedness of almost every character in the vast tale; the sense of continuous argument; the occasional moments when Ash and her gang act as though the world were a game, and all they needed to do was turn off the VR machine to return home, and you almost begin to think none of them is ever going to die (but you are very wrong). And there is Ash herself, whose life is genuinely hard, and who (unlike some of Gentle’s earlier heroines) pays dearly, time and again, for what she does to others. She may be something of a Temporal Adventuress, but she pays for it. She pays.

There is more, much more. (Ash is also extremely funny.) But enough for now. Buy the four volumes, or the one. Sit in a corner. Open the book. Hold on.

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Wild Life cover

Wild Life is a book that’s lurked on the fringes of my consciousness since it won the Tiptree Award; here’s Jo Walton enthusing about it:

Wild Life is the story of Charlotte, a Victorian writer of romantic adventures and mother of five, who sets off into the wilderness in search of a lost child and finds something stranger than she could have imagined. (I don’t want to tell you what, because I don’t want to spoil it.) The way the story is written, with diary entries intercut with newspaper cuttings, fragments from Charlotte’s stories, and vignettes of the interior lives of other characters, leads you forward over an abyss you don’t know is there. It’s moving, it’s effective, and it would be a very good book even without that. Charlotte’s early feminism, her rebellious bicycle riding, her fiction deeply influenced by H. Rider Haggard, her ways of coping with her housekeeper and the neighbour who wants to marry her would be enough. I’d have enjoyed the book if that’s all there was to it, a historical perspective on the Pacific North West and logging and nineteenth century independent women. But there is more, and that lifts it from a good book into something altogether astonishing.

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber cover

Nominated for just about everything going when it was published — Hugo, Nebula, Philip K Dick, Locus, Tiptree — Nalo Hopkinson’s second novel is an act of vivid and original world-creation, as Gary K Wolfe described in Locus:

Hopkinson, however, reminds us that most of the world does not speak contemporary American middle class vernacular, and never has. Instead, she adapts the convention of unchanging language to her own variety of Caribbeanized Creole, so that the characters in her indefinitely distant future — the planet Toussaint has already been colonized for two centuries when the novel begins — still say things like “It ain’t have no doux-doux here” while sprinkling their speech with references to “dimension veils” and “nanomites”. The resulting dissonance is only one of Hopkinson’s techniques for making us question the hegemony of American culture in SF worlds, but it’s the most immediately striking. And when the heroine Tan-Tan and her father Antonio are exiled to the low-tech prison planet of New Half-Way Tree after he kills a rival in what was supposed to be a non-fatal duel, we find ourselves in an even more distinctively non-Wester environment that calls to mind both aspects of West African folklore and Caribbean folklore (in the culture of its human inhabitants) and of Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” (in the cultures of its native species).

Reading List: Golden Witchbreed

Golden Witchbreed coverIn the end, it all comes down to the words on the page. For sf, which aspires to describe new things, this poses an immediate challenge. The answer we’re most familiar with is new words — either new slang or technical words in the language we’re reading, or, less commonly, words that have allegedly originated elsewhere, and been imported. It’s primarily the latter strategy that’s deployed in Mary Gentle’s 1983 novel Golden Witchbreed, and it’s a serious mark in the book’s favour — an indication of how solid its foundations are — that the profusion of apostrophes introduced by the alien words dotted around the text are barely a distraction. But there’s a subtler way of addressing the challenge, too, and it’s this way in which Golden Witchbreed really excels: words we know don’t always mean what we think they do.

Arriving as an envoy to the fifth world of a star close to the galactic centre, a world whose light and vegetation are even at first glance “shockingly alien”, this is what greets Gentle’s narrator:

A man walked out of the trade station, waved a careless hand, and headed towards me. He wore shirt, britches, high boots — and a sword belted at his hip. He was not human. An Orthean. (9)

The problem here — aside from the simple improbability of a humanoid alien, hand-waved later on the grounds that similar cosmological conditions give rise to similar life — is that a non-human cannot be a man. The contradiction is introduced obviously enough that it should put us on our guard. It’s a hint that the alien words for alien things are not the whole story, even though they’re rendered in italics (a habit I find irritating and somewhat patronizing); a reminder that what is being translated here is not a language, it is a culture, and that such translations cannot be perfect. Barely two pages later, in fact, the narrator is warned to “beware intrigue”, but the word her guide uses is not “intrigue”, it is “an untranslatable expression”, which requires the gloss that it “includes the Orthean term for challenges and games” (11). So we bear such ambiguity in mind as we read on, and when we’re told that it’s always hazy on Orthe, we nod sagely and think, in more ways than one.

We probably forget that this answer doesn’t explain why the narrator used the word “man”, rather than pointing out directly that the Orthean greeting her was not one, and thus probably get a small shock when it’s revealed that the narrator is an empath. The ability to look beyond surfaces makes her a boon as an envoy to an alien world even if it means her superiors don’t quite trust her. And it makes her a boon to her creator, precisely because her readers can’t quite trust her, either. For long stretches, the narrator will interact with the other characters as though they are human, only to be reminded of where she is by some jolt of alienness. The repetition of these shocks — sometimes, recognition of “a more alien quality of thought” (181) than previously appreciated; sometimes a simple glance around, such as the observation that, filled with stars even in the day, “Orthe’s pale sky gleamed like water” (156) — is effective for several reasons. In part, it’s because they’re emotional notes, not informational; but more importantly, it’s because each time we are reminded of the gaps between how the narrator sees the Ortheans, what she has the words to say, and what they are. Under careful management, as it is here, this is an extraordinarily effective approach to depicting the alien. Within those gaps, our hesitant imagination makes the unknown more real than any description that might pretend to be complete and true ever could.

Of course, it’s only because so much of the description does pretend to be complete and true that it’s effective to realise that in some ways it can’t be. Golden Witchbreed is an observant, attentive book, generous with the sort of specific detail — the specific words — that are needed to build a world, to the point where the plot, as much of it as there is and as scrupulously justified as every twist is, cannot quite hide the fact that it’s essentially an excuse to tour Gentle’s magnificent, rich creation. So, after an introductory section in which she meets the first contact team that arrived before her and have been stalled, the narrator sets off on her journey. Sometimes with companions, and sometimes alone — “an adventure in the old sense!” she thinks at one point, and laughs at the thought — she makes her way from city to city, across fens and mountains, from the north of a continent to the south. To start with, her travels are ostensibly for research purposes. Later she has to escape danger, in the form of attempts on her life, or schemes to frame her for murder – a significant faction of the Ortheans want no part of human technological society, and some even believe the humans are the disguised return of the despised Golden Witchbreed, whose high-tech rule is long gone but not forgotten.

This is by no means the only Orthean opinion, however. Central to Golden Witchbreed’s success is its variegation: the wealth of flora and fauna encountered, the distinct nature of the cities and societies through which the narrator moves, and the individual nature of the Ortheans themselves, who vary in colour, markings, physique, temperament, language, sexuality, and every other domain that you might expect a large population to show variation in. There’s more than one alien world that needs learning, in other words; it’s always clear how incomplete our picture is, how little one first-person perspective can capture of a world. “We can’t judge a world by you,” one Orthean tells the narrator, “and you can’t judge the Southland by a Roehmonder priest or a Dadeni rider — or even a Melkathi woman” (66). Even when, late in the novel, we finally get a sense of Orthe’s history, it comes not as an authoritative lecture, but through the recollection of a series of limited, personal memories.

Which is what all this magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess is in service of: a planetary romance that explores the interaction between the personal and the social. At one point, considering her options, the narrator asks herself, “how dangerous would it be? Physically, mentally, politically?” (279). That last word is the telling one; it is a word that many other sf novels might omit at such a point, but that Golden Witchbreed must include. The human xeno-team find the society they’re living in fascinating in part because to them it appears to represent a political paradox — “the first socially mobile pretech world on record — no caste-system, nothing” one enthuses (39) — and Gentle’s unpacking of the mechanisms by which this apparently inconsistent system is sustained, which are in the first instance cultural, is exemplary. It has the rigour of good design. There is almost never the sense that something on Orthe is the way it is for the sake of authorial convenience or desire, and implications — for example, of the organisation of the Southland into entities known as telestres that are neither precisely families nor precisely estates — continue to evolve right up to the end of the novel. When the narrator is tripped up by Orthean society it is because, for all that she is observant both of individual behaviour and cultural practice, her estimate of the political danger — her understand of the flux between individual and culture — has turned out to be wrong.

And yet she inhabits that flux, and over the course of the novel is inexorably shaped by it. This is why I have, somewhat artlessly, withheld her name for so long: because unlike a novel such as, say, Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters, Golden Witchbreed does not create its world from its protagonist outwards. Rather, it builds from the outside in. We come to know the narrator — her openness, her perceptiveness, her desires and fears, her practicality and her wry humour – not through her introspection, and not through her interaction with any frame of reference we know, but through her relationship with Orthe. This is what makes the revelation that her empathy is not as reliable as she might wish so effective, because we are as dependent on it as she is. The revelation that Orthean young, known as aishiren, are not sexed (there is a little confusion with gender at a couple of points, but it seems pretty clear that what is meant is biological sex, that aishiren are neuter until their equivalent of puberty), and that a character the narrator has been assuming is male is actually not, is probably in principle more of a challenge to the narrator than it will be for some of her readers (the male/female binary “was not a view one questioned”, she thinks). But in practice we feel the shock along with her. Put another way, the narrator’s possession of this view never feels terminally old-fashioned in the way that the views of so many of the protagonists of yesterday’s tomorrows have become (sometimes through no fault of their author!). It helps that she makes clear that she well knows how thoroughly little she knows; but more importantly, her thoughts and actions are sufficiently framed as her individual responses that we don’t have to take her as representative of humanity of her time, and sufficiently detailed that they retain the ring of psychological plausibility. And so she remains, impressively, someone who could be written tomorrow.

Words make a world which makes a character; and as in any great novel, all of this remakes a reader. By the time Orthe has reshaped the narrator such that she is sympathising more with the Ortheans than with her own species, we might even think we’ve got a handle on the society we’ve been shown. We might think we could play Ochmir, the game Gentle invents that slightly too explicitly mirrors the values of the Southland, with the best of them. If we know that there is a sequel, Ancient Light (1987), and we know that it sharply divides opinion, it’s not really a guess to conclude that we shouldn’t feel so secure; but even Golden Witchbreed’s wrenching final pages, in which a devastating betrayal is followed by a tentative, partial answer to the question of how Orthe and Earth will relate in the future, offer some correction. The narrator departs, as she must – it’s the only appropriate resolution the novel can offer – but we can feel that she will return. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the narrator we know would not exist without Orthe; nor to say that the fifth world of Carrick would not be known to us as it is without the privileged British envoy of the human Dominion, Lynne de Lisle Christie.