Mithridates VI of Pontus
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Only a handful of SF anthologies have hit print solely featuring women authors—none were published before 1972 and, surprisingly, few after 1980 (there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years). The Crystal Ship (1976) ed. Robert Silverberg, is one of these. It contains the three novellas by three important SF authors who got their start in the 70s: Marta Randall, Joan D. Vinge, Vondra McIntyre. The latter two achieved critical success: Joan D. Vinge won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen (1980) and Vonda N. McIntyre won the Hugo for her novel Dreamsnake (1978). Marta Randall, on the other hand, despite her Nebula nomination for the intriguing Islands (1976) remains to this day lesser known.
All three of the novellas feature impressive female protagonists and narratives that subvert many of SF’s traditional clichés. All three protagonists are outcasts, striving against worlds characterized in turn by decadence, colonialism, and sadistic prison systems. Tarawassie in Vinge’s “The Crystal Ship” is cast in the vein of Alvin in Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956). She takes on the mantel of “the one who knows how the world really is.” The eponymous heroine of Randall’s “Megan’s World” is shunned by her fellow humankind due to her mechanical and strangely colored body. She is accepted by the natives of a soon to be exploited planet and feels compelled to fight, in the final confrontation, against her own. It takes all mental and physical strength of Kylis in McIntyre’s “Screwtop”—imprisoned for minor infractions including “stealing passage” on a spaceship—to not succumb the hellish environment of the world and the sinister whims of a particularly disturbed guard.
“Screwtop” is the highlight of The Crystal Ship. Neither Randall or Vinge can match the raw psychological power, evocative world building, and solid storytelling of McIntyre.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“The Crystal Ship” Joan D. Vinge (1976) 3/5 (Average): In the past I have found Vinge’s works from the late 70s deeply flawed—for example, Fireship (1978) and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt (1978). She would refine her style/characterizations in The Snow Queen Cycle of novels from the 80s and 90s. In a far future environ, a vast (mostly empty) crystal spaceship orbits a distant planet. The occupants of the vessel lived a drugged and satiated existence where they end their lives by jumping into a mysterious contraption called a “wishing well” (14). Like Alvin in The City and the Stars (1956), Tarawassie sees the sad state of the world after her mother, who lives on the planet’s surface and refuses the life of the crystal ship, seeks to end her life in the wishing well. Tarawassie escapes the “Loom’s catch-spell of light/music” (19) and strikes off for the planet’s surface.
On the surface she encounters the “real humans” i.e. some new strain of humanity (mixed with the native population?) with pouches, telepathy, and tails. These rat-like creatures believe themselves superior to the inhabitants of the spaceship. With the help of a native named Moon Shadow (*wince*), Tarawassie learns the true history of their peoples, and reason for the strange crystal ship.
“The Crystal Ship” is an inarticulate allegory with an intriguing premise but a flawed delivery. Moon Shadow’s “‘What it’—he grimaced, concentrating—’what it—mean?’” (29) attempts at dialogue are beyond frustrating for the reader. The unease generated by the world and the hints of past cataclysmic confrontation are the most praiseworthy elements of the story.
For diehard Joan D. Vinge fans only.
“Megan’s World” Marta Randall (1976) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): Randall’s novella is on the surface a traditional SF narrative. Engineer Padric Angelo, whose past is filled with ignominy, lands on an alien planet in search of natural resources with an inept ethnologist who knows little about dealing with aliens. The ethnologist believes that it will be easy to convince the natives to desecrate their planet i.e. just speak into the universal translator and they will think that the Terrans are gods and thus get whatever they want with superior technology.
And then Randall subverts the paradigm: The feline aliens are far from simplistic naturalistic aliens who are one with nature. Rather, they worship bloodthirsty gods and are stricken with internal political and social dissension. The biggest realignment concerns Padric’s sister, whom he encounters on the planet. Megan is “thin and immensely tall; has gray hair; a second and transparent set of eyelids set above liquid crystal irises that shift colors with changes in temperature and pulse in time to her heartbeat. Her bones are formed of high-impact, stress-resistant biosteel allow, and her bluntly shaped finger- and toe-nails are of a dully gray metal” (95). Megan was developed as an experiment in spaceship construction (integration of human with machine)—however, the experiment was a failure. She escaped the ridicule she faced by her fellow Terrans and fled via a stolen yacht. In part because she is accepted by the natives of the planet, she feels closely for their plight and the danger her brother represents.
The story is somewhat bogged down with needless exposition. Most frustrating is the lack of nuance dealing with the key themes of the novel—alienation, colonialism, etc. The frustratingly abrupt ending does little to ram home the more intriguing elements.
Recommended with reservations.
“Screwtop” Vonda N. McIntyre (1976) 4/5 (Good) is by far the most satisfying and evocative novella in the collection. Kylis, a spaceport “rat” who spent her childhood spaceports stowing aboard ships, is captured for stealing passage and is imprisoned on the planet Redsun. A perpetually hot planet filled with strange parasites, fern plants, and volcanoes, Redun is powered by some form of geothermal energy (how exactly this works is not altogether clear). Kylis spends her day working with other prisoners removing vegetation and drilling into the planet’s crust. She encounters two disparate characters who become her friends: Jason, an writer, arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy; and a tetraparental, i.e. a designed super intelligent individual culled from the DNA of four parents, named Gryf. However, the prison guard named Lizard is commanded to force Gryf to return to the life he escaped and uses Kylis affection for Gryf and Jason as leverage.
There are indications throughout of non-traditional relationships–for example, group living and non-monogamous relationships such as Kylis, Gryf, and Jason. McIntyre’s avoids info dumps and only carefully reveals each character’s backstory. The narrative is well-told and ultimately, downright heartrending.
McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1979) is the only Hugo winning novel published between 1960 and 1980 I have yet to read. After experiencing the refined and psychological power of “Screwtop,” I desperately want to get my hands on a copy.