Suzette Haden Elgin has been writing science fiction since the late sixties. Her writing combines wit and acid, humor and feeling, in a way that will appeal to some readers and not to other. She's a linguist, and one of her non-sf projects is the development of 'Laadan', a women's language. Linguistics and her concern with with women's issues tend to manifest, invarious guises and combinations, in her writing as well.
I'll have more to say about her science fiction later, but what I consider to be her most enjoyable work by far is the Ozark trilogy -- "Twelve Fair Kingdoms", "The Grand Jubilee", and "And Then There'll Be Fireworks" -- her one foray into fantasy. (Like her science fiction, it's not going to be to all tastes, so I'll try to describe it well enough for readers to decide whether it's likely to be to theirs.)
"Twelve Fair Kingdoms" (****) introduces us to the planet Ozark. The premise is ridiculous, and Elgin has a great deal of fun with it -- and readers are invited to do likewise: Early in the twenty-first century, twelve families of Ozark mountain people, dismayed by what the world was coming to, took off for the stars and founded their own traditional society. Okay, not completely traditional: Magic works. (Common Sense magic is generally available. A few formidable old women know Granny Magic. And only magicians have access to Hifalutin Magic. (Don't ask.)) Numerology works. The computer-and-communications network works. But aside from niggling details, it's a society that cleaves as closely as possible to idealized Ozark traditions and values.
As the colony's thousandth anniversary approaches, a series of troubles -- nuisance-value, for the most part, but clearly the result of mischievous or hostile magic -- begins to manifest. In order to respond to this challenge, in order to investigate the Twelve Families in search of the culprits, (and because her family is driving her up a wall, and a change of scenery would be welcome,) young Responsible of Brightwater sets out on a Quest, to track down the miscreants. Dressed in the elaborate costume which Quest tradition demands, she mounts her Mule, and sets out for a tour of the Twelve Kingdoms on Ozark's six continents. (The Mules are Elgin's dig at McCaffrey's aerodynamically improbable dragons. They are magicked to fly at a steady sixty mph.)
Having the protagonist find a reason for a grand tour is a badly over-worked technique for introducing readers to a milieu, but this milieu is delightful, and I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction. The book ends with Responsible having uncovered some serious nastiness, but being fairly confident of her ability to deal with it. "Twelve Fair Kingdoms" shows us Ozark at its best.
"The Grand Jubilee" (***+) follows shortly after. The Jubilee marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the Confederation of Continents, and there is a strong minority sentiment in favor of dismantling the federation.(One millenium you create a confederation, the next millenium someone'll want to impose taxes, and before you know it you've got Big Government again.) For reasons known to very few, it is vital that the Confederation survive (it is the main 'legal' barrier to an alien takeover), and steps are taken to make sure the politicking doesn't get out of hand. Through a combination of malice, ineptitude, and plain bad luck, the politicking *does* get out of hand. Far worse, some of that malice is directed at Responsible of Brightwater. (In "Twelve Fair Kingdoms", we come to realize that she has access to far more magic than she should have. What the people who go after her don't realize is that her access is essential to their own: Ozark's magic fails in her absence.)
"And Then There'll Be Fireworks" (***-) is a darker book than the other two.With the failure of magic comes a failure of crops, starvation and, when things have gone far enough downhill, the alien invasion. This book completes the tale of Ozark as it hits bottom -- and starts on its way back up.
(There is a problem with the trilogy which will bother some readers and not others. Let me approach it obliquely. There are some people to whom numbers aren't quite real. (No pun intended.) They might, for instance, use 'million' and 'billion' interchangeably, to mean "a lot". Or you could describe a lightly-populated world where the average family size for the past thousand years has been eight children, and they wouldn't see a problem. Elgin is one of those people. It's not just numbers, though it shows most clearly there: Many of the details which are meant to give the books atmosphere and depth are mutually inconsistent. The inconsistencies are particularly thick on the ground in book three. Again, some readers won't notice, or won't care if they do, others will.)
That said, "Twelve Fair Kingdoms" is delightful light fantasy, with deliberately silly but pleasant premises, and if you enjoy well-written books in that vein, you'll enjoy this one -- and probably its sequels.(It also repays a thoughtful rereading: Among the things that keep Ozark on a smugly even keel for a thousand years is a network of secrets and Noble Lies -- but these also turn out to be its weak points, through which it can be brought down.)
Elgin has two other series, both science fiction. The first is her Communipaths series -- the first three books of which have been collectedin an omnibus titled "Communipath Worlds" (whose Pocket Book edition has one of the Truly Silly SF Covers). The milieu, a vaguely intergalactic Federation, is a poisoned paradise. There is no want, the spread of telepathy has brought sophistication and understanding -- and there is the odd ugliness around the edges. The protagonist of the Communipath novels is Coyote Jones, an agent who gets to deal with some of the ugliness.
"The Communipaths" (**+) is Elgin's first novel, and it shows. The writing is somewhat clunky, the reader is bashed over the head with the morals of the story, and the resolution is contrived. But it's still my favorite novel of this series. The Communipaths themselves represent a subtler version of LeGuin's 'Omelas' dilemma: They are the most powerful telepaths in two galaxies, their communications hold the Federation together, and the job kills them in their teens. (They're conditioned to look upon that end in a positive light.) When a powerful rogue telepath begins to disrupt communications, Coyote Jones is sent to apprehend said telepath -- with authorization to kill, if necessary. The rogue turns out to be twelve months old. Particularly effective is the contrast between the cold officialese with which the parties concerned document the situation, and degree to which the situation distresses them -- off the record.
In "Yonder Comes the Other End of Time" (*), Coyote Jones meets Ozark, and the attempt to combine the fantasy milieu and the sf milieu falls flat.
I may be the wrong person to write about the Native Tongue trilogy. (Actually, it's not a trilogy yet. "Native Tongue" and "The Judas Rose" have been out for a while, but "Native Tongue III" will be published later this year.) Elgin packed in a good deal of hard linguistics, by creating a future in which a few families of trained-from-the-cradle linguists form the bridge between Earth and the rest of the galaxy. (Linguistics also pops up in the Ozark trilogy, in an amusing guise. For much the reason that flying is done on Muleback -- a combination of inspired silliness and mild mockery -- Ozark magic is based on the formalisms of transformational grammar. But I digress.) Layered over the galactic situation is the domestic one: The Earth of this future is one in which women have lost all legal rights. And female linguists have secretly begun a long-term project to change this reality through the creation of a female language (the aforementioned Laadan).
I didn't like it. What we get isn't a world of the future, but today's world, with the heaviest possible seasoning of "How awful can the world be made for women?", and the result has little or no internal logic. But, as I said, I may be a poor judge of these books, as several hundred pages in which men are cast as automatic villains might have prejudiced me. (I did not, btw, have this reaction to Atwood's less-extreme "The Handmaid's Tale".)
Bottom line: If you don't dislike light fantasy, read "Twelve Fair Kingdoms" and, if you enjoy it, the two sequels. (Don't read "Yonder Come the Other End of Time", however, unless the trilogy leaves you desperate for more.) The Communipath novels ("The Communipaths", "Furthest", "At the Seventh Level", "Star-Anchored, Star-Angered") are in the ** to **+ range: I enjoyed them, but thought them nothing special. You might want to try (any) one to see if they're to your taste. And the Native Tongue books left a bad taste in my mouth, but it's a sufficiently political trilogy that I'm chicken about assuming that other readers will agree.
Dani Zweig email@example.com