Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#25: Trilogies by Dibell/Morris/Gilliland

Another fairly miscellaneous collection of authors. Good trilogies from the late seventies and early eighties, this time. Several weekends of relatively light reading.

Ansen Dibell's "Kantmorie" trilogy (sf, with a fantasy feel) consists of "Pursuit of the Screamer" (***-), "Circle, Crescent, Star" (****-), and "Summerfair" (***+). (Unusually, for a trilogy, the middle book is the strongest. That book can also be read on its own, or before the other two.) The trilogy's main characters are Jannus -- a human, Poli -- aValde, and the Shai -- a giant sea-creature transformed into a spaceship.

Long ago the Shai brought the immortal Tek and their human servants to this world. (The empathic Valde were the aboriginal inhabitants, later modified by the Tek.) For a while the Tek ruled, and then ...something... went wrong, and their kingdom of Kantmorie fell apart. Now, centuries later, plans begun in the time of the Tek are coming to fruition. The Shai is reuniting the planet, through an intermediary called Ashai, in pursuit of its own objectives. The institution of households -- ruled by mildly empathic women, protected by Valde volunteers (whose motives for volunteering nobody has asked) -- is fraying. And Jannus gets himself and Poli caught in the middle of these changes.

This starts in "Pursuit of the Screamer" when he impulsively rescues a Screamer -- a Tek whose psychic clamor drives the Valde to hunt it down and kill it -- an action which leads him to the main Tek base, and to accepting the crown of Kantmorie. (The position is not that useful, especially given that Kantmorie is long dead. As King, he can still give the Shai any order he pleases and be obeyed -- unless the Shai decides that the order is evidence of his unworthiness for the post, in which case Jannus dies. It's much safer not to try.) "Circle, Crescent, Star" picks the story up some years later. Jannus and Poli are living quietly until he gives in to yet another impulse (these impulses are going to endup killing him one day), and publicly defies Ashai in a minor matter. Suddenly, everyone else who's interested in defying Ashai becomes very interested in Jannus -- who's in no position to explain just how little power he really has. "Summerfair" ties the trilogy up, with the final confrontation between humans, Valde, Tek, and Shai.

Jannus and Poli are not hero material, but their circumstances have given them tremendous (if precarious) leverage at a time when powerful -- but sometimes naive -- entities are trying to reshape their world. It is the interplay of the two story levels -- one of ordinary people trying to live their lives, the other of half-understood forces attempting to play god -- which gives the trilogy much of its strength. (The relative strength of "Circle, Crescent, Star" likely comes from the fact that it's acted out on the smallest stage of the three -- mostly in or near their home.)

Janet Morris's "Dream Dancer" trilogy (***+) is excellent space opera -- a surprisingly good piece of writing from an otherwise uninspired author who spends most of her time in shared worlds. The trilogy consists of "DreamDancer", "Cruiser Dreams", and "Earth Dreams", and has to be read in that order. (The actual books identify themselves as "the three part saga of the Kerrion empire", but I've never heard them referred to as such.)

In the twenty-third century, civilization is to be found among the stars, not on back-water Earth. Marada Kerrion, who should have known better than to visit Earth, barely survives the experience, thanks to a local girl named Shebat. When he leaves, he takes her with him, and gives her legal status through adoption. (He doesn't expect her to be able to adapt to high-tech civilization at her age, but the alternative seems to be to leave her to die.) Shebat thus becomes part of one of the most powerful families in the galaxy -- the manufacturers of the highly intelligent spacecruisers. When galactic politics go critical, family politics (and her own surprising talents) give her a pivotal role in the crises which ensue.

The trilogy falls into a recognizable subclass of space opera -- intrigues in space -- and fails to transcend its genre: It has some imaginative and thought-provoking elements, not least of which is a generation of spaceships just crossing the line into sentience, but those elements are decorations on the core space opera, not signs of added depth. That said, the trilogy is about as good as this kind of story gets, and that can be very good, with characters who are rich and complex enough to afford us genuine surprises.

Alexis A. Gilliland's "Rosinante" trilogy (***+) consists of "The Revolution from Rosinante", "Long Shot for Rosinante", and "The Pirates of Rosinante". It's an idiosyncratic combination of a light style, amusing story elements, and a serious story.

The story elements come early, fast, and furious. In a united North America that's coming apart at the political seams, half a century from now, the hispanic governor of Texas makes the mistake of ordering the Alamo torn down to make room for a housing project. When the smoke clears, he has several thousand political embarrassments in jail, and rather than free them, he pulls strings to illegally ship them to the under-construction asteroid habitat of Rosinante. Suddenly Rosinante goes from being an engineering project to being a colony.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, an over-reaction to the governor's actions (okay, so someone assassinates him with a cruise missile) triggers a political crisis that makes Rosinante an attractive haven for an odd bunch of refugees. There's Corporate Skashkash, for instance. (The twenty-first century's solution to the legals status of AIs is to incorporate them -- a corporation being a legal person. Shashkash owns 43% of the shares in Skashkash Inc. His employer owns 47%. And the woman whose assistant he is owns 10%.) Skashkash thinks it's a lark when he designs a new religion for space. Corporate Elna, however, takes it more seriously, and starts seeking converts. Corporate Susan thinks the whole thing is silly, and would rather concentrate on her research in human genetics. (She didn't burden her hosts with the knowledge that there is a powerful Creationist faction on Earth that wants her -- and any habitat she happens to be sitting on -- dismantled.) There's also a dissident faction of the North American navy, which decides to offer Rosinante its services (rather than stay and face charges). Trying to keep some sort of control over this mess is Charles Cantrell, the project manager, who finds himself playing international politics for the habitat's survival.

Gilliland's quirky mix of eccentric characters, cynical power politics, and old-style engineering-in-space hard sf works: This trilogy is fun to read. Its main weakness is Gilliland's tendency to bear down a bit too heavily when satirizing politics of which he particularly disapproves. (The middle book, which concentrates on the Earth-side political scene, is somewhat weaker than the other two, which focus more on Rosinante.)

"Start off by accepting that Corporate Susan Brown is here to stay. It will be easier to defend her than to get rid of her. Besides, she's a damned good doctor; you don't *want* to get rid of her."
"She draws nuclear bombs and we don't want to get rid of her?"
"That's the down side, Charles. The up side is that we have the best health care in the Solar System."

Gilliland is also the author of the more recent "Wizenbeak" trilogy (***+) consisting of "Wizenbeak", "The Shadow Shaia", and "Lord of the Troll Bats". The two trilogies are very similar, despite the earlier one being sf and this one being fantasy. Both have the same odd mixture of comedy and gravity, and both are about people who, mostly through accident of circumstance, find themselves holding a tiger by the tail, with a choice of hanging on or being eaten. (I thought the second trilogy a bit better written, but against that, the subject matter of the first trilogy interested me more. If you like the one, you'll enjoy the other.) In this trilogy the central figure is Wizenbeak, a minor wizard in charge of a colonization effort in the far reaches of the kingdom. When civil and religious strife break out, a number of people start gravitating to the far reaches -- *any* far reaches! -- and Wizenbeak finds himself having to choose between playing politics at the highest levels or being dismissed (okay, executed) as a nuisance.

Right, the wizard thought. We need to approach the little darling with maximum sensitivity to spare her delicate feelings. Only how to begin?
"Well, Marjia darling," he began after the hoped-for inspiration did not arrive, "we have good news and we have bad news. The good news is, you are queen of Guhland. He waited a second to let that sink in. "The bad news is, your mother is dead, your father is dead, your brother is dead, and I am your husband."
Dani Zweig