Not Brilliant, But Not Orthe-ful

by Arthur B

Mary Gentle's first series is a bit of a mixed bag.
Thanks to monumental works like Ash: A Secret History and 1610: A Sundial In a Grave, people seem to expect Mary Gentle books to be big fat bricks of approximately a thousand pages long these days. Thus, it’s not too surprising to see two of her early novels and a short story collected together as Orthe: Chronicles of Carrick V. These constitute her writings about the titular world, and when lashed together form a volume which happily for marketing purposes seems to be about as substantial as any of her later stacks of paper. But is it worth the effort? Only one way to find out...

Golden Witchbreed

Lynne Christie is a British-born envoy from the Dominion of Earth, which having discovered a viable faster-than-light drive a mere generation ago is expanding diplomatic contacts rapidly across inhabited space. Carrick V, known as Orthe to its inhabitants, is a world on the edge of the galactic core, whose inhabitants have a low-tech way of life and at least a superficial similarity to human beings. Having been trained for contact with pre-technological societies, Christie is sent to assess the world’s readiness for long-term diplomatic contact and trade and come up with advice on how interactions should proceed.

What Christie and her superiors do not know, however, is that Orthe is not a pre-technological world, but a post-holocaust environment. Moreover, nobody has realised that the Ortheans have vivid dreams of past lives - interpreted by them as a sign that they reincarnate, but potentially the result of a curious sort of inherited memory process. And in their dreams of the past the Ortheans recall the Golden Witchbreed, whose high-tech Empire ruled over them as an absolute tyranny for aeons. When political factions within Orthean society try to have Christie discredited - and maybe even executed - as an agent of the Golden Witchbreed, Christie finds she will have to master the way of things on Orthe quickly if she is to survive the accusation.

Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction, and particularly The Left Hand of Darkness, casts a long shadow over this novel. You have your Terran protagonist, you have your vaguely elfin aliens with conceptions of gender that blow the rather binary-assuming Terran’s little mind, you have the not-elfs running a society on their planet which has a lower technological level than Earth’s and social structures that feel a little reminiscent of those from Earth’s history, you have difficult journeys being important plot points.

Where Gentle succeeds the most is in how she is able to take these ideas a few steps further from where Le Guin left them. Take, for instance, the gender stuff; the Ortheans are born genuinely neutral in terms of biological sex, and only become distinguished in a painful process of sudden development at a time broadly corresponding to adolescence in humans. Consequently, they only really adopt gender pronouns once that occurs, and until they become differentiated use a different pronouns which, because Orthe is by no means a social utopia, is the same pronoun used for objects and animals.

Whereas Le Guin built an entire novel around a humanoid alien species’ gender ambiguity, Gently makes this merely one more worldbuilding detail, albeit one which plays into other aspects of the culture depicted here in various ways. For instance, whilst the local cultures seem to be fairly gender essentialist in terms of applying pronouns to people, they genuinely do not seem to differentiate when it comes to romantic relationships or social roles or careers, perhaps because they do not take up gender as part of their identity until well after their most crucial formative years and thus place much less weight on it than much of Earth culture does.

Likewise, the Orthean “past life” dreams gives rise to an extreme social conservativism on the part of many Ortheans, especially when it comes to technological progress; it is made explicitly clear that the Ortheans could have an industrial revolution any time they wanted, but have decided against it. The religion of the Goddess that holds sway in the Hundred Thousand, the political unit that Christie interacts with most, and its anti-technological preaching are only part of this; far more important is the fact that the Ortheans can actually remember the technologically-enabled cruelty of the Golden Witchbreed, and find anything which reminds them of that abhorrent.

One way in which this conservativism manifests in the Hundred Thousand is in the telestre, an institution that is something like a family or clan. Parenthood, for instance, is a task falling to the whole telestre, not just the biological parents, and a subject’s telestre provides them with their social standing in the Hundred Thousand. Since the Ortheans believe in reincarnation with a fervency which puts Earthly believers in the shade, continuity of the telestre is paramount; burning down the ancestral home is a crime of orders of magnitude worse than murder or treason.

My main quibble with the worldbuilding here is Christie’s reactions; she tends, in her narration, to treat any deviation from 1980s UK society as being super-alien, when often it is nothing of the sort. The biological life cycle and the past-life stuff, sure, fine. But the way Christie struggles with the telestre concept makes it seem like the idea of a clan has never been introduced to her, which seems to be a honking great gap in her hypnotape-based training program. Likewise, the basis of Orthean boardgames seems to be way more of a mindbender for her than it should be.

Perhaps most damningly, Christie seems to think that the Orthean flair for political treachery and other skullduggery is alien, and holy shit Earth why are you sending such naive master manipulatees out into the cosmos to do diplomacy for us? I can take her holding an important diplomatic post in her mid-20s, because it is established that training-by-hypnotape is a thing and the diplomatic corps are stretched incredibly thin, so it makes some sense that someone without an enormous amount of experience would be sent to talk to a low-priority world like Orthe. It does not make sense that Christie is surprised by the capacity of Ortheans to treat her like a friend one day and a bitter enemy the next, because human beings are entirely capable of doing the exact same thing. Machiavelli wasn't an Orthean visitor, you know?

Having sussed out about halfway through who the hidden hand was behind the troubles Christie was facing, I found much of the plot rather predictable, but the book just about saved itself with its vivid characters and interesting bits of worldbuilding. There's a rather fun secret history of Orthe you can piece together from a combination of little-discussed biological commonalities between the Ortheans and the froglike fen-dwellers, and the various memories Christie gets to experience thanks to a certain bit of technology that predates even the Witchbreed, but impressively Gentle doesn't allow such matters to upstage the ongoing plot which we are already invested in.

The novel is probably a little longer than it needs to be, and the cast is probably a little too large - given how nigh-irrelevant most of the rest of the Earth visitors are, their numbers could have been happily contracted so as to save the reader the bother of keeping their names straight - but otherwise this is rather fun, even if it is a first contact novel about humans making first contact with kind of elfy people who are essentially human save for some major biological distinctions. If you are a regular Gentle reader you might spot earlier iterations of ideas used later; for instance, the plot includes a sexual relationship between a young androgynous person who eventually turns out to be a woman and a substantially older grizzled swordsman, which of course is a dynamic central to 1610: A Sundial In a Grave.

Ancient Light

In the sequel, Christie returns ten years later this time not as an agent of a government but of a powerful megacorporation - one intent on uncovering and using the lost technologies of the Golden Witchbreed. Christie presumably has her reasons for going along with this despite her very clear preference otherwise, but I didn't find that out before I lost patience with the book and gave up.

Christie's reluctance, in fact, was a little part of what put me off; she exudes such a lack of enthusiasm for returning to Orthe that it rather killed any enthusiasm I had. A greater annoyance was the way Gentle found it necessary to scramble Christie's memories for the sake of the plot; it turns out that all that hypno-learning that is alluded to in the first book was discovered to have all sorts of side-effects in between the novels, with the result that Christie's memories of her first trip are rather incomplete and she forgets stuff like how she previously saw the Emperor-In-Exile.

This would fly better if Christie hadn't explicitly been described here and in the previous book as having written extensive reports on her experiences, which she has presumably studied to remind herself before making the return trip. An interesting question arises as to whether the previous book has any diegetic existence in the setting as a digest of Christie's reports, or whether it is one of those nondiegetic first-person narratives where we aren't supposed to believe the narrator actually sat down and wrote out all that stuff, but it seems reasonable to assume that Christie's reports would have included most of that, if only because the reader sure as shit knows it and letting Christie know it too allows us to be spared the chore of sitting through explanations of stuff we already know and understand.

It is possible that the intention here is to let Christie continue the role of being the slightly clueless person who asks the questions that the reader wants to ask, but then you have the corporate representative Molly right there to fulfil that role and the confusion doesn't quite go that far anyway so it feels more like it has been induced for plot purposes. Ultimately, if you can't construct a plot for a sequel which doesn't involve your protagonist forgetting that particular arbitrary set of facts which it would break the plot if they remembered from the start, a question arises as to whether you should be writing a sequel at all.

Speaking of the plot, it feels haphazard here. Literally the first place Christie and Molly visit is the mysterious city which was at the hub of the conspiracy in the previous book and which was never directly visited there. Whilst this could have been a great way to start the story with a bang, it ultimately feels more like a squandering of the mystique built up over the entire course of the previous novel to no real benefit. The descriptions of the city which would have been so lovingly crafted and culturally revealing in the previous book seem terse and underdeveloped. The plot concerning the mysteries of Witchbreed technology seemed largely destined to retread ground already mightily trod in the previous book to boot. On top of that, Christie and Molly get taken prisoner almost comically soon into the book, which feels both like a cataclysmic failure on the part of both of them to learn the lessons of Christie's report and yet another use of a plot twist already used slightly too often in the previous book.

This was the straw which broke the camel’s back, to be honest. Any one of the above issues I could have pushed past in the hope that it would turn out to not be that bad once the book picked up steam. But to find all these red flags clustered at the beginning like a Soviet parade made me deeply disinclined to read further, if only because even if half of these issues improved, it'd still leave the other half bugging me. And on top of that, as well as Christie feeling unhappy about returning to Orthe at the behest of a profiteering corporation, it felt somehow like Gentle herself was phoning it in, as though she hadn't really wanted to revisit the setting but had bowed to fan or publisher pressure.

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Comments (go to latest)
James D at 21:43 on 2016-11-17
Coincidentally, I recently gave up on Rats and Gargoyles after a couple hundred pages. It was my first Mary Gentle, and will probably be my last. The world was very interesting and cool, a sort of gothic fantasy dystopia, with demonic gargoyles ruling everything from a gigantic cathedral-citadel.

Unfortunately the pacing was incredibly slow, and to make it worse, Gentle seems to have an awful tin ear for language. At one point she uses "unpremeditatedly" when "without thinking" or something similar would have been fine. Here and there a sour note like that is perfectly excusable, but the book is full of them. Slow isn't necessarily bad - Gormenghast and Little, Big are very slow - but those are slow trips through beautiful scenery. Rats and Gargoyles was a slow trip through a cesspool.
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