I first read this over twenty years ago and it made quite an impact on me at the time (more so than the author's far better known Ender series), so I decided to read it again to see if it was still as good as I remembered.
The story is set in the distant future, on a planet on which mutineers from a generation ship had been abandoned three thousand years before (hence the name given to it). Each of the leaders of the mutiny had settled in a different location with their families, and their descendents had divided up the planet into states, each of which developed a very different culture based on the special knowledge of the founder. They had not forgotten where they came from and were desperate to redevelop the technology to build space ships so they could get off the planet, but there was no accessible source of iron. The only way of obtaining it was to trade with the unseen Watchers in space – descendents of those who had marooned them there – and the only way of communicating with them was to leave objects on the Ambassadors (two-way matter transmitters). If the Watchers liked what they were offered, they sent some iron in return.
The story is told in the first person by Lanik Mueller, who at the start of the tale is the accomplished 16 year old male heir to the land of Mueller. This was the most powerful state because they had found something which the Watchers would give them iron for, so had been able to make enough swords and lances to dominate their neighbours. The original Mueller had been a geneticist, and his descendents had developed this science to a high degree. They were extremely difficult to kill because their bodies were capable of rapid self-repair and would quickly regenerate almost any loss of limbs or other body parts. In some cases, this ability ran out of control and resulted in the "radical regenerators", or rads, who kept growing extra body parts which could be harvested and traded with the Watchers (echoes of Cordwainer Smith here).
At the start of the story Lanik is identified as a rad (the initial sign of this being a shapely pair of breasts), which means he is automatically disinherited. His father sends him on a journey to the land of the Nkumai, who had suddenly started to expand their territory thanks to a huge supply of iron weapons, in order to find out what they are exchanging for the iron. So begins an odyssey which takes Lanik through various states, in which he is captured, grows an unprecedented number of body parts, escapes and is healed. He discovers that the isolation of each Family has led some of them to develop their specialisms to a staggering degree, and from them he learns several advanced abilities which give him formidable power. Despite this, he does not have everything his own way and faces many trials before discovering what is happening, eventually concluding his adventure in a dramatic way.
This is a terrific read, every bit as good as I remembered, and deserves to be regarded as a classic. It is packed with novel concepts in the best traditions of SF, although the fairly 'hard SF' beginning gradually shades into epic fantasy as the god-like powers of the Families are revealed.
My copy is the original version of this story, first published in 1979. This was revised in 1988 and re-issued under the title Treason; I haven't read this version but I understand that the changes are mainly stylistic and do not affect the plot.
I realised on re-reading this that it must have subconsciously influenced me when writing Scales; the plot is very different, but each is focused on the story of one person who acquires non-human abilities of increasing power and uses these – with considerable vicissitudes – to effect a dramatic change to his world.