Saturday 13 October 2018

Six Moon Dance, by Sheri Tepper; and Armor, by John Steakley

Six Moon Dance was chosen by the classic SF discussion group as one of its monthly reads, and being a long-term fan of Sheri Tepper I made a point of acquiring a copy. It is a stand-alone book, rather than being one of the short series which comprise much of her output.

The story is set on the planet Newholme, which had been settled by humanity not many generations before, and exists with a low level of technology. The matriarchal culture is curious, driven by the fact that a considerable imbalance in the population has developed, with far more males than females. This means that females are highly valued as well as dominating the powerful planetary religion, with prospective husbands (or their families) having to pay a massive dowry to obtain a wife. The males are principally concerned with becoming "family men", with their own business or farm, a wife and children; the oldest son inherits, so younger sons have little to look forward to. One of the options open to the more attractive ones is to become a Consort or "Hunk"; highly trained to please women in every way and purchased by wives for their pleasure once they have completed their compulsory duties of child bearing, a state of affairs which is accepted as normal.

There is a mystery about Newholme that no-one likes to talk about: when the planet was first settled, an exhaustive search failed to find any trace of sentient natives, freeing humanity to settle the planet. However, not long after the settlement, humanoid natives were everywhere. The settlers do not like to admit that they exist, since their settlement would then become illegal, so they pretend not to see them, despite the fact that the natives voluntarily act as servants and manual workers. However, word that something odd was happening on the planet led to the arrival of the Questioner: the representative of the Council of Worlds, and a cyborg of ultimate power and authority. The Questioner arrives at a time of crisis, with the six large moons of Newholme moving towards a rare configuration which would create massive seismic effects on the planet.

The story mainly follows four humans: a young man who enters training as a Hunk; a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to avoid her childbearing fate; and two young dancers dragooned by the Questioner to assist her work. What is really happening on the planet turns out to be something far greater and more fundamental than anyone suspected. The author drops hints about the mystery throughout the book, particularly when describing the activities of the natives, who know far more about the situation than anyone else, and the meaning of some terms they employ only becomes evident towards the climax.

This story is typical of Tepper, combining SF and fantasy elements with a large measure of social – and especially feminist – commentary. Some readers are deterred by the strong feminism in the plots of many of her books, but it does not bother me. Her fantasy elements and characters tend to have a whimsical side to them, and (SPOILER WARNING) I have to admit to being amused by the concept of a vast space creature becoming obsessed with gender rights issues and heading off into the galaxy to preach the gospel!

On looking through Tepper's novels and noting the ones I have reviewed, the others I read before I started reviewing, those which I possess but have not yet read, and the ones I have not so far obtained, I discover that I have quite a lot of reading to do in order to catch up with this prolific author's impressive back catalogue.


John Steakley had an unusual publishing record. Between 1981 and 1990 he published a handful of short stories and two novels: one a military SF (Armor, 1984), the other a horror (Vampire$, 1990). He died at the age of 59 in 2010. Both of his novels were well received, with Vampires (different spelling) being turned into a 1998 film. I first read Armor shortly after it was published, and thought well enough of it to keep it for a re-read – which has now occurred.

Part 1, the first 80 pages of Armor, consists of an intense focus on a few days in the life of Felix, a soldier in an interstellar war being fought against giant insectoids dubbed "ants". The human soldiers are heavily protected by massive powered armour which gives them colossal strength and speed; the ants are less technological but are bred as killers. The soldiers are "dropped" onto planetary surfaces from massive orbiting spacecraft (via some kind of teleportation), and at the start of the story Felix is awaiting his first drop onto an ant world the humans call Banshee.

Felix survives several days of ferocious fighting, very much against the odds. Terrified of the prospect of fighting, he gains aid from a part of his mind he thinks of as "the Engine"; which turns him into a relentless killing machine. There is some mystery in his past, a suggestion of hereditary high rank, but no answers as to why a civilian like him has become a soldier.

One key question occurred to me at the end of this part of the story: Banshee was not just an ant world, it was uninhabitable by humans due to highly poisonous oceans and atmosphere, plus extreme temperatures; in other words, of no value to humanity at all.  So why were soldiers being sent down to the surface to fight ants hand-to-hand? The obvious response to such a situation should be for the spaceships to stay in orbit and rain thermonuclear-tipped missiles down on any observed concentrations of ants. (This evidently bothered the author too, as much later in the book he states that the atmosphere was too poisonous and with two many random electromagnetic fields for guidance systems to work. But the teleportation system does? Hmmm…) Anyway, to continue with the story…

Part 2 is headed Jack Crow, and provides a complete change of plot and characters. The focus this time is on the notorious pirate of the heading, and is told by him in the first person, in contrast with the third-person structure of the first part. We first meet him in prison, from which he is saved by another pirate, the giant Borglyn, and is compelled by him to undertake a mission on a planet called Sanction. This is inhabitable by humans, but currently occupied only by a large research base plus a motley collection of settlers inhabitating a nearby slum city, including the enigmatic Lewis, an alcoholic who reputedly owns the planet. This part is not that comfortable to read, as Crow befriends the researchers with the aim of betraying them to Borglyn. Meanwhile Hollis, the innocent genius who heads the research base, has become fascinated with a suit of combat armour which Crow had discovered in a spacecraft abandoned in orbit, and is trying to unlock the memory files embedded within it. When he succeeds, both himself and Crow experience Felix's life in combat via virtual reality as they try to discover what happened to him. Part 3 continues with Felix's story as experienced by Crow and Holly, and the psychological tensions build up steadily as relationships with the settlers reach crisis point.  The fourth part switches back to Banshee and resolves the identity of Felix, a man running from his past. Part 5 is the finale, as Borglyn arrives to claim Sanction, triggering a climactic conflict.

This is far more than just another military SF tale, and almost half of the story is set on Sanction. The plotting and characterisation are very good, although it struck me as slightly odd to have two different heroes with nothing to connect them until right at the end. Strongly recommended, and such a pity that Steakley wrote no more SF novels.