Friday 20 March 2020

The Exile Waiting, and Superluminal, by Vonda N. McIntyre

I browsed through my bookshelves recently and found a couple of volumes by Vonda N. McIntyre, an author whose name was familiar to me although I could not recall anything about her books. As usual before writing a review, I checked the Wiki page and discovered that she died last year at the age of 70, leaving behind six stand-alone SF novels, four in the Starfarers series, various novelisations of Star Trek movies and episodes, and a large number of short stories. Of her stand-alone novels Dreamsnake is the best known, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 1979. That one I read a couple of times, but no longer possess.

The Exile Waiting was the author's first published novel, appearing in 1975. The setting is the last city on Earth – known as Center – following devastating atomic wars. Humanity has also become established in other star systems, a section of the Galaxy known as the Circle, although we learn hardly anything about this. Center is built underground in a huge cavern which provides protection from the devastating storms which cut off the Earth from the Circle for part of each year. It is governed by the Families, each responsible for some aspect of life: air purification, water supply, food, power etc. The most powerful family, which controls the starship landing field, lives in the Stone Palace.

Most of the focus of the story is on Mischa, a young teenage thief who has some telepathic sensitivity. She has a burning desire to leave the Center and travel to the Circle, but this is almost impossible for all but the upper echelons of society. She is also trapped by the need to look after her dependent brother and sister.

The usual isolation caused by the storm season is breached by the arrival of a starship manned by raiders and led by a pair of experimentally enhanced humans, known as Subone and Subtwo. This provides Mischa with an opportunity to escape, but her attempt goes wrong and she flees into the natural cave systems beneath Center, meeting people exiled for being born with mutations.  She is hunted by the enhanced humans but is eventually able to turn the situation to her own advantage.

This was an impressive debut, very well written. It is a rather dark and grim story, redeemed by an upbeat ending. The story is complete in itself, but could easily have led to sequels, following Mischa's further adventures; perhaps that was less of an issue 45 years ago! I did not directly recall the story when reading it, but the setting seemed very familiar. I wonder how many other stories are set in underground cities, possibly inspired by this one?


Superluminal is another stand-alone novel, published in 1983. This is set in a more optimistic future in which humanity is still thriving on Earth as well as in other star systems. Starships have been developed which transit through multiple dimensions to reach their destinations, but ordinary humans cannot tolerate the experience and usually die if exposed to it, so can only travel in a drugged sleep. This has led to the development of elite pilots, who have their hearts replaced by artificial pumps and are highly trained in the control of all bodily systems, enabling them to survive transit while remaining conscious. Other humans have been genetically modified to suit them to an aquatic life; these divers can stay underwater for long periods and have become closely associated with whales, with whom they have learned to communicate.

This story has three principal characters: Laenea Trevelyan, who has just undergone the heart replacement surgery and is finishing her training to become a pilot; Orca, a young diver who unusually spends much of her time on land keeping up with developments; and Radu Dracul, a survivor of a plague which wiped out most of the colonists on his home world of Twilight. The story follows these three, sometimes individually, sometimes together. In plot terms, nothing much happens in the first half of the book, which is mainly concerned with developing the characters and painting a rich picture of the author's imagined future. Events then accelerate as disaster strikes Laenea's first training flight, and Radu proves to have a unique ability which threatens the status quo.  As with The Exile Waiting, the conclusion could easily have been the starting point of a sequel, as the characters are all beginning new chapters in their lives.

Some of the author's comments could have been written today instead of nearly 40 years ago, for instance concerning the internet: "A note from a friend pleased her; junk announcements broadcast to everyone on the port irritated her. She killed each one as soon as she had read far enough to identify it. The people who wrote them got cleverer and cleverer. Orca's message bank contained a strong filter that was meant to discard most advertising and other solicitations. Some of the circulars had confused the program enough to make it let them through. Orca would have to rewrite it and strengthen its criteria. The escalation never ended." I also enjoyed the little observations, such as: "A rank of electric cars waited at the corner, tethered like horses in an old movie." That image of them recharging has now, of course, come to pass. These examples demonstrate just how carefully McIntyre thought through her imagined world, not just in broad terms but in specifics. Her descriptive passages are also powerfully evocative and convincing, especially concerning interactions with the whales.

I found Superluminal completely absorbing throughout, and was very reluctant to put it down until I had finished it.