A Voice Out of Ramah

Lee Killough

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Lee Killough may be comparatively obscure now but in the 1970s she was one of a cohort of hard SF writers discovered by Del Rey. Later on she turned to horror and what would have been called urban fantasy if she had written it 20 years later but it was her SF that I loved.

Five centuries ago, Marah was settled by slower than light ramjet. The devout colonists were seeking isolation from a corrupt society and so made no effort to stay in contact with the other human worlds via radio1. Now the other worlds have come to Marah in the form of a ramjet bearing emissaries of Intergalactic Communications offering to sell Marah a “shuttlebox”, a device that will allow instantaneous travel to the other worlds.

Thanks to poor judgment on the part of liaison officer Alesdra Pontokouros, she and a male companion named Thors Kastavin encounter settlers on the surface before formal contact is made from orbit. Alesdra notices right away that the gender balance on Marah is peculiar, ten women for every man, but it is not until it is too late for poor Thors that she finds out why: a now extinct race of aliens managed to wipe out their whole clade with a disease that targets males. Humans are similar enough2 that the virus affects us as well; the difference is one in ten men survive the disease.

Sadly, Thors is not one of the 10% who survive. Also, Alesdra is not allowed to return to her ship, as the men on it are quite keen on not dying.

The patriarchal religion of the settlers reacted to the dearth of men by setting up a society where men are in charge, as far as they know, and protected from all danger. All the physical work is done by the women, held to be more expendable. All this is clearly ordained by God or so the male Shepherds will happily explain.

The obvious question is “why, if there is a population of natural immunes, has that trait not been selected for?” The answer, as a rather horrified Shepherd Jared learns very early on in the book, is that of course it has, which is why the Shepherds now poison nine out of ten boys when they hit puberty. Who lives and who dies is determined entirely by chance and therefore represents God’s will.

The hierarchy on the planet is horrified to hear the offer from IGC because they realize immediately that the off-worlders will discover that the disease no longer kills male Marahns (although presumably it could do a number on the men of other worlds – happily Galactic bio-science is advanced and shuttleboxes are well suited to tight border control). Obviously, they have to turn the offer down, although they plan to make it look like a hard decision.

What the rulers don’t reckon with is that Jared got to see Thors die slowly and horribly; custom dictates that only women sit with the infected and so he had no idea how terrible the process is. That and the fact his sister’s son Isiah is just old enough to be subjected to the Trial convinces him that the system is wrong and something needs to be done about it.

The church has a system to deal with Shepherds with theologically unsound qualms about murder; it adds them to the roster of people the church has killed. In fairly short order, Jared is disguised as a woman and on the run, with the whole of the ruling classes turned against him.

I had not reread this in decades and was a bit surprised to see how small Alesdra’s role is in this, basically the catalyst whose poor judgment helps Jared decide to overthrow his society. The real focus is on Jared and his learning experiences, which include the startling (to him) revelation that when the men are out of earshot the women are not nearly as respectful of men and their unrequested advice as he had previously assumed and also that being the subject of unrequested advice is not nearly as much fun as he believed.

I did wonder how early in his flight Jared’s unfamiliarity with how women do things flagged him as a man in drag to the women he was traveling with. That sort of thing must have happened before, if only teenaged boys escaping the prisons of their childhoods to try to do something interesting before getting cut down by the Trial.

I’ve always assumed this, the Maxwell and Brill books and the stories in the collection Aventine were in the same time-line but I am not sure that is actually the case. There is one curious difference between the Maxwell and Brill books and this, which is that in The Dopplegänger Gambit there are straight people, gay men and the ever convenient for place settings bisexual men but no lesbians and no bisexual women; here there’s lots of same sex relationships between women, situational and otherwise. The two books seem to have been written in succession so I am not sure why the difference.

This is one of those books I would rather have done as a Rediscovery but as far as I can tell it saw one printing, back in 1978; some of her other books are available on Smashwords but not this one. The novel is darker than I remember – in the long run Jared may save a lot of lives but in the short run his actions produce violence and death - but as far as I can tell, this was the author’s first novel and it is a reasonably solid effort. If there had been a Tiptree Award in 1978, this would not, I think, have won it but it probably would have got a honourable mention from the judges.


  1. Of course, in STL setting like the back-story’s, radio is often under-appreciated.
  2. AUGH. Although she was a veterinary radiographer and presumably was more conversant with the biological sciences than is the norm for SF.

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