Friday’s Big Sister

Rissa Kerguelen — F. M. Busby
Rissa Kerguelen, book 1

Rissa-K

Francis Marion Busby (1921–2005) was a Hugo-winning fan [1] and a prolific author whose career ran from the 1950s to the 1990s. After 1970 his focus was increasingly on novels, not surprising given how the SF market evolved over the course of his career [2]. While strong female protagonists weren’t unknown in the 1970s, they weren’t exactly common; Busby’s 1977 Rissa Kerguelen—a lengthy reworking of two earlier works, 1976’s Rissa Kerguelen and The Long View—belongs to a select group.

I wish I had enjoyed re-reading it more. I wish it had been a book that I could have liked, unconditionally, when I first read it. I believe I have at least figured out why I did not. I hope my reasons are interesting.



North America under United Energy and Transport is a deliberately stratified society, one in which climbing the greasy pole to join the economic elite is virtually impossible by design, while tumbling down into the gutter is all too easy. Economic security might give people the confidence to try to reform their increasingly dystopian society. Accordingly, almost nobody has any energy to spare for climbing; they must devote every effort to just staying in place.

Five-year-old Rissa gets a personal lesson in negative social mobility; during a riot, her parents are gassed to death (along with many others) on the orders of a UET goon. The parents are then framed, so that UET can avoid any culpability for their deaths. Despite having an uncle willing to adopt them, Rissa and her brother are consigned to UET’s Total Welfare Centers, a misleadingly named system designed to exploit as profitably as possible the poorest 20% of UET’s subject population.

After more than a decade of abuse, slavery, and sexual exploitation, Rissa is the unintended beneficiary of a lottery scam being run by her supervisor/rapist. On paper, she is a sudden millionaire. Rissa has a second bit of luck when she is warned that while the elite finds it useful to offer the folk trapped in the Total Welfare system some hope of escape, the government has no intention of delivering on it. Once Rissa’s fifteen minutes of fame are over, some pretext will be found to confiscate her winnings and send her back down into Total Welfare (or worse).

While UET runs North America and Japan, it has yet to extend its grasp over the whole world. Escape is possible. Rissa flees to the Hulzein enclave in Argentina. The matriarchal (and obligately parthenogenic, at least for a while) Hulzein Establishment is one of the few rivals to UET hegemony left standing. Its status is precarious; the UET is hostile and life on a used-up Earth is difficult. Rissa sets her eyes on a more distant and more promising target: the stars!

A generation before Rissa’s birth, an alien spacecraft had the misfortune to land in UET territory. After first making sure the aliens had no means to communicate with their far-off relatives, the UET murdered the aliens, then stole their space drive technology. The alien technology allowed UET to expand their empire off Earth. Instead of merely blighting North America, now they can blight whole star systems.

But there is a catch: the alien space drive is relativistic, not faster-than-light. UET’s masters on Earth are firm believers in centralizing control as much as possible, but information moves no faster than light. They only hear about events, when they do hear about them, years or decades after the fact. UET certainly does its level best to export its dreadful administration to the stars, but to the extent they actually believe they are controlling things, UET bureaucrats on Earth are kidding themselves. UET administrators on far off worlds run matters to suit themselves. Even further outside UET control are the Hidden Worlds.

Rissa quickly discovers that these free worlds are not notably utopian. The Hidden Worlds are run by competing cabals, cabals little better than armed gangs. Reaching them in the first place requires placing her life in the hands of freebooters like Captain Bran Tregare of the Inconnu, not to mention placing her body at his disposal.

This is not exactly a meet-cute, but it takes an unexpected turn. Tregare and Rissa team up. Rissa is a very determined, very rich and well-connected woman; Tregare shares her hatred for the UET. Together they will build a fleet, drive UET from the stars, and perhaps even liberate Earth itself.

~oOo~

A lot of what is to follow is going to sound negative, but I do think that it is worth my time, and your attention, to discuss just why I find this book problematic.

The reason I still have my battered copy of the 1977 mass-market paperback (which, I have to say, was atypically poorly bound for a Berkeley of this vintage) is that, even in the 1970s, I was self-aware enough to know what boxes an author had to tick off to get my interest. The fact that I didn’t care for this despite the fact it had many of my attractors—strong female character, struggle against The Man, relativistic interstellar empires, and so on—baffled me as a teen. That vague dissatisfaction nagged at me; I actually re-read this book a number of times, trying to figure out what didn’t work. Returning to the book after so many years, I think I can figure it out now.

I think the first barrier between me and Busby is his style, which reminds me of someone trying very hard to write in the manner of late Heinlein. I generally didn’t care for Heinlein writing in the style of late Heinlein, so Busby starts off with a real handicap as far as my enjoyment of his book goes.

Large swathes of this book consist of people lecturing each other, Much of what’s left is people telling the listener—usually Rissa but sometimes other characters—how wonderful and smart they find the listener. Yay, supportive relationships! However, I get the feeling that the repetitive “Rissa, how pearly white is your aura!” was aimed less at Rissa and more at convincing the reader that Rissa is special. Which, I suspect, is also the point of a subplot, the interminable struggle between Rissa and a local brute/functionary named Dal Nardo. Not to mention a sudden revelation about Rissa’s ancestry near the end of the novel.

I should add that Rissa isn’t just determined, superbly fit, highly intelligent, and incredibly wealthy—she’s also extremely lucky. She meets just the right people at the right time to survive winning her millions. It may also be relevant that any version of Rissa who isn’t incredibly lucky would have died in the first 50 pages of this 630 page novel … or been turned into a brutalized wreck like her brother. (While Rissa doesn’t do PTSD, others do.)

The strategic situation is an interesting one: how can UET maintain control over tens of light-years and decades? The short answer is that they can’t. UET does manage to make an impossible situation worse than it needs to be by their decision to manage by terror. Casually killing ensigns to remind the rest of the draftees that there are worse fates than the usual abuse turns out to have a drawback: the survivors prove extremely keen on retaliation whenever the opportunity presents itself. The normalization of cruelty cuts both ways when victims turn on their persecutors. Add in relativistic lag-time (and the resulting alienation from any hostages the draftees left behind on Earth) and the UET finds itself dealing with sporadic mutinies, mutinies they are ill-equipped to put down.

All that seems realistic enough, but the book’s time line doesn’t seem to add up. When Rissa begins starfaring, UET has been settling worlds for only forty years. She encounters Tregare and his fierce concubine Chira twelve years after that, but somehow in that time Chira’s home world has found the time to backslide into barbarity; when you add in the fact Tregare and Chira have been zooming around at light speed themselves, it isn’t clear when Chira’s relatives found that time.

There’s a related issue: I don’t see how the Hidden Worlds remain hidden. The scale of the region explored is limited by light-speed limits on travel [3] and the duration since humans began settling worlds. We’re not talking that huge a volume and it’s limited even more by the fact that the UET (rather cautiously) only expands in the direction away from the home worlds of the aliens they killed. Add in the tendency for people to let slip how long their trips are, even roughly, and it should be possible to make a pretty good guess what systems host the Hidden Words.

I did try to re-read this back around 2000. At that time, I was surprised that I had completely forgotten the nature of North America’s government. I had mentally misfiled this as one of those dismal Evil Federal Government is Evil books. UET is definitely malevolent, but it’s also a profit-driven corporate system. It may call its facilities Total Welfare Centers, but the only welfare being taken care of is UET’s bottom line. People in Britain would be well-advised to keep this novel away from their current government.

Back in 2000, I was also surprised how negatively the book portrays state-sanctioned negative fertility control in the section I read before giving up. The default in American SF of this vintage is to assume people are incapable of moderating their own reproduction and that the only hope for ZPG is some draconian system imposed from above. The fact that this book appeared to be an exception made it remarkable.

Unfortunately, my impression in 2000 turned out to be misleading, a misapprehension based on having only read a couple of hundred pages. Towards the end of the book, it turns out that the novel is much more conventional than I thought, beginning with the backstory of UET’s rise to power:

“Would you rather have what happened in India a hundred years ago? Or China? Or Africa? Brazil? […] Quarantine of famine areas until the population starved down to fit the food supply. Deliberate introduction of pestilence for the same purpose. Rations withheld from unsterilized men […]. Infanticide—enforced by fixing a woman with two touches of a hot iron—so if she did have a baby, she couldn’t nurse it. […] All these things happened, but not in North America.”
[… someone mentions that North American birth rates were down….]
“Massive immigration—forced on us by the rest of the world. We’d cut back, all right—so we had to make room for those who hadn’t. We were at a military disadvantage—treaties that gave us a dubious balance against the Russians but not against the coalition that formed. We had no choice.
[…]
“[UET] used its power to control population, to extend Welfare and avoid worse things.”

Now, granted that the explanation comes from one of the people running UET, but … the general discussion of the measures that will be necessary in the future to control the Earth’s population (measures that will be aimed at women [4]), makes me suspect that what the reader was supposed to find objectionable about Rissa’s (reversible) sterilization was that it was Rissa who was subjected to it. Otherwise, expect reproductive rights to continue to be tightly controlled in the future.

The issue of how to fix what UET broke does come up; there don’t seem to be any nice answers a small cadre of revolutionaries, many of whom have never even heard of less authoritarian systems, can apply to the problem at hand. I would have liked to have seen a more in-depth study of how to manage the sudden collapse of an authoritarian system (Busby would have looked prescient in 1991), but I must admit that the task is probably beyond the resources available to Rissa and her chums.

In the hopes of ending on something upbeat: I strongly suspect that Rissa Kerguelen influenced Heinlein’s 1982 novel Friday [5], generally thought to be the least bad of the late Heinleins. While many of the specifics of the settings differ, there are a lot of similarities; Rissa and Friday are both female action hero types, both have a history of sexual exploitation (and much the same reaction to it, right down to marrying their rapist), they live in worlds where polyamory is generally accepted [6], and they live in worlds dominated by corporations (although Friday’s world retains more relics of the nation-state). Lots of authors were influenced by Heinlein; not so many SF authors can say they influenced him.

The two original novels that made up the Rissa Kerguelen omnibus are available from Open Road Media.

1: An honest Hugo, not some sort of slate nonsense slapped together by no-hopers and no-talents.

2: Placeholder for the inevitable Thor Power Tools discussion, which is to SF writers of a certain vintage what the Avro Arrow is to Canadians.

3: Do numbers help? When Rissa leaves Earth, the farthest any ship could have reached is 40 light years and the farthest any ship could have reached and returned from is 20 light years. Assume the first world she visits was explored immediately: It takes 12 years for the scout ship to get there, 12 years to report what it found and 12 years for the first settlers to get there. Major settlement should only be about 16 years old when Rissa arrives, but it doesn’t feel that new.

People scowling at this nitpickery should remember there are SF worlds so broken that it makes no sense to ask “did the author fumble his numbers here?” Busby’s world is only partially broken.

4: The justification is basically that there’s a gross oversupply of sperm. Even if most men are vasectomized, the handful who aren’t can still get every fertile woman on the planet pregnant. This seems to assume that the mere existence of fertile men is sufficient to ensure that fertile women will become pregnant … a presumption which appears to overlook certain important steps in the process. Unless … male SF writers of the 1970s reproduced by spreading their sperm on the wind like pollen, which admittedly would explain some oddities in the treatment of population control in books of this era.

5: Busby’s wife Elinor is among the many women to whom Friday was dedicated.

6: God help you if you willfully commit tattoo, breast implant, or other body mods in Rissa’s line of sight, though.

On a related note, the way the text deals with the unfortunate final product of the Hulzein’s increasingly buggy parthenogenesis is rather problematic.


Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.