When I began rereading this, I had only the vaguest of recollections about it, that it was in some way connected to the author’s more famous “Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” and Dreamsnake, that it was set in the last city on a barren Earth abandoned by the civilized peoples of the Sphere and that was about all. I therefore had a certain level of trepidation because while I had fond memories of having had fond memories of this, the lack of specifics meant there was no assurance the suck fairy would not have visited it. I am happy to say that I can see why I liked this so much almost forty years ago.
Mischa lives near Center, last bastion of civilization, such as it is, on an Earth that populated the stars before incinerating itself in the Last War. The vast warrens around Center, created during the preparations for the final war, are one legacy of the great conflagration, as are the mutations seen in so many of the people of Earth. Mischa, eking out a life near the bottom of the social pyramid, is lucky in that her mutation is invisible, a degree of telepathic ability, but unlucky because it ties her to her idiot sister Gemmi, and through her to her exploitative uncle by chains she has no idea how to break.
Her only hope for her and her drug-addicted, despairing brother Chris is that she can somehow talk one of the starfarers who visit Center to take Mischa and Chris away from Earth to one of the civilized worlds of the Sphere; distance may do for them what will cannot. Unfortunately, not only are the people who choose to visit Earth the dregs of civilization but when the book opens, storm season, when no sane person lands a starship at Center, has begun. Even if it wasn’t storm season, thus far Mischa’s efforts have yielded only savage beatings.
Enter Subone and Subtwo, pseudosiblings – genetically unrelated people raising in identical environments to prove some obscure philosophical point – looking for a safe refuge or more accurately, some low-hanging piece of fruit that they can seize for their own. Center’s Stone Palace fits the bill nicely. Subone and Subtwo have a crew armed and able to overthrow the pitiful forces of Earth and they also have a fellow named Jan, who takes an interest in the bright young girl, in part to get his mind off a recent bereavement.
Mischa and Chris cannot leave until the pseudosiblings leave and they have personal reasons to stay. Subone finds the life of a hedonistic slave owner with access to an endless stream of victims who dare not ever say no seductive while Subtwo falls for Madame, a high-ranking slave whose means of dealing with her lack of control over her body is to deny slave masters – and by taking over the Stone Palace makes Subtwo a slave master, even if he chooses not to molest his slaves – any emotional hold over her. There is no hope at all for affection between them on Earth but stealing Madame from her owner and fleeing to the stars means abandoning Subone and Subtwo cannot envision leaving Subone, even as experience transforms them into different people.
For a book that’s barely over two hundred pages, this is unusually rich in tragic and abusive relationships: Mischa and Chris, Mischa, Chris, Gemmi and their uncle, the pseudosiblings, Subtwo and Madame, Van and Blaisse (who I didn’t mention), Jan and his dead navigator (a relationship that echoes some of the stories in McIntyre’s Fireflood and Other Stories). McIntyre manages to avoid many easy resolutions: Subtwo decides to rescue Madame without expecting her gratitude will involve any sort of affection for him and Mischa doesn’t just abandon Chris to his drugs and Gemmi to her uncle. She also manages to avoid the easy resolution of unending, hopeless despair.
The one creative choice I raise my eye brow at is the one to make Mischa a mathematical prodigy. It’s easy enough to decide that a unique treasure is worth hauling off Earth but what if she’d only been fairly bright? I see how it makes the plot go but I thought there were likely better solutions.
People – well, me, mostly – moan about the endless stream of morose, depressing speculative fiction we
buy are given for free you ungrateful bastard encounter but really, for my money if you want incredibly depressing visions of the future, you cannot beat Anglospheric SF of the 1970s. I think in part this was because this was when the Boomers finally came into their own creatively and they must have had a sense that as a generation they would betray every principle they claimed to hold dear, return the US and the UK to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age and put in some solid work on dismantling the very basis of civilization in quest of minor decreases in taxation1.
This novel is faithful to the American exceptionalism writ large of “Earth, doomed and/or dying” model that is so popular in SF but while I admit what we see in this and in Dreamsnake is pretty bad, planets are very big places and if the Permian Extinction didn’t manage to put pennies on the planet’s eyes, I doubt even a thermonuclear war of unusual size would do the job. Most of the people on Earth have been beaten down by poverty and uncertainty, conservative because they fear losing what little they have but this passage near the end
[…] but here Mischa found a patch of white, there of green, there of blue […]
makes me think more of the Earth survived than the descendents of survivors huddling around an old bolt hole can hope for.
There’s a funny story that goes with this: back when I first got this book – and I regret to say I picked it up used so all I can say date-wise is that it was a summer after 1975 but before 1978 – I used to retreat to our van, which had an eight-track system, three ways out and a nice view of most approaches, and read this in the comfort of a music filled kiln. At an Ad Astra in the 1980s I once cornered McIntyre and attempted to convey verbally my experience of reading and as I realized I was trying to describe something beyond communication I decided the solution was to add more words. She was too polite to stab me in the eye and flee and I don’t pick up on subtle hints like people swallowing their own tongue and feigning death so this went on a while. A long while.
Well, it’s funny to me.
The Exile Waiting and many other Vonda N. McIntyre books may be purchased here.
1: There was also the endless stagflation, the discovery by the West that they did not have a monopoly on consumer goods, endless political scandals, various foreign policy set-backs and a consensus that the only thing that would keep us from sucking the planet dry is if we turned it to ash in a nuclear war. But it wasn’t all bad, even if people forget the good stuff.