Moonstar: Jobe Book One, is, as far as I can tell, David Gerrold’s 1977 Moonstar Odyssey under a new title. I own a first edition of the older book1; I compared it to the later ebook; they seem substantially the same.
This book was an obvious candidate for an ebook re-issue. The 1977 original earned a Nebula nomination and I expect it would have been mentioned by the Tiptree Award people — if the Tiptree Award had existed then.
I don’t think this book quite works, but at least it’s an ambitious book. Where it fails, it fails in interesting ways.
Satlik is an unusual world; its origin is unclear and it orbits an atypical main sequence star. It was a lifeless world until human starfarers arrived, as colonists who terraformed the world. That was centuries ago. Satlik is now a fragile paradise.
The human inhabitants of Satlik are nearly as unusual as their world.
On most human worlds, being male or female is a chance of birth. On Satlik, being male or female is a Choice, one that must be made by adolescents. Until the individual makes their Choice, they are neither male nor female. They might become either.
There is also a minority who cannot Chose. They remain neuter. In keeping with an old human tradition, these “deviates,” as they are called, are singled out for scorn and abuse. It is a terrible thing to be a deviate, and the gendered majority put a fair amount of effort into ensuring that it is so.
Young Jobe, born in a storm amidst uncertain portents, could ignore questions of gender and sex when she was a child. As she grew older, she came under increasing pressure not only to Choose, but to make the right Choice. Her Choice will define her social niche and permissible roles. In her culture, families are large and close-knit; while her Choice might seem to be personal, there might be strong social pressure to Choose one way or the other. Even conflicting pressures.
In Jobe’s time, Satlikians send those on the cusp of Choice off to Option, an isolated island that serves as both school and refuge for adolescents. When Jobe goes to Option, she is away from her family for the first time in her life. She is alone, isolated, struggling with a momentous decision.
It is at this crux in her life that her world gets a sharp and unpleasant lesson in just how fragile the terraformed world can be.…
It’s funny what sticks with one after
OH GOD FORTY YEARS HOW CAN IT BE FORTY YEARS AUGH AUGH AUGH a certain period of time. All I remembered about Moonstar was that the planet was terraformed, that it orbited a white star (which I dismembered as a white dwarf), that the inhabitants could choose their sex, and that a disaster forced the protagonist to take an epic journey. Which is true as far as it goes, but it seems that I forgot a lot about this now venerable novel. I had certainly forgotten what a miserable time poor Jobe had.
On this re-reading, I also noticed this interesting passage:
Many of the purple plants, and there were a great variety of them, were called Chtorr-plants; they didn’t use chlorophyll for their photosynthesis, but either of two other molecules instead, one less complex, the other a more sophisticated relative of the first. They were named for the legendary place of child-eating demons from which they were supposed to have come.
Satlik is an odd mixture of high tech (the terraforming, the delicate orbital structures that keep the slowly rotating world from boiling over at noon) and low. Granted, humans have lived on Satlik for centuries, during which low-tech cultures could have developed … but it seemed unlikely. Perhaps I could blame Heinlein and the hi-tech/lo-tech mix of Farmer in the Sky; that mix, and the musings on the fragility of terraformed worlds, might have been inspired by Farmer.
Given the subject matter of the book and its original publication date, no review would be complete without a mention of The Left Hand of Darkness. OK, I’ve mentioned it.
Wait, you wanted a comparison? The big difference between the Satlikians and Gethenians is that where the Gethenians can go back and forth between male and female (and as I recall spend a lot of time as neuters), the Satlikians only get to chose once, after which they are stuck with their choice. The text makes it plain that it’s possible to choose poorly, to end up stuck as male when it would have been better for the individual to be female and vice versa.
While I am comparing this book to other books, I believe the author would appreciate it if I mentioned in passing that, as in the Radchaai language of Leckie’s novels, the default term for a person, regardless of plumbing, is “she.”
It would have been easy for Gerrold to imagine a world superior to ours in all ways that matter, but what he actually did is to create a society whose members are just as nasty to each other (particularly to the odd and the vulnerable) as is any culture on Earth. The rules may be different, but people are still pressured to make decisions that are not in their own interests; they are still exploited for the convenience and entertainment of the powerful. The people of Satlik may look with contempt on the off-world Erdiks for their various prejudices (starting with but not limited to institutionalized sexism and homophobia), but the Satlikians have their own set of unexamined taboos and prejudices. It’s different but not better.
Readers should be warned that the book features a fair amount of pre-adolescent sexual experimentation. Kids fool around with each other while they try to work out who they are (all of which is handled non-salaciously). In the later part of the book, Jobe is abused and exploited (which is treated as the tragedy it is). Those around her would like to believe that Jobe is the one at fault for falling victim; the author makes it clear that victim-blaming is wrong.
One thing I remembered from first reading the book was the novel was short, which it is, and that it felt like it was just the first part of a larger novel or series. It seems that Gerrold may originally have intended to publish more than a fragment. One clue: the current edition’s subtitle is Jobe Book One. Not Book ONLY. Which implies that Gerrold still plans to finish the series. (Many of his fans might wish that he had picked another series to resume.)
Another clue: the book doesn’t so much end as slam to a stop. In fact, the abruptness of the ending is more surprising in the ebook version than in the ancient Signet edition. In the Signet, the last page of the story is also the last page of the book. In the ebook, the last twenty-eight pages of the book are single-page ads for other Gerrold ebooks. Don’t get me wrong: I love ads for other books in books2, but in this case the pages read/pages remaining indicator gave me false expectations about pacing.
I came away from this re-reading feeling as if I’d read half a book; the ending just didn’t work as an ending for me. But I still found reading it an interesting experience. If that intrigues you, Moonstar can be purchased here.
Once again, font that was perfectly readable when I was sixteen is too small to read now that I am very nearly fifty-five. I think that the pages themselves slowly shrink with time. Or perhaps people are sneaking into my home and replacing perfectly functional books with illegible copies.
- The ads in older books are a fascinating display of the merchandise publishers thought would appeal to readers of the book in hand. For example, Signet felt that the people who bought Gerrold would also be interested in the works of Ellison, Heinlein, Silverberg, Hoyle, Farmer, and Roshwald3.
- You may not be familiar with Mordecai Roshwald (even though he was still writing up until his death in 2015) but his novel Level 7 was certainly well known in the 1970s.