L. Sprague de Camp’s 1951 standalone Rogue Queen takes place in de Camp’s Viagens Interplanetarias setting.
Our protagonist, Iroedh, is a member of the worker-caste in the Avtiny community. Her group faces an existential threat: invasion and enslavement by its more aggressive and larger Arsuuni neighbours. Iroedh, as a scholar and antiquarian, seems to be of no use in the struggle. She is looked down on by her fellow Avtiny.
Then comes word of the visitors from the stars.
Paris is crewed by humans, an odd race of people from a planet named Earth. Remarkably, their workers include males as well as the usual females. Humans apparently let their males live and work among females, rather than using them as drones: short-lived fertilizers who keep community queens pregnant. How bizarre.
Even though they have such strange biology and customs, thehumans command technology that is far in advance of any found on Iroedh’s Niond (or as her neighbours call it, Sviek, or as the humans call it, Ormazd, sole habitable world of the star Lalande 21185). If they were armed with the new technology, the Avtiny could easily repel the Arsuuni invaders. Alas, the Interplanetary Council that rules the humans has enacted strict rules for explorers like the crew of the Paris. First in those rules is “thou shalt not share high technology with warlike barbarians.”
Rebuffed in their quest for new tech, Iroedh’s superiors return home in a huff. Iroedh manages to stay in communication; her scholarly interests give her common ground with the human explorers. She must eventually ask for their help. She tries to save a drone friend from termination; she and her friend end up as outcasts, hunted by the Avtiny, the Arsuuni, and a gang of rogue drones.
Exile transforms the scholar. Once outside her community, she makes a discovery that will forever alter her world
The cover blurb is a bit misleading. Iroedh learns about sex from a number of sources. This isn’t one of de Camp’s tales with human/alien sex; that would be his Krishna stories. What it is is another example of classic SF where a romance novel plays a significant role in the plot.
In De Camp’s setting, interstellar travel seems to be cheap; curious academics and traders can afford it. However, travel is not faster-than-light. Relativistic limits apply and so does the Twin Paradox . Which means that any journeys are made to habitable worlds in a small handful of stellar systems all within a dozen light years of the Solar System.
As readers will no doubt have guessed, de Camp modelled the Avtiny and Arsuuni on Earth’s social insects: ants and bees. Sterile women form the worker class. Fertile males keep the lone fertile queen perpetually pregnant. He makes it clear that the hive serves the interests of the workers; the queen is merely the mechanism by which they reproduce. The Avtiny hive is ruled by the council, not by the queen.
What Iroedh eventually learns is that caste and sex are not rigidly determined by genetics: diet is the key to sexual development in the intelligent Ormazdians. This is news because by Iroedh’s time, the customary dietary restrictions are just that: custom, backed by myth. No one has any clue that exposing adults a different diet might lead to a different outcome. In fact, they think caste-inappropriate diets are lethal. This seems incredible … but then, there are human cultures that believe that sex is only a contributing cause to pregnancy, not the sole cause.
Many SFnal worlds are depicted as having only one culture (one major city and one weather for the whole $^#$%^ planet). That’s not really true of de Camp’s Ormazd. It is true all the cultures described use the same basic dietary tools to shape their societies. They do not use them in the same way; the Arsunni have discovered an innovative diet that creates a very useful soldier caste. It’s possible there are cultures that have never adopted the hive-society (which, we are told, is fairly recent).
It’s interesting that the male leads in this novel are not the usual two-fisted adventurers. Iroedh’s drone friend Antis is a foppish layabout, as expected in his culture. Doctor Bloch, the most significant human male, is a milquetoast. The one man who might (in a more conventional story) be the hero is the antagonist; who conveniently falls off a cliff (and is not subdued by manly fisticuffs).
Nor are the humans shown as the superior race. They may be more technologically advanced than the locals, but they can be cruel (one man gives in to a fatal fit of jealousy-driven rage) and careless (Iroedh manages to steal secrets that the Interplanetary Council would be most unhappy to know had been shared1).
For a book that is all about sexual reproduction and forbidden love, this is a surprisingly tame novel. De Camp’s fiction and his autobiography make it clear that he was well aware of the range of human sexual customs and behaviours, but he seems to have viewed the whole panoply with dispassionate humour. Sex was good for driving plots; it was also somewhat foolish, even amusing.
I did find the novel’s ending disappointingly conventional. The hive culture is stultifying; the short term advantages that allowed the communities to sweep away the previous cultures have turned into stagnation and regression. Iroedh’s discovery promises to replace the current system with one far more familiar to Eisenhower-era American humans (Specifically, Eisenhower-era American humans who had seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.). There’s really no chance of a retro-Tiptree for this book, which is a bit of a pity. The seeds of a more ambitious work are here but the publishing environment to encourage it did not exist.
People interested in the setting may want to track down a copy of James L. Cambias’ GURPS Krishna source book.
Please email corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: Unlike Star Trek’s Federation, the Council’s rationale for keeping advanced technology out of the hands of people from technologically backward, balkanized worlds is explicitly self-serving. They don’t want to deal with starships packed with nuke-wielding barbarians.
To introduce a rule is to introduce potential plots about circumventing that rule. Unsurprisingly, pretty much every world subject to the tech ban has tried to find a way around it, some more successfully than others. Just knowing in a vague way what the civilized peoples can do is a huge clue. In a few centuries the worlds of Ormazd, Krishna, and Kukulkan will have caught up to their neighbours on Earth, Osiris, and Thoth. No doubt their gratitude for having been kept from premature acquisition of shiny toys will be boundless