Anne McCaffrey’s standalone SF novel Restoree was her debut novel.
Snatched by monstrous aliens, embittered spinster Sara wakes from nightmares to find herself transformed from an all-too-Semitic-looking woman whom nobody could possibly love to a beauty. Her current captors are using her as grunt labor in a mental institution. They regard her as semi-intelligent and unthreatening.
Her masters’ underestimation of Sara’s cognitive abilities will prove their undoing.
The doctors have no reason to mind what they say around a woman whose cognitive abilities are on par with a not-so-bright puppy (or so they think). Sara soon learns that one patient, Harlan, is not like the others. There’s nothing wrong with his mind that cannot be cured by denying him the supposed medicines to which he is being subjected. The treatment keeps Harlan addled.
Once Sara manages to stop Harlan’s meds, his mind clears. The two manage to flee the facility.
Why was Harlan imprisoned? Harlan was the regent for his brother’s ailing son Ferrel, the all-too-youthful Warlord of the planet Lothar. He was deposed by his second-in-command Gorlot, who is even now plotting to seize the Warlordship. Gorlot claims that Ferrill is genetically degenerate and unfit to be Warlord. Harlan must act to save his nephew and the planet itself!
The stakes are higher than simple political ambition. Lothar and its two allies, Ertoi and Glan, are mired in a bitter struggle against the malevolent Mil, the very aliens who snatched Sara from Earth before losing her to the Lotharians. The alliance was on the verge of developing a new wonder weapon for use on the Mil. Harlan believes that Gorlot is unlikely to use the device correctly.
If that were not enough, the childlike natives of Tane are said to be in revolt. This is inexplicable, because the Tanes are incapable of violence. Nevertheless, official reports assure Lothar that Tane, underpopulated and filled with resources Lothar desperately needs, is wracked with violence.
Harlan must regain control. He has a handful of loyal allies. Sara will do what she can do help him. This comes at a great risk. She is what the Lotharians call a “Restoree,” for whom the only humane treatment is … DEATH!
McCaffrey is said to have been playing with romance tropes in this work, but since I am not widely read in romance in general or romance of this particular era, I cannot comment on that. What I can point out is Sara’s self-loathing anti-Semitism, something I had completely forgotten in the forty years since I last read this unfortunate debut novel.
This is not subtle anti-Semitism. Sara is quite clear that foremost among her many grudges against her family is their inability to pay for plastic surgery. Which would have freed her from the curse of looking Jewish:
How many, many agonies that horrid nose had given me. How often I had railed at the injustice of parents who produced child after indiscriminate child and had no money to provide more than the basic needs and none to remedy cruel genetic jokes.
Had they been at least sympathetic, I would not have left home. But they couldn’t even understand why I wanted to save money for plastic surgery. Only Jewish girls felt it necessary to have nose bobs. The fact that I looked Semitic with such a nose didn’t bear on that problem.
“You are as God made you, Sara, and you’ve much to commend you to any decent self-respecting man.”
“But nothing to commend myself to me,” I remembered saying, “and I don’t see any decent self-respecting men pounding a path to my door.”
The past is more recent than we think. Caps on the number of Jews allowed as students at prestigious universities, a policy designed to ensure university access for less gifted WASPs (many of whom are now running the US government), persisted until the late 1960s. I knew about anti-Semitism, in an abstract way1 but Sara’s self-lacerating fury over looking Jewish surprised me.
Other repugnant aspects of the plot were less surprising2. Less technologically advanced races are deemed inferior, probably due to their genes. Doomed to be replaced by more capable races, better equipped to make proper use of the planet. McCaffrey makes it clear what her model is.
I refrained from giving him a brief account of the American Indian.
Harlan has no particular ill-will towards the Tanes, but he does view them with enormous condescension:
“They’ve been more trouble than they’re worth… almost,” he continued. “The inhabitants are humanoid, but the gentlest, dumbest people imaginable. They make some of our associates here look like Council members. They’ve got two of the most beautiful planets3, crawling with game animals; Lothar doesn’t have too many anymore. Their oceans are full of edible fish; their lands, which the Tanes don’t even bother to cultivate, would support millions of us. They’ve got mineral resources that make the mind swim when you think how many ships, instruments and fuel it means in terms of our fight against the Mil. And those innocent creatures roam from one place to another like pleasant dreamers.”
Harlan is not considering genocide, at least not overt. At least against the Tanes. The Mil, on the other hand … the universe would be better off without them . This does not mean that the Tane are safe from displacement (which might involve some necessary but regrettable violence) or, as we see, innovative measures introduced by one particularly nasty faction among the Lotharians.
The Tanes, alas, are doomed. However, the novel is careful to point out that the final solution, while enormously convenient for Lothar, is one that can be blamed on an evil Lotharian minority, who are of course repudiated with great moral unction, once it is too late.
Aside from the virulent racism, this seems to be an unremarkable interstellar potboiler typical of the era. There is no hint, at least to my eye, that McCaffrey would become the major name she would be in just a few years.
1: I misspeak. My grandmother used to tell stories about being subtly interrogated about whether she was Jewish as a university student before being lectured on her duty to the White Race to have lots of babies. Maude was a poorly chosen audience in this matter, being left-wing, steadfastly anti-racist and in no way hesitant to correct people when they erred. She also had a remarkable talent for intimidation. I doubt anyone ever bothered her about this twice.
2: You may be expecting a complaint about the apparent parallel evolution of humanoids on Lothar, Earth, and Tane. The text does not rule out the possibility that the Mil seeded Lothar and Tane with humans as foodstocks. No Mil food-raids on Tane so far, but perhaps the Mil were planning ahead.
2: Lothar is surprisingly backward for a world with starships; most of their sophisticated technology was originally stolen from the Mil and there are huge gaps in their knowledge. As a result, the Lotharians seem not to have wondered how it was that the Tane spread to two worlds without much in the way of technology.