Ansen Dibell’s 1978 Pursuit of the Screamer is the first volume in her Strange and Fantastic History of the King of Kantmorie planetary adventure series. It is also the very first Dibell I’ve ever read.
Jannus encounters Lur, a Screamer, so named because they telepathically broadcast confusion and fear. The empathic Valde, a guild of female warriors and guards, kill Screamers whenever discovered. But telepathically deaf Jannus sees only a small, frail fellow human. Rather than hand the Screamer to the Valde to be killed, Jannus helps the Screamer escape. It’s a decision that will shape the boy’s life.
Lur is a Tek. The Tek once dominated and shaped Jannus’ world. Powerful thanks to their mastery of biotechnology — the world owes its diversity of human and other species to their genetic engineering — the Tek made a fatal miscalculation when they embraced memory recording and serial incarnation as the means by which they would become immortal. Their nigh-godlike longevity led the Tek to treat the mortal races cruelly. At the same time, immortality denied them any sense of urgency about managing crises. When the mortal races rebelled, the Tek failed to act, convinced that time was on their side. Eventually it was too late to suppress the rebellion.
The remaining Tek isolated themselves in a desert, behind a lethal barrier wall. In the intervening centuries, the Tek have discovered that immortality is no gift if one is trapped in a desolate desert with dwindling resources. Tek may be reborn, but each new Tek has a shorter life span than previous incarnations, thanks to thirst, hunger, or murder at the hands of other (insane) Teks. It is a miserable existence; thanks to the barrier wall and serial incarnation, it is nearly impossible to escape it.
But … there is hope. The deadly barrier that kept trespassers out of the Tek homeland and imprisoned the Tek has begun to break down. It is only a matter of time before the mortals notice this and venture into the once-forbidden lands to salvage what they can. It is only a matter of time before Lur finds the means to end his serial incarnations once and forever.
Drawn into Lur’s orbit by his act of mercy, Jannus leaves his home town for adventure. It’s a choice that offers excitement — perhaps even a bond with Poli, the beautiful Valde whom he loves.
The cost: a terrible transformation.
I borrowed the Internet Archive’s ebook edition of this novel. I regret to report that whatever process was used in its creation left countless uncorrected scannos1. It was nigh unreadable. I got through it because I am more stubborn than smart. Learn from my error: seek out a physical copy.
Readers may expect that would-be adventurer Jannus will be an expert duelist, perhaps, or at least a stalwart two-fisted brawler. Actually he’s a scribe; the rare skill he brings to the party is literacy. If you need someone to administer mayhem, you need warrior woman Poli.
DAW Books, at the time this novel was published, was largely the vision of a one single (male) editor, His taste shaped what I think of as the archetypal Disco Era DAW book by a woman; a planetary adventure with interesting women characters, an ambivalent attitude towards technology, and enough meat to distract from the problematic elements. Oh, and probably a lurid cover that had little or nothing to do with the actual contents.
While the novel has consent issues galore, it’s not the rapefest other 1970s DAW novels might lead one to expect. Readers expecting something like The Birthgrave, Darkover Landfall, or Diadem from the Stars might have been disappointed. Though there is the potential for a pedophilic subtext — the Valde were designed to be short-lived and become sexually mature at a much younger age than base-stock humans — I am glad to note that Poli is not some sexually precocious tween.
A largish chunk of the novel explores the Poli-Jannus romance. Jannus is infatuated, as is typical of young men. Poli’s feelings are more complicated. She is an empath and can sense what Jannus is feeling. Whenever Jannus is near her, he is pressuring her to be his. Even if he does not intend to be a creep. The couple rather surprisingly spends a lot of time dealing with this rather than simply accepting it as the way things are.
I was intrigued by Dibell’s treatment of the Valde. Although they cannot read minds, the ability to sense emotions makes every Valde a living lie-detector. Not comfortable companions for kids and teenagers2, because it only takes a hint of guilty purpose for a Valde in a position of authority to start asking pointed questions … and they all seem to feel they are in a position of authority. Although Dibell’s focus is mostly elsewhere, what she does reveal about the Valde invites further exploration. Perhaps in later books?
Pursuit of the Screamer is out of print. The other books in this series are (via Wikipedia)
Circle, Crescent, Star, DAW Books, February 1981
Summerfair, DAW Books, July 1982
Tidestorm Limit, 1983 (published in Dutch and French translations only)
The Sun of Return, 1985 (published in Dutch and French translations only)
I don’t know why the last two books are not to be found in English. I do know that all books are out of print. Pity, because Screamer is intriguing enough that I want to read more.
1: Editor’s note here. Scanno is an affectionate term used by volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders for the interesting mistakes introduced by OCR software when it converts a PDF into a rich text file. A common mistake is reading ri for n or vice versa. And becomes arid. Carriage becomes carnage. I quite enjoyed the moment when the heroine stepped out of her carnage.
2: Valde can detect any sort of non-conformity. They seem to be an inflexible, literal-minded, humourless lot, so it’s possible that they could be a plague upon the ordinary humans they guard. Perhaps they do not succumb to this temptation because they cannot help but feel the consequences of excessive interference. Would that all despots (well, all politicians, actually) could feel the misery they cause.
The Valde reminded me of the Zhodani in the Traveller RPG. Both are societies of psionic adepts whose cultures have been shaped by their powers. They are as uncomfortable around the telepathically deaf as the telepathically deaf are around them.
I wonder if Dibell influenced Traveller designers J. Andrew Keith, Marc Miller, and John Harshman. Given the publication dates of both novel and RPG module, it would be hard to say which of them influenced the other … or if they both hark back to an even earlier trope.