Ann Maxwell’s 1979 A Dead God Dancing is a science fiction novel set in her Concord universe.
The Concord takes a hand-off approach to pre-spaceflight cultures, monitoring from afar but not interfering. Tal-Lith will be an exception. The unfortunate planet is about to be scoured clear of life by its misbehaving sun. If the inhabitants are to be saved, the Concord must act now.
The impending deadline forces the Concord to use agents who are available if not suitable. Tov Ryth Lhar, Nevin lo Skewml, T’Mero Verial Silariaoen, Skandiri-Li, and Syza Zomal are dispatched to Tal-Lith to prepare its people for the coming evacuation.
Three thousand years earlier, Tal-Lith survived exposure to a nearby supernova. It may have survived, but it was no longer a bountiful green world. It was an inhospitable desert. The contact team, dropped at the edge of the only habitable region, barely manages to survive dust storms long enough to make contact with the locals.
They might have done better had they been a working team rather than a motley band of damaged agents. But needs must …
The dwindling survivors believe that their ancestors’ sinful behavior alienated their goddess Lith, who turned their green world into a desert. They have accepted the current state of their world as a deserved punishment. They don’t know that their sun will soon kill them, but when they’re told … the devout may refuse to leave Tal-Lith. It is up to the contact team to change their minds.
Posing as native Tal-Lithians from the other side of the desert, the contact team begins the process by hinting that their version of the One True Religion differs in important details from the Tal-Lithian creed. In particular, they hold out the hope that Tal-Lithians may be blessed with a new world.
To support this new dispensation, the Concord has recruited Skandiri-Li, a goddess lookalike, to pretend to be the goddess. She is to reveal herself at the right moment, bestow a new revelation upon the Tal-Lithians, and urge them aboard the evacuation ships.
That’s the plan. The reality is Skandiri-Li is mad as a basket of rattlesnakes and she has her own plans for Tal-Lith.
I meant to review this years ago but I misplaced my copy of the book for four years. Whoops.
Ann Maxwell is better known as the prolific romance novelist Elizabeth Lowell; she has also published crime novels as A.E. Maxwell. Altogether she has published more than fifty novels. She seems to have walked away from SF in the mid-1980s, having discovered that other genres are more lucrative.
This novel features the usual space-opera cast of several humanoid species. The humanoids are oddly susceptible to cross-species attraction and tend to possess psychic abilities. You’d think that humanoids gifted with telepathy would be unwilling to hurt each other, but nooo, this novel describes some spectacularly abusive relationships.
(The healer Syza, for example, was so traumatized by her previous relationship that she no longer believes she has healing powers. Too bad for her team, which now lacks a healer.)
The setting: a galactic milieu with an eleven-thousand-year history. The Concord is large enough that it’s easy to overlook the plight of a minor world until almost too late. So that seems plausible.
However, it may seem unlikely that the Concord could recruit someone who looks like the goddess Lith on short notice. But as one character observes, there are more than thirty member species of the Concord who fit the description1.
A Dead God Dancing has some pacing issues early on, as the team struggles to escape the desert of almost certain doom (not helped by the facts that the team isn’t used to working together and that some members are close to useless). Once they make contact, the plot moves at a sharper pace. The prose is somewhat florid, but the novel is readable. Indeed, it’s an interesting entry in the Dying World genre. Imagine an Andre Norton where the protagonists have active libidos. Perhaps too active.
A Dead God Dancing is out of print. Maxwell has just begun reprinting her SF novels, beginning with Fire Dancer. No word if and when A Dead God Dancing will be reprinted.
1: It’s suggested that the local religion may be a relic of a First Contact thousands of years earlier. As there are eighty-one planets called Lith, it would be difficult to figure out which Lith might have been responsible.