The setting of In Mary Anne Mohanraj’s 2013 The Stars Change, the world of Pyroxina Major, is a university world. Its combination of multiculturalism and strategic location makes it an academic hotspot. Beings of many races have flocked to the University of All Worlds, there to study and live together in peace. Or at least that’s the theory.
The Humans First movement is itching for a fight with aliens and humods, the modified humans. At the moment, only a few of the human worlds have joined the crusade, but if more were to join, there are enough humans to crush their opponents. But how are they going to entice the peace-loving humans into the radical camp?
Terrorism is an excellent way to splinter a heterogeneous population.
Orange-pelted Kimsriyalani isn’t planning on changing the world when she heads out into the night. She’s trying not to think about recent racial conflicts and the ominous implications for her badly outnumbered people. When she has an opportunity for uncomplicated sex with an anonymous stranger, she takes it.
Uncomplicated sex can get complicated fast. The couple are observed by policeman Guarav, who is still mourning the loss of his human lover to a terrorist’s bomb. Kimsriyalani’s chance-met partner admits his infidelity to his wife, who runs to one of her former lovers for comfort. The lover, Narita, is sheltering survivors from the most recent terrorist outrage and is primed for anger. She vents to her devadasi1 neighbour Chieri, who has a secret worry of her own.
A talkative client told Chieri something that she does not quite know how to handle. A Humans First attack on the community is imminent.
Ripples spread out from the confluence of Kimsriyalani’s hookup, Guarav’s loss, the wife’s anguish, Narita’s anger, and Chieri’s secret. It’s not clear if the neighbourhood will collapse into mutual recriminations and violence, or if it can unite to protect the community from those plotting to destroy it.
Mohanraj’s publisher, Circlet, specializes in erotica. Now, the first question most of you will have is “given that for reasons previously explained James classifies romance SF as hard science fiction, does it not follow that SF erotica must also be hard SF?”. Of course it does. Obviously, erotica is of great scientific (and thus science fictional) interest for the biological and social facts it illustrates.
In this setting, both alien and human intelligence seem to have been driven by the exigencies of courtship. As the social protocols necessary for successful liaisons (temporary or permanent) become ever more various and complex. the most successful lovers are the most intelligent lovers. Evolution favours increased brain size and behavioural flexibility … for all species with complex courting systems. The horniest species are inevitably the most technologically advanced and the most successful in venturing out to the stars. Prudes never make it off-planet. Perhaps the appropriate motto would be
Ad Astra Per Libido Ad Astra Per Libidinem.
It may be that Mohanraj’s primary goal here was not scientific plausibility. For one thing, the various intelligent races seem to be implausibly plug-compatible. They are all basically tetrapods and they all approach sex in broadly similar ways. Even here on earth there are many, often bizarre, strategies for sexual reproduction; none of this variety seems to have any galactic analog. No intelligent dandelion standing in the middle of the college quad, self-pollinating and dispersing seeds2 …
The erotica elements of the story are for the most part confined to the early sections. Aside from the obvious entertainment value, they establish the connections between characters. Those connections are the key to the ultimate [spoiler] happy ending. Once Chieri reveals her secret, the neighbours unite for a common defense against those who would divide them. I was amused by the rather Andy Hardy-esque form of this common defense, but given the situation, it made sense. If the characters were not the sort of people to form bonds, if they were the usual sort of causeless monads so many protagonists seem to be, they would never have been able to protect their community. Because they would never form a community in the first place. They would just be loners and easy meat for extremists like Earth First.
The Stars Change is available from Circlet Press.
1. Before the British Raj, devadasis were women who had been dedicated to the service of a Hindu temple. They served as musicians, singers, and dancers. They could choose to take lovers, but their primary role was a sacred one. The British saw them only as prostitutes and tried to stamp out the practice (thus forcing many devadasis into actual prostitution). In this novel, Chieri is clearly more of a courtesan, a cultured, independent woman, than a straightforward prostitute. She treated with considerable respect by the author. More respect than a certain misbehavin’ captain shows to the Companion who travels with him.
2. One could retcon this by supposing that anyone bright enough to study or work at the University of All Worlds is bright enough to seek out compatible partners. Which would make sense, but … when have intelligent beings ever been completely rational? Surely there must have been some tragic, doomed romances, frantic grapplings between primates and intelligent coral reefs. Some dramatic potential is being missed here.