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The Kindly Ones by Melissa Scott
james_nicoll
Given how the Baen brand has evolved over the years,"Baen Books" does not make one think "Lamba and Tiptree-nominated author" but in the 1980s Jim Baen reportedly made a point of looking for good new female authors and his enhusiasm for gay-bashing SF [1] had not yet blinded him to works of quality featuring protagonists outside the usual hetrosexual limits. Post-Del Montefication, it may be hard to believe this ever came from Baen but it did.



And the cover wasn't even that bad.

Sadly, the font size is just at the limit I can read and the cost was paid in migraines so this took longer to read than I planned for.

Melissa Scott is a Campbell Award winner whose books I probably have not read enough of. I apparently didn't finish this one on the first go because I found money tucked in amongst the pages, although I must have liked what I did read because I didn't then sell it. I am also breaking one of my rules because Jo Walton reviewed this in front of a lot more eyeballs then this will attract but when she did there wasn't an ebook available.

Fourteen centuries before the book opens an interstellar voyage went horribly wrong, marooning the survivors on Orestes and Electra, two inhospitable but technically habitable moons of the gas giant Agamemnon. The colonists prevailed but one of the consequences of the mishap is a harsh and demanding social order, as well as a rich tradition of brutal internecine warfare.



Rather like a certain other series first published by Baen around this time, the moons have come in contact with a galactic community, the Urban Worlds, in comparison to whom the moons seem backward and cruel (not that that stops the Urban Worlders from taking advantage the chance to sell the local advanced weapons). Trade with the Urban Worlds are forcing disruptive economic changes on the moons.

The locals are not quite as doctrinaire as they used to be; transgressions used to punished with death but now some are punished by declaring the reprobates legally dead, consigning them to an existence not unlike the one lived by the protagonist of Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man", present but willfully ignored, beyond the ken of polite society and consigned to a ghetto whose main protection is that to destroy it would require acknowledging its inhabitants. Trey Maturin, born in the Urban worlds, works as "medium", an intermediary between the living and dead.

Although for the first third of the book it looks as though a Romeo and Julietesque romance has doomed the rival Kinship Brandr and Halex to a grim future of peace and prosperity, a terrible mishap provides the opportunity for mutual recriminations that very quickly spiral into open warfare between Brandr and Halex. Both sides see the need to import expensive and extremely destructive weapons; unfortunately for Halex, Brandr's arrive first.

Although Brandr seems to have an unassailable advantage, the handful of surviving Halex still have cards to play; legal shenanigans and bold contravention of custom turn out to be games both sides can play.

[What is it about SF and court cases, anyway?]

Trey's gender is kept carefully ambiguous, which must have made recording the audiobook that was announced a few years back interesting. What bits they happen to be in possession of isn't seen as a character defining element by the people of this time and Scott refuses to give in modern expectations.

Fans of military SF might find this a bit frustrating because most of the carnage happens off-stage and not just because a lot of it is of the sort that doesn't leave eye-witnesses. Violence shapes the choices available but murder and egregious crimes against humanity are not the details the author wants to illuminate.

This is a much better book than it needs to be. The plot itself is pretty basic, a familiar story of ambitious aristocrats leading their clans into a bloody conflict whose main accomplishment is to further undermine a society already crumbling (Given the nature of this society, that would not be such a bad thing if the process didn't involve so much violent death). The plot almost seems an excuse to present the world building, the odd to ours eyes cultures of the two moons and the hints we get about the galaxy beyond.


The Kindly Ones can be purchased here


1: I can and will supply quotations if provoked.

Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s); comment here or there.

I think that while the politics found their books may be more narrowly focused than 30 years ago, Baen still publishes more women than certain other publishers generally perceived as liberal.

Point. But still -- I'm reminded of the line from the Simpsons about "Fox turned into a hard corn porn channel so gradually!" Sure, it always *tended* towards military porn, but the supercreepy Tea Party right wing it is today, not quite so much.

Unpacking something:

TRAVIS SHELTON LIKES BAEN BOOKS BECAUSE THEY TASTE GOOD

Recently we received this letter from Travis Shelton of Dayton,
Texas:

I have come to associate Baen Books with Del Monte. Now what is that supposed to mean? Well, if you're in a strange store with a lot of different labels, you pick Del Monte because the product will be consistent and will not disappoint.

I checked my inventory, and I have 4 other books by her, but not this one. But then I was posted overseas again, so book pickings get mighty slim then.

That was when he was bringing Joanna Russ back into print.

Thank yopu so much for highlighting my absolute favorite author. My universal blanket recommendation for everybody is read everything with Melissa Scott's name on it. Her worst stuff is better than most writing anyway.

I'm curious what you made of Scott's Alexandrian alternate history, A Choice of Destinies?

Never saw it. I'll go looking for it immediately. I've missed a few of her older books and I know for sure I am also behind on most things after 2008 (but that's a general condition, which I am only beginning to mend).

I'd love to know your take on it. There are times I think it's too... fanfic-y? but there's a real attempt to engage with the history.

I'm already trying to track it down, thanks for the recommendation. edit: I've got it, and I've started it.

Edited at 2014-07-09 02:00 pm (UTC)

You, uh, probably want to get the third and fourth "Points" books if you haven't already. Just fyi.

I'm doing a reread of the whole Points series plus the new book. They're still wonderful.

That's a good recommendation. I'll keep an eye out for her stuff. Sadly, in my new location, the library offerings are, um, slim. Not a college town.

As I discovered last night, libraries are not rteliable places for Melissa Scott books. I'm going to start a campaign in mine.

For reasons I do not pretend to understand, our local library, while otherwise fairly light on sf/f, has a good selection of Melissa Scott's works. I made sure to tell the librarian how very happy I was that they had both Points novels, at a time when they were out of print and ridiculously hard to find.

Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

Mike Giroux

2014-07-08 06:21 pm (UTC)

...if 2 characters of unspecified gender have a conversation that doesn't revolve around a specified male character, the book may or may not have passed the Bechdel test - is it in a state of quantum Bechdel uncertainty? :)

I liked Scott's books quite a bit, but I think I missed this one. I'll have to go back and check my shelves.

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

kithrup

2014-07-08 06:34 pm (UTC)

If two characters of unspecified gender have a conversation that revolves around a third character of unspecified gender?

Or if two characters of unspecified gender have a conversation that doesn't revolve around a third character at all?

I'm sure there are a couple of other ways to interpret your question :).

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

nelc

2014-07-08 07:05 pm (UTC)

If either or both of the unspecified characters resolves to a male, that would be a negative. But there's three of those states and only one where they are both women*, so the balance is 3:1 to it being Bechdel-negative. On the other hand, one should also weigh the probabilities of the speaking characters being male or female, so the ratio is probably higher.

*Approximately. The chance of them being intersexed, gender-queer or other other is small enough to be negligible, I think. And even smaller in Hollywood character-space.

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

alienne

2014-07-09 07:41 am (UTC)

Actually in a Melissa Scott novel the chances of them being intersexed, genderqueer, or some variety of gender outside the binary is rather higher than you seem to think?

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

nelc

2014-07-09 10:34 am (UTC)

I find that I haven't read that much by Scott, and besides, I was thinking of movies for some reason.

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

fridgepunk

2014-07-09 11:57 am (UTC)

to spoil the joke, the whole point of cultural normativity is that it ultimately collapses the super-positioned gender state of the ungendered characters to male by default.

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

nelc

2014-07-09 06:23 pm (UTC)

Nod. This is true. Not all the time, I find, but a large proportion of it.

Re: Trey's non-specific gender brings up an interesting question...

(Anonymous)

2014-07-09 12:38 pm (UTC)

Does it matter if the unspecified character has a name that is unambiguously male in your culture? My brain insists on interpreting "Trey" as a man for that reason. I find it interesting that Scott chose it for her character given that she was born in the southern US where it is an exclusively male nickname.

And a blurb from OtherRealms. Wow, that takes me wayyyy back....

And the cover wasn't even that bad.


Do you know who the cover is by, btw?

It may be worth pointing out that, unlike some other ebooks, this one's also available at B&N and Smashwords, and possibly other places as well.

I wonder what a mash-up of works called _The Kindly Ones_ would be like (other instances being one by Aeschylus and one by Powell).

Scott's is heavily thematically linked to Aeschylus's play, so . . . a mash-up would probably pretty much get you what you already have.

My copy of Russ's _The Zanzibar Cat_ is published by Baen. To add another layer of strangeness, the cover is by James (Dinotopia) Gurney.

Whatever happened to bring about the Baen books we have now?

Re: Baen and Baen covers

(Anonymous)

2014-07-09 12:59 pm (UTC)

A series of financial decisions (to concentrate on an audience no one else really was in SF publishing at that time) and later ... a series of health issues, frankly. Starting with diabetes that was pretty out of control (god, the conversations/arguments I had with him about that!) and then a series of small strokes no one noticed until he had some rather larger ones years later culminating in the one that killed him. (This is Editrx)

(I'm a Baen anthology story author, fwiw.)

Melissa Scott got started with Baen with Five-Twelfths of Heaven, which remains one of my favorite books.


That trilogy is now available on the Kindle.

...and iBooks! Yay, thank you.

Late comment; probably no one will ever read this. But ...

A big thank-you to James for reminding me of this book. I splurged and bought the ebook. Vaguely remember reading it when it came out, many years ago, but it was effectively new to me.

Good book! If I had been the editor I would have tightened it in quite a few places but overall, an absorbing, suspenseful read.

Well worth the $3.99.