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May, 1998

"The Price of Honor"


Honestly, folks, I am not deliberately searching out books about honor. I don't read heaps of books and choose only those with an honor-based theme to discuss in this column. This is just happening. Therefore, I think it's something worth paying attention to.

Vonda N. McIntyre is one of the most prominent, cutting edge authors in the science fiction/fantasy field. She burst onto the sf/f scene with a Hugo and Nebula winner (a feat somewhat more significant than a horse taking the Triple Crown). The title was Dreamsnake, and it gathered many imitators. Subsequently, she wrote a number of pithy gems with feminist themes.

I always felt the feminist themes were somewhat too heavy-handed for pure enjoyment. Although the statements were accurate, I couldn't find technical fault with her writing during this period. Again, she gathered a number of imitators and then went off to write novels that became TV or movie spinoffs. Some of those were Trek and so she stayed in the center of my consciousness. Most recently and noteworthy is her Star Wars novel Crystal Star.

You may have noticed that I haven't reviewed her novels in this column as consistently as other authors. This may change now because with The Moon and The Sun she has taken a quantum leap forward in skill and power. The result is that her feminist message is much stronger, yet not so obtrusive that it spoils the sheer fun of reading a good book. In fact, it's not obtrusive at all. The writing in this new novel is an example of creative power leashed under masterly control.

Therefore, I feel that most students of writing would do themselves a great favor to go collect all the Vonda N. McIntyre stories and novels they can find and read them all in chronological order, watching that control develop.

The Moon and the Sun is set in seventeenth century France at the court of Louis XIV and is an "alternate history" like those of Katherine Kurtz — so accurate that it might in fact be the truth and everything we think we know has been heavily edited.

One thing I liked best about this style of writing is the way she interprets history rather than rewriting it for the convenience of the plot or theme the way certain popular television shows have been doing lately. (Since those shows are aimed at young people, I find myself seriously objecting to the distortions they introduce.) McIntyre has shown us a young woman whose main interest in life is science, who was locked up in a convent for years and emerges directly into court life under the power of her brother, a priest who is also a scientist. The scars on both these characters' psyches seem real to me.

These characters are so real that I keep asking myself: If a soul who lived that life in seventeenth century France were reborn today, what karma would they be lugging along with them? McIntyre pulls no punches when it comes to depicting pain yet doesn't dwell lovingly on the painful, the dark, dirty or awful aspects. These characters are sane, bright people trying to live within the parameters set by Louis XIV's court.

And those parameters are based entirely in power, wholly antithetical to honor as I understand the term.

In this novel, the main point of view character, the young woman scientist, has the job of caring for an exotic animal that her brother has collected. The King believes that this animal's innards, if eaten, will grant immortality. Thus, everything about this animal is tied to the issues of court power and intrigue.

The animal, it turns out, is something akin to a mermaid, a woman who is as much a person as any alien from outer space you've ever met in an sf novel. So this is a fantasy written as sf in a historical setting. A true technical triumph because the absurd combination works splendidly — and this story could not be told so well in other contexts.

The young woman has no power — she's female and young, a fatal combination since she's not an heiress to a huge fortune.

She has, however, sure knowledge that this creature is a person and that the King is about to commit the mortal sin of murder when ordering her killed.

McIntyre shows us what it would be like to be this young woman and face this terrible dilemma — this challenge to honor. The resolution is realistic enough for me. I laughed and I cried and gasped my way through this novel — engrossed and captivated.

From time to time I had to close the book and look at the cover to check the author's name — because I kept feeling as if I were reading a Chelsea Quinn Yarbro historical. The scholarship was so tight, the characterization so deep, the pacing so exact — and the theme of honor challenged was very much like the St. Germain novels (though there are no vampires in McIntyre's alter-history).

But the statement about honor was different. Here, the question is the price of honor. In Yarbro's St. Germain novels, St. Germain is a man of power, raised as a prince, accustomed to power and now once again rich enough to command power anywhere he goes. He accepts the burden of honor as part of the price of power without question.

McIntyre's young woman was raised in a world where those in power did not regard it as a sacred trust to be wielded for the benefit of the people in their charge. She has no example like St. Germain to look up to and measure herself by. She has to fight her way through the philosophy of right and wrong using little more than the value system of the Church during those years and her vague notions of scientific method loosely grafted over a magical view of the universe.

All in all, I'm convinced this book is a "must read" for anyone who is concerned about the issue of honor and how the rules of honor may differ for those at a high station in life as opposed to those who must cope with living without real power in the world. And all this despite the fact that I really dislike historicals!

As you can tell, I was impressed with McIntyre's handling of the issue of honor among the powerless, so I dug up her email address and asked her a few questions. Here are my questions and her answers:

JL: What is the current status of the script based on this novel?

VNM: Nothing much to report. It gets all sorts of reactions, most of them starting out, "We love this script, it's so beautifully written..." and then going on to strange requests like, "Could you change the sea monster to a male so there can be a romantic connection?" (A Hollywood friend of mine started referring to Moon & Sun as "Splash meets Louis XIV.") Or "Can you lose Lucien? We can't figure out how to cast him." Or "Can you make Lucien the main character?"

The best one was, "We'll be in touch with your agent about a deal." It took me a while to realize this meant, "How do we get this woman out of our office?"

The book evolved quite a bit between first and final drafts; I'd want to start from scratch with a new screenplay if somebody wanted to make a movie.

JL: Is there any sort of sequel or are you going to do more historicals in this period?

VNM: I don't have any immediate plans for that, but in this business, who knows?

JL: When will the paperback be out? (I can only assume there will be one after that terrific ad in Locus!)

VNM: I don't know the exact date yet. This coming fall gets mentioned but it isn't scheduled.

And folks, her sig file contained the following URL: — check it out!

Right after I read The Moon and the Sun I read several Trek novels and then Vulcan's Forge by Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz. In the interests of disclosure, I must men-tion that I've known Susan Shwartz personally for a number of years and introduced her to Jean Lorrah at one time because they were academic colleagues.

Susan Shwartz has a number of historical fantasy novels out that are well worth reading. I wanted to see what she and Josepha Sherman might come up with together — an interesting combination of talents.

Why was I not surprised that the essential theme of this novel is honor? It's about Spock as a youth turning into a man, and it's about Spock after Kirk's death, facing a similar situation as he faced during his manhood rites and responding to it differently because of his long association with Kirk. It's about friendship and honor, about debts of honor, and about the price of honor. What particularly tickled me was that Spock's dear friend from his manhood rites who turns up with this new challenge after Kirk's death is an Israeli, a Jew who has no problem associating with the Arabs under his command. How far will Spock go for a debt of honor? Is the friendship forged in youth strong enough — is it, in fact, still there at all, after Kirk? Or is this Israeli too much like Kirk — or not quite enough like Kirk?

If you have a soft spot in your heart for "The Original Series" and/or for Spock, do make it a point to read this book. It's a page-turner in the Jean Lorrah tradition, with more depth of character and some original additions to the Spock-biography than authors are usually allowed in these novels — but that makes it one of the keepers among the welter of Trek novels.

After I read Vulcan's Forge, I saw the episode of Deep Space Nine titled Honor Among Thieves. And there it was again on the television screen — a direct, head-on confrontation of the issues of honor. This time they even put the subject in the title.

In this episode, O'Brien (the fix-it specialist engineer) goes under cover co-opted as an agent for Star Fleet Intelligence to get inside the Orion Syndicate (from The Original Series, "Orion" is synonymous with pirates). O'Brien tricks his way into the confidence of one of their lower level bosses and discovers the man is kind to animals, generous with employees, hard on those who show disloyalty and a dedicated family man. He readily "witnesses" (or vouches for) O'Brien to his own bosses. If O'Brien does anything against the Syndicate, this boss will be killed.

O'Brien betrays this man and the guy promptly lays down his life so that his family won't be harmed by the Syndicate. O'Brien goes home with a guilty conscience, feeling intensely dishonored. But the ultimate result of his actions is to keep the Klingons allied with the Federation against the invaders from the Delta Quadrant. Still, he can barely stand to look at his own reflection in the windows of DS-9.

He has paid a terrible price for honor, his honor itself.

As if my poor mind weren't befuddled enough on the issue of honor already, between reading Vulcan's Forge and seeing this particular episode of DS-9, I read a book by a new author — a Del Rey Discovery of the Year — titled The Merro Tree.

This author, Katie Waitman, reminds me of a young Vonda N. McIntyre in that from her writing alone, I feel she has something urgent to say on a matter that means a lot to her and she has done the hard work of learning how to say it the best way possible.

This novel is structured very much like Vulcan's Forge, on two time-levels — the distant past and the "current" present. It's a difficult structure to sustain, and there are points where it doesn't quite work in The Merro Tree — or at least I wanted to skip parts to get to the rest of what I was interested in. But these points were surprisingly few and hardly noticeable.

About three quarters of the way through the book, the past-story catches up with the present and the narrative continues uninterrupted to a good climax.

The handling of the point of view character is good enough to satisfy me (which is saying something!) and the story includes all my favorite elements — including a human-nonhuman relationship. Meanwhile, the theme explores the place of honor in artistic integrity, just as McIntyre explored it in the context of scientific integrity.

And there's another parallel. In The Merro Tree, we have a hero who is a theater star whose only power lies in his galactic fame with maybe a little help from his family connections. In this novel, he has acted from the central core of his sense of honor to defy a ban which smacks of censorship, but is actually something just a little different. Now he's on trial for his life, a victim of the power-structure that elevated him to galactic fame.

He has bitten the hand that feeds him and refuses to pay a penalty for it.

The structure of the novel just barely keeps it from becoming a "hung hero" scenario (where the protagonist can do nothing to affect his/her fate). Baut when all the background has been filled in, the hero breaks out of paralysis and acts to change his fate.

Somehow, the author has avoided creating a boring anti-censorship polemic (it's the polemic part that would be boring to me, not the statement opposing censorship in the arts). It just barely avoids being contrived because the cause-effect lines are plausible enough for me.

But perhaps I'm entranced and satisfied with this novel because it makes a statement that agrees with my own personal prejudices — that art is special (often even sacred) and should be treated with reverence and respect, not regulated by people whose main interest is power and money, not truth and spirit.

So, even though "honor" means so many different things to so many people, everyone seems to agree that the price of gaining and defending it can be everything up to and including life itself. And sometimes dying is the easy way out, rather than living with an internal sense of dishonor. Sometimes the price of honor is changing your own world into something you don't recognize. Sometimes that's an improvement — sometimes not — and you can't tell in advance which it will be.

The real difficulties in attaining and maintaining a sense of honor seem to set in when one wields power — or has power wielded against one. Astrologically, the kind of power I'm referring to here is usually represented by Pluto — which as you all know is very prominent in the formations surrounding the millennium turning.

So far though, none of the authors participating in this dialogue have defined honor in a way that everyone can agree on what it is, where it comes from, how to get it and how to know if another has it. So I'm still not sure what everyone in this discussion is talking about — I just know that they are all very serious about how important it is to know that you have honor.

Perhaps we will see deeper into this subject when Laurell K. Hamilton's next Anita Blake novel comes out. It's to be titled Blue Moon. Also watch for Sarah Zettel's third novel, tentatively titled The God Project — from Warner Aspect. And while you're at it, watch for Josepha Sherman's upcoming Highlander novel, The Captive Soul, also from Warner Aspect. So it appears we won't be totally out of things to read this year.

Oh, and don't forget to tape the TV series, Prey. There's a lot going on there and I'm sure I'll have comments on that show. If you haven't been able to "get into it" — tape the episodes then watch them in rapid succession and in their proper order. It's a tight story-arc show, very dependent for its impact on the order in which you watch the episodes, and how well you remember what happened in the previous ones. Meanwhile, you can see some of what I've been thinking about it on the Prey bulletin board on AOL (at the general television shows section, not my personal sf author's spotlight section).

Honorable Mention this month goes to Star Trek: Science Logs, a nonfiction item about Star Trek by Andre Borman, the science advisor on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space 9. He takes the science element from the scripts and explains them as best he can. This book could provide serious ammunition for young Trekfen to use against the adults who make derogatory noises about their watching this show — or science fiction in general. But it can also provide insights for people learning to write science fiction. The more science you know, the more interesting this book would be. At $16.00 for the paperback, it's expensive — but it's on excellent paper stock and well bound. It's a useful reference book and story-idea source and would make an excellent gift.

Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg,POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952.



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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg