A Review

by Jean Lorrah

Most readers of this zine will buy CASSANDRA RISING because it contains a story by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Unfortunately, that is truly the best reason for buying the book. The collection is a strange conglomeration of stories, held together only by the fact that they are all written by women. It will be a shame if any neos get their first impression of what women write from this volume, for their conclusion would be, sad stuff.

There are some bright spots in CASSANDRA RISING, but there is not a single story on a theme that has not been done before, and done well. That, however, is not a negative criticism, even Lichtenberg can't invent something like the Sime/Gen universe for each new story. Unfortunately, only a very few of these tales do anything new with the old themes. Outstanding is Kathleen Sky's "Motherbeast;" which combines mother/daughter conflict with possession with chilling effectiveness. Ursula LeGuin manages with nothing but pure style (not her own--she manages to evoke in her first-person narrator the precise style of one of my freshman composition students) to raise "SQ" above the level of just another story of the scientist trapped by his own creation. "The Slow and Gentle Progress of Trainee Bell-Ringers," by Barbara Paul, is another version of the way in which the observation of previous times without interference inevitably causes interference anyway--but nonetheless it is a new twist on that theme. I do wish Alice Laurance (the editor) had explained the title, however; I'm a fair Anglophile, and have read THE NINE TAILORS, and I don't get it. Therefore I doubt that the average sf reader would.

The heavy balance, regrettably, seems to be toward stories that have languished in the bottom drawers of well-known and not-so-well-known writers for years. Or perhaps were dashed off in quick response to a women's anthology. Whichever, Josephine Saxton Is 'Alien Sensation' is a joke supported by the antique theme of humans-cared-for-by-machines-while-dreaming-their-lives-away. The joke isn't worth it. Or maybe it is if you're a housewife--perhaps I should disqualify myself on this one. But really--didn't you guess on the very first page of Grania Davis's "Last One in Is a Rotten Egg" that the "children" were sperms Woody Allen did it better. "Impact," by Steve Barnes, came straight out of that Reader's Digest description of what an automobile accident does to the human body in a few gruesome seconds. Yuck. I didn't enjoy reading it the first time, and combining it with an inconclusive dream sequence didn't give it any greater significance or justification. "Troll Road" points out that some people are hopeless no matter what is done for them--but did we need Joan Bernott to tell us that? If she had made her main character the least bit likeable, we might find tragedy here, but we never do feel anything for him, so his pointless life makes a pointless story. Raylyn Moore and Anne McCaffrey, in "The Way Back" and "Lady in Waiting" respectively, tell old-fashioned ghost stories that have no place in an anthology of science fiction.

All this brings me at last to "The Vanillamint Tapestry," by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. This is the longest story in the book, and the most original--or would be if the author did not back off from the really fresh point to her theme. Everyone will immediately recognize the debt of the story to Hal Clement's NEEDLE. However, Lichtenberg sets out to tackle a lovely, problem--and one that would undoubtedly be more likely to occur to a woman than to a man: what happens to a host when it's time for his symbiote to reproduce? However, the story is set up structurally to answer this question, the author then backs off, and the story bogs down in discussions of "Is there a God" instead. Too bad, but typical of the way Lichtenberg sets up subconsciously sexual situations, and then refuses to recognize them consciously and deal with them. I understand this is an old story; perhaps now that she has had the feedback from HOUSE OF ZEOR, Lichtenberg would handle the problem differently today.

You see, the plot of "The Vanillamint Tapestry" is designed to end with the mating--or attempted mating--of Yost the host (!) and his symbiote partner Kolitt. It is useless to argue that such a mating is physiologically impossible--the structure of the story, not the Ballatines, demands it, and thus either the story ought to be restructured or the Ballatines should. From the moment the human Yost is vested with his partner Kolitt--"ten pounds of amorphous, red- and black-vined, blue-white tissue"--the story proceeds toward, not a sexual mating from the human point of view, but a reproduction that will be a combination of human and Ballatine. Don't ask me what the result would be!! As the author decided not to produce such an offspring, she should not have allowed the following sequence:

First, we find out at once that Kolitt is having-problems, but he assures Yost, "I have at least six months." Soon we learn that "his" problems are caused by the fact that it is nearing his time for conjugation--he will merge with another Ballatine, and then divide into two. However, both Kolitt and Yost begin to act pregnant. Yost is "eating for two" as the hunger induced by the presence of any Ballatine in the human system is multiplied by the fact that this one is approaching conjugation both partners become uncomfortable and irritable Kolitt tires easily, and develops a craving for the Tapestry.

Furthermore, the story is so rife with references to reasons the two can not conjugate that the reader becomes more and more certain that they must before the story is over. At an early juncture, Yost suggests that if they do not make it home in time, Kolitt would simply fission without fusion first Kolitt's response is "God help me, no, not like that; . . . I'd die first." Later we are told, "For a Ballatine to fission, prematurely and without conjugation, would mean that the children would be the social equivalent of bastards.

Meanwhile, we have been given some general information about children of mixed races in the society to which Yost and Kolitt belong. First, we have established the interesting fact that in this universe any humanoid from a nitrogen-carbon-oxygen world can interbreed with a humanoid from any other NCO world. Kolitt isn't humanoid, so that information does not specifically apply--yet it is given, and we are told that "Unraveling the hows and whys of the strange, seemingly unnatural phenomenon of interbreeding had been Yost's life work until he took up spying." So Yost thinks it's "unnatural." There is food for drama there--but it is forgotten when we get to the point at which the story leaves its charted course.

The villain in the story is a "Mixie," that is, one of these humanoids of mixed heritage. When Yost first sees him, "it didn't take a scholar to guess that he was the many times illegitimate offspring of a long line of careless prostitutes. Anyone with such a build was automatically tagged a criminal in modern society . . . and very often became criminal because of it." Certainly this is good reason for Yost and Kolitt not to interbreed--their offspring would be automatic outcasts. Note that the "trained scientist" automatically assumes that the Mixie is a whore's bastard--consider what less objective members of his society would think of someone who was not only a mix, but half non-humanoid!

What we have here is the constant harping on a theme, making the reader assume that that must be where the story is going. To top it off, when the Mixie interrogates Yost, he presumably does not know that Kolitt is present--yet he asks, "You got a Ballatine?" prompting Kolitt to admit that there are renegade Ballatines hosted by outlaws. That, of course, prompts the question of what such a renegade does when it is his time to conjugate? Of course there might be another outlaw humanoid around with a Ballatine in the proper point in his cycle--but what are the odds of that? Indeed, we might well wonder with Yost "what other odd combinations were hidden beneath his ((the Mixie's)) gray jumpsuit"! Moreover, the logic of Kolitt's reaction to the Mixie's question is very strange. If the Mixie had a Ballatine, it could detect Kolitt--yet Kolitt never says whether he detects a Ballatine in the Mixie! The implication is that the Mixie may have some Ballatine characteristics.

So where does all this go? Nowhere, and that is unfortunate. The odd thing is, here is a story in which Lichtenberg could have explored quite safely that union of divergent species which she approaches and avoids in her work. There could not be a sexual mating as we know sex; readers would not discover homosexual implications, as they do in HoZ. I have not the faintest notion of the biological requirements of such a union; doubtless they would require a rewriting of the Ballatine physiology. However, that union is what is telegraphed time and again as the story proceeds; either it should have happened, or those telegraph lines should have been taken down.

Someday, Jacqueline Lichtenberg is going to break down and actually write a complete psychosexual union between alien species--and once she does, science fiction will never be the same again.

((A note from JL: Since I intended to deal entirely with the concept of a species rumored to KNOW (but not ever tell) whether God exists--and all the rest is stray background from the series of novels--the story is as one-direction as I know how to make it. The problem is I don't know HOW to write short fiction.))


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