Masks and moons: Melissa Scott’s The Kindly Ones

Orestes and Electra are two inhabited moons of Agamemnon, and The Kindly Ones (1987) begins with a description of the planets, their economies, climate and oddities, from the Standard Planetary Register. Destiny and Madelgar are starports and riverports. Glittermark, on colder Electra, is a starport and an iceport. On these moons, settled in hard times, you can be socially dead while still alive, and mediums are needed to speak to the “ghosts,” marked with white on their foreheads. Trey Maturin, who comes from sophisticated Athena, is a medium and a mediator, trying to help Orestes modernize despite honour, feuds, vengeance, and the help and hindrance of the ghosts.

This was the first Melissa Scott I read, probably in 1990 when the British edition was first published. I picked it up for the classical reference in the title, and decided to buy it when I got to “starport, iceport” in the description. It seemed like something that might have been designed for a particularly excellent game of Traveller. I wasn’t expecting anything as good as I got. This is the kind of book that’s always fast and fun, but Scott makes it something much more sophisticated. The whole conceit of the ghosts works well, and Scott makes the odd society seem like something real. This has the kind of complexity history has and fiction so rarely manages to emulate.

The book is structured around four points of view. Trey, the medium, is from offplanet, and speaks in first person. I’d read the book twice before I noticed that Scott is playing Caudwell’s trick here of not giving a first person character’s gender: don’t let it put you off. Scott’s talking about a society that’s divided on lines other than gender—the live/dead division matters to these people, gender barely signifies. Scott isn’t being coy; Trey’s ambiguity signals that this really is a post-gender society.

There’s also Leith, a retired military pilot working as captain of a mailship, who is unambiguously female. Leith falls in a relationship with Guil, also female, and of the in-between para’anin status in her society. Trey has a night with Rehur, a ghost and an actor, from a major family on Orestes, but dead to them. Trey and Leith see the Oresteian society from the outside, Rehur and Guil see it from within. Society is just at fracture point, as outside influences are wearing away the traditions, and the traditions are hardening to resist erosion.

The story revolves around plays—Oresteian live drama is partly live and partly holopuppet—and movies that shape the expectations of the societies of the novel. Scott shows us enough of the Oresteian theatre, and enough of the plays and their expectations, that we understand how they move the characters. Kushner does this in The Privilege of the Sword, but it’s a rare thing, and rarer still what Scott does here of bringing two traditions of drama, the Oresteian revenge play and the offworld heroic movie, along with the different societies in conflict.

This is a story of culture clash done on many levels, it’s a story of the vengeance of ghosts, a society stressed, a society cracking, a society flexing. It’s also the story of four people and their friends living through difficult times. There are trips to the theatre, there are last minute escapes, there’s love found and love lost, there’s romance between people of the same gender and different genders and people whose genders are irrelevant. The human societies feel like real societies—weird, but real, and the way they react to external stresses feels real too.

I think this is a good introduction to Scott—it’s where I came in, and I kept on reading her—I’m only sorry it isn’t in print.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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