Aug 31 2010 5:14pm

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.

N. Mamatas
1. N. Mamatas
I gobbled up all sorts of Melissa Scott titles in the 1990s. Another good review; thanks for the memories.
Clifton Royston
2. CliftonR
I never saw this. The "ghost" premise sounds a little bit like the society in Cherryh's 'Wave Without a Shore' - also involving a society at the breaking point - but there are many different ways to develop themes, and this sounds otherwise very different.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
CliftonR: The feel of this is very different from Wave Without a Shore. Indeed, I'd never really thought of them together.
N. Mamatas
4. Lynnet1
I read this book several years ago and have been trying to track it down again ever since. At one point I actually considered positing a comment here asking if anyone could identify it. I'm so excited to be able to reread it!
N. Mamatas
5. ofostlic
One of my favorite Melissa Scott books and a great review as usual.

I'm still trying to work out why I didn't notice that Trey Maturin's gender was not given. It took me a long time to realize that Caudwell hadn't specified for Hilary Tamar, but I think that's because the only person I know called Hillary is female. I had assumed that Trey Maturin was female, but I don't know why. The obvious answer is that I had read the relationship with Rehur as heterosexual, but that happens well into the book and I'm pretty sure I had visualized Trey as female before that.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Ofostlic -- I'd been reading Trey as male, and when the Rehur episode happened I thought "Gay, huh?" until the medal-buying bit after, which seemed utterly utterly female, and then I realised it wasn't specified. I've read it trying to read him/her as clearly one or the other. This time I was trying to consider where it might make a difference, and looking at the other characters and seeing where gender made a difference to them, and how little it did. With Hilary Tamar, who reads to me as smug in a way that only English men are smug, it's just a gimmick. I think Scott is doing something more.
N. Mamatas
7. ofostlic

I agree that Scott is doing more, and that her point is that it really doesn't matter if Trey is male or female, whereas Caudwell is trying to get you to guess as an extension of the whodunit game.

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