When I read something I am immediately plunged into the mood of the book, and when I recall a story it’s often the mood, the atmosphere, that stays with me most strongly. Alison Sinclair’s Legacies (1995) is a book with a very unusual atmosphere that’s hard to describe. I sometimes see this sort of thing in terms of shade and colour — Legacies is shadowed but lit with sudden unexpected shafts of red and blue sunlight. It’s as complex and immersive but not as claustrophobic as Cherryh, it’s reminiscent in some ways of Le Guin but with a darker edge.
It’s well named. This is the story of two planets and the legacy of six generations of history, and we are given it in the close up perspective of Lian D’Hallt, who is mentally handicapped and therefore can never in his own culture be considered an adult. He’s a brave choice for a protagonist — aphasic and halting, intuitive as opposed to acute. Through his struggling perceptions we are plunged into three societies — the exiled Burdanian colony to which he belongs, the kinder’el’ein natives of the planet on which he lives, and then the remnant society of devastated Burdania. And they’re all alien — the Burdanians are much more like humans than the kinder’el’ein, and there’s a tendency to assume them human, but the more we see of them the more we learn that they are not. This is a brave choice too.
Sinclair isn’t afraid to take risks here, and the risks pay off for a reader who’s prepared to pay attention — this is an original, immersive, and thought provoking story.
“If you need certainty, you should have been born into another universe,” one of the characters tells another, and that might as well be the epigraph of the whole novel. Nothing here is simple, nothing is monolithic, everything is fractal and interesting. This is a book full of ideas, not shiny ideas but big issues and clever details. We’re led through a set of very intricate societies by a halting guide who is learning himself and the worlds better as he goes on. Lian’s hesitancy is a central fact of the novel — he’s never certain, he’s never confident.
Like The Dispossessed Legacies has a spiral structure, and again like The Dispossessed it folds on moving between one planet and another. The even numbered chapters are set on Taridwyn, the planet of exile, and the odd later, on revisited Burdania. The whole book is Lian’s journey to accepting himself and growing up, on both planets. The Burdanians on Taridwyn believe that they broke their planet when they left. Their untested hyperspace drive caused devastation, and for five generations they have lived with the guilt. They think they destroyed their homeworld. They hold formal debates on the question of returning, and always decide against. The triple-gendered kinder’el’ein, on whose planet they live, are wise and empathic and in tune with nature and they find Burdanians difficult. The chapters set on Taridwyn are interwoven with the chapters set on revisited Burdania, which was devastated but not destroyed, and which has its own history of the intermediate time. We know in advance that the result of the debate on Taridwyn will be a return to Burdania, but we don’t know the path that return will take.
The book is brilliant on the cultures and the people — yes, they’re all alien, but they’re all people. It has some absolutely fascinating biological and medical speculation — all of it solidly based in Sinclair’s own medical and biological background. And it has the kind of dilemma you can only have in science fiction — if your ancestors may have destroyed your home planet, what should you do about it? And what should you do about it when you go there and find real people living with their own history as well as the consequences of what you did?
It’s great to see something with large numbers of competent female characters — this is a good example of doing that right. There are women on all sides of all issues — not just one strong female leader but several in opposition to each other, and we see elders and children of all three genders. It’s refreshing to see family life going on as normal background, it makes me realise how unusual this is — for a wise third-gender alien to have a little kid who loves painting and for a night spent in a clan house to be interrupted by a baby being born. I also love the detail that Lian is used to kinder’el’ein infants but finds one of his own species strange.
There are a number of things Sinclair trusts you to work out on your own — the long Burdanian years that mean a seven year old is about what we’d consider twenty one, the way they can’t see red, and come to that the fact that they have copper based blood and have trouble reproducing off their home planet and are really aliens. This is her first novel — her later books are smoother at this kind of thing.
I missed this entirely in 1995. I picked this up last year largely because Alison Sinclair is local to me in Montreal and a really interesting person to talk to — and interesting people often write interesting books, as in this case. (It’s not always true. And in the case where it isn’t, you don’t have to say anything.) I read it then, and have just completed my read with this first re-read. I don’t know why this didn’t get more attention and award nominations at the time — it’s a really good solid science fiction book of the kind people always say they want. It’s also complete in one volume. If it’s slipped under your radar too, you should grab it if you get the chance.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula Award-winning Among Others. 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.