Nov 20 2012 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Homosexual Torturers, Immortal Rulers, and FTL Fighter-craft: R.M. Meluch’s The Queen’s Squadron

Sleeps With Monsters: Homosexual Torturers, Immortal Rulers, and FTL Fighter-craft: R.M. Meluch’s The Queen’s SquadronSometimes I wonder how many science fiction novels feature torturers with homosexual tendencies. I have a feeling the final tally would disturb me. (No, don’t tell me. I don’t need to know.)

R.M. Meluch’s The Queen’s Squadron (Roc, 1992) is among them. Fortunately, it’s not a clichéd portrayal: The Queen’s Squadron is an odd and, yes, ambitious (albeit in strange ways) wee book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think of it, although I am noticing—I can’t call it a trend; pattern is perhaps the better word—a pattern in Meluch’s work, an undercurrent deeply influenced by the Classical world. Or at least delighted to salt in off-the-cuff references and throwaway names.

Take The Queen’s Squadron. Some indeterminate time in the future, three nations share one world (not Earth, although Earth is mentioned) and skirmish in space: one, ruled by immortals who apparently also come from Earth, has something of an empire. One is neutral. And one is the nation of Telegonia, the “free mortals,” who’ve been clashing on and off with the immortals’ empire for quite some time. FTL space travel is only possible by means of “gates,” with the exception of the c-ships of the Queen’s Squadron, crewed by the elite fighter-pilots of the immortals’ empire.

Immortals don’t risk their lives. But one has. Maya of the Timberlines, formerly known as Ashata, chooses to join the Queen’s Squadron under an assumed identity. Meanwhile, Telegonia has come up with a plan to cripple the immortals’ empire for good. Gotterdammerung. War is coming. No, wait. It’s already there.

The novel follows three strands. The story of Major Paul Strand, who knows the plan for Gotterdammerung and falls into enemy hands, surviving torture and Stockholm syndrome to return home. The story of Penetanguishene, last survivor of a race of people who know infallibly when someone is lying: first Paul’s torturer, and afterwards a species of friend. And the story of Maya, as she learns to understand her comrades, and comes to fall in unwilling love with the Squadron’s commanding officer, Race Rachelson. As the story unfolds, and the war progresses towards the collapse of the immortals’ empire, it becomes clear that war—its outbreak, its progress, its conclusion—has been manipulated into being.

Telegonia comes from the Greek Τηλεγόνεια, and means born far away. It’s also the name of a lost epic from the ancient Greek world, about Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe. When Telegonus comes to Ithaca, he goes unrecognised and ends up killing Odysseus by mistake. I’m trying not to read too much into the connection of names in a novel that puts so much of its thematic freight in concealments—of information, of identities, of the person behind the curtain secretly pulling all the strings—but the coincidence, if indeed it is one, adds an interesting layer of resonance to a story whose themes are wrapped around the interplay of truth and power.

It does a couple of things that annoy me, particularly with regard to character, however. Meluch’s characters in general seem to be facile constructions, rarely achieving any great depth. The ratio of female to male characters is skewed male, and it is notable to me that the one women who has point of view and some personality ends up entangled in the orbit of the alpha male in her vicinity. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test in any meaningful fashion—not that all books have to, but here it seems like a missed opportunity.

It’s an interesting book, with far more meat on its bones—far chewier—than Meluch’s Tour of the Merrimack series books possess. It’s not quite as fun, and I’m not entirely sure whether it’s wholly successful in arguing its themes, but it’s a solid, well-constructed space opera.

It’s not half as problematic as the Tour of the Merrimack either. This novel, I feel certain, doesn’t deserve to be out of print.

Next week, we’ll be taking a look at Jerusalem Fire. And after that, who knows?

Liz Bourke is buried under a mountain of books. One day she might re-emerge. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.

Mark Lawrence
1. incurablyGeek
"The novel follows three strands. The story of Major Paul Strand ..."


And why do the queers always have to be the bad guys? Lame.
2. baywoof
A list of evil gays and lesbians in fiction.
Alan Brown
3. AlanBrown
When looking at gender roles in SF, you have to put the book into context with the time it was written.
You have to remember that this book was written back before even Don't Ask Don't Tell, back when even rumors of homosexual activity could end a military career, and it was generally not talked about, even in a historical sense. One of the few homosexual characters I can think of in military SF of that time is the heartless assassin that Colonel Hammer kept on his staff in David Drake's Hammer's Slammers series. Hardly a role model anyone would aspire to.
And in the early 1990's, women were still barred from many combat roles, and the numbers that deployed in the First Gulf War were pretty small. Nothing like today. Interestingly enough, I remember the cries of derision that arose when Mr. Drake wrote Rolling Hot in 1984, and portrayed women fighting alongside men as infantry. Folks were offended to see such a radical idea, even in fiction.
Ms. Meluch, like many women who wrote adventure SF at that time, kept her gender somewhat low key with the use of initials in her pen name. Not surprising, as there was a feeling among many fans of military SF that women couldn't write realistic military fiction, not having the experience that a man would have. A notion that seems quaint in retrospect.
It is remarkable how far we have come in integrating women into the Armed Forces just in my lifetime, and I am proud to see that there is so much equal opportunity. Although, as someone who was taught from an early age that our goal was to protect women and children, I also sometimes feel a bit of sadness that some of the best aspects of the concept of chivalry have also been lost along the way.
(But my major heartburn with this book is the cover. It is sad how much those spaceships looked like a contemporary jet fighter--I always felt that the artist could have done a more imaginative job in picturing what the space fighters would look like.)

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