Tue
Nov 6 2012 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Religious Revelation and Social Upheaval

Today I want to talk about Avalanche Soldier and Colony Fleet, Susan R. Matthews' two standalone novels. This is the penultimate Matthews post—after next week, we'll amble along to the next write—but I want to take a look at a couple of books that attempt something different.

Avalanche Soldier isn't space opera. Instead, it's set on a planet that's turned its back on powered flight for religious reasons. Maybe it counts as planetary opera, but I want to mention it here because it's one of the few examples I've come across of science fiction with explicitly religious themes that also explores how religion and social unrest interact. It's not the most successful of novels, on technical grounds: the pace is uneven, and the political background is insufficiently well-delineated to avoid confusion. But an interesting failure can prove far more entertaining than a novel that's technically successful but has no heart, and Avalanche Soldier, for all its flaws, has heart in abundance. Salli Rangarold, an avalanche soldier, abandons her post to follow first her AWOL brother, and then the new religious teacher he has found—a teacher who speaks to Salli's soul, whom Salli believes instantly is the prophesied Awakened One. But things are more complicated than that, and Salli has to grapple with a distrustful secular authority, riots, and her brother's newly-discovered hardline fanaticism, as well as her own religious conversion.

The content of religious conversion is something that science fiction seldom concerns itself with. All too often, the future is functionally atheistical or keeps its religions carefully compartmentalised, so it's always intriguing to see a different take on the matter, one that looks at conflicting experiences of the numinous and sets them against a background of social and political disturbances.

Colony Fleet isn't a species of space opera either. It's a story set around a generation-ship fleet about to arrive at the first of its destination planets. Tension exists between the castes that have arisen in the centuries since they set out: the Jneers monopolise the best food, the best resources, the cushy assignments; while the Mechs get more dangerous berths on the edges of the Fleet, jury-rigging equipment to cover shortages.

Hillbrane Harkover has been exiled from the Jneers, betrayed by one of her own, and sent on assignment to the Mechs. Initially disgusted to find herself among the lowest classes, Harkover comes to feel at home with them—learns to adjust, learns to appreciate the advantage that their adaptability and their distributed, communal methods of organisation has over the Jneers' hierarchical and status-centred modes of doing business. When Harkover and the Jneer who arranged for her disgrace are assigned to the same mission, to perform forward reconnaissance on their destination planet in advance of the colony fleet's slower arrival—and when trouble arises due to the Jneer's over-confidence and selfishness—it's down to Harkover to put the good of the colony ahead of personal safety and figure out how to bring vital information back to the fleet.

In structure, Colony Fleet is something of a bildungsroman: quiet, character-focused, with an emphasis on social dynamics. Its flaws are less obvious than Avalanche Soldier's, its pacing more assured, but there are moments when the background worldbuilding seems oddly thin, as though Matthews hasn't thought through—or at least managed to communicate—the ramifications of her setup. For me this is a minor set of niggles, and doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the story—which is the kind of SF eucatastrophic adventure of which I would like to see more—but this isn't Matthews at the top of her game, either.

Or perhaps that's a judgement I'm making because neither Avalanche Soldier nor Colony Fleet grab me with the same kind of immediacy and intensity that the Andrej Kosciusko books do. Still, all things considered, they're good, interesting books, well worth a look: in the era of ebooks, they don't deserve to languish out-of-print and unacknowledged.

Next week, the final Matthews post—and maybe I'll surprise you.


Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb

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