QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Five-Twelfths of Heaven by Melissa Scott

Melissa Scott is one of the biggest names in queer SFF, having won multiple Lambda Awards (with even more nominations), a Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and more. Yet I feel that her writing is not as well known today as that of more recent authors, despite her uncommonly wide range: she has written books with a variety of speculative themes, from cyberpunk to space adventures to fantasy police procedurals. She is also still actively working, and she even has a Patreon where she posts serial fiction related to one of her fantasy series, Astreiant—recently covered here on Tor.com in Liz Bourke’s column.

Out of Scott’s oeuvre, I chose Five-Twelfths of Heaven to start with, for multiple reasons. First, it is one of the rare works of classic queer SFF that are not standalone books—it’s the first volume of a trilogy titled The Roads of Heaven. Second, it makes use of one of my personal favorite themes: magical spaceflight. Third, this trilogy hasn’t been reviewed on Tor.com yet, even though many of Melissa Scott’s other books have been.

In Five-Twelfths of Heaven, space travel is a process based on Western alchemical concepts. To travel at faster-than-light speeds, spaceships enter purgatory (hyperspace, basically) and ascend through it towards heaven, never quite reaching it (hence the title), then descend from purgatory at the desired location. Spaceships have a keel made of an exceptionally pure material, which, if made to resonate at specific frequencies with the use of musical tones, rises toward heaven. Once in purgatory, pilots can pick specific routes by interacting with symbolic images that arise around them. These symbols are impressed upon the space by pilots’ minds, but are not entirely ad hoc—pilots’ symbol registers offer an interpretation of something that’s already there, just less tractable without the use of such a formalism. (As we see, competing formalisms lead to multiple symbols arising simultaneously.)

I can barely convey a fraction of the novel’s subtlety here. The book offers neither classic sci-fi science, nor classic fantasy magic: the world responds to human intention, but magic is formalized and used as a technology. To an extent, it even competes with mechanical technology, as the operation of machines causes vibrations whose frequencies often disrupt the vibrations used for magic. This gives rise to a plethora of often kludgy, but always fascinating, solutions: magical technology, powered by homunculi (literal homunculi), and old-fashioned mechanical technology alike. We see a lot of handwriting on paper, and printed databases, though a ban on computers might be more ideologically-based than grounded in technological constraints, as the novel briefly mentions.

This is the kind of book one reads for the worldbuilding, I’d think? Except it was also recommended to me along a completely different axis, as one of the early SFF books with a positively presented polyamorous triad. How does that work out? It’s more complicated than I assumed, going in.

The protagonist, Silence Leigh, is a woman pilot on a very misogynist planet. After the death of one of her relatives, she finds herself in a complicated legal situation where she is threatened with the loss of not only her spaceship, but of most of her civil rights. To escape, she enters a marriage of convenience with two spacefarers who are men. One of the men has a coveted citizenship, to which his spouses are eligible—hence the triad. And for most of the book, this is how it remains: while the characters, stuck together by circumstance and uneasy with each other at first, become friends, romantic and sexual attraction begins to arise very slowly and is not the main focus.

I am planning on reviewing the entire trilogy, but it is worth noting here that the second book is set later in time, and we see from Silence’s point of view the very obvious sexual attraction between the triad, along with the characters’ treating each other more like married people in that volume.

While demisexuality as a term did not exist when these books were written, I would argue that that’s exactly what Scott’s narrative details: Silence first becomes friends with the two men, and they get to know each other really well throughout their adventures, and then romantic and sexual attraction forms based on those emotional connections. As a demisexual person, I seldom see this play out in SFF; usually there is not enough time in ‘action-y’ adventure plots for such a slow build. Here the multi-volume nature of the books helps, and also the obvious degree of thought and attention put into the character interactions. We still get plenty of adventure: a search for the lost planet Earth, fights against an oppressive empire, independent high mages who might switch sides at any time, and so on. There is a lot going on, and a richness and depth to all that comes to pass; for example, even though this is not a major part of the story, we get to see that the space future does have a functioning legal system. Yes, please!

I really enjoyed this book. I did, however, have qualms about the setup itself, on two separate axes that both concern me personally. First, family-based immigration doesn’t result in the immediate granting of citizenship, definitely not in the present and probably not anytime soon in the future, either. My example, for illustration: I am in the U.S. on an immigration visa based on marriage, and I can attest that after many thousands of dollars in immigration and lawyer fees, and years of marriage, I still only have “conditional permanent residency,” which can be revoked at any time if they decide my marriage is not “in good faith,” which is something I need to prove over and over again. Citizenship is still somewhere far away. This is not some kind of special terrible situation, it is how immigration works. This is business as usual, around the globe—and many countries have even more restrictive immigration systems. So the fact that the characters gained their citizenship right away—from an oppressive empire no less—really worked against my suspension of disbelief.

My other issue was with the worldbuilding related to misogyny. We see a lot of restrictions on how women dress, and this seems based on various Middle Eastern countries, not in any particulars (e.g., there are no Arabic or Hebrew words), but conceptually… except without any kind of religious or other ideological motivation. This was just strange to me as someone who wears head coverings for religious reasons (I’m Jewish). But it actually fit with how the setting uses a lot of quasi-religious terminology, in a purely technological sense. For example: in Five-Twelfths of Heaven, the term purgatory is literally about purification, where the ship ascends away from base matter; it is not a religious concept at all. Still, I did not feel that there was a discernible ideology grounding the gender aspects, although that might change later—I’m reading the next book now.

As the narrative moved away from the initial setup, both of these issues became less prevalent, and they are not the main focus of the book; but I felt I still needed to remark on them. I went on and was very glad I did, because I had a great time reading the novel and started on the sequel right away. But that’s for the next article…

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is currently a finalist for the Hugo, Lambda and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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