Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Local Custom

Science fiction is not really a genre at all. It is an umbrella covering several types of speculative fiction past, present, and future. Perhaps my favorite of these genres is culture building, the examination of far-future civilizations, occasionally set on radically-changed Earths, but more often set on distant planets, with or without alien life.

This genre runs the gamut from lighter stories with their emphasis on plotting and adventure, such as Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories, to much more intricate explorations by writers such as C.J. Cherryh and Ursula K Le Guin with a lot of stuff inbetween, such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series (and I’m wondering if there is any reason why all of the above authors are female?). I have read 6 Pern novels–the first three and The Harper Hall of Pern series–and enjoyed them, but I have read dozens of Cherryh/Le Guin/Bradley novels and found them much more fulfilling with their increased depth.

There seems to be an entire cult of fans built around the Liaden series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, almost as large as similar to the cults of Darkover and Pern fans. Since the Laiden novels fall into the culture-building genre, I decided to buy the first omnibus published by Meisha Merlin, Pilot’s Choice. The first novel in the book is entitled Local Custom.

The Liaden are an alien race whose society is dependent on duty and obligation much moreso than Terran society. As in many C.J. Cherryh novels, Local Custom is primarily concerned with the interaction of Laiden and humans as members of both societies struggling to understand the other.

The main characters are Anne Smith, a Terran professor of Liaden literature, and Er Thom yos’Galan, a Liaden Master Trader who is the heir of his very rich and powerful Norval clan. Er Thom’s mother Petrella is the head of the clan who believes it is time for her son and heir to participate in an arranged formal marriage for the sake of producing his own heir, while Er Thom and Anne are passionately in love. The novel’s main concerns are the couple’s struggles to deal with each other’s cultural differences, plus Er Thom’s dilemma of balancing clan obligations with his love of Anne. This situation worsens when Er Thom visits Anne for the purpose of bidding her a final good-bye and learns of the existence of their son Shan. This adds a third element since Shan is a half-breed Terran and Liaden, who may or may not acceptable to the clan as Er Thom’s heir. And how would Anne feel about her son remaining behind on Liad for training rather than leaving with her?

The novel is a four-cornered struggle between Er Thom, Anne, Petrella, and Er Thom’s cousin Daav, his closest friend who holds power in the family almost equal to that of Petrella. Daav supports Er Thom, but he also has the obligation of protecting the family, whose all-important prestige might be damaged by accepting Shan into it; nor can he blatantly defy the wishes of Petrella.

Local Custom reminded me of a Victorian novel of manners, since that is basically what it is, but Lee and Miller are such good storytellers that, after a slow beginning Local Custom grew steadily more interesting and the characters more starkly-defined. By the last fifty pages, the novel was so absorbing it sped along like a thriller, while still being basically a novel of manners.

The novel was not without several flaws though. Although Local Custom is obviously influenced by the novels of C.J. Cherryh, it is much simpler than the average Cherryh novel, never reaching the level of sophisticated culture or deft plotting and characterization that Cherryh routinely wields. In particular, the writing lacks subtlety. Er Thom and Anne Smith tend to repeat obvious facts to themselves about their cultures purely for the purpose of reminding the reader in case they missed some subtlety. Consider the following exchange:

The young man stopped, head tipped to one side. Then he stuck out one of his big hands in the way that Terrans did when they wanted to initiate the behavior known as “shaking hands.” Inwardly, Er Thom sighed. Local custom.

He was saved from this particular bout with custom by the perpetrator himself, who lowered his hand, looking self-conscious. “Never mind. Won’t do to drop Scooter, will it? I’m Jerzy Entaglia. Theater Arts. Chairman of Theater Arts, which gives you an idea of the shape the department’s in.”

An introduction. Very good.

A more noticeable flaw is that a large part of the suspense comes from Er Thom and Anne misunderstanding the subtleties of each other’s cultures. And yet early in the book I encountered the following sequence about Anne Smith, who is described as a famous scholar of Liaden literature:

Liaden literature was her passion. She had read the stories of Shan el’Thrasin compulsively, addictively, scratching back along esoteric research lines for the oldest versions, sending for recordings of the famous Liaden prena’ma–the teller of tales. She knew what happened to those foolish enough to threaten a Liaden’s melant’i.

If Anne is so obsessed with Liaden literature, and a scholar as well, how can she possibly be so totally ignorant in her dealings with the man she loves?

Er Thom is one of 300 Liaden Master Traders whose work is exacting, requiring intimate knowledge of the regulations of a thousand ports of call, as well as a sure instinct for what will gain a profit at each. Liaden Master Traders deal with Terrans extensively, making it hard to believe that Er Thom is as ignorant of Terran culture as Anne is of Liaden culture.

And yet, much of the novel’s conflict arises from Anne and er Thom’s inability to understand each other’s cultures at all. This was not very believable.

There was also some over-the-top writing, particularly early in the novel when the authors seemed deliberately to give the impression they were writing what was basically a love story. An example of this is the following sequence:

She was back with him fully, fingers busy with his own clothing. “Er Thom, I need you. Quickly.”

“Quickly,” he agreed, and the passion built to a wave, hesitated in a pain that became ecstacy as it crashed, engulfing them entirely.

Fortunately, as I stated previously, the flaws are not so distracting as to ruin the novel, and they tended to fade away entirely in its second half. The main reason I discuss them is a bit of befuddlement that the authors’ editors did not request a rewrite to smooth them away.

Overall, Local Custom was a promising first novel in the Liaden series, and I am currently reading the second novel Scout’s Progress.


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