In what will become a defining feature of the novel, as soon as one journey ends, another begins. Golden Witchbreed opens with Lynne de Lisle Christie arriving on the panet of Carrick V, know to its inhabitants as Orthe, but she must the take a week long journey by ship to reach the alien Court where she will take up the position of Earth envoy. This provides a sense of scale to the planet and allows Mary Gentle space to begin to reveal her world. Whatever complaints I have about the novel (and I have plenty), it is not thinly imagined; it is a detailed and fully committed world, groaning with geography, history and customs. Groaning, perhaps, to the degree it is over-stuffed.
Before the beginning of the novel proper, we are given a list of the “principal characters” (the scare quotes are because the majority of them are minor characters with only a handful of lines of dialogue). Starting with Christie herself, there follows the stoutly Anglo-Saxon names of the team of xenologists: Huxton, Elliot, Barrat, Thomas, Meredith. Then there are the aliens with whom they are making first contact: Dalzielle Kerys-Andrethe, T’An Suthani-Telestre, Crown of the Southlands, also called Suthafiori, Flower of the South; Sulis n’ri n’suth SuBassasen, T’An Melkathil; Gur’an Alahamu-te O’he-Oramu-te, a barbarian woman. And so on and so on. These two very different sets of names present two very different sets of problems for the reader and potential reader.
Firstly, there are those alien apostrophes. Gentle’s names are almost a parody of the attenuated names science fiction and fantasy so off-puttingly revels in. They all make sense (and are shortened) when introduced within the context of the novel itself but shoved up front they are, well, alienating. It is presumably there as an aid to the reader but not only it is totally unnecessary for this purpose but it can be an active barrier. I read Golden Witchbreed on holiday and a friend commented that given the cover and the character list she would never have given the book a chance. Usually I would blame the publisher for demanding this but the book also contains a wealth of appendices which suggest the author’s hand. Gentle includes a glossary-cum-encyclopaedia (which, as always, doesn’t contain the term you are searching for), the local calendar, instructions for an Orthean board game and not one but two maps. There is an embarrassment of worldbling on display and, even for those of us well-schooled in the protocols of science fiction, such gluttony can be hard to stomach.
Secondly, why are all the humans British? Christie introduces herself as being from the British Isles which makes a sort of sense in a culture which places so much emphasis on geographical heritage but even in 1985 when the book was first published this must have seemed a slightly archaic formulation. After all, Falklands fillip notwithstanding, Britannia didn’t rule the waves. She seems to be doing pretty well in Earth’s space-faring Dominion. At the same time we are cautioned: “The focus of the world has long since shifted east; Asia holds the twenty-first century’s future. Nothing of real importance happens in the declining West.” (p.31-32) Why then are Christie and the whole xeno-team British? And why is no other nationality ever mentioned again? It is evidence of a disharmony between Gentle’s strong interest in the world of Orthe and her weak interest in the universe of the Dominion.
The world of Orthe (or, at least, the two continents we see) is at a relatively uniform level of development, roughly equivalent to 16th Century Europe. Initially viewed as a pre-tech civilisation, it soon becomes clear it is post-tech and that Ortheans are very happy with this state of affairs. The Ortheans themselves are extremely humanoid to the extent that you could easily overlook their sixth digit or nictitating membrane.
The universe of the Dominion is presented with less clarity but we know it is a universe in which intelligent life is abundant. Humanity has discovered FTL and this has opened up extra-solar planets to us, all of which appear to be populated. The fact that Orthe is merely one of a hundred thousand civilisations perhaps explains why the faded empire of the British Isles is free to go off and explore but it doesn’t explain how they possess the ability to do so. Are resources really so little of an issue for the “declining West” that they can arrange for an interstellar spaceship to drop off a single passenger on another planet? Regardless of that, Gentle is at pains to tell us that the planet is, in fact, special. It is: “the first socially mobile pretech world on record” (p.47) Further more: “All societies do some division of labour according to sex – all but this one.” (p.47) But apparently no one but the Brits are interested.
The xeno-team are already in situ but have been forbidden from leaving the capital and so are awaiting the envoy’s arrival. Her role isn’t exactly clear but Christie is told that (unlike the people with actual qualifications) she is free to roam around, immersing herself in this society. So the journey begins again and the novel becomes a rather dull planetary romance. In this it resembles nothing so much as the worst type of epic fantasy: the longeurs, the endless travel, the sight-seeing and, of course, the idiot plotting. To facilitate this, Christie is remarkably ill-equipped for her mission: she is 26 and has little previous experience. We learn that her uncle is “minister for the department” – which reinforces the strange sense of parochialism, that first contact operations are directed out of Whitehall – and that he got her the job:
“That was when I applied for the off-Earth postings… I’d always sworn never to use family influences… That noble resolution lasted until I realised how badly I wanted in to the ET department… Would I be off Earth without that influence? Yes. Would it have happened this soon? Ah, now, that’s another question.” (p.199-200)
It is question with a ready answer. She is not a politician or a sociologist, lacking both the aptitude and training. Her diplomatic style seems to be to go native at the first opportunity whilst retaining a casual bigotry about said natives: “He was a little mad, even for an Orthean.” (p.361) Nor does she seem very practical; she packs formal skirts and jackets but not a cagoule. A Goretex waterproof would be high on my list of items to bring to a pre-tech world. Worst of all, she is utterly incurious. Everything about the Ortheans is mysterious to her but she takes no interest in finding out about them and, even when she does, Gentle without holds this information. Halfway through the novel Christie suddenly discovers that all Ortheans possess psychic memories of their ancestors. “The more I did find out about Orthe, the more I was depressed by my total ignorance.” (p.209) And so she should be – how can she only now have discovered this? What on Earth have the xeno-team been doing? This authorial reticence has its ludicrous apogee when Christie has sex with an Orthean and the whole experience is glossed thus: “Any difficulties we had were habit and not physiological.” (p.129)
In another display of naivete, when she is summoned by a mysterious figure known as the Hexenmeister, she simply pootles off to see him without asking anyone about him. It is hard to begrudge her this though, since, finally, with Chapter 24 (299 pages into the novel) we start to make some narrative progress after the perpetual journeying by foot, beast and ship. Or so it at first appears.
The first reference to the Golden Witchbreed of the title comes in a typical lecture on geo-politics:
Peir-Dadeni and Ymir are pro-Earth. Rimon over the river… uncertain. Roehmonde’s never supported any contact with your Otherworld, nor has Melkathi; but then, nothing good ever came out of Melkathi. Morvren Freeport would trade with the Golden Witchbreeds themselves. (p.36)
Amongst the stodge of secondary world description the casual reference to the Witchbreed is rather thrilling and more is teased out over the course of the novel. They were the highly advanced civilisation whose empire on Orthe fell several millennia ago. (Despite leaving vast examples of technology that surpasses anything that humanity can produce they apparently never bothered with space flight.) They are reviled by the majority of Orthe as enslavers and destroyers but a few still claim ancestral links. It looks at first as if the interlude with the Hexenmeister is going to delve into this history but no, the witchbreed exist solely as an opportunity to slander Christie in a threadbare web of statecraft.
We are repeatedly told of the Orthean love of intrigue and duplicity but everyone is presented as essentially guileless. On page 266 Christie’s servant passes her a message which proves to be an attempt to set her up for the murder of a local dignitary. It is only page 342 that anyone decides to ask the servant who actually gave her the message to pass on. Once this is revealed – with enough drama to end the chapter on a cliffhanger – the named individual immediately confesses. Towards the end there is a shock revelation straight out of a whodunit where the person you least expect turns out to be the bad guy. It is all very tiresome.
In many ways it shares the same fundamental flaw as Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time: to have invented a richly imagined alternative culture and then failed to find a way to convert this into a novel. Niall Harrison calls the novel a “magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess” and it is but I’m not sure that is enough.