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A Thousand Words for Stranger, Julie E. Czerneda, DAW, 1997, 366 pp.
Is science fiction dead? Sometimes I am astonished that the question comes up at all. But it seems to recur (see a recent column by Spinrad in Asimov's on the subject), and I have been collecting evidence, pro and con. I believe there is a place on the spectrum between Sci-Fi Inc. (Spinrad's catchphrase for media tie-ins and other fluff) and the literary/avant garde edge, a place that has become home to many new storytellers. People who have a nicely balanced sense of style and content, who know how to use literary devices along with science, who embed characterization in their philosophical speculations. I have read a number of astonishing debut novels in the 90s, highly polished works that can only bode well for science fiction as these authors expand on their vision and develop their careers. My best evidence was found in three specific debuts: Jablokov's Carve the Sky, Nagata's The Bohr Maker, and Asaro's Primary Inversion. Now I can add another author and book to that list, Czerneda's A Thousand Words for Stranger. Like the other three books I mentioned, A Thousand Words for Stranger is by no means perfect (and probably stands, to its own loss, too far in the shadow of Primary Inversion). But Czerneda's writing has much to recommend it, and the book has several notable strengths.
A Thousand Words for Stranger opens with a Prelude, in which two Enforcers are following a Clansman and Clanswoman -- the Enforcers are the police of the Trade Pact between various planets, but the Clan (a group of humanoids with powerful mental abilities) aren't part of that Pact. Then the Clanspeople are attacked, and the woman wanders off on her own. In Chapter 1, we find out that this woman is Sira, who is mindblocked and has no memories, only strange compulsions which govern her behaviour. She finally meets up with Morgan, a space trader, and they try to escape. The Enforcers, the Clan, and various enemies are all in pursuit. Czerneda balances each chapter nicely between the opening sections, which are written in first-person from Sira's point of view, and the Interludes which generally close each chapter, which contain some story thread of the pursuers. After a number of adventures, Sira arrives at a showdown with the Clan Council and her own past.
Czerneda's characters are interesting and well-portrayed. Sira Morgan (as the mind-blocked version calls herself) is tough and sympathetic, although I was disappointed that she was mostly passive and didn't do anything clever until Chapter 8. In any case, Czerneda does differentiate Sira from other cases of amnesia in the genre (like Corwin's in Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber) and makes good use of the division between Sira Morgan and Sira di Sarc. Sira di Sarc is the pre-amnesiac version of Sira, who Sira Morgan has come to dread because of the loss of identity such a merger would entail. Czerneda provides some ironic commentary about questions of who we really are -- is Sira's socially constructed identity the "real" one? Or is she the version who has had all those veneers stripped away? Sira Morgan hears repeatedly that she will come to hate Morgan, the space trader, when she regains her memories of her di Sarc persona, so the questions are never superfluous. Meanwhile, Morgan is also a deeply written character, whose nature also affects the course of the book.
As I mentioned, Czerneda divides most chapters of A Thousand Words for Stranger into two sections -- the first-person Sira storyline and the various Interludes, written in third-person and concerning her pursuers. This means that Czerneda can capitalize on the immediacy of first-person for gathering reader empathy for Sira and simultaneously provide the big picture (which a first-person narrative, for good or ill, often loses). The various pursuers exist only as a reflection of Sira's importance to the plot, but they themselves are also well-portrayed and interesting. In the Prelude, for example, we meet P'tr wit 'Whix (a birdlike alien) and his human partner, Terk, the Trade Pact Enforcers. They are involved in most of the Interludes that follow, and are believable in their interaction and motivations. Rael is a powerful Clanswoman, Yihtor is just plain evil scum, Huido is a helpful friend, and all of these (and more) make the book colourful and coherent to its constructed future.
Czerneda's book becomes very feudal in its view of marriage and gain of power. The Clan and their ways remind me a great deal of the Bene Gesserit in Dune, with their extensive breeding schemes. But here, a Clanswoman needs to find a mate as powerful as she is (to make heirs even more powerful), or else the unlucky Clansman will die in the ceremony of Choice. The Clan obviously did not consider the logical conclusion of such a scheme, as Sira di Sarc's fate indicates. And, as much as Sira di Sarc's scheme for Sira Morgan helps to solve the problem, I am a little put off by the way Sira, a forceful, compassionate character, is reduced to a broodmare in a vast breeding scheme (and I am reminded uncomfortably of Card's Wyrms). Is there some kind of Butlerian Jihad (Herbert's almost plausible excuse) in Czerneda's universe, making any kind of fiddling with human DNA immoral or illegal? I felt that the biological speculations of A Thousand Words for Stranger did not match up to the rest of this particular future, leaving the main dilemma somewhat unsupported.
A Thousand Words for Stranger is a solid debut, with a few flaws as mentioned, but a considerable accomplishment nonetheless. Czerneda is the kind of writer that leaves me eager to see what she will do next, and what she will do for the genre of science fiction. SF, RIP? Hardly.
Last modified: September 21, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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