Completed 10/11/2019, Reviewed 10/11/2019
I went into this book with a lot of anticipation. I have not been a fan of Melissa Scott’s works so far, but “Shadow Man” won a Lambda Literary award and is in the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of fame. As of this writing, she’s won four of the former award, two of the latter. She seems to be the darling of the LGBTQ literary award circuit. I thought this book would be different. It’s about a planet with five sexes and nine sexualities, which was really intriguing. Well, the author pulled off the world-building really well, but the execution of the story was terrible. It was a slog to get through. It was only three hundred pages long and nothing happens for the first two hundred. But by the last third I was only barely interested. I figure this book won its accolades for the concept, because the plot has a lot to be desired.
First, the world-building: It turns out that faster than light travel required a drug that causes sexual mutations. So now the colonies of earth have five sexes because of the FTL mutation. This one planet named Hara has been isolated from the rest of human colonization for several hundred years. Only in the last hundred has contact been re-established. During the period of isolation, Hara decided that persons with the mutation (mems, fems, and herms, as in mostly male, mostly female, and hermaphrodites) must pick a gender when they attain adulthood to maintain the binary gender system. This is unlike the rest of the colonies where the other sexes have been accepted and integrated into society as themselves. Now that Hara is in contact with the rest of humanity, called the Concord, they are receiving pressure from without and within to change their social order. The governments and about half the people of Hara are resisting mightily.
Now, the plot: Warreven is a herm who is a lawyer, specializing in defending mems, fems, and herms relegated to the sex trade because they don’t fit in with the rest of society. Tatian is an off-worlder man, a corporate executive from the Concord. The paths of the two cross. Warreven becomes an Important Man in a rigged election, though he didn’t want the office, but uses his new role to try to bring sexual equality to the planet. Tatian helps him with his mission.
That’s the plot, there’s not much more to it. The first two hundred pages are about the political and corporate dealings that are going on on Hara. They are inconsequential to the plot. There’s basically nothing in the first two hundred pages that’s needed for the last third, except for the world-building. At the best, it introduces characters and concepts, and gives a little character development. At its worst, it’s just really dry reading. Nothing interesting happens. Even the dialogue is uninteresting.
There were no real relationships in the book. I was hoping that Warreven and Tatian would become intimately involved, just to make the book more interesting. They only develop a friendship with cursory attractions to each other.
There are a lot of Haran and Concord terms requiring two appendices. I had an issue with lots of the Haran words. They were kind of slurs and misspellings of English or French words. There is baas for boss, baanket for banquet, and memore for memorial. While I appreciate the use of new words in science fiction, these just seemed lazy. One thing I do have to give props to the author for is the use of other pronouns for the mems, fems, and herms. It was very inventive and used really well.
I give this book two stars out of five. Just having an interesting concept and world-building is not enough to carry a book. The plot has to be interesting too. You can’t have two hundred pages of filler to get a message across that could have been told in a hundred-page novella. In my quest to read all the books on the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Resource List I curated for Worlds Without End, I have two more Melissa Scott books to read, and from my experience with her in her other four, I’m not looking forward to them.