Monday, April 13, 2015

The Trees of Zharka by Nancy Mackenroth

"The people of Zharka are children of sin!  Long ago they so offended God that He has disowned us, and it is only by constant humility and submission, and veneration of His truly great works, that we can ever win back his favor."
I've had Nancy Mackenroth's 1975 novel The Trees of Zharka on my shelf for years and years.  I can't remember where, or when, or even why I bought it. Maybe I purchased it during a period when I was suffering a guilt trip over the fact that I so rarely read female authors, and this was the book by a woman in the used bookstore's SF section that looked least like a feminist utopia and most like it might be some kind of adventure. (Maybe it was the book by a woman that looked the shortest--the typeface on this thing is pretty huge, like something you'd see in a kid's book.)  Maybe the Jack Gaughan cover won me over.  Maybe it brought to mind fond memories of the Flame Trees of Thika TV show I watched as a kid. Maybe I was just intrigued by an author I had never heard of before.

Anyway, after many years of neglecting it, last weekend I decided to finally read The Trees of Zharka.  This is the only novel by Mackenroth listed on isfdb, and it apparently was only printed once, which is not exactly promising.  The people at Popular Library, however, assure me Mackenroth is one of the world's greatest authors, and I'm sure they wouldn't lie!

The people of planet Zharka live a grim quasi-medieval lifestyle, most of them farming by hand while a priesthood of a few hundred devote themselves to worshipping a Sacred Grove of seventy-nine trees.  Centuries ago their ancestors landed on Zharka and committed some unspecified "Great Sin," and ever since the colonists have been doing penance, the Zharkan clergy enforcing a regime of social humility and economic sterility.  Dancing and singing are forbidden, as is the development of even the most rudimentary technological improvements to increase productivity.

If we don't already have enough reasons to dislike these priests, Mackenroth makes clear that they are a bunch of sexists (women are not allowed to be priests and are forbidden entry to the Sacred Grove) and parasites who tax the farmers into misery.

Young clergyman and orphan Toma Alexan has a naturally sunny disposition and is skeptical about the Great Sin, and wonders why man, with his freedom and intelligence, should have to worship a bunch of static mindless trees.  Soon after graduating from the novitiate and attaining the rank of priest, Toma (or "Doubting Toma," as I like to call him) endeavors to learn the truth about the Great Sin, an investigation fraught with peril as it is conducted under the watchful eye of the High Priest, who is ever vigilant for heresy and blasphemy.

I'm happy to report that The Trees of Zharka is pretty good.  The style is straightforward and smooth, and the tale moves along briskly for 80 or 90% of its length, until we reach the climax.  The characters are all believable and interesting; the developing relationships between Toma and two young people who share Toma's cheerful attitude about life and his skepticism of the Zharkan religion, Toma's novice and this boy's pretty older sister, are pleasant to follow.

On page 116 of the 192-page book, as any reader who has surveyed the back cover has been expecting, the boy and Toma's love interest are both sentenced to death. Toma breaks them out of jail and leads them to the ruins of the first human settlement on Zharka.

Many Zharkans have psychic powers, what they call "gifts," and these play an important role in the story.  Toma can detect the psychic residue of emotions adhering to an area (when he enters a room he can tell who was there last and if they were happy, sad, angry, etc.), and he uses this power, and a diary he finds in the ruins, to figure out the secret of Zharka's history and the truth about the Great Sin. The Great Sin is racism!

Back in 2059 the Earth was overcrowded, which exacerbated racial tensions.  High-minded colonists of all races came to Zharka in their space ship, Equality, to build an egalitarian society.  All went well for ten years, until the colonists ran out of Earth booze.  At the big ten-year anniversary shindig the colonists tried out the wine they had made from Zharkan grapes, but it was too strong for them, and a tremendous race riot erupted.  (I guess it's like "Don't mention the war;" the thing you are trying hardest not to think of is the thing in the very front of your mind, looking for a chance to jump out.)

Of the one hundred families who landed on the planet only members of twenty-one survived the drunken imbroglio.  The survivors were so ashamed that they burned down the entire town, including all their books, computers, and machines, and moved away to live a life of penitential primitivism. In their new village they planted the Sacred Grove, one tree for each of the massacred families.  (In case you are wondering, all the survivors are of the same, unspecified, race, which is why race never comes up in the book until the end.)

Among the strengths of The Trees of Zharka are that the secret comes as a surprise, and the book isn't beating you over the head with its message from page one, instead focusing on the human stories of its characters.  On the other hand, the revelation of the secret comes out of nowhere, with zero foreshadowing, and I found it a little anticlimactic.  The way the secret is revealed to readers and the priesthood, Toma giving a long speech in a courtroom scene that takes up multiple days and more than 20 pages, is a little tedious.

On the last pages of the book it is clear that reforms are coming to Zharka.  Rather than living penitent lives in pursuit of forgiveness for an unknown crime of their ancestors, the Zharkans will try to build a society based on their forefathers' hopes and dreams of tolerance.  This means an end to sexism and the stifling of technological innovation.

I enjoyed the novel for the most part, though one could see it as slight, a fable instead of a rigorous attempt to depict a believable alien society (what the kids call "world-building") or address thorny issues like race relations and religion.  Maybe it was originally meant to be a young adult novel?

For example, there is no army or police force or knightly class, and the clerics have no weapons, so how do the relatively small numbers of scholarly priests enforce their stupid rules and exact their ruinous taxes on the farmers?  The farmers own their own land and are, presumably, physically hardy due to all that farm labor, so why don't the farmers rebel or just leave?  Also, there is the fact that Mackenroth sort of sidesteps what sometimes feels like the main issue of the book, racism, reducing the agency and responsibility of the characters by having the founders' riot result from inebriation and having only one race on the planet during the period covered by the novel.  Maybe the real main point of the novel is that you ought not let other people, including your wicked ancestors, affect your thinking and determine how you will lead your life.

So, not a rave review for The Trees of Zharka, but still a moderate recommendation.

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