Friday, March 11, 2016

Saltflower by Sydney Van Scyoc

She touched her temples, trying to crease away the threatening pain of her own conflicted instincts.  The urgent desire she felt when their eyes fused, the desire to hold in her hand a crystal she had never seen, never imagined, to press it to her lips--that desire was no rational part of her total personality.
I recently read and appreciated Sydney Van Scyoc's 1968 story "A Visit to Cleveland General" and decided to sample more of her work.  When I saw 1971's Saltflower, a novel put out by Avon (V2386) with a fetching Paul Lehr cover, on the shelf at Half Price Books last week, I picked it up, and this week I read it.

The year is 2024.  Hadley Greer isn't like other seventeen-year-old girls.  For one thing she is a working scientist with a Ph.D. For another she has silver hair (that sometimes moves of its own accord!) and silver eyes. She is also prone to headaches and to visions of a white world where stand buildings made of jewels.  In June she has an irresistible urge to travel to Utah's Great Salt Desert and join Dr. Braith's New Purification Colony.

You see, back in the 1970s three alien space ships appeared over North America and dropped crystal seeds in the Salt Desert, and in 2006 Hadley's mother, visiting the desert, surrendered to the irresistible urge to eat one of these seeds.  (This book is all about people's irresistible urges, unbidden desires, and irrational instincts.  Nobody makes a rational decision in this novel, everybody just acts on crazy impulses.)  As happens so often in science fiction stories, we have a case of cross-species fertilization--Hadley is a hybrid, half human and half alien.

Dr. Braith founded his commune, a tent city with a robot labor force to cook and clean, a few years ago on the salt flats.  He is a religious kook who thinks the three space ships will return (a "Second Coming") and carry away his faithful, mostly gullible old-timers whom everybody calls "Sheep."  Braith's kookiness stems from the death of his young son and his failed marriage.

Beyond the perimeter of the tent city, deep in the barren salt flats, Hadley finds a spot where her visions are more vivid and enduring than ever before.  In these visions she sees the three automated space ships that visited the Earth in the '70s (and learns they exploded in outer space after seeding the Earth and so will not be coming back), explores a jeweled city, and observes the lives of the slender silver-haired aliens who are her paternal relatives.  These aliens seeded the Earth because they were going extinct.

Trouble at Dr. Braith's colony threatens to sidetrack Hadley's dream quest.  The government is spying on the colony, curious about Hadley and the six other young half-Earthling, half-extraterrestrial people ("transracials," they are called) there among the scores of senior citizen cultists.  When Sheep (including government infiltrators) start turning up murdered, the federal domestic intelligence agency (called "SIB" instead of FBI in this novel) steps up its efforts, even throwing a cordon of sensors around the tent city and refusing to let people leave.  Hadley makes herself a set of clothes out of aluminum foil; this shielding makes her invisible to the feds' detectors so she can keep going to her vision spot.

Halfway through the novel the six transracials who preceded Hadley at the commune use their powers to travel through a portal to an alien world where they can start a new hybrid civilization; Hadley (and we readers) are left behind.  In her most detailed vision yet Hadley learns why her alien ancestors' population declined to the point of extinction.  This dream includes explicit sex scenes--the alien sex act consists of the man handing the woman a crystal which contains his seed.  The sight of the crystal makes the woman's hands and lips throb and swell with desire, and swallowing it brings her to ecstasy.  The reason the aliens went extinct is that a disease struck them that caused a man's life force to enter his crystal seed, so that he died when his wife ate it.  (The young transracials are immune to this disease; I guess we call that "hybrid vigor.")

Even though the legacy of the alien race has been preserved, the book drags on and on, resolving subplots about Hadley's love life, the murders, and the robots.  Hadley decides to marry the head of the SIB force, Richard Brecker, who has been flirting with her as part of his mission of spying on her, and Brecker uses holograms to trick Braith into thinking the three alien ships have returned and revealing himself to be the murderer.

This book is pretty damn boring.  Hadley, and the other characters, are driven by subconscious urges and spend their time watching visions instead of making any decisions or doing much of anything, so the story lacks tension or urgency.  None of the characters is sympathetic or interesting, and neither is the alien race; we don't learn anything about them that would make us care whether or not they went extinct. There are no ups and downs, no climaxes; the entire book has the same bland flat tone, the same glacial pace and repetitive scenes about the commune and the visions. Van Scyoc describes quotidian events, like making a dress or walking along a street or eating an orange, in tedious detail. Saltflower, 176 pages of quite small print, feels very very long, but after you've read it you realize very little really happened.

Because it is slow and lacking in excitement, and because of all the visions, Saltflower feels dreamlike.  The fact that things often happen that don't ring true (in some ways this is more of a fantasy novel than a "real" SF novel) adds to this atmosphere of hazy unreality.  For example, every other page Hadley's hair moves like tentacles or snakes--it is independently alive and responds to stimuli like sunlight or people's actions--yet none of the normal pure strain humans ever seem to notice this shockingly bizarre phenomenon.

Saltflower doesn't feel like it is meant to entertain, so is Van Scyoc trying to transmit to us some important idea or message?  Well, Van Scyoc is against racism and discrimination; there is a scene in which a guy calls Hadley a "freako" because of her silver hair, and head SIB agent Richard Brecker  is black and has trouble because his second in command, an albino, is a member of a racist faction of the SIB who tries to undermine him.  Don't worry, social-justice types, the albino gets killed by a robot; at times I thought the robots were supposed to represent the lower classes.  This diversity business (as we might call it today) doesn't take up many pages, though.

Religion, particularly fringe cults, are a theme of the novel; I have to assume Braith's New Purification Colony is partly inspired by Charles Manson's murderous "family" and perhaps other kooky cults and communes.

Looking beyond the straightforward, somewhat superficial themes of prejudice and religion, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that Saltflower's main topic is marriage and the family. (Remember, Van Scyoc's "A Visit to Cleveland General" was all about mothers and siblings.) Clues: the SIB agents are called "SIBlings," and how Dr. Braith took up his bizarre religious convictions because his son died and his marriage failed, and how he treats one of the transracials as a surrogate son, lavishing affection and trust upon him. The marriage customs and sex lives of the aliens are at the center of the plot and are the most interesting and unusual thing about the novel. (In fact, the nature of their sex lives is just about the only thing we learn about these aliens.) Is the fact that the plague that kills the aliens is linked to their sexual biology a means for Van Scyoc to remind us how painful, even destructive, love relationships can be?

French edition
I think Saltflower is also about the quest for knowledge. Hadley spends the novel trying various means to mine visions from her subconscious "racial memory" and learn about her paternal heritage, while the SIB people are trying to learn about the transracials and then trying to solve the murders. Reporters, archetypal seekers after knowledge, come to the commune and ask lots of probing questions. In the same way that Van Scyoc in this novel and in "A Visit to Cleveland General" shows dangerous and oppressive facets of love and family relationships, in Saltflower she reminds us of the possible drawbacks, the downsides, of knowledge. (While science fiction often praises science and knowledge, and of course we have all heard cliches like "The truth will set you free" hundreds of times, there is an opposing tradition, in genre literature in particular, that argues there are things "man was not meant to know," and that some knowledge can only ruin you psychologically--all those Lovecraft characters who learn truths and go bonkers, for example.) Not only are the journalists in Saltflower portrayed as a bunch of jerks, but several characters who gain knowledge suffer psychologically from the possession of that knowledge, leading to assertions that ignorance is bliss.

Saltflower is a serious book with worthwhile ideas, but it is like five times as long as it should be.  As a 25 or 35 page story it would work, but at 176 pages it is way too long and boring.  No fun, no jokes, no excitement, lots of tedious and repetitive scenes of boring people doing boring stuff in a boring setting: gotta give it a thumbs down.  

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