Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Rissa Kerguelen (and The Long View) by F. M. Busby

"I shared his quarters, not by my own choice."
Now the other's cheeks flushed; she gripped Rissa's arm.  "You say my brother raped or enslaved you?"
Rissa spoke carefully.  "No. He could not have done so--I was trained, remember, by Erika.  To some extent he did coerce me.  I accepted that coercion because the alternative was to kill him and fight my way off the ship.  And I needed the ride."
"You?  You couldn't kill Tregare!"
"I think I could have."
Front of my copy
Way back in the dark ages before this blog was born I read F. M. Busby's Cage a Man and liked it, so when I saw the 1977 Berkley Medallion omnibus edition of Rissa Kerguelen and The Long View (both published in hardcover in 1976) with its pleasant Richard Powers cover I bought it. Perusing isfdb reveals that the Rissa books have a somewhat confusing publication history: in '76 the "Saga of Rissa," described as a  "Science Fiction Adventure Masterpiece" was put out in two hardcover volumes with Paul Lehr covers.  In '77 came the edition I own, the paperback one-volume version with the Powers cover. Then in the 1980s the saga was republished in three paperback volumes with Barclay Shaw covers.  (Jane Gaskell's Atlan series has a similarly confusing publication history, some editions being in four volumes, some in five.)  Perhaps adding to the confusion, in 1980 a third book in the Rissa universe starring a different protagonist, Zelde M'Tana, was released, followed by four more books featuring various personages in the same milieu.

Looking at the front and back covers of my copy, and the cover images of other editions, I am getting the idea Rissa Kerguelen is a long (630 pages!) space opera in which a teenage girl ("Tomorrow's Ultimate Woman") does that Julius Caesar/Charles Edward Stuart/Napoleon Bonaparte/Francisco Franco thing in which you build up an army out in the provinces and then invade your own (perhaps merely nominal) home country.  In SF, we see Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone and the guy from Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle pull the same gag.  The people who do this are mostly jerks (to put it mildly!), but the triumphalist nature of the back cover text suggests Rissa is fully justified in launching her coup, counter revolution, "Crusade of Vengeance," or whatever it is.  Well, let's stop guessing and start reading about Rissa and her tumultuous youth.

In the one-page prologue we glimpse the history of the decades before Rissa's birth: the struggle between United Energy and Transport, a sort of corporation/political party, and the Hulzein Establishment, a matriarchal organization run first by Heidele Hulzein and then a series of her parthenogenetic clones, first her genetically identical "daughter" Renalle and then Renalle's own genetically identical "daughter" Erika.  Having defeated Synthetic Foods in the North American election, UET gained total control of North America and drove the Hulzein Establishment off the continent.

In Part One of Rissa Kerguelen, "Young Rissa," five-year-old Rissa's parents, TV journalists, are killed in a riot.  The UET government claims they were participating in the riot, and so seizes all their assets and throws Rissa into the local Total Welfare Center, a sort of orphanage/debtors' prison/helot apparatus where people are basically slaves owned by the government and rented out to private entities as menial labor.  Rissa grows up in the Welfare Center, experimenting with lesbianism (she prefers masturbation!) and showing signs that she is a natural leader who has learned compassion from an uncle (who also enjoined her to seek revenge on the military officer who killed her parents in that riot.)  Because she was taught to read at age four (they don't teach literacy at the Welfare Center), in her teens Rissa doesn't have to clean houses--instead she is given the position of office clerk to a corrupt Welfare bureaucrat--part of her daily duties is to be used sexually by the bureaucrat.  (When Rissa is on her period, we are told, "the hard floor hurt her knees.")

To keep the Welfare peeps (30% of the population) docile, there is a periodic lottery, and when she is 16 or so the lottery's winner is Rissa!  She buys her freedom and is contacted by an agent of the Underground, one of her parents' journalist buddies.  Rissa is spirited away to Argentina, to Hulzein Establishment HQ, where she is taught espionage and commando skills.  The Establishment, headed by 70-something Erika Hulzein, rules Argentina ("In this country, if a law annoys Erika, she has it changed") without facing the burden of having to win any elections, and seems almost as tyrannical as UET--surveilling everybody, meting out beatings to people who say the wrong thing, and taking advantage of teenagers sexually--Rissa becomes one of Erika Hulzein's "rotating stable of concubines."

After a year of training, Rissa, in an elaborate disguise, takes a star ship ride in deep freeze that feels like eight months for the passengers on the ship, but is twelve years in the rest of the universe.  UET controls space travel, having stolen the interstellar drive technology from some peaceful aliens known as the Shrakken some fifty years ago, when the Shrakken paid a friendly visit to Earth.  The crews of many UET ships mutiny, however, and there is an entire anti-UET society on the "Hidden Worlds" discovered and colonized by these space pirates.  Rissa gets in touch with a Hulzein operative and books passage on the ship of the meanest of all the space pirates, Tregare; his ship is the most heavily armed of all the mutineers' vessels.  Tregare has a rotating stable of concubines of his own, to which he adds Rissa.  A former member of this stable is the aforementioned Zelde M'Tana, now one of Tregare's officers.

(Rissa Kerguelen is full of non-consensual and not-quite-consensual sex, and Busby's whole book utilizes the strategy we see so often in fiction and journalism of exploiting readers' morbid or prurient fascination with such crimes and grievous misfortunes as sex slavery and mutilation, while at the same time taking care to condemn criminals and sympathize with victims.  Blurring the line between consensual and non-consensual sex is one of his ways of doing this; another is describing in gruesome detail all the scars borne and torture suffered at the hands of UET by people of the Hidden Worlds.  Yet another way is recounting the various crimes attributed to Tregare and later having them explained away as rumors and exaggerations--we get to enjoy the excitement of Rissa having sex with a bad boy, and then any guilt over our titillation is absolved when we learn that he is not so bad after all.  I think of this as "having your cake and eating it, too" or "working both sides of the street.")    

Tregare's ship brings Rissa to the most important of the Hidden Worlds, a planet with the evocative name of "Number One."  Here Rissa meets another of Renalle Hulzein's clones, Liesel, Erika's "sister."  Erika is head of the Hulzein concern on Number One, the Hulzein Lodge, one of the planet's numerous aristocratic houses.  SF writers, and readers, love a setting in which great oligarchic houses with abstruse traditions and elaborate customs compete via political skullduggery, and here we have another one.  Personally, I'm not very keen on this sort of setting--I find political marriages, rumor mongering, and backstabbing among dozens of characters to be confusing and boring. And, while I have noting against escapist entertainment, I think that if SF wants to be "a literature of ideas" it should address the real political controversies of our lifetimes, like the proper role of the state, instead of indulging in rehashes of the power struggles between the Borgias and the Medicis or the houses of York and Lancaster or whoever. I can't get worked up over whether Lord Blahblahblah's incestuous marriage with Duke Sofisto's niece will lead to him drinking arsenic at the feast or building a coalition to defenestrate Baron Epicrano, but I can get intrigued or agitated when an author celebrates the supposed utopian possibilities of an interventionist government made up of experts or issues a dire warning of the dangers of just such a government.

Anyway, Rissa learns that Tregare is Liesel's son, born of a traditional sexual union--Liesel chose old-fashioned procreation  because repeated parthenogenetic cloning was resulting in children with debilitating birth defects.  Liesel had to hide Tregare from the rest of the Hulzein matriarchy, as they would accept no male heir and would kill him if they had the chance.  Rissa becomes deeply integrated into the Hulzein Lodge, meeting lots and lots of minor characters, and at the end of Part One finding herself in an arranged political marriage, more or less without her prior consent, to Tregare.

Back of my copy
Much of the real drama in the second half of Part One concerns Rissa preparing for and engaging in a duel to the death with a member of one of the Number One's other numerous great houses.  This duel is fought with no weapons, and, in fact, no clothes!  (Rissa Kerguelen is one of the numerous SF books that promotes nudism, one of Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeons's hobby horses.)  The duel is described in detail, and is pretty gross, with eye gougings, efforts to rip off genitals, torn fingernails, loosened teeth, etc.

People who think fiction should promote diversity may appreciate the fact that Rissa Kerguelen is not only dominated by ruthless women rulers and expert female killers, but is full of sympathetic black, Asian, albino, gay, lesbian, obese and disabled characters.  More interesting to me, however, was a villainous character who is "almost obscenely graceful" and purportedly became an assassin because of his frustrations over being impotent with women.  (I'm still not sure if with this character if Busby is exploiting disgust with male homosexuals or making fun of men who suffer some kind of sexual dysfunction.) This character is killed by an unnamed representative of Number One's ruling order (the referee at the naked duel) after criticizing the oligarchs ("You frunks!  You all hide behind status, don't you?") and breaking their rules.  I thought it interesting that, in a book that romanticizes being a rebel and opposing "the system," that Busby would include a guy who opposed another undemocratic and elitist system and, instead of romanticizing him, portray him being humiliated without his arguments against that oligarchy even being addressed.  (Another case of Busby working both sides of the street, appealing to both left-wing and right-wing readers?  Or Busby criticizing modern socialistic elitism and endorsing old-fashioned aristocratic elitism?)

Oy, I probably should have covered the 630-page Rissa saga in three blog posts, as if I was reading those 1980s editions in which all three Parts have their own book, but instead I am cramming my whole Rissa experience into one long post.  If you care what I have to say about disguise-and-bare-handed-killing expert Rissa Kerguelen's further career, click below to read on!

Part Two of the epic that the Seattle Times declared "A blockbuster" is called "Rissa and Tregare."  There are a ton of plot threads and subplots in this part of the novel:

1) There is a lot of business stuff as Rissa helps Liesel try to take over planet Number One by doing the stuff business people are always doing in fiction, like buying stock in underhanded ways to take over other people's companies by a surprise revelation at a shareholders' meeting that they have a "controlling interest" of votes.

2) Liesel's daughter (Tregare's sister) falls in love with somebody with lower status--will would-be-world-ruler Liesel approve of their marriage?  (This is one of several romances that blossoms over the course of Parts Two and Three.  Thanks to the free and easy ideas about sex that people have on Number One, Rissa can still have sex with the members of these other couples.)

3) Rissa has never had an orgasm while having sex with another person, and there is considerable attention paid to her sex life with her husband Tregare--will she have an orgasm with him?  We also accompany Rissa on her doctor's appointments to observe how her ova (and Tregare's sperm) are preserved so their line can continue via test tube children should they get killed in outer space.

4) Tregare is trying to build up a space fleet with which to attack UET colonies and overthrow UET's government on Earth.  This is the "main" plot, and we get many pages of Ttreagre and Rissa's negotiations with other ship owners and ship captains and interviews of prospective crew members for the ships, as well as scenes of Rissa working on blueprints--redesigning ships' weapons systems--and installing gun turrets on the ships.  (Rissa can do anything--she is an engineer and a technician as well as a genius martial artist, skilled pilot, expert gunner, and master of disguise.  The whole book, in fact, is Rissa proving she is better than everybody else at everything--and being all humble about it!)

5) Rissa's brother Ivan arrives on Number One; he was sprung from Welfare and trained by the Hulzeins in Argentina to be an expert killer, just like Rissa was, but his mind still contains hypnotic suggestions put there by UET.  Psychological damage keeps Ivan from achieving an erection with another person, and, in a scene that will remind SF fans of Heinlein's and Sturgeon's skepticism about the incest taboo (and make many people cringe), Rissa teaches her brother how to have sex!  (And I don't mean by reading to him from a book!)  Yikes!

6) The aliens from whom UET stole the secret of the interstellar drive reappear--will they go to war with the Hidden Worlds or be friends?  Friends, it turns out, but not before one of them rapes Rissa.  All is forgiven, however--you see, the alien Shrakken females periodically have the undeniable urge to inject their eggs into a host creature, and Rissa just happened to be the nearest host.  Having been raped so many times by a human penis, Rissa is able to bounce right back from being raped with an alien ovipositor.  Fortunately, the alien eggs are removed from Rissa before they hatch.

As Part Two ends, Tergare's fleet, with Rissa, Ivan, and a score or more of minor characters and hundreds of extras aboard, is ready to head out to attack the most important UET base outside of Earth, planet Stronghold.

Part Three of Rissa Kerguelen is entitled "The Long View," a reference to the fact that, in a society in which you can get on a space ship in January and get off it in what feels like August to you to find that twelve years have passed for your friends and investments on Earth, you have to think far ahead when you make decisions, be they about business, politics or human relationships.  The Hulzeins constantly use the phrase "the long view" and are famous for making such calculations.  Part Three begins on page 365 of my edition, and is 265 pages long.  And these are full pages--Busby doesn't break these Parts into chapters, it's just page after page of solid text!

Tregare and Rissa quickly take over Stronghold--most of the personnel there are eager to switch sides.  So we get still more pages of interviews because Tregare needs people to crew the new ships and to staff his new base.  One of the captive UET diehards challenges Tregare to a duel with spaceships, and Tregare accepts!  Tregare has a score to settle with this guy, because years ago when a mere trainee spaceman, Tregare witnessed him stripping girls naked and throwing them out an airlock while they urinated and vomited in terror!  (Maybe Rissa Kerguelen qualifies as "grimdark.")

Tregare and his fleet remain at Stronghold for a few years, capturing every UET ship that comes by--there are no FTL communications devices, so nobody on Earth knows Stronghold is in rebel hands.  Tregare and Rissa have a child, as do some minor characters.  Yes, there are scenes in which grandparents marvel at their grandkids and talk about whose nose and eyes they got.  Finally the fleet sets out to conquer Earth; when they get there fewer than six years have passed for Rissa, but almost sixty have passed on Earth, and UET has control of almost the entire world, and 70% of people are in the Total Welfare centers.  Only Israel, Australia (the land down under has developed a deterrent weapon capable of blowing up the entire planet) and Hulzein South America remain outside UET's grip.  The prime minister of Australia is the grandson of the woman who helped Rissa escape North America 400 pages ago, and the admiral of the UET spacefleet that intercepts Tregare's fleet is the grandson of the man who killed Rissa and Ivan's parents 450 pages ago, and the head of the Hulzein Establishment is Lena, the clone of Erika's cloned "daughter" Frieda.  (Family, and the way descendants resemble their ancestors, is a pervasive theme of this novel, which could be accused of genetic determinism.)

After the UET fleet is destroyed, Tregare and Rissa systematically take control of the Earth, spending page after page in negotiations with defeated UET personnel and anti-UET entities like the Underground, the Mafia, Australia, and the Hulzein Establishment.  Many interviews of prospective members of the new government ensue.  (This is a SF novel for all of you out there who work in HR.)  For some of these negotiations, Rissa puts on her elaborate disguises.  More interestingly, we learn some history of how the Total Welfare System began, as a response to overpopulation and unemployment in North America, an attempt to head off the even more harsh and less organized methods employed earlier by governments in India, China and Africa when they faced catastrophic overpopulation.  And more sensationally, Rissa and Tregare see evidence and hear stories about all kinds of atrocities committed by UET.  Busby is really into describing wounds, scars, torture, and sex crimes.

The big surprise here at the end of the book is that the current parthenogenetic clone at the head of the Hulzein Establishment, Lena, due to being a copy of a copy of a copy, is a grotesque and insane cripple, cruel and erratic.  Through proxies on the UET ruling Committee, Lena has largely controlled UET for the last few years, and is unwilling to give up her authority to Tregare.  But then Erika, Lena's "grandmother," comes out of hiding to save the day.

In the denouement we learn that a scientist has developed an FTL drive, which will solve the overpopulation and unemployment problems by allowing colonization of the galaxy, Rissa is made head of the new government, a search through old records reveals that Rissa has Hulzein blood (she is her husband's third cousin or something), and a message is received from the Shrakken--they are being attacked by some third spacefaring race and Rissa and Tregare vow to go help them.  Rissa Kerguelen's adventures, we are told, are just beginning!    
Rissa Kurguelen isn't bad, but it didn't excite me; I wasn't exactly eager to read it every day.  When I sat down in the hotel room it was all to easy to ignore Rissa and boot up my computer to play my Warhammer 40,000 games, and when I sat down at the library it was all too easy to ignore Rissa and look at books about Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lee Miller and R. Crumb.  Part of the problem is that this book is long and slow.  I've already compared Busby to Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, and I am going to do it again: in their fiction, Heinlein and Sturgeon often try to portray human relationships (among people of superior virtue and superior abilities, not just ordinary schlubs!) that are characterized by respect and affection, and Busby tries to do the same thing, giving us many scenes of the many characters sitting around eating, drinking coffee, drinking wine, smiling at each other, patting each other's hands and shoulders, making witty remarks, and so forth.  These scenes pile up and you end up reading hundreds of pages of this "the happy family of geniuses at home" stuff.

In its structure and topic, Rissa Kurguelen strongly resembles Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress--it is about the nuts and bolts of making a revolution, with Busby not just describing all the cool fights, but every little decision made by Tregare and Rissa--much more time is spent on preparation for battle and on administration of the conquered territory after the battle than on the battle itself.  Is this realistic?  I guess.  Is it fun or thrilling?  Not really.

While not actually irritating or boring, the book is kind of flat and grey; the characters are not particularly engaging, the jokes are not funny, and the exciting bits are like oases widely separated by the many scenes of people at the dinner table.  I didn't get emotionally involved, and felt like I was just coasting along for 500 or so of the 630 pages.

Rissa Kurguelen is competent and has a few good scenes and good ideas, and so it receives an "acceptable" grade, but I'm not eager to read any more of these Hulzein books--too long and too flat.  Life is short!  Can I recommend the saga of Rissa to other people?  It does have a number of SF ideas and plenty of sex and violence in absolute terms, but not that much on a per page basis, so it is hard to recommend it to people looking for outer space action and adventure or speculation on what the future holds.  The novel is full of strong female characters in leadership positions, but I'm reluctant to recommend it to feminist types--it isn't a serious cerebral examination of gender roles or the place of women in society or anything like that, and the volume of gore and sex--sex that includes rape, sexual exploitation and incest--makes me doubt it is suitable for those looking for a rah-rah grrl power book.  Maybe I can recommend it to people who like books that are really long?


After climbing this mountain, it's short stories in our next few episodes!

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