She led Scaley Moe over to the sofa and sat down next to him. Odd how Centaurians smelled like stale cigar butts, when what they smoked was benzale. Still, Sibyl liked the smell of old cigar butts.
Brown quickly gives the reader the idea that Sibyl Sue Blue is supposed to be a sort of hip avatar of the youth culture and/or a feminist icon, as well as a satire of such figures and the attitudes or subcultures from which they spring. On the first page of Sibyl Sue Blue the title character beats up a thug and then smokes a cigar and on the second page she elbows and kicks a middle-aged woman who is taking up too much room on the public slidewalk. Also on page two Sibyl expresses disgust over old people, and categorizes "thirty-five" as old. But on the fifth page we learn Sue is almost forty herself, and is in a youthful disguise as she works on a case, investigating murders and drug dealing among an immigrant community.
It is the spacefaring 1990s and the immigrants that are raising the hackles of Earth people are scaly people from Centaurus who have been emigrating to Earth and turning formerly nice neighborhoods into crime-filled slums and hooking human kids on the Centaurian drug benzale, which you smoke in a cigarette. (Lots of smoking in this book.) Sibyl is a classical scholar who hasn't got her doctorate yet, her area of interest the Battle of Plateaa, and a single mother of a sixteen-year-old girl, her husband Kenneth having disappeared ten years ago with an exploratory expedition to the jungle planet Radix. To make ends meet she is working as a police sergeant, donning disguises that allow her to circulate among the human teenagers and Centaurians at Centaurian civil rights activist meetings, which are less about civil rights activism than they are about selling benzale cigarettes and seducing human girls. (Sibyl Sue Blue is an anti-racist story that doesn't sanctify minorities and isn't afraid to satirize anti-racist activists, so it doesn't come off as preachy or hectoring. And, yes, these reptile people and humans can have sex, and Sibyl is among the Earth women who eagerly participates in inter-species intercourse. I personally would not be sexually attracted to anybody with "long pointed teeth," "reptilian eyes" and scales, but hey, to each his or her own.)
The plot of Sibyl Blue Sue's early chapters is that of a violent detective story, with a car chase and a closed-room murder puzzle and Sibyl fighting off attacks from green Centaurians and collecting clues by questioning lots of people and by smoking benzale cigarettes herself. Sibyl figures out the modus operandi behind the recent spate of unsolvable murders: some special benzale cigarettes are laced with a poison or virus or whatever from Radix that provides smokers crazy dreams, apparently messages from Radix vegetable people, and hypnotizes the smoker into cutting out his or her own liver! When Sibyl herself smokes the dangerous benzele cigarettes she doesn't cut out her own liver, apparently because her husband has somehow integrated into the virus a message of his own directed at her! During a booty call with Scaley Moe the Centaurian importer Sibyl pumps him for information and gets some clues about why some Centaurians are green--a mild ailment most of them don't even recognize because Centaurians are color blind.
Halfway through the book they blast off for Radix on a ship with a crew of almost forty men. In the chapters covering the voyage to Radix, Brown deliberately reminds us of the conventions of a Gothic romance--Sibyl is in love with a perfect super sexy rich guy who is also mysterious and vaguely sinister, and there is a hold of the star ship which she is forbidden to enter. Just as quickly as she fell in love with Grant, she falls out of love. Then she gets an idea of why Grant is going to Radix.
As a rich guy with looks and smarts, Grant's life has been easy. He wants new experiences and new challenges, and Radix and Centaurus provide him an opportunity to become something like a god. The jungles of planet Radix are one big collective consciousness organism, and Grant has the idea of importing a virus from Radix to Centaurus to turn Centaurus into a collective consciousness world into which he will be subsumed as its ruler. Sibyl later realizes that he has plans to integrate Earth life into this single-soul multi-planet organism as well.
The crew of the ship aren't in on this insane plan and are in fact spooked by the weird goings on aboard, so when Sibyl frees the four Centaurians chained up in cargo hold the scaly aliens are able to inspire a mutiny among the crew. But too late! The ship lands on Radix and almost the entire crew gets absorbed by the intelligent collective consciousness plant monster. On the bridge the four survivors-- Sibyl, the space pilot, a medical man and Grant--struggle as Grant tries to integrate everybody into the plant and Sibyl and the other two, finally realizing the horrible fate their boss has in store for them and for everybody, try to stop him.
They succeed, and most of the final third of the novel is about the trip back to Earth. Sibyl and the doctor don't know how to operate the ship, and the pilot is severely injured and could die any minute, so they can't just kill expert pilot Grant, who is connected to a piece of Radix plant which carries with it a fragment of the hive mind--including portions of Kenneth's consciousness! The journey home is a long suspenseful trial as Sibyl and the doctor strive to keep the plant and Grant alive but also keep them from getting strong enough to take over the ship and return them to integration into the Radix plant complex.
I have some reservations about Sibyl Sue Blue, but I can give it a moderate recommendation. My reservations are about some of the goofy jokes and some of the silly scenes on Earth. But the novel is a brisk easy read, the car chase is good, the scenes on Earth related to the Radix virus and how it drives people to kill themselves are good, and the tense chapters on the ship after it arrives on Radix and then during the perilous trip home are effective SF thriller stuff. I wish Brown had stuck to the serious tone of Chapters VIII and IX throughout the novel's ten chapters.
Sibyl is a pretty well constructed character. Beyond having her constantly smoking cigars, Brown challenges gender stereotypes in the way we see all the time now and which readers saw C. L. Moore do decades earlier in her Jirel stories--by having Sibyl best many big powerful men in hand-to-hand fighting, even though she is like 40 years old and weighs 105 pounds. But, more convincingly, Brown also has Sibyl embracing or embodying stereotypes about women: Sibyl cries a lot, such as when she blasts off from Earth, leaving behind her daughter; Sibyl instantly falls head over heels in love with Stuart Grant and just as quickly falls out of love*; Sibyl uses her looks and her body to manipulate men; and Sibyl just loves loves loves cosmetics and fashion, and Brown spends plenty of time describing her make up regimen and her clothes. (One of Brown's little jokes that gets repeated nine or ten times--an attempt to depict the future of 1990 as alien to that of late-Sixties readers--is that women in Sibyl's time rouge their knees.)
*I thought there were hints that Sibyl's love for Stuart Grant was hypnotically induced, but Brown does not conclusively indicate this.
Sibyl's love for her daughter and for her lost husband humanizes her, and the scenes in which what remains of the consciousness of Kenneth communicates with Sibyl are successful, even moving. We often find SF writers talking about collective consciousness as if it would be some great thing, so I was pleased to see it depicted by Brown here as seductive but ultimately fatal to the individual and all we hold dear about human life. As part of the plant collective, Kenneth is losing all his memories, everything about himself that is himself:
"Kenneth, even if I can't find you, isn't there something you can say to me after ten years?"
"Only that I love you and that I am lost. So lost. Everything is gone but memory of memory and even that grows cool and dim."
Some of the secondary and minor characters are well done, the doomed pilot and the doctor in particular.
The way Sibyl Sue Blue was marketed ("the way-out adventures of a mad mod heroine") made me suspect it might be a ridiculous load of over-the-top psychedelic/feminist/youth culture silliness, a real slice of Sixties counterculture cheese, but there is only a little of that--for the most part it is a competent detective story and a good science fiction adventure with some real human sentiment. So, next time we'll be reading my paperback copy of the sequel, The Waters of Centaurus.