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Raymond's Reviews #13

%T The Gifts of the Gorboduc Vandal
%A Paul O. Williams
%I Del Rey/Ballantine
%D May 1989
%O paperback, US$3.95
%P 233
%G 0-345-35597-0

Gifts is an odd and interesting book, a sort of ecological space-opera quite different in tone and style from Paul Williams's previous work (the 7-volume epic of post-holocaust reconstruction called the Pelbar Cycle).

As our story opens, a Gorboduc exploration ship is attacked and destroyed by the planetary defences of a world called Landsdrum. The Landsdrumites, knowing of the Gorboducs only that their language is that spoken by a feared group of "vandal" plunderers who once raided Landsdrum for tribute.

All but one of the Gorboducs elect to die in conformance with their culture's harsh warrior code. One, the scientist Umber Trreggevthann, believes he has knowledge that is so vital to his peoples' survival that he must remain alive even at the cost of his honor. For the "vandals", the Dark Sector Gorboducs, are but one of seven Gorboduc cultures, and they hold Umber's people in thrall.

He allows himself to be slave-bonded to a Landsdrum family, enduring the scorn of his shipmates before their honorable suicides -- and straightaway begins to disrupt the local culture. For Umber is a biologist; his expedition was collecting species to enrich the biome of his homeworld, and he succeeds in releasing some breeding pairs he brought down on the lifepod.

Unbeknownst to him, Landsdrum is a semi-theocracy organized around a religion with some dogmas about biology which the new species utterly disrupt. Even saving the colony from a dangerous periodic plague using his offworld knowledge isn't enough to deflect the wrath of the church -- and, as if that isn't bad enough, he knows that the true Vandals will be arriving before too long to raid Landsdrum, and that one of the things they will surely due if Lansdrum's ill-prepared defenses don't send them packing is torture him to death for treason.

Are we having fun yet? And I haven't even mentioned his real problem. The information he carries makes it utterly necessary that he get back to his own people -- who must, by their laws, turn him over to the Vandals. The only real allies he has are Landsdrum's semisentient food animals, and they are mostly interested in playing obscure mathematical games!

This book is funny, dramatic, touching, and unusual. Stories of one man of knowledge toppling an entire culture's worldview aren't uncommon in SF, but treatments of the theme this peculiar and convincing are. Umber's problems aren't quite resolved by the last page and there are strong hints of a sequel in the offing. I'll be looking forward to it.

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Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>