Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu Sep 13 13:40:13 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #87

%T People of the Sky
%A Claire Bell
%D September 1990
%O paperback, US$3.95
%P 344
%G 0-812-50261-2

Like Grass (RR#86), this is another biological-puzzle book -- somewhat marred by the rather clumsy telegraphing of the answer early on and a faint but irritating odor of political correctness, but worth a read.

Kesbe Temiya, a starpilot of mixed Pueblo Indian ancestry, is forced down in an inaccessable canyon on the planet Oneway while ferrying an ancient C-47 to its new owner. There she encounters the People of the Sky, descendants of a rumored lost colony of Pueblo traditionalists who have reverted to the pre-technological ways of their ancestors. But there's something new in the mix -- a partnership with the dragonfly-like "aronan", fliers capable of bearing the tribe's child warriors. The aronan fascinate her, and events after the encounter draw her into the life of the tribe.

Kesbe learns to fly and to live in the experiential world of the People, only to discover she is caught between two cultures when "her" world re-enters the canyon. Resolution of the value conflict that has been building through the novel becomes not merely her private affair but the key to the future of the People.

In many ways this novel is reminiscent of A. C. Crispin's Silent Dances (RR#79) and other examples of the better grade of feminist bildungsromans -- but it works better than most. For one thing, Bell resists the preachy flavor and sticky earnestness too often found in the type; and her protagonist is a three-dimensional human being who sweats and makes little mistakes, rather than a blatant authorial self-projection of the sort who goofs up only when necessary to move the plot along. Then, too, Ms. Bell is a pretty good prose-constructor with a McCaffreyesque knack for the vivid visual and a nice habit of tossing in a curve or two just when you think you're sure the plot's cranking off in a too-predicatable direction.

The book's major flaw, I think, is a familiar one; the extent to which it romanticizes a pre-technological "tribal" life which was, in the main, "nasty, brutish and short". There are certainly things to be learned from such cultures; their art and religion, in particular, often embody levels of symbolic and psychological richness that quite surpass most of what the West has to offer. That said, though, it is still possible to notice (and deplore) the fact that most writers depict such societies as though there were indoor toilets, a clinic, and a supermarket just offstage.

There's a corresponding ethical error that treats the choice between an idealized "yin" of low-technology, environment-friendly, non-sexist "tribal" living and a "yang" of metallic techno-Western material wealth as an absolute opposition (usually with the West as the implicit bad guy). Even leaving aside the question of whether that romantic "yin" has ever existed, one has to be suspicious of such binary oppositions. They don't reflect the reports of peoples now actually making the leap from Stone Age to Information Age in New Guinea and South America and elsewhere. It's a bit of a shame that Ms. Bell is still writing from the patronizing belief that individuals in those cultures have to be "protected" from the outside world.

Nevertheless, this is a solid journeyman effort that leaves me looking forward to more work from Ms. Bell.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Thu Sep 13 13:40:13 EDT 1990

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