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Raymond's Reviews #151

%T Harmony 
%A Marjorie Bradley Kellogg
%I Roc
%D September 1991
%O paperback, US$5.50
%P 473
%G 0-451-45109-0     

On first reading "Harmony," Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's latest novel, it is difficult to find anything to dislike. Kellogg has a fine ear for language, a sensitive hand with character creation and development, and a solid understanding of plot construction. More importantly, she has followed the fundamental credo of Writing About What She Knows. Kellogg designs theater scenery herself, and her story, which involves an internationally-acclaimed "scenographer" in a twenty-first century artist's colony, provides a fascinating portrait of the bustle and glamor of backstage life.

So what is wrong with that? Nothing. Well, only one thing...what she has written isn't really science fiction. A bare-bones plot synopsis, with the futuristic elements carefully extracted, will help explain what I mean.

Kellogg's heroine, Gwinn, yearns to be an artist, but the city where she lives has outlawed art, and it is very rare for citizens of one city to travel to or be accepted by another community. Fortunately, she is accepted on a trial basis by an enclave of artists called Harmony. After Gwinn settles down into life as an apprentice to Micah Cervantes, Harmony's leading "scenographer," he takes on an unusual project -- set design for a play composed by a traveling South Pacific troupe called The Eye. Shortly after The Eye arrives, a movement to eject non-citizen apprentices like Gwinn and to close the doors on the acceptance of new ones erupts in Harmony. While fighting for her own rights under the very laws some of Harmony's citizens are trying to change, Gwinn learns that The Eye is really a group of libertarian revolutionaries fighting to open the enclaves, and she ultimately joins their cause.

The only science fictional element in this tale lies in precisely why and how the "enclaves" have become isolated. They are cities that have chosen to protect themselves from an ecologically poisoned Earth by enclosing themselves in city- force field domes and refusing to admit strangers. Against this backdrop, Kellogg paints a vivid picture of how people use political measures to trample others' rights when their security is threatened. But ecological disaster and force fields are not essential to that picture -- a feudal culture of stone-walled keeps threatened by plague-carrying "Outsiders" would have done as well.

Moreover, by minimizing the science fictional element, Kellogg dodges the very ethical issues that the novel seems to address. She suggests that the world "Outside" is no longer dangerous to human life and that the "closed door" policy on which dome culture is based is irrational. If this assumption holds, Harmony's rejection of non-citizens is irrational and the Eye's "open door policy" is both heroic and right. But by making this implicit assumption, Kellogg avoids the need to explicitly eliminate more interesting (and more clearly science fictional) explanations for Harmony's decisions. If danger remains from eliminating the domes or even from relaxation of restrictions on allowing outsiders to enter, Harmony's concern is at least justifiable, and the Eye's position may be unethical -- possibilities Kellogg plainly refuses to consider.

"Harmony" is a fresh and impressive tales of courageous opposition to tyranny and oppression. But it isn't science fiction. If Kellogg wishes to write science fiction, she should take a lesson from Heinlein, or Clarke, or even Harlan Ellison, and make sure that the ethical choices she poses for her characters arise from the technology they've adopted. [CCO]

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