Sunday, March 2, 2014

Book Review: Courtship Rite

Book Review: 'Courtship Rite' by Donald Kingsbury

1 / 5 Stars

The genre of ‘sociological SF’ began (arguably) with the release of Dune in 1965 and only picked up speed during the New Wave era with the publication of Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). It remained prominent in the 70s with The Sheep Look Up (1972), The Shockwave Rider (1975), and M. A. Foster’s The Warriors of Dawn trilogy (1975). The 80s saw Oath of Fealty (1981), Helliconia Spring (1982), Courtship Rite (1982), A Door Into Ocean (1986), and The Shore of Women (1986), among others.

Sociological SF novels centered on elaborate world-building and were often lengthy, demanding reads. ‘Courtship Rite’ certainly fits that billing. The novel originally appeared as a serial in Analog in 1982, and was released in hardback and trade paperback editions by Pocket Books that same year. This Pocket Books paperback (409 pp.) was released in September, 1983. The cover painting is by Rowena Morrill.

The planet Geta isn’t very welcoming to Terran life; the landmasses of the planet are primarily desert ecosystems. The biochemistry of the native plant and animal life renders it toxic, and inedible, to humans. The absence of large animals compatible with human biochemistry means that the only ready source of protein on Geta is…..people !

Not Soylent Green-style wafers, but full-on roasted thighs and arms, braised ribs, spiced organ meats, and skin tanned for making boots and leggings !

So, as the Terran colony on Geta has expanded and grown into a civilization comprised of various clans, its sociology has evolved elaborate rituals and mores to govern the eating of human flesh. During the periodic famines that ensue from the failure of Terran crops to grow in the unforgiving Getan soil, criminals and those considered genetically unfit are the first to undergo ritual suicide in order to provide sustenance for the good of society. Individuals who are (understandably) reluctant to sacrifice themselves are spurred by the knowledge that disobeying the social contract is punished by being flayed alive.

During non-famine times, transgressors remain vulnerable to having their noses cut off, or being subjected to ritual suicide. And, because it’s laborious to process corpses for consumption purposes, war (and its mass casualties) is an extremely rare phenomenon on Geta; disputes between families, clans, or nations are settled by complex rituals designed to make sure that none of the tasty goodness goes to waste.

‘Courtship’ deals with the efforts of the maran-Kiel family, of the landlocked city of Kaiel-hontokae, to acquire the coastal town of Sorrow. Their strategy to acquire Sorrow and its surrounding territory is to marry Oelita, Sorrow’s priestess. 

Oleita – considered a heretic for her opposition to ritual suicide – has no intention of letting her people be subjugated by the Kaiel. So begins the ‘courtship rite’ of the book’s title, which involves lethal dangers for Oelita.

But as the maran-Kiel proceed with their plans, the society of Geta is itself poised for momentous events…..for the Sky God circling the night sky has bestowed upon the Kaiel the long-lost knowledge of the ancestors...........

‘Courtship’ was a struggle to read; at times I came very, very close to abandoning it.

It suffers from many of the shortcomings of the sociological sf novel. For example, the opening chapters dump an unending string of invented terms and proper nouns onto the reader, burdening him or her with inferring their meaning and significance from unfolding segments of dialogue and expository passages.

The plot is thin, too thin, in fact, to sustain a narrative of over 400 pages. Most of the narrative is preoccupied with documenting the emotional and psychological interactions of the large cast of characters, interactions conveyed through lengthy conversations and internal monologues. It doesn’t help matters that the author uses Polynesian and Asian cultures as the models for Getan society, leading to dialogue that carries with it the stilted, labored cadence of the formal forms of a foreign language interpreted into English.

This leads to the following prose contortions, all within just one short chapter:: 

Humility the concubine, who bears the honorific The Queen of Life-Before-Death, has a friend called Saucy Nipples; The Queen is instructed that the Liethe watch all Gatherings; she invokes the White Mind meditation technique to relax her inner turmoil; as The Queen  travels the route through The Valley of Ten Thousand Graves to a rondezvous at The Peak of Blue Concern, the 'cursed' Lattice of Evidence is 'prickling her mind'......and as the chapter ends, The Queen contemplates taking passage on a ship as a wench to the Mnankrei Storm Master........ 

The entire novel is written with a reverential devotion to this mind-numbing style of prose.  

Most readers will recognize early on the significance of the ‘Sky God’, the Mysterious Machine of the Ancestors, and the remarkable Crystals of Knowledge, and their looming importance to the plot. But when these artifacts do intervene, it is in a casual, contrived manner that makes the main narrative only slightly more interesting for all their intervention.

‘Courtship’ (which was Donald Kingsbury’s first novel) was nominated for a Hugo award, and won considerable critical praise upon its release. In reality, it’s not that remarkable, and I can’t imagine that many contemporary sf readers would have the patience to stay with it.

To me, ‘Courtship Rite’ is a reminder of how tedious sf had become by the early 80s. Although only two years separate them, reading ‘Neuromancer’ alongside ‘Courtship’ is striking for the way it illuminates the impact cyberpunk had on a genre in the doldrums.

1 comment:

phf said...

Hmmm...I quite liked it.