January 5th, 2010

Melissa Scott, Silence Leigh trilogy

My friend A. sent me a couple e-mails in quick succession during December asking about a science fiction book, a really think one, in which people traveled through space using music. That stumped me utterly, but the second e-mail was that she had found the book and it was a series. And it was a series I had once owned in three paperbacks.

It's been a little tricky trying to remember why I ever bought the Silence Leigh trilogy, and even harder trying to determine whether I ever read the whole thing or not. I think I picked it up used when I was looking for something else by Melissa Scott, _Trouble and Her Friends_, which I further suspect I never found or read. I was looking for Scott's _Trouble_ because it was recommended on a cypherpunks listserv I was subscribed to many, many years ago. I picked up the Silence Leigh trilogy in a single volume and read it in an effort to answer the second question. I'm still not sure, but I think I gave up partway through the second book when I read these before. However, it is also possible that I didn't actually finish _any_ of the books, but skimmed parts of two or perhaps three of them in the process of deciding to cull them. A limited amount of research in my review archives supplies no information to the contrary. Then I read the whole damn thing, which calls into question whether or not I should get rid of books. I mean, if I'm just going to buy them again later and read them...

_Five Twelfths of Heaven_ introduces us to star pilot Silence Leigh. Her grandfather has just died, leaving her the ship, but her crazy uncle who is searching for Lost Earth, the birthplace of humanity, has racked up a bunch of bogus charges against the ship so she can't run it herself. In the Hegemony, women are required to go veiled and have few rights, including they can't represent themselves in court. Since dear old uncle is missing, the judge hires someone to represent her, another star traveler, Denis Balthasar. He is happy to do what Silence asks him to do, and he has a proposition for her: act as pilot for him and his partner Julian Chase Mago on his small ship, and enter into a marriage of convenience with the two of them so that Chase Mago (and Silence) can get citizenship papers on Delos, Balthasar's home world. They do a shakedown tour and Silence, somewhat impulsively, agrees to the marriage.

It isn't just music that moves them through the heavens: it is the musica mundana, the music of the worlds. Alchemy and astrology turn out to be more right than wrong in this world. Star travel is accomplished by resonating a tuned ship's keel and then navigating by symbol. Lots and lots and lots of description in these books. If you're into that kind of thing, it's kinda cool. But otherwise, it takes up a lot of words and moves along very slowly.

Balthasar (and his partner) turn out to be in the employ of a pirate organization, more because they really loathe the Hegemony than for any other reason. The Hegemony has frontally attacked some of the people who have assisted the pirates in the past, and That Means War. Our triad gets sucked into an attack on a planet which supplies the elemental water which powers the magical ships. The attack fails, they are captured and forced to serve the Hegemony, not at gun point but by geas. Silence's pilot training, and her amazing Mary Sue-ish-ness (hey, it's not a complaint. Virtually no adventure stories would exist if the hero and/or heroine couldn't do Amazing Things when the plot demanded it) enable her to modify and then break her geas, and to do the same for her husbands. They make good their escape in stages, inadvertently picking up a Magus along the way. Isambard doesn't coerce well, so they make a deal: they'll help him find the Road to Earth if he'll support their escape.

That's more or less book one. The five twelths of heaven refers to how far into heaven the ship can reach -- more means you go places faster, and has other effects as well.

_Silence in Solitude_ takes place largely on the Magi's Planet. That whole break-the-geas thing means she could be a magus, even though theory says women can't be magi. But first she needs to be trained. I definitely remember reading part of this book (the part where she just barely passes her test by making a rose). There is a lot about this book that makes me really wonder about the series as a whole, and in the past would likely have caused me to turf it out in its entirety. Silence is the only woman pilot -- except she's not. There's an entire planet run by women, and they have their own pilots. Whenever Silence runs into women from that planet, she is grudgingly respectful, but also contemptuous. In this book, she is sent to the Woman's Palace on the home planet of the Hegemon to extract the daughter of a guy who intends to stage a coup -- his daughter as hostage is basically all that is stopping him. Once Silence gets there, she says a variety of cutting things about one (bastard) girl in particular, and Aili (the woman she's there to break out) calls her on her misogyny. In the past, I would probably have just gotten incredibly annoyed at how this series reifies gender roles and then makes our heroine violate them all without addressing any of that, and sets her up as Amazing and Cool without commenting on the structural gender crap going on. Instead, the series depicts a society with strict gender rules -- and a lot of counter examples (such as the planet run by women, and Silence herself), as well as interesting commentary on women who buy into cultural values that are negative for women.

This is a complicated book, dealing subtly with a lot of different issues.

Book Three, _Empress of Earth_, sends Isambard (the mage), our triad, Aili and a guy who Aili is going to marry and who also happened to be one of our triad's captors back in the first book (for such a large universe, it's a real small world) to Earth. They had tried going there in the usual way, using a book that Silence's grandfather left to her when he died. It's an old edition of a standard star piloting manual. That effort had failed, because the Rose Worlds have blocked the path to Earth with siege engines, and while Isambard had some theories about how to break them, that failed and they only just barely got out of the Rose Worlds alive (that was in book two). On the Magi's Planet, Silence found evidence in the library of an older system of piloting, and one of the reasons Silence agrees to go rescue Aili in book two is to get access to a copy of one of those manuals from Aili's dad (whose coup was ultimately successful, largely due to Silence, who by virtue of doing the even more impossible -- combining the skills of star pilot and magi -- wiped out the Hegemon's ships selectively using her ship's keel. Yeah. Don't go there.).

Here in Book Three, the new Hegemon has conveniently (wow, this so screams trap it is just not even suspenseful) captured a woman who knows a lot about the siege engines. Despite this, the triad continue with their plan to use the old road, but they trust the source on other information like faking up ids and licenses and ship id and blah blah bleeping blah. They successfully reach Earth, and get shot down in the atmosphere -- by airplanes we would recognize, not by this alchemical stuff. They survive the landing, hook up with some misfits, try to figure out a way to fix their boat so they can go tell the Hegemon how to get to Earth so he can invade, walk right into _another_ trap -- all the while collecting allies based on prophecies about the advent of the Empress of Earth (also the title of the third entry in the trilogy). Sure enough, there's someone here looking to stage a coup. They hook up, Silence does yet another major, amazing, unique Working that saves the day in the nick of time.

This series is way out of print, and it is not hard to understand why. It's a slow read, with an unclear audience. Yay, a polyamorous relationship -- a stable triad, no less, with two men and one woman, which in theory should grab a chunk of people. Yay, look an alternative science system and a weirdly cool melding of fantasy elements (all that astrology and alchemy) and science elements (they use a musonar to "see" when they are out flying around on their boat built on a heel made using tincture of Philosopher's Stone. Get it? Music? Radar/Sonar? They even have a Ficinan model that is used in navigation. Scott knows her crazy theories from the middle ages.). But it is slow and it lacks any kind of punch: it isn't funny, it isn't gut-wrenching, even Silence's rise to near total power isn't all that invigorating as a reader-experience. In fact, Silence is annoying. In addition to her misogyny, it is virtually impossible to believe her when she says her marriage has become passionate somewhere in one of the later books. Whenever Silence has an inkling of a feeling, she slams down on it so hard it is crushed before it can so much as whimper. There are also some irritating authorial tics. Silence has reveries to explain things to the reader, then shakes herself. Makes you wonder after a while why other people don't comment on her constant shaking. Also, the characters are arbitrarily referred to by their job/career at moments where the job/career doesn't seem particularly relevant (Silence is sneaking in somewhere and is referred to as the pilot; Chase Mago makes some comment about the landscape and is referred to as the engineer. That kind of thing.).

All that said, it isn't particularly difficult or expensive to acquire a copy of the series used. And it turns out to be an interestingly complex tale with a lot of very subtle commentary embedded in it -- commentary that is sorely lacking in the science fiction/fantasy genre as a general rule. I have no idea what the heck Scott was thinking writing it, and I _really_ don't get how this thing ever got published. But if you're a fan of the genre, and want to see it bent in a whole bunch of ways, check this thing out. And let me know what you think of it, if you do.