Can I write a one-word review? Here goes: ARGH.
Okay, fine. I picked this one up at the library because I remembered liking the Stainless Steel Rat books back in high school, and because I hadn’t read an outer space book in a while. This one could’ve been okay if it had completely left out the lone female character and just not even bothered to try to pretend that women are allowed to exist in the universe.
Brion Brandd is a type of gladiator on a planet where the games are the end-all be-all of the world. The games are a test of everything: there’s chess, there’s poetry, there’s fencing, fighting, whatever. My first clue that this book was going to piss me off was during a description of the games, where it says that women compete with other women and men compete only with men. “This was not an attempt at sexual discrimination,” the book condescends, “but a logical facing of facts. For example, it is impossible for a woman to win a large chess tournament – and this fact was recognized.” Huh? The book was written in 1962, but takes place thousands of years in the future, after the Earth Empire has collapsed and all the colonized planets are on their own. Good to know that those old-school mindsets are so durable.
Anyway, Brion is in the process of winning the games when the book starts. As he’s recovering from the ordeal, another previous Winner shows up and convinces him to come along and try to save the planet Dis from certain destruction at the hands of their neighbors, the planet Nyjord. Only Brion can do it, because of his undiscovered empathetic ability. Dis is a desert planet (no spice though) whose inhabitants have adapted in various symbiotic ways to the harsh climate. Somehow, the leaders of Dis (which is continuously described as a primitive world) have gotten their hands on some bombs and a space launcher, and are threatening to blow up Nyjord unless the Nyjordians give up their planet and let the Disians live there instead. The Nyjordians don’t want to blow up another planet, but also don’t want to give up theirs, so they’ve got their bombs lined up as well. They hire Brion and his recruiter (Ihjel) to prevent the war.
Ihjel wants to hire ‘the best exobiologist in the galaxy’ to help them figure out the people of Dis, and can you imagine the nerve? The company sends a woman! They don’t have time to send her back, even though obviously a woman can’t possibly tackle such a tough job, so Lea goes along with them.
Brion ends up carrying poor fragile Lea across the desert after they land, since she goes unconscious from the heat after whining for a few pages. Brion does some investigating and negotiating, learning the Disian ways with his magic empath abilities. Lea stays in the lab, occasionally looks at samples of stuff, and whines about getting off the planet before the Nyjordians blow it up.
Lots of interesting things happen, and some of the sociological stuff between the planets is cool, but so much of it just made no sense. How the hell did Dis get bombs, when they have no trade or technology of their own? Why bother giving Brion this weird ‘empathetic’ ability when he only uses it once? Still, it could’ve been saved – the conclusion wasn’t bad, and there were a couple of interesting philosophical points as well as good fight scenes. I just couldn’t get past Lea. She was the only female in the book, besides a quick glimpse of a Disian woman and her child (naked, serving dinner to the menfolk, of course). Brion obviously has no real use for her, until it comes to the ‘now we must be an item’ section of the book, and they decide to get married out of nowhere. Except then they later decide not to, because she’s from old Earth and he’s from some other planet, and his ancestors have adapted too far from regular Earthlings, so they could never have children and obviously that’s the only reason people get married.
All of that made my head explodey, but this part in particular nearly had me throwing things. At one point, Brion is telling Lea about his home planet, and we get this little gem: “’Any exobiologists there?’ Lea asked, with a woman’s eternal ability to make any general topic personal.” Oh, yes, how dare she have any input in a conversation.
Anyway, the book pissed me off not only because of the caveman mentality, but because of the wasted potential. There were some good ideas here, but they didn’t seem to go together well enough to make it worth it. To sum up: ARGH.