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Women in sf reading challenge #3: Dark Space, Marianne de Pierres

Marianne de Pierries is one of several Australian authors published in the UK by Orbit. Her first book, Nylon Angel, the first of the Parrish Plessis cyberpunk trilogy, was published in 2004. Dark Space is the first book of her second series, The Sentients of Orion. It is space opera.

A lone mineral scout with less-than-appealing personal habits accidentally discovers a huge and mysterious alien which lives in the vacuum of space, and which appears to have near-divine powers – he dies, and it resurrects him. His discovery makes him rich, and an industry springs up around Sole, as the alien entity is named, in which applicants to “godhead” have their brain chemistry altered by it. Tekton, a “humanesque” from the planet Lostol, is one such applicant. He has politicked his way to Belle-Monde, the artificial world where candidates for godhead are tested.

Meanwhile, on the planet Araldis (with its unfortunate likeness to the name of brand of glue), Baronessa Mira Fedor has just learnt that she is not to be First Pilot. The heir apparent, Principe Trinder Pellegrino, is, even though he does not have the Inborn Talent which allows him to interface with the world’s sentient organic starship, Insignia. But on Araldis, the men are in charge, and the women are good for nothing but being wives or mistresses. Araldisian society is also strictly hierarchical, with a nobility, a hereditary servant class, and peasant miners. The world’s wealth is derived from its minerals. Its climate is hot and arid. Its culture is Italianate.

Mira runs away. Trinder offends his father by flirting with his new mistress, and is subsequently banished to a Carabiniere outpost in a remote town. And then someone invades the planet, sabotaging foodstocks and the mines, and loosing Saqr, rapacious barely-sentient aliens. Both Trin and Mira survive; they are the last of the nobility. With the help of Rast, a mercenary hired by Araldis’s ruler, Mira must take Insignia to the Orion League of Sentients to beg for help to repel the invasion. Dark Space ends with the launch of Insignia.

There is no “dark space” in this novel. In fact, the first line of the book is, “Dark space is not really dark”. Given that the phrase “dark space” is not common, in science or science fiction, it seems an odd choice for a title. Nor does the prologue into which that opening line leads instill confidence – it is crude exposition, cast as the testimony of Sole’s discoverer, a thoroughly unlikeable rogue.

Happily, the narrative set on Araldis is much better. Mira is an engaging protagonist, and the planet and its culture is interesting. However, the Italianised vocabulary is over-used. I can understand its use for titles, perhaps even for objects unique to the culture such as clothing. But I see no good reason why babies are referred to throughout as bambina and bambino, why children are called ragazza and ragazzo. It’s entirely unnecessary.

Tekton’s narrative is less satisfying. He dominates it and he is not at all sympathetic. He is arrogant and self-centred. His race display their naked bodies in much the same way as people on this planet display their wealth. But then Tekton is pretty much characteristic of all the male cast of Dark Space. I’m all for redressing the gender balance in genre fiction. But to me that means writing strong female characters, writing stories that pass the Bechdel Test. It doesn’t mean populating a story with male characters who are entirely shits. Even Trinder, the male protagonist of Dark Space, is far from sympathetic – and his relationship with Mira is symptomatic of his attitude. Of course, the culture of Araldis is chiefly to blame for the unlikeability of the men… except not all of the men are Araldisian. Tekton isn’t. The rogue who discovered Sole isn’t.

Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. After all, male genre writers of the past and present have treated their female characters as badly, or worse, since the days of Amazing Stories. But the correct response to an imbalance is balance, not a swing in the completely opposite direction.

Yet, despite all this, I actually enjoyed reading Dark Space. I have books two and three of the quartet, and will likely read them too. While I can rue de Pierres’ ham-fisted characterisation of her male cast, her clunky info-dumping, her bizarre choice of vocabulary to render into cod-Italian… none of these actually spoiled my enjoyment of the book.

So, not as successful a read as Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman, nor as interesting a novel as Liz Williams’ Winterstrike – but definitely a more enjoyable read than the latter.

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