Doris Piserchia's science fiction novels

Click on titles to read the reviews.

Liz Henry

ehenry@midway.uchicago.edu

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Mr. Justice, 1972.
I haven't been able to find this yet, but I'm ordering it.

Star Rider, 1974.
The ultimate feminist sci fi novel.

Lone (re-named Jade, later on) and her mount Hinx roam the stars looking for the fabled planet of Doubleluck. She is a jak, a roving space girl with a pioneer spirit, bonded for life with her powerful, dimension warping, telepathic space dog/horse. This big, muscley, smart fourteen year old girl and her brave mount answer all questions, expose all hypocracy, and save the entire universe from stagnation and death. What could be more satisfying?
Don't miss Jade's sexy love-hate relationship with a buff, jaw-clenching, Clint Eastwood-esque dude named Big Jak. Some mystery and pathos is added by a race of weird grinning creatures, the varks, custodians of the galaxy, who fly by flatulence and can change minds with other species.
Cheer her on as she aggressively takes on the depressing feminist allegorical planet Gibraltar, where the gibs work themselves to death in a sexist cultural wasteland, and the dreens hog all the power. Only dreens are allowed to use their telepathy and bond with mounts, though their mounts are like obnoxious little inbred poodles. The evil dreen Rulon wants to brainwash Jade, fill her mind with tranquilzers and her body with humongous breast implants, so that she will breed new vigor into the dreen population as his queen. Hmmm, I wonder if she will kick his sorry ass?
On a more abstract level, Star Rider is about the search for the unknown; call it a nomadic spirit or call it a genetic program to spread ourselves all over the universe. Jaks have been roaming our galaxy for millions of years. There are no new frontiers. The only things that keeps them from going insane: the myth of Doubleluck, where the streets are paved with gold and it rains diamond every day- and also the faint hope that jaks might someday bridge the gap between galaxies and go on to explore the rest of the universe.
The solitary, vagrant life the jaks lead, disdaining artifacts, refusing responsibility, is deemed to be as sterile in the end as the gibs' acceptance of their life of drudgery and oppression. The power-hungry dreens' narrow vision traps them even as it keeps the gibs in line. The varks are incredibly frustrated at their role as guardians of humanity's path, and their limitations to their own planet. Even Big Jak, the ultimate cool dude, is dissatisfied with his hereditary position as guardian of Doubleluck. Jade, because of her superior telepathic ability to "jink" without limit and thus cross to the next galaxy, and also because of her strong survival instinct, becomes the catalyst that opens dialogue between the different races of the galaxy. Did Piserchia hope, back in 1974, that we would colonize other planets, that this expansion beyond Earth would give humans a better chance of surviving? That may have been part of it.
Above all I am touched by her character Lone/Jade; it lets me see a little of the adolescent girl Piserchia must have been, and must have wanted to be. That most of us probably wanted to be. Driven by ambition, yet able to appreciate beauty; fiercely independent, yet with a ton and a half of loyal, telepathic dog to depend on; able to defend herself against rape, but joyously sexual when she wants to be.
When you're reading Star Rider, you don't have the feeling (as I do when I'm reading a good percentage of feminist sci fi) that the writer said to herself, "OK, there should be a book where a girl does this, and that, and is independent and intelligent, and doesn't die in the end, and men are still given a fair hearing, and damn it, I'm going to sit down and write it." It turns out sounding ponderously formulaic. Star Rider avoids this, by Jade's sponteneity and passion.
This book isn't innocent but it is wildly, almost desperately optimistic, especially when you compare it to the nihilism of A Billion Days of Earth. Gibraltar, the planet that mirrors much of what is depressing about our own world, makes its appearance halfway through the book. Kind of takes you back to when feminists thought that maybe the Revolution would come, that it was already here, and that a girl who grew up knowing a new kind of freedom might effortlessly break down the walls of a structure much more enduring than than the Rock of Gibraltar.

A Billion Days of Earth, first published in 1976.
Piserchia plumbs the depths of existential despair. Cool sentient rats. Not for the faint of heart.

The most feminist thing about this book is that everyone, male or female, dog-person, rat-person, flying cat-person, God, or barely sentient animal, is equally despicable. It's so far into the future that rats have evolved to human status, with all the parallels possible to our own society. Their world is a dark mirror, a judgement, of our own world- and the verdict: all it deserves is a clean death. Dank, murky, bloody, chaotic, depressing. It is one of my favorite books. It would make a classic movie if anyone had the nerve to do something this dark and anguished. Billion Days of Earth faces nihilism and despair head on, and makes you feel like there's hope, sort of. Well, not the best sounding recommendation, but read on.

Sheen, a flowing metallic blob just born to life, converses with a future rabbit, a "tare". This particular tare happened to be thoughtful, unlike most of the beings on the planet; "It was subnormal in intelligence because it wanted to find sense in this world of Three Million, A.D." Sheen confuses the tare thoroughly by declaring his love for it. Their encounter, and their conversation about love and existene, sets the stage for Sheen's swath of destruction across the planet. The tare tries to put its belief into words:

"One way you can tell what you love is by eliminating everything repulsive to you. You love what's left."
"Nothing is repulsive to me."
"Then you must be very inexperienced. As you go along you'll find plenty to turn your stomach. In fact, most of your life will be spent avoiding those things."
Sheen proves the tare wrong as he loves, hates, understands, seduces and absorbs the egos of most of the human (rat) race.
Is Sheen evil incarnate? Is Sheen just the earth's combination weed eater and garbage collector, consuming the weak? I thnk I would have to read Billion Days of Earth several more times and live a little bit longer to have anything coherent to say about this. But in any case we get to watch the rat-person society go to hell under the pressure of a seemingly malevolent alien force. If you can count as malevolent a creature who offers you eternal Heaven in exchange for your ego.
Rik, rat-descended person and first class asshole, realizes the world is ending. His wife Aril freaked out, went crazy, and got religion after their son Sten was born a vicious atavism. Not just retarded, dangerous; we're talking a mindless giant baby rat with claws and fangs. Aril is one of the few female characters, and she's not all that likeable. However, she provides definite food for feminist thought.
The Gods, the super-evolved descendents of homo sapiens, are worse than the rat-people; decadent, uncaring, isolated from each other and the rest of the world. Toying around pointlessly- like some academics and exceedingly wealthy people- takes all their time, energy, and tremendous power. They don't give a shit about much of anything.
Jak is Rik's best friend. He is a Leng, a creature evolved from ancient dogs; without the artificial hands of the rat-people, they are relatively helpless. He is oddly monkish; Sheen taunts him with his ancestry, implies he is doomed by his compassion, implies he's stupid because he's not cynical. All the characters in Billion Days of Earth are obvious manifestations of certain personality types, if you haven't noticed.
Most obvious feminist moment: Miss Lune, a sour, spinsterly rat-person who works in the artificial hand factory, suddenly realizes that Rik was right. She was living only for her job.
"You were right," she said. "After the plant was gone I had nothing left but myself. It turned out to be enough. . . It took all this chaos to make me realize I never had anything else. I think it's a crime to sit back and watch your individuality go down the drain, but it's much worse when you approve of it. I'm talking about people in general. You don't get self-respect because someone respects you. Women couldn't see that."
"They'll see it now," said Rik.
"Only if they have guts. I don't know if they can do it."
"Do you care?"
"I'd be a liar if I said I didn't, but I'll tell you something more important than my caring what happens to them- their caring. If they don't care, it doesn't matter what I think."
Miss Lune is far from being scared of Sheen. She has him relaxed in her living room with his feet up, watching TV. They are going to have friendly philosophical discussions after dinner.
This is how I think of Doris Piserchia; serving tea to the Devil while they politely discuss metaphysics. Like Sheen, she has used her life to stretch her mind to encompass humanity in all its frailty, greed, pettiness, energy and beauty.

Earthchild. Not reviewed yet.

Spaceling. Not reviewed yet.

The Spinner, 1980.
Another study of humans under pressure. Society breaks down under the threat of the alien monster- as good as reading about accounts of the Great Plague, if you like that sort of thing.

Mordak, a nasty, web-spinning, invulnerable creature, threatens a large city in our not too distant future. He accidentally comes through a rift in space created by a new mining tool called the Rumson Bore. Another monster who manages to be charming even as he is dribbling gobbets of human flesh out of his fanged mouth. You know he's laughing at the pathetic scurrying of the humans. Fit prey for his young, when they hatch!
Meanwhile a bunch of wraithlike old people are living in a system of caves underneath the city. Most of them seem to have escaped from a horribly oppressive nursing home. Numerous other characters are sketched out, very quickly, but in depth; they are destined to either die rather pointlessly or to help in the great escape from the webbed-in city.
I wouldn't say that there's anything particularly "feminist" about Spinner, though it can provide fine material for a feminist slanted reading. Everyone is equally loathsome, which in my book is perfectly feminist and more realistic than the Mary Daly "cult of natural womanhood".
The picture of Rumson and his girlfriend Olivia was incredibly amusing to me. Rumson, an archetypal mad scientist with a bad case of agoraphobia, is a figure of pity here. Piserchia has something to say here about scientists who are out of touch with the world, who never know or particularly care what effects their inventions will have on society. His head is in the sand 100 percent, though you feel sorry for him even after his ultimate treatment of Olivia.
Olivia gets pretty much equally claustrophobic hanging out in Rumson's closet-like, windowless home. She comes and goes as she pleases; she has a job in some distant city. But then he drops valium in her coffee, ostensibly to save her from being caught in the web. Again the picture of a wife being drugged into complacency with her lot. It makes me wonder what Seconal or Valium horrors lie in Piserchia's past; maybe she saw this sort of thing happen to her friends. Anyway, the amusing part (but I'm pretty sick) is when Olivia stuffs his corpse in the deep freeze. She's only slightly disturbed later when she opens the freezer, days later. . . to find that maybe he hadn't been dead after all. Somehow it still makes me giggle. She barely gives it a thought. How horrid!

The Fluger, 1980.
A dystopian novel where another invulnerable monster from somewhere mysterious threatens the gleaming perfect city. Under pressure, Olympus City reveals its flaws; because of the Fluger and its enigmatic opponent, Kam Shar, perhaps humanity is forced to become a little more aware of itself and the squalid world outside the floating cities.
Corrodado, the monster, is even cooler than Mordak from The Spinner. He hates the humans intensely, and maybe it's just my bloodthirstiness but most of the people he kills are so obnoxious and worthless, I'm cheering for the monster most of the time.
None of the major characters are female. Gender isn't really a focus of this book either, so if you are looking for something more feminist, go read Star Rider.
I have a lot more to say about this book- expect a more detailed review soon.

Doomtime. Not reviewed yet.

Earth in Twilight. Not reviewed yet.

The Dimensioneers. Not reviewed yet.

The Deadly Sky, 1983.
Ashlin, a teenage boy in a the utopian city of Emera, starts to wonder why so many people are deciding to join that weird cult where you cut off your arms and legs to eventually become a cyber-person, a brain in a robot body. And why doesn't anyone want to talk about those strange birds circling the top of Emera's highest mountain? I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but maybe Emera's benign suburban facade is hiding something strange and frightening.
Not particularly focused on feminist issues, but the female characters are interesting, well-rounded, and brave. Minor romance between Grena and Ashlin, on the level of going to have an ice cream soda and then- off again to ride telepathic vultures and battle the alien threat together.
All in all The Deadly Sky is entertaining and light hearted, considering that the whole world is in grave danger. A suburban type of kid learns about war and about responsibility, and saves the world. Uncomplicated and fun.

Notes


Notes on words, characters, ideas in Pischeria's work.

Aril Isn't an aril the husk, or the outer coat, of a seed? It's one of those crossword puzzle words. Or maybe it is derived from "Ariel". I think too much about these things.

Jak Jade refers to the race of spacefaring humans as jaks, or Jakalowar. My guess is that this word derives from jakaloo or jakerloo, Australian or New Zealander slang that means "cool" or "excellent". I just love the Oxford English Dictionary!

Society going to hell under pressure
I feel the need to rant come over me.
Piserchia develops the theme of "normal" society breaking down over and over. Straightforward alien invasion, as in The Deadly Sky; Sheen, the mysterious moral judge in A Billion Days of Earth; Mordak in The Spinner, Corrodado in The Fluger. This theme fascinates me; I read about war, prisons, torturers, the Holocaust, Europe during the Plague Years, even though I get horrible nightmares.
Part of this fascination is just that we, or at least I, grow up quite sheltered in the U.S.A. We have no memory of a war fought in our own homeland, and can hardly imagine what it would be like. But we know it could happen here as easily as anywhere else. People said "Never Again" after the Holocaust, but time will tell if that's true. Meanwhile 20,000 people "disappeared" under the military regime in Argentina between 1976-1983, Hussein's army massacred I don't know how many hundred thousand Kurds and other minorities in his country, and genocide has been going on in Bosnia right under the noses of the UN. As noble as the sentiment of "Never Again" is, it's probably not true.
An excerpt from A Billion Days of Earth, on this general theme:

The world panted. Machines that ran by themselves were frightening. The mechanics were unable to tolerate being alone with things that had no minds. Fires began in factories, granaries and closets. Wherever a mind was absent, chaos seemed to be a natural consequence.
The world unveiled a face of evil. Shadows became more significant than sunlight, skulking more rewarding than openness. Success meant lying in wait for someone who had food and clothing. People who had enjoyed fiddling with the little garden in their back yard thanked their lucky stars. They had a problem with theives who came down the streets in trickles. Later, the trickles would become hordes. (p. 173, Bantam paperback, 1976)
When I was little, I used to lie awake in bed and at the sound of a plane going overhead, I'd imagine that it was about to drop a mother of an atom bomb. Paranoia? I did not doubt that it was going to happen at some point. The best I could hope for was for the bomb to hit far enough away so that I wouldn't die of radiation poisoning. It could happen, in fact would probably happen, while I was not at home with my parents. The whole "normal" facade of society would disappear in an instant. People would be hoarding food, and eventually killing and eating each other. Sickly, wimpy, short, with glasses, I'd have to ally myself with someone strong, or have some sort of useful survivalist skill to justify my place in a post-nuclear-war suburban tribe. Maybe gardening, or knowing about compost heaps. Maybe I just read too many Andre Norton books. Jeez !


Liz Henry

ehenry@midway.uchicago.edu

Back to the Doris Piserchia Page
Back to the Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopia page