Volume 013, Number 2, Spring, 1995

Courtship Rite

By Donald Kingsbury

Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
March 1995

Desert landscapes have given science fiction some of its most memorable alien planets and cultures, among them Frank Herbert's Arrays (in the Dune series) and Ursula Le Guin's Anarres (in The Dispossessed). The landscape of Courtship Rite's Geta belongs among these, not only in its climate and ecology, but in the quality of its author's vision and the sophistication with which it is presented. And, like Anarres, it is the setting for a culture that libertarians specifically should view with profound interest and a little ambivalence. Geta is a highly sophisticated culture, and many of the apparently mystical passages are concepts from mathematics and logic.

The center of this system of ideas is the mathematical concept of optimization, and the biological concept of attaining optimal design through evolution rather than through conscious design. Clans have breeding rules designed to produce rapid biological evolution; the economy is a market system; political order is maintained by the Kaiel clan, the story's heroes, and it works by personal contact between governed and governor. Above all, the ethical system of Geta is an attempt at optimal design. It does not rest on fixed rules, but on an overall strategy within which rules can be broken, but only at a price.

The essential strategy is individualism modified by cooperation. Getans are raised to pursue their own goals depute obstacles or hardship, to endure pain stoically, to be capable of violence when necessary and of facing violence without fear, and above all to live staring in the eyes of death, ready to laugh at it. At the same time, their culture teaches that shared goals are a better source of strength than autarchic individualism.

Courtship Rite is a novel of political struggle, in which the maran-Kaiel family and the Kaiel clan triumph over enemies by superior skill in making alliances and predicting the future. But it also has two other plots, both of which work to define its essential genre. One is of courtship and marriage, an elaborate story in which the maran-Kaiel, ordered to stop courting its chosen bride Kathein pnota-Kaiel and pursue Oelita, attempts to sort out its emotional ties to both. The other is movement from illusion to truth—Oelita's movement to recognition of her race's true history, and the reader's parallel movement from believing that Oelita is perhaps right, to recognizing that her beliefs are the product of profound ignorance of a science that calls itself "religion." Rite portrays a movement from bondage into freedom which should make it emotionally sympathetic to libertarians. as its theoretical content should make it intellectually sympathetic.

Courtship Rite portrays a harsh world, society, and culture. But the reader who will accept them will learn to find them a source of strength, as the novel's characters do; and may come to recognize the terrible beauty Kingsbury captures, the beauty, most of all, of his characters' ability to face horror and still laugh the great laugh in which their culture delights, an ability out of which their strength grows. For anyone who loves freedom this attitude merits exploration.

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