Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1985

A Utopia Set in Hell

Courtship Rite

By Donald Kingsbury

Timescale. 1982, 464 pp
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Desert landscapes have given science fiction some of its most memorable alien planets and cultures, among them Frank Herbert’s Arrakis (in the Dune series) and Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres (in The Dispossessed. The landscape of Courtship Rite belongs among these, not only in its climate and ecology—harsher in fact than either—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, the planet Kingsbury portrays, is a predominantly land world, with eleven small unconnected seas. As such, it suffers from chronic drought, threatening the survival of its population. To make things far worse, its native life is biochemically incompatible with human life. and usually poisonous. Only eight species of plants and two of animals—bees and human beings—come from earth, and these ten species are the basis of the Getan diet. Cannibalism, specifically, is a characteristic Getan institution, elaborately ritualized; the bodies of those who die naturally are used for food, leather, and other purposes, and in famines custom decrees that the least fit commit suicide to feed others.

Yet Kingsbury manages to make this terrifyingly harsh and dangerous world credible as a place where human beings might not only survive but be happy. Indeed, by the novel's second climax —when Oelita the heretic, who has denied the extraworld origin of humanity and denounced cannibalism, is finally convinced that her race was brought from elsewhere by its God, an intelligent starship—l was entirely convinced that it made sense for her to fall on her face in the mud and thank her God for rescuing His people from the horrors of Earth.

The world of Geta is presented with subtle deceptiveness. Seeing the elaborate rituals, the frequent references to God and priests, the mystical sounding passages at chapter heads. the reader supposes that Geta is a primitive culture guided by ritual and taboos even though Kingsbury carefully plants some subtle hints of linguistic and conceptual change to warn against this idea. In fact, Geta is a highly sophisticated culture with biological and social sciences more advanced than those now existing on earth, and many of the apparently mystical passages are concepts from mathematics and logic. This sophisticated and intellectual culture gradually grows on the reader until by the book’s end it seem obvious and natural.

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. Getan society is founded throughout on this concept. 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 governors. Above all, the ethical system of Geta is an attempt at optimal designs and as such 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—and a pervasive element in Getan culture—is individualism modified by cooperation. Getans are raised to pursue their own goals despite obstacles or hardship; to endure pain stoically—no one is fully adult until their skin is entirely covered with decorative scars—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 then that shared goals are a better source of strength than autarchic individualism. This is reflected in their complex marriages, with from two up to six partners, one of which provides one of the book’s central plotlines, the courtship of oolite by the maran-Kaiel family.

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”. Both of these plots are characteristic of comedy, and, in fact, this novel is a comedy, complete with a happy ending from which only one major character is left out. And as is also typical of the comedic forms it 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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