In the end, it all comes down to the words on the page. For sf, which aspires to describe new things, this poses an immediate challenge. The answer we’re most familiar with is new words — either new slang or technical words in the language we’re reading, or, less commonly, words that have allegedly originated elsewhere, and been imported. It’s primarily the latter strategy that’s deployed in Mary Gentle’s 1983 novel Golden Witchbreed, and it’s a serious mark in the book’s favour — an indication of how solid its foundations are — that the profusion of apostrophes introduced by the alien words dotted around the text are barely a distraction. But there’s a subtler way of addressing the challenge, too, and it’s this way in which Golden Witchbreed really excels: words we know don’t always mean what we think they do.
Arriving as an envoy to the fifth world of a star close to the galactic centre, a world whose light and vegetation are even at first glance “shockingly alien”, this is what greets Gentle’s narrator:
A man walked out of the trade station, waved a careless hand, and headed towards me. He wore shirt, britches, high boots — and a sword belted at his hip. He was not human. An Orthean. (9)
The problem here — aside from the simple improbability of a humanoid alien, hand-waved later on the grounds that similar cosmological conditions give rise to similar life — is that a non-human cannot be a man. The contradiction is introduced obviously enough that it should put us on our guard. It’s a hint that the alien words for alien things are not the whole story, even though they’re rendered in italics (a habit I find irritating and somewhat patronizing); a reminder that what is being translated here is not a language, it is a culture, and that such translations cannot be perfect. Barely two pages later, in fact, the narrator is warned to “beware intrigue”, but the word her guide uses is not “intrigue”, it is “an untranslatable expression”, which requires the gloss that it “includes the Orthean term for challenges and games” (11). So we bear such ambiguity in mind as we read on, and when we’re told that it’s always hazy on Orthe, we nod sagely and think, in more ways than one.
We probably forget that this answer doesn’t explain why the narrator used the word “man”, rather than pointing out directly that the Orthean greeting her was not one, and thus probably get a small shock when it’s revealed that the narrator is an empath. The ability to look beyond surfaces makes her a boon as an envoy to an alien world even if it means her superiors don’t quite trust her. And it makes her a boon to her creator, precisely because her readers can’t quite trust her, either. For long stretches, the narrator will interact with the other characters as though they are human, only to be reminded of where she is by some jolt of alienness. The repetition of these shocks — sometimes, recognition of “a more alien quality of thought” (181) than previously appreciated; sometimes a simple glance around, such as the observation that, filled with stars even in the day, “Orthe’s pale sky gleamed like water” (156) — is effective for several reasons. In part, it’s because they’re emotional notes, not informational; but more importantly, it’s because each time we are reminded of the gaps between how the narrator sees the Ortheans, what she has the words to say, and what they are. Under careful management, as it is here, this is an extraordinarily effective approach to depicting the alien. Within those gaps, our hesitant imagination makes the unknown more real than any description that might pretend to be complete and true ever could.
Of course, it’s only because so much of the description does pretend to be complete and true that it’s effective to realise that in some ways it can’t be. Golden Witchbreed is an observant, attentive book, generous with the sort of specific detail — the specific words — that are needed to build a world, to the point where the plot, as much of it as there is and as scrupulously justified as every twist is, cannot quite hide the fact that it’s essentially an excuse to tour Gentle’s magnificent, rich creation. So, after an introductory section in which she meets the first contact team that arrived before her and have been stalled, the narrator sets off on her journey. Sometimes with companions, and sometimes alone — “an adventure in the old sense!” she thinks at one point, and laughs at the thought — she makes her way from city to city, across fens and mountains, from the north of a continent to the south. To start with, her travels are ostensibly for research purposes. Later she has to escape danger, in the form of attempts on her life, or schemes to frame her for murder – a significant faction of the Ortheans want no part of human technological society, and some even believe the humans are the disguised return of the despised Golden Witchbreed, whose high-tech rule is long gone but not forgotten.
This is by no means the only Orthean opinion, however. Central to Golden Witchbreed’s success is its variegation: the wealth of flora and fauna encountered, the distinct nature of the cities and societies through which the narrator moves, and the individual nature of the Ortheans themselves, who vary in colour, markings, physique, temperament, language, sexuality, and every other domain that you might expect a large population to show variation in. There’s more than one alien world that needs learning, in other words; it’s always clear how incomplete our picture is, how little one first-person perspective can capture of a world. “We can’t judge a world by you,” one Orthean tells the narrator, “and you can’t judge the Southland by a Roehmonder priest or a Dadeni rider — or even a Melkathi woman” (66). Even when, late in the novel, we finally get a sense of Orthe’s history, it comes not as an authoritative lecture, but through the recollection of a series of limited, personal memories.
Which is what all this magisterial display of worldbuilding prowess is in service of: a planetary romance that explores the interaction between the personal and the social. At one point, considering her options, the narrator asks herself, “how dangerous would it be? Physically, mentally, politically?” (279). That last word is the telling one; it is a word that many other sf novels might omit at such a point, but that Golden Witchbreed must include. The human xeno-team find the society they’re living in fascinating in part because to them it appears to represent a political paradox — “the first socially mobile pretech world on record — no caste-system, nothing” one enthuses (39) — and Gentle’s unpacking of the mechanisms by which this apparently inconsistent system is sustained, which are in the first instance cultural, is exemplary. It has the rigour of good design. There is almost never the sense that something on Orthe is the way it is for the sake of authorial convenience or desire, and implications — for example, of the organisation of the Southland into entities known as telestres that are neither precisely families nor precisely estates — continue to evolve right up to the end of the novel. When the narrator is tripped up by Orthean society it is because, for all that she is observant both of individual behaviour and cultural practice, her estimate of the political danger — her understand of the flux between individual and culture — has turned out to be wrong.
And yet she inhabits that flux, and over the course of the novel is inexorably shaped by it. This is why I have, somewhat artlessly, withheld her name for so long: because unlike a novel such as, say, Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters, Golden Witchbreed does not create its world from its protagonist outwards. Rather, it builds from the outside in. We come to know the narrator — her openness, her perceptiveness, her desires and fears, her practicality and her wry humour – not through her introspection, and not through her interaction with any frame of reference we know, but through her relationship with Orthe. This is what makes the revelation that her empathy is not as reliable as she might wish so effective, because we are as dependent on it as she is. The revelation that Orthean young, known as aishiren, are not sexed (there is a little confusion with gender at a couple of points, but it seems pretty clear that what is meant is biological sex, that aishiren are neuter until their equivalent of puberty), and that a character the narrator has been assuming is male is actually not, is probably in principle more of a challenge to the narrator than it will be for some of her readers (the male/female binary “was not a view one questioned”, she thinks). But in practice we feel the shock along with her. Put another way, the narrator’s possession of this view never feels terminally old-fashioned in the way that the views of so many of the protagonists of yesterday’s tomorrows have become (sometimes through no fault of their author!). It helps that she makes clear that she well knows how thoroughly little she knows; but more importantly, her thoughts and actions are sufficiently framed as her individual responses that we don’t have to take her as representative of humanity of her time, and sufficiently detailed that they retain the ring of psychological plausibility. And so she remains, impressively, someone who could be written tomorrow.
Words make a world which makes a character; and as in any great novel, all of this remakes a reader. By the time Orthe has reshaped the narrator such that she is sympathising more with the Ortheans than with her own species, we might even think we’ve got a handle on the society we’ve been shown. We might think we could play Ochmir, the game Gentle invents that slightly too explicitly mirrors the values of the Southland, with the best of them. If we know that there is a sequel, Ancient Light (1987), and we know that it sharply divides opinion, it’s not really a guess to conclude that we shouldn’t feel so secure; but even Golden Witchbreed’s wrenching final pages, in which a devastating betrayal is followed by a tentative, partial answer to the question of how Orthe and Earth will relate in the future, offer some correction. The narrator departs, as she must – it’s the only appropriate resolution the novel can offer – but we can feel that she will return. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the narrator we know would not exist without Orthe; nor to say that the fifth world of Carrick would not be known to us as it is without the privileged British envoy of the human Dominion, Lynne de Lisle Christie.