The Starry Rift (1986), written by James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), is a collection of three novellas linked around the common theme of navigating the troubles of a frontier region, in this case a star-void region between arms of the Milky Way. Separated in time over decades and centuries, the stories recount some of the problems humanity encounters as it spreads into the galaxy at large – unknown life forms, piracy, and diplomacy are only a few of the things characters encounter as they fill in blank areas on the star maps.
The stories are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking, but this is something to be expected when dealing with Tiptree stories. Written late in Sheldon’s life, The Starry Rift is among the last of her fiction to be published. Since I’m really not too familiar with Tiptree’s fiction, but from what little I’ve read of her earlier works, The Starry Rift seems quite a bit less pessimistic in tone.
The lead-off story is The Only Neat Thing To Do. First appearing in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1985, it was the only story in this collection to receive prior publication. The story garnered quite a bit of acclaim, winning the Locus Poll and SF Chronicle Awards while also gaining Hugo and Nebula nominations. After publication in Japanese in 1988, it won the Seiun Award for Best Foreign Short Story/Novella.
A story about the human urge to explore, The Only Neat Thing To Do follows a girl named Coati Cass. Just coming of age and already drunk on the tales of discoverers who came before her, she outfits her first spacecar with all the supplies necessary to strike out on an expedition of her own. She plans a small adventure (mostly) keeping within the bounds of known space as she tests the galactic waters. Her plans change slightly after she hears rumors of yet-undiscovered worlds and a tanker crew that has gone missing on a supply run while making her final preparations at a Federation base.
Coati strikes out with all of her teenage impulsiveness, and sets out in the general direction of the coordinates the tanker ship was last seen. Along the way, she intercepts a message tube from the lost crew, coated in yellow spores. She plays the message, but finds it mostly beyond her understanding, so cleans it off and sends it back on its merry way.
As it turns out, the message tube had its own stowaway, a member of a spore-like species called the Ea. The passenger, soon to be known as Syllobene, is also just coming of age, and hopped a ride on the message tube with the same impulsiveness that Coati left home with. Recognizing each other as kindred spirits, Syllobene and Coati quickly become close friends. Very close friends, as the Ea live inside the brains of a host species, easily living off of occasional pulse of brain wave energy.
The two continue on in search of the missing tanker crew, and in the meantime, Coati records her interviews Syllobene about her species, learning information that may be vital to the Federation. Coati and Syllobene eventually discover the tanker ship in orbit around a planet mentioned in the message tube that Coati intercepted. Coati and Syllobene see a large scorched area where the pilots landed on the surface, and go down to investigate. In the wreckage of the ship, Coati finds a number of golden spores and a holotape recording of the two pilots half-mad and rabidly having sex with each other.
It turns out that juvenile Ea go feral when reaching puberty, and only remain civilized by the guidance of their elders. Seeing the mating process triggers the same breakdown in Syllobene, and while trying to disconnect from Coati, Syllobene discovers that she has lost the ability to do so. The last third of the story is recounted through the playback of Coati’s last message, as she remarks on the physical changes she undergoes while Syllobene descends into ferality.
The story is perhaps the grimmest of the three, and seems like a cautionary tale about the dangers of exploration. However, instead of simply sending a message that staying home is the best thing to do, the moral seems to be that the best thing to do is to explore while minimizing the potential danger to oneself and others. Coati is remarkably responsible – once she realizes that she has very little time left to live, she gathers as much information as possible about a previously unrecognized danger while also attempting to minimize the threat she leaves behind once she dies. The Only Neat Thing To Do is a reminder that sometimes self-sacrifice is necessary for the greater good.
The next story, Good Night, Sweethearts, poses an interesting question about the physical and emotional nature of love. Raven is a ex-soldier who has moved into the salvage business, towing derelict ships back to port to either be scrapped or refitted and resold. At a point where humanity’s technological development has not yet produced FTL drives (as are present in The Only Neat Thing To Do), the vast distances between the stars are traveled by relativistic cruisers. Because of the long time frames involved, cold sleep is used heavily. Raven is only 30 years old as the crow ages, but 100 years old for legal purposes.
Raven encounters a ship out of fuel and drifting aimlessly. He offers to refuel the ship at a slight premium, and the people aboard, rich, gruff, and desperate to get back to port, begrudgingly agree. One of the women on the pleasure yacht insist on going outside with him, and only after much horsetrading is she allowed to come along. While fueling, Raven belatedly recognizes that the woman was his college sweetheart Illya, aged way beyond his years. They catch up a little bit while fueling the yacht, and when finished, Raven sadly sends them on their way.
However, a slaver ship attacks the yacht soon after they leave, and fortunately for the people aboard the yacht, the attack occurs within Raven’s sensor range. He swoops in for the rescue, and using the element of surprise, he quickly subdues the slaver crews. By sheer coincidence, the slavers have just raided a colony, and among the slaves is the daughter of Illya’s clone. The girl, Laine, looks exactly like Illya did when Raven was in college. Raven finds himself falling for Laine, and is soon consumed by a “choice” – whether or not he loves Illya, who knows him but who has aged far beyond his years, or Laine, who has never known him but is now approximately his age.
Before order is fully restored, Raven is trapped by a collar that was missed when the crew of the yacht was searching the slavers’ equipment. He is then forced to pilot everyone back to a pirate colony, but sees an opportunity to save everyone as they pass through a planetary system. After executing his plan (which saves everyone but a couple of the slavers), Raven finds himself drifting through space, agonizing whether he loves Illya or Laine more, before coming to a sudden realization.
The choice presented here is an interesting one – whether love lies in appearance or in character. Space travel in Tiptree’s universe creates a bit of a problem, one which Raven attempts to navigate by weighing which is the most important aspect of love, a similar age and ability to relate or a set of common memories. Common sense would suggest that it’s the latter, but in a situation involving vastly differential aging, perhaps the former is also important. In the end, the dilemma is left unsolved, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions on the nature of love from the question posed.
The final story, Collision, deals with humanity’s first exploratory region to cross the rift. The Federation ship Rift Runner sets out to cross the rift and discover what is on the other side. Midway through their journey, they begin feeling as if they are living in different bodies. Soon after, they discover radio transmissions originating from the other side of the rift. Hoping to make First Contact with an intelligent alien species, the crew sets a course for the star system responsible for the bulk of radio transmissions.
Their destination is the home planet of the Ziellor, the main sentient superpower in the next arm of the galaxy. Reports are filtering in of slavers brutally attacking Ziellor planets immediately adjacent to the Rift. The slavers are actually humans from the backwater, rebel planets of the Black Worlds. Once the Ziellor discover that a previously unknown species is behind the attacks, they begin developing a plan to learn as much about humanity as necessary to conduct a genocidal war against it.
The Rift Runner eventually arrives at the Ziellor homeworld. The crew discovers that the Ziellor appear to have the same body shape as the ones that the crew feels like they have. Port authorities quickly discover that the new arrivals are humans, and despite the best attempts at diplomacy, the crew of the Rift Runner narrowly avoids being taken as prisoners of war or killed outright. They begin the long, slow process of trying to return home to warn the Federation of the Ziellor, and fortunately for the Rift Runner, the military flagship chasing them down is not equipped with FTL drives, either.
The Rift Runner makes it back to Federation territory, with the flagship still in pursuit. Low on fuel, the Rift Runner has very few options, but they notice that the flagship is less manueverable than when it began the run. The problem ends up being a life-support system malfunction, and the crew of the Rift Runner boards the flagship in order to render as much aid as possible to the crew. Ultimately, the crew of the Rift Runner are able to make peace between the Federation planets and the Ziellor just as humanity’s first FTL ship drops in to rescue the Rift Runner.
The story is written in a somewhat experimental manner – the Rift Runner’s story is told by events documented in message tubes, recorded over a span of several years and sent back to the Federation base at regular intervals. This lends itself to a very irregular pace, which is smoothed out by filling in the gaps with the life of the Ziellor scholar who will become the main diplomat to humanity.
The Ziellor’s life story provides Tiptree with an opportunity to elaborate a little bit on Ziellor culture – their life cycle, attitudes, and general culture. Describing the Ziellor also gives Collision a bit of a leg up on the tropes of diplomacy in space opera. Instead of leaving Ziellor as undeveloped “bad guys” that the heroes in the Rift Runner must placate, the side plot develops them into a species who are not unreasonably upset with the humans.
There’s another concept in Collision that didn’t really make too much sense to me upon reading, and still doesn’t on reflection, which is the idea of spheres of influence. Not spheres of influence in the normal Earth terms, but something of a spiritual sphere of influence. You see, if a human is closer to Ziellor space than Human space, they begin to feel like they have a Ziellor body, and vice-versa for the Ziellor. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn’t play a huge role in the story. It shows up a couple of times in the story, but it doesn’t have any consequential effect on the story. It’s also not something mentioned in the other two stories in the collection, so it just seems like an element that was thrown in for its own sake.
As a whole, the stories work better as standalone tales, since the timeline of events seems to be a little muddled. The Only Neat Thing To Do has FTL communication, and possibly FTL ships, while Collision has neither, suggesting that Collision happened earlier in The Starry Rift’s timeline. However, The Only Neat Thing To Do mentions only a possibility that alien life exists on the other side of the Rift, yet, it should be known with certainty after the events of Collision.
The framing story, In the Great Central Library of Deneb University, isn’t particularly great, either, since it doesn’t serve much purpose but to establish that it’s in the same universe as Brightness Falls From the Sky and serve up an introduction to each story. This gives it the effect of also being a greek chorus, as the librarian’s comments about each story sometimes come across (a bit cheesily in my opinion) as Tiptree commenting on her own writing. Given my unfamiliarity with Brightness Falls From the Sky, I’m not sure whether the species that wander the library were previously introduced. If not, it’s another layer of weird disorientation present within the framing story.
Aside from the framing story, I’d have to say that Good Night, Sweethearts is probably my least favorite tale in the collection, although mostly for the reason that it’s thematically different from the other two. The Only Neat Thing to Do and Collision both have the rigors of diplomacy and establishing First Contact as their main theme, but Good Night, Sweethearts is fundamentally a swashbuckler. Its placement as the middle of three stories was probably a good choice, lending balance to the collection.
Overall, the book is a pretty solid read, full of interesting concepts and ideas, although not always fully realized. The Starry Rift is an excellent example of the neat kinds of side stories that can be told in an existing universe while still allowing each story to retain some semblance of originality.