Book Review: Assignment Nor’ Dyren, Sydney Van Scyoc (1973)

3.25/5 (Average)

Sydney Van Scyoc’s Assignment Nor’ Dyren (1973), inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), is a problematic yet generally enjoyable work.  I found that Van Scyoc is unable to maintain the sense of wonder she conjures so vividly in the first third.  Likewise, her prose tends to plod due to the descriptive restrictions she forces on herself (for example, describing each alien the main character encounters by their species).  Perhaps it’s unfair to compare  Assignment Nor’ Dyren to Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece — considered among the best science fiction works ever written — but the overwhelming impression is that of a poor copy.

Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

Tollan Bailey, a blue collar mechanic possessed by a virulent strand of the Puritan work effort, is out of place in a future society characterized by of ever increasing automation and thus, massive unemployment.  In order to keep the majority the people happy a substantial dole is provided.  Tollan receives a stipend, housing, and recreational facilities from CalMega, a union of sorts, which “places” people in suitable jobs.  In reality, most everyone is happy never doing any work and living off of CalMega “waiting” for jobs which will never come.

In order to keep up pretenses CalMega has a lottery which “assigns” a job which everyone knows is just a chance for an exotic vacation.  Bailey is randomly chosen for an “assignment” to the backwater Civil Unity planet Nor’ Dyren ostensibly to assess the production of Nor’ Dyren’s factories.  Tollan, to everyones shock and bewilderment, decides to do the assignment…

Nor’Dyren is populated by an alien species with three species which are able to interbreed.  Each family unit is comprised of one of each species.  Each species has a predetermined social position and function in society.  The Allegon are meek servants which care for the children.  The Berregon are brute workers.  The Gonnegon are the brains.  Tollan soon discovers that this unusual society is in sharp decline — no one knows how to repair simple machines or even thinks to fix machines, buildings and factories are increasingly abandoned, cultural production is on the decline…

The plot abruptly shifts when Tollan accidentally kills an Allegon.   The local court orders him to take the position of the Allegon in the family unit he’s destroyed.  Tollan refuses to adhere to the rules of the culture and instead seeks to explain the decline of their society.  It is the interplay between these two dominate plot narratives that Van Scyoc is never able to reconcile.  The conclusion of the cultural impasse is reached in half-hearted fashion.

BUT The final mystery concerning the societal decline almost redeems the work.

Final Thoughts

The problems arise when Tollan Bailey shows no comparison for the Allegon he accidentally kills.  This event is the central conflict but Tollan is motivated more by self-interest.  This in itself isn’t a problem but comes off as a major recurrent inconstancy because Tollan genuinely cares about the aliens whose planet he’s been assigned.

This frustrating aspect aside, Van Scyoc does raise some interesting issues regarding gender roles.  Tollan, immersed in an alien society with different customs, is forced to reconsider his own preconceptions (although he refuses to abide by their laws). Sadly, Van Scyoc infrequently considers these issues of cultural dialogue and cultural impasse and the few attempts come of as pallid.  Van Scyoc is clearly cognizant of the many similarities of her work with The Left Hand of Darkness since she attempts to raise similar issues but it all comes off as a poor imitation.  I still recommend the work for fans of social science fiction especially those exploring issues of culturally constructed gender roles.  But, read Le Guin’s far superior The Left Hand of Darkness first…

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9 Replies to “Book Review: Assignment Nor’ Dyren, Sydney Van Scyoc (1973)”

  1. Interesting – been meaning to check out something by Sydney Van Scyoc (I’ve already read TLHOD, natch). I think it was Cloudcry that interested me most…

  2. …reading Cloudcry now. It’s terrible. I’ve never experienced an author who uses so many adjectives and adverbs to the point of making me ill. It’s put me off heavy reading for three days now; I can’t even touch another book with the revolting thoughts of Van Scyoc’s prose in my mind. Just want to scream at her to get to the f***ing point!

    1. Hmm, the lack of adjectives was the big problem in Assignment Nor’ Dyren — clearly she tried to “improve” her style. Assignment read like an assignment to copy Le Guin….. very unimpressed. Readable, to a point.

      Cloudcry does sound horrible. I can’t wait for your scathing review….

  3. I love Van Scyoc’s idea that the aliens designed three specialized types of workers (Allegon, Berregon, Gonnegon) to do the grunt work of their society while the hybrid offspring from mixed pairs of parents (Allegon x Gonnegon, Berregon x Gonnegon, Allegon x Berregon) were the artistic (but reproductively sterile) creators.

    I think Hanzen, Director of the CalMega Personnel Division, is a genius who identifies misfits like Bailey and Laarica (who don’t mesh with the constraints of Earth’s culture) and sends them off to worlds like Nor’Dyren.

    Van Scyoc confronts readers with an enigmatic alien society and we follow along while Bailey and Laarica solve the mystery, save planet Nor’Dyren and save each other. Readers do not need to compare this unique story to other novels; SF fans can enjoy it for what Van Scyoc offers us.

    1. What are you trying to point out with your comment other than you like the book and are frustrated that I thought it paled in comparison to other anthropologically inclined SF works of the time (which, as a reader and critic, I can compare because of something called historical context)? Especially the following statement — “Readers do not need to compare this unique story to other novels; SF fans can enjoy it for what Van Scyoc offers us.” What does that mean?

      1. That said, I do plan on reading more of her work. But, as my site does look at 50s-70s SF, I do plan on comparing it to other works. It certain puts an authors contribution into useful perspective and makes us think about authorial intent, etc.

      2. You ended your book review of Assignment Nor’Dyren with: “…read Le Guin’s far superior The Left Hand of Darkness first…” In my comment of July 20th I tried to suggest to potential readers of Assignment Nor’Dyren that they might be perfectly happy to NOT read The Left Hand of Darkness first. In my view, Assignment Nor’Dyren stands on its own merits as a kind of thought-experiment built around the engineered Allegon, Berregon, Gonnegon & Qattagon social structure. The gender-related issues in Van Scyoc’s story are of such minor importance that I can’t see a good reason for comparing them to the issue of gender as explored in The Left Hand of Darkness.

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