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.
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…