Book Review: Frostworld and Dreamfire, John Morressy (1977)

(David Wilhelmsen’s cover for the 1977 edition)

4.25/5 (Very Good)

John Morressy’s moving SF epic Frostworld and Dreamfire (1977) is set in the Del Whitby sequence (1972-1983) of novels which explore conflict and colonialism (humans and humanoid aliens) within the loose human Sternverein polity.  Conceptually the sequence, which does not have to be read in order, fascinates: the first three novels–Starbrat (1972), Nail Down the Stars (1973), and Under a Calculating Star (1975)–analyze the same conflict from three different perspectives (SF Encyclopedia entry).

Frostworld and Dreamfire does not share the same characters and is far more restricted in narrative scope. The plot is deceptively simple: a metamorphic alien survivor of a devastating plague attempts to track down remaining members of his species transported in the distant past off world. The effects of human intervention add to the ambiance and political background that propels the story forward. Morressy’s attention to anthropological detail and compelling characters elevates Frostworld and Dreamfire above others of its ilk.

Analysis/Brief Plot Summary

The planet Hraggellon is classified as a frostworld: Half the planet permanently faces the sun, half the planet faces the stars. Liminal zones, inhabited by humanoids in a roofed city (Norion), experience annual “alteration of light and dark” (v). Another humanoid species, the metamorphic Onhla, survive the “perpetual darkness of  Starside for prolonged periods” hunting the varied animal life with their sentient packs of tormagons (1). Over the course of an Onhla’s life, they undergo two changes: from youth to adult where they shed their animal-like fur and take on the appearance of a human and a final transcendent stage that outsiders perceive as legend. The Onhla live by hunting and gathering and maintaining their way of life is the core of their self-conception.

However, a wasting sickness threatens to exterminate the Onhla. A young adult named Hult realizes he might be the only one left on Hraggellon and it is “his duty […] to create a new tribe” (13). He heads to the city of Norion, ruled by a series of dictators named Orm, where he encounters a Sternverein trader named Seb Dunan. Seb seeks to acquire gorwol pelts, one of the rarest of goods, that can only be hunted by the Onhla. Their paths meet and they agree to help each other. Seb will take Hult to the planet Insgar where the Sternverein transported a tribe of Onhla, according to distant legend. In return, Hult and his new tribe will hunt the gorwol in an exclusive deal with Seb. Seb’s death throws the entire agreement into disarray and the oppressive rulers in Norion and the new Sternverein representative have other malevolent ideas.

This simple but effective plot allows Morressy ample time to develop Norion, Sternverein, and Onhla culture via sections of mission logs placed at the end of the chapters.

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

Two elements in Frostworld and Dreamfire stood out: the character of Seb Dunan and Morressy’s thematic focus on memory as a cultural anchor.

Characters: Seb Dunan, driven by the desire to extract profit from the Onhla, evolves as a character over the book. Initially, he exudes disdain for Norion and Hraggellon culture: “Norion was no more than a rude outpost on a barbaric world […] an overgrown burrow where unwashed humanoids in unwashed furs huddled in quarrelsome refuge from a murderous climate” (15). However, Hult forces him to rethink his relationship with the planet and its people (especially the Onhla): “he was genuinely interested in Hult, not only as a source of wealth but as a creature unique in his experience” (73). For Dunan, Hult becomes more than a primitive object to be wondered at by the colonizers, rather, he empathizes with Hult’s despair, in part due to his own loneliness as a intergalactic trader: “the Onhla’s plight burst upon him with a clarity that tore his heart” (78). Unfortunately, Dunan’s death allows his power hungry apprentice Clell to take his vengeance on Hult and his people. Dunan and his galactic trading adventures would make a fascinating short story series!

Thematic Elements: The importance of cultural memory is central to Morressy’s vision. The dictators of Norion attempt to erase seditious thoughts and challenges to their rule by exterminating the Remembrancers, a group of indivuals who record history and business transactions in a society without writing. While the Onhla connect themselves to their ancestors and culture by wearing their legends, recorded in knots, on their bodies. Immediately after creating his new tribe, Hult’s partner Treborra fashions a container to hold the knotted “histories of their old tribes” and adds to them their new story (94). Both elements unite in a heartrending conclusion.

Highly recommended for fans of evocative 70s SF.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Frostworld and Dreamfire, John Morressy (1977)”

  1. It’s his best, although the other Sternverein novels are worth reading. Except The Mansions of Space. And there’s one that was published by Laser Books which is hard to find. But I’ve been a fan of the Sternverein books since reading Under A Calculating Star back in the early 1980s.

    1. Thank you for the comment!

      Have you reviewed any of them? Which one should I read next? (I do not own any more of his work)

      I was solidly impressed with this one — I did not expect to get so emotionally involved, and the conclusion (which I won’t spoil), connected the major thematic threads related to memory (which I mentioned below).

      Also, I am somewhat confused… Are the inhabitants of Norion (those who live in the cities) actually human? Is the idea that humans settled the planets in the distant past and have forgotten their pasts?

  2. I really liked this one, as I do all the Whitby/Sternverein/Wroblewski novels, but my favorite remains UNDER A CALCULATING STAR. Epic stuff!

    1. Thanks for visiting!

      I picked up a copy of Under a Calculating Star — started reading it last night.

      Will, hopefully, have a review up soon. (initial gut reaction — not as good as Frostworld and Dreamfire).

  3. Late to this conversation but wanted to add… I came across Starbrat quite by accident in a second hand shop last year and was surprised at how much I liked it. Loved it, in fact. It’s got the feel of a space opera/ adventure rather than hard sci fi but I enjoyed it immensely. I immediately tracked down the rest of the series, though I’m yet to read them.

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