Book Review: Furthest, Suzette Haden Elgin (1971)

3/5 (Average)

Coyote Jones arrives on the planet Furthest, a world of water with “spangled life” that danced and pulsed with “red and green and gold and deep soft blue” (7), to learn more about the descendants of a puritanical religious group that fled persecution. The reason for his mission? Little is known about Furthest as it only joined the Federation three years earlier. The psychological readings of the colonists in the central computer seems askew. And, due to the charms of bureaucracy, the delegate from Furthest will soon be appointed the President of the Tri-Galactic Federation! So off goes the bumbling Coyote Jones, folk musician/telepath/relentless lover, to uncover the mysteries of the world. Mostly frustrated by the prudish nature of the women he encounters, Coyote also discovers that the city domes do not contain cities. And the one he is allowed to explore seems a bit too planned and the people a bit too controlled.

In order to get to the bottom of things (and to meet women), Jones opens a MESH. In all but a few of the planets in the Federation, this would normally mean movies, entertainment, food, and various free love experiences. On Furthest, the MESH appears more to be a museum than multi-sensory experience and Jones can learn little (even with his telepathic probing) about the nature of the world: “it was as if every single person in the MESH was under orders to maintain an automatic and total psychic block at all times” (52).

Everything changes when Arh Qu’e (RK), his hired helper, brings his sister Kh’llwythenna Be’essahred Q’ue (Bess) to Jones with a request. She is guilty of an extreme crime and bound to be Erased! And Coyote decides to assist–if things go south RK promises to present him as a hapless overworld idiot. And the full nature of Furthest, its empty city domes, and prudish/secretive inhabitants soon reveals itself. And there’s so much more beneath the service.

Final Thoughts

In 2013, I read and reviewed At the Seventh Level (1972), the third volume in Suzette Haden Elgin’s loose sequence of novels that feature Tri-galactic Intelligence Service agent Coyote Jones and his voyages to various world. I concluded that Elgin’s “moments of brilliance are overshadowed by humdrum narrative and descriptive tedium.” Furthest (1972), the second in the sequence, matches the template. The novel’s slight and strangely comedic delivery mutes the intriguing world, compelling central mystery, and feminist argument.

In Furthest, Elgin attempts to present Coyote Jones as a character with a compelling backstory–he leaves the Malkunite religion (think counterculture commune rhetoric gone mainstream) and returns to work as an Intelligence Service investigator. This is an improvement over At the Seventh Level (1972) in which he remains a non-entity. Both novels present a critique of patriarchal systems of government which attempt to control women sexually and spiritually. At the Seventh Level plunges straight into polemical waters while Furthest takes a while to unfurl. Jones in some ways represents a man whom treats women as equals. While he has his faults and comes off as a bumbling counterculture sex symbol, Jones genuinely wants to assist those he encounters (in the case of women, his sexual urges also propel him forth). At moments when the caricature and comedy take over, I’m not exactly sure what Elgin wants Jones to represent.

I suspect Elgin’s later Native Tongue (1984) represents the culmination of her science fictional powers. Thankfully, I have a copy on the shelf! Despite Furthest‘s manifest faults, I still recommend the sequence for fans of feminist SF, Diane and Leo Dillon cover art, and Ace SF Special publication series completists. I suspect that in the next few years I’ll read another in the Coyote Jones sequence.


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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Furthest, Suzette Haden Elgin (1971)

  1. Out of curiosity I looked up what that 75 cent price of 1971 would be in 2021 money; according to the US Bureau of Labor Statics CPI inflation calculator web page, $0.75 in July 1971 = $5.03 in July 2021.

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