While travelling to visit my family in Texas, I stopped at the original Half Price Books location in Dallas. I procured a giant pile of vintage SF that I’ll feature in the upcoming year in my acquisition posts, including a signed copy (for $3) of Lee Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah (1979). I realized that I’ve only read Killough’s “Bête et Noir” (1980) and, as is my wont, decided to start with her first three published pieces of short fiction before diving into a novel. As these are her first published works, I suspect she has not found her best form.
“Caveat Emptor” (1970), 2.5/5 (Bad): First appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, ed. John Campbell, Jr. (May 1970). You can read it online here. Equine Andvarian aliens pilot a trading vessel across the Commonwealth. Soon after first contact, a young human woman named Danae learns their language and customs on board their vessel. Danae sets up a trade meeting with the business conglomerate Galiol, a member of the Federation, whom she represents (109). Killough posits that megacompanies, driven by profit, will drive humanity’s expansion outward. The climax of the story features economic gamesmanship as the head of Galiol attempts to take advantage of the newly contacted alien species. But both get what they want in the end. Business is business for humans and aliens…
I found “Caveat Emptor” (1970) most interesting as a speculation into the nature of future space travel and exploration. If the current figures of Bezos and Musk spawn legions of billionaire wannabe SPACE EXPLORERS, purely capitalist dictates will guide and exploit our voyages outward. Danae, while a highly educated scout who genuinely cares for the Andvarians, must suppress her own sense of morality to that of her employer. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Killough’s extrapolation of futuristic capitalism is far less sinister than the contemporary world we live in yet alone a future permutation of now.
A solid but unremarkable first step.
“Caravan” (1972), 2.5/5 (Bad): First appeared in Worlds of If, ed. Ejler Jakobsson (May-June 1972). You can read it online here.
On an Arrakis-esque planet replete with Tarrays who slither below the sands, Reptilian caravan drivers bring delicate brooding female cargoes (“shes”) across the dangerous expanse. The perilous crossing braves sink sand, raiders, and all manner of terrifying crises. Adventure transpires. And little else…
Unfortunately, “Caravan” felt derivative of Frank Herbert’s iconic world (albeit with reptilian narrators) and unable to maintain the tension it so desperately wants to generate. I admire Killough’s attempt to convey alien narrators within profoundly alien worlds with alien concerns. But everything is subsumed to the adventure… and a by-the-numbers one at that. Unless there’s something below the adventure-driven exterior, than science fiction falls profoundly flat.
“Sentience” (1973), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Worlds of If, ed. Ejler Jakobsson (September-October 1973). You can read it online here.
Lee Killough’s third published short story demonstrates improved craft. Within a similar future as “Caveat Emptor” (megacompanies spearhead space travel), Dr. Buurn Cian files a claim against the Megeyn Corporation. Cian argues that the Jebbijy bird is actually sentient and the Corporation must cease and desist killing the predatory animal. The Corporation argues that the previous survey that declared the planet safe to exploit as the bird wasn’t sentient. They denounce the hearing as little more than Cian’s personal crusade due to his “Preservationist leanings” (104). Lives are at stake as the bird attacks the colonists with thorns as weapons. The story follows the cases presented by both sides and the testimony of the original survey crew. As the proceedings transpire, Cia realizes that the original survey conclusions aren’t wrong. Instead, something has happened to the Jebbijy birds since others have arrived on the planet. No longer are they the top predators. And just like the first apes on Earth fleeing from sabretooth tigers, the ecology of the planet has profoundly changed.
As with “Caveat Emptor,” Killough’s futuristic extrapolations of a capitalist system that allows itself to be regulated when needed and responds to external attempts to transform policy rings on the hollow side of things. She does suggest that the case will be bogged down with litigation.
A readable and intriguing ecological/sociological SF story that ruminates on the spark that generates sentience.
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