Courtship Rite, by Donald Kingsbury, is one of those science fiction stories that makes you think long after you finish the story. Like the other Donald Kingsbury book I’ve read, Psychohistorical Crisis, this one was difficult initially to get into, but showed the kind of promise that drove me to skim further along in the hopes of getting to the good parts. These are good books to skim the first time, but you’ll find yourself skimming back to the beginning to figure out what comes later, and when you’re done you’ll want to go back to the beginning and reread the book.
In my mind, Courtship Rite is in a class with A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge as “idea books”. I wouldn’t be the first one to class it with Frank Herbert’s Dune as a cultural science fiction novel. In a lot of ways I’d say this novel outstrips Dune and its sequels in this realm. The culture envisaged is a good deal more original and challenging than Dune‘s cultures. Also, while Courtship Rite portrays a society more technologically retrogressed than that in Dune(and less intentionally so), this books cultures seem more aware of the modern culture that preceded it. This seems like a much more realistic depiction of a future society(even one that’s just relearning how to build the bicycle): even a somewhat-uneducated religious leader is aware of evolution(although she asserts that humans evolved from a native “insect” when, in fact, humans kinda came from elsewhere), genetic engineering seems common, and vacuum-tube electronics are in use by at least one of the cultures.
Physical worldbuilding is well-developed, but unobtrusive. Geta orbits a red sun, imaginatively named Getasun, and is orbited in turn by(or possibly orbits) a very large moon named Scowlmoon to which it is face-locked. It is a dry planet with extensive deserts(although a lot of the action occurs on or near one of its seas which kind of gives a sense of the variety of climates in this world).
Biological worldbuilding is one arm of the crux of this society. Crux in the sense of, “instrument of crucification,” or, “the cross which they bear.” Geta’s most interestingly dystopic cultural element derives from the problem of this planet’s biology. Life on Geta is divided into two broad classifications: the Sacred Eight(wheat and bees included), and Profane(native to the planet) organisms. Some Profane organisms have parts that are edible or can be made edible with some degree of processing. There is some danger in consuming Profane foods as the wrong parts or improperly prepared parts can be seriously poisonous. The description of the Nolar in chapter six seems to indicate that the dietary contents of Profane food alone are insufficient to properly support humans. The book says of the Nolar, who mainly subsist on, “the palatable native vegetation,” that, “The women were all pregnant and old of the poison. They lived barely long enough to reproduce themselves,” and, “They knew their diet killed them…” Although it specifically referred to poisons, I suspect, especially given the success that Nonoep has in using Profane foods without harm later in the book, that people have been on Geta long enough to have learned to avoid the genuinely toxic parts of the native ecology. Especially the Nolar who have seem to be particularly dependant on Profane foods. Also, Oelita, the point-of-view character in this chapter, is a bright, but undereducated peasant, even by the standards of the Kaiel priests she encounters later. Based on all of that, I believe the Nolar are suffering from malnutrition due to excessive dependance on native food. In First In terms the biochemistry would clearly be considered Partially Compatible.
“Partially Compatible means that humans can eat some native foods, possibly after considerable effort in processing or cooking them. They can’t rely wholly on native foods without developing deficiency diseases. Diseases will not cross over, although the local equivalent of decay bacteria can still deal with dead Terran organisms,” GURPS Traveller First In, sidebar page 68, “Local Biochemistry.”
Because of the scarcity of imported Terran foodstuffs on Geta, the human settlers were forced to rely on cannibalism to supplement their diets, at least in hard times.
Additionally, local disease organisms do not effect humans according to the book. It seems that humans on Geta do not suffer from communicable diseases at all. As with the Traveller description of the Vilani, I take some degree of issue with this a for three reasons. First, although I’d agree that no virus native to another planet could possibly have the necessary specialized mechanisms to co-opt Terran cells into replicating them, I suspect that if it is even remotely possible without the use of a full-on chemical refinery to process native organisms as food for humans, then there will be at least some native bacteria-analogues capable of using Terran tissue if only for its raw elements. The second, and larger, problem in my mind is the crop of Terran disease organisms we will bring along inside our own bodies and the intestinal flora in our guts. Possibly it could be argued that these parasites would be more restricted to less destructive adaptations if there aren’t a lot of other animals they can turn to when they start killing their human hosts. My third problem with the no-disease conjecture is particularly appropriate given cannibalism: prions. Prions, as I understand it are self-replicating protein strings that are created by errors in our own cells. Now, if one person generates a deadly prion, although it may kill him it is no danger to others. The prion will die with the body that created it. Cannibalism allows the prion to be passed on to other humans. Here on Earth, cannibalism isn’t altogether required as it can be passed across species(although the whole Mad Cow thing may have spread because of the use of beef by-products in animal feed, including that given to cows). On Geta, though prion diseases may be the most likely communicable disease form.
The real meat of Courtship Rite as an idea book is the cultural element. I’d have to call Donald Kingsbury the current master of hard science fiction as applied to the social sciences. Well, maybe if he gets off his duff and publishes Finger Pointing Solward and some other goodness. Along with Psychohistorical Crisis, this is practically a guidebook for how to build future or alien societies. And, yes, I do think of these two books as a set. Read them both, if you can find them. I’m currently rereading Psychohistorical Crisis and taking notes because of Courtship Rite.
Now obviously the most striking aspect of Getan culture is the cannibalism. Cannibalism is ubiquitous, as far as I can tell in all Getan cultures. From Noe picking up a rack of creche baby ribs at the meat market to the otherwise ethically vegetarian Oelita nibbling on jerky made from her father for a bit of spiritual strength, it’s all through the story. It is a measure of Kingsbury’s writing that, once you get over the initial revulsion, the immersion in Getan culture is so strong that references to eating baby meat and dad jerky aren’t nearly so jarring as you’d expect. One might say that they are presented tastefully. While I rooted for Oelita the Gentle Heretic’s quest to end cannibalism, I did think that it would be a shame to lose the ritual of the Funeral Feast. As presented in the book, you could actually see the appeal of eating a bit of dearly deceased. The sin is in the killing, and you can actually share in the revulsion of the Getans when they learn how wars on Earth lead to people being killed and left to rot uneaten.
There are a number of separate rituals to cannibalism. One is the previously mentioned Funeral Feast, celebrating a full life just naturally ended. There is a Judgement Feast for executed criminals. In times of famine there is the Ritual Suicide for those lowest on the kalothi list to promote the survival of those higher in kalothi. Those who are condemned to Ritual Suicide in famine are allowed the pleasures of the Temple prior to their deaths. This involves concubines and games of chance. Games are a big thing with Getans.
Kalothi is an important concept in Getan society and needs some explanation. Kalothi is about survival. Since kalothi governs where one stands in the line to the soup pot, it is very much about personal survival, but in direct terms it is about those traits and behaviors which support the survival of the human race on Geta. I’ve seen reviews that describe this story as libertarian, I have to disagree. Yes, very much on the surface there is a libertarian structure to the culture he creates, but there is a solid undercurrent of social coercion. What, after all, could be more coercive than the threat of the soup pot if your actions fail to support survival of The Race. That is kalothi is not measured as the support of ones own self-interest by dealing with a market as an aggregate of the interests of other individuals but with a central mandated interest in the survival of the human race as a whole. That isn’t to say that a lot of libertarian ideas, such as the power of enlightened self-interest to bring about greater justice, but they are made to work not by assuming that people will act in just enlightened self interest, but by forcing people to consider the longer-term consequences of actions on the survival of the race as a whole. As Mr. Kingsbury would say, the overall structure is neither left nor right, but up.
The Kaiel system of governance is both the best developed, and the most libertarian-like. The Kaiel law of Voting Weight, as decreed by Tae Ran-Kaiel, was described in the book as follows:
“One: a Kaiel is to be allowed voting rights in the councils only in proportion to the size of his personal constituency.”
“Two: the constituency of any Kaiel may consist only of loyal friends.”
“Three: no Kaiel may belong to the constituency of another Kaiel.”
“Four: no non-Kaiel may belong to more than one constituency.”
“Five: no one shall be forced into a constituency by either fear or place of domicile,” okay this is a bit Libertarianish.
“Six: the councils may challenge any Kaiel at any time to recite the names of the pledge members of his constituency and to describe in detail the concerns of each. Any person he cannot remember is stricken from his list,” this would certainly serve to keep personal power in check.
“Seven: a Kaiel who can summon no friends remains voteless and is required to remain childless or leave the clan.”
Those are the rules of Kaiel Voting Weight. Prediction is also crucial to the Kaiel. Actions taken by these Kaiel priests whether votes in council, or contracts entered into are attached to predictions of their future effects which must be logged in the Archives. On the creation of a contract,
“… a sharp eye for which threads of the past a weaver must grasp to splice strength into any future design. … always sensitive to conflict between Kaiel ambition and (the interests of the other). … Taimera os-Kaiel explained why her co-workers were so thorough.”
“Those groupings of Kaiel who created effective laws gained power, money, influence – and the release of their genes to the breeding rooms of the creches. Predictions accurate over the immediate future were rewarded, but big stake was in being able to control distant consequences.”
“The young group… knew that… auditors, armed with hindsight, would still be checking over the effects of this document when its authors were well into their political prime. If by then… (the signatories)… were prospering in their relationship… the votes of each author of such success would be enormously magnified, but if the document failed to do what they were predicting for it, then they would find themselves relegated to some petty job in the bureaucracy.”
“Any Kaiel in good standing was allowed to vote before the cutoff date, but few would because the Kaiel had a peculiar system. A mere yes or no was not sufficient. The Kaiel maintained that a yes/no vote did not require careful thought and so encouraged sloppy lawmaking. A Kaiel who voted, and they were constantly taking the trouble to vote on something, made a deposition in the Archives stating in detail what he believed to be the consequences of his choice. The archivist did not accept the vote unless the consequences were stated in measurable terms.”
“The voting on any issue was sparse, but indicated the decision of Kaiel who had taken the trouble to inform themselves and were willing to gamble their political future on their estimate of the outcome. A Kaiel was trained from childhood to make laws in the areas where he felt a persnal responsibility. He soon learned that to get a law passed, he had to contact a representative number of Kaiel who were likely to vote on the issue and to work out a consensus with them before he put his suggestion on the voting roll.”
I argue with John Clute’s use of the word libertarian, but not didactic. In Kingsbury’s defense, the expository lumps are often at least as fascinating as the action scenes in some writer’s works.
I’ve only given a small sampling of the soupy morass of ideas in this book. If you can find a copy of this book, I’d suggest grabbing it up.
Thank you for your attention,