This breathtaking novel weaves together several storylines, following the lives of two humans—Samad and Teller—and their alien companion, the harsel Abeha. It takes place on Thalassa, an ocean planet scattered with numerous islands. Inspired somewhat by Greek and Arabic cultures, Thalassa relies on the Storyteller Guild and a wealth of oral tradition to maintain its unique lifestyle in a galaxy full of other influences. But Teller's choice to adopt a scruffy, mischievous street child winds up changing the galaxy ... while ensuring that Thalassa continues its quietly happy path undisturbed.
That's about as much as can be said without ruining the surprises that give this book much of its charm. If you don't like spoilers, go buy it now; this one is well worth spending your lunch money on. But it's more than just an afternoon's entertainment.
I once had the opportunity to sit on a panel with Amy Thomson and Mary Doria Russell. The panel topic of "alien languages" quickly sparked a discussion of two approaches to writing science fiction. Russell favored the "Aunt Mary" method, aiming to make the story completely accessible to non-genre readers and introducing the strangeness very gradually. Thomson favored the "sink or swim" method, dumping characters and readers alike into the deep end of the pool by the end of the first chapter. Storyteller joins Thomson's earlier books in exemplifying the latter approach. In a genre whose greatest strength lies in exciting our sense of wonder, you might as well start off with a big splash.
Speaking of splashes, take a look at the cover when you buy this book. At first glance, I thought it depicted a winged whale. (It's actually a harsel.) The image seemed silly and biologically implausible. Why in the world would a whale need wings? But Thomson's work inspires the faith that if there is a "winged whale" on the cover, the book will follow through with convincing explanations. Sure enough, by the end of the first chapter, we know that a harsel has a sort of natural sail useful in traveling Thalassa's oceans much like a ship would; we also know how the harsels and the humans first met, ultimately giving their shared world its unique culture. It's not easy for an author to establish that level of trust, to entice a demanding reader to anchor her suspension-of-disbelief and jump off without ever looking back, secure in the knowledge that the science will support the fiction.
Thomson touches on a number of popular motifs in this book. One of the first is that of star pilots as addicts. In this universe, only a few people can guide a starship safely through Jump Space; the drive is worthless without the Pilot. The catch is, flying a ship eventually burns out the Pilot's talent, along with the chunk of brain it's attached to ... and the whole will to live. It's a haunting exploration, carried out in considerable depth and reprised throughout the story, at the human propensity to use each other up in pursuit of things that may or may not be worth the cost.
Ex-pilot Eric Kellen explains, "It was wonderful, more wonderful than you can imagine. But after the Jump, you forgot everything except how wonderful it was, and all you wanted was to Jump again. [...] I shaved my leave time, traded ships, bribed people, anything to get back into Jump Space as quickly as possible. [...] But never again. My Talent's gone. Crapped out. I barely made it back alive. I wish to hell I hadn't." (pp. 329-30) This reminds me very much of how Gollum (and later Frodo) relates to the Ring of Doom in The Lord of the Rings. It is powerful, irresistible, and ultimately self-destructive; a force that once touched begins to erode the personality until little remains.
This leads directly into the next motif, the relief of human loneliness through psychic union with a (usually alien) partner. In the opening chapter, Teller relates a first-contact story, describing the harsel who saved Thalassa's legendary Pilot from suicide: "The song also held within it the endless surge and swell of the ocean, and the stretched tension of wind against a living sail, combined with a sense of ancient time. Like Jump Space, it was too big for her to take in. It seemed to fill the aching void in her mind where her Talent had been." (p. 9)
As mindmates, the harsels have much to recommend them: long life, great compassion, wisdom, a language of song and story and mental images. Yet they also have a love of freedom bequeathed by their aquatic nature, an inherent flexibility that comes of migrating across the open ocean all their lives—quite a contrast to landbound humans who can sail or fly only with the aid of machines. They are like many other fictional entities presented as the balancing point of human characters; most notably, perhaps, the horselike Companions depicted in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series. But the Companions are unearthly, even angelic; the harsels are very much mortal. It is, perhaps, a certain tragedy of harsel biology that suits them so well to understand human griefs and flaws, especially the wrenching loss of a Pilot whose Talent has burned out.
An interesting variation occurs in the Storyteller Guild: this motif appears almost exclusively in fantasy. Oral tradition is a powerful force, and the author conveys both its roots and its fruits with great precision. But it isn't something typical of an advanced society, nor of science fiction with its emphasis on technology. One of the few renditions in science fiction appears in Anne McCaffrey's Pern, which has a strong fantasy flavor due to its dragons anyhow; the Harpers serve as a living archive of culture in what has become a pretty low-tech society. For the most part, Bards of any kind are a staple of the pre-industrial fantasy world.
Yet here we learn that Teller is, in fact, the Pilot who discovered Thalassa. She has spent over 500 years there (thanks to life-extension technology) and she deliberately created the Guild to preserve a culture that almost died out. As Teller explains, "The Pilot remembered her years among the harsels. Some of their memory songs were several millennia old [...] The people of Thalassa were forgetting themselves and their past. She was watching a generation of Thalassans grow up without any traditions. [...] And so the Pilot began traveling all over Thalassa, stopping at farmhouses and inns, asking for stories, and telling them in return [...] to remind Thalassans of who they were." (pp. 239-240) It works. Not only do we get a good look at Thalassan life, we get to see the gears that keep it going—and not all of them are unreachable wonders like the harsels.
Notable not for its prominence but for its subtlety is homosexuality, which appears as a subplot. As Samad grows from child to man, it gradually becomes clear that he prefers the company of his own sex; omophilos, in local dialect. This isn't what the story is about; it just happens to be there. It gets no more attention or drama than would the emergence of a heterosexual orientation, and is sensitively handled through the inevitable adolescent awkwardness plus the tensions of the main plot. That's why it's important. Homosexuality is achieving background parity, the way gender equality has; it no longer grabs center stage in every story where it appears. Storyteller stands out as an illustration of how characters can have a great deal more to worry over than realizing that they're gay.
A much more complex web lies at the center of this story: the theme of shattering loss, of loneliness vs. belonging. These related ideas stretch throughout in many different manifestations. There is the Pilot's loss of her Talent, and later of the family she creates among the colonists, and finally of Abeha. There is Samad's loss of his parents before the story begins, his shared loss of Abeha, followed by Teller's death, and eventually giving up his dream of becoming a Pilot himself. (Also worth highlighting is the "foundling as hero" motif, represented here in Samad.) Yet they and others manage to limp through the wreckage of their lives, until things start to improve again. The attention to loss, grief, and recovery is faithful even when it gets ugly, which it does.
What keeps people going is each other, defining "people" here as sentient beings who care about other such beings. It begins with Abeha's curiosity toward the newcomer, which rapidly flares to concern and compassion when the distraught Pilot dumps herself into the ocean. When Samad stumbles into her life, Teller takes charge of him; and later it is Samad who keeps her alive after Abeha's death. When Samad tries to disengage himself from his life on Thalassa, he finds that he cannot leave: the net of connections to other people is too strong, he keeps bumping into them on the way out and never quite makes it off the planet—which turns out to be a good thing.
Appalled to find out that Pilots don't outlive their Talent by very long, Samad figures out how Teller survived, and contrives to introduce ex-Pilots to other harsels, with some success. Samad's first rescuee continues the project. It is this chance to save ex-Pilots from suicide which promises to change the galaxy, not just providing hope for them but challenging the Pilot Guild's wealth and power—because the Guild pays a hefty pension to retired Pilots, expecting them to die soon.
The book is not without its flaws, though. The worst has to do with harsel biology, which causes the females to die in the birthing process. Harsels have almost hollow bodies, with a ballast chamber they can open and close at will. After mating, the eggs develop in this chamber—but it seals shut, so the young have to eat their way out. Abeha and Samad argue about this: "Can't you just open your hold and let the harlings go? [...] No, I can't, Samad. The opening to my hold has fused shut." (p. 209) This is idiotic. Natural selection would favor maintaining the open/close function.
A related flaw comes down to poor planning; the harsels give birth in open ocean at mercy of predators instead of in a sheltered tank, despite the existence of floating clinics for harsels. Teller explains, "Emergence is the most dangerous time for harlings. All the blood in the water draws predators from miles away. [...] We're here to rescue the harlings and try to drive off the predators." (pp. 218-19) Why? Probably because it makes a more dramatic scene to have the characters shooting predators and netting harsels, rather than sitting calmly on the edge of a tank. More dramatic does not necessarily mean better, if it's a stupid thing for people to do.
On the bright side, Thomson does a splendid job with the setting. Thalassa emerges as a character in its own right. The culture derives from Arabic and Greek, Christian and Muslim influences. The result is spiritual yet not stuffy, described in lyrical terms: "The island was as full of devotion as a sponge is full of water. It felt as if you squeezed the air, blessedness would rain down like holy water. Even the lizards stared off into space as though contemplating the divine." (p. 95)
This leads to some interesting points of philosophy. We see how the sum of life and soul comes down to memories, how a sense of community can ease most miseries. The characters continue to care for each other even when their suffering makes them surly. Thomson also illustrates the value of a relatively simple life without making it look like the only choice, and the same holds true for oral tradition vs. mass media.
My favorite philosophical point, however, is the contrast between utopia (a perfect but unachievable place) and eutopia (an imperfect but still good, and achievable, place). Human nature prevents us from creating a flawless society, and for that matter, would leave us ill-suited to living in one anyhow. That's why the term for such a society literally means "no place." Yet we can still aim for improvement. Teller lays out her laudable goal like this: "People have a right to make bad choices as well as good ones, Samad. If that choice was taken away from them, then this wouldn't be a world I could live on. I stopped trying to construct a utopia a long, long time ago. I've just tried to help make Thalassa a world where it was easy to live a happy life." (p. 299) Much of the appeal lies in seeing the mechanics of that as well as the philosophy.
Storyteller is an enormously complicated tale. Thomson weaves together multiple threads which span different lives and times: Samad's life before Teller, with her and Abeha, and afterward; Teller's life as a Pilot, her early times with Abeha, the colony's rise, her family, her later times with Abeha, her time with Samad, and then after Abeha's death; even touching on the changing periods of Abeha's long life. I'm especially intrigued by Teller, who personifies a character type just beginning to emerge as a serious force in speculative fiction, the "older female protagonist." At 500+ years, she makes quite the role model for aspiring crones—and for authors who want to try their hand at this challenging type.
Yet it all comes together quite neatly, the setting and the characters generating a plot which illustrates an array of themes, all nestled together like the wheeling colors of a fractal. Sit down with this novel when you have some serious time to give it, because you won't be able to set it aside easily. Read it once for the sheer enjoyment of the story. Then go back and look for the patterns and connections, because its architecture is equally deserving of praise.