by Rosemary Benton
After a short hiatus following the death of a dear family member I was in desperate need of some levity. Avoiding the non-fiction section, and especially the news stand, I made my way to the science fiction shelves of my favorite book store and picked up a novel that had originally caught my attention back in April. Raiders from the Rings is latest story from experienced science fiction writer and physician Alan E. Nourse.
Following a near cataclysmic world war, Earth has separated genetically and culturally from those who live out an exiled existence in space. This space-bound society, appropriately called the Spacers, squeak out a living by occasionally raiding food stores and supply depots on the technologically-lagging Earth. But when a newly built secret Earth armada confronts a raiding party of Spacers, all out war is declared once again. Like the conflict that nearly wiped out humanity before, both Earthmen and Spacers seem to be on a trajectory of mutual destruction. It will be up to Ben of the Martian house of Trefon and his two Earthling hostages, Joyce and Tom Barron, to keep their people from pyrrhic victories.
Raiders from the Rings isn’t a badly written book, but lacks something that would have made it a truly good read: humanity. Through an overuse of narration and a lack of actors Alan E. Nourse creates a science fiction future that lacks essential human elements. As the reader makes their way through the book the characters start to feel flat as the society of the Spacers loses its sense of realness.
A key example: roughly a third of the way through the book, I realized that, aside from Joyce Baron, there is not a single named female character even marginally involved in the story. For a narrative that relies so heavily on the history-keeping tradition of the Spacer women, it feels odd that individual women are not featured.
But what about Joyce Baron? Surely an Earth woman kidnapped by the main character for the purpose of being assimilated into the Spacer culture should have a prominent place in the story. She is first introduced as a spirited person with strong viewpoints, so naturally her position as a captured bride-to-be would help to drive the plot, correct? True, Joyce does drive the plot, but merely to provide exposition for why Earthmen and Spacers dislike one another.
Upon being captured along with her brother, Tom Barron, Joyce begins to fight with Ben about the evils of the Spacers. She tells him about how Spacers, according to Earth’s understanding, are irradiated inhuman monsters who capture women in order to force them to breed with the ranks of their subhuman army. It’s obviously untrue, as the reader knows having followed the exploits of the Spacers up to this point, but in that lies the role that Joyce’s character fulfills – she’s there to be wrong about everything. Everything that she has been taught about the Spacers is wrong, from their genetic makeup to the way they treat the women they kidnap. And once this role is essentially fulfilled when Ben rebukes all of the claims against his people, Joyce becomes merely a passenger, cook and apparent ally in the main character’s journey.
But why are women as individual actors marginalized in this story? Because it is the idea of the Spacer women, rather than the women themselves, that fascinated the author. Alan E. Nourse writes a space bound society that the main character and narrator both insist treasures its captured brides. He even makes the distinction in chapter five that, “No girl has ever been forced to become a mauki, and there are always a few who refuse to marry, but not very many. For most of them our life has become their life, and they are as loyal to us as any Spacer man.” Nourse is clear and adamant about the fact that it’s the choice of the captured women to marry and become storytellers, mothers, talented singers, and history-keepers. Truthfully it’s a far more noble take on the role of women in a science fiction society than some of the other books and films I have seen, but Nourse sells himself short by not showing us how the Spacer or Earth societies have their women and men interact on a normal, everyday basis. We are told rather than shown how this fantastical future is run, and because of this the story leaves the reader feeling a lack of depth.
“Telling” rather than “showing” becomes a consistent problem in Raiders from the Rings, and not just when it comes to broadening the realism of the Spacer culture. After Nourse has introduced his cast, the narration carries the plot more and more. By the time the Searchers, an alien elder-race that has been watching human society evolve for thousands of years, are introduced the narration takes over almost entirely. Nourse spends an annoying amount of time telling and retelling the message of the Searchers, which also happens to be the moral of the book – that childishness and immaturity are the root causes of humanity’s war with itself. Maturity and survival go hand in hand, otherwise mutually assured destruction is imminent. This is not something that is left for the reader to parse out, it is literally stated as such in chapter eight.
The characters, plot and message of Raiders from the Rings all unfortunately fall prey to a lack of three dimensionality essential for a story to be relatable. This culminates in a quickly resolved finale which left more questions than it answered. Despite its ambition and potential for expansiveness, Raiders from the Rings feels underwhelming and claustrophobic. Nourse certainly has potential, but in Raiders from the Rings, his efforts just don’t pay off. Sadly I have to give the book only two and a half stars.