Moving on to the tenth new-to-me SF/F author, which means I’m half-way through the project! The Starry Rift by James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon) was first published in 1986.
Set in the same universe as the acclaimed Brightness Falls from the Air, the book contains three novellas that are combined through a frame narrative. We begin, return to and end with a short scene in the Great Central Library of the Deneb University, where a librarian is helping two students find so-called human fact/fiction materials.
These materials are our short stories, and they’re all about navigating a troubled frontier region, the Great North Rift (a low-star region between the arms of the Milky Way). Separated in time and each with its own separate cast of characters, they nevertheless share common themes such as change, memory, self-sacrifice, swashbuckling vs diplomacy and what makes a being a person.
The first, called “The Only Neat Thing to Do,” is about Coati Cass, a 15-year-old would-be explorer who becomes host to an intelligent brain parasite. Together with Syllobene, the Eea inhabiting Coati’s brain, Coati endeavors to search for two missing freighter pilots. During her attempt, she discovers a seriously worrying aspect of the Eea lifecycle and decides to commit suicide in order to protect humanity from accidental contagion.
In the second, “Goodnight, Sweethearts,” ex-soldier / salvager / repairman / roadside assistant (of sorts) Raven encounters a drifting ship. Because of long stretches in cold sleep, Raven’s lived years only add up to 30 or so, despite having been born a century ago. While working, he realizes that onboard is Illya, his beloved girlfriend from decades ago when they both attended university. However, a slaver ship attacks soon after they leave Raven. Fortunately, still within sensor range, Raven detects the attack and swoops in, attempting a rescue. He discovers an enslaved clone of Illya and has to make up his mind whether to become involved with one or the other – if his rescue attempt succeeds, that is.
Finally, in the third story, “Collision,” we follow the first Federation ship set out to actually cross the rift. They find an advanced alien civilization, but building trust turns out darned hard due to attacks by Black Worlds ships – humans not part of the Federation pent on raiding and killing anyone they can profit from. The small crew of humans and Zilla, an enthusiastic Ziello linguist serving as translator, have to find a way to turn the pending calamity into a peaceful First Contact.
The Starry Rift has difficult questions and situations, problem-solving, action and economically but vividly created characters – no wonder that Tiptree has a high reputation. Despite some unevenness (it might have benefited from an edit pass or two), I liked the stories and characters, especially the linguist in “Collision.”
P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.