May 06

Villainy

So take the sum of 5337 and 7793, then google it, and examine the second result.

This isn’t evil! I already own the books I’m using it for! This maneuver merely conserves fossil fuels by making it unnecessary for me to have the physical items shipped across the Pacific! I see nothing wrong with that! (There regrettably seem to be no torrents containing Moomins books, so my brain’s recent insistence on re-reading has led me inexorably to Amazon.co.jp.)

Anyway, I’ve just reread The Ship Who Searched, which is a collaboration between Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey in McCaffrey’s brainship universe. Brainships are spaceships with a very intelligent bodiless human brain attached to them, generally one of a congenitally deformed infant who would die if not kept hooked up to complete life support all her/his life. Brainships travel around space having adventures with a human partner, called a “brawn,” preferably of the opposite sex.

What will Mercedes Lackey do with this premise? She will make ambiguously freaky sex out of it. That is what Mercedes Lackey will do with every premise.

This was one of the books I read over and over and over and over when I was in middle school. I think I actually re-read this more than I did Dragonsong and the Valdemar book where the pantsless furry kept raping the Native American stereotypes. (Yes, I totally read the “Mornelithe Falconsbane” book many, many times. I am not proud.) Something about the combination of McCaffreyan benevolent autocracy and Lackeyan sexual dysfunction is deeply soothing.

That said, I now find the science pretty jarring. The brainship universe’s medical stuff changes from book to book (as things do, with McCaffrey), and this book is probably the low point in the series’ plausibility. The book deals with three plagues, the last of which seems completely implausible to me. Specifically, there seems to be no reason for anyone important to show up and decide there’s a horrible interstellar plague in the offing, and start spending massive quantities of military money to contain it, when only one person is actually sick.

And there’s stuff like,

Tia wished she could still shiver; as it was, she felt rather as if her hull temperature had just dropped to absolute zero.

You are in space. If it is not absolute zero in space, then space is probably having some problems to-day.

Unfortunately, there had been no provision for the need for secrecy in this mission; she had no codes and no scramblers.

Don’t you have, like, a public key?

(And this isn’t exactly science, but your military career is not going to pay well enough to allow you to stage a hostile takeover of GlaxoSmithKline, however 1337 your day-trading skills.)

But it’s the psychiatric angles – the attempts to codify what makes someone eligible to become a brainship, and later, to deal with their sex lives – that really don’t work here. By the terms set out in the first book, The Ship Who Sang one can’t be older than three or so and still be able to make the physical and psychological adjustments to not having a body. I mean, I seriously doubt there’s any relevant medical research for this sort of stuff, but McCaffrey made it buy-able, and it feels to me like an important part of the series’ suspension-of-disbelief contract.

This book violates the contract. Hypatia is seven when she’s hooked up to the brainship. Lackey – this whole section reads like Lackey to me, I’m just gonna say it’s her – feels that this can be explained by the fact that she’s really, really smart and really, really mature for her age. Because early in the first book shellpersons are described in such a way as to suggest that they need to go into the shell without a fully-formed personality, in order to adjust, this doesn’t work. Also, she just wasn’t sick enough – she was quadriplegic, but she wasn’t in danger of dying, and the time period here is clearly one of rapid medical advancement, such that Brilliant Doctor should have had hope that she could have eventually been cured without resorting to such risky measures.

I feel okay with laying all this at Lackey’s doorstep because McCaffrey is very, very good at ignoring psychological stuff that makes her uncomfortable without letting it screw up the story. That’s why the early Pern books work so well. She shoves right through the sexual stuff that scares her to get to the stuff she likes. She has skill at this.

But Lackey picks at things. Hey, let’s have the brawn develop a sexual fixation on the brainship after seeing a picture of her as a seven-year-old! He can collect more pictures of her, and worry whether he’s a pedophile, or maybe more of a necrophiliac! Because her nervous system is nonfunctional, see, and her body’s basically dead! He can also become a borderline alcoholic, and consume lots of “extreme” virtual reality porn, and let’s not say what kind, okay?! Okay! When McCaffrey does go places like this (the Talents series has the falling-in-love-with-a-kid two or three times, and The Ship Who Sang dealt with sex with gloves and a sledgehammer), she does it with a weird, sneaky grace that leaves you wondering how she went there without looking like a crazy person. Lackey doesn’t really care if she looks like a crazy person. She will write two separate scenes involving sex, crippling shame, and a teddy bear.

This sort of stuff is what you get when you let Lackey play in your sandbox.

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