The Unity Novels

I remembered reading this pulpy sci-fi novel out of the 70s when I was a kid, where some guy was abducted out in the middle of the ocean and put in some sort of intergalactic jail. One of his fellow inmates was this ten-foot-tall philosopher lizard, and it was this big, imprinting experience to meet this character. I’ve had this great love of philosopher-giants ever since, from the Ogier in the Wheel of Time novels to the Gurahl in White Wolf’s Werewolf: the Apocalypse game. I wanted to double back and read the novel again to see if it still held up, and then I was tipped off to the sequel when I mounted a search for it. Since I’m a slow reader (much to my great shame) that meant I’ve been spending a couple of months inside the fictional universe of the Unity, a cosmic government that brings together a whole host of different species. The Unity is little more than a backdrop for basic space adventures, but that’s all right.

Hunters of the Red Moon is the first book of the series, and I slightly misremembered the plot from all those years ago. Dane Marsh is a thrill-seeker who’s in the middle of sailing alone through the Atlantic when he’s stolen by the Mekhar, a felinoid race of slave traders. After organizing an escape attempt with a fellow “proto-simian” (the Unity’s term for human-like races), a telepath and an enormous proto-saurian, the group finds itself given over to the Hunters, a mysterious race for whom killing has been elevated to something of a religion. Along with one of the Mekhar captors they bested, they find themselves in the strange position of being “sacred prey,” forced to survive for roughly a month against Hunters no one has ever seen.

It’s an interesting concept, and if you’re into straight-ahead soft sci-fi that’s more action-oriented than anything, this is a book for you. Author Marion Zimmer Bradley spends quite a great deal of her time with the novel exploring the universe, and that’s just fine for me — it’s a fascinating setting. We get to meet various members of the Unity and rough shades of what individual societies are like. The proto-felines are quite good with martial affairs and were the inventors of hyper-space travel. The proto-saurians are large but peaceful, devoting most of their pursuits to philosophies and the humanities. Proto-simians are the most curious and gregarious, but there’s this shade of disdain among the other species because they don’t have a “heat” cycle and have sex pretty much whenever they feel like it. It’s a cool tweak to the reputation of humans in an inter-stellar society; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.

Beyond that, the action scenes are pretty competently written. The spaces between them are marked with a smattering of conversations and thoughts from Dane on how to survive from one moment to the next. The book doesn’t like to get too deep — despite the fact that Dane lives in a world where there’s never been conclusive proof of aliens before, he takes finding out in one of the most extreme possible ways in stride. And besides a bit of light bemusement about the alien-ness of the characters he meets, nothing much rattles him. He is very much a man of action, more of a template than a character, a man whose chief characteristic is his force of will.

The supporting cast is far more interesting. I’ve mentioned Aratak, and while a lot of his philosophy reads more like a fuzzy carbon copy of Spock’s Vulcanism, he’s still easily the best thing about the book. Cliff-Climber, the Mekhar guard who chooses to join Dane’s party, is another interesting fellow — his outlook is so far removed from the rest of the group that he spends much of his time at odds with them, and his slow-but-steady integration is the closest you get to a character arc. Dane simply acts to survive, and so does Aratak. The women in the party — Dallith the telepath and Rianna the proto-simian — are mostly love interests and their personalities serve to off-set each other. Rianna is something of a sociologist, but she’s got quite a temper and knows her way around a knife. Dallith, on the other hand, is pretty much a damsel in distress the entire time. Her people almost never leave their home planet, and when they do it almost never ends well. Dallith has lain down to die when Dane meets her, and it’s only his sheer force of will that essentially carries her through the rest of the novel.

It’s possible I’m being a little unfair; to be honest, Dallith and Rhianna are fine as far as characters go, and given Dallith’s culture it makes perfect sense for her to react the way she does. I chafe a little at their role in the story primarily because Dane is such a square-jawed hero it’s hard to see why either of them would fall for him. I’m never quite sold on his romance with Dallith, especially, simply because it doesn’t feel like he’s responding to her specifically — he likes the idea of being needed, of upholding the ideal of manliness in some way. Dallith becomes something of a cypher in this way, a prop that completes Dane’s image of himself. We don’t know too much about her otherwise.

But these are problems coming from a different time. Hunters is a pretty good sci-fi pulp adventure and a rather quick read. It won’t necessarily rock your socks off, but it’s a solidly-constructed, simple story that’s worth checking out if you’re nostalgic for that brand of fantasy.

The sequel, The Survivors, is better in so many ways. It carries forth the tone of Hunters as a good, straightforward adventure story while shading the characters with interesting complications. Sometime after Dane survives the Hunt with Rhianna and Aratak, he finds himself on a capital Unity world bored out of his mind. Like so many post-need societies, there really isn’t any risk in existence — which is something that Dane feels he needs in order to be complete. So when Aratak shows up with a proposition to investigate a “Closed” world (a society that hasn’t advanced enough technologically to warrant association with the Unity) where a few Unity researchers have gone missing, he jumps at the chance.

The new wrinkles added to the setting enrich it quite a bit. We’re introduced to other proto-saurian and proto-feline races, discover interesting new things about how the Unity operates, and the tendency of civilized worlds to have only one type of dominant sentient life. The primitive world Dane and company land on features two, which is rare enough to warrant very close study. However, both the Unity researchers and their first rescue team have vanished without a trace, and it’s up to them to determine what happens to them.

The planet they land on has undergone some sort of cataclysm in its not-too-distant history, and the sun is relentlessly scorching. Dane, Rhianna and Aratak have to undergo reconstructive surgery to fit in a bit with the natives — the proto-simians are darkened considerably, while Aratak’s gills are hidden and skin changed so its darker and more moist. They’re exposed to a culture with strange but absolute cultural taboos; throwing a spear is considered one of the most dishonorable things you could ever do, and one must protect themselves from the demons that live as stars in the night sky. They meet a boy who chafes at the superstitions of the people around him, but there’s no good outlet for his differences. He’s mercilessly chastised by his father, and there’s no other position he can hold beyond a fighting one. Rhianna takes him under her wing, while Dane finds he can barely tolerate the kid. Their arguments over him open up doubts about his relationship and uncovers a surprising streak of self-doubt and loneliness. Even though it’s not touched on too deeply, Dane wonders if Rhianna is staying with him out of some sense of duty to him — he begins to see himself as some sort of backwoods primitive, incapable of being understood by the people who have been raised in a much more advanced society.

Aratak plays well off of another proto-saurian who is much less philosophically-inclined. It’s neat to know that his almost-obsessive quoting of the wisdom of the Divine Egg drives his cultural cousins crazy as well. It makes him more of a quirky individual, and I like that shading of him. We also find out why other races look down on proto-simians for their ability to have sex any time they feel like it; while on the planet, Aratak and his companion meet another proto-saurian who has, er, come into season. Their reaction is surprising and extreme; with bestial roaring, they disappear for weeks to answer the call to mate. When they come back, they’re ready to pick up right where they left off — much to Dane’s bewilderment. “Leave others their otherness” becomes a proverb that he actually has to work to apply.

There are also noble swordsmen who are only antagonists to Dane and his motley band through circumstances and misunderstandings, a few native and non-native animals who are terrifying in rather distinctive ways, and a surprising but satisfying answer to the mystery of what happened to the researchers and previous rescue team. Again, the novel never quite delves deep enough into the interesting ideas and character developments that get kicked up through the course of the story. It reads more of a travel-quest type tale with hints of a more thoughtful tale struggling to get out. But even these small steps towards complexity suit Dane and company well; the protagonist is more three-dimensional than he was before, and even when we don’t like him (which happens half the time) we at least feel something for him.

The Survivors is a good improvement over Hunters, though it’s not perfect. I would have liked to see where the series picks up from there, but unfortunately this looks like all there is. You could do worse than picking up these novels; they’d make for good beach or airplane reading.

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