Science fiction, to paraphrase Harlan Ellison, is about how the future affects people. But the skill-set required to write intelligently about science does not necessarily equip one to create convincing characters. This tension in the field has split the genre into two major schools: "science fantasy" and "hard sci-fi." Those who demand lively characters and intriguing conflicts gravitate (so they say) toward the former, while die-hard purists insist (with increasing frustration) upon the latter. This divide leaves some questioning whether the reading public's ability to even appreciate scientific concepts has been permanently damaged. Readers, meanwhile, are left to wonder where they might find a taste of the "golden age" of science fiction, when the past masters melded intelligent science with deeper elements of the storyteller's art.
In Bud Sparhawk's Vixen we have an answer.
Sparhawk, whose Sam Boone stories have enthralled Analog loyalists since the character's first appearance in 1995, is no stranger to either science or sociopolitical controversy. As webmaster for SIGMA, a think tank of speculative fiction writers that advises the U.S. government on issues of national security, he is doubtless familiar with the tensions and threats besetting contemporary society, including attacks upon science from the religious fringes. Most impressive is the way he has melded his education (a B.S. in theoretical mathematics from the University of Maryland), his long lifetime (born in 1937), his career as a communications and information systems architect, and his experience in both the Air Force and intelligence communities to produce Nebula-caliber science fiction. His work has been anthologized by a number of Year's Best SF compendiums, and the fruits of his apprenticeship in short fiction culminate in Vixen.
What distinguishes the best science fiction writers is an ability to imbue known themes with fresh life. "Mission of colonization" stories, with their well-worn plots of social isolation, fear of the unknown, and social tension fomenting nascent mutiny, are common enough. But where the "slow reveal" of such stories is usually reserved for the new star-system, target planet, or invariably bemused aliens, in Vixen Sparhawk takes the surprising route of turning this device upon humanity itself.
Ten centuries following development of interstellar flight, the Covenant bears colonists toward an Earth-like planet called Meridian. They journey not from Earth but rather a home-world called Heaven. Descendants of a star-faring race, these humans are the heirs of a Revelation by a long-dead Prophet who preached that Man was born to rule the cosmos. In support of this exists a theocracy that informs every aspect of daily life, a firm dogma that no aliens exist who are humanity's equals, and two supporting sub-races of demi-humans—
Sparhawk knows his sci-fi—
Hadir (or "Captain") Tam Polat, mission commander, awakes following a 200-year sleep in suspended animation to witness an anomaly: the appearance of a strange object navigating the star system in which Covenant finds itself. Aliens? But the dogma of his religion suggests no such thing is possible. Nervously, he awakens his second-in-command ("Raggi") and former wife Larisha but keeps the sighting to himself. Tension grows as they rouse each new member of the crew, the most problematic being the "Dalgrun" or religious commissar placed onboard by Heaven's theocracy to ensure adherence to the anointed way. As the crew labors to ready the ship for planet-fall, long-simmering tensions between Hadir and Raggi cause discord in Covenant's command structure and obstacles to proper observance of the Dalgrun's many (and often self-serving) orders.
Complicating all of this is the sociological tension produced by the presence of demi-human slaves. Like the rulers of the Antebellum South, the people of Heaven have evolved a complex set of ethical blinders via which they justify their peculiar institution. One is put in mind of the slave-holding society in Samuel R. Delany's Nevèryön series: Sparhawk evokes the reality of slavery without belaboring its predictable atrocities. The prejudices and cognitive shortcomings of the slave-holders are evoked without sacrificing their complexity of character, and the slaves are rendered as complete individuals without ever becoming cut-out victims. Vixen treads complex sociological territory without stumbling into the pedantic pitfalls of the worst "politically-correct" fiction. So when a very specific taboo of master-slave relations is transgressed, it is all the more resonant for its intricate portrayal of the interplay between emotion, cultural norms, and the reality of power equations among officers on a deep space mission. The resulting conflict could furnish enough material for a novel all its own, but Sparhawk is not content with such an easy out.
The final third of Vixen is a performance of virtuoso storytelling. All of the complexities of character, politics, and science combine to portray an alien contact scenario that is unique in modern science fiction. The tension builds page by page to the point at which the carefully-crafted world Sparhawk has evoked teeters on the brink of shattering. This is exactly what must happen, given the ingredients at play. As part of his proposed solution to the alien crisis, the Hadir directs construction of a pressurized habitat to which he can transfer a complement of passengers in the event of a catastrophic threat. The resulting sphere is a microcosm of our own world: claustrophobic, rife with religious and political tension, and sailing into unknown dangers.
Science fiction, to again paraphrase Ellison, is about how the present affects people. Sparhawk follows in the tradition of the great masters to produce what so many would-be Asimovs strive for: a completely realized environment in which to explore the known by enticing readers ever further into its exact opposite. Vixen is an achievement in both storytelling and science fiction. This reviewer gladly embraces and recommends it as a contemporary classic.