Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland (1975)

This was a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t quite fit into my category of SF-Classics-I-missed-in-recent-years. It came out in 1975, when it was nominated for a Locus award. So it ought to have been picked up in my peak juvenile SF-reading years. But I missed it back in the day, and nowadays it mostly appears on lists of lost and neglected classics.

Another book that had rested undisturbed for a couple of years on my ‘To Be Read’ shelf. Until recently, I regularly passed over it in favour of other books. Mainly, I think because I knew nothing about Cecilia Holland. This is apparently her only science fiction novel, among many reputable historical fictions.

If you’re only going to write one SF novel, this is a pretty good one to have on your roster.

The set-up is simply stated: thousands of years in the future, in a solar system where anarchism is a settled system of ‘government’, Earth has been largely damaged in some past disaster, and humanity has spread to other planets. The civilisations of the inner solar system are troubled by raids from the Styth, a race of mutants descended from early pioneers to the outer planets of Uranus and Saturn. Paula Mendoza accepts a mission from the ‘Committee of the Revolution’ to negotiate a treaty with the Styth. This she does in an unorthodox way, going on to spend many years living among the Styth, and acting as ambassador between them and the inner worlds. She also skilfully builds a role as adviser to the Styth leader in the brutal politics of his people.

I found so much to enjoy and admire in this book. Unusually for a science fiction novel, the future world is drawn very subtly. There are big and imaginative ideas here, but the world-building is left in the background. We learn about the characters through their actions and their reactions to the world around them, not through interior thoughts or monologues. Holland doesn’t trouble to explain how the domes of the ruined Earth work, nor how the world came to be wrecked. Nor does she linger over the technicalities of the way the Styth live in the inhospitable environment of the outer planets. The prose is taught and spare, and we see the world as the characters do, in the moment.

There are important themes of race and sexism, explored thoughtfully and subtly. Mendoza herself is a fascinating – and at time frustrating – character, who embodies a convincing way of operating – anarchistic in a plausible, real-life way in her refreshing disregard for rules and authority, rather than the caricature some other writers might have offered.

It’s a big, sprawling story, wide in scope and vision, but intimate in its focus on realistic people, grappling with realistic problems in fantastic circumstances. Vividly written, with tight dialogue. The 600-plus pages fly by.

I see from a glance at Amazon and Goodreads that the book divides readers: plenty of rave reviews, but some people absolutely hate it. Sure, it has flaws (I was never quite sure what motivated Mendoza, the ending was a little flat and inconclusive for me, and it’s very much a 1970s conception of the far-future). But I’m definitely more on the rave end of the spectrum. Shame there was never a sequel. Maybe someone could have a go…

A well-deserved 8 out of ten for me.