Weeding Womb

The Madwoman of Shuttlefield

The Madwoman of Shuttlefield by Allen M. Steele. An interesting short story that draws up a colony world as interesting as (or more interesting than) the main plot.

The story is, on the surface, about Allegra DiSilvio. Her story is pretty standard: She once was successful, but then her life fell apart, so she abandoned everything she knew and got on the next train to nowhere to start over. Only this time, the train is a spaceship and 'nowhere' is the new colony world of Coyote.

A moment to speak of the ship and the world it left, however. The ship's apparent name, Long Journey, is actually an abbreviation - the author doesn't reveal the full name until he explains the setting, because that would ruin the joke. The Earth of the story has suffered a few (more) massive political upheavals, one of which brought the United Republic of America (similar to the present-day USA, apparently) under the banner of a Social Collectivist (in short: Communist) dictatorship. In a marvellous nod to the sometimes obnoxious pro-Party titles and anthems coming out of Communist countries (such as North Korea's recent classic of prole oppression entitled "Let us trim our hair in accordance with Socialist lifestyle"), the ship's full name is Long Journey to the Galaxy in the Spirit of Social Collectivism. Its sisterships are, aptly and verbosely enough, Seeking Glorious Destiny Among the Stars for the Greater Good of Social Collectivism and Traveling Forth to Spread Social Collectivism to New Frontiers. The author then mentions the abbreviated forms of the two sisterships - Glorious Destiny and New Frontiers, respectively - just in case someone didn't quite make the connection between Long Journey to the Galaxy in the Spirit of Social Collectivism and Long Journey - which, given the 'noise' thrown out by the full name's extra nine words, is easy enough to do.

And a moment to speak of the world it arrived at: Coyote was previously colonized by a small group of people from the URA who - it's hinted, partly in that name - are more like citizens of the USA circa 2005 than the Collectivists are. (For instance, their ship was called the Alabama.) When the Collectivists arrived by the literal ton, most of the original colonists fled into the wilds to begin anew... or to plan revenge. A couple didn't, though. We'll get to them later.

Allegra quickly finds that the only glory in colonial Collectivism is found in the ship names. The locals of the tent city/shanty town/colony have formed into assorted 'guilds' and 'associations' that are little more than gangs that had access to a thesaurus. Sacrifice of part of one's government-given food ration is the ticket into most guilds (someone's getting fat...). Tresspassing on a guild's territory is a good way to get your property or person violated. The government representatives are little better, trolling the incoming ships for colonists who are willing to trade their bodies for a warm place to sleep in a log cabin. The ersatz police force (the Proctors) expend all their effort keeping the lid on everything and maintaining their power base; enforcing the laws of their far-off parent nation is on the eternal back burner. The general idea is that this place is steadily developing into something resembling a feudal system.

Eventually, after being threatened or otherwise hustled off a series of territories, she finds herself near a cabin that's fairly isolated. Hoping the cabin's occupant(s) will be less psychotic than an entire guild, she sets her tent up for the fast-approaching night. The cabin's owner, an older woman who questions Allegra repeatedly about someone named Rigil Kent - astronomers may now groan - eventually decides to let Allegra stay. (In case you haven't guessed, this woman is the titular madwoman of Shuttlefield. She - Cecelia, "Sissy" for short - doesn't live up to the nickname, to be honest. While she is a touch paranoid, rarely enjoys seeing strangers, and has a short attention span unless she's interested in something, that really doesn't make her any more insane than most of the people I went to high school with. Of course, maybe I went to school in an asylum. Hard to tell the difference at times.)

The next day, while in town for the daily food dole, Allegra has a run-in with a Savant, a cloak-and-cowl wearing robot who looks like something out of a Terminator film. The Savants are humans who have been completely converted over to cybernetics, and tend to hold positions of great power. (I presume the T-800-inspired design is to make it rather obvious to the lower classes that this is someone Not To Be Trifled With. To be honest, that's the only justification I can come up with.) It reveals a bit of the past Allegra's running from (she was a well-known composer) and shows that she doesn't kowtow easily, even to someone with such power. (However, I found that naming the Savant "Manuel Castro" was a joke too far in a Socialist-themed venue. Any other Hispanic surname would've been fine. Or perhaps, pairing Manuel's ethnic first name with the name of one of the more historical and less obvious U.S. presidents, like Grant.)

The Savant scene is one of the most interesting encounters of the story, in part because of the startling menace of such an inhuman being whom everyone clearly fears is sharply contrasted with both Allegra's lack of fear and Castro's slightly fannish behaviour towards some grubby colonist. Yet even with all it has going for it, any situation where a new character pops in, furthers the plot, and then pops out (no matter how well done) tastes at least slightly arbitrary. And, other than a later cameo in a crowd scene, we never see Castro again. While I wouldn't expect the head honcho to be roaming the plebe's cafeteria often, it doesn't change the odd nature of his appearance.

Allegra returns home to find a Proctor examining her government issue tent. Not just any Proctor, but the Chief Proctor. Turns out that Sissy is his mother, and Allegra's the first person to set up camp nearby that she hasn't driven off. He offers a trade - a new cabin and police protection in exchange for looking out for his mom. Allegra agrees, and learns that the Chief and his mom are the only two Alabamans who didn't flee when the first Socialist ship landed. Allegra presses for more info, but finds that the Chief's willingness to answer questions has definite limits.

The story carries on from there. Allegra gets back into music, first by making flutes and then later into more advanced projects. The big finale - which I'm not going to utterly spoil like I did to the first 25 pages - includes a meeting with the mysterious Rigil Kent, a few last displays of savagery by the rabble, Allegra finding the Muse that once left her (and started her life's falling apart), and a big bonfire.

It's a good story. I enjoyed it, though the end just a touch confusing. Perhaps I missed something, but a few more words on Rigil Kent's past would have been nice. The problem is everyone who's in a position to discuss him is either unwilling or in a time crunch. The piecing together is interesting, until the story ends and you feel that this plot thread is still dangling a bit. It doesn't have to be entirely neat, no short story needs to be 100% self-contained, but just a bit more info would be appreciated. Certainly, when a phrase similar to "That man killed my brother!" is uttered at some point, you'd like to hear the accused's side of it.

I also enjoyed the environment. Despite the "Commies can't do anything right!" undercurrent, it has potential. (Of course, the author has apparently used the same planet, a few years previous when there were fewer colonists, as a setting for a series of stories. So there's likely more thought put into it than in an average short-story world. Not having read the other stories, I'm at a disadvantage.)

Still, I like the idea of a land slowly forming into the core of a feudal empire with fading vestiges of a Socialist idealism. On the outskirts is a tent city of new arrivals, where new alliances and gangs are made and unmade. The Proctors and military rule over it all, setting up the start of the empire's ruling class. (Is there friction between the two groups?) And over it all are people like the somewhat detached Savant Castro and Chief Proctor Levin, who quietly worries about Rigil Kent and his anti-Socialist terrorists living in the wilds and preparing for the inevitable retaliation. It feels like a vein that could be mined further. Even move ahead a few centuries. Levin would be dead, but there'd be a new Chief. Rigil Kent's name (which is just a pseudonym anyway) could pass on to his successors, becoming a title of sorts. Savant Castro's immortal, so he could stay around, though I suspect he'd be a better background puppeteer than foreground mover-and-shaker.

And there's tons of stories that could come out of it. What if the Social Collectivist motherland back on Earth collapses? With no more colonists coming, the Collectivists might not eventually outnumber the original Alabamans into oblivion. While the rabble rely on low-tech solutions, would the upper class be able to give up the high-tech lifeline so easily? Would the semi-legit guilds (like the Carpenter's Guild, mentioned in-story) gain enough resources to try make a grab for power? Could Rigil Kent use any chaos in the above scenarios to his advantage? Terrorist strike? Infilitrate and foment rebellion from within? Like I said, a lot of potential.

Not many short stories make me want to go back to the world described, but this one is more tempting than most. Decent work all around.

The Archon

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