For me, Melissa Scott falls into that awkward hole of the 1990s mid-list. Too recent to be classic, too old to be a hot fandom topic, she joins far too many others from the era that I haven’t read. Fortunately, Ms. Scott’s name bubbled up in one or another genre conversation, probably Coode Street again, and I got her on to my TBR pile before she was swept away by the swift current of new releases and hot takes. Dreamships arrived from the library in late summer, as a thin and unintimidating volume of about 300 pages. “Should be a quick one,” thought I, but was woefully wrong. Scott writes dense, efficient prose and packs a great deal into not so many words.
The story is ostensibly about a spaceship crew that goes to find a rogue AI programmer, but is really about privilege and hierarchy in a dizzyingly complex society. I am always both excited and disheartened reading older SF – happy to see that we’ve been digging into socially progressive ideas for so long, but distressed that we are still fighting the same battles. Dreamships is no exception. It reads like a precursor to contemporary iconoclasts like Kameron Hurley or Stephanie Saulter, bridging the temporal gap between them and more historical voices like Delaney, Tiptree, and Russ. There are also hints of Swann’s Hostile Takeover Trilogy in particular, and cyberpunk in general, though there is a certain voice that identifies everything as “1990s SF.” I wish I could pin down what it is, but I can’t. Still, something about the book is very obviously from that era. Maybe it’s the tech, or maybe it’s the Gibson-esque, corporately dystopic setting. It may go down as one of cyberpunk’s last stands, before the dot-com boom and standard genre development swallowed the movement up into the mainstream.
It’s difficult to summarize exactly what is going on, but there are overlapping, even conflicting, dialogues occurring in the book over who should have what rights. Two ruling groups claim the planet involved, one governmental and the other corporate, each with its privileged and oppressed factions. On top of this, people are arguing over AI rights and development, unable to resolve the lines that an AI needs to cross to be considered “human,” or even if such a thing is possible. What we get are lines of attack and defense similar to contemporary real life, as we try to sort out gender, racial, and class equality. Rights themselves are not finite, but the time and resources we can spend on the fight are; none of us can advocate for every cause. Characters in the book confront this same problem.
Other things surprised me a bit as well. The viewpoint character is female, and is the ideal of the archetype in terms of strength, agency, and role. Indeed, things are split fairly evenly along male and female lines with no sense that this is anything but perfectly normal. Likewise, every relationship spelled out in the book is same-sex, again with the characters treating this as completely acceptable, even obvious. I recognize the value in portraying the struggles these groups have now, but also appreciate storytellers who present our ideals as attainable to the point that they are run of the mill for characters.
I am also forced to appreciate the era in which these are presented. Sometimes it seems like feminist SF, diverse SF, or LBGT-friendly SF is new and shiny, something we should be proud of ourselves for thinking up. Then I read back and find out that, hey, people were saying this exact same thing twenty, forty years ago and more. Perhaps we should back pat less, and fight more, since it seems like not enough progress is being made. (Has there been a stronger backlash recently, or am I just more conscious of it? I feel like the US-based Culture Wars that flared up post-Obama are a driver here, but maybe I am naïve and it was this bad in the early 2000s as well.) The fight is real, and we can’t let up. We owe it to those like Scott, who came before us and did their part.
Er, back to the book review. As I said earlier, Dreamships is dense and demanding. I expected to blow through this much quicker than I did, not knowing the meaty goodness in store. I will be reading more Scott books as I find them and urge others do the same. This one is recommended for those who like a more challenging read, especially one that digs into thorny social issues. Also AI development! Lots of Turing tests here to go with some hacking and anarchic mischief, so maybe something for everyone.