Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Announcement: The Communipaths

A Book You Can Read, and Pay For, Here:

Note that financial tokens of appreciation can be sent to either web host Jackie Powers or author Suzette Haden Elgin; Paypal buttons appear at the bottom of the web page.

(However, serious book collectors can also buy the early paperback copy from me.)

Title: The Communipaths

Author: Suzette Haden Elgin

Date: 1970

Publisher: Ace Books

Length: The 1970 edition has 256 pages, but more than half of those are taken up by another novel--Ace bought a batch of short science fiction novels and bound random pairs together. If you print from the computer and scale the font down to 8-point or ordinary paperback-book size, you should be able to compress it onto 20 pages of standard printer paper, or fewer.

Quote: "They wanted Anne-Charlotte's baby to man a Communipath station on the Bucket. They were very stern with her about it. "That baby is a very valuable and delicate piece of property," they said, as if a human being could be property! Patrick's woman put her hands over my ears when the Fedrobot said that, but then she laughed at herself and took her hands away. How am I to learn if she does things like that? And so I heard it all. They have charged Anne-Charlotte with high treason against humankind, because it is a very grave crime to have a baby alone like she did and not allow it to be registered, particularly since she knew that it would have a high Factor Q."

"Patrick's woman" is intentional; the narrator (in this chapter) is a member of the Maklunite religious community, who share property but respect the emotional attachments individuals form for certain treasured belongings and special friends. There's a bit of discussion about Patrick's and Sally's mutual attachment, and those of other couples in the community, in Chapter 6.

Anne-Charlotte, however, is one of the psychically gifted mutants who are evolving among the human species, allowing humans to colonize other planets and form a Federation of Galaxies.

In her "serious" role as a linguistics teacher, Elgin often referred to "Miller's Law": "Assume [not necessarily agreeing] that what you are hearing is true, and try to imagine what it could be true of." At this period in history, many people took the possibility of extrasensory perception very seriously. Our federal government, and local police departments, were seriously trying to work with psychics. The possibilities and dangers of ESP were exciting unrealistic hopes and fears. Elgin tried to imagine a world in which there were psychics who could be useful to the government and were being shanghaied into service, and the result was a series later called "The Communipath Worlds." (The first three of what eventually became five volumes were reprinted together here.)

Another difference between the hypothetical future of "The Communipath Worlds" and our world is that, in the Communipath Worlds, although real love between couples is still valued, romance is perceived as a sort of emotional disorder. At this period in history, as Elgin observed in the fifth Communipath Worlds story, nothing seemed to appeal to the book-buying public quite so strongly as adulterous relationships and the possibility of a marriage surviving a few. The central character who unites the five novels is a young man called Coyote Jones. He has a partner, in work and in life. Both of them are government agents often sent to different planets. They meet other interesting characters, are usually offered casual sex, and are usually polite enough to accept these offers. No one else, however fascinating, ever comes between them. Realistic? Why should it be? It's science fiction; some discreet mention of sexual activity was expected at this period; it's never obscenely explicit, and it's never what the story is really about. But if this kind of thing bothers you, read Elgin's nonfiction instead.

The Communipaths is mostly about the conflict between Anne-Charlotte's obligations to her government and her instinctive sense of obligation toward her child. The central ethical question is whether Anne-Charlotte's desperation should really be considered a form of insanity...especially in view of the ending of the story, which I won't spoil here, except to say that it qualifies the whole story as a parable of the concept of seeking the Highest Good for all people when people find themselves in conflict.

Elgin writes as a Christian, but a very liberal Christian who's aware that a large part of her audience are Christian-phobic. Her science fiction explores ethical and spiritual issues from this perspective. If you're looking for the superficial trappings of a Christian story, characters who go to church every Sunday and never swear, look somewhere else. Even if you look for the ethical conflict in the deep structure of each story, you may not find yourself in agreement with Elgin's perspective. (If not sure about her conclusions, consult her blog, where she's discussed her ethical and religious beliefs in literal real-world terms.) At times you might find her novels heretical, and not just about the "freedom" of adultery...but I find them congenial because they express Christian spirituality.

It helps, of course, that they also express Elgin's perspective as a Southern-born folksinger with a quirky sense of humor.

The Communipaths is warmly recommended to anyone who can deal with the fact that, when a good writer passes lightly over incidents of sex and violence, the sex tends to become more exciting and the violence more repugnant than they would be if described in detail. Within that group, the whole series is especially recommended to those who tend to believe the claims of psychics and might benefit from thinking about the kind of world of which those claims would be true.

To buy the Ace edition from me, click here:

To buy the three-volume set from me, click here: