Fearful Symmetry

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Hourglass – John Morressy’s ‘Del Whitby’ trilogy

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(Originally published in Vector, Jul 2001)

Some books you read and forget them the next day. Some books you read and they never leave you. The ‘Del Whitby’ trilogy by John Morressy are three books that, for me, definitely fall into the latter category.

The 'Del Whitby' trilogy by John Morressy

The 'Del Whitby' trilogy by John Morressy

The series is set in a future universe where mankind has expanded in a series of waves to conquer the stars. On the way they have encountered a number of humanoid aliens, some of which are, or almost are, indistinguishable to humans and with some of these they have interbred. The events of the novels themselves take place in a post-expansion phase, when space travel has become a much rarer event than previously. What little there is in ships up to two centuries old as new ones are no longer being constructed; the technology having been lost. Space travel is also somewhat dangerous, not from mechanical failure of the old ships which were crafted to last, but from the slavers, pirates and the ultra-mysterious ultra-alien Rinn that lurk out in space. The books centre about several very different examples of some of the few rare starfarers of this time.

Although the three slim books can be, as will be seen later, read in any order, the first to be written, and the first I read myself, was Starbrat (1972). The book tells the story of Deliverance-From-The-Void Whitby. Thankfully his rather longwinded name is usually shorted to just Del, although there is a running joke throughout the novel over how long and complicated his name eventually becomes as various awards, titles and honorifics are added to it. Del lives among a community of simple devout farmers descended from the Amish and the books begins with him about to reach the age of maturity. He discovers that he was adopted, originally being born in the hold of a starship in transit – thus a starbrat – to unknown parents before arriving as an infant in an escape capsule along with a tantalising note hinting at his origins. At first Del rejects this information, not wishing to learn anymore of his real parents, and wants to remain with his adoptive parents and marry his girlfriend. Unfortunately events conspire against him when he is captured by passing slavers. After a chance fight his natural ability for combat is revealed and instead of serving in a mine, he ends up fighting in an arena on a Roman Empire-style planet. Eventually Del wins his way to freedom and the rest of the book follows his wide-ranging adventures, during which he tries to both return to his fiancée whilst he simultaneously investigates his origins and searches for his father, climaxing in a Magnificent Seven-style showdown against a hoard of space pirates. He manages to finally achieve both his aims but it does not bring the fulfilment and happiness that he was expecting. However in the final coda we see Del, now much older, wiser and happy, leading an exhibition to discover the universe via a trip across the ‘great void’ to the nearest galaxy.

The second written book Nail Down the Stars (1973; vt Stardrift 1975) has a similar plot line to the first. Jolon Gallamor, who will change his name many times, is the young son of a notorious gangster – “He used to tell Jolon, ‘Son, in all this galaxy, there’s just two kinds of property: ours and theirs. And whatever isn’t nailed down is ours. You remember that’”. The novel starts with Jolon fleeing from his father’s murderers by stowing away on a departing spaceship. He soon discovers that, rather fortuitously, he has run away the circus. Jolon thus begins his career as a ‘skillman’: a glorified acrobat, musician and actor. At the insistence of the ship’s owner, who virtually adopts him, he also learns the rare skill of reading. However he eventually realises he is being exploited by the spaceship’s owner. So he jumps ship for a pure acting company, assumes a new identity, and eventually develops to become a successful and famous playwright rewriting the works of Shakespeare that had been used to teach him to read in the first place. He eventually leaves all this behind when he finds happiness and love among the people of a primitive planet that the acting troop’s leader uses as a regular stopover. When the acting troop leaves Jolon remains behind to be married. Unfortunately this blissful period is not to last. His pregnant wife, along with all her community, are massacred by the space pirates whilst he is away from their village. Marooned, he is eventually rescued by a military ship who chase and destroy the pirates almost destroying themselves in the process. Jolon has a further series of adventures including first being enslaved on the desert planet Xhancos, then helping to lead the rebellion against the slavers. He then escapes the further bloodshed that ensues when the slave rebellion collapses into in-fighting for more adventures. He eventually returns to Xhancos to finally find happiness at the end of the novel with a new native wife and children but not before using his bardic skill to finally end for good the endemic slavery that had returned when the natives regained the planet after the rebellion’s collapse.

The third novel, Under A Calculating Star (1975), takes a slightly different tack from the previous two. The first third is taken up with a mission to retrieve a legendary long lost horde of treasure from an enormous trapped-filled temple on a ‘forbidden’ planet. This ends in disaster with only two members of the team surviving and the vast majority of the riches still unrecovered. The remainder of the book covers the adventures of the two very different survivors. Kian Jorry, the leader of the mission, is a k’Turalp’Pa. Identical to humans they prise cunning and cleverness above all else, being born ‘under a calculating star.’ Like both Del and Jolon he will also change his identity. His manservant and protégé is Axxal, a Quespodon, a strong, heavily muscled race of near-human humanoids with distinctive mottled skin. Axxal is blessed with above average intelligence for his race, the majority of whose members are the dim pack-horses for the rest of the galaxy. Seeking to sell the few gems that they had managed to salvage from the temple they arrive at Xhanchos, the same desert planet as featured in the second book, this time once the initial rebellion had finished. Both are caught up in the scheming of the survivors and eventually separate to achieve their own individual destinies.

Convergence

As stated earlier the books are set in the same universe to each other and the events run more or less concurrently. In fact, though all three have widely different beginnings and endings, one of their most intriguing aspects is that during certain events the plots of the books merge and flow into one another. We have already seen that the desert planet rebellion is shown from two different viewpoints, both before and after. Also, and perhaps more interestingly, one key event in all three novels is seen by each of the main protagonists from a very much different perspective.

In Starbrat Del, having gained a spaceship and a friend, soon after obtaining his freedom from the arena, meets a stranded ‘ragged old spacebum’ named Gariv who tells him the following hard-luck story. Gariv was once a powerful warlord on the planet Skorat who left his new wife Nikkolope to lead a mission against the Rinn to avenge his own father’s death on a earlier mission. However after a great victory the journey home was total calamity and following a series of various mishaps, taking years trying to return, he finally lost everything, including his ship, when he was captured and enslaved. Del agrees to take him home as it is on his way. They arrive at Skorat just in time for Nikkolope’s new wedding, Gariv assumed to have been lost. They managed to get themselves invited into the pre-wedding celebration feast hosted by Nikkolope and her future consort Souritan. During a lull in the proceedings Gariv declares himself. When Souritan denounces him as an impostor and orders him arrested and taken away to be impaled Gariv attacks him, throwing a javelin. Souritan grabs it straight out of the air and fatally returns it. In one quick moment it is all over and Gariv is dragged out dying, before Del and his friend have a chance to back him up as they had promised. Back on their ship, Del and his friend discuss whether Gariv was really who he said he was, before finding they have a stowaway.

In Nail Down The Stars, whilst Jolon is enslaved on the planet Xanchos, he meets a likewise enslaved Gariv just before he leads the rebellion against the slavers. Gariv tells Jolon his story about leaving his wife for the Rinn expedition. Jolon with some sympathy for his plight becomes his Anthem-Maker, creating songs to fill the slaves with fighting courage. However Jolon is disgusted with the excessive bloodshed of the rebellion along with the carnage of the reprisals against the slavers that follows. He has also again found love again with a native woman. He escapes both to avoid the obviously forthcoming anarchy and also overt threats to his life. At the last moment his new love says she cannot leave, according to tradition their son must be born on the planet. Jolon promises to return. After some further escapades he finds himself heading to Skorat after hitching a lift with some traders. He meets Nikkolope and informs her of Gariv and speculates that it was highly unlikely than he would have survived the uprisings against him that were about to take place as Jolon left. Jolon becomes a bard on Skorat but finds court life confining. He also wants to return back to Xanchos. Gariv’s arrival prompts his departure and Jolon scurries away before the repercussions. He stows away in a handy starship which just happens to be Del’s. This incident and their subsequent travels together occur in both of the first two books and we see them both from two very different viewpoints. In Del’s eyes Jolan appears to very much the foppish and effete artist whilst from the opposite direction at first Del looks very much the fierce warrior. It is only by reading both accounts from both perspectives and by living alongside the characters do we learn that they are much more rounded personalities and have more in common than we first think. This is also something that both protagonists eventually realise to their greater wisdom.

We only learn the final truth about ‘Gariv’ in Under a Calculating Star. Jorry arrives on Xanchos after Jolon has left but whilst Gariv is still very much in charge. Jorry precedes to insinuate himself in with Gariv, planning to steal his ‘throne’ at an opportune moment. He even starts an affair with Garivs new lover, Santrahaar, who he finds he genuinely loves. Jorry’s hand is forced, not only by the start of the infighting, but by Gariv’s declaration to Jorry that he had suspected Santarhaar of having an affair so killed her. In revenge Jorry kills Gariv after first provoking him, Jorry’s skill in devious knife-fighting easily beating the blustering swords-man more used to a fairer fight. Jorry leaves the planet as fighting erupts again. He wants to return to the forbidden planet to loot the temple but looses his ship and money in a series of mishaps. It is then, after realising how much he looks like the late Gariv, that he decides with supreme confidence to go to Skorat to reclaim ‘his’ old bride, Nikkolope. He therefore looks out for a suitable mark to convince that he is in fact Gariv and finds Del. Unfortunately in playing the part of Gariv, Jorry has to use a javelin, a weapon he is not used to, which proves fatal. He dies mumbling about Keoffo the Trickster, the Quespodon god.

Time

Given the necessarily brief overview of the novel’s events they may come over as total space-opera pulp and to some extent they are. However although firmly of the pulp tradition they stand head and shoulders above the usual, being well written with, as already indicated, intricately braided plots which are full of memorable imagery, great characters both major and minor and, although I first read them at perhaps an impressible age, almost a sense of poetry than others of a similar type certainly lack. In fact there are numerous examples of real poetry in the text, mostly Jolon’s ’song lyrics’, which are excellent.

Also a number of themes run through the three books, one of the main being time. The first two books effectively cover two life times and the third has the idea of the passing of time very much at the heart of it. The books also capture the immense gulfs of space between the stars and the hard lessons from relativity which result from travelling at high speed between them. When Del finally gets back to his home planet after much travelling he see his fiancée aged away from him into middle-age and happily married to another man for many years.

Another major theme is loss and disillusionment and the books can be very down-beat, almost horrific at times. Towards the end of Starbrat it becomes rather obvious that, instead of being a noble commander against the Rinn, Del’s father has turned renegade leading the pirate horde that Del fights against. On learning this Del breaks down. Jolon undergoes a similar trial when his first family is killed. The irony being that he was away from home to study native carvings, trying to recover a lost language, but before returning he realises he will never be able to read them. In the third book, Axxal the Quespodon discovers that, for generations, his race has been ‘poisoned’ by its home planet’s sun, another ‘Calculating Star’ in a handy, long-forgotten, conspiracy to keep them stupid and subservient to the other races. Only those who have been born to descendants who emigrated from the home world generations ago have regained their intelligence. Even the legends of their ‘Over-Being’ – Keoffo the trickster – were invented to increase their inferiority complex.

This may give the impression that the books are unremitting grim, but they are not all doom and gloom and are leaven with some well placed humour. This is mostly character-based. We have Del Whitby’s naiveté, as the first book is largely written as a memoir look backing with some wry amusement on his immature actions. Also Jolon’s rakish love of the ‘fairer sex’ often gets him into humorous, almost farcical, scrapes. Moressy also has fun with the Poeite religion with its “maelstroms and pendulums and ravens” which crops up from time to time along with its heretical offshoot, the Lovecrafters, which gives poor Del terrible nightmares when he is informed of its teachings.

Also all three of the novels have largely optimist endings. In Starbrat we have the recommencement of ship-building and the mission to explore the universe. In Nail Down The Stars Jolon ends generations of slavery and like Del finds personal happiness. Jorry’s end is not good but Axxal becomes the saviour of his race, giving them restored hope and pride and setting up a new colony beyond the bondage of their star. The finally irony being that he does it in the shadow of ‘Jorry’s’ temple.

Well the sands of time have passed for me and the three books obviously have a different feeling now to when I first read them many years ago. However, throughout the years, some images have been forever with me: fighting a hopeless battle on a rock outcrop on an abandoned planet drenched in endless rain; a row of gigantic pyramids on a desert planet, constructed over generations of slave labour, the distant ones crumbled through age as they reach the far horizon; lethal creatures circling just beyond the light in an immense subterranean hall of pillars; Valkeries descending to gather the fallen off a battle field that are in fact medics (in drag) on robot flying horses, tending to the survivors of a tournament on a Scandinavian descendant’s planet; Del sharing the brain of a truly alien creature to remotely investigate the mysterious disappearance of a whole race on a ‘forbidden’ planet.

However, finally, perhaps a quote which may best illustrate why these books have remained so appealing to me throughout the years and perhaps why you should seek them out yourself. In Starbrat, on an abandoned spaceship that Del Whitby has recovered, he is taking time out to educate himself. Del learns of Wrobleski, a Pole who originally discovered the interplanetary drive, who then stole it from his government, fled into space and beamed the instructions to it’s creation back to the whole world. Del reads on:

“…the book… contained the last recorded words of Wroblewski, received from somewhere in space two years after his departure. The two messages came, about five minutes apart. The first was, ‘I’ve given you the key. Use it, or to hell with you all.’ After a silence, his final words arrived: ‘To hell with you all anyway’”

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 17, 2009 at 11:01 am

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