Zelde M’Tana by F.M. Busby
Dell Books, 1980
Price I paid: 90¢
Young, untried, but a lethally trained fighter, Zelde M’Tana found herself legally shanghaied by the oppressive UET―imprisoned on a starship bound for the brothels of a mining planet. There was no way Zelde was going to stand for that―and when the ship’s first officer, Parnell, led an anti-UET revolt, Zelde joined the mutineers and single-handedly turned defeat into victory.
First as Parnell’s lover, then as his assistant, Zelde was mistrusted by the crew―but when the UET struck once again and Parnell died, there was only one choice for Captain: Zelde M’Tana.
Pungent and vivid as its heroine, ZELDE M’TANA is a gripping epic of spacefaring, battle, and human conflict.
Good lord this was a long book. I don’t normally hit up paperbacks that are much longer than two hundred pages, at least not for review purposes. For pleasure reading I don’t care how long a book is. When I’m on a deadline, though, I try to keep ’em slim.
This, of course, has more to do with my own laziness than anything. I know I’d be able to knock a book out faster if I started reading earlier in the week, but as the Internet is so fond of pointing out these days, life comes at you fast.
Despite its inordinate length―I feel like maybe a third of this book could have been nixed with no ill effects―it was a damned fine read.
For starters, there’s that indefinable and totally subjective sense that a book wants to be read. You know the one. It’s that feeling you get when you sit down to read a book and then find you’ve fallen outside time for a bit, only to be dragged out by the cat’s insistence that it’s food time. One’s own insistence of food time is more easily ignored when it comes to a read that won’t let go, but the cat is unignorable.
And that’s what Zelde M’Tana did to me, or at least it tried its best. Two hours flew past on Thursday when I started the book. My usual Saturday read went a bit more slowly and painfully, but I’m pretty sure I’d come down with something, so it’s not F.M. Busby’s fault on that score.
A smattering of online research taught me that Busby was big into the science fiction fandom scene for a long while, even winning the Hugo for best fanzine in 1960. He’s perhaps best known for the Rissa Kerguelen series of tales, to which this novel nominally belongs. I believe that Zelde M’Tana is only tangentially related to the Rissa Kerguelen stories, so I didn’t get too angry when I found that out.
All told, this was a pretty good read. I liked it. We’ve got what is quite likely the first woman of color protagonist in any book I’ve reviewed, which is neat, and she’s also a great character regardless of race and gender, which is double good. All of these aspects are unusual to me, and I was very glad to see them handled well.
The story starts off on Earth. We get some backstory for Zelde, whose name is making my spellchecker light up like a Life Day tree. A lot of this book is not friendly to spellchecking. Why am I so hesitant to just say “add this to the dictionary?”
Zelde managed to survive childhood by joining various gangs on a dystopian Earth. We don’t get a lot of details on this world, but what we do know is fairly familiar with a few twists. North America is run by a group called the UET, United Energy and Transport. Either way, this group is currently the government because it was the highest bidder. This element of the story, which I found interesting, kind of faded away, since no other organizations were ever mentioned and it didn’t seem like the UET had any kind of real competition going on. Maybe a continuity error, maybe hinting at something a little more insidious, I’m not sure.
Zelde’s childhood ends when she’s captured by some government forces. She’s afraid that she’ll be put on Welfare, which is this future’s euphemism for slavery. Instead, she gets shot into space. She doesn’t know why, at first, but later comes to realize that she’s being sent to a mining planet for sexual and/or breeding purposes. She’s not happy about this, but there doesn’t seem to be anything she can do about it.
Cue the mutiny.
Led by the ship’s first officer, the mutiny doesn’t go well at first. Zelde can’t be much help as she’s down in the hold with the other women cargo, but once the doors come open, she springs to action. Zelde is a character who contends and there’s never any question about her capabilities and gumption. She rocks. She ultimately saves the day when she faces off against the UET captain, who is wearing a suit of power armor. Her quick thinking and reckless courage allow her to take out this guy by knocking him off of a ledge, killing him. The mutiny succeeds.
I never got a clear picture of what the ship looked like, either inside or outside. I’m not sure why there was a ledge to knock the captain off of. A large part of this is because the book didn’t have a lot of exposition on that front. Most of the characters took the ship for granted because it was already familiar. What we do find out is that the ship doesn’t have FTL, although it does approach light speeds. Busby even factored in the fact that going anywhere involves accelerating toward the destination for half the trip, then turning around and burning retrograde. Characters often refer to themselves in regards to their “bio-age” as opposed to their “chrono-age,” since time dilation is a major factor. In one discussion about changing course, the question of fuel comes up, and we’re told that making a ninety-degree turn uses as much fuel as coming to a full stop and then accelerating to top speed again, something that I had to think about for a bit but when I called upon my freshman college physics memory started to make a lot more sense.
Busby had a pretty good idea of how physics works, and so this book turned out to be that rarest of gems: hard sci-fi with actual characters to care about.
A lot happens in this book so it’s hard to tell you about all of it, but the gist is this: Zelde hooks up with her grateful new captain, Parnell, who was injured in the mutiny. She takes care of him and meanwhile starts to learn about how this ship works. She’s never too capable as to escape believability, but she’s still a quick learner who makes herself useful. She has to deal with people who don’t trust her or believe she’s only moving up the ranks because of her relationship with the captain. She deals with these issues calmly and rationally. Her first headbutt is with the new first officer, Mr. Adopolous, who refuses to take her seriously. She confronts him about it and they eventually earn one another’s trust, further blossoming into friendship as the book goes on.
A landing on a planet called Terranova takes up a good chunk of the middle of the book. Now that the ship, renamed Chanticleer from Great Khan, has successfully cast off its UET loyalties, it has to lie low. There are groups called The Underground that will help out Escaped (book’s capitalization) ships like Chanticleer, but finding them takes some work. They can’t very well advertise their status as Underground, and likewise we find that loose lips explode ships, so everything has to be on the DL.
While on planet for leave, Zelde gets jumped by some bandits. One of them mangles her ear pretty badly, but she’s saved by Mr. Adopolous, who gets a bad gut stab. He’s out for the majority of the book.
Captain Parnell is also out for a large part of the book thanks to injuries sustained in the mutiny. Zelde has to handle a lot of things herself. She does so through a mix of diplomacy and strength. There’s a lot to like about this character and I’m afraid that I’m not at all able to detail it well enough.
There’s an attempted counter-mutiny that ends up killing Captain Parnell. In his last will and testament, Parnell leaves Zelde all of his shares in the ship, as well as the command. This doesn’t go over well for a lot of the crew, so Adopolous offers to let her remain in command until their next landfall, after which they will buy out her shares and leave her grounded. She is very upset by this but doesn’t argue.
Next landfall is at Fair Ball, an Underground colony. For what felt like a bit too long, Zelde explores this colony and gets to know some people. I wasn’t thrilled with this bit; it felt like padding in an already too-long book.
Throughout the novel, we got to hear tell of another ship that went rogue, the Inconnu. What’s notable about this ship, passing the story into legend, is that it’s armed. The UET doesn’t arm most of its ships, so having one Escape is a really big deal.
Inconnu lands at Fair Ball, Zelde ingratiates herself to the captain, and he hires her and they set off into the cosmos. The end.
Okay, so maybe the ending wasn’t especially great, but I’m told there are other books about Inconnu and its captain, so maybe this isn’t the end of Zelde’s story. I hope not. I’d like to read more.
What really interested me about this book was how nautical it was. Comparing space ships to water ships isn’t anything new and wasn’t in 1980 either. After all, we had Star Trek help with that a lot, and it probably wasn’t anything revolutionary in 1966. Still, Zelde M’Tana did an excellent job of making the ships in space seem like ships on the high seas for a variety of reasons. Now bear with me, because most of my knowledge on this front comes Sid Meier’s Pirates!, but this book contained a lot of bits that really rang true on that front. Ships were isolated from one another, able to contact and share information only when they happened to be nearby. Information shared was usually old, full of things like “we heard that Suchnsuch was last heard heading out of Colonyworld twenty years ago.”
But don’t let me make you think that this book was just Treasure Island in space. Oh no. It had that whole other layer of decently hard science fiction that made it a completely new story, after all. Time dilation adds a new layer of craziness onto the communication problem. At one point there was a “how long since you last saw so-and-so?” posed, and the person had to say something like “eight years for me, probably four or five for him.” When I read that, I squealed, because I felt like something was being done right, even if, honestly, it didn’t impact the story all that much.
The book wasn’t perfect. There were some times when it felt a little bit exploitative, perhaps even what you might call lezploitation. The book had no problem with a strong female main character who also liked sex, and that’s great. Sometimes, though, it seemed like maybe the author was a little too happy to detail that our character was having sex, so every once in a while there was a scene like “Well, there are no men around, so let’s ladies have us a good time.”
Again, I can’t put my finger on anything wrong with that, but it stuck out as only a few steps away from a Women in Prison movie kind of thing.
It does hammer home an old double standard, though. Do you think this book would have been published at all if it had a bunch of dudes gayin’ it up while off duty?
Perhaps the best thing about this book, though, was that it had a definable voice, both in narration and in dialogue. Zelde M’Tana had her own way of speaking. It was never hard to understand and it wasn’t any kind of terrible faux-patois, but it was still all hers. Her grammar was often not exactly right, most notably her use of “could of” instead of “could have,” but it was a matter of having a point-of-view character who never had any kind of formal education. It wasn’t that she was stupid, it was that she was from circumstances. The language helped to point that out and to contrast it with the fact that she was, in fact, an intelligent person regardless of those circumstances.
This was a good book. It could have been shorter, but that’s basically the bulk of my complaints. Sometimes it dragged and I wouldn’t have minded skipping about forty pages to get back to some action. But as a human drama set on a backdrop of decent hard science fiction, I’m gonna say this book was a rousing success. Nice work.