Spaceling by Doris Piserchia
DAW Books, 1978
Price I paid: $1
The ability to see the other-dimensional rings that float in Earth’s atmosphere was a late mutation of a few space-age humans. Daryl was under the care of the institution for muters, and she had discovered that if you jumped through the right ring at the right time it would land you in another dimensional world and another shape.
SPACELING is the story of Daryl’s desperate efforts to unravel the mystery of why she was being held captive and of what was really going on in a certain alien dimension. Because she was sure it was all bad and that someday everyone would thank her for the revelation.
But instead everyone was engaged in a wild effort to hold her down, to keep her on this Earth, and to keep the world simply intact!
It’s a fast and furious escapade of a future Huck Finn, female gender, by the author of EARTHCHILD.
I honestly, truly, really did.
But the book wouldn’t let me.
This is my second go-around with Doris Piserchia. I reviewed Earthchild way back in 2013 and it still haunts me as one of those books that I just couldn’t understand, no matter how hard I tried. I thought maybe it was an issue with me, that I was failing to grasp some basic concept. Whatever the case was, that book was a bunch of difficult unreadability for me.
Now it’s five years later (but he still keeps up the fight). I’m giving Piserchia another chance. My main reason for doing so is simple: I found a few of her books. That could have happened at any time, but it happened recently, and here we are.
Reading the back cover synopsis of this one made me think it might be more straightforward than Earthchild was. It would be hard not to be! Maybe a part of me was hoping I’d like it. And I tried to. It was difficult.
It was not only difficult to like, it was difficult to read. There’s a lot going on in this book and it feels like it all happens at once and also doesn’t have anything to do with itself. It’s a book that I feel like I would understand better with a deeper reading, sans deadline, but at the same time I cannot say I think the book deserves that.
It was more straightforward than Earthchild. I’ll even say it’s better. It had something of a skeleton of a plot that I could find and latch onto.
There’s a main character, who is the viewpoint character, and her name is Daryl. That’s just about all there is to say about that character. She exists and her name is Daryl. She’s fourteen. She gets spronged around the book like a pachinko ball, but, like, a pachinko ball in zero gravity so that it doesn’t have any kind of recognizable destination.
Daryl is exceptional, but since nothing really made sense it’s hard to say that her being exceptional is worth mentioning. This book operated almost entirely on dream logic. Maybe it was supposed to? Maybe that’s the thing I’m missing? Maybe if I had a better appreciation for that kind of writing I wouldn’t be feeling so down right now? I don’t know. I’m sitting here wondering whom this book is liked by, and why. I genuinely, seriously, honestly, completely want to know. I’m begging all six of you who read this review: Share it loud and wide so that maybe we can find someone who will explain Doris Piserchia to me.
I’ve been cruel to this book so far and I want to take a step back and talk about what I liked about it. Because there’s a part of it that I did like, and it’s the main premise, and it got me thinking about a lot of things, and that’s probably what I liked about it.
So in the world of Spaceling there are colored rings that just float around. Perhaps they follow patterns, perhaps they’re random, I don’t know. In the dreamlike way that Piserchia writes, it felt like both. Anyway, the colored rings are portals to other worlds. Other universes? Other realities? Don’t know, don’t matter.
Not everybody can see the rings. Daryl is part of the portion of humanity that can. Daryl can actually see more of them than most of the other people that can see them at all. She can also control them, make them come to her. Also, because the color of the portal is a reference to its destination, it’s helpful that Daryl has a “photographic memory for color.”
The two “main” alternate realities are called D-2 and D-3. Earth is D-1. It’s suggested that these two worlds are the closest-linked to ours, which is why it’s so much easier to get to either of them. D-2 is a Mordor-like hellscape that might all be inside of a cave. D-3 is underwater and as far as anybody can tell is all water out to infinity.
Now, obviously humans aren’t going to be able to survive in either of these environments. That’s okay, because they don’t really have to. People who travel through the portals are also transmuted into a thing that can survive there. Human visitors to D-2 are turned into “goths,” giant cats that can take pleasant baths in lava. For this reason Daryl refers to D-2 as Gothland more often than not. Similarly, visitors to D-3, Waterworld, get turned into basically merpeople.
Another thing special about Daryl: While most people transmute into something with the same mass as their human form, she doesn’t. She becomes a very large goth, and a very small mermaid. It’s never explained, although other characters are aware of it and puzzled by it.
Other items are transmuted when they pass through portals, and always into things specific to what the item is. It’s not some kind of elemental transmutation, like oxygen becomes iron or something. Rather, a banana will always transmute into a set of headphones (this example is not from the book). This is what gave me the most thinky. It implies that in the world of Spaceling, all things have an inherent thingness about them. Bananas are bananas, not a whirling mass of atoms and energy arranged arbitrarily into a thing our senses register as “banana.” The world of Spaceling is based on Platonic forms, I guess.
This weird alchemy is relatively well-studied by at least one of the characters, who has learned that he can string some very specific bits of stuff to a piece of string in a very specific way such that when it passes through the portal, it becomes a gun that shoots knock-out darts.
This got me thinking, though, and while I know I mentioned that the logic in this book is very dreamlike, it also strikes me as very much like video game logic.
Every element of this world is something I would accept just fine if I were playing a video game. The portals to other planes, the very specific forms of transmutation, all of it. Up to and including the fact that the main character has abilities that other people don’t. If I were playing a game and it turned out that putting a banana through the portal always gave you a set of headphones, I would file it away as “banana = headphones” and move on. If the question of why it worked that way came up, I’d probably just put it down to the limitations of the medium, if anything. I likely would never consider the why of it.
I would play a video game based on the rules of the Spaceling universe. I think it would be really cool.
Another element of portals that would fit nicely into our hypothetical video game is that they’re useful for traveling large distances across our own world. None of the worlds have portals to themselves, but it’s not very hard to start in, say, Philly, take a portal to Gothland, take another portal to Waterworld, find another portal to a different part of Gothland, and then take a portal back to Earth and emerge in N’Djamena.
This use is probably the most frequent one in the book.
So, with all this cool world-system and everything, what’s up with the plot? I know I said there was a skeleton of one, but it was like a skeleton of a tiny fish like an anchovy that you can eat and not notice. Basically, Daryl spends the entire book being chased by people, insulted by other people, and in one case tortured by some people. It’s very hard for me to figure out why. We know that she’s special, but most of the people who are against her aren’t aware of that. There’s some kind of overarching scheme that the bad guys are into, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Daryl. She kind of stumbles upon it? And it’s not that big a deal?
If I recall correctly, the big deal is that somebody is piping stuff between the dimensions in such a way that it comes out as oil. They’ve figured out how to hold a portal in place (never explained), run pipes though them (never explained), and have stuff come out on Earth as oil. I’m not sure what they’re using in the first place. On one hand, there’s a bunch of machinery and stuff in Gothland, but it seems like at another point Daryl figures out that they’re piping water out of Waterworld and it comes out on the other side as oil.
Also the world is in the middle of an energy crisis so having oil is kind of a big deal. (This work was published in 1978. Ripped from the headlines.)
All of the action is apparently a result of that scheme. Daryl is somehow very important to it but I couldn’t figure out how. A large part of that is the way this book flowed.
Take a moment to re-familiarize yourself with this Old Spice commercial.
This book was 240 pages of that.
Another way of putting it: This book felt like 240 pages of
…and then I was in New Jersey and then I was on a desert island and then I was eating pancakes and then I was flying through the air and then I was riding a horse and then I called my mom and then I pet a dog and then I was in space and then I was…
Scenes that felt like they were important to the plot would be over in two paragraphs. Like one point when Daryl got captured by some bad guys and then dropped on a desert island. Now that I think about it, it’s especially the scenes of peril that are like that.
Conversely, there was a bit where Daryl and another character I’ll describe in a moment stayed in a new universe where they were some kind of tiny fairies keeping parasites off of a giant frog and it went on for at least six pages. It came up again right at the end of the story, and in a way that made sense, but it really didn’t fit the rest of the flow, which I may have mentioned was something I didn’t like anyway.
The other character was named Lamana (stress is on the first syllable) and she’s the only character that is a better portal jumper (actually, the word is muter, from transmuter) than Daryl. She can pull portals around better and faster than Daryl, she can see portals better than Daryl, and she’s just generally a lot cooler than our main character. She’s also an “Indian.” I know it’s maybe too much to expect this book from the seventies to say something like First Peoples or even Native American, but c’mon, would it have been too much to ask to say, I dunno, that she was a member of the Sioux nation or something? She’s never identified as anything more specific than “Indian,” and neither are any of the other Indians in the book.
All of the other characters, of which there were many, blended together in my head in a way that didn’t help my enjoyment of the book. Only one stands out, and that’s because his name was Tedwar.
Um, apart from being spectacularly good at muting, Daryl also has amnesia? She was in a car accident a few years ago and the driver died and she doesn’t remember anything before that point. This is commented upon and it may have been explained by the end but I think it also went in at least three directions so I don’t know what story is supposed to be the right one.
The book ends when the pipeline is destroyed and Daryl finds some folks that she was being forced to look for and also she gets chased by the main bad guy from world to world until they end up in the one with the tiny fairy people and the giant frog and then because Daryl had been there already she was okay but the bad guy had never been there so she freaked out for a second which was just long enough for the giant frog to eat her.
We find out that there are some portals inside which people find younger versions of themselves, but if those people are brought out they go crazy or something—
Oh, incidentally, every character in this book except Daryl is mentally ill and I don’t say that as a ha-ha
—and at one point it’s suggested that maybe Daryl is the past version of one of those characters, but then maybe she’s not?
I don’t know.
I hesitate to say that this is an objectively bad book. I honestly don’t think it is. I think it’s a simple case of an author and a reader who clash. Our sensibilities don’t mesh, or something. It’s not the first time such a thing has happened. There are lots of books that I’ve started, found that I just wasn’t enjoying it, and moved on. That’s the healthy thing to do, and it doesn’t mean that the book is necessarily bad. It just also happens that if I start a book with the intention of reviewing it, I find that I have to struggle through it all the way to the end. This is my cross to bear.
But I’m not going to go full-on “This book is probably good but I just don’t get it,” either. I’ll acknowledge that this might be the case, but I also acknowledge that there were elements to this book that seemed bad to me. The narrative flow, the characters, the dialogue, all of it. Someone might call those things experimental—Doris Piserchia was very much a New Wave writer so that characterization would make sense—and that’s fine. The experiment didn’t pay off for this particular reader. I also haven’t brought myself to finish Ulysses, so there you go.
A novel can be a lot of things. It can be a straightforward story with a beginning, middle, and end. It can be a space to explore ideas without needing any kind story. It can be a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the human experience.
What I’m struggling with is a bit of doublethink that I’m not able to resolve. I know that an effective novel can violate every single rule of what traditionally makes a good novel. I’ve enjoyed several books that do just that! Long-time readers might find that I struggled long and hard with R.A. Lafferty and came out the other side thinking that I’d read something really good. I don’t feel the same way about Spaceling, even though it’s a similar kind of struggle.
I don’t know why I’m talking circles around just saying this book is bad, but for some reason it feels important for me to do so. I need to think about this a little more. I have yet another Piserchia book sitting around here. Maybe I’ll read it in five years.