Bibblings by Barbara Paul
Price I paid: $2.50 + S&H
Lodon-Kamaria, a planet in a perpetual state of war. No one in the Federation of United Worlds knew what the Lodonites and Kamarians were fighting about, nor, in the normal course of events, would anyone have cared. But this was a world rich in alphidium, the most precious substance in the galaxy—and so, Lodon-Kamaria would have to become a member of the Federation. And it was up to the Diplomatic Corps team, nicknamed the Anglo-Saxon Invaders, to do the recruiting.
It should have been an easy assignment. Either make peace between the Lodonites and Kamarians, or figure out which side would be easier to deal with and see that it won the war. That would have been the reasonable, rational approach. But on a world where everyone is insane, reason just doesn’t apply…!
Credit for this find goes to Willie, who sent a photo of the cover to my friend Carlos on social media because the name is evocative of Carlos’s cat’s name. Seeing this, I swore a vow to get a copy of the book for myself and review it. I don’t know why I vowed it, but I followed through.
A second shout-out goes to Books from the Crypt, whose inventory has come through for me several times since the pandemic started. I don’t feel safe going to my usual used-book store with its cozy, narrow aisles, so it’s nice to have somebody independent I can rely on for my paperbacks.
So what do we have today? A book with a kind of silly title and kind of dull cover art? To be honest, now that I’m looking at it closely after having read the book, I think the art has got some things going for it. It’s depicting an image of a mad person being shattered to show the calm person underneath, and that’s neat because you’d expect the opposite, wouldn’t you? And the fact that the space ship (which resembles but is legally distinct from a Battlestar Galactica Viper) is the one bashing open that illusion is maybe also appropriate?
The novel was interesting for several reasons. In terms of quality, I’d say it was better than average—in general, not just in terms of books I’ve reviewed. It was a bit quirky with a solid plot and, perhaps most importantly for my readability score, a first-person narrator with some personality.
That said, a lot of this book just felt kind of, I dunno, off while I was reading it. It was something I couldn’t quite define. The closest I could come was that it didn’t quite fit the conventions of science fiction in ways that I have come to expect. Normally that’s just an indicator that it’s a bad book, but in this case that didn’t sit right with me. This book was fine. It just didn’t feel right.
So then I did a little research into Barbara Paul and discovered what I think was going on. Our author is listed on the ISFDB as having written six science fiction novels, one of which was a Star Trek tie-in. What they don’t show, however, is that Paul is more widely known for her twenty-odd mystery novels. And while I can’t claim to have read an awful lot of mysteries, I’m still familiar enough with the genre that I can say with some certainty that the reason this book didn’t quite fit my personal mold of science fiction is that it’s a mystery novel!
This is a book where about sixty percent of it is presented as “We found this thing and we didn’t understand it.” This book is chock full of mysteries, large and small. And our intrepid band of diplomats and scientists, well, they solve those mysteries! Where things felt a little off to me was that these people living in a science fictional universe were completely clueless (haha) about a lot of things that I, a genre-savvy reader, was ready to jump to conclusions about. This frustrated me at first, until I realized that I’m supposed to be doing that. This is a mystery novel and I’m supposed to be guessing what the ending is.
And once I got that through my thick skull, I had a lot more fun with it.
Here’s where things get a little more complicated, mostly because there’s a lot I don’t know. Barbara Paul’s main mystery novel output came after she wrote this book, at least based on the bibliographies I’ve read. Not by much—she appears to have published a mystery novel called The Fourth Wall in the same year she published Bibblings—but still enough to make me wonder about some things. Is Barbara Paul just a natural-born mystery writer who got into science fiction first? Is it more complicated than that? I just don’t know.
Sci-fi mysteries are a kind of Hard Mode. The writer has to world-build just enough to not be boring but also to lay down the rules with enough consistency that the reader is allowed to hazard some guesses at whatdunnit without feeling cheated at the ending when the murderer turns out to be, I dunno, a quantum ghost that lives in the heart of a black hole.
It’s not that regular old mysteries don’t also need to establish a universe, but the rules there are more interpersonal and societal: “The small town is strangely welcoming to outsiders” or “Madeleine who owns the grocery has it out for the sheriff because he’s her ex-husband.” Sci-fi mysteries might still have to do all that, but they also have to work in things like whether we’re dealing with FTL, psychics, quantum triplicators, or artificial brains.
It’s taking me a long time to actually get to the plot of this book, but that’s largely because it gave me a lot to think about! So let’s get into it:
Our first-person protagonist is named Valerie Chester. She and her husband, Adam, are part of a diplomatic team along with two other (entirely heteronormative) married couples. Each couple has a certain specialty, but I’m gonna be honest, I had a tough time keeping them all separate in my head. Characterization beyond our narrator wasn’t the book’s strongest point.
This sextet of diplomats and scientists are nicknamed The Anglo-Saxon Invaders for reasons that made me worry a little bit about this book. They’re noted as being an oddity in the Diplomatic Corps. They’re the only team that consists only of people of Earth ancestry. The Corps really prefers diversity in their teams. And yet this team exists, all humans of European ancestry, and they’re considered one of the best teams available.
I was nervous that this would turn into a rant against Affirmative Action or something, but it never did. Still, I had a sense of mild unease that did not go away.
Our team gets its assignment: They are to go to a planet called Lodon-Kamaria. This planet has recently been found to have large deposits of something called alphidium, which is precious and important. The problem is that this planet has two groups, the Lodonites and the Kamarians, that are in a state of perpetual war. They live on opposite sides of a large landmass, separated by a mountain range. All of the fighting goes on in the mountain range, which, incidentally, happens to be where all the alphidium is located. Our heroes are tasked with figuring out a way to make the mountain range safe for exploitation, either by making peace between the factions or by helping one of them win once and for all.
This book is pretty cynical.
We also learn a little about the natives, little tidbits like how they have little to no marriage customs, that their technological level is roughly equivalent to medieval Europe (there’s some kind of scale that they rank a 5 on, because clearly all cultures go through the same chain of development), and oh, yeah, they have three sexes.
This book treats “gender” and “sex” interchangeably but I will refer to the three groupings as sexes because they are biologically distinct. The book does not explore gender identity on this planet or its monoculture. It also does not treat either sex or gender as a continuum.
The three sexes are male, female, and neuter. Our protagonists spend a lot of time debating the proper pronoun for the neuter individuals, finally settling grudgingly on it while never even considering they. The Lodonites and Kamarians, however, have forms of address for all three of their sexes, and I’ll be damned if I can remember them. This book only burdened us with three alien words, and they’re the forms of address for members of each sex, but the three words were super similar and they just did not settle in my brain.
Our heroes land on the planet. They decide to visit the Lodonites first, but what they find there is a gigantic strange mystery! The Lodonites aren’t any kind of organized army. In fact, they’re running around like they’re possessed by demons, burning down their own buildings, attacking one another, and dancing about with strange, jerky motions. The only people not behaving like this are the neuter individuals, who appear to have kept their sanity. They spend their time keeping the others safely drunk, and when asked about it, only answer in sort of cagey riddles.
So the party hops across the mountains to visit the Kamarians, who, unlike their foes, are perfectly normal behaving. They do, however, live in dread of a cyclical “time of weakness.”
We also meet, right around page 60, the things that gave the book its title. Bibblings, we learn, are a kind of bird. They’re friendly birds, with velvety feathers. They like getting petted, and they even purr. And there are a lot of them.
One thing I became aware of because of this book is the relationship of a novel and its title. The thing is, bibblings were introduced to this book in a matter-of-fact, low-key way. And yet, my ears obviously perked up at their mention because, well, that’s the name of the book! I think that Barbara Paul was aiming for that kind of low-key introduction. She wanted them to seem unimportant at first but then it’s kind of a neat surprise when the whole thing turns out to hinge upon them. Of course, I might be wrong about that, but if it’s true, then the effect was somewhat ruined by the title of the novel. So I’m curious, was Bibblings the working title as well? Was the effect of the casual title drop intentional? Did she name the book later? Did the publisher insist on a retitle? Who knows? How would this book have been different if it had had a title like The Neuters of Lodon-Kamaria or The Shameless Interference Protocol?
The leader of the Kamarian army, Fluth, explains that the time of weakness coincides with the migration of the bibblings. If anything irritated me about this book, it was this: Our heroes immediately dismiss this statement as superstitious nonsense. How could the migration of birds cause physical symptoms in people? Absurd!
But surely enough, the Kamarians begin to lose their faculties and turn to madness, just as the Lodonites did. And this coincides with the migration of the bibblings. And our heroes simply refuse to believe the two things are connected for far too long. I, a longstanding science fiction reader, had no qualms believing that the two things were connected, and looked forward to learning how and why they were. Seeing our heroes take so much time to come around to the conclusion I jumped to was just a bit frustrating.
But they finally do, and moreover, they themselves begin to succumb to the illness! All of them but one, Justin, who also happens to be the newest member of the group, become violent and mindless. Justin is able to keep them from killing each other long enough to pilot the ship over to where the bibblings have migrated, whereupon they regain their senses.
But we have a new mystery! Why is Justin unaffected by this madness, just as the neuter individuals of Lodon-Kamaria are? So some science happens. It’s revealed that the bibblings, who are actually an invasive species from another part of the planet, carry not one but two bacteria. One of those bacteria creates a chemical in the bloodstream that, when bound with estrogen or testosterone, creates a hormone similar chemically to adrenaline, and it creates a lot of it.
But the other bacteria creates a chemical that counteracts that! But that chemical metabolizes much faster than the other. Thus, when the bibblings leave, society collapses again.
The neuters, then, are unaffected because they lack either of those sex hormones. And it turns out that Justin also lacks them! The book simply refers to him as “sterile,” which isn’t great wording. We don’t get a lot of detail on what his biological situation is, whether he’s intersex or something else, but whatever the case, he has to take testosterone supplements in order to biologically express as a male. I don’t understand why his testosterone supplements didn’t also interact with the mysterious bacteria?
Using this new knowledge, the team creates an antidote to the mysterious bibbling syndrome, which allows them to get the leaders of the two factions to the diplomatic table at the same time for the first time. There’s still a lot of longstanding distrust between the two men, but eventually some compromise is reached and now the Federation is able to exploit the natural resources of this planet to the benefit of both the Lodonites and the Kamarians.
In a really, really weird epilogue, we learn that the Federation steps in and kills off all the bibblings with a chemical that also causes the Lodonites and the Kamarians to never bear neuter children again? That seems…gross.
But that’s basically the end, although this summary doesn’t quite do the whole thing justice. There were lots of asides and mini-mysteries that got solved as the thing went on, and they all tied back into the main plot in ways that felt good and natural.
The things about it that made me uncomfortable were mainly due to it dealing with sex and gender in ways that reflect the time it was written. It never felt hateful or phobic to me; it took for granted some ways of thinking that did not age well. But I am a cisgender heterosexual male and this is outside my lane, as they say. I’m not here to be offended on behalf of anybody else, and I’m also not here to defend this book if anyone is put off by this part of it.
The rest of the book, though, was okay! It was a good enough mystery that I kept going to learn more, even when I was sure I had solved the mystery myself. There were some things I was wrong about, but when revealed, still felt totally fair.
There was a pervading cynicism throughout that felt a little tonally different from what I was expecting. I think a lot of the time I was expecting this book to feel a little more like Star Trek. We’ve got diplomats that work for a Federation, after all. But this book gave no craps about any kind of Prime Directive. Lodon-Kamaria was barely out of the Middle Ages tech-wise when our heroes show up and not only madly interfere with the development of their society, the Federation ends the book by jumping their tech level ahead by thousands of years. And why did they do it? Resource extraction! They needed the alphidium! We’re never even told that, like, there’s a shortage of the stuff or whatever. I think it’s what the spaceships in this universe run on, so I get that it’s essential, but for all I know it’s relatively plentiful and they could very well have let this planet go about its business until it either killed itself off or figured out the solution to their problem themselves and one day joined the galactic community.
Anyway, I’ve gone on for about 2500 words over a book I learned about because its name sounded like my friend’s cat’s name. It sure did take me some places, though! Barbara Paul has some other books that look interesting to me, especially one called Pillars of Salt that appears to be an interesting take on time travel. But honestly it’s her mysteries that I want to check out. If they’re as well put-together as this particular sci-fi mystery was, I think I’m in for a treat.