Courtship Rite, Donald Kingsbury

Pocket, 1982, 409 pages, C$4.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-46089-7

If you should be so lucky as to meet Donald Kingsbury in person, you will be impressed. With his 6-foot+ frame, unkempt white hair and long-winded interventions, he’ll towers above you physically and intellectually. He’s the perfect picture of a British intellectual. He’d make a perfect mad scientist. Instead, he turned to Science-Fiction.

My first Kingsbury fiction was the excellent “To Bring in the Steel” in the Hard-SF anthology The Ascent of Wonder. A good hard-SF tale, it also delved unusually deep into the psyche of its characters. “A mix of Herbert and Heinlein,” I thought at the time.

With Courtship Rite, the comparison with Herbert seems more and more adequate:  it’s a planetary romance of the best, most intricate sort… just as Dune was.

On the planet of Geta, several centuries in the future, a human civilisation has evolved after quite a few centuries of isolation from Earth. Geta is a desert: arid, harsh, barren. Most of the plants are poisonous. The human society has adapted in consequence: Cannibalism is the only source of meat, marriages involve multiple partners, people “decorate” themselves with scars and complex rituals dictate courtship, death, love… This isn’t a “nice” society, nor an easy book to digest. The technological level is barely above medieval despite the advanced genetic knowledge and some scenes are simply brutal.

The story itself is ho-hum: Boys love girl, but chief orders them to marry barbarian princess. Boys stage Ritual of Death to see if she’s worthy and the story goes on from there. What follows is war, pain, death, a more-or-less happy ending, several levels of intersecting intrigue and a fascinating social exploration. The book is immensely detailed, yet effortlessly so: Kingsbury obviously knows Geta like he lived there.

For Courtship Rite is the social equivalent of Hard-SF tales. Geta’s society is meticulously described by affection and -yes- admiration. I was impressed by the originality and completeness of the vision. In many ways, this book is a trip on another planet.

The characters are exceptionally well-drawn. This is a superior planetary romance, on both sense of the term: A smart SF Harlequin book… (albeit an unusually sadistic one) Kingsbury had put a lot of care in his characters and it shows. Whatever the story is, you care for them. What’s more, I got the unusual feeling that the latter part of the book was moved along by the characters; excellent. Each of the book’s 66 chapters is headed by an original epigram -another touch of Dune– and some of them are true gems.

It’s a magnificent tapestry, a very dense, well-written book. I recommend spending a little more time on this book. I didn’t and frankly, I now regret it. A re-reading in a few year will be much more satisfying. It has the depth of Dune, if maybe not the strong narrative drive: The story is uneven and takes more than a while to rev up to speed. Add to that a few technological inconsistencies (the genetic vs mechanical knowledge) and the overall effect is diminished, but still impressive.

Still, it’s a very good read. It’s no wonder it was nominated for the 1982 Hugos. If you can find it in used libraries, don’t hesitate to pick it up. This isn’t for everyone, would make a rotten miniseries, will certainly shock most SF readers in places (even the most jaded) but is worth of attention by mature SF readers.

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