M.J. Engh:Rainbow Man

M.J. Engh is one of those little-known authors that writes such stunning books you wish everyone else had heard of her. Her last two novels, Arslan and Wheel of The Winds, were both tours de force, and entirely different from each other. Her latest, Rainbow Man, is different from both of its predecessors again.

If I had to compare this to the work of another novelist, I'd compare it to Sheri S. Tepper. Like some Tepper's recent novels, Rainbow Man takes a long look at a different society, showing both its good and bad points. In some ways this is a cautionary tale...but it is not purely that, because the society is not wholly bad.

Liss is a starshipper in a universe without FTL. A starshipper rarely gets too attached to a single planet, because upon return it will have more than likely been rendered unrecognizable by the passage of time, but once in a while one gets tired of travelling and settles down for a while. Liss makes this decision on the planet of Bimran.

Bimran has some odd customs. For instance, Liss, who is female but sterile, is legally considered male on the planet. She gets the name "Rainbow Man" because of the bright colours she wears, compared to the drab colours of the Bimranites.

Bimran seems a libertarian's paradise--a place where there are no organized laws or governments, with two exceptions, Migration Control and Selection. Things get done because of public duty. There's no organized monetary system, but a fairly standardized barter system has arisen.

But Liss soon discovers that this is not an unalloyed paradise. Migration Control, as well as monitoring the presence of spaceshippers on the planet, ruthlessly ensures that no Bimranite will leave the planet. And Selection...

Selectors watch people, usually confining their attention to one at a time, and make sure that they obey the Commandments, of which there are only four(but quite general). If they find someone whose life is particularly exemplary, this person is given the reward of Bliss--pleasure for the rest of one's life. If they find one who is flagrantly violating one of more of the Commandments on a regular basis, then this person is given Punishment, also for the rest of his or her life.

Liss is not reconciled to the system, but she is not a Bimranite herself, and foreigners are exempt from Selection, and can leave whenever there's a ship in port. She settles down, making decorative art-pieces for a living, and makes several friends--Leona, a spacer who's lived on Bimran for several years; Sarelli, who's a bit of a rebel; and Doron, whom she finds out is a Selector.

Much of the book consists of conversations between them, during which Liss becomes more and more wary of the Bimranite system. She also finds herself falling in love with Doron, but, since she is legally a sterile male, and non-procreative sex is considered wrong, she can do nothing about it without condemning Doron to Punishment himself.

Liss discovers a cult, started by a Bimranite who made it off-planet and then returned, and whose members use her own art objects as meditation aids. And then she discovers that while Selectors can't do anything to offplanet visitors, Migration Control can refuse to renew one's visitor's permit, making one an honorary Bimranite and thus vulnerable to the Selectors. Sickened by the serpent in Bimran's paradise, she strives to make her way off-planet...

Engh takes a realistic look at the apparent utopia of Bimran--while it would be a nice place to live, it would be unstable without something to keep people from obeying even the unwritten law of "be nice to each other". It could be considered a dystopic novel, perhaps--the similarities to, say, Brave New World are nontrivial. But it's also a fine book, with realistic characters and fine pacing. Highly recommended.

%A Engh, M.J.
%T Rainbow Man
%I Tor
%C New York
%D May 1993
%G ISBN 0-312-85468-4
%P 253 pp.
%O Hardcover

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com