Pursuit of the Screamer
Series: King of Kantmorie 1
Reviewed date: 2018 Aug 13
Never defend a Screamer! That was the cardinal rule of the household, and when Jannus made that mistake, it meant that he, too, would be hunted to the death!
Jannus was all-human, a young man, dedicated to the service of his hold--before the pursuit of the Screamer began.
Poli heard the psychic scream best, for she was not entirely human, a warrior-girl of the aboriginal race, doing her service at the household. She, too, was forced to join the Screamer's flight.
And the Screamer? What was he? A small boy? A monstrous tiger? An inhuman robotic mind run from a forgotten mechanical master computer? Or the last king of lost Kantmorie?
Pursuit of the Screamer introduces a new and surprising writer to science fiction with a novel of unusual characters on a world of shocking contrasts. If you like high science fiction adventure, on a par with Norton, Bradley and Tanith Lee, this is for you!
The cover art seems to get a lot of flak, but I'm more interested in the DAW logo. It's the only DAW book with the logo in a red box. Every other book, even subsequent printings of Pursuit of the Screamer, has the DAW logo in a yellow box. Why red for this one? I don't know, but I like the uniqueness of it. If I ever have a book published by DAW, I'm going to insist they put the logo in a red box.
Hard to finish
This is the third book in a row that I had a hard time finishing, after The Fluger (Doris Piserchia) and Diadem from the Stars (Jo Clayton). Of the three, Screamer is the most clearly science fiction story (Fluger was a monster book and Diadem is fantasy) but it's also the most confusing. At times I didn't know where the characters were going or why. And just technically, the writing is truly obtuse in some parts. Parsing the grammar of the sentences is sometimes nearly impossible. For example:
Then maybe Solvig'd be bright enough to sit chatting in a barge and need telling the tents should come down from a Traders' cub never a full day on Erth-rimmon till lately, Elda thought with a surge of bitterness.
He found himself thinking again of that poor child Pedross, born, bred, and even conceived, by the Wheel!, to a purpose beyond himself like a goat, but without even a goat's moment of hot pleasure at his kindling for an excuse...
A goat? What? How does that even make sense? "A purpose beyond himself like a goat." I don't even know.
The screamer from the book's title is named Lur. He's one of the Deathless, a Tek from the High Plain. All this requires explanation, which comes part-way through the book. Thousands of years ago, a spaceship came to Kantmorie and landed on the High Plain. Those who came on the spaceship became known as the Tek lords. (Maybe because they owned the technology? The origin of the name isn't clearly explained.) The Teks ruled over subject races, people groups whom they genetically engineered for specific purposes or just for fun. Races such as the Valde, the Bremneri, and the Meks (possibly a corruption of mechanics, given that the Innsmiths--i.e., Ironsmiths--are descended from Meks). The Teks are ruled by an entity known as Shai (maybe a corruption of Ship's AI?), also called the Deepfish. The Deepfish is, I think, the spaceship's AI, and is buried deep under a domed "lake" on the High Plain. I say a "lake" because it's not clear if it's an actual lake.
Redes, redecaps, and immortality
The Teks are immortal due to a technology for taking brain backups. Using a redecap, a Tek can make a rede, that is, a backup of their consciousness and memories. When a Tek dies, the Deepfish rebodies their latest rede. By the time our story opens, the Teks are in desperate straits. Their client races have long ago rebelled, and in response the Deepfish constructed a deadly protective wall around the High Plain. Nothing living can go in or out. Outside the High Plain, the Valde, Bremneri, Andrans, Innsmiths, and other descendents of the Tek experiments have made their own civilization. On the High Plain, conditions are dire: limited resources, lack of water and food, scorching sun. The Teks can survive a few days at most, cannibalizing their own kind for moisture and food. Death is no release, because the Deepfish rebodies them immediately. It's eons of torture, and what the Teks want most is to die, finally and forever.
When a Tek is rebodied, he doesn't get a choice as to where. The Deepfish can send him to one of a number of facilities, a few of which are outside the High Plain. Thus the Teks occasionally come into contact with the folk outside. The Valde hunt them down and kill them, though, and because there are no redecaps outside the High Plain, when they die they are rebodied with their most recent rede, and thus lose all their memories of outside the High Plain.
The Valde refer to the Teks as screamers because of the psychic enamanations they project. The Valde were engineered by the Teks to have psychic powers, mostly to read emotions, but they also seem to have a limited ability to communicate telepathically with other Valde. The other races--Bremneri, Andrans, Innsmiths, etc., are not psychic. The Valde can sense a being's soul, which they call the farioh. The Teks are sa-farioh, lacking a soul. Not truly alive, the Valde think. A side effect of the rede technology. Apparently being rebodied isn't quite the same as immortality, not that the Teks care--they certainly feel alive, and want to truly die.
Deep breath. That's the setting and backstory. It is revealed bit by bit throughout the story, in a way that I found most confusing and aggravating and woefully incomplete. But enough: on to the story.
The main character is Jannus, a young Bremneri man who is madly in love with a Valde named Poli Wir. That's a problem because Valde only marry Valde. Jannus and Poli are friends, but nothing more. Jannus stumbles upon a screamer. For reasons that make no sense to anyone except the author Ansen Dibell, instead of turning the screamer over to the Valde, Jannus helps the creature. He sneaks the screamer out of town and they join a caravan of Innsmith barges floating down the river Erth-rimmon.
The screamer has no name, so Jannus named him Lur, which means cat. Lur is in the body of a child, but later in the story he will be rebodied as a giant cat--an engineered body which Lur had designed hundreds of years ago as an experiment. So for reasons known only to author Ansen Dibell, Jannus is apparently clairvoyant at choosing names.
Jannus and Lur join Elda, the leader of the Innsmiths, who are riding a caravan of barges down the river Erth-rimmon to Summerfair, where the Innsmiths will have their big Homecoming, having recently completed a several-generations banishment for some unspecified crime committed long ago by their ancestors. What the crime was, where and how and why they were banished, and who they are going Home to is apparently known only to author Ansen Dibell, because it's not explained here. All we know is the Innsmiths are floating down the river, and Elda agrees to take Lur and Jannus with him in exchange for whatever information Lur can give him about conditions on the High Plain. I'm not sure why Elda wants to know about the High Plain, but hey, maybe author Ansen Dibell knows.
Jannus's love interest Poli Wir rejoins the story when she's kidnapped by a minor warlord named Ashai Rey. Jannus gets wind of it, and he and Lur go rescue her. Jannus goes because he thinks he loves Poli, and Lur goes because he recognizes that Ashai Rey is a mobile of the Deepfish. They meet with Ashai and make a deal. Ashai wants information about the local conditions, so Jannus permits him to take a rede, giving the Deepfish access to all Jannus's memories and knowledge. In exchange, Jannus gets Poli, and Lur gets a vital piece of information: Ashai tells him the location of a damaged portion of the wall around the High Plain, a place where passage into and out of the High Plain is possible. Ashai also takes a rede of Lur, so he will retain this knowledge when being rebodied.
For the want of a map
Once the deal for Poli's freedom is completed, Lur promptly commits suicide. He is rebodied back on the High Plain, but now he knows how to get out. He’s got a plan, man. We never find out what precisely his plan is, but presumably author Ansen Dibell knows. Maybe she’ll tell us in the sequel. Poli and Jannus rejoin the Innsmiths and stay with them for a time, until one day Elda abandons them on the shore. (He's mad at Jannus for talking to Ashai Rey, I think.) Jannus and Poli hitch a ride with some other shipping traffic going down the Erth-rimmon. And this is where I got completely lost and badly needed a map.
Somehow, Jannus and Poli end up passing Elda and the Innsmiths on the river Erth-rimmon. It's never referred to or explained, but I know it's true because Jannus passes a certain point on the river before Elda. How did that happen? Why? I guess only author Ansen Dibell knows.
Later, for reasons I couldn't figure out, Jannus and Poli ended up walking through an endless foggy marsh for days and days and days. Nobody else walked through the marsh that I could recall, and everybody (Elda and the Innsmiths and the other river traffic) ended up at the same place: the port city of Ardun. A map would really help.
Jannus and Poli, unhappily brided
While they are in the endless foggy swamp, Jannus and Poli get married. Or, as they inexplicably say in this world, brided. (Also inexplicably: there is no sunrise or dawn or morning, there is "sunappear". OK then.) No witnesses, no ceremony, no vows—the briding just happened. We know it happened because Poli gives Jannus her bridestone. Neither of them ever seems happy about it. Poli clearly feels obligated to Jannus for saving her life. Jannus, for his part, clearly doesn't trust that Poli really loves him (because she doesn't!) and never thought this whole "loving a Valde" thing through. It was fine to love her as an unattainable goddess, but to actually have her--well, making a life together wasn't something either of them thought about. The whole situation is rather uncomfortable and awkward.
Looting the High Plain
Ashai Rey is not the only one who knows the location of the breach in the wall. A local strongman named Domal Ai is conducting raids into the High Plain to recover bits of technology which he hopes to turn into weapons. This is apparently what everyone fears the most: an arms race that will plunge the world into war. Not good.
Lur, rebodied in his cat form, finds Jannus, Poli, and Elda. He convinces them to help him cross the High Plain and find the Deepfish under the lake. It's a deadly trek across a brutally hot and arid desert, and the Deepfish has laid many traps. But they survive. It's Jannus who makes it inside. He claims the Rule of One (that is, the Kingship) which gives him the authority to make certain requests or commands to the Deepfish. His request: that all the redes be written to offline storage and deposited where they can no longer be accessed. With that done, the Teks are mortal again.
A Science Fiction High Adventure
I didn't care for Pursuit of the Screamer, but I can see how someone might. Ansen Dibell has carefully created a complex and intriguing setting, with a rich and detailed history. It doesn't have quite the backstory that Lord of the Rings does, but it does remind me of Tolkien in some ways. If I had a map (later editions of the book purportedly include one) and the inclination, I could re-read the book (and its sequels) a few times and fill in the tapestry of Kantmorie, soaking in the beauty of the world Dibell has created.
But I won't. I found the book convoluted and hard to follow. Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore, and I'm afraid this wasn't the book for me.