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The caves of real: The Exile in Waiting by Vonda N McIntyre (1975)

Vonda’s work as a science fiction writer was very  influenced by the American feminist movement and her friendship with other women writers who changed the direction of science fiction, hitherto dominated by male writers. She was  only the second woman to win the Nebula award  for Dreamsnake (1978 and the third to win the Hugo award for best novel.

She was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Having grown up reading science fiction, Vonda started writing herself  and  sold her first short stories in 1969.  In the summer of the following year Vonda  attended the Clarion writers’ workshop at Clarion State College, Pennsylvania, where one of her instructors was science fiction writer  Joanna  Russ.and  studied in Seattle where she  attended the University of Washington, earning a BS in biology but leaving in 1971, part of the way through her PhD  course in genetics to take up writing.

Inspired by her experience at the workshop, she  established Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle and helped run it for three years (1971-73), with her  fellow  science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin as one of the tutors. McIntyre lived at Le Guin’s isolated cabin in Oregon which  is where  she completed her first novel, The Exile Waiting (1975).  It’s dedicated to “Ursula and Charles, with fond memories of their Charitable Home for Writers.”

The novel is set on a future Earth, turned into a desert  by some environmental catastophe.  The only surviving city is Center an underground city run by a handful of wealthy families who control the air, food,  power and water.  Many of the inhabitants are little more than slave in thrall to the familiess.

Beyond Earth is the Sphere, civilisations in space spawned by Earth who visit from time to time to trade.

…The Three Hills rose up, as crowded with dwellings as Center’s walls. Their interiors were mazes and warrens, labyrinthine byond mythology. People with no work and no way of to support themelves live dthere, at the core of Center, existing on the city’s paltry charity.

Mischa is a teenager, scraping a living  in the back streets of Center by any means possible, including stealing. She is also an empath who senses the moods of others, including her sister Gemmi with whom she has a strong emotional  link that keeps her trapped in Center.

When Mischa left the city, as she was determined somehow to do, it would be by her own will, her own plan. She had no intention of being driven out because of an ability for which she did not even have a word. Mischa imagined being chased into the deep underground: as a prison, it would lose its beauty and its fascination. And she would be doubly trapped. If she were seen near the city again, she would be killed: if she stayed in the underground  and tried to defy Gemmi’s inevitable call to  return, she would go mad.

Mischa makes her way into the Stone Palace –  home to one of the Families who control the landing field and trade –  in an attempt  to get work but it ends badly when  she angers Lady Clarissa  who  orders her to be whipped which  takes place in a public square, and is brutal.

While Mischa is recovering, looked after by her friend Kiri , Center is invaded by a party of space travellers led by pseudosiblings Subone and Subtwo, who ensconce themselves in the Stone Palace in return for trade.

Mischa  manages to get into the  Stone Palace  and meet Subtwo who discovers that she has remarkable  mathematical powers. He offers her work and the possibility of leaving Earth. She is taught   by one of the space travellers, Jan Hikaru, whom she befriends.  Mischa laps up this new  knowledge:

Every subject she studied came easily. She seldom forgot anything she read. She was happiest with mathematics and theoretical physics; each level of study pulled more facets of reality into an elegant and intricate and consistent  system of natural laws. The new knowledge pleased her  in a way few things ever had, speaking to a sense of beauty and order that she had perceived, yet never had a means of expressing…

Vonda McIntyre

After Mischa’s brother Chris is killed by Subone she goes on the run with Jan, delving ever deeper into the caverns below Center. Here  she makes some startling discoveries that shape the rest of the novel.

Forty years after it was written, the novel seems as up to date anything I have read recently. Mischa is an  engaging heroine, not dependent on men for agency or rescue,  and we  follow her adventures avidly  with the fervent hope that her dreams  of revolution and  escape will become reality. The novel highlights the importance of women’s  friendships, a theme that runs through  Vonda’s  later work.

 

 

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