WHO WROTE IT: Vonda N. McIntyre, who, besides having one of the coolest names in science fiction, was also the third woman ever to win a Nebula Award (for the novelette Of Mist, Grass, and Sand). Oh, and she co-founded the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which is the masterclass for aspiring science fiction writers.
She earned a B.S. in biology from the University of Washington in 1970, and her first novel, The Exile Waiting, was published in 1975. Apart from writing her own stellar sci-fi, McIntyre has written quite a number of licensed Star Trek novels: Enterprise: The First Adventure, The Entropy Effect, as well as the novelizations of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Oh, and here’s a fact that’ll totally flip your wig: McIntyre invented the first name of Hikaru Sulu. Seriously. Bet you didn’t know that.
WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: 2076: The American Tricentennial, a paperback anthology of science fiction stories speculating about future America. It was published by HBJ Love on February 1, 1978 and edited by Edward Bryant.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: If you remember your Mesoamerican history, the Aztecs were a loose group of cultures and ethnicities which spoke the Nahuatl language. They controlled central Mexico from the early 14th to the late 16th centuries. One of the things the Aztecs are most famous—or infamous—for is human sacrifices, specifically the removal of the sacrificial victim’s heart. The Aztecs, according to the twenty seconds of research I did on the Internet before writing this paragraph, believed the heart was both the seat of a human being’s soul and a fragment of the sun, which basically means that it had a lot of mojo or chutzpah or moxie or medicine or whatever the heck you want to call it. Prime stuff for rituals and prayers and other such spiritual needs that the Aztecs had.
Keep the heart removal thing in mind as you read about the plot of McIntyre’s story.
Laenae wants to be a Pilot. These are the people who stay awake on faster-than-light ships plying the spaceways, while the rest of the lowly crew gets put into cold sleep. Early on in the history of human spaceflight, it was discovered that anyone who stayed awake during a trip through hyperspace aged rapidly and died. A radical solution was discovered: removing the human heart and putting in a completely artificial one. This allowed Pilots to psychically regulate their own heartbeat and metabolism and halt the rapid aging brought on by travel through other dimensions.
Laenae wakes up in the hospital shortly after sacrificing her heart ([cough] Aztecs [cough]) in return for a mechanical pump. She is now a Pilot. Within the context of this story, Pilots are transhuman, exalted, looked upon with mistrust and suspicion by some, reverent awe by others. They keep their own company and have their own esoteric rituals and body language. Laenae has been dying to be a part of this world and immediately sets about insinuating herself into it. Believing herself now above mere mortals, Laenae checks herself out of the hospital long before the government-prescribed battery of tests and recuperative therapies is complete. She absconds into the dark night, buying herself a dramatic cape at a tailor’s shop (as befitting a Pilot) and wowing the humble proprietor. Then she goes to the spaceport to entice herself with the giant spaceships there parked in their light-spangled gantries, and to hobnob with her fellow Pilots. She quickly discovers, however, that there are downsides to the change in social status that giving up her heart has afforded her. Interactions with her old friends are awkward, and when she tries to interact with new friends (Pilots) on equal footing, they spurn her and gently mock her. Laenae begins a dramatic fling with a non-Pilot, a mere mortal, but since Laenae is able to bio-regulate and he is not, intimacy becomes difficult, painful, and even dangerous for them.
McIntyre later expanded “Aztecs” into a full-blown novel called Superluminal, which I haven’t read. If you have read it, please leave me a comment below and tell me how it was.
BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: Scientists have long believed that there is a speed limit in space, just as they once believed there was a speed limit in the sky (the sound barrier). That speed limit is called “the speed of light.” McIntyre’s story is one of the few sci-fi stories out there that bothers to discuss the consequences of traveling at FTL speeds and what humanity will need to do (or sacrifice) in order to be able to do it.
The story goes beyond the mere technological or physical aspects of FTL travel and delves into the social ones: the insular brotherhood/sisterhood of Pilots, exalted beings who gave up their hearts to steer titanic metal machines through hyperspace between the stars. Pilots’ heightened status among plebs and the fact that they are now physically disconnected from the rest of humanity combine to create an interesting juxtaposition. It’s implied that quite a few people believe they want to be Pilots and undergo the heart-removal surgery only to change their minds once it’s been accomplished. McIntyre’s story asks, “Yes, humanity will one day be able to travel between the stars in the blink of an eye…but at what cost?”
WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: The story is really freakin’ atmospheric. The cold sterility of the hospital, the silent austerity of the clothing shop, the cool, sea-smelling breeziness of the waterfront, the immense silences of docked spaceships, the visually stunning (and yet quiet and reflective) Pilot’s lounge…I felt like I was present in every single scene, thanks to McIntyre’s gift for description.
The character of Laenae was fascinating as well: prideful, willful, arrogant, ambitious, idealistic, sensual. I simultaneously prayed for her pride to take a fall, and cheered her on in her relentless pursuit of her hopes and dreams.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Ever wondered what it would be like to live with a completely artificial heart that lets you psychically regulate your own metabolism and pulse? Curious about what America will look like in the late 21st century (as interpreted by a sci-fi writer in the 1970s)? Pondering the physical and social consequences of faster-than-light travel? Read this story.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: Fireflood and Other Stories is a collection of McIntyre’s short fiction that was published in hardcover in 1979. I just happened to get my hands on a copy. The whole book is worth your time. Of Mist, Grass, and Sand is captivating and sublime, and the titular story, Fireflood, is hauntingly tragic. If you like strong female protagonists, lovingly described settings, and realistic characters with very human motivations (my favorite type of sci-fi), then Vonda McIntyre is waiting for you.