Monday, December 5, 2011
Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey
In honor of Anne McCaffrey's passing this month, and because "coincidentally" my daughter just returned my copy of Crystal Singer, I'll be doing a review of classic McCaffrey weekly for a while. She was a grand old dame of science fiction, and her presence will be sorely missed.
Published in 1982, this novel was a breakaway from her Pern series and early "Ship Who..." novels, and it definitely ranks highly in my favorites list.
Killashandra Ree has been studying vocal performance at Fuerte's Academy for ten years, expecting to launch a career as one of the premier Singers on her planet, when at the final examination, she is informed that she has an unpleasant "burr" in the upper registers, and her voice will never be suitable for such a career. Simultaneously crushed and enraged, she storms out of the audition, grabs her belongings from her student quarters, and impulsively descends on the spaceport, in a bit of misplaced wanderjahr, searching for a new career and life.
At the spaceport, she hears a shuttle craft which has its crystals (part of the propulsion unit) badly out of tune. Another bystander who hears the crystals' dissonance, however, is Carrick, a member of the Heptite Guild, a Crystal Singer. He holds the authority to tell the local authorities about the problem and demand that they have the crystals tuned before a disaster occurs. In gratitude, the spaceport authorities "comp" his expenses, and he invites Killashandra to join him in his recreations.
The Crystal Singers are a very exclusive group, responsible for the discovery and mining of various crystals on the planet Ballybran, and they command exorbitant salaries, which they spend in hedonistic abandon whenever they're able to get off planet. Killashandra is charmed and taken in by his easy manner, and enjoys herself for some time in his company at various resorts around Fuerte. When another spaceport mishap incapacitates Carrick, Killa accompanies him back to Ballybran, home of the Heptite Guild, where he will receive medical treatment.
Killa is intrigued by the possibility of becoming a Crystal Singer, which requires perfect pitch (which she has), but doesn't seem to stop someone with a burr in her voice from pursuing (never really mentioned in the story), and she insists on being allowed to apply for the job, despite repeated warnings from her old Maestro on Fuerte, various members of the Federated Planets bureaucracy, and even representatives of the Heptite Guild itself.
The kicker is that there's a symbiont on Ballybran which binds a person permanently to the planet - they can leave for short periods - but which gives long life and special abilities to those people who successfully adapt to the symbiont - sometimes the adjustment is fatal. But Killa goes ahead with her plans, and the rest of the book describes her recruitment, training and early career as a Crystal Singer.
McCaffrey creates an interesting bit of future technology here. The crystals are essential to nearly every bit of tech in the Federated Planets empire, governing communications, propulsion, information storage and retrieval, entertainment - she almost anticipates the important integrated circuit technology we have today. Each color of crystal has a different application, with the most important and expensive crystal being the "black" crystal (of course Killa is able to sing and cut black crystal, or the story wouldn't be as wonderful), which is used in interplanetary and interstellar communication, providing FTL messaging when properly linked. Seems to be a bit of the old magical "law of contagion" involved, as the pieces of black crystal must have been mined from the same vein, then when properly activated (by magical mystical ritual known only to the Heptite Guild), they act as if "once together, always together" to send instantaneous comminications.
All in all, a fun and interesting novel, which begins an unfortunately short series.