I haven’t finished Burning Bright, but I want to go ahead and give a write-up on Melissa Scott. I’ve read a few books by her in the past: Dreamships, Dreaming Metal (at the time I did not know they were related), and now Burning Bright.
Melissa Scott is absolutely a wonderful writer. She builds deep, rich worlds without overwhelming you with all of it at once. Her stories feel very character-driven, keeping the reader invested in the daily lives of the character. Don’t get me wrong, her characters are interesting enough, but at least in Dreaming Metal the protagonist Celinde isn’t some savior of the world surrounded by action and drama. She’s just an illusionist doing – admittedly fascinating – performances while potentially world-shattering events unfold.
Likewise, at least one of the protagonists in Burning Bright is mostly interested in the “Game”, and even the others more deeply involved in the political intrigue dance around what’s going on so you get hints of it through their eyes rather than diving headlong into it.
Scott’s writing style is like that in general. She doesn’t flaunt her worlds; she doesn’t give you a guided tour with explanations for the technology or cultures. She writes like you’re reading regular fiction. Joseph Heller isn’t going to explain to you how planes work in Catch-22, partly because it doesn’t matter for the plot, and partly because there’s no reason for the characters – who all know how they work – to discuss it. It can be very refreshing to read, particularly if you’re coming from a weak writer who falls back on cliched dialogue along the lines of “We’ve been using hyperdrives for hundreds of years and they’re a perfectly common technology that everyone on the ship understands, but why don’t you tell me how it works anyway.” Implied is the suggestion: “Speak loud enough for the audience to hear you.” Scott doesn’t do that, she throws you into the world and lets you figure it out for yourself, or not.
If you haven’t already, go read my essay on Dialoguism and word choices. Scott doesn’t use a lot of dichotomous voice in her novels, just a lot of unique voice when it’s appropriate and, again, you’re expected to make the connections. The good thing about her style is that it feels incredibly organic and realistic, and her worlds feel more real. The downside is that reading her novels takes work. If you’re looking for something easily digestible, Scott is not the author to turn to (and for what it’s worth, there’s nothing wrong with that…provided you find something with at least some substance – I’m looking at you, The Silver Ships!).
I know this is getting long, and props to anyone who sticks around this long, but I can’t neglect to mention the diversity in Scott’s novels. Scott herself is gay (I couldn’t tell you exactly how she identifies), and her novels always include LGBT characters. What I really appreciate about it, though, is that her novels aren’t about their sexuality. Please don’t misunderstand me, although I am not part of the LGBT community, I think visibility is important and I want there to be novels that focus on sexuality in that way, but that’s not what I’m usually looking for in the literature I read. Scott doesn’t make a big deal about her characters’ sexuality. They have sex with the people they want to have sex with – sometimes the same sex, sometimes a different sex. I think the casualness of it makes me hopeful for a future in which the only people who care about who you share a bed with are the two people sharing the bed.
Her cast is racially diverse as well, but like their sexuality their race isn’t the focus of the characters, except where aliens are concerned. The race of the human characters is literally skin deep. Again, it makes me hopeful for a future when the color of someone’s skin doesn’t change how the people around them treat them. Of interest to me, having learned some American Sign Language: a form of sign language is a common language in Scott’s universe (or at least, in the novels I’ve read), and there is an entire society built around being Deaf in Dreaming Metal, with one of the side-protagonists being a Deaf musical performer. The lights and holograms he manipulates to accompany the music are treated like just another instrument to be played and a part of the composition.
(If you are looking for scifi that tackles the themes of race and sexuality directly, I recommend reading Octavia Butler’s novels. She is another great author that I will get around to properly reviewing sooner or later.)
To conclude a somewhat long and rambling review: Melissa Scott is absolutely worth picking up if you want to explore some quintessential science fiction worlds, and if you want to feel challenged as you read. She weaves an amazing blend of traditional scifi tropes with a unique female and LGBT perspective. Diverse characters, engaging stories, and phenomenal world-building combine to make a wonderful and capable author that I can’t recommend enough!