Liberty’s World is a science fiction novel by Lee Killough that I read in high school (freshman year, y’all). The plot, in a nutshell, is that a ship of colonists makes an emergency landing on a planet that they hope to settle on. Because eh ship is damaged, they HAVE to settle on this planet, or die in space. Unfortunately, the planet is inhabited. Liberty, a member of the crew, has to make peace with the planet’s residents or find some alternative home for the colonists. It’s a short book, not high concept, but it blew my mind in some simple but powerful ways. Here’s how:
1. The heroine is mixed race and refers frequently to her “Hispanic and amerind” ancestry.
The cover is not whitewashed. Even today this is unusual, and in 1985 it was a revelation. This is probably the first science fiction I read that prominently featured a woman of color.
2. The heroine is not sexy and her story does not involve romance.
Confession – despite probable anatomical differences, I’ve always shipped Liberty and Ishda. However, their story is not presented as a romantic one. Liberty is not presented in a sexual light. She’s a fully realized character but she’s not here to be a hottie or pick up a guy. It was thrilling to read a story in which a woman was not defined by her sexuality.
3. It’s economical.
The whole book, in it’s paperback 1985 edition, is 237 pages long, yet it manages to do am impressive amount of world-building without clunky or lengthy exposition and it manages to develop the characters of Liberty and Ishda in some depth (other characters are barely sketched in). It’s refreshing in a world of epics and massive series to see this depth of culture and world building in such a small space. New writers take note – this book is tight.
4. Liberty is active but not an action star.
Nor is she a maternal figure. She’s basically a really, really smart person with excellent survival instincts. When she does fight, it’s a good model for a small person with no combat skills (me) – she goes nuts. She bites, kicks, scratches, and goes for the eyes – whatever it takes.
5. This is an action book about intelligence and diplomacy.
The colonist’s situation is so dire that it feels like an action book. The pace is so fast, and there are so many smaller scenes of action, that it feels like an action book. But Unlike one of my other 1980’s female SF heroes, Liberty can’t solve her problems by “nuking the site from orbit” (love you, Ripley from Aliens!). She has to solve her problems and the problems of her people through diplomacy – which has a poignant edge since among her people she’s never fit in and hasn’t mastered diplomacy at all. She’s not intuitively a political thinker but with survival on the line she figures shit out – and her lack of social skills with humans actually helps a little bit, because she has fewer preconceptions and judgments when presented with the other.
So many other great things to say about this book – aliens look pretty alien, their culture is neither vilified nor sentimentalized, and the first two sentences of the book are genius, very, very quickly and powerfully conveying the trapped sensation of being on a spacecraft that can’t sustain itself and has nowhere to go. The success of the book rests largely on those first two sentences, which demonstrate the predicament of the colonists. That keeps their predicament in our minds even though we don’t spend much time with them. This book is a master class in tight, emotionally engaging structure.