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Mindworlds

by Phyllis Gotlieb

There’s an “uh oh” feeling I get whenever I hear the words “Imperium” or “Federation” used in science fiction. Visons of a set left over from a blockbuster movie immediately come to mind: over here we have the brave space-going freedom fighters with their multicoloured and charmingly accented alien sidekicks; over there is the space bar, where a gruff but friendly barkeep wearing a latex dragon suit will mix you up his special drink, complete with blue vapour.

I never got that feeling reading Phyllis Gotlieb’s Mindworlds, in spite of the familiar trappings, including Gal-Fed, the galactic federation that is a bureaucracy on an interplanetary scale. In Gotlieb’s newest novel, a splinter group of Lyhhrt, a race of jelly brains, decide to sue the Khagodi, a race of gentle giant lizards, for damages incurred when a Lyhhrt died saving a Khagodi. Some Lyhhrt want reparations, and if they’re not forthcoming, plan to declare war. A disabled Khagodi archivist tries to alert his own government, but is jailed on suspicion of drug smuggling.

Gotlieb’s complex cast of characters is surprisingly engaging and easy to relate to. Beings battle with big philosophical issues like self versus community. And a lot of brave, ordinary folks try to figure out the best way to act in terrible times. I got so involved with the characters that I often forgot that they were telepathic tigers or talking lizards, though it was occasionally difficult to follow their convoluted motivations and consequences, and the resolution of the Lyhhrt’s dilemmas felt a little rushed.

Gotlieb has been writing in this genre for decades, and there is an old-school sheen about her work, as though Captain Nemo’s beautiful submarine, sea-worthy as ever, had been oiled and spit-polished and readied for inspection. So much derivative science fiction emulates this but fails to match Gotlieb’s soul and complexity.