My opinion of L. Sprague de Camp is mixed. On the one hand, I’m not a fan of what he did to Robert Howard’s legacy when he became manager and editor of Howard’s works—hacking them up and making “new” Conan pastiches out of unfinished manuscripts, doing “collaborations” from beyond the grave, all the while providing Howard with backhanded compliments. On the other hand, I’d like to judge de Camp as an author different from how I judge de Camp as an editor; I’ve read a number of his short-stories, and over all, found them solid if not extraordinary. Rogue Queen is one of the three de Camp novels I own, and comes from his Viagens Interplanetarias series. The Viagens series dates to the 1940s, mostly space opera or sword-and-planet tales in a future where Brazil has come to dominate Terran space exploration (the series name being “Interplanetary Tours” in Portuguese).
Iroedh (pronounced something like “Iris” with a lisp, according to de Camp’s helpful pronunciation guide) is a female neuter worker, assisting one of the many queens of her race (the Avtiny). The matriarchal Avtiny society is a busy one, akin to bees or ants with its caste system: the Avtiny spends their time fighting rival city-states and producing more drones and workers to better serve their queens, leaving no time for those with interests that don’t support the community’s greater good; in fact, Iroedh’s friend and fellow anthropologist, the male drone Antis, who is nearing what Avtiny society calls his useful age. (Antis is around twenty, like Iroedh—drones are put down early in life, to prevent them from rebelling and going rogue.)
Things change when a batch of humans in their metal spaceship Paris arrive; these bold voyagers of the Viagens Interplanetarias have trekked across space to make contact with “primitive” races, to study their culture and make knowing glances about how backwards the natives are. The Avtiny, for example, have no concept of love outside of love for the community and queen, and no concept of marriage, on top of their aforementioned societal values (caste system, matriarch, drone euthanasia)—obviously not a race who the Viagens can interact with yet as equals. While the humans are pledged to non-interference, they didn’t expect the clever Iroedh—chosen as translator and diplomat by her queen—to flip Avtiny culture on its head, with the help of some ancient prophecies about a queen gone rogue.
De Camp’s portrayal of the earthlings is an ironic one. they’re The Viagens spaceship Paris is multiracial and features (more or less) gender equality in the same Van Vogtian/Star Trek style. But the humans are ethnocentric and chauvinistic, and often look at each other with a grin and a nod when the ways of the quaint natives are explained. This makes Iroedh’s mid-novel scheme—blackmailing Bloch to use the helicopter to save her drone friend Antis—all the more cunning and conniving, deflating the humans’ egos for a moment and revealing the natives to be quite capable, despite their differences. De Camp is self aware of the flaws of the Viagens members and plays up their celestial White Man’s Burden; for all their genius and technology, it’s clear they’re not the mental or moral superiors they think they are.
A running theme is the comparison of the Avtiny and the Terrans. Avtiny society is comparable to Soviet communism, where the community is loved and respected over all others, though its betterment comes at a high price (such as the forced execution of older drones, to prevent them from rebelling and to weed out the non-useful ones). Meanwhile, the humans are portrayed as much more individualistic and individual-oriented, which is as much a hindrance and flaw as the communal style is for the Avtiny. Of course, the novel was published in 1951.
That comparison comes across strongly in de Camp’s other big comparison: how the two cultures handle the concept of “love,” of gender roles and sexuality, marriage, etc. Written in the 1950s, the novel is free of explicit eroticism or displays, instead tackling the subject on a detached philosophical level. It comes close to Le Guin’s early style of novel—using the primitive alien world as a vehicle for commentary, in this case exploring the differences between the matriarchal bee-like aliens and the self-sure, ethnocentric humans come to observe with their enlightened methods—before it turns into a simple adventure novel, though one that still ties itself to developments in the two species’ society and gender roles. (Interesting to note, de Camp has Iroedh referring to humans as “men” and “female men,” reminiscent of Joanna Russ’s later feminist SF breakthrough The Female Man.)
L. Sprague de Camp’s writing is decent; much as I remember from his many short-stories, passable but without real flair. De Camp has always struck me more as an academic than a creative type—a common trait in ’50s science-fiction writers—from his focus on language and linguistics. Not in the Vancian sense, but in that every book of his I own begins with a pronunciation guide and little linguistics details. He also captures a mythic element in his style, handling fantasy and weird alien races very well through word-choice and texture. It’s a very straightforward style, and once you either understand the odd linguistic choices for the Avtiny—or manage to ignore them—the reading experience is much improved. Between the weird lisping language and the flowery mythic prose, it took me a few chapters to engage the novel, but after that it was a breeze.
Where the book breaks down is in its 1950s origins: Iroedh goes from an intelligent heroine to a passive subaltern through the magic of Terran monogamy, abandoning her Leninist ways for the freedom of being a subservient individual. A disappointing but predictable outcome; again, a product of its time. This leaves Rogue Queen an interesting and entertaining novel, but it hasn’t aged well—critics called it the “masterpiece of the Viagens series” and “a completely new science-fiction plot.” It’s creative, original, and entertaining, but not yet a masterpiece: it helped open sexuality and gender as topics within science fiction, laying the foundation for later, better, authors to cover the same ground. Many science fiction novels are better at commentating on their contemporary society than on any future one, and Rogue Queen was all but made as an example. And if you can get over that, you’ll still have to get over its formulaic plotting.
I’m not sure whether to take it as a serious SF novel or as some form of social satire with tongue firmly planted in cheek (which it leans towards in the later chapters, with the many jabs directed at love and marriage). As Iroedh herself states:
But I don’t want to be a conqueror! I just wish to settle down with Antis and lay his eggs and collect antiques!
Commentary on the terrifying plight of newly formed Avtiny marriage, circa 1950s United States. And I think I’ll leave things with that.