Disorienting and blurry, the subterranean world of Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting (1975) hosts a confusion of social structures that aren’t easily deciphered. The first few chapters are especially complicated as the first act winds its way through a series of tunnels and bends and broken thoughts as Mischa resists Gemmi’s empathic tugs, rescues a self-destructive Chris, and observes the so-called normalcy of this alien place called Center. Disjointed journal excerpts by an outsider named Jan intensify the narrative haze.
Center is a strange place. Unfamiliar in the ways it defies present-world logic (hired beggars; dormant political and mechanical power systems in some places, active in others; nuclear-crystal alchemy) and familiar in the ways it employs standard sci-fi tropes (telepathic communication, dog-eat-dog dystopia, pernicious underboob cleavage), but all of those odd details add up to a cohesive and thought-provoking framework from which McIntyre hangs her complex and many-tendriled tale. The claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere is intertwined in each theme, where a potent mix of ageism, lookism, ableism, and toxic family systems has the potential to drag each character down into a self-hating pit of inaction. Some succumb; some overcome. Continue reading