Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Courtship Rite

Go To

The Death Rite shall be invoked only in the case of heresy, and shall consist of no more than seven trials, for would not an endless trial become persecution? Though each trial conjures a more subtle death, each death, even to the seventh, shall leave open an escape that can be perceived by an adept of the common wisdom, for is not the common wisdom a memory of the Race's escape from Death? As is it not the common wisdom we are protecting when we challenge a heretic?
—From The Kaiel Book of Ritual

Courtship Rite is a Science Fiction novel by Donald Kingsbury; a complex, richly-imagined story about the Lost Colony world of Geta.

Trapped for many centuries on a hostile world, the people of Geta have developed a tribal, ritualistic society. Native Getan life is inedible and usually toxic, and the colonists only brought a few Terran species: bees and several varieties of plant. Cycles of famine have forced them to come to terms with cannibalism, and it is now an integral part of their society, though different tribes approach it differently. The Getans have forgotten their history, and much of science, but of necessity, they have retained an amazing expertise in biology and genetics, and associated technologies.

Society has evolved into underclans, who do the work, and overclans, who rule and administer. The Kaiel are an overclan who believe it is their destiny to rule the world, not through force of arms, but through intelligence and persuasion and well-chosen alliances. The Kaiel are actively breeding themselves for the ability to make accurate predictions—or for the ability to make predictions come true through intelligence and persuasion.

Hoemei, Gaet and Joesai maran-Kaiel are three sons of the former Prime Predictor of the Kaiel clan. The three have two wives between them, and are hoping to add a third to make a Six-marriage. The new Prime Predictor finally agrees, but orders them to marry the clanless Oelita, known as the Gentle Heretic, who preaches against cannibalism. Reluctant and mildly offended, the brothers decide to court Oelita with the ancient Death Rite, to force her to prove her worth to be their spouse. But Oelita has no interest in marrying them in the first place.

The book was written in part because Kingsbury thought it would be fun to write a book where cannibalism was a positive thing, and make the reader agree. Robert A. Heinlein expressed similar motives for writing Stranger in a Strange Land, but unlike Stranger, Courtship Rite makes cannibalism a major theme of the story. It was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1983.

Major Characters:

  • The maran-Kaiel family:
    • Hoemei: elected "the brain" of the three brothers. Family administrator. Brilliant. Expected to be the next Prime Predictor.
    • Gaet: elected "the heart" of the three brothers. The social one, makes friends easily. Master of the art of persuasion.
    • Joesai: elected "the loins" of the three brothers. The Big Guy. Tough and ruthless.
    • Noe: one-wife of the brothers; member of the Kaiel clan. Spoiled and lazy, but aware of her flaws.
    • Teenae: two-wife of the brothers; member of the o'Tghalie clan. Mathematical whiz. Young and impetuous.
  • Others:
    • Kathein: the woman the brothers wanted to make their three-wife. Member of the Kaiel clan. Gifted scientist.
    • Oelita: the Gentle Heretic. Clanless.
    • Aesoe: the current Prime Predictor and head priest of the Kaiel clan.
    • The se-Tufi Who Walks In Humility: an assassin/courtesan of the Liethe clan.

Tropes in this work:

  • Actual Pacifist: Oelita the Gentle Heretic. She is totally opposed to cannibalism and culling, and preaches non-violence and peace. Though she did make a point of attending her father's funeral feast, and still carries dried strips of his flesh. She believes that eating small amounts gives her superhuman strength.
  • Arranged Marriage: More-or-less the core of the story is the reluctance of the maran-Kaiel five-family to comply with the arranged marriage to Oelita the Gentle Heretic, ordered by the Kaiel clan's Prime Predictor. At least, initially they're reluctant.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: In the end, with the maran-Kaiel family bitterly divided over the question of Oelita vs. Kathein, and divorce beginning to look like a possibility, Gaet uses the babies borne by the two women and fathered by maran-Kaiel men to help defuse the tension and remind everyone how much they love each other.
  • Band of Brothels: The Liethe clan; although they're more like courtesans or geisha than simple prostitutes. They are highly skilled in the arts of music and dance as well as love, and only make themselves available to the rich and powerful. They also have many secrets, and an agenda of their own.
  • Cannibal Tribe: The rare non-villainous version; the entire population of Geta has been forced into cannibalism, and, over the centuries, has made it a proud part of their culture.
  • Cargo Cult: The ship that brought the original colonists is still orbiting Geta, a bright light in the sky. The Getans don't know what it is, but they know their ancestors said it brought them to Geta, so they worship it as a God.
  • The Clan: Almost all the people of Geta are organized into clans, most of which are deliberately breeding themselves for specific traits.
  • Clones Are People, Too: Most clans are busy with their super breeding programs, and don't bother with cloning, since identical genes are, by definition, not improved genes. The Liethe are the exception. Every Liethe secretly has a number of clone-sisters of varying ages, and no outsider ever learns the true identity of a Liethe. The outside world only meets fake personas which can be played by different clone-sisters in turn. The clones are very much different individuals with different skills. Some members of a clone group like the se-Tufi are always trained as assassins; the se-Tufi Who Walks In Humility is one such.
  • Crisis of Faith: In addition to believing that cannibalism should be avoided, Oelita is convinced that humans are native to Geta, despite their obvious biological and genetic differences. When conclusive evidence appears that this is not the case, she begins to question her whole belief system.
  • Data Crystal: One of the Kaiel's most sacred relics is a large crystal disc they call "the Frozen Voice of God". No one had any idea it contained data, though, until Kathein developed a machine to read it, showing that it mostly contained gene sequences. Oelita turns out to have another one that she has no idea of what it is. When read it turns out to be a history book on warfare from ancient Earth.
  • Dawn of an Era: the discovery and decryption of the ancient document, The Forge of War, gives the Getans new insight into their history, and information about all sorts of useful Lost Technology.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Almost the point of the book. Cannibalism is accepted and normal, bound with ritual, and the heretic who argues against it comes off as a bit crazy. Without cannibalism, there would be no people on Geta, or, at best, only a desperate handful.
  • Designer Babies: Some clans do perform genetic manipulation to try to improve themselves, but since the results can be unpredictable, and the techniques are expensive and difficult, it's not all that common. Genetic screening for undesirable traits is common, but even there, the Getans are aware that diversity is a boon in the long run. The Kaiel, for instance, produce designer babies in tanks en masse and cull the ones who appear weak. All three of the maran-Kaiel brothers were born that way and survived the creche.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Appears in the afterword, where the author claims the work is based on real research into galactic records.
  • Eats Babies: The extremely rare non-evil, non-comedy version. Well, somewhat non-evil. Cycles of famine for a Lost Colony on a harsh planet has made cannibalism necessary and socially accepted, and baby-eating has become morally ambiguous. The two main clans known for eating babies during non-famine years (out-of-season, as it were) are the protagonists' clan, the Kaiel, who ruthlessly cull their own babies, a practice most Getans find gauche at best, and the Mnankrei, sea-raiders who prey on coastal villages, and generally fail at being non-evil.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Each chapter starts with a quote from a fictional historical or religious document of Geta. Many of them are charmingly disturbing.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: The harsh life on the Lost Colony of Geta has led to extended marriages being quite common. Marriages of up to six people are allowed, and a six-marriage is considered the most perfect, balanced ideal.
  • Fantastic Racism: Although half of the Kaiel clan are creche-born children of uterine replicators, the creche-born are considered somewhat second-class citizens. By the rules of the clan, Hoemei should be the next Prime Predictor, but because he's creche-born, there's some question about whether it will be allowed.
  • Free-Love Future: At least a mild version, possibly justified in part by the need to keep birth rates high to match the high death rates, as well as the need to avoid excessive inbreeding. And many Getan women have a mutation that allows them to induce miscarriages at will. Most Getan tribes may be trying to breed themselves for specific traits, but they're very aware of the dangers of inbreeding. In any case, casual sex seems common, even for married people, although jealousy is far from unknown.
  • Freudian Trio: As reflected in the roles they chose in childhood, Hoemei is the superego ("the brain"), Gaet is the ego ("the heart"), and Joesai is the id ("the loins").
  • Gambit Pileup: The Kaiel clan have basically been breeding for a better chessmaster. When Aesoe, the clan's Prime Predictor, orders the maran-Kaiel brothers to marry Oelita the Gentle Heretic, he knows they'll try to outgambit him, and he's betting he's still better than they are. What none of them know is that the Mnankrei clan have their own plans for Oelita and her followers. The Mnankrei may not be quite the chessmasters that the Kaiel are, but they have surprise on their side. Unfortunately, it seems that the innocent courtesans of the Leithe clan may not be so innocent after all, and for once, they may feel the need to interfere with the plans of the great clans. Who would expect that a tiny, beautiful dancer would also be a trained assassin? But—that assassin may have plans of her own...
  • Genuine Human Hide: This is standard operating procedure. The people of Geta have few resources to start with. Human skin is too valuable to abandon. The people like to decorate their own skin with tattoos and decorative scars, knowing the art they choose will live on after them, on the leather worn or otherwise used by their loved ones and kin.
  • Guile Hero: Hoemei. In a clan where status derives from making accurate predictions, and clan members are encouraged to manipulate events to make their predictions come true, Hoemei is the second-best predictor/manipulator. Or rather, the best—the incumbent has been bribing the auditor.
  • Happily Married: The maran-Kaiel are a happily married fivesome, looking to add a sixth to make their marriage perfect. They admit that the odds were against them—Noe was a spoiled brat when she married the brothers, and Teenae was simply too immature and got married for all the wrong reasons, but once they figured out their best roles in the marriage, the whole thing ended up working out beautifully.
  • The Heretic: Oelita, The "Gentle Heretic", preaches against cannibalism and the belief that the moving light in the sky is a God. When our heroes are told of her by the clan leader, they assume they're going to be sent to kill her, and are shocked to learn that they're being ordered to marry her, and bring her congregation under Kaiel influence.
  • Heroic BSoD: Oelita experiences an extended version when, on top of discovering conclusive proof that her whole belief system is a lie, she finds that the two people she's just fallen in love with are married to the man who has been trying to kill her. She flees to the wilderness to live as a hermit, until the maran-Kaiel decide that surviving this shock counts as the last test of the Death Rite, and decide to bring her back to marry her, since they've learned to love her too.
  • Homosexual Reproduction: Primarily the Liethe clan, who commonly create new clone-lines by fusing ova from two existing but not quite perfect lines, though they do also breed with the priests they seduce. Other clans do some broader gene-pasting. The maran-Kaiel brothers were produced from a complicated process combining Prime Predictor Taien's genes with genes from a past male Prime Predictor who died long ago.
  • Human Resources: In addition to eating their dead, the Getans make full use of their corpses, since they have no other large animals to provide things like leather.
  • Human Subspecies: The afterword reveals that the centuries of isolation combined with genetic manipulation have led to the Getans only sharing about 98% of their genes with mainstream humanity—about the same as chimpanzees!
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Geta is a Lost Colony where desperation in the face of poor harvests has made cannibalism socially acceptable over the course of many centuries. The degree to which it's accepted varies between nations and clans. Killing people just for their meat when there's no famine is generally frowned on, but funerals are always an opportunity for a feast.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Earth isn't even a legend to the Getans, and when they finally discover and decrypt ancient historical documents that tell them about the world of their ancestors, their feelings are quite mixed. Though they're no strangers to violence, the idea of war, with its indiscriminate killing, seems like such a waste of tasty protein.
  • Language Drift: Becomes a major plot point when they finally decode ancient documents, including a history of Earth, and learn, among other things, that their word for "God" used to mean "ship". Which puts a whole new perspective on the legend that the God in the sky that they can see every night brought them to Geta.
  • Lost Colony: The book takes place on a lost colony so hostile to human life that over the centuries, times of famine have made cannibalism socially acceptable to varying degrees.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Most Getans consider the whole Kaiel clan to be this—and, indeed, they seem to be actively trying to breed for the trait, in several ways. Within the Kaiel, Prime Predictor Aesoe is a prime example, ordering the three protagonist brothers to marry Oelita, the Gentle Heretic (against the wishes of all parties) so the Kaiel will gain influence with her followers.
  • Marry Them All: Sure, six is supposed to be the maximum size for a marriage, but the maran-Kaiel aren't exactly sticklers for tradition.
  • Mother Nature, Father Science: Mostly averted; some of the top scientists in the Kaiel clan, for example, are women. Some clans believe this trope is true, though, like the o'Tghalie clan, professional mathematicians who forbid their daughters to study. Teenae, who is an o'Tghalie by birth and a Kaiel by marriage, is proof that the o'Tghalie are wrong about women; she is a mathematical whiz.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Averted: Humans on an alien planet can eat nothing but the "sacred eight" organisms which survived their arrival. There is some talk of being able to process a few of the native plants to make them non-toxic, and of carefully selecting the edible bits of other native species. Some groups of humans have deliberately selected themselves for greater resistance to the poisons in the native organisms. The available foods include honey bees and wheat. Humans are the only source of meat.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: Part of the backstory. The inhabitants of the hostile Lost Colony of Geta have been a Donner Party so many times over the centuries that cannibalism has actually become an accepted and normal part of their society.
  • Only Sane Man: Subverted with Oelita, the Gentle Heretic. When you first encounter her and her anti-cannibalism views, the author sets you up to expect that she will prove to be the only sane woman on a world of mad cannibals, and that she and her efforts to end cannibalism will become the focus of the book. Then, after casually revealing that she's maybe not-so-sane, the book goes in a completely different direction, and the question of the morality of cannibalism is never more than a minor background issue.
  • Only the Knowledgable May Pass: The Kaiel Death Rite, which the protagonists decide to apply to Oelita the Gentle Heretic, to test her fitness to marry them, requires knowledge of "the common wisdom" to pass/survive. See the page quote for details.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: Getans gradually decorate their skin with scars and tattoos. Scarred skin can be freely displayed in public, but showing unmodified skin is considered titillating and/or scandalous. The Liethe clan leave their skin unmodified, both for sex appeal, and to disguise the fact that several different Liethe are playing the same role by turns.
  • Outgambitted: Joesai, by Storm Master Tonpa of the Mnankrei. Joesai has planned to make people think the Mnankrei are responsible for the Death Rite on Oelita; when Tonpa realizes he's being framed, he not only comes up with a way to put the blame back on the Kaiel, but to make them take the blame for destroying the local grain store, which they had originally planned to make look like an accident.
  • The Pardon: Joesai gets a pardon from exile when his brother/co-husband Hoemei becomes the new Prime Predictor of the Kaiel clan.
  • Professional Killer: The se-Tufi Who Walks In Humility, of the Liethe clan. Most Liethe are courtesans and entertainers to the rich and powerful, but Humility is one of their secret assassins who is called in when seduction alone isn't enough to further Leithe goals.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The Mnankrei are an overclan of sea-raiders, and one of the Kaiel's chief rivals. Their goal is to rule the planet through force of arms. In the meantime, they routinely pillage coastal towns which refuse to swear fealty to them. Like the Kaiel, they have a well-deserved reputation for eating babies, although in their case, it's less morally ambiguous.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Kathein, the woman the maran-Kaiel were originally planning to marry. She's a brilliant scientist, whose research becomes important to the plot more than once, but since being ordered to marry someone else, the maran-Kaiel have been forbidden to see her, so she gets only a minimal amount of screen time and character development.
  • Schizo Tech: Often justified by necessity; the Getans have held on to biological and genetic technologies far beyond anything available when the book was written, but many technologies that weren't critical for survival have been lost. As the book starts, they've only recently rediscovered radio and are amazed by the concept of the electric light bulb. (Less well-justified is the fact that they still know how to do radiocarbon dating.)
  • Scry vs. Scry: The Kaiel clan play this game on a regular basis; the leader, or chief priest, is actually called the Prime Predictor. Cheating—that is to say, manipulating events to help your prophecies come true—is not only allowed, but encouraged, and it's never entirely clear whether there's any actual psychic component to the predictions, although it's strongly suggested. All that really matters is that your predictions prove more accurate than the next fellow's.
  • Sibling Team: The maran-Kaiel brothers, Hoemei, Gaet, and Joesai, discovered in childhood that their strengths complemented each other, and have been a team ever since.
  • Social Darwinist: The entire population of the world of Geta are Social Darwinists; the native life of the planet is mostly not edible, and famines are historically common. Cannibalism is part of their way of life, in which people with less kalothi (worthiness to survive) go to feed those of higher kalothi in times of need. Even Oelita believes in eugenics (minus the cannibalism). The end of the book reveals that in the far future they have become a different species.
  • Storyboard Body: The people of Geta scar their bodies and faces in intricate, beautiful patterns, using toxic native plants to make the scars more permanent. The scars tell of clan allegiances, religious beliefs, and personal interests or history.
  • Synthetic Plague:
    • Of locusts. Oelita discovers a native species of insect which is eating wheat and not dying. Normally, native life finds Terran life as poisonous as Terran life finds native life. When the Kaiel get a sample of the insect, they discover it has been deliberately genetically modified, and furthermore, the Mnankrei are standing by with ships of grain waiting for the famine these bugs will cause, so they can trade food for fealty. In response Kathein develops a parasite that selectively kills the altered insects.
    • And later The Mnankai attempt to use a pathogen against Joesai and his force that would destroy their mental faculties. But the Liethe they tried to use to transmit it infected them with the significantly less lethal vaccine instead.
  • The Theocracy: The overclans are all priest clans, ruling by religious right. Basically, the whole world is a theocracy, although given the harsh conditions of survival on Geta, a fairly pragmatic and not-very-hierarchical one.
  • Twin Switch: Most Liethe have a number of clone-sisters of varying ages, and no outsider ever learns the true identity of a Liethe. The outside world only meets fake personas which can be played by different clone-sisters in turn. The clones are very much different individuals with different skills.
  • Uterine Replicator: the Kaiel clan uses these to keep their birthrate high, although they ruthlessly cull their children. Three quarters of all Kaiel creche-born children become dinner before reaching adulthood. The Kaiel replicators are biological constructs; their predecessors, the now-extinct Arant clan, used mechanical ones.
  • Worldbuilding: The world of Geta itself is fairly well worked out, but the greatest effort went into designing the complex culture of the people who live there. This is no simple Fantasy Counterpart Culture, although there are elements of New Guinea natives, Meso-American civilizations, and Medieval European guilds in the mix.