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Literature / Crystal Singer

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Killashandra in her element
A science fiction trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, consisting of The Crystal Singer, Killashandra, and Crystal Line.

The technology that supports intergalactic civilization is made possible by the unique crystals mined only on the planet Ballybran by the exclusive and secretive Heptite Guild, by far the richest guild in the galaxy. The Heptite Guild occupies the entirety of Ballybran and maintains a monopoly on the precious Crystal, for one very good reason: once on Ballybran, humanoids are infected by a crystalline spore that forms a permanent symbiotic relationship with its host...if it doesn't kill them first. The majority who survive form an imperfect bond with the organism and are permanently bound to Ballybran, guaranteed an agonizing death if they ever leave. These become the Guild's support crew.

The few who manage a successful symbiosis are given a wide range of advantages, including enhanced senses, accelerated healing, and a greatly increased lifespan. They can also leave the planet for limited periods without dying. These become Crystal Singers: an elite group of miners who venture forth on Ballybran's ranges to cut raw crystal. Strike a lucrative vein of the invaluable Black Crystal and your fortune is assured, allowing Singers to live in hedonistic luxury on any planet in the galaxy, feared and respected by all who see them. But even the Singers must return to Ballybran to restore their symbiont or risk dying in agony. Not to mention crystal cutting is physically exhausting, dangerous, and addictive, with the added risk that the wild wind storms that sweep the ranges can drive a Singer to madness, reducing them to a mindless husk.

Killashandra Ree, her dreams of interstellar fame as a vocalist crushed, is intrigued by the prospect of wealth, respect, and near-immortality. Making her way to Ballybran, she applies to the Heptite Guild. With a faultless transition and a natural affinity for Black Crystal, Killa soon becomes the star of the guild, attracting the attention of the Guildmaster himself, who finds that Killa's inquisitive nature, rugged self-reliance, and gifted flair for performance combine to make her perfect for all sorts of complicated roles: diplomat, spy, and explorer.

What follows is the centuries-long journey of Killashandra Ree as she finds, loses, and regains enduring success and true love.

This series provides examples of:

  • Blessed with Suck: Candidates to join the Heptite Guild are exposed to microscopic symbionts by the very atmosphere of Ballybran itself. The symbionts grant those exposed with extended lifespans, enhanced physical abilities and super senses — unless they die, or only get a partial enhancement. The majority will end up with one sense enhanced to a Power Incontinence level (one wears special lenses to keep him from seeing everything on a microscopic level), and sometimes the enhancement will boost one sense and shut down another (another with super vision is rendered deaf). The Singers (those with perfect transitions) don't escape unscathed either, as constant exposure to the piezoelectric fields of the crystals scrambles their brains, causing memory loss and personality alterations. Some just straight up die. And they ALL share an inability to leave Ballybran for long, otherwise their symbiont will start to weaken, causing them to sicken and die. Veteran Singers tend to either break down physically and retire to a convalescent home or get locked into a cycle of "Obsessively mine enough crystal to make it off Ballybran for a long time, be forced to return to renew the symbiont or when the money runs out, rinse, repeat." The risks are considered "worth it", due to the long hedonistic lifestyle the lucky ones get to live before things start to sour, and some join the Guild with the hope that they won't become singers, but will instead be able to live comfortably doing research and so on.
  • Brown Note: Played straight, as the mach-wind storms cause raw crystal in the ranges to "sing," creating a nearly unbearable sound. Crystal Singers, with their already enhanced hearing, will do anything to get off-planet before the yearly storms hit; the tech personnel, meanwhile, are given every possible accommodation (up to and including being transferred to a bunker several hundreds of feet underground) and still can't block it out completely.
  • Canon Welding: The incidental details of the series include BB Ships, the main plot device of McCaffrey's earlier The Ship Who...... stories.
  • Character Death: Trag, Antona and Enthor are dead in between Killashandra and Crystal Line. Lanzecki and Rimbol die in Crystal Line.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Early in Crystal Line, Lars and Killashandra are sent to investigate a crystalline substance on an uninhabited planet that they nickname the 'Jewel Junk', and find that it appears to be sentient. The Junk returns later in the book, and winds up restoring all of Killashandra's lost memories.
  • Computerized Judicial System: Near the end of Killashandra, Killashandra's boyfriend Lars Dahl is given a computer-controlled trial for kidnapping her as well as other charges. She has forgiven him and wants him to be acquitted, but the Judicial Monitor computer's equipment reads her heightened vital signs, misinterprets them as her being afraid of him, and finds him guilty of one of the charges. Eventually, he's cleared of the charge and he and Killashandra get back together.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Optheria looks like a perfect paradise, but it's actually an incredibly oppressive dystopia that won't allow its citizens to leave.
  • Departure Means Death: Once you've been infected with the symbiotic organism that allows you to live on Ballybran, you can't leave for very long, or you start going insane and then die. Some can leave for two or three years, others as little as a few months.
  • Decontamination Chamber: Downplayed. After traveling on a stinking Selkite vessel, Killashandra and anyone who can smell her says she needs a shower badly. Her clothes are also filthy and she forgets she didn't have any fresh clothes on her, forcing her to wear just a Modesty Towel after showering until Lanzecki brings her clothes.
  • Dismemberment Is Cheap: Singers can heal from injuries that normal humans can't. Killashandra's tutor in the first book is on teaching duty because she lost three fingers in an accident, and is (impatiently) waiting for them to grow back.
  • Do You Want to Haggle?: In Crystal Line, a miners' guild looking to buy crystal for com-units try to haggle and emotionally blackmail Lanzecki into giving them a better price. It doesn't work- Lanzecki doesn't give a damn about their losses, and the Heptite Guild has but one stance toward selling crystal: "Here's what we've got, here's the price, take it or leave it, we don't care. If you don't want it, someone else will."
  • Driven to Suicide: Older singers who are succumbing to old age or simply tired of life will sometimes go into the Ranges and cut crystal until storms come- and then won't leave. In Crystal Line, Lanzecki does this.
  • Dying as Yourself: Antona begs Killashandra, whom she has befriended, to commit every detail she can remember to her personal history log in anticipation of the day when she can no longer recall her own past. Antona has lived long enough to befriend many Singers who became totally unrecognizable over time due to memory loss, and she doesn't want Killa to suffer the same fate. Her plea leaves Killa, who has deliberately left many painful memories out of her log so that one day they will be completely lost, to question the wisdom of that choice.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: In the first book, Lanzecki tells Killashandra that Guild Leaders are trained young, and also that he had a Milekey Transition. Killa, who has just completed her own Milekey Transition, leaps to the conclusion that Lanzecki is paying attention to her because he wants her to be the next Guild Master, which is incorrect. (He's romantically interested in her.)
  • Fantasy Contraception: The symbiont renders all Heptite Guild members sterile, which allows them to screw around without fear of pregnancy.
  • Flirtatious Smack on the Ass: Lars bestows several of these on Killashandra in Crystal Line. It's all part of their playfully sexual relationship.
  • Free-Love Future: In the future, sexual mores have laxed, and it's understood that most people, male and female, may have a rotating stable of partners and casual hook-ups. With the Singers, this crosses into Immortality Promiscuity, since unless your romantic partner is another member of the Guild, you're either going to outlive them or leave them behind on some other planet.
  • Food Porn: Crystal Singers have a heightened metabolism due to their crystalline symbiont, particularly when it's settling in. The upshot is they get to eat. A lot. And never gain weight. Their metabolism also process alcohol with astonishing speed, meaning they never get drunk or suffer hangovers. A great deal of the books involve Killashandra stuffing herself with gloriously caloric exotic alien foods washed down with copious amounts of beer.
  • The Fog of Ages: Crystal Singers have this problem, though it's brought on more by long-term exposure to Ballybran crystal than actual age. Killashandra eventually finds a solution to this problem, accidentally- it's not the crystal, it's the mach storms. Getting the singers to come back to the Guild before the storms hit helps them keep their memories longer.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: (Variant) Killashandra refused to even consider the roles her vocal talents allowed, once she was ruled unsuitable for lead roles.
  • Hyperactive Metabolism: Crystal singers are infected with a viral symbiont that gives them Healing Factor, effective immunity to disease, enhanced senses, and prolonged lifespan — and a greatly increased appetite to fuel it all.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: A major motivation for Killashandra, who, after being told her voice is unacceptable to ever become an interstellar soloist, quits school entirely rather than settling for lesser roles or choral work. Instead she pins her hopes on the Heptite Guild as a way of achieving the respect and recognition she craves.
  • Jerkass: Crystal singers are widely perceived as this by the rest of the galaxy, being a minority who holds themselves above everyone else because of what they are and what they can do.
    • Carrigana was a Jerkass when she got there and does not become less of one as the book progresses.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Legally, the Heptite Guild must disclose all its occupational hazards to potential new recruits prior to them even setting foot on the planet. However, if anyone backs out after hearing about the hazards, the Guild is legally permitted to erase the disclosure from their memory to protect their trade secrets. New recruits are informed about this policy and are likewise allowed to back out if memory erasure is distasteful to them...but that's also the end of the recruitment process.
  • The Load: Inverted in the third novel where a character is selected for a job specifically because of what he wouldn't be able to do (namely, prevent Lanzecki from committing suicide).
  • Love Is in the Air: The rays of the rising sun hitting the crystal fields at just the right time and angle are shown to produce a vibration that's basically the opposite of the mach storm song. It apparently produces full body sensations in Singers that makes sex during the sunrise song amazing.
  • Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: Killashandra features a single tree that the island natives rely upon as a source of food, cloth, fiber, water, and shelter, called the polly tree (get it?). No matter how empty or desolate your island, if you have a polly tree and the knowledge of how to use it, you will survive, a fact that comes in extremely handy for Killa.
  • Parental Abandonment: Inverted: Killashandra has/had parents and siblings, but she discards all of them without a thought at the beginning of The Crystal Singer to join the Heptite Guild, rarely thinks of them afterwards, and does not knowingly encounter any relatives again for over two hundred years. The trilogy gives little information as to what her relationships with them were like.
  • Really Gets Around: Killashandra sleeps around a lot over the course of the trilogy, though she eventually finds a partner she sticks with.
  • Really 700 Years Old: All Crystal Singers have extended lifespans (along with a healing factor and varying degrees of super senses) due to the native symbiotic organisms that permeate the atmosphere of Ballybran, the source of the crystals. At the end of the third book, Killashandra is revealed to be over 230 years old. (Her first appearance in the first book has her in her early 20s.)
  • Sadistic Choice: In the third book, Donalla is dying of a degenerative disease for which there is no cure. Her parents realize that taking her Ballybran is the best chance she has of recovering: the symbiont will cure her illness, but in all likelihood, she will never be able to leave Ballybran and they will never be able to visit her there. But if they don't take that risk, her death is certain. They finally let her go, and she recovers.
  • Songs in the Key of Lock: In Killashandra, the lock hiding the illegal computer equipment inside the organ is opened by playing a (supposedly) original melody. Fortunately, the protagonist knows Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and can play the opening line "accidentally" while tuning it.
  • Stepford Suburbia: The planet of Optheria. It's touted as a planet where nature is left intact and everyone is happy, but in reality, it's a dystopia run by a very controlling government that uses subliminal images and refuses to let anyone leave.
  • Succession Crisis: At one point it appears that there might be one over the position of Guild Master in the third book (because Singers live a very long time barring severe injury, the matter of selecting a new one comes up so infrequently that the Guild never bothered to create a formal process for doing so), but then the matter gets quickly settled off-page.
  • Superpower Russian Roulette: The adjustment to Ballybran's symbionts follows more of a bell curve: a few die, a few attain the heightened senses needed to become a crystal singer, but most just end up with mild handicaps, mainly in the form of Super Senses they can't turn off. Killashandra won her round, getting both a Milekey Transition (aka the symbiont set in without any of the severe symptoms that usually affect others), and became sensitive to black crystal, the rarest and most valuable kind. She also has a very good sense for mach storms. Some people also just end up dead, but the medical staff tries to filter the people likely to suffer that fate out before they're exposed to the symbiont in the first place.
  • Super Swimming Skills: Thanks to her symbiote-enhanced resilience, Killashandra is able to swim from island to island throughout an archipelago until she finally arrives at an inhabited one.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Because of the risks that come with being a Heptite Guild member, the Guild is not allowed to recruit. In fact, the entire planet is blacklisted throughout the galaxy as a Class 5 Hazard (inhospitable to life) unless the person is fully informed that in all likelihood, they may never leave Ballybran once they set foot on the planet's surface.note  The Heptite Guild is legally required to fully disclose the planet's dangers before anyone attempts to join the Guild, and a good number of would-be applicants quit once they learn what could happen to them in terms of death, dementia, or that they might simply be stuck on one planet doing a boring service job for the rest of their long, long lives. By the time of Crystal Line, the Guild's numbers are incredibly low, most singers are either recovering from illnesses or on holiday, and they've got a massive backlog of orders they haven't been able to fill.
    • Killashandra has cut crystal longer than Lars, so the effects of singing crystal hit her long before they hit him, and they take a significant toll on their relationship.
    • When Killashandra first comes to the Guild, she finds herself in a class of slightly over thirty. Initially, she is on equal and friendly terms with her fellow recruits, but when the symbiont sets in, she hits the jackpot: she got a Milekey Transition(the symbiont sets in without any real negative effects) and is sensitive to black crystal, the rarest kind. As a result, by the time the rest of the recruits have recovered and are out of the infirmary, Killa has already got her cutter and is qualified to go into the Ranges. Soon, she finds and successfully cuts black crystal, while they are stuck indoors because of the dates and soon, the storms will ensue that they can't cut their first crystal for months after Killa has cut hers. By the end of the book, all of her former friends have turned against her.
    • The people in charge of Optheria won't let citizens leave the planet. In addition, playing the Optherian Festival organ is the most exalted career someone can aspire to, so there are thousands worldwide competing for limited positions. Those who don't succeed find themselves with no real alternatives and they can't leave the planet and try something else, so it's no surprise that Optheria's suicide rate is sky-high.
    • At the beginning of the trilogy, Killashandra's music teacher informs her that despite ten years of hard work and dedication, her voice has an inherent flaw that makes her unsuitable for the starring roles she always wanted. He knew about the flaw all along, and while he'd hoped it could be trained out, he at no point told her about it or warned her when the final assessments came up. So when he later turns up and tries to prevent her from leaving Fuerte to become a crystal singer, she has absolutely no inclination to listen to a word he says.
  • The Symbiote: The symbiont has a low success rate for adaptation to human hosts. Those who survive, though, gain a Healing Factor that makes them virtually immortal, barring murder or immediately-lethal accident. Too bad about the slow memory loss, dementia, and paranoia...
  • Time Skip: There are several in Crystal Line, meant to illustrate Killashandra's increasingly detached and scattered mental state.
  • We Used to Be Friends: In Crystal Line, Lars and Killashandra have a serious falling out. They eventually make up, but it takes time.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Crystal Singers live for centuries, but as time passes, they lose their memories and become deranged shadows of their former selves. Lanzecki eventually becomes tired of life and kills himself.
  • Work Hard, Play Hard: The typical Crystal Singer takes insane risks to bring in a huge haul of priceless crystal, then blows all his savings on a spectacular vacation keeping him away from Ballybran for a year or so. Then he returns home so he can save up to do it again.

Alternative Title(s): Killashandra