This took longer than expected, and I blame telepathic, time-traveling space cats. Namely Khreng and Prandra, the starcat protagonists of Phyllis Gotlieb’s A Judgment of Dragons. The back cover promised an adventure that spanned across time and through the most bizarre and dangerous worlds in the universe and it delivered, with an emphasis on bizarre. These telepathic travelers help 17th century rabbis, duel with beings with godlike ESP, play politics in the Galactic Federation, break up criminal organizations, and even save their home planet from a fate worse than death, in just over 250 pages.
ESP is the most powerful force in the galaxy. Those gifted with it can read thoughts, project illusions, and reputedly destroy or elevate entire worlds. Space magic stuff, you know how it is. Khreng and Prandra are Ungrukh, leopard-like sentients and spacefarers. All Ungrukh have some degree of telepathy, but Prandra is a powerful ESP, who develops to her full potential under the tutelage of ancient earth ESPs, nearly immortal brains in jars. Their first adventure sees them running afoul of the Qumedni, an ancient and powerful race of, you guessed it, ESPs. Winding up back in a 17th century Polish village, they’re forced to confront the powerful alien in order to negotiate their way home. This tale brings them to the notice of the Galactic Federation, a terran colonial force, and places Ungrukh in its crosshairs as a resource for future ESPs. From that point they do whatever they can to protect their planet, not as guerilla fighters but as diplomats, winning favours with dangerous missions, and finally returning home to make a final stand against an even greater power.
Among a weird and scattered set of stories, Khreng and Prandra are what make the book work. As partners, lovers, and parents, their relationship is indomitable. In contrast with a lot of other stories, their relationship is put in place and the beginning, and because it’s never at stake, they can always rely on it. They never say “I love you” once in the whole book, but it’s easy to find a rhyme for it in “Be safe.” Their strength lies in their partnership, depicted as both easy and unbreakable.
A Fate Worse Than Death
In the Galactic Federation, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. The brains of ESPs are the property of the public good, and are called into service near the death of their bodies. The story introduces two of them, the sardonic Espinoza and the compassionate Lady Chatterjee, and they are desperate for death. Lives artificially prolonged centuries beyond what they should be, they are kept from all experiences and required to teach and serve. It’s a future Prandra fears for herself and her people. Throughout the book, there’s an overwhelming sense of galactic colonialism as the Ungrukh are referred to as savages or beasts, both lesser beings than humans but also intrinsically valuable thanks to their natural ESPs.
The Power of Empathy
Despite being a bread and butter space warrior setting, and having a cat pilot and cat wizard as the main characters, Khreng and Prandra avoid fighting at all costs, often placing themselves at risk to prevent others from coming to harm. Part of this is surely because they’re our heroes, but Gotlieb provides a deeper reason. As a species of natural ESPs, they have a deep sense of empathy. They understand the pain of others and grow up surrounded by a culture doing harm is practically unthinkable. It’s more than avoiding fights, if there’s an outcome that sees even their enemies through without getting hurt, Khreng and Prandra work toward it, even when wrapped up in warzones and alien assassination plots.
A Judgment of Dragons subverts a lot of space warrior future tropes, and is an award-winning piece of Canadian science fiction. I’m pretty partial to books where the heroes would rather negotiate than fight. On the Milnean scale, this book is definitely a Kanga. It’s all about taking care of each other and the people around you, regardless of the harebrained schemes they might have. If you want a copy, you might find one on Amazon, or you can find it in the Open Library, definitely a first for a Book Nerd pick.