Had Helen Wright’s only published novel A Matter Of Oaths appeared a couple of years after its 1988 publication it might have been seen as a significant contributor to the early 90s British SF and in particular Space Opera resurgence. Instead it seems to have disappeared almost unnoticed.
Twin, rival empires rule in opposition held barely in check by the Guild of Webbers who control all spaceflight, owning the ships and employing the webbers who control the ships through the web. Each emperor has sworn a solemn oath to the Guild, as each webber has sworn to Guild and Emperors. Breaking these oaths is the ultimate crime.
The patrolship Bhattya recruits the mysterious Rafe to her webroom and her command Three are thrust into danger, conspiracy and intrigue. For brilliant, attractive, mysterious webber Rafe is an Oath-breaker and has been mindwiped. All he remembers is his recent past as a webber on a ship badly damaged in an attack, but someone is out to get him.
Put so simply A Matter of Oaths seems to be standard fare, and indeed, as a debut novel of promise as much as fulfillment, much of it is familiar. Rafe is too good to be true, his skills far in excess of his apparent experience, though the ending suggests reasons or this; Bhattya commander Rallya equally seems to succeed at everything she tries, and her stubborn independence seem to make aspects of the novel unlikely, and she has no back story to base this on. That’s the weakest part of A Matter Of Oaths, for all its galaxy-spanning action, it feels too self-contained, there is no real sense of anything beyond its small cast of (well drawn) characters. As a result the supposedly dramatic impact of the ending is rather muted, and hard to care so much for.
The strengths of Wright’s novel paradoxically are partly in its very familiarity. The echoes of past (and it must be said, subsequent) SF are frequent, but often subtle, and diverse. The web experience of Rafe and others is described in terms that bring McCaffery to mind on one level and cyberpunk on another.
Hell’s irresistible bargain, rafe had heard a retired webber call his once-active web; a passport to soaring power which no sane person dared reach for. It was an apt analogy. In the web, your brain was linked to the body of the ship, your nerves carried sensations that non-webbers would never know. You only had to loosen the chains of discipline a little to tap the web’s full potential, to create new sensations, to explore new pathways through your extended body, a body that encompassed your companions in the web as their bodies now encompassed you.
And there was the danger: stray from your pre-defined pathways and you could not know what your web-mates would experience — pleasure, pain, or insanity because they could no longer interpret the behaviour of the body that they shared? Even if you were alone in the web, experiments jeopardised your own sanity, your own grip on mundane reality.
In the end it is in that sharing that Wright makes her world most interesting, A Matter Of Oaths is a novel of sensuality, of free sexuality, and of equality. It’s fun. It isn’t explicit, at one point Rafe says to Rallya ‘why embarrass people or confuse their prejudices?’ but otherwise Wright simply makes her point by the repeated showing of characters’ acceptance of each others race, gender, status and sexuality without judgement.
Unfortunately Helen Wright only published this one novel, an enjoyable, sometimes predictable romp with a charm and wit to raise it above the ordinary. I would certainly like to have seen what she could have produced had she developed on A Matter Of Oaths. But don’t take my word for it, you can download it at Helen Wright’s website http://www.arkessian.com