About six weeks ago, you might recall, we re-published – with the permission of premier Science fiction mag SFX and friend of the Gateway Ken MacLeod – Ken’s insightful SFX Book Club piece on our then SF Masterwork of the Week: James Blish‘s Cities in Flight.

We are now delighted to announce that this is to become a regular feature on the SF Gateway blog, our good friends at SFX having kindly agreed to allow us to republish those articles covering our SF Masterworks and/or SF Gateway titles. Taking us out of space dock, in preparation for our journeys into the unknown, is this overview of Mary Gentle’s  Golden Witchbreed from Gollancz’s own voyager to hidden worlds, the wonderful Jaine Fenn . . .



Good SF and fantasy takes you to a place you could never imagine for yourself, convinces you it’s real, and makes you care about the people you find there. Part travelogue, part murder mystery and part laconic but deadly political thriller, Mary Gentle’s 1983 novel does just this.

Golden Witchbreed employs the classic SF technique of an outsider from (something like) our world exploring an alien world. Lynne Christie is the human envoy sent, along with a team of specialists, to the newly contacted planet of Orthe. Christie is an empath, although far from giving her an advantage over those she finds herself among, her ability makes her inclined to accept and trust the Ortheans – and so, as readers experiencing her journey, do we. In contrast, her companions come across as oafish, patronising colonials, and she quickly distances herself from them. It’s an interesting thought that, if Gentle wrote this story now, she might not need the device of Christie’s empathy to make her open-mindedness credible; people behaving as the other humans in the book do would quickly lose the sympathy of 21st century readers.

Gentle skilfully combines the use of a non-judgemental narrator with a culture just familiar enough that the reader can relate to it; she actually based the central social structure of Orthean society, the Telestre, on the 17th century English parish system. As a result we become comfortable with these almost-humans, which makes it all the more shocking when they do something truly alien.

One unfortunate side-effect of Christie’s acceptance of her situation is that she can be infuriatingly incurious about some of the most interesting aspects of Orthean society, such as their racial memory, not to mention the Witchbreed themselves.

The Golden Witchbreed are a long-dead race, reviled because of their technological sophistication. Therelationship between culture and technology is at the heart of this novel. The current-day Ortheans are, in the view of the human newcomers, primitive. But this is a matter of choice. The miraculous devices of the Witchbreed are shunned due to the abiding if initially unspecified danger they represent. Reading the story now, you can’t help but see the shadow of the Cold War, the ever-present fear of weapons that could destroy the world. We do get a glimpse of how high the original culture reached when, after a long journey through the deserted ruins of the Witchbreed’s old heartland, Christie finds herself faced with a treasure-house of hi-tech artefacts which gleefully demonstrate Clarke’s Third Law. It’s a stunning contrast.

Although this novel is capable of lulling then jolting us, its biggest strength lies in its subtlety. For example, although Gentle doesn’t use the word “matriarchy”, it just so happens that most people in power on Orthe are women… just as it so happens that most people in power on Earth are men. And there’s another interesting, and equally understated, comment on gender: Ortheans are undifferentiated, sexually, until they reach puberty. A young Orthean is referred to as ke, and is neither male nor female, although Christie does find herself tripping over her human assumptions, mentally assigning a gender to someone who hasn’t got one yet. Christie’s own background is hardly touched on, but she and her colleagues are noted as being British which, when you think about it, is quite unusual in late 20th century novels about the colonisation of space; it’s generally the Americans, Russians or Chinese who lead the way.

Although it shows its age in a few places – the use of tapes as recording devices, the lack of computers and some wince-worthy colonial attitudes – this book has endured well. Nearer to classic science fiction than many of Gentle’s later works, but with byzantine intrigues and an ambivalent attitude to technology, Golden Witchbreed is really science fantasy, a term Gentle herself favoured, and it’s hard to think of a better example of that sub genre.


This piece was written by Jaine Fenn and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.

Jaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire series of far future SF novels, the latest of which is Queen of Nowhere, which is available in trade paperback and as an eBook. Jaine Fenn’s website is, and you can follow her on Twitter at @JaineFenn.