I found my way to this 1974 sf novel by way of a commendation in the occultist memoir In the Center of the Fire. The Legend of Biel was author Mary Staton’s first book, used as the re-launch of publisher Ace’s Science Fiction Special series.
The story is framed as a sort of Clarke-style hard sf involving the investigation of mysterious architecture on an exoplanet MC6, with difficult mission constraints and conflicting motives among the explorers. While this setup intimates a “first contact” scenario, the book never actually presents any non-human intelligence other than the possibly posthuman “Thoacdien.” There are however multiple human civilizations brought into view: the terrestrial humans of the frame story, the utopian telepaths of the Thoacdien Federation, and the indigenous Higgite nation of Thoacdien V.
The protagonist of the frame story is UN scientist Howard Scott, but the “Biel” of the title is the central character of the nested narrative, and she is a mutant child of the Thoacdien polity. Especially toward the end of the book, small sections are offered in a first-person voice from Biel, and she is the only character to assume this level of focus. Her story eventuates in a somewhat unsatisfying “and then she woke up” gimmick, which fails to account for much of the third-person detail supplied. Still, as an allegory of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (per Jim Wasserman’s reading) the “Legend” is provocative.
Issues of “racial” difference (in the US sociopolitical sense) are raised explicitly in the frame story and implicitly in the legend. David Hobart, the black African member of the UN research team “had paid his dues and was grudgingly admitted to the human race” (19). On Thoacdien V the Federation mentor characters are black, while the savage Higgites are conspicuously white.
The evolutionary advances of the Federation society include the obsolescence of viviparity and the removal of dominance and submission from pedagogy. The resulting picture reminded me more than a little of earlier science fiction such as Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X. The rather abstracted scenery of Thoacdien V drafted itself in my imagination in the style of Jean “Moebius” Griaud. Throughout the book there is typography that helps to flag various registers of the narrative, but it results in some infelicities like long chapters entirely in italics and often indulges in expressionistic passages of what looks to be concrete poetry.
I did feel that the resolution of the Biel plot was a bit clumsy, but I received the closing bracket of the Howard Scott frame story more warmly. While I don’t know that I can echo Wasserman’s appraisal of the book as “excellent,” I don’t regret having taken his word that it was “worth reading.”