Katie Waitman

Del Rey Books / 437 pages / (30 August 1997)

ISBN: 0345414365

Visions of the future vary as widely as daydreams, but there is one thing we all seem to hope for our world: tolerance. On the surface, that doesn’t appear to be too much to ask of sentient beings, but perhaps it is. A multitude of races may only mean more to look down on and mistreat. A dizzying array of cultures may provide just more fodder for prejudice. The universe of The Merro Tree certainly offers a convincing argument that no magic cure is on the way to save us from our worst selves.

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And don’t get your hopes up, because the spirit, if not the flesh, of Jesse Helms and his ilk are going to be with us for a long, long time. Enter The Council, and exit Mikk, the performance master, if The Council has its way.

Mikk of Vyzania is universally acclaimed as the greatest performance master ever. Using his miraculous gift for absorbing languages, he travels from world to world, learning the unique artistry of its people and carrying these arts to beings everywhere. Being the best has earned him fans and enemies, but it is not until he performs the banned Somalite songdance that his enemies move in to destroy him. For one of the penalties for breaking the ban is death, and the universe will be split on the question of Mikk’s innocence.

Waitman’s skewering of censorship is only one of the many enthralling plots running through The Merro Tree. The stomach-churning abuses that make a nightmare of Mikk’s early years may be a contributing factor to his enormous sensitivity and empathy. The love of many lifetimes may never be realized. Intimacies with other races could worsen already brittle relations with The Council. The casual cruelties of superior races threaten to explode into world-shattering violence. And, in the midst of it all, Mikk’s fragile balance may collapse, ending his life before The Council has a chance.

All of these possibilities are explored against the backdrop of Mikk’s trial of the century… or millennia. The structure makes for a fascinating tease, unravelling truths and tragedies even as the fight for Mikk’s freedom and his life continue. If not all of the threads are equally interesting, none are dull. It is only that the answers to some of the mysteries may make readers impatient to move past the slightly slower segments.

Even without the braid of plots, Waitman’s world is worth exploring. A more entertaining and diverse crop of aliens has never appeared in science fiction. Her parade of life forms puts the Star Wars cantina in the shade. And Mikk’s unquestioning, but informed acceptance and embrace of each new race gives hope for a better future.

A time when freedom of speech and expression co-exist with equal respect and treatment for all beings? If it is just a daydream, it’s a good one.