Published by Del Rey on 1967 (original pub. date)
Genres: Science Fiction
Also by this author: Catalyst, The Dragonriders of Pern
Sara had been torn from Earth by a nameless black force and taken to Lothar where she was forced to care for a strange man, who she discovered was the Regent. She escaped in panic, and become a fugitive in a world of multiple evils....
Girl abducted by aliens. It’s the classic Golden Age science-fiction cliche; you immediately think of Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet or any of a number of pulp-SF books whose covers feature an alien holding a fainting (but sexy) woman.
Restoree was Anne McCaffrey’s feminist “jab at the way women were portrayed in science-fiction.”* In it, she thumbed her nose at the stereotype of the helpless girl whose only purpose in the story is to give the hero someone to rescue. Women in Golden Age science fiction were almost universally props, cardboard characters with neither agency nor complexity. McCaffrey, and a few writers like her, challenged that trope.
Sara, the heroine of Restoree, is neither helpless nor incompetent, and she faints only in situations that would tax anyone’s emotional state, man or woman. Abducted by flesh-eating aliens, she wakes (after a long, nightmarish period) to find herself the “moronic” nursemaid to a nearly catatonic man. When she realizes that he’s the Regent of the planet Lothar, and that he’s being drugged, she manages to free him from the drugs. From there on, their escape and ultimate survival depends on both of them.
Far from being helpless, Sara proves both resourceful and capable: sailing a boat, swimming, thinking quickly on her feet, even maintaining a false identity so that no one realizes she’s not from Lothar — all while dealing with political intrigue at the highest level and the threat of invasion by the Mil, the same aliens who abducted her from Central Park. Above all, she keeps her head. She’s a “strong female character” in the best sense of the term: she has agency; she’s a survivor, not a victim; she is her own person, and Harlan’s equal in everything except strength and local knowledge.
The romance between them is pretty straightforward, as neither is interested in hiding their attraction or playing hard-to-get. Their relationship is complicated only by the events and intrigues in which they must take part. At no point is Sara seen as Harlan’s “prize” or “reward.” In fact, although he appreciates her beauty, he values her for her intelligence, courage, and strength of character far more than for her looks.
In short, at the time of its writing, Restoree was groundbreaking. Today, it comes off as a little dated here and there, and it doesn’t reflect McCaffrey’s writing at her best. The worldbuilding has holes; it isn’t nearly as complex or consistent as that in her Pern and Talents series. McCaffrey also employs, without explanation, the same “aliens who look human” trope used by the original Star Trek series (which was airing at about the same time.) And some of the dialogue is a bit over the top. But Restoree was McCaffrey’s first novel, so it’s not surprising to find some flaws.
Despite those caveats, I still enjoy the novel, though I freely admit that part of my affection is nostalgia. I first read Restoree in high school in the late 1970s — about the time Del Rey reissued the book due to McCaffrey’s growing popularity. I had read Dragonflight and Dragonquest and was eager for anything and everything she had written. Science fiction where the characters were more important than the tech or the Big Idea? Where women were real, rounded people who did things, instead of sitting around passively waiting to be rescued? That was exactly what my teenage feminist self was looking for, and I found it in McCaffrey’s books.
Based on that nostalgia, I give Restoree 4 stars. Looking at it more objectively, I have to take the flaws into account and go with 3.5. . . but I still think it is well worth reading, as much for its role in SF history as for the story.
A few afterthoughts:
1. The Hildebrandt cover I’ve shown above is from the 1977 paperback edition; it’s still the cover under which the book is sold in both paperback and ebook formats. Like the novel itself, the cover is dated, but look how it thoroughly it too subverts the “weak, fainting female” trope (which by 1977 had been more widely challenged.) Sara’s muscles are strong and engaged, she’s actively participating in the pose rather than fainting or passively acquiescent, and something about their facial expressions suggests a relationship of equal partners rather than “triumphant-male-and-adoring-female.”
2. i09 posted an article in 2011 suggesting that Restoree should be made into a movie. I agree; I think it could be a good one, and a lot of fun.
*Quoted from the FAQ on Anne McCaffrey’s website.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- COYER Going Back To Basics (Winter 2015-2016)
- The Backlist Reader (TBR) Challenge 2016