Sibyl Sue Blue
by Rosel George Brown
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 12, 2021
Before talking about the novel I want to say a few things about the author, Rosel George Brown. First, the image to the right is the only photo I've found through multiple searches. It is possible I had heard of her but had forgotten, and I may have read one or more of her stories. From September 1958 to December '59 she had eight stories published in some of the most prominent SF magazines of the time: Amazing Stories, Galaxy, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Worlds of If, among others. Several of those stories were apparently impressive enough that she was a finalist for "Best New Author" at the 1959 Worldcon, although no award was presented that year. I had originally thought Brian Aldiss had won that, but new information was recently posted at the official Hugo website. We cannot rule out misogyny as the reason No Award won that year, since three of the finalists were women, the other two being Pauline Ashwell and Kit Reed.
I say I may have read her before because at one time I had a large collection, not complete but fairly comprehensive, of F&SF, although I know I didn't read all of them. Six of her stories, out of twenty-one, appeared in F&SF. I have regretted selling those on Ebay many times since. Twelve stories (more than half of her output) appeared in her only collection, the out of print A Handful of Time (1963), including two that were original to that book. Only one story followed that, in May 1964. My searches have also born fruit in four stories available free from Project Gutenberg, one of which I already had in an unread anthology, Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women, 1958-1963, from Journey Press, the same publisher as for the new edition of Sibyl Sue Blue, which was first published in 1966. That same year saw Earthblood, a collaboration with Keith Laumer. Sadly, she died of lymphoma the following year at the age of 41. Her husband posthumously published a direct sequel to Sibyl in 1970, and it is possible Journey Press might reissue The Waters of Centaurus in the future.
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Originally published in 1966, but set in the far future of 1990. I received an e-ARC of Sibyl Sue Blue from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. The new print edition came out June 7, with the Kindle file due July 1. Since I didn't recognize the title or her name, but saw "Hugo Finalist" on the cover, it prompted me to do a little research, and what I found impressed me enough to request it. Unfortunately, even though I'm still intrigued by Brown's life story, and the many positive comments about her and her work I've found online, I cannot recommend this novel. That does not mean I won't seek out other stories beyond what I've found at Gutenberg. There has to be a gem or two within her earlier work. On the surface this seemed to be something out of the ordinary. The protagonist is over 40, a widow with a sixteen-year-old daughter. Sibyl Sue Blue is a policewoman, assigned to homicide at the rank of sergeant. She's liberated and strong-willed. She smokes cigars and is fond of drink, and of men, although she swears she doesn't want to get married again. Another positive is she's very intelligent, and before her police career had wanted to be a Greek scholar, which Brown was, with several degrees acquired. Sibyl's husband was lost, assumed dead, on an expedition to the planet Radix some ten years before. A second expedition to Radix confirmed there were no living beings, sentient or otherwise, just plant life. Also, no evidence of the previous ship crash, or survivors, but of course they were not able to survey the entire planet. An opportunity presents itself for Sibyl to go on a third expedition.
Contact had been made with inhabitants of the Alpha Centauri system, mutual trade had been established, and many Centaurans had immigrated to Earth to protect their interests. As has happened with immigrants from our history, some have fallen between the cracks, living in poverty and squalor. There had been a series of human deaths, possibly suicides, but murder had not been ruled out. The connection seemed to be a new type of benzale cigarette from the planet Centaurus. It was already known that they induced a slight hallucinatory state in Centaurans, and a more intense one in humans. But the new type of cigarette might have other properties, and if Sibyl's hunch was right, they caused paranoia and self harm. Why then would she voluntarily smoke one? No, twice! In both cases she has dream-like experiences in which she thinks she hears her dead husband talking to her. There's a sub-plot of some Centaurans who become enraged whenever they see Sibyl, attacking her without provocation, but she is enough of a fighter to fend them off. Is that connected in any way to the cigarettes, and if so, is the secret ingredient in that type of cigarette actually from Radix rather than Centaurus? Her personal physician thinks it's some type of virus or bacteria, but after exposure Sibyl seems to be immune. Her primary suspect is Stuart Grant, wealthy industrialist, owner of Earth's only fleet of interstellar ships. That fleet handles all cargo to and from Centaurus, but she learns he plans a trip to Radix on his own personal ship.
There are many fights and chases, along with sexual encounters, although none of that is very graphic. Just enough to establish Sibyl is tough and can take a punch, and she likes sex, with human and alien alike. It's written in third-person, but I wish it had been in first. It's hard to believe Sibyl starts to fall in love with Grant, and that's where the plot meanders through an incoherent mess on Grant's ship. She falls out of love with him just as quickly, so are we to assume she was faking it just to get on the ship, the reason being she thinks her husband might still be alive on Radix? Is the connection Grant has to Radix, along with the hallucinatory agent she's been exposed to, affecting her judgement? None of the on-ship adventure convinced me Brown cared for scientific accuracy, and the prose reads more like pulp SF from the '30s rather than out of the midst of the New Wave. I will say it is better than last year's Retro Hugo winner, Leigh Brackett's Shadow Over Mars, which I couldn't finish, and better than at least one early Hugo winner. Both Sybil Sue Blue and The Waters of Centaurus were published in hardcover, including book club editions, and at least one foreign edition, indicating they sold well enough. In paperback the first was retitled Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue. Below are images of the hardcover, the paperback reprint, and the sequel. I am almost positive I've seen that last one in a used bookstore sometime over the years, and yet the provocative cover was not enough to get me to buy it. Again, not recommended, but if I ever encounter the sequel, or her collection, I may read them. Or not.
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
Bibliography at FantasticFiction (not complete)
Internet Speculative Fiction Database (a more thorough bibliography)
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