Aboriginal young men in Australia undergo circumcision and are told “men’s stories” as their initiation into adulthood. There is an African tribe that requires its initiates to hunt a lion. And American fraternities have their own variety of hazings, from drinking goldfish laced vodka to lying on the dividing line of a busy street. It can thus be imagined that in sci-fi, the possibilities for rites of passage are limitless.
Focusing on one such passage in the life of a young woman, Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1977 Aztecs is the story of Laenae, a Pilot. Sacrificing her heart for a mechanical pump which makes it physically possible to navigate long distance freighters through the black of space, the title is all too real for her. The novella dealing with Laenae’s transition in emotional, human terms rather than via action or excitement, this is the more subtle, mature side of sci-fi.
Awaking in a hospital bed days after having had her heart replaced, Laenea immediately rebels against the prescribed rote of the recovery procedure. Escaping in the night, she heads immediately to the spaceport where she will soon pilot freight through the eternal night. Meeting some old friends, some new, the sight of the raw scar on her breastbone places her in a new social light—a light which Laenea has trouble adapting to. If indeed she is to be a pilot, however, she will need to come to terms with the meaning of the operation.
McIntyre neatly enfolding theme into story with the tools of literature, Aztecs is short on excitement but full on character development. Perhaps at times a bit simplistic or overt, at all others the story builds to a subtle crescendo that may go unnoticed by the inattentive. Requiring thought, fitting together the pieces of Laenea’s concerns into the community of pilots and spacers whose details McIntyre parcels out one precious iota at a time is the heart (no pun intended) of the novella. (And it really should be emphasized how smoothly McIntyre incorporates background, setting, and character—via showing—into the story.)
A work of New Wave sci-fi, another notable element of Aztecs is strong female characterization. Not in the sense of taking charge and kicking ass, the novel’s core is fully human from a female perspective. The struggles of changing self-perception and adjusting to the manner in which others perceive her, Laenea is presented as a real person throughout the transition. Style soft and even throughout, readers looking for such a story could do little wrong with Aztecs.