The Original Tomb Raider: Jo Clayton’s Skeen’s Leap Trilogy
Jo Clayton published Skeen’s Leap in 1986 with Daw Science Fiction, and followed up with Skeens’s Return and Skeen’s Search, both in 1987. As near as my crack team of internet researchers can determine, all three volumes are out of print. Nor is Audible any help—Audible, in fact seems to offer no Jo Clayton at all! Bad Audible, go sit in the corner.
DAW is still around, still independent (although Random Penguin has an exclusive deal for their distribution) and it seems to me that re-releasing the backlist of a major female
Black science fiction writer would be a no-brainer, but what do I know?
Jo Clayton is one of those authors who didn’t visit Appendix X; she lived there, blazed a trail into that wilderness, set up shop, and charged other authors rent when they finally showed up. Less a New Wave writer and more of a Weird Tales-era pulp revivalist, her stories are chock-full of non-stop action, strange new worlds, very alien peoples and monsters, and a total lack of respect for genre boundaries.
Skeen’s Leap (and you can find copies through your favorite used & rare outlet) is a great introduction to Clayton’s mix of science fiction and fantasy.
Skeen, you see, is a rooner. A rooner is an interstellar outlaw archaeologist, who sneaks into the ruins of an alien civilization to recover lost artifacts, which she then sells to the highest bidder. Kind of equal parts Indiana Jones and Han Solo.
Our story begins on a planet that is a legendary treasure trove. The world has a variable star that renders the planet’s surface uninhabitable every few hundred years, which means that it has been colonized and then abandoned by a dozen different civilizations. Ruins? You wouldn’t believe the ruins!
Sadly, the current occupants have an entirely unreasonable attitude with regard to the artifacts lying around on their planet, and so Skeen has to use all of her stealth the get in and out again with anything of value. She’s a pro, though, and goes to work with a detailed plan that goes off like clockwork up until the point where she gets back to where she stashed her starship and it isn’t there.
Obviously Tibo, her copilot, lover, and henchman, has betrayed her into the hands of the local cops, who are breathing down her neck. Skeen runs and tries to lose them in the ruins of an ancient city. Desperate to escape, she jumps through a strange looking door…
And ends up someplace else entirely.
It seems that the very first civilization on that planet had some pretty far out tech, and when their star went killing hot, they escaped through a home-grown dimensional portal. What’s more, a sizable percentage of the subsequent settlers also escaped through the door.
The world on the other side of the door is primitive, inhabited by the descendants of refugees who were escaping with their lives and without the tools to construct a high tech infrastructure. Think Middle Earth with a dozen different bizarre species, many of whom have abilities that might as well be magic.
Oh, and the dimensional gateway is closed.
Some folks would give up at this point, but Skeen is made of sterner stuff. She comes up with a plan.
Travel across an alien and hostile world in search of the first inhabitants, the ones who built the gates. Induce one or more of said inhabitants to open the gate so she can get back to her own universe. Find Tibo. Bitchslap him into a black hole. Get her damned ship back. And if there’s time, save this miserable world from certain destruction, because you can always use extra hero points.
Skeen’s Leap and the two that follow it are a lot of fun. Skeen is a wisecracking rogue with a heart of gold, always outnumbered and always outgunned, getting into and out of danger with panache and chutzpah. The world is finely drawn, just enough detail to bring it to life without slowing down the story. The low tech world inhabited by alien races has surprising depths, much like M. A. R. Barker’s Empire Of The Petal Throne (okay, so that reference was just an attempt to outgeek Jeffro.)
I could have picked a number of other works as an introduction to Jo Clayton—during her too short life she produced a solid body of work. Skeen, though, has a special place in my heart.
Run, rooner, run, (and thank Djambo for long legs!)
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.