Arthurian clones in space--it sounds like a third-rate SF movie, but instead is a very moving and intriguing SF story by C.J. Cherryh. Though hardly perfect, this is a solid story for Arthuriana and SF fans alike.
An extremely wealthy woman named Dela owns a luxurious spacecraft called the "Maid of Astolat," which is decorated with swords, spears, medieval banners, and other trappings reminiscent of Arthurian legend. As if that weren't enough, she has specially programmed clones ("made people") whom she has fashioned and named after characters in Arthurian legend: Sweet, meek Elaine; handsome, sad Lancelot (Lance); dark, brooding Modred; handsome lithe Gawain (Wayne); sharp, efficient Viviane, and lesser characters Percival and Lynette. Elaine narrates, a rather flat character who apparently gets her "dreams" by using special tapes that Dela owns.
These clones help to keep the ship running, except for Lance who is something of a slave boy-toy for Dela. She often brings her lovers to the "Maid", and after she tires of them she falls back to Lance. But one day she brings in a new lover, Griffin--young, handsome, kindly, and she may actually marry him. This worries the clones, who fear that they will be put down or reprogrammed.
But their worries become irrelevent when the ship is yanked into a sort of space-wasteland, and clamped onto an alien ship. The clones begin to freak out (or "blank out," as they do when they're upset), Dela decides that they are all dead, and Griffin tries to help the clones free the ship. But something strange is drawing nearer to the "Maid," and will draw them into a situation that no one can truly understand--and the question of what being a person is.
This novella initially seems like a simple Star Trekkian adventure, but also introduces some intriguing moral questions. Do programmable clones have souls? What does it imply about the morals of a person who uses clones like wind-up toys? If they have stunted abilities to feel, and are "programmed" to obey a person, does that make them any less human than a "born man"? These questions are raised and answered without preachiness, but through effective demonstration.
Anyway, the characters were excellently made. The selfish, hedonistic Dela is forced to see the clones as people, and to act as a better person, and Griffin is definitely a "nice guy," though a little less so at the beginning. Lance is broody, Modred is sinister (yet, somehow, I like him!), Viviane is effective as the ice-queen with a head for figures. Percival is a sweetie some of the time. Gawain and Lynette don't register as much, but perhaps the biggest cast flaw is Elaine. She seems too passive as a narrator, doing too much telling and not enough doing, in a crisis situation. But her stunted love for Lancelot is very effectively shown.
Though there is minimal profanity, hardly any violence and just a little gross imagery (the attack on Modred), there is a fair amount of sex-related info in this. Dela brings man after man for trysts on her ship (we're told, but not shown), Lance is her boytoy, and there are a couple scenes where Lance goes to bed with Elaine. None of this is graphic; in fact, it's rather how you would expect the observations and experiences of an android to be. Perhaps the contrast between the love lives of the people involves and the growing soul love is deliberate. Additionally, one can also see traces of traditional Arthuriana, with Dela as Guinevere, Griffin as Arthur, Lancelot and Elaine in their ancient counterparts' places.
And thankfully Cherryh did not fall into the trap of "bad alien captures heroes, heroes defeat alien and escape." Rather, she introduces a situation as ambiguous as several characters are, and allows us to see a vision of the future that is truly intriguing, and which fits perfectly into the thoughts and desires of the characters.
Overall, an excellent read for Arthurian and SF fans.