This was the last novel by Margaret St. Clair, published in 1973. Other than a few short stories and commentaries, I can find no other writing by her after this. Why did she quit writing novels? The answer to this question may never be known. But, as Dancers has never been republished, I suspect the lackluster reception the book received may have been a contributing factor. I'm sure the Aquarian portrayal in the novel- whom the narrator calls "Mandarins"- didn't help it much with the intended audience.
Sometime in the near future, the west coast of the United States has been decimated by a horrendous form of cancer known as the "bone melt". After the disease runs it's course, California reorganizes itself into the Republic of California. Some of the survivors live in the coastal towns. Others have taken to the forest and live in "tribes" or communes. To keep the younger generation in check, the older tribal people start obtaining synthetic human "Dancers". These Dancers enforce the tribal will by making young people join in marathon group dances. They also force them to take psycho-active drugs as a form of vision quest. If any of the kids get too rebellious, they can be sent outside the tribe on the "grail quest". And those who do get sent on the quest have a tendency to return a psychological mess.
The dancers enforce their authority with tribal militias known as "The Avengers". Guns are almost unknown in this post-apocalyptic hippie society, but bows are easily made and arrows can kill. Furthermore, the dancers have begun working with "chemical-conscience men". These are hardened criminals the republic have found easier to control with drugs as opposed to prison. Many are on mood controlling drugs because they were vicious killers.
The novel is told from the point of view of Sam MacGregor, although his tribal name is "Bright Moon". His age is never given, but you get the idea he's around 20-years-old. Sent off by his tribe at Noyo to study with an authentic native American medicine man, Sam returns to his tribal village one evening and refuses to join in the marathon dance. For his insubordination, the tribe's Dancer orders Sam to leave their territory and go on the Grail Journey.
Pursued by a pack of Avengers who are determined to see that Sam meets with an accident on his path, Sam managers to make his way into other tribal lands. Along the way he experiences out of body sensations. Sometimes he's put into the mind of a government agent before the fall of civilization. Other times he's a man named Bennett, who was the cellular template for all the android Dancers. After a bad run-in with a chemical-conscious man who was a serial killer before the treatment, Sam enters the land of the Navarro tribe. But the tribe has vanished. All he finds remaining of it is a young woman chained to a rock, left to die in the rising tide.
Sam rescues the woman who turns out to be Francesca O'Hare, the daughter of the man who created the android Dancers. Her father, whom she describes as ripped out of his mind on drugs, has recently died. She can't figure out why her tribe's Dancer wanted her dead, but she thinks it may have something to do with what she learned before her father died. Sam joins forces with her and flees north to the nearest settlement- Ukiah -outside of tribal control. Together they will do what is needed to bring down the tyranny of the Dancers.
Dancers is similar to both The Sign of the Labyrs and The Shadow People with the use of a first-person male narrator. It falls under the category of science fantasy as it too has elements of both science fiction and fantasy literature. The reader is given a lot of medical herbalism information as Sam carries a small medicine man bag with him. However he's not above using magical rites when they seem appropriate.
St. Clair is particular biting in her depiction of the Mandarins, the aging hippie tribal leaders who will do anything to stay in power. Since Sam was raised in a communal nursery, he really has no idea who is his mother. There's an older tribal woman called "Jade Dawn" who claims to be his mother, but he's not sure. As the local county agent says of the Mandarins: "They're too stoned, usually, to make anybody do anything."
The author still manages to pack the creep factor into the book when needed. There's a chilling scene where Sam and Francesca break into her father's hidden laboratory. It's dark and unoccupied by anything human. The increasingly psychotic O'Hare had booby-trapped the lab not only with chemical poisons, but other android creations. They are forced to navigate their way through the dark labyrinth while avoiding Hunters, Diggers, and other nightmare creatures.
It's sad this would be Margaret St. Clair's final novel. What amazing books she might have penned in the final years of her life.