The Outskirter’s Secret — Rosemary Kirstein

Cover of The Outskirter's Secret


The Outskirter’s Secret
Rosemary Kirstein
342 pages
published in 1992

The Outskirter’s Secret is the sequel to The Steerswoman, the second in what’s so far a four book, projected to be seven book series. Kirstein is one of those authors who’ve fallen between the cracks of the science fiction/fantasy field: incredibly loved by those who’ve read her books, but barely known outside that circle of aficionados. The trouble is, for all sort of reasons, she isn’t a fast writer; the first two books in the series were written in 1989 and 1992, the second two in 2003 and 2004, with the fifth scheduled for publishing next year. Perhaps. Which means that, because she’s never been the runaway bestseller kind of author, that her books slip out of print faster than they’re written and you have to luck into finding her books secondhand to be initiated into her cult once you’ve heard people like Jo Walton rave about her. Luckily these days there are ebooks.

The Steerswoman series is science fiction in what looks like a fantasy setting, complete with wizards, dragons and goblins, in which Rowan, the titular steerswoman through her curiosity and intelligence is driven to investigate the nature of her world. Steerswomen (as well as the occasional steerman) are members of what you may call a semi religious order bound to answer any question truthfully as long as in return their own questions are also answered in the same manner. In the first book, Rowan’s curiosity into a peculiar kind of worked blue stone she found made her into a target for a wizard conspiracy. She escaped and in The Outskirter’s Secret, together with her faithful companion Bel, an Outskirter herself, a member of one of the nomadic tribes living in the wildernesses beyond the civilised inner lands, sets out to track down the source of the blue stones, deep in the Outskirts.

The Outskirter’s Secret starts out as a quest story, as Rowan and Bel move out from the familiar Inner Lands into the Outskirts, looking for a tribe to join for the duration, as they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own. It’s a reversal of the first book, where Bel was the one asking questions of Rowan about Inner Lands customs, now it’s Rowan who has to be guided around the dangers of the Outskirts, which are many. This is of course a well known fantasy plot type, the quest out into the untamed wilderness beyond civilisation to find a source of great power and much of what Rowan and Bel encounter could be read in fantasy terms.

So for example a goblin attack leads them to rescue a member of one Outskirter tribe, which gets them accepted into the tribe. The tribe itself is also familiar from countless fantasy stories (and further back, the western pulp stories these were “inspired” by). You got your young warriors and scouts, the usaul honour code and the core of elder men and women providing everything else. The tribe follows its goat herds across the great grassy plains, eking out an existence, moving on once the herd has devestated the landscape, with the goats providing everything the tribe eats. Only here the grass is red.

But this isn’t a fantasy story and the Outskirters aren’t badly thought out fantasy analogues of real world nomadic tribes. This is science fiction, perhaps one of the purest science fiction novels I’ve ever read. The heart of The Outskirter’s Secret isn’t the quest for the downed guidestar, it’s the slow revelation of the true relationship of the Outskirters to their environment as Rowan first wonders at how different their life is from the Inner Lands and then starts to figure out why that is.

The Outskirter’s Secret is a classic science fiction puzzle story, where the reader already knows the big secret of Rowan and Bel’s world and the pleasure lies in seeing the pieces fall in place. This only works if it’s done honestly, if there aren’t any convenient infodumps brought by mysterious strangers clueing in the protagonist to the real nature of her world, if Rowan doesn’t come to conclusions we know are true but she couldn’t possibly have known. As readers we knew or suspected that Rowan’s world is being terraformed and that this explains the dual nature of the Inner Lands and the Outskirts, but Rowan can’t know that, as that’s completely outside her frame of reference.

In The Steerswoman, Kirstein already proved that she could have Rowan come to the right conclusions honestly, when she had her calculate where the blue jewels that actually set her off on her quest came from, based on the spread of where they had been found, “as if a giant had flung them”. That ultimately led her to the conclusion that the source of these stones was actually a hithero unsuspected guidestar that had come down from its orbit, which led her and Bel into the Outskirts in search of it. Which in turn leads her to discover the differences between Outskirter life and that of the Inner Lands.

That process of discovery Rowan engages in alongside the more conventional quest plot is what makes The Outskirter’s Secret one of the great ecological science fiction novels. Through Rowan’s deductions, based on Bel and other Outskirters’ explanations of life in the Outskirts, it becomes clear that it is a border zone between the terrestrial ecology of the Inner Lands and the actual alien ecologies lying beyond the Outskirts. It also becomes clear, early in the novel even, that the Inner Lands and the Outskirts are not static, but that as the former grow, the latter move outwards. This explains the nomadic Outskirter lifestyle, completely dependent on their goat herds for substance. The presence of these herds and the Outskirters themselves as they actively hunt down and destroy Outskirter life, destroys the landscape they move through, requiring them to keep moving.

Behind all of this there’s the overall metaplot that got started in The Steerswoman, the central mystery of the wizards and Slado, their leader and what he’s up to. We get another piece of that puzzle here in the form of the discoveries Rowan makes about the relationship between Inner Lands and the Outerskirts, but much is still unclear. There’s also still the problem of the fallen guidestar and what made it fall.

Two other things that struck me about The Outskirter’s Secret and this series in general is the friendship between Rowan and Bel, one of the best portrayed friendships in science fiction, as well as the general agency and equality of women in this series. There’s no hint of the pseudo equality of so many fantasy series that put men and women in traditionalist, medievaloid gender roles with some handwaving about the power of the village women council or some invented pseudoreligious magical order. Instead, men and women do the same work and have the same responsibilities in Outskirter society, without Kirstein making a big production out of this. It’s just the way the world works.

The other thing that struck me is how much of a comfort read this was for me, even though I’ve never read this series before. From the first scene Kirstein had me at ease, willing to spent as much time in her world as she allowed. It’s rare to have a book so welcoming and with so much to say as well. It’s what makes this book, this series, so special.

On a Red Station, Drifting — Aliette de Bodard

Cover of On a Red Station, Drifting


On a Red Station, Drifting
Aliette de Bodard
116 pages
published in 2013

I wasn’t too impressed with the first story of Aliette de Bodard I read, when it was linked from Metafilter. I found the story, set in a Vietnamese or Vietnam inspired far future “too laboured, too trying to be interesting, but in the end it’s just another Orientalist allegory”. Which is somewhat ironic, as De Bodard is actually of Vietnamese descent… Can a writer be Orientalist if she’s actually writing from her own cultural background? That’s a question we’re going to come back to in discussing On a Red Station, Drifting as it’s at the heart of the problems I’ve had reading this book.

The reason I bought On a Red Station, Drifting, after that rough start I had with de Bodard was because she was nominated for the novelette Hugo and I discovered that her nominated story, The Waiting Stars, was “an excellent slice of Banksian space opera, a story of love, family and two incompatible views of the world”. On a Red Station, Drifting promised to be more of the same. It’s set in the same universe as The Waiting Stars, where the Dai Viet Empire ruling the stars makes a welcome retrieve from the usual Roman Empire model. At the time of this novel however it’s in trouble, with a weak emperor on the throne and rebel warlords springing up and taking over star systems.

It’s this that brings magistrate Linh to Prosper Station, having fled the system she was responsible for after it had been conquered by a rebel lord, then having angered the emperor’s court by writing an appeal for a stronger approach to the rebellion. Now she comes to this obscure part of the Dai Viet empire, to Prosper Station, to shelter with her family running the station. For the administrator running Prosper Station, Lê Thi Quyen, this unexpected cousin turning up on their doorsteps is just one more headache, even more so because she represents everything she hasn’t achieved herself. Linh is a poet & scholar, a magistrate, who mastered the exams anybody who wants to join the imperial services has to pass, with the arrogance that comes of this. Quyen meanwhile was married out, never made it past the exams and only holds her post as there was nobody more suitable.

Worse, because of her actions, Linh could very well draw the wraith of the Emperor on the heads of all of Prosper Station, the empire having the nasty habit of punishing not just those that cause it embarrassment, but also their families to a remarkable wide degree. And to top it all off, the Mind holding the station together, the Honoured Ancestress installed when the station was first constructed, is having senior moments…

My sympathies at first were with Linh, desperate for refuge but only given it grudgingly, who’s quite clearly traumatised with what happened to the system she was responsible for and how she was tricked into fleeing it by her lieutenant, staying behind to fight the rebels. Of the course of the story though they switched to Quyen, who has enough problems on her plate without having an aristocratic cousin come meddling.

On a Red Station, Drifting is a story about family and the limits of family in a society where family and ancestor worship is central to life. The Minds installed in the Empire’s spaceships and space stations are not the only direct link with the past, there are also the implants with ancestor memories/personalities that people like Linh have access to. Implants function as internalised advisors, providing her with the proper ways to act and talk, with the recognition of the correct forms of poetry and calligraphy and the ability to use them. These of course provide a huge advantage in Dai Viet society, but of course also makes people inherently more conservative than they’d be on their own.

The trouble I have with this is that while the Dai Viet empire is not another Rome in Spaaaace, it’s instead Imperial China in Spaaace. It has the cliches I associate with bad Orientalist fantasy or science fiction: an authoritarian society ruled by a despot, ancestor veneration and emphasis on family over individual, the use of poetry and scholarship as a prerequisite for entering and advancing in imperial service, even the very name of the Embroidered Guard.

Is this unfair of me? I can see what Aliette de Bodard was trying to do here, creating a space opera setting based on her own background in the same way Asimov say was inspired by Rome and if this feels clichéd to me, is this her fault as a writer, or mine as a reader for being so easily trigged in seeing Orientalist cliches?

What speaks in de Bodard’s favour is that her setting is complete in its own, not just a background for some western saviour to trip through, or to compare to a more European world. Her Dai Viet empire is neither celebrated nor condemned; it’s just exists as the everyday reality her characters live in. The story’s heart is the intrafamily struggle between Linh and Quyen and the politics shape that, but are not the focus themselves.

So perhaps the flaw is in me, in my ignorance of the Vietnamese and Chinese history that de Bodard has used to create her Dai Viet empire which led me to interpret her setting in pop culture clichés of ancient China and the like. Which is doing a disservice to On a Red Station, Drifting. My confusion about what to think of this book meant it took me longer than it should to read this, but ultimately this was still the powerful story I’d hoped it be and I want to read more of de Bodard’s science fiction.

Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie

Cover of Ancillary Sword


Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie
356 pages
published in 2014

Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, won about every major science fiction award going: the BSFA, the Clarke, The Nebula and the Hugo, the first time any author won the four most important awards in the field with the same book, let alone with their debut novel. Anticipation has therefore been high for the sequel, not least on my part. Would Leckie been able to keep up the high standard of her debut? Would Ancillary Sword build up on it or be more of the same? Is Ann Leckie really the major new sf talent she seems to be or just a flash in the pan?

The main reason for Ancillary Justice‘s impact was Leckie’s use of gender. The Radchaai culture she created uses female pronouns exclusively, making no distinction between male and female in their language. but it goes further than just mere language. Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, struggles with establishing gender, has to consciously evaluate gender clues even when she does speak a gendered language. Possibly this is because she’s an ancillary — one of the meat puppet extensions of a ship AI — because from what we saw in the first novel other Radchaai had no such difficulties. Breq is also the last surviving part of her ship AI because her ship, The Justice of Toren was killed by the immortal ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, at war with herself.

As Ancillary Sword opens, the civil war between Anaander Mianaai factions has come into the open due to the events of Ancillary Justice. She’s only been able to rule for so long and over such a large volume of space by making use of the same technology that enabled ancillaries to exist, by raising clone bodies and using implants to keep her memories aligned with each over. Over time it was of course inevitable that two or more Mianaais would get out of sync, develop their own vision on how the Radchaai should be run but until now this had been a hidden war. No longer.

Breq is caught up in the middle of it, was in fact its catalyst and now is sent by one faction of Mianaai to Athoek Station where Basnaaid Elming lives, sister to Breq’s old lieutenant Awn, the one she had murdered herself on orders of Anaander Mianaai. Breq only let herself be sent to keep Athoek system safe because of Basnaaid, to atone for her actions.

Once an independent system but long since conquered by the Radchaai, Athoek is one of the major tea producers of the Radch, providing some of its most valued tea, valued especially because it’s all handplucked. Not by the Athoeki themselves anymore, but by Valskaayan workers originally imported from off planet. The station itself is home to the system’s governor and the political elite, as well as the famous garden where Basnaaid works as chief horticulturist. Underneath the garden, in part of the station that doesn’t officially exist anymore, is where the slums are.

When Breq arrives in the system, it’s not long before she finds out the corruption and exploitation inherent in the system as it’s set up. With her power as fleet captain she sets out to change this, though she doesn’t state this in so many words, rather let’s her actions speak. Instead of lodging at the governor’s mansion, she takes up residence in the Undergardens. She also becomes involved in the affairs of the richest of the tea planters, Fosyf Denche and her family.

Whereas you might have expected, after the way Ancillary Justice ended, that Ancillary Sword would revolve around the Mianaai civil war with Breq playing a central role in it, this instead continues the theme of colonial justice that the former book also revolved around. The Radch is a colonial, caste system, with the Radchaai on top and anybody who isn’t Radchaai, who isn’t a citizen, is inferior. Within the Radchaai themselves there are very many fine distinctions, not just in terms of aristocracy, but also amongst the various conquered peoples that have been “civilised”. Some, like the Valskaayans working the tea plantations are still seen as uncivilised if technically with the same rights as other Radchaai.

Breq coming to this system and setting out to change it through the powers vested into her as a fleet captain in service to Anaander Mianaai, reminded me of Nikolai Gogol’s the Inspector General. That idea that corruption can be rooted out if only a honest representative of the czar would visit. But as the Russian saying has it, the cossacks always work for the czar. Leckie, like Gogol, is under no illusions that this is true and shows that the exploitation in Athoek is endemic because of Anaander Mianaai, not in spite of her. Breq herself plays a part in it just as well, helping those she notices for her own reasons, not necessarily changing the system.

The other major theme carried over from Ancillary Justice is Breq herself, her life as the last surviving component of One Esk, as ancillary who no longer has her fellow ancillaries around her. The ship she now captains, The Mercy of Kalr, doesn’t contain any ancillaries, just humans trained by their previous captain to behave as ancillaries. Breq now also misses the abilities she had previously to be omniscient, though through the link with her new ship she can still keep tabs on her officers and crew. That of course also has the useful function of keeping us informed of what happens outside of Breq’s own viewpoint. It’s a clever trick.

I got Ancillary Sword last Thursday and if it wasn’t for me needing to finish the Andre Norton novel I was reading, I would’ve finished it immediately. This is the sort of novel you want to finish in one big gulp until you’re about twothirds of the way through and then you just don’t want it to end quickly. Leckie has only improved as a writer even if the novelty value of her gender relations has worn off. With Ancillary Sword Leckie has proved it wasn’t a gimmick, nor she a flash in the pan. The only thing I can grumble about now is that it will take another year before we get the next book.

Victory on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of victory on Janus


Victory on Janus
Andre Norton
190 pages
published in 1966

In Judgement on Janus we met Naill Renfro, forced labourer on the planet Janus who through handling a carefully planted treasure trap is transformed into one of the Iftin, the green skinned ancient and long dead native race of forest dwellers that lived there thousands of years before humanity came to the planet. With it came the memories of Ayyar, a warrior scout from the last days of the Iftin. Having found other changelings Naill-Ayyar made it to the safety of one of the dead tree-cities of the Iftin, there to hibernate through winter.

But their slumber is interrupted by a new menace. The human settlers of Janus, dour religious people calling themselves garthmen had been waging a war against the unending forest of Janus for as long as they’d been there, but now it had entered a new pitch. No longer a struggle by individual garthmen to hew out a living from the forest, the whole planet had united and was now waging a mechanised war on it. This wasn’t about making land fit for farming, this was pure destruction, a war fought as Ayyar finds out, to protect against attacks from the green skinned devils coming out of the forest to attack and destroy holdings. Yet as far as they know, the small band Ayyar is part of are the only Iftin left on the planet, so where are these new ones coming from?

It soon turns out it’s the work of the Iftin’s old enemy THAT, an ancient evil that Ayyar remembers fighting in the last days of Iftin rule of Janus. That evil, bound to a wasteland of its own making, has woken up again as the changelings moved into the forest. Now it’s broadcasting its persuasion rays all over Janus, drawing in men and machines on the planet to form an army, an army gathered together for some purpose, but what? To find out Ayyar has to penetrate the heart of the THAT’s stronghold, face the various dangers on the way as well as those that await him inside.

Victory on Janus therefore looks a lot like a fantasy quest story, but as Naill-Ayyar comes closer to his goal, it takes a turn for the Lovecraftian. As Norton slowly drops the clues to the real nature of THAT, I couldn’t help but get a twisted sort of sense of humour at the scale of time and power revealed, similar to that you get from some of Lovecraft’s cosmic revelations. THAT is no fantasy evil, but technology twisted to an intent unclear to its opponents, operating with neither anger nor hatred towards its victims, just grim purpose. What’s more, Norton leaves the possibility open that IT is in fact only evil in the eyes of the Iftin, that their revulsion of the strange, of the intruders on their planet is perhaps more xenophobic than it seems at first.

Though Norton knows better than to completely reveal it, it is clear that the history of Janus and the Iftin isn’t quite what it seemed at first, but longer and stranger than the incomplete memories of the changelings indicate, with THAT at the heart of it, existing for as long if not longer.

Victory on Janus is the first Norton novel that triggered in me the sense of cosmic awe that’s at the heart of science fiction, or at least one view of it. She usually keeps that sense of scale and age in the background, while the stories she shows play out on a more human scale. Here though that awe is at the centre of the story, with Ayyar only a pawn in a game of godlike intelligences. It’s a departure for Norton and one I appreciated.

Judgement on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of Judgement on Janus


Judgement on Janus
Andre Norton
188 pages
published in 1963

It’s a miracle: I actually managed to start an Andre Norton series in the right order: Judgement on Janus is the first of a duology, together with Victory on Janus. Another minor miracle is the fact that my copy lasted long enough for me to read it as the cover was flaking off something fierce. Normally Ace paperbacks hold up better. This is actually one of the first Norton novels I’d bought, years ago, but had never read so far.

Naill Renfro is a young man who, caught up in the slums of the Dipple, sells himself as indentured labour (just like Charis Nordholm) in order to have enough money to give his mother a dignified death. He ends up on the planet Janus, where dour religious fanatics fight a never ending battle against the primeval forests covering the planet. These forests they consider a source of evil, as they do many things, especially the alien relics or treasures occassionally found. These are supposed to be reported and destroyed immediately. Those who don’t report it and try to keep them for themselves are punished by god with the green sick and left in the forest to die. Three guesses what happens to Naill.

Yes, he discovers an alien treasure, tries to keep part of it for himself, is caught and indeed gets the disease. Left alone to die he wakes up with his skin turned green, his ears pointed, hairless and with eyes blinded by sunlight but thriving in the dark. Oh, and he now also has the confused memories of an alien warrior called Ayyar. To Naill-Ayyar the forest is now no longer something to be feared, but a living home, while the garth men trying to tame and destroy are even more repulsive.

Naill struggles to come to grip with his new heritage as he wonders whether his transformation was an unfortunate side effect, or deliberately engineered. If the latter, has the same happened to other victims of the green sickness? As he tries to track down any signs of earlier people transformed into Iftin, he instead runs into a newer victim, a young woman he had observed earlier being more interested in the forest than the average garth. He rescues her from her confinement and discovers that Ashla, reborn with the memories of Illylle, a one time priestess of the Mirror, has just as confused memories as he himself has, but is able to remember more.

She also remembers enough of her previous human life to want to rescue her sister from the holding. That however goes badly wrong and they’re forced to flee into the wastelands where an ancient evil, the ancient enemy that ended the rule of the Iftin thousands of years before human settlers landed, still waits…

The idea of changelings, of humans transformed into aliens, is of course an old idea, found in myths and legends all over the world. Norton’s science fictionalisation of it works well, partially because she’s careful never to explain the technology that made it possible. It’s Clarke’s third law of technology in action: any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indisguisable from magic and here the Terran technology, with its blasters and space suits and rocket ships is dropped into what is arguably a fantasy world. One of the most unsettling scenes in the book is when Naill and Ashla are hunted by a animated spacesuit of an obsolete but recognisable human design.

One recurring theme in Norton’s settings, which comes especially to the fore in Judgement on Janus, is religious fanatics as the enemy and plot driver. We’ve had religious thugs starting the action in The Zero Stone by attacking the protagonist, Charis Nordholm driven away from her home by the hatred of her religious neighbours in Ordeal in Otherwhere and here the hate of the garth for the forest. There’s even the corrupt priesthood in Exiles of the Stars setting that story in motion. Once you see this pattern you can’t unsee it: religious fanatics make a good enemy for Norton, something for her heroes to distinguish themselves from, push against.

Judgement on Janus ends, not so much on a cliffhanger, but with a room for a sequel. That sequel, Victory on Janus would be written three years later and is what I’m currently reading.