The Last Refuge
I recently read the first of Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books, and was thrown by just how thoroughly the thing it was. The Steerswoman is the first in a four-volume and currently in-progress series set in a world occupied by (among many other folks) the titular Steerswomen, an order of (mostly) women of amazing memories and powers of deduction and analysis, who travel their fantastical world seeking answers to the mysteries of life, sharing knowledge, and trying to make the world a better place. Anyone in this vaguely medieval milieu can ask any Steerswoman any question they wish, and receive the Steerswoman’s most honest answer, gratis. (“How can I cure this disease?” “What was the weather like last week in Withywood?”) In exchange, they have to answer any question any Steerswoman asks, honestly. If you refuse a Steerswoman an answer, you’ll never get one from any Steerswoman again, ever. So they wander the land, seeking and sharing.
Isn’t that just rad?
Comparing books I like to other books I like is a fraught endeavor because people don’t like the same things for the same reasons. I have abiding affection for the works of Robert Jordan, say, but the Robert Jordan oeuvre is vast like unto the fabled malls of yore, there’s so much in there that, when two people go in, one comes out with a nice sweater and some pants and a bag of inspirational literature, and the other comes out with a spiked collar and a nose piercing and a bag of soap from the Body Shop, and no one finds this confusing or at all contradictory. Malls are just like that. Some of the core draws that kept me coming back to Jordan as a teenager were the big mysterious world, the engaging, charismatic, and recognizable protagonists with fate-of-the-cosmos energy, and a setting that was parseable and relatable, without skimping on the big kinetic genre eye-kick. There’s plenty of ‘grounded’ fantasy where nobody shoots anyone with a fireball, but where’s the fun in that?
At any rate, The Steerswoman has everything I used to get from a Robert Jordan novel , only more so in just about every direction, in a quarter of the page count, and cooler because the book and world are amenable to careful analysis for reasons I don’t want to discuss at length here. But while it engages on just about every level as adventure fiction, The Steerswoman is also a wise and clever book on many additional axes. For example: I’m deeply impressed by how The Steerswoman handles the conundrum of genre violence.
See, science fiction and fantasy have this thing about violence. Swords are cool! Fireballs are even more cool. (See above.) Big honking space stations with star-destroying laser beams, the coolest. It is utterly rad when She-Ra surfs asteroids and deflects plasma bolts with her magic sword in outer space. And yet: we’re uncomfortable with this coolness. For instance: we always want the bad guys to be the ones doing more violence, so the Good Team’s counterviolence is justified. Or, maybe Good Team’s violence just doesn’t look like bad guy violence. The Doctor from Doctor Who is generally seen as a no-guns sort of person, except he frequently jury-rigs superweapons out of spare parts, and, at least in the NuWho run, often trades on his reputation as a genocidal maniac. (“Look me up.”) One of the all time great SF quotes is “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” from Foundation. (I had that in my email signature for years. Right next to “Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for thou art crunchy when fried, and good with ketchup.” The juxtaposition tells you something.) When I was younger, I overlooked the fact that the character who says “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” does so in the context of demonstrating, when his enemy is about to do a violence, that he (the speaker) has the power to cripple his (that is, the prospective violence-doer’s) entire civilization at a whim… which somehow doesn’t count as violence, for the purposes of the quote… and which sort of changes the inflection. “Actual physical gun-pointy violence-doing is the last refuge of people who have not already secured themselves behind unassailable walls of institutional and systematic violence” doesn’t fit on a t-shirt, though.
Several people have tried to engage with this discomfort by writing SFF that troubles the central cool-ness and necessity of violence. Some of these attempts are great! But some dodge the question, in my opinion. For example, there are fictional worlds where all problems can be solved with a kiss-and-cry, where every bandit will, if approached correctly, sit down and tell you their life story and secretly be not such a bad guy after all. Sometimes you want to read something with that cozy energy, of course. But it doesn’t feel to me like this approach does much to challenge the role of violence in genre fiction, or counter the logic that violence in genre fiction is cool and often effective. No writer is under any obligation to counter that logic, of course—people write what they want for their own reasons. But constructing fictional worlds where nonviolent responses to dangerous situations are easy, straightforward, and always safe, begs the question rather than engaging with it.
But then there’s The Steerswoman! The most striking thing about this book as a piece of… let’s call it violence-skeptical fiction? Is that there is a lot of old fashioned fantasy violence, and it’s all great! Rowan, our main character, has a big ol’ sword fight right there in chapter two. Her best bud / road partner is a warrior tribeswoman named Bel and you’d be justified in thinking that’s short for Bellicose. Sometimes they get straight up jumped by people or things who want to kill them! And they have to fight them off! Their lives are in danger! Maybe the lives of all Steerswomen everywhere! There are wizards! Explosions! Mysterious jewels! A daring escape!
Nobody in this book talks about how they despise violence, how it’s the last refuge of the incompetent, etc. There are no soapbox speeches about peace and turning the other cheek. But here’s the thing. Just about every time a problem is solved with violence, matters get worse for our heroes and for the world. Not immediately. Not in an obviously punitive way. Not with editorializing on the subject. Just: a few chapters later, the situation is more dire in ways that it would not have been, had Rowan and Bel found a less violent option. The thing is: sometimes there wasn't one. Or at least: none seemed apparent. Sometimes a person’s coming at you with a sword and your only obvious choices are to fight back, or die. But the consequence follows. You successfully defended yourself? Now whoever sent that guy after you thinks you’re more of a threat, and deploys more resources against you and your friends. Of course, now that the situation is more dire, more violence seems justified to resolve it. But that violence has its own consequences, sure as gravity. Your actions mire you in karma. You act further. More karma! I’d draw this out beat for beat, but doing so would spoil the plot of the book, and it really is fun to watch the clockwork on the page. Tick, tock.
Every time a problem is solved with violence or secrecy, the world gets worse. Every time a problem is solved with open dialogue, the world gets better. But not all people are amenable to open dialogue in all situations. Sometimes you have to fight. Sometimes you even have to keep secrets. It starts to feel like a balancing act, or even a board game’s timing system: sometimes I have to fight, but every time I do, I add a token to the Doom Track. If I can find a peaceful out, maybe we can remove a token—or at least not add another one. But: can we? Will the world let us? Or do we have to risk it, just this one more time, knowing that every token we add brings us closer to the skull at the end of the track…
It’s a brilliant example of what John Gardner called moral fiction. That is (as I interpret it, anyway): fiction where actions have a consistent moral weight, regardless of what (if anything) the actors in the fiction (character, narrator, etc) have to say on the subject. Violence matters and means something, and operates in a certain way, in The Steerswoman. And it does so without compromising in any way at delivering the key elements of a ripping fantastical adventure bestrewn with, e.g., swords, highwayfolks, demons, wizards and such. Not even “without compromising”: that’s damning with faint praise. It is absolutely a ripping fantastical adventure bestrewn with etc. You could very easily read the book and not notice this ‘violence-skeptical’ structure at all. But it’s there, and it shapes the narrative, and how I feel about that narrative. That’s one hell of a magic trick. If I ever get the chance to meet Kirstein I’ll have to ask how she pulled it off.
One important bit of business, before we go: the release date for Last Exit is now March 8! This is due to that supply chain you keep hearing about—basically it’s a question of printer availability, which is hard to come by. Which, I guess, means you have a little more time to preorder! Thanks for your patience, and happy reading.
I LOVE this description, and feel like I ought to check out the Steerswoman books! The idea of putting a token on the doom track every time you use violence is very appealing to me -- and also gets at the heart of dealing with violence in RPGs, where PCs may feel that there are no repercussions, and in fact plenty of rewards, for choosing violence every time. Because yes, if you throw a fireball, you can often make the immediate problem go away, and even not end up going to jail for it. But I wish for a system that makes creates long-term moral repercussions for your violent in-game actions, not to eliminate them, but to make you think seriously before drawing your sword.
I read the first Steerswoman books a few months after <i>A Door into Ocean</i>. I hadn't thought of them as a pair, exactly, but looking back, Slonczewski thematizes (brilliantly) some of what Kirstein's storytelling does more elliptically.
(If you haven't read Slonczewski, you'll still see why I appreciate this central point.
Native: Why do you share death?
Colonizing soldier, wryly: Death pays a wage.
And the native spends the rest of the book asking all the colonists, "What is the wage of death?")