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Steerswomen and Social Contracts

Way back in 2016, I read The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. I’d heard about it through word of mouth from a friend, and had no idea when I started that it was the first in a series of books. I also had no idea, musing over those first pages, that it would swiftly become one of the books I recommend most to my friends, along with The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

In my initial review, I was struck most by the book’s casual, unforced feminism, as well as its exploration of the value of knowledge:

Some books pay lip service to the Bechdel Test. The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein takes that well-worn idea, expands it, and tailors it into a compelling mix of fantasy and sci-fi that feels intelligent, sharp, and yet as comfortable as an old leather coat.

Bel and Rowan are fascinating, complex characters with an easy inteprlay, and the central question that The Steerswoman engages with is surprisingly multifaceted: who is allowed to control knowledge? How is it categorized, and how does control over it benefit or hinder society?

I have since read all the available sequels, and earlier this month finished the most recent one, The Language of Power, which came out in 2004. What’s interesting is that the books continually analyze this question from several perspectives. We see multiple cultures, we learn about them and how they interact, and we see how they value knowledge equally but share it in different ways.

For instance, the order of steerswomen fastidiously document everything. While they share knowledge across communities as best they can, they still have centralized archives where every steerswoman’s recordings are transcribed.

The Outskirters are secretive about their culture to Inner Lands inhabitants, but they value bravery and fighting prowess. Most importantly, while some Outskirters like Bel are literate, their knowledge is heavily based on oral traditions. They recite the names of their forebears when inducting new members into a tribe, and when Bel realizes that she needs to unite the Outskirters against an external threat, she composes an epic poem. She travels from tribe to tribe to recite the poem and gain their support for the potential battles that are to come. In the process, she becomes the closest thing to a single unifying leader that the Outskirters have ever had.

These two cultures lie in contrast to the wizards. Wizards, in this world, hoard knowledge. They have magic, but they don’t share it with anyone, and even people who manage to enter their ranks by showing promise are treated as outsiders — it appears that you really have to be born into the wizarding community to be taken seriously, even if you have innate talent.

However, the other way that wizards set themselves apart in this world is their lack of regard for the social contract. The series’ chief antagonist, Slado, is implied to be a sociopath. Almost every other wizard we encounter throughout the series shows either disdain for the common folk around them or a casual, unthinking willingness to inflict harm on others.

This is made even more more remarkable when you remember the social contract built around steerswomen. They travel the land and research both everything and everyone. There are only two iron rules: if you ask a steerswoman a question, she must answer your question truthfully, and if she asks you, you must also be truthful. If you deny information or tell lies, then you’ll be put under a ban, under which no steerswoman will ever answer your questions again in the future.

This is a rule that everyone upholds without question. People contemplate the prospect of being denied a steerswoman’s knowledge with dread. But consider: this is a world without mass automated knowledge or travel. Everything — trade goods, information and people alike — moves at the speed of horses, ships, carts, or feet.

So theoretically, it’s entirely possible for someone to invoke the ban, and then travel far enough to a new place where no one knows the ban is in effect. Steerswomen are few, and itinerant. It’s possible that not even every member of the order knows who is under a ban and who is not. However, no one in their culture takes advantage of this fact! No one even considers the difficulty of sharing knowledge as a potential loophole for getting around the social contract that the steerswomen have put in place.

And this is the thing I have found so astounding after reading The Language of Power. Despite all the wonderful praise this series gets for its understanding of the scientific method, and even for its implicit commentary on violence in fantasy narratives, what strikes me right now, so fresh upon reading it earlier this month, is that the characters we care about succeed because they live in a world with a strong social contract. And the wizards, in their hubris, have no idea that their continual use of rule through fear is starting to backfire on them.

Or, in one of the most famous quotes from Discworld, courtesy of Granny Weatherwax:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”

Terry Pratchet, Carpe Jugulum

In The Language of Power, Rowan travels to the city of Donner to find out what happened when a previous wizard there died over 40 years before. She goes there on the slimmest of possible leads, but she thinks that the facts surrounding this wizard’s death could lead her to Slado, and thus potentially to the truth surrounding his plans to destroy the Outskirters.

At first, when she approaches the townsfolk of Donner, they’re hesitant, and she gets only cursory answers. But as she keeps tugging on different strings and taking part in town life, people open up to her. The more they open up to her, the more pieces she fits together, and with her uncanny powers of recall, she’s able to remember names and streets and events in a way that grudgingly gains the townpeople’s respect. But in between, she’s not too proud to shovel manure in an orchard, or sing a ballad in an inn, or express delight in a potter’s drawings and delicate teapots.

It is this simple pleasure that Rowan takes in the presence and skills of other people that saves her, time and time again. When the current wizard confronts the people of Donner at a local inn about the rumours that there’s been a steerswoman sticking her nose into his business, they keep her identity secret from him, even though both she and the wizard are in the same room while it’s happening.

In the end, when Rowan and her allies learn more about wizardly machinations (in both the metaphorical and engineering sense), the town decides to help her out even further by engaging in a collective mission to make the next local wizard’s life a living hell. Even after losing friends, even after knowing what a threat Rowan is to their town, they decide to help her.

That’s the power of a social contract when everyone respects each other and values each other. And I really want to see more fantasy books that display that sort of communal thinking.

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

Title: The Four Profound Weaves
Author: R.B. Lemberg
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I pre-ordered it from Kobo before its launch on Sept 1, 2020

I was first introduced to R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse stories when their novelette “Geometries of Belonging” was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The prose is striking: delicate and measured, yet somehow pulsing with pain underneath, as we learn more about the main character’s past and how they try to heal both themselves and others from trauma.

Next, I read “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, a story with a much more hopeful outlook. However, it deals with similar themes of loneliness and people aching desperately for connection. It ends with the two title characters finding each other and travelling together.

Lemberg’s Birdverse stories have always been imbued with a strong sense of compassion: they deal with questions of how to heal from war, how societies that accept trans-ness do so in different ways, and how to build connections between people. Birdverse is constantly interrogating issues surrounding bodily agency and consent, and how abilities that aren’t traditionally considered “strong” are still vitally important to the shape of the world.

The Four Profound Weaves, Lemberg’s debut novella set in the same world, continues that tradition. However, The Four Profound Weaves also foregrounds two other emotions: sorrow, and righteous anger.

Sorrow: the two main characters, Uiziya and nen-sasair, journey through the desert to find Benesret, the master weaver who can weave from death. Uiziya looks for her because Benesret is her aunt, and was promised forty years ago that she would learn her aunt’s secrets; she’s waited for Benesret’s return to no avail, and is tired of feeling incomplete without this knowledge.

Nen-sasair’s sorrow springs from having to hide his trans nature for a similar length of time. Forty years ago, Benesret helped him by spinning a weave of fabric that would allow him to change his body (female-presenting) to match his self-identity (male). But his lover, Bashri, refused to let him transform as he wished. Now that she’s dead, and he’s used the cloth that was denied to him since his youth, he hopes that Benesret can do him one last benediction and also bestow him with a new name.

Benesret’s sorrow is that she can’t do either of the things that Uiziya and nen-sasair wish: she can’t teach the art of death-weaving, and she can’t bestow a new name. And that’s because her greatest weave was not one made of death, but made of hope.

Righteous anger: Benesret made the hope-cloth at nen-sasair’s request so that he could take it the King of Iyar. The King, a famed collector of art, insisted that this was the only payment he would accept in exchange for releasing nen-sasair and Bashri’s other lover. But he killed her before they could return with the weave, and took it from them anyway.

That hope-weave has been sitting in the king’s vault to this day, its glories hidden from the world. And now nen-sasair and Uiziya have been tasked with retrieving it so that Benesret can regain the hope she lost, pass on the art of death-weaving, and help nen-sasair find a fitting name.

When they return to Iyar, they discover that treasure is not the only thing hidden in the king’s vaults. And when they both realize the true horrors that the king is responsible for, they seek to undo his horrible acts.

Ultimately, despite the sadness, despite the anger, this is a story of hope. Some wrongs can’t be undone. Sometimes, you just need to wait for the person holding you back to die before you can become who you were always meant to be. But change can’t be denied, no matter how long and how hard people fight to restrain it. And I think that core of hope is something central to Lemberg’s work. I look forward to reading more Birdverse stories as they are published.

A promotional image for Augur Magazine, showing a young person with bird wings walking on water.

Augur Magazine Kickstarter, Years 3-4

A promotional image for Augur Magazine, showing a young person with bird wings walking on water.
A promotional still for Augur Magazine’s Kickstarter campaign for years 3 and 4.

If you’ve paid attention to the Hugo and Nebula awards in the past, you’ve probably noticed people talking about whether a science fiction magazine is a “pro-paying” market. If you stay in the spec-fic community long enough, you learn that this refers to whether a magazine pays what are considered “pro rates” by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

And what’s that all-important pro rate? Eight cents per word.

You want to know something else? Until December 2019 — only 2 months ago! — not a single Canadian literary magazine qualified as a SFWA pro-paying market. Sure, there are plenty of Can-Lit mags, but none of them both paid that market rate and focused on spec-fic.

Until Augur Magazine showed up.

Augur started a few years ago with a mandate to publish spec-fic, slipstream, and magical realist fiction by Canadian and indigenous authors, as well as poetry and art. It’s done that in spades over 6 issues. What’s more, it’s steadily increased its rates – starting from 2 cents a word to reaching that all-important SFWA pro-rate threshold last year.

It did this with the help and support of awesome spec-fic readers who like dreamy, hard-to-categorize fiction. And that’s where YOU come in. Because Augur just launched its newest Kickstarter campaign to fund 2 more years’ worth of magazines, and it needs your help to reach its goal of going beyond the SFWA pro rates and paying 11 cents per word.

It’s already halfway there only 3 days in, which is amazing, and proof that its founder and managing editors clearly have their fingers on the pulse of Canadian spec-fic. So why not take a look and support a group of people who are pretty cool? The closer we all get to meeting their fundraising target, the closer we get to their stretch goals, which sound pretty sweet:

  • Publishing more poetry every year
  • Paying more to graphic artist contributors
  • Creating a print edition of the first 2 years of the magazine
  • Publishing reprints
  • Opening up THEIR OWN SMALL PRESS

I’m going to support their Kickstarter now that I have the chance. So I just wanted to signal-boost for a worthy cause. The Augur Magazine Kickstarter ends at the end of February, so let’s make the most of it while we can.

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.Title: The Winged Histories
Author: Sofia Samatar
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5 total
How I got this book: eBook purchased from Weightless Books

What does history mean? Whose stories get written down and treated as the truth? Most importantly, how do we know what the truth actually is? Is a usurper to the throne doing so out of a desire for power, or to topple a corrupt regime? And what if the reason for waging a war is neither of those things?

Questions about power and the purpose of stories were central to Sofia Samatar’s debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, which won the World Fantasy Award. I read it way back in 2014 and swooned over it. Almost everything about Olondria displayed deliberation and care — the prose, the worldbuilding, the themes, and the characterization.

I was expecting something similar in The Winged Histories, Samatar’s follow-up novel set in the same world. It shares certain elements with its predecessor, like its gorgeous, crystalline prose, as well as its focus on the power of narrative as a political force. However, it blindsided me with this particular truth: The Winged Histories is not a story about war and the crumbling of empire — it’s a story about love. And this truth is fully revealed only during the precisely-calibrated pages of the final few chapters.

But let me back up. Enough with this talk of love and empire and truth. What this book actually about?

The Winged Histories is split into four sections, each with a different first-person narrator telling the reader their perspective on the collapse of the Olondrian empire due to war, colonial expansion, and religious upheaval.

Tavis is a soldier, the niece of the current king of Olondria, and the granddaughter of a traitor. Hoping to restore independence to her ancestral homeland of Kestenya and atone for her grandfather’s sins, she and her cousin Andasya, the heir to the throne, instigate a war for Kestenya’s independence. In her attempts to do so, she travels to Kestenya to spend time with the nomadic herders there, and falls in love with Seren, a gifted singer.

Tialon is the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, and now the high priestess after her father Ivrom’s death. Ivrom was an ambitious man who managed to make great strides in supplanting Olondria’s ancient fertility-based religion with a new, austere one heavily influenced by his own thinking. His growing power over the king spurred Prince Andasya to free Kestenya from his influence and to usurp the throne. Tialon is held captive in the palace during the aftermath of Andasya’s successful coup, and reckons with how her father forced her to live a small, caged, miserable life.

Seren is a poet and nomad who reflects on the role her lover, Tavis, played in Kestenya’s war for independence. She thinks about the ironies of gendered roles within Kestenyi culture. Women like her are singers, but their songs focus on the vendettas and deaths of Kestenyi men.

Finally, there is Siski. Initially introduced as Tavis’s docile sister who pretends to be a social butterfly at court, she uses a veneer of innocence and superficiality to conceal the truth: Andasya didn’t wage war and overthrow his father to gain power or restore a faltering religion. He did it for reasons that are best left to the reader to discover.

When Siski learns the terrible secret that Andasya carries, she runs from him in fear, oblivious that doing so makes the rest of her family — and onlookers like the Priest of the Stone — assume an entirely different (and more salacious) reason for her actions. And this wrong interpretation is one that the reader is encouraged to believe until nearly the end of the book, until Siski’s perspective shows the secret history the rest of the world doesn’t see.

This lesson about mistaken assumptions is one that is core to the ethos of The Winged Histories. Like its predecessor, this book is tricky and evaded my expectations. In Olondria, I was expecting fantasy battles and political intrigue, but instead got a moving story about the power of words and what it means to create a legacy. In Histories, I was expecting similar deconstruction of the value of literature, but instead I got a series of tightly-controlled memoirs where war happens just beyond the scope of the text.  At the heart of it all, I found an achingly beautiful and sad story about young lovers and the slow, tortured crumbling of an ambitious family.

Samatar’s prose is spare and elegant, and one that rewards reading between the lines. It often forsakes being prose entirely and instead turns to poetry, such as when Seren sings the songs of her homeland. At other times, the reader is exposed to excerpts from historical works written about Olondria, or to letters written by secondary characters.

The ultimate effect is that the reader knows more about the fall of Olondria, and about how Andasya’s actions ruin his family, than the family members do themselves. And thus, the reader is in on the most important secrets of this world in a way that the characters aren’t.

Books I Read in January


It’s funny — now that I’ve given myself permission not to review every single book I read in-depth, I have a whole lot more I want to say about what I’m reading, and why. So here are some capsule reviews about what I read in January 2019.

The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig

I think I was first turned on to this book by YouTuber Hannah Louise Poston, who in 2018 examined her relationship to beauty products and consumerism by doing a “no-buy” year. In one video, she talked about how she was learning about neuroscience, dopamine vs serotonin, and the difference between pleasure and happiness as a result of this book.

I was intrigued, because I know my own habits need to change. I spend way too much time online, and this book seemed like a handy way to help me understand my habits/addictions (Twitter, Reddit, staying up too late reading the same).

And….oof. Lustig may be a talented endocrinologist, and he may have done the world a service by being a whistleblower about the sugar industry, but The Hacking of the American Mind feels like a classic example of a book’s thesis being undone by poor presentation.

Lustig has A Lot to Talk About, and he does so with the fervour of a zealot. His understanding of brain chemistry is obvious, but his understanding of social issues is not. His thesis is that the American business, politics, and legal apparatus  has been systematically encouraging the American populace to seek short-term pleasure (aka: dopamine, sugar, and consumerism) over long-term happiness (aka: serotonin, healthy foods, and personal development).

The argument itself is sound. But his solutions for undoing the damage this confluence of political and economic interests has caused is not. His solutions? Cook healthy food! Meditate and develop mindfulness! Volunteer in your community!

These are all valuable things, but these are individualistic solutions to society-wide problems. Does he advocate for tax reform and reducing income inequality? No. Does he say that the labour movement needs widescale restoration to regain lost rights? Not really. For all his emphasis on how politics and money corrupt society, he seems surprisingly ignorant about the whole concept of social determinants of health.

Oh, and also Lustig engages in a lot of fat-shaming and neurotypical bias. No thanks.

Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Gregory Berns

In some ways, this book was the polar opposite to The Hacking of the American Mind. Both talk about neuroscience, pleasure, and how the brain responds to stimuli, but they do so in very different ways. When I opened Satisfaction, the straightforwardness of the prose in the opening first few pages made me feel like I had just put a cool, soothing cloth to my forehead.

Because of this immediate reaction of “Ah, finally, this author is so decorous!”, it took me a while to feel underwhelmed. In Hacking, Lustig Has A Point, and attempts to prove  it in a frenzied, impassioned, and clumsy way. Satisfaction, however, despite its fine prose, just kinda… sits there. Despite Berns’ discussion of dopamine and brain structures, his book’s thesis — that satisfaction/happiness lies in constantly exposing the brain to new experiences — is boring.

What’s more, the narrative throughline is clunky. There are interesting chapters, like the ones about sensory experiences during a fine meal and travelling to Iceland. However, they are intermingled with so-so ones about topics like BDSM. The final chapter, in particular, contains a lot of woo-sounding advice about long-term relationships, as well as some cringe-inducing passages discussing the author’s own sexual relationship with his wife.

Brother by David Chariandy

Hands down the best book of the month. Growing up, Michael and his brother Francis knew that despite how hard their mother worked to support them and give them a chance to succeed in life, they had few options. Constrained by intersecting issues of race and class, suspicion falls upon them and their peers in the wake of a shooting in their housing complex. Michael finds ways to cope, but Francis’ trajectory is much more tragic. Brother is an exploration of growing up as a marginalized youth of colour in the early 90s, and the prose is spare and haunting.

However, what really made me connect with it is that it’s set very close to where I live. When the opening pages talk about a bridge on Lawrence Avenue in Scarborough, I know that bridge because it’s within walking distance of my house. When Michael recollects escaping into the Rouge Valley, I know where and what he’s escaping to. When Michael talks about the buses and commuter trains and the “good” neighbourhood of “Port Junction”, I know exactly who and what he is describing, because that infrastructure has been with me my whole life.

Perhaps, when the snow melts and the sun comes back, I’ll share some pictures of the Rouge here, so you can conjure them in your minds eye when you decide to read this magnificent book.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes

As I have mentioned previously, I love Squirrel Girl. So any time a new volume comes out, it’s a delight. This time, the crux of the story involves her friendship with Kraven, a Marvel villain, and how she encourages him to turn a new leaf. Kraven is always a delight whenever he pops up in the SG universe, so it’s nice to see him get an extended plot arc here.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

I read Hacking and Satisfaction at the beginning of the month because I wanted to understand my own brain, and to see if these books would give me some insight into how to “rewire” myself away from constantly needing to be connected to the internet. I should have just ignored both of these and read The Shallows instead.

In this book, Nicholas Carr manages to find the happy medium between the other two. It contains both the literary quality of Satisfaction and the hefty neurological exploration of Hacking. More importantly, The Shallows goes into detail about how exactly technology changes our brains without sounding alarmist — even when those details themselves are, in fact, alarming.

What’s also surprising is that although this book was written 8 years ago, and thus discusses the technology of 8 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. The trends he identified have only become amplified since then – the chapter on Google’s quest for “content” in order to develop truly functional AI  is particularly relevant.

January’s reads were kind of a mix, but in a good way.  In February, I hope to continue this mix of fiction and non-fiction, while also focusing on Black authors for Black History Month.

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