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Fantasy League Round 23: The Dark Side of “His Dark Materials”

His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman between 1995 and 2000.  A film adaptation of much of the story of the first book, The Golden Compass, was released in 2007 with a star-heavy cast.

The series is a coming-of-age narrative with two main characters, Lyra and Will, set across a number of parallel worlds forming a multiverse.  It covers a wide variety of themes but most prominently the problems with authoritarian religions in general and current main-stream Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism in particular (the title is a deliberate reference to and stab at Milton’s Paradise Lost).  I had heard of the series when it was originally published, but hadn’t read it.  A while ago, I was having a discussion about the problems with the Narnia series – both Lewis’ blatant promotion of his particular religious ideas in them, and the sexist and racist patterns in them.  One of the other people in that conversation suggested that I should read Pullman’s work.  So I borrowed copies of the books and of the movie.

Cover of the 1st edition of the first book of His Dark Materials, called "Northern Lights" or "The Golden Compass".  The latter is a reference both to the gadget on the cover, an "alethiometer", and to Paradise Lost.

Cover of the 1st edition of the first book of His Dark Materials, called “Northern Lights” or “The Golden Compass”. The latter is a reference both to the gadget on the cover, an “alethiometer”, and to Paradise Lost.

The anti-religion themes from the books are toned down significantly in the movie – so much so that many fans of the former objected to the latter, but nowhere near far enough to prevent various Catholic organizations (including the official Vatican newspaper) as well as Methodist and Southern US Baptist groups from condemning the film and variously calling for boycotts.  In the end, the film made back a bit more than 2 to 1 on its $180 million budget; profitable but not enough that New Line was persuaded to produce the rest of the planned trilogy (based on reviewing various movie franchises, only a first film that brings a return of 3 or more to 1 is likely to get a sequel).

I personally can agree with some of Pullman’s ideas as regards religion.  Humans do a great many evil things for the sake of religious beliefs (as well as for many other reasons).  And if one of the various different characters labeled as “god” in the texts that became the Hebrew and the various Christian bibles actually existed, such a god would be something to be fought rather than worshiped.  I say that none of those gods exist (MWB- Rachel would disagree with me on the last two sentences).

But I’m not going to write more here about the portrayals of religion and of irreligion in fiction.  Nor am I going to talk about the implausible similarities of parallel worlds that are fundamentally different from one another, or about the misrepresentation of scientists and science, or about the complete misapplication of the technology that makes portals between alternate universes, or about the historical impossibilities of events in the series that nominally happen in our world.  That’s because there are a lot of other problems with His Dark Materials.  Pullman went after authoritarian religion, but he promoted or at least included-without-challenge several other authoritarian social structures and different sorts of bigotry.  Most prominent are sexism, classism, and racism.  In addition, there is homophobia/heteronormativity in the background.

So here is some of the dark side of His Dark Materials:


Lyra comes from a parallel world that is both dramatically like our own – Christianity exists, England exists, and Oxford exists – and dramatically unlike it – humans have magical companions called daemons that are equated with their souls, intelligent polar bears rule Svalbard, and witches fly long distances across northern Europe.  But Lyra’s world is also horrifically sexist.

Due to a troubled family history (why does the main character always have a troubled past?) Lyra spends most of the first 12 years of her life living at Jordan College, one component of Lyra’s-world Oxford.  She is looked after by one woman, a housekeeper, and tutored by assorted scholars – all of whom are old white men.  Female scholars do show up, but they are excluded from Jordan College and are not even allowed in some of its common areas when they visit.  They are also described in incredibly sexist and demeaning terms – “poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play”, “dowdy female Scholars who smelled of cabbage and mothballs”.  Female characters who present in currently-stereotypically-feminine ways (in dress, in possessions, in occupation) are also portrayed badly, described with language like “with dangerous powers and qualities such as elegance, charm, and grace”.

And this extends to the other groups we encounter beyond the Oxford and London upper-crust.  A large number of children, including one of Lyra’s friends, get kidnapped for secret evil experiments.  A group of their parents plan to rescue them, with Lyra’s assistance since she has the special power of being able to use the titular Golden Compass / alethiometer.  But the leadership of the group, all of whom are men, roundly and explicitly rejects the proposal – made by more than one character – that some of the women whose children have been kidnapped should be part of the group that is going to try and save them.  And this is not presented as the horrific sexism that it is.  Not cool, Pullman.

The intelligent polar bears who live on Svalbard are also sexist.  We only encounter male armored bears as characters; and there is a passing mention that one of their leaders has several wives who are kept isolated.  And then there is the sexism/gender essentalism of the witches in the books.  These witches are not Lyra-world-human: they do not suffer from cold, they can live to be a thousand years old, they can fly, and their daemons have skills that those of humans in Lyra’s world do not.  But apparently they are always female, and always attracted to human men, and if they have children they are always either human men or witch women.

And finally, consider Lyra’s parents.  Her father, Lord Asriel, starts as a junior nobleman of Lyra’s England, makes some money, and becomes a scientist and explorer.  He has a consensual affair with Lyra’s mother, Mrs. Coulter, who becomes pregnant.  Without telling her husband, Mrs. Coulter gives birth to Lyra, sends her to live with her father, and pretends that the child died immediately after being born.  Mr. Coulter hears about this.  He decides to kill Asriel “to avenge the violation of his wife”.  Asriel takes Mr. Coulter’s gun from him, shoots him with it, and then laughs his head off.  Notice how Mrs. Coulter as a person with agency has been entirely erased from this?  That is incredibly harmful sexism.

Mrs. Coulter is ambitious for power, and cast primarily as a villain because of it.  Okay.  But she’s described as “not being able to get [power] in the usual way” – the usual way apparently being marrying a powerful man (or being a man).  And her primary strategy is to seduce her male adversaries, who are apparently inherently unable to say no, and then back-stab them.  Again we see blatant sexism, presented without apology.

This all could be excused as Lyra’s world being a pretty ugly place.  Except that it isn’t presented as such, and the sexism continues into the scenes in our world.  An our-Oxford physicist, Dr. Malone, shows up, who is a woman and apparently used to lead a particle physics research group.  But in descriptions of the contrast between our-Oxford and Lyra-Oxford, women are described as “dressing like men” rather than “not always wearing long skirts”.  And the pattern continues into the other worlds Lyra and Will spend time in.  Massively uncool, Pullman.


In Lyra’s world, the shape your daemon takes is seen as diagnostic of your personality and of what role you should play in society.  The shapes of childrens’ daemons are not fixed until puberty, but if you’re that age and your daemon is a dog, you’re going to be a servant.  If it’s a wolf, you’re going into the army.  If it’s a seagull, you’re going to be a sailor.  And if you’d rather be doing something else, too bad and suck it up.  This is very harmful – especially in a coming-of-age book.  How many real people have their self-concept and actual goals fixed-for-life by age 12-14?

Classism is pervasive in the plot as well as in the world-building.  Lyra is the child of aristocrats, so clearly she’ll be the one with the special magic powers and will be lording over the other kids on the playground at age 8.  Lord Asriel is a nobleman who likes to order around everyone he meets and force or trick them into doing what he wants them to – and while some of what he does is condemned, a lot of it is presented positively.  This is particularly offensive because Asriel’s goal is to destroy Christian-Bible-god / “The Authority” / The Authority’s Regent and the social structures that pay service to it in all of the multiverse.  Apparently, the ends justify much of the means – even if those means are unnecessary and gratuitously self-serving, be they coercing the bears to build him a deliberately inefficient base for his work in Svalbard to open the bridge between the worlds or murdering a child because it was the first way he thought of to open a doorway.  And supposedly, only an English aristocrat could possibly unite forces from dozens of worlds against The Authority’s army.

And, again, this extends into the scenes set in our world.  Will Parry can’t just be a boy whose father disappeared while doing support work for a research trip in the Arctic.  He has to be the son of a former major in the Royal Marines, who was pretending to not know about what the scientists on that expedition were actually up to and exploited the opportunity to access a portal from our world to Lyra’s world, out-perform the local scientists at their own game, and to gain magical powers.


Closely associated with the classism, we have racism – both intra-human racism and Fantastic Racism.

For the humans, in addition to racism coming directly from classism, Pullman falsely attributes trepanning (making a burr-hole through the skull without damaging the brain) as a mystical/ritual practice of a number of groups, including the “Tartars” – presumably the old romanization for the Татарлар/Tatars. But that’s both a wrong attribution and an offensive misunderstanding.  Trepanning has been used medically for a very long time.  It’s one of the oldest recorded surgical procedures, and is still used to relieve pressure on the brain from epidural hematomas.  Ritual trepanning was practiced quite frequently among some Magyar groups before the 9th century CE and is currently advocated by a few dangerous quacks, but never was particularly popular among the Tatars or the various groups that have been conflated with them.  This reeks of not doing the research.

More serious are the “gyptians”, a group in Lyra’s world that live as traveling merchants/traders and are generally poorly treated by the rest of society – again, without this being presented as a bad thing.  Given the history of persecution the Roma have been subjected to, anyone who creates such a fictional group and calls them anything at all close to “gypsy” is perpetuating harmful social stereotypes.

And then we have the Fantastic Racism, most dramatically for the bears.  Their king at the start of the first book took control of Svalbard from the previous one by treachery and poison – uncool.  He is killed in single combat by the rightful heir.  The monarchy and you-kill-it-you-bought it is not good, but let that pass for now.  The king seeks to import human technologies and practices to Svalbard: building stone buildings rather than ice ones, developing the mining industry in addition to smelting steel, sponsoring visiting human researchers, and so on.  He also wants to acquire a daemon, like a human, and to become a Christian.  These all are presented as bad things, and promptly reversed after his death – the buildings are immediately torn to pieces.  It’s played as “You’re bears!  Don’t try to be human!”.  There is a potential good message there – something like “you don’t need to be like everyone else”.  But it is conflated with the horrifically racist/classist line of “these people can’t possibly do what real people do”.

The mufela (not-entirely-unlike intelligent elephants on rollerskates) from the third book are not portrayed as badly as the bears are, but Pullman still has his human characters doing the outsider-white-person-saves-primitive-people line and so there is a bunch of racism there too.


This is less in-the-reader’s-face than the others, but it is still there.  All but two of the characters are apparently heterosexual women and heterosexual men (or heterosexual intelligent bears) – and across the three books, there are enough characters whose orientation is specified that we would expect this to not be the case.  A significant fraction of humanity has been erased.  The two non-heterosexual characters who do show up are non-human angels, Balthamos and Baruch.  Pullman was pulling from the Catholic versions of angels; so they don’t have gender or sex in any of the human senses of the word (although some of them were once human, and apparently retain some association with whatever gender they had then).

There is a brief mention in the books of a single human who is ambiguously gay.  He is described by Lyra as “solitary” and “one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex he was” (Pullman says he “doesn’t know what that means” and invokes death-of-the-author).  If the man with the unusually-gender-assigned-daemon is indeed gay, then apparently in the society of Lyra’s England he’s unable to be with whoever he’d want to be with.  And if gender-of-daemon is supposed to be gender-of-people-you’re-attracted-to, what happens to humans in Lyra’s world who are anything other than strictly heterosexual or strictly homosexual?  Again, all of this could simply be negative aspects of the world Lyra comes from – but it is never flagged as such in the series.

The Bottom Line

I could go on with more examples, and possibly add a couple of other forms of bigotry that Pullman promotes in the books, but this post is already long.  Suffice it to say that I am not impressed by the series, and do not recommend it to anyone.  If you want fantasy media that challenge religious ideas and harmful social structures, there are far better options.  None of the bigotry in the series is anywhere near unique to Pullman – much of it is pervasive in both media and society.  But it is particularly distressing to see blatant bigotry and authoritarianism on display by someone who is nominally calling out the wrongs of an authoritarian organization.  It doesn’t make the calling-out wrong, but we should not excuse anyone who promotes dangerously wrong ideas.

Fantasy League Round 8: The Emperor’s New Soul

2013/03/07 Leave a comment

I just read my way through a book by Brandon Sanderson.  He may have taken over Wheel of Time after the death of Robert Jordan, but this particular novel was actually quite short.  The real title is The Emperor’s Soul, though I think the one from the blog post works just about as well.

This leaves us with two main things to consider:  the magic system and the politics.

This is Shai, our protagonist.  This cover actually doesn't lie that much.

This is Shai, our protagonist.


Wan ShaiLu, or Shai for short, is our protagonist.  She’s a thief… and a Forger, with a capital “F”.  She can make a specially carved stamp, which she can then place on any kind of object, temporarily transforming that object into something else.  To do so requires a knowledge of that object’s history, and effectively “changing” its history to be something different.  The duration of the Forgery is determined by how plausible the change is, and how much the object “desires” the change.  If a stamp “sticks,” then the change is permanent unless someone damages the stamp.  One example is a broken window that “wants” to be beautiful again.  Regardless of duration, the stamp itself remains as a mark of the Forgery.

While being a Forger is looked down upon, and doing Forgery to a human being is illegal, there are a few exceptions.  The Rememberers are essentially assembly line workers, churning out fancy vases Forged from poor ones, for example.  The Resealers are healers, and also thought to be “not really Forgers,” returning the body to its state prior to injury or illness.  Bloodsealers are essentially necromancers, and just as reviled, if not more so, than the Forgers.

Shai’s first problem is that her attempt to steal the Moon Scepter from the Emperor’s art gallery and replace it with a Forgery was foiled by her co-conspirator, who turned her in, and then ran off with the real scepter himself.  (The Forgery was mistaken for the real one.)  As the story opens, she’s desperately trying to find a way to escape before she is executed for her crimes.  However, she gets a reprieve

The second problem is the nature of the reprieve.  Emperor Ashravan, thanks to the Resealers, survived an assassination attempt by an opposed faction.  Unfortunately, the injury he sustained was a serious head wound.  He survived, and his brain was repaired, but his mind is completely gone.  The Arbiters, essentially the Emperor’s cabinet, want her to make a stamp that restores his mind and personality.  She has a hundred days to do it, while the Emperor is technically in mourning and seclusion for the death of his wife, in order to do the job and keep the evil Forgery secret.  Otherwise, she gets executed, and a new emperor will be chosen from a faction the Arbiters don’t like.  In return for success at this practically-impossible task, she is promised a pardon, complete with the return of some of her fancier stamps for modifying herself.

Of course, she then proves that it’s possible to do after all.  Shai is also wise enough to the political situation to know that she’s going to be killed as soon as she finishes — or sooner, if Frava can convince another Forger to finish her work.  Thus, she makes a point of making her notes obscure and planning her escape.

The one sad part is that, due to the brevity of the story and the fact that almost the entire story is confined to Shai’s workroom in the palace, we don’t get to see all the implications of Forgery.  To accurately reproduce a painting, Shai had to work with the master painter who made it; can something similar be done for books?  If so, that’s some printing press there.  It’s not clear how common writing is, but the palace guards are all literate.

Furthermore, how well does the Resealing work?  Even if a seal “sticks” on a human, it only ever lasts a day.  Is that true of healing?  Or does the fact that it “restores” the person make the healing permanent?  Can Resealing cure diseases as well as heal injuries?  Regardless, it still appears to require serious medical knowledge — you can’t rebuild somebody’s brain unless you have extensive information about how it’s supposed to be structured, even if you can’t restore individual neural pathways.

As Michael would say, there’s a lot of possibilities here for exploitation.  I withhold judgement here, since I don’t think there’s a broad enough view to judge most such things.

One Honest Man

Gaotona, one of the five Arbiters, is the other truly sympathetic character.  Unlike the other four Arbiters, he’s the only one who doesn’t ask Shai to reprogram the Emperor to listen to their advice more closely.  He’s an old friend, rather, and is motivated primarily by a desire to see his friend restored.  He was the one who encouraged Ashravan to seek the position, to change the Empire into something better.  He’s also essential in the reconstruction of the Emperor’s mind.

One interesting point here is that Gaotona and Shai discuss how to manipulate someone by… being honest.  I wonder how often this actually occurs in real politics — deliberately twisting facts and misleading statements are common enough, but actual honesty?  Tricky.

Regardless, Gaotona is an oddity.  Frava, one of the other Arbiters, is not.  She is highly ambitious, and the first to offer Shai an additional reward in exchange for changing the Emperor’s personality.  She also “borrows” Shai’s notes to have them “copied.”  Shai deals with this.

What is perhaps more surprising is that an “honest” man like Gaotona retains his position in an environment where the other four Arbiters are somewhat hostile towards him.  Perhaps this is due to his pull with Emperor Ashravan.  It’s also partially explained at the end that Frava was trying to get Gaotono fired via some private conversations with the Emperor… which are never mentioned to Shai, so the re-made Emperor won’t know about them, and Frava will have to start all over again.

The funny thing is, by not asking for it, Gaotono essentially ended up with the Emperor subtly modified to what Gaotono would want.  Shai, having read the man’s journals and pulled his life to pieces, realizes that the Emperor’s plans of reform got sidelined.  She programmed into Ashravan a need to do some contemplation after his brush with death and oblivion, and “rethink his life,” with the intent of gently nudging him towards being the reformer he and Gaotono had once wanted him to be.

Now, this may be a reasonable change, but is it ethical?  Before being shot, would Ashravan have consented to the change, positive though it may be?

While leads to the next point…

Mad People Skillz

Lastly, Shai’s entirely mundane ability to figure out how people think seems a bit… over the top.  She figures out essentially every person she meets — Gaotono, realizing that he is, in fact honest; Frava’s ambition; and also various of the guards and a Bloodsealer working to keep her from leaving before she’s done.  And then, of course, there is Ashravan himself, whom she puts back together from journals, histories, interviews, and close study with Gaotono.

This last seems utterly ridiculous, particularly to accomplish in three months.  She also has to fill in — make up — some details too personal to ever be written down.  At least any serious gaps or errors will be assumed to be a consequence of his injury, but still.  If she has to go so far as figure out his unconscious reasons for why his favorite color is green, how can she possibly put his entire mind together?  Even modern-day biographers don’t generally go into that level of detail, and they (presumably) take much longer than three months studying a person.

Even worse, given her people skills, why did she not realize that her collaborator in the theft of the Moon Scepter was planning to betray her?  The planning of that heist was certainly extensive enough to justify enough contact to have an idea of what the man was like.

On the other hand, her chamber-plot plan of getting in to visit the Emperor before escaping was brilliant.

SciFi Round Fourteen: Biotech Problems

After I put up the description of the ursians and their technology from my Fermi Problems setting and discussed alien psychology in the context of religion/lack thereof, it was suggested that I should read John Brunner’s Crucible of Time, which I had somehow missed reading before.  So, here we go:

Crucible of Time describes various episodes in the history of an alien race called the folk.  The folk evolve intelligence just before their planet and the star it orbits passes through the center of a starforming region that contains, among other things, an object that is described in terms consistent with either a Type-II supernova remnant or a luminous blue variable that just had a big outburst.  They escape the obvious problems with that by developing interstellar spaceflight and a lot of biotech.

Artist's concept of The Folk, which may not correspond to Brunner's initial vision (too much like Earth insects).  This is the great teacher Jing, who is an expy of Galileo.

Artist’s concept of The Folk, which may not correspond to Brunner’s initial vision (too much like Earth insects). This is the great teacher Jing, who is an expy of Galileo.

What Brunner Did Right

First, the positives.  The folk are physically very much unlike us.  Although they are bilaterally symmetric, they are not vertebrates.  They have no bones at all, and support themselves by pressured tubules full of fluid (convenient when they do eventually get to space).  To assert dominance, they inflate the tubules to maximum and stand up straight.  To indicate deference or to better resist a shock, they go limp and hug the ground.  They have a single eye; mandibles rather than teeth; claws rather than hands; and navigate on spongy pads rather than feet.  Their bodies are covered by articulated mantles, the relict of a distant aquatic past via ancestors who lived in the equivalent of forests.  Those are used to speak, and as an outer layer of armor.  Reproduction is sexual, with sexes describable as male and female, by budding rather than by internal pregnancy.

They are also biochemically and psychologically unlike us.  Folk excrete airborne pheromones which have powerful effects on each other, ranging from triggering aggression and confrontation to conveying emotional emphasis to inducing dream-like hallucinations accompanied by destructive mania.  They also have a different cognitive structure, with physically different parts of their brains that perform functions like what we would call memory, dreaming, and abstract reasoning.

And the folk are dramatically affected by the supernova / outburst, even though their star and planet were still relatively far away from it at the time.  The high-energy photon flash caused a round of mutations and some climatic changes.  One of the mutations caused low fertility, but in some folk it was masked by another that offset it in some environments.  Those folk spread both mutations; but eventually the environment changes and most of the folk have low fertility.  Exogamy and less in-group favoritism than humans have keeps the population up for a while; but in the long term there is a population crunch.  The folk manage to do sufficient genetic engineering on themselves to correct the imbalance, but that leads to a population explosion in advance of the food supply and a temporary collapse of society.

But given all of that, things get a bit worrisome.  How would such aliens have a person like Jing?  Jing is a folk who is the equivalent of Galileo – complete with getting the feudal lord of a city as his patron and then offending the religious sensibilities of much of the population with his discoveries with the newly-invented telescope.  But since I haven’t spent the time to work through the sociology of a species like the folk in detail, let’s focus on some simpler problems.  Brunner’s first mistake was misunderstanding what goes on inside a starforming region / supernova remnant.

What Would Actually Happen If A Star Runs Through A Nebula?

Not that many impacts.  In Crucible, there are always meteors in the sky and the dark side of the folks’ planet’s moon constantly sparkles from impact flashes.  Where are all these objects coming from?  Brunner was inspired by early (and now disproved) claims of periodicity in mass extinctions, in this version supposedly caused by the Sun’s passage through the galactic plane.  He proposed something similar to happen as the folks’ star ran through the dust cloud around the supernova remnant, and most of those impactors were debris flying in to the system from outside.  Up to and including a rogue planet.  That doesn’t work.

Even in a relatively dense interstellar dust cloud, there are very few large solid objects and even the interstellar gas and dust density is too low to matter much.  Unless you run right through a protoplanetary disc, in which case you have the more immediate problem of the planet you are standing on being scattered onto an unlivable trajectory by the star that you almost hit.  The comet showers invoked to explain mass extinctions on Earth, which again aren’t actually necessary to explain the fossil record, were supposedly caused by gravitational perturbations to the Oort Cloud dropping a lot of comets onto low-perihelion orbits.  But that doesn’t cause mass extinctions on as short a timescale as in Crucible: it takes hundreds of thousands of years for those comets to fall down, and they aren’t likely to hit on the first flyby.

The real problem for the planets around the folk’s star is the supernova remnant / massive star they’re flying past.  Consider Eta Carinae, which I mentioned before.  It hasn’t exploded yet and is putting out 5,000,000 solar luminosities, with a lot of high-energy photons coming out at any moment.  The high energy dose at 0.15 lightyear is greater than that from the Sun on the Earth; and the nebula around Eta Car is thick enough to cause problems.  Up until the folk run into that, they would be relatively safe, but for the several hundred years around closest approach they would be thoroughly cooked.  Good time to leave.  So Brunner made some mistakes on the details of astronomy, but that part of the plot can be handwaved fairly easily.  On to other problems.

Does the Folk’s Biology Make Sense?

As I said above, some of aspects of the folk’s biology, and the psychology and sociology that develop from that, don’t really work.  It is an important and often-emphasized theme in the book that when folk are starving, or even marginally malnourished, they become unable to distinguish reality from dreaming, or to think logically as effectively.  Malnutrition causes hallucinations that a folk will often interpret as religious visions.  The pheromones from other folk can trigger the same thing.  Malnutrition does induce cognitive changes in humans and other real animals, but only in extreme starvation or in the case of particular long-term dietary deficiencies.  Short-term lack of food doesn’t lead to cognitive impairment, because that impairs the ability of the animal concerned to find more food.  Why haven’t the folk been out-competed by mutants who remain entirely aware of their surroundings when they don’t eat?

One of the episodes related in Crucible is how the folk discover uranium and other radioactive elements.  They find a pond that has been heated to near boiling by uranium oxide that has somehow been concentrated until it looks like yellowcake (that’s more concentrated than anything natural on Earth, but let that pass).  Ingestion of a saturated uranium solution has been poisoning the local wildlife; they figure out that it is radiation because it causes streaks on their analog of a film camera.  Folk that have consumed too much uranium and other radioactive elements too quickly go mad from radiation poisoning.  Note the go mad, as opposed to Earth life, which merely has a higher incidence of cancers at that level of exposure.  We can excuse the folk for having different reactions to radiation dosage than an entirely different evolutionary progression, but the going mad is a strange one.  Radiation exposure causes biological effects by scrambling chemicals.  In that sense, it is no different than being exposed to many reactive chemical toxins.  Biological systems have to evolve defenses to those and, again, the folk should have been out-competed by people who didn’t lose their cognitive edge so easily.

At one point in their history, the folk genetically engineer themselves to cure infertility.  That causes a population explosion, followed by a crash as the food supply can’t keep up and the starving population goes mad.  There is a brief social collapse, followed by rebuilding.  That’s a theme in Crucible, and one of the reasons for the folk’s focus on getting off-planet (they know how society can be nearly destroyed).  But they don’t attempt to engineer away the tendency to hunger-induced madness, even when they have later engineered away their need to sleep.  The folk aren’t consistent in their use of their biotechnology skills.

And that leads into the biggest problem with Crucible.

Biotech Does Not Work That Way

Starting very early in their history, the folk use biotechnology rather than readily available and easier mechanical substitutes.  Rather than building boats, they tame and later domesticate several species of large ocean-dwelling animals that only swim on the surface.  Wouldn’t someone have figured out how to make a hull and oars in short order, followed by sails?  Rather than building houses, they grow them out of special varieties of tree-like lifeforms.  Where the trees cannot grow, or have not grown yet, they live in caves or do not live at all.  Why are there not buildings of brick or dead and cured wood?  This extends to a lot of barely-mentioned techniques that are included to flesh out the worldbuilding rather than to advance the plot.  Why print books using a specially-bred plant that extrudes ink in the pattern of the text you scratched into its surface, when you could simply have carved out a block print (or movable type) and used ink from less specific sources to coat it?  Why breed a plant specifically to be stable living supports for telescope mirrors, when you could just use adjustable screws?

I appreciate Brunner’s commitment to having the folk use biotech as much as possible, but that doesn’t make much sense.  Specific techniques are used for specific tasks because they are optimized for the purpose.  One way to keep the alien feel without such outrageously inefficient technology would have been for them to discover technologies by very different ways than humans did.  Instead of discovering radioactivity by seeing gamma-ray hits on film, how about by somebody seeing Cherenkov in an otherwise dark cave pool?

The biotech outrageousness is even greater at the book’s climax.

To escape the impending destruction, the folk have begun a massive space program.  Their first launches into orbit are chemical rockets (made of metal, not bombardier beetles), lit after being lofted to high altitude by specially cultured balloon plants.  Why not carry a bigger rocket by making a balloon far too thin to be alive and pumping it full of hydrogen from something else?

Then they launch shells of carefully-selected spores to their moon and the other terrestrial planets of their star, attempting geoengineering without having sent any other spacecraft to any of them – let alone having been there in person.  Apparently a good fraction of the spores take.  That’s doesn’t work: you can only learn so much about a place from remote sensing, and how can you engineer a plant that would be able to grow on Mars (or worse, an airless moon) without knowing the soil that the plant would be growing on?  No mention is made of meteorite samples, but even those would not have been sufficient.

Finally, the folk start assembling a space station on-orbit, sufficient to support scores of folk, done all remotely without a single folk on-site until the first one launches up on a chemical rocket lofted by a very long railgun built out of biological superconductor.  Even with some manner of biological computer artificial intelligence on-station, and granting that growing the plant with superconducting fibers is cheaper than bulk synthesis of just the superconductor, that is pushing things too far.

Convergent evolution says that animals that evolve into similar ecological niches will acquire similar forms, although those can be similar only in the sense that bony fish and squid are similar.  But technological convergence is stronger still, and straight up biotech – and especially as it is laid out in Crucible – is so far from an optimum solution that it doesn’t make any sense.  That’s why I designed the ursians to have jet aircraft, aerogel islands, and electronics made from metals sucked out of galane and arsane: they outperformed strictly biological alternatives.

Fantasy League Round 7: Moon Called

2013/01/11 2 comments

Moon Called is the first book in an urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs.  So far, it’s kind of like the Dresden Files, except not at all.  (Don’t worry — I’m sure we’ll dissect those in detail later on.)  For bonus points, it’s set around where I’m from, which is cool.

That said, it was a pretty good Christmas gift, so what else should I do but dissect it?  As ever, there are spoilers.  Lots of spoilers.

Mercedes Thompson, the protagonist, is shown here.  She does have the pawprint tattoo.  The other tattoos aren't mentioned particularly, and she definitely doesn't go around dressed like that all the time.  Inconvenient for things like fixing cars and fighting crazy werewolves.

Mercedes Thompson, the protagonist, is shown here. She does have the pawprint tattoo. The other tattoos aren’t mentioned particularly, and she definitely doesn’t go around dressed like that all the time. Inconvenient for things like fixing cars and fighting crazy werewolves.

The Broken Masquerade

We’ve discussed the Masquerade before.  This is another story where the fact that the fae, witches, werewolves, and vampires (oh, my), and various other magical persons keep their abilities hidden from the general public.


Here the Masquerade is far from perfect — and is in the process of shattering.  The Fae, in particular, are largely out, and have been for thirty years — though a significant portion of that population chooses to stay quiet.  While modern society should have been butterflied away into something completely different, it hasn’t — and I’m willing to accept that for the sake of the story.  Meanwhile, the Fae are frequently feared and persecuted, partly due to religious pressure.  It’s still odd that most of them who are “out” have chosen to go off to live on Fae reservations.  As if separating them from everyone else would solve the problem…

The other magical groups aren’t out, yet, due to seeing how badly the Fae have been treated and since they’ve been able to keep quiet so far.  But that’s going to change.

Holy Xanatos Gambit, Batman

There was… an impressive bit of manipulation on the part of the bad guy.  It’s a lot easier to explain the antagonist’s desired results, rather than going through the main plot.  … and there’s too many details to go through, really.  First thing to note:  Werewolfism isn’t genetic.  It’s transmitted only by a werewolf seriously savaging a normal human, and having the human survive the process.  Our bad guy is a werewolf, and has been one for a while.

Now, the bad guy, Gerry, does a bunch of bad stuff (forcing people to become werewolves, experimenting on them, killing people, kidnapping, torture…) in an apparent ploy to force someone to challenge Bran, the Alpha werewolf for all of North America.  Bran knows that the FBI and company have enough information to figure out about werewolves, and he wants to go public so he can control how the werewolves are portrayed.  Other werewolves don’t like this idea, and so, challenging him and replacing him is the plan.

Gerry uses this only as a cover.  He’s doing all this bad stuff so that Bran thinks he’s behind it, and so that his father, who knows him, is convinced that he’d never be involved in it.  The goal is to force his father to fight Bran.  Gerry’s father is a recently-Changed werewolf.  He was talked into it by Gerry, as a means of curing his father’s terminal cancer.  The catch is, he was a soft-hearted guy and isn’t able to “control his wolf” as a consequence.  (If he can’t learn, he’ll be killed by Bran, since he’ll be a danger to himself and anyone around him.)  Gerry is trying to set up a fight, because if his father is forced to fight as his wolf, he’ll gain the control he needs.  Of course, he’s hired a witch so that his father is sure to win.

… yeah.  I keep thinking of Mr. Freeze.  Gerry’s plans are thwarted by our heroes, of course, but I’m still impressed — he had expected to “win” no matter how things turned out for himself personally.  Nonetheless… surely there was a way of doing this that didn’t involve all the associated convolutions of experiments and mercenaries and… stuff.  I suppose that Gerry thought that being accused of something that bad while “innocent” was the only thing that could get his father sufficiently riled up, but still.

Powers As Needed

With all the shapeshifting that happens, at least they bother to lampshade it — change in mass?  “Magic.  How does it work?” is roughly the main character’s response.  And the speed-healing of the werewolves nicely requires lots of input calories.

The increase in Mercy’s apparent powers with time bothers me a bit more.  She’s a skinwalker, able to instantly turn herself into a coyote and with some sensory bonuses.  But there’s more to it than that.  Some of this is foreshadowed — she comments on how she can sense the werewolves’ magic throughout, and only later does it become clear that being able to sense other kinds of magic is unusual.  And then, it turns out that she’s actually immune or highly resistant to most forms of magic — werewolf power, vampire charms, witch’s curses…  (Which is why there are so few skinwalkers — the vampires killed most of them off a good long while ago.)  This becomes an important plot point, and it feels a bit sudden when she does start using the anti-magic stuff.

This happens with the werewolves, too.  While they all clearly have super-strength and speed-healing in whichever form, multiple werewolves have more than that — for instance, at the end, suddenly forcing all werewolves in earshot to come when they call and speak the truth.  This comes completely out of the blue.  Why not use that to find the werewolf nasties you’re looking for earlier?  On the other thand, then the humans they’re with might kill the hostages…

The Soap Opera

There are also parts of the story where I wanted to do a headdesk.  These are mostly the reasons why I don’t like soap operas or comedies much.  By the end, Mercy Thompson has no less than two werewolves who are romantically interested in her.  One of whom is an ex-boyfriend staying at her place for a while until he finds his own.  And she’s dating the other.  And the two of them are a bit… competitive.  Can anybody say, awkward?

Werewolf society, such as it is, is even worse.  It’s mostly men (who are more likely to survive the Change for whatever reason) with a small number of women.  And only the men are ever in charge, because of Alpha/dominant male psychology of werewolves.  Or something like that.  The family/pack structure of the whole thing makes it very soap-opera like, with drama bonus on killing off werewolves who go rogue.  The whole setup forces Mercy to be careful at times about not acting like she’s in charge even when she’s the one who knows what’s going on and what should be done.  Some werewolves would take that the wrong way, as a challenge, and bring out the claws.  As Mercy complains — they need to pay a visit to the 21st century.

And maybe a therapist.

Suggestion Box

This review was brought to you by my brother, who gave me the book for Christmas.  Jumping off from that “suggestion,” we like requests for dissection!  If you’ve got a good speculative fiction item (especially books, but we’re not too picky about medium) that one of us should have a look at and then pull apart, feel free to drop us a line or comment below.