Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reading with a hat

I have been reading a new series and in the middle of it discovered I had my writing hat on.

This doesn't happen to me often (and it only really happens with writing. I've studied cinematography* and the methods of telling a story in comic book form** but I almost never find myself in analytical mode when experiencing either of those art forms.)

The book of the moment is the first of a series called "Sword and Starship." An amusing setup; Gibbon has struck again (can we blame Isaac Asimov for this? At least he actually read Decline and Fall) and a high-tech interstellar culture has fallen, individual planets descending into barbarism amid the ruins they can only dimly comprehend. This is a well-worn piece of SF furniture, as easily employed as the concepts embodied in the similarly familiar phrases "Generation Ship" or "Psionic Powers."

Actually, this one fell twice; a second empire came and went but left behind an imposed feudal structure, (mostly) common language and laws, some remnant multi-stellar governments, and a college/guild system that keeps alive an abridged user manual for the ancient technology.

Well, sort of. Taking Clarke's Dictum literally, the "Shipbuilder" technology is grasped in terms of magic; operated via incantations, rituals and spells. Except for our protagonist, who is one of a small number who treat technology in rationalistic fashion and who bend their efforts towards understanding the actual principles behind it.

I caught a flavor in this interaction early on, and was unsurprised when I reached the author's bio at the end to discover Ellis Morning got her professional writing start contributing to the "WTF Code" tumbler. That flavor being that of clueless end-users who can only interact with technology by slavishly following routines they've memorized (aka incantations) versus, well, the people who are writing code and keeping servers running and answering tech support calls.

In the case of the "Sword and Starship" series the magic analogy has become literal, with the "Shipbuilder" technology treated as innately inscrutable and investigations into its nature -- or the nature of anything else of the proclaimed invisible world full of curses and demons that surrounds the remnant iron-age cultures -- is heresy. To be stamped out by the well-supplied and well-supported cadres of Acolytes and Adepts (aka, the equivalent of Script Kiddies, who know enough about how to run the ancient technology to be dangerous.)

Setting up for a central conflict between rationality and the demon-haunted worldview spoken of by Carl Sagan and so refulgent in this recent landscape of pseudo science and alternative facts. In the first book, the protagonist struggles to investigate a crop failure on a smaller world that has failed to be resolved by mumbling prayers over it. Struggles, because any hint of applying a rationalistic method brings accusations of heresy with the close attendance of pitchforks and torches.

Well, to be fair, the conflict is really against the power of the church, who regardless of the extent of their understanding or its mode have good reason to want to be seen as the only source of knowledge. It is in a sense guild control over most advanced technologies (and there is specific mention of guilds operating in other areas, as well).

Already I have many questions about the world building, and possible quibbles with some of the choices, but the series shows no sign of adhering to a status quo with the next book expanding the scope greatly. And they are cheap on Kindle.

Back to the topic. For some reason, reading this book, every time a character was introduced I found myself asking what role that character was to play. Whether they were there to provide conflict or to provide aid, to expand upon a question, to elucidate a viewpoint, to illuminate world-building or to form the bones of the plot.

Thankfully, the author has been competent enough to not make it obvious in most cases. But it was still a fun exercise.

*I read a book on cinematography once.

**I read a half-dozen books on the techniques of sequential art. And on the recommendations of one of them, a book on cinematography.

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