March of the Steamwagons

A Memory of Light is over. Reading it three months after launch as I did, the ominous “this will change everything” aura surrounding the development of gunpowder wasn’t quite as poignant as it was recently pointed out to me it had been, if one had been caught up sufficiently on the rest of the series (I had to reread books 12 and 13 first) to jump right in on January 8, not even a month after Newtown.

(Oh, before I continue:  SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS, people.)

Even before A Memory of Light, though, we’d been hearing no end of Aludra’s amazing exploding “dragons.” The technological advances in warfare and the increased danger they promise to bring to the world have been talked of since, oh, Winter’s Heart, so the “dragons” were hardly new to us when they at last took to the battlements of Caemlyn…and to the Polov Heights and Dashar Knob and some unknown cave beneath the Field of Merrilor that could have been Graendal’s off-shore cave (how exactly did these guys find this? and how obscure was the only reference to its whereabouts?) but somehow wasn’t, thank god. 

What was news to me, though, were the steam wagons. And it wasn’t good news.

Again, we’ve seen them before. (Nevermind that they debuted in the midst of the long drought of very long, very boring books where almost nothing happened.) They were a long time coming. But to go from “this kooky guy in one of my schools managed to make a prototype steam engine” to “and now they’re supplying our troops at only the most important battle ever, at the end of the world” is a big leap in, what, less than 12 months? And we see mention of both steam engines and rifles in Aviendha’s glimpse of the potential future of the Aiel. And I wasn’t too happy about that, either.

Here’s why.

It’s not because I have any issue with trains. Obviously I have issues with guns, but let’s focus on the things I won’t have crazed gun-toting relatives jumping down my throat about. Trains are great. 

It’s not because I have an issue with, er, steampunk, if we want to call the invention of steam engines steampunk, which is I think going a little too far. Still, it’s not the aesthetic I have the problem with. They could modify Juilin’s hat into a top hat and make it all the rage, for I care. 

It’s not because it doesn’t make sense, in the course of the book. Mat gets dumped with thousands of years of war memories, Mat continually meets up with an ex-Illuminator who has a whole lot of experience in the fireworks department; Mat spends five books and the substantial fortunes of his own and Andoran coffers putting two and two together. (Whoops, sorry, that’s going back to guns again.)

It has more to do, I think, with my general preference for fantasy over science fiction. Given that they are often shelved together in bookstores, and that a fondness for one is often taken as indicative of a fondness for the other, I’ve been approached by no fewer than few people at work, as I read one hefty WoT tome or another, asking what the series was and, on the heels of that, had I read this or that equally massive scifi series. 

To which my answer is invariably no. 

And when I stop them mid-pitch and say yes, well, but I’m just generally not a big scifi fan, they confess that they (males all, if that matters) are in fact not big fantasy fans, either. And so we arrive at an impasse, and I have been trying to articulate why.

My first, half-joking explanation was that sci-fi, with the possibility of its technological developments still dangling in the nebulous future, had the ability to make one feel guilty for one’s decisions in school and training, whereas fantasy never ran that risk. I’m never going to regret not focusing in Spirit weaves in college when I read WoT, whereas I might conceivably come to lament my complete lack of programming knowledge once I’ve read Neuromancer. But this is a hokey response. Most of the more impressive developments in science fiction are as far-off as Reagan’s sub-orbital DC-Tokyo shuttle. Not likely to happen in my lifetime, so no point in regretting not learning the skills to make it happen.

It could be comparable, however, to what I was saying earlier about feudalism in fantasy novels. Just as feudalism is required on some level by the genre, so is a certain amount of technological inferiority. The cities may have spires of glass or fancy time-keeping machines for sale in the shops, but somehow, somewhere, there ought to be fields of crops and tired people tilling them. If they’re tilling them with a tractor instead of by hand or by animal, well, then you’re inching away from fantasy and toward sci-fi—even if the tractor is powered by magicked rocks you have to pay a traveling enchanter to revive every month or so. There has to be this really strong hand-to-land connection—strictly much stronger than we have today—often to highlight the advances afforded by magic or whatever passes for it in a given fantasy world. Create that gap between man and land with technology, and there’s no need for magic—and you’re that much closer to live-as-we-know-it, which is not what I’m signing up for when I browser the fantasy section of a bookstore.

Why do I mind, though? Why am I willing to read about the very unlikely event of someone riding on the back of a telepathic dragon, but almost-entirely unwilling (I leave you out of this, Elizabeth Moon, because you’re pretty great) to read about the equally-unlikely event of a ship and its crew being sucked into a wormhole in space, somehow surviving, and getting spat out into who-knows-where a billion lightyears away from anything they ever knew?

Maybe it’s because I want this stuff I read to be impossible. Not so I don’t have to feel bad about not learning how to produce the science behind it, but because if an imagined (but possible!) future is already going to shit, well, there’s not a whole lot to feel good about, then, is there? I mean, look at Dune. I loved that series. But not because it made me feel good about humanity, or because it gave me hope. (Oh yes, God Emperor, let’s be the worst despot ever for 4,000 years to make sure humanity knows how bad it can be and never to repeat the mistake, OH AND IT DOESN’T WORK AND WE STILL FUCK THINGS UP IN THE END, SORRY.) The fanatical obsession with “breeding” was believable enough, in a world already touting the phrase “designer babies” only half in jest, to curdle my tongue. But Darwi Odrade—she made up for all the bullshit. Because she gets stuck with the very magical burden of an entire planet’s memories, experiences, thoughts and perceptions, dumped into her brain as the last surviving member of that planet. I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen to any human I know, and that adds a measure of value to me. 

But more importantly, that sharing is a sudden (yes, far more so than the Abomination’s conversation with and seduction by her Harkonen ancestors, which is just weird), ah, elimist moment in a series which had been too stiffly loyal to its scientific project to allow for such things. And ellimist moments, I have recently (as recently as finishing Memory of Light) come to believe, are what I am looking for in fantasy novels.

Ellimists stem, har har, from a very juvenile (but, I am told from those who watched the show that spawned from the kiddie flipbook-series, very dark) series of books that debuted in the 90s—Animorphs. I relate this with no pride. Even at the time—I was nine—I was embarrassed to buy buying books where if you flipped the pages people turned into animals in the bottom corners. But as a devotee of human-animal related stories since childhood, I had to read the first book, after which I was hooked, for better or worse. And while I eventually stopped, I did stick around long enough to read the first (I gather there were more?) offshoot of the series, The Andalite ChroniclesI’m not terribly pleased to admit it, but this book (what is that on the cover, a smurf crossed with a reindeer crossed with a scorpion? yup, that’s andalites for you) contains one of a handful of book moments that refuse to leave me. Shit’s going down, our characters are in danger, they seek the help (somehow) of a creature who oversees everything. An ellimist. And the closer they get to him, the more they can see—all the webs of possibility spun out from their single points in existence, and all the webs of what could have been spun out behind them. They stand next to him in a place-that-is-not, and see everything that could have been and everything that could be, a billion billion glittering threads stretching off into infinity.

I love that.

So you can see where I swooned in Memory of Light, then. Grabbing fistfuls of threads of the Pattern, and weaving them into new possibilities? Sign me up. Stop talking, I wanted to snap at both Rand and the Dark One. Stop bickering about who’s stronger and just shut up and stand there and describe it for me. Because those precipices of possiblity—those ellimist moments—are what I love best in all fantasy novels anywhere.

In the actual book with the ellimist in it, there’s a cost of being there as a non-ellimist—time twists and you change. The female character was I think 12 or 13 when she approached the ellimist; after seeing what she has seen she turns to her compatriot a little creeped out and says she has pretty much warped to 20. (I’m sure skipping the horrors of puberty had no few attractions to that series’ audience, myself included, but that’s not my point.) She can’t turn herself back, and living as a 13 year old in an 20-year-old’s body would be a disaster, so she is told to simply believe that she is that age, that she has the experience and the knowledge and the wisdom (ha) appropriate to that body—the fabric of time is weak enough here, she is told, for mere force of will to have that power. And she does, and it works, and she carries on, it turns out to marry the male compatriot and have his child, except not, because he didn’t see that new purple thread come into being in the fabric of existence, up there with the ellimist, until it was too late, and he had already decided to go down a different path, thus cutting his potential wife and his potential kid adrift…anyway, it gets rough for him, but that gets back into the parts of the book I don’t remember. What I took away from it was that one scene, the one I strive to see repeated again and again in different books—with Rand and the Dark One in Memory of Light, most vividly, but I think also to a lesser extent in The Fionavar Tapestry, in Dune, in Till We Have Faces, even in those few paragraphs at the almost-end of The Lions of Al-Rassan (which few paragraphs, I might add, were so powerful that I actually forgot that there is more story afterwards, such that when I reread the book last summer I actually had no idea who lived and who died, that moment of possibility was blown open so beautifully). 

Fantasy books that don’t have that; that just have daggers and armor and horses and speeches and even dragons—they’re like busywork. I’ll plod through it in the hopes of getting something out of the practice of them, down the line, but my heart isn’t in it. I’m already winnowing out my next options, hoping to find one of those grandiose moments there instead. 

You have to build up to them, incidentally. You can’t just saunter in in chapter three and have some bullshit shaman or something suddenly able to see everything. I have no interest in that kind of charlatanism. We have to be so far along in the story that we could propose at least a dozen likely futures that the characters are then seeing. And the ability to see this much has to come with a price, and has to occur at some pivotal point, or its power is useless. If everyone could see this all the time, who would care? It has to be a one-shot deal. And fantasy is engineered to give you those all-or-nothing moments.

Not so in scifi. It may be all-or-nothing for that character, or that interstellar government even, but the forces of evil in scifi don’t represent a void, an ending-of-everything. They just represent their agenda. Their cultural mores (however violent/repugnant/at odds with the cultural mores of our characters). Their politics, ultimately. And politics isn’t magical. It doesn’t see the billion billion threads of possibility. It sees two: where you win the election/war, and where you don’t.

Those aren’t enough options for me.

And once you bring in trains and guns and tanks and surveillance units (see: the Gray Ajah’s gateways over the battlefields), you start to narrow your possibilities, from infinite down to those-which-could-somehow-lead-to-a-world-like-ours.

And that’s not enough for me, either.

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