Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Scout’s Progress / Mouse and Dragon

This pair of books tell one story, another space regency romance.

Aelliana Caylon Clan Mizel is terrorized by her older brother the nadelm. For example, her mandatory contract marriage that produced her heir was arranged by that same brother to a man who raped and brutalized her. At one point, years later, she comments: “of course marriage is—extremely—distasteful”. She is safe, for some values of safe, by the word of the current Delm. But nadelms become delms, in the fullness of time.

Aelliana Caylon is also known to all pilots as the mathematics scholar who revised the ven’Tura tables used by pilots to determine safe jumps from star-system to star system, and is credited with having thereby saved countless of lives. Her research area is chance event – that is, card games and things like that. She teaches, among other things, a course in practical mathematics to scouts – a course the scouts call “math for survival”. However, due to her family history, she is utterly fearful of other people outside of the classroom.

One night, she happens to end up at the opening of a new casino at her home port. Goaded by some of her students, she observes the play and notices that one high-stakes player is playing a faulty system. She remarks upon it, and finds herself playing against him. She stakes her quarter-share, he stakes her ship. It is no spoiler to let you know that Aelliana wins the ship, for that is only where the story really starts. She now has a plan: learn to pilot, learn Terran, and leave Liad before the nadelm becomes the delm and kills her.

This shall be Korval’s Balance: As of this hour, the ships of Korval and of Korval’s allies do not stop at Ganjir. Korval goods do not go there; Korval cantra finds no investment there. And these conditions shall remain in force, though Ganjir starves for want of us.

…I note that my mother is still dead.


Daav yos’Phelium
Eighty-Fifth Delm of Korval
Entry in the Delm’s Diary for Finyal Eighthday in the first Relumma of the Year Named Saro

Daav yos’Phelium is Korval Himself. The duty weighs on him, and he from time to time hides his ring of office and becomes just plain Daav, casual labor at Binjali Repair Shop at Solcintra Port. He happens to be there when a woman comes to ask for a copilot, she being so new to her license as to need certified flight time on her record; to his astonishment, he learns her to be Aelliana Caylon, the reviser of the ven’Tura tables. But he is, of course, happy to sit her second board.

To tell much more of the two books surely would be a spoiler. I will merely note that they tell a remarkable growth story with Aelliana Caylon as the protagonist, and that everyone who had read the rest of the series – and the authors, I understand! – were really afraid of the second book, which was written more than a decade later, because everyone knew what event that book would have to cover.

As I noted in my previous blog post, these space regencies are emotionally hard for me, but these two are much easier despite having much more cruelty in them.

Bernadette Dunne’s narration continues to be a joy. I particularly enjoy her Aelliana Caylon.

There is perhaps a lot more that I would like to say about these books, but some of them are spoilers and I am too tired anyway, so I am stopping here.

Scout’s Progress is in print as part of the Dragon Variation omnibus, which is also available as an ebook. There is a standalone audiobook.

Mouse and Dragon is available on paper, as an ebook and as an audiobook.

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Local Custom

We jump 250 years into the future from the last book, to the time of the generation preceding Shan, Val Con and all the others the whole series started with.

Er Thom yos’Galan is a son of Korval who is required to marry a particular young woman. As is customary on Liad, the marriage is a contract between clans, one clan paying the other for providing a partner for child-making, the marriage to terminate after the child is born. Er Thom must marry, as he does not yet have the heir the law requires of him – simply put, Korval requires another yos’Galan – but he cannot forget a woman he had a brief affair with years ago. To clear the deck, he goes look up that old flame, to say good bye all over again.

Anne Davis is a Terran untenured professor of comparative linguistics based on the planet University. She remembers her brief affair with a Liaden trader fondly. She had even gotten a child out of him, though she never told him. It is customary to name the child with the father’s surname. Shan yos’Galan is a sharp little kid, who never met a stranger and who sees sparkles around people.

When Er Thom and Anne meet again after years of separation, the game changes. When Er Thom yos’Galan meets Shan yos’Galan, the game changes.

Local Custom is one of several space regencies as the authors call them: old-fashioned how-will-boy-and-girl-get-each-other romances. The principals are adults, capable and thoughtful people. Each wants to do the right thing, but their cultural backgrounds are so different that a lot of messages get mixed; both know enough of the other’s culture to think they know enough, but each only knows enough to be a danger. Along the way, we learn a lot about Liaden cultural dynamics and get glimpses of history that was later filled by the Crystal books; and I believe it to be the only book where delm Korval and thodelm yos’Galan, the head of the clan and of the line, respectively, actually command a clanmember to do something they strongly oppose.

One really lovely part of these space regencies is the quotations in the beginning of each chapter, mosly from fictional in-universe sources like Cantra yos’Phelium’s log book:

Here we stand: An old woman, a halfling boy, two babes; a contract, a ship and a Tree.

Clan Korval.

How Jela would laugh.

I have always liked all the Liaden regencies, though I open each of them with some trepidation, because they all touch my heart, in as much pain as in joy.

This is the first book in this series narrated by Bernadette Dunne. I like her; she does everything competently and brings some spirit to the whole affair. That she is not my favourite is not due to any fault of hers.

Local Custom is in print as part of the Dragon Variation omnibus, which is also available as an ebook. There is a standalone audiobook.

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Balance of Trade / Trade Secret

Balance of Trade is one good place for a new reader to pick up the Liaden series. The action is set a millennium or so, maybe more, after the events of Crystal Dragon and almost 250 years before the chronologically next sequence (which starts with Local Custom). This is around the time when Liadens and Terrans are both expanding with some expansion starting to overlap, with some ports starting to see both races more regularly; this, naturally, creates friction.

Jethri Gobelyn is 17 years old and the youngest crewmember on the family-run Terran looper starship Gobelyn’s Market, and an apprentice trader. Since his father, Arin Gobelyn, died, his mother, Captain-Owner Iza Gobelyn has treated him rather harshly; he is now due to leave the ship for a berth he does not want. Alone on port, he is introduced by another Terran trader to a short-term opportunity with unbelievably good expected return – guaranteed by the card of a Liaden master trader. Liadens are, after all known to be very scrupulous about their honor, Jethri knows the deal must be legit. When the payment time comes and the other party never shows up, he goes to call on the Liaden master trader. It was a scam, of course; but the master trader, Norn ven’Deelin Clan Ixin is impressed by his honorable actions and offers him a better berth, as an apprentice of Master Trader ven’Deelin herself. So begins Jethri’s adventure as the first Terran ever to become a Liaden trader. It is, of course, not smooth sailing.

The main character is an outsider learning (and wanting) to fit in in an alien culture. This allows us the readers a rather different outlook on the Liaden culture than we otherwise might have. Melant’i (one’s honor in general and the role one has in a specific situation, in one weird concept), the code of proper conduct, and the life-and-death language of bows are introduced through Jethri having to learn them. The main character is also a trader and not a pilot like most other key characters in the series and this gives us another unique vantage point to the culture. Since the book also follows the Market after Jethri leaves her (she undergoes a major refit in drydock), we get in addition a different look on Terran ship culture, the only significant peek on it in the whole series (except perhaps for Trade Secret).

We also learn about Arin, Jethri’s father. Surprisingly, though he is a mystery to Jethri as well, we learn the most from scenes where Jethri is not present and of which Jethri never learns. The name Arin should ring a bell, if you have read other books in the series (or have paid attention to my previous blog posts on the series); it is not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Arin’s family includes an Uncle (who this time is given a first name – Yuri) and that the family trades in the old technology. There is also a big revelation, but it is a major spoiler, and I will not discuss it.

I did not appreciate Balance of Trade when I first read it. It was a solo book, set in a time far away from any other stories in the series, and dealt with topics far removed from those of key importance to the other stories. I find I like the book more after every reread. I catch all sorts of subtle and not so subtle connections to the rest of the series, and I appreciate now more the look into both Terran and Liaden cultures. But my appreciation has enormously increased once the sequel appeared in 2013.

Trade Secret is a direct sequel. In it we follow Jethri together with a Scout Captain in pursuit of Balance against people who have misappropriated his property, and Gobelyn’s Market on its shakedown cruise after the refit. Both plot strands have to deal with the legacy of deceased Arin, and with the one great enemy Jethri made among Liadens. We get to meet Uncle Yuri and his companion Dulsey Omron, dare I say, again? We meet members of the DeNobli family, we get to see the brand-new Tradedesk station, both familiar from Dragon Ship. We also get some of the most explicit discussions of Liaden sexual customs (I must admit the first sex sequence in the book is my favourite in all the nonpornographic literature I have read). I also must admit that the final confrontation between Jethri and the chel’Gaibin heir is quite magnificent.

Kevin T. Collins continues to be my favourite narrator of Liaden audiobooks. However, his pronunciation of “trader” sounds way too much like “traitor”, which does diminish my listening pleasure.

Balance of Trade is available in the The Crystal Variation omnibus (both on paper and as an ebook), which also includes Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon, and separately as an audiobook.

Trade Secret is available on paper, as an ebook and as an audiobook.

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: I Dare / Ghost Ship / Dragon Ship / Necessity’s Child / Crystal Soldier / Crystal Dragon

Over the last two months, I have continued listening to audiobooks of the Liaden series. I stopped writing about them because a stressful situation in life (a temporary move to another country) required too much of my energy to leave enough of it around. I still want to say a couple of words of the books I have listened to. Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid SPOILERS to these books completely, but I will try to limit the damage.

I Dare is a direct sequel to Plan B. It has a somewhat jarring structure: the bulk of the book narrates the adventures of Pat Rin yos’Phelium, a son of Korval, from the time he receives word that Plan B is in effect due to imminent catastrophic damage to the clan and the news that all his kin (including all the characters we have grown used to in the earlier stories) are dead, through his elaborate preparations for balancing this enormous loss until the execution of that balance, which will have tremendous consequences for both Korval and Liad. Interspersed are accounts of the aftermath of the events of Plan B in which our beloved characters are, several months after Pat Rin receiving the death news, very much alive.

Bulk of the Pat Rin thread occurs on Surebleak, a world that was originally colonized by an industrial company for mining purposes but was abandoned (with colonists left on-world) when the company went bankrupt. They never lost contact with the wider civilized galaxy but the colony was not able to attract offworld trade and thus devolved to a relatively low-tech level. The society that Pat Rin encountered was based on the world’s only city consisting of turfs, each run by a Boss, with the only law being the law of the strongest; but under that hard-boiled surface Pat Rin found people with a desire to do better, just no idea of how to do it.

I Dare ends with the two plot strands united. Korval is banished from Liad and starts to establish itself on Surebleak. At the very end, we meet Theo Waitley, a young pilot with a complicated problem…

I skipped the two novels that I would normally read at this point, Fledgling and Saltation. They flesh out the backstory of Theo Waitley and introduce us to her mother Kamele Waitley and her father Jen Sar Kiladi, who we learned in I Dare to be also known as Daav yos’Phelium, Val Con’s father. In the two books Theo begins as the child of two professors living in a university campus, discovers piloting, learns the trade of piloting and gets into heaps of trouble. Both books also contain a rather interesting story of academic politics and academic ethics which I truly recommend to anyone in the academia who has a taste for adventure sf; the second also entertains issues relating to nationalism and its problems. Eventually, Theo’s trouble leads her to seek Delm Korval (whom her father has taught her to regard as the person to whom really big problems should be presented for solving), and to the final chapter of I Dare.

Ghost Ship begins where both I Dare and Saltation end: Theo and her father, both with Delm Korval, and Theo about to present her knotty problem to Delm Korval. You can perhaps see why I skipped the two backstory novels. One part of the problem is an old self-aware ship who had gotten into his head that Theo is his promised Captain; the book is largely about the relationship of Theo and this ship, who is known as Bechimo. Along the way, Theo pilots for a mysterious character known as the Uncle, who has as a side-kick a woman called Dulsey; the ship Theo pilots for the Uncle is called Arin’s Toss. Remember those names; I will mention them again in this post.

Dragon Ship continues where Ghost Ship ends. They really form one continuous story. There is not much I can add to that (but I will mention the good ship Spiral Dance owned and piloted by Cantra yos’Phelium, which appears near the end of the book; they are another pair of names you should remember). Ghost Ship and Dragon Ship also chronicle events on Surebleak and elsewhere, when Korval (and Surebleak society) begins to deal with its changed circumstances. But even though I love those parts of the books, I cannot say I remember them well.

Necessity’s Child introduces a completely new people to the series. The Bedel are “the people of the ship”, who live apart from the gadje, “those others”. On Surebleak, there lives a company of the Bedel, a colony, if you will, left off the ship to learn new things and to be eventually reunited with the ship. Except the ship hasn’t come back after several generations. The Bedel appear a lot like gypsies of the real world, except that they have small little things like the ability to build just about any machine they need (including superhuman-strength glove and leg brace to compensate for grievous injuries to the hand and the leg), and they learn by dreaming. “I will dream on it”, they would say. And this apparently should not be taken as a metaphor.

Necessity’s Child tells events that begin somewhere within Ghost Ship and continue well into Dragon Ship. A daughter of the Bedel company and a son of Korval, both about the same pre-pubescent age, meet and become friends. This in turn allows the Bedel and Korval to start dealing with each other as equals. At the same time, a Liaden man is grievously injured, loses his memory and is brought into the company as a gesture of mercy, where he recuperates, learns to live among the Bedel and searches for clues for who he used to be. We get insights into Korval and into Surebleak, and we learn a lot about the Bedel, of course. It is quite different a book, and one that I initially resisted, but I like it a lot now, after two or three re-reads.

The three books just discussed are the first books in this re-listening round to have a new narrator. Eileen Stevens has a soft voice, but she uses it very well. As much as I dislike Andy Caploe (except for his magnificent Clutch turtle voice), I love Stevens (except for her not-so-magnificent Clutch turtle voice). Her handling of Silain, the Grandmother and the luthia of the Bedel, is quite excellent.

Crystal Soldier introduces a completely different time and place within the Liaden storyline. We meet M. Jela Granthor’s Guard, an M-series soldier; that means he is a genengineered human, deliberately bred to be a soldier; but he is, I gather, considered a legal person. We also meet Dulsey (the similar name is not an accident), a batcher engineer turned waiter. A batcher is an artificial human being, a chattel slave with no rights of her own. We also meet the ssussdriad, an almost extinct species of self-aware and telepathic trees who used to live in symbiosis with a flying species known as dragons. In the beginning of the book, Jela meets the last known living ssussdriad at a war-devastated planet, and wovs to bring it to safety. In return, the ssussdriad (which gets often called Jela’s tree) creates seedpods for Jela and others to eat, which turn out to have surprising properties… And we meet Cantra yos’Phelium Clan Torvin, a dark trader piloting alone the small ship Spiral Dance, which she used to co-pilot until the owner-pilot died and left the ship to her.

Jela, Cantra and Dulsey meet each other about the same time. Exciting stuff happens. Events force Cantra to take both Dulsey and Jela as crew on the Spiral Dance. Dulsey wants to go to the near-mythical place where batchers have created their own free and equal society. Happens Cantra knows that place, it’s beyond the Rim of the galaxy, in the deeps, and she doesn’t think it’s such a free and equal place as that. But Dulsey wants to go. For complicated reasons, Cantra and Jela agree to transport her there. Along the way, they visit a planet that vanishes into thin air almost immediately after they leave, and some other interesting places. Eventually they find the batcher society and meet its leader, known as the Uncle.

Crystal Soldier introduces us also to a time when humankind had been in war with their enemy for longer than anyone cares to remember (longer than any of the principal characters had been alive, I believe). The enemy, called the Sheriekas… “They’d been human once, at least as human as [Jela] was”. Now they wanted to destroy everyone who wasn’t them.

Crystal Dragon is a direct sequel. We meet the dramliz (another name that should be familiar, this time from Plan B); but here they are Sheriekas-made weapons, human-like in appearance but almost godlike in their powers. The Sheriekas are winning, and the end of everything not Sheriekas is near. The only hope for humankind is the liberation of Liad dea’Syl, a master mathematician, or his work, from Osabi Tower where the best scholars of mathematics are seated (or, in more familiar terms, are given their own chair). Cantra and Jela team up again: Cantra becomes an undercover agent (a task well known to her from her past life), a scholar of mathematics Maelyn tay’Nordif who sues for a chair in Osabi and is admitted, with Jela as her dull worker kobold.

The scholarly life in Osabi Tower is striking in how utterly corrupt it is. Scholars are served by grudents (yes, you guess correctly where that word comes from) who eventually are allowed to leave to conduct their wandering. During their wander years they are expected to produce mathematical results, eventually producing “coin”, a theory of such importance that they are regarded as worthy of their own chair. Once seated in a tower (Osabi is the most prestigious but not the only one), they are given their own grudent and are expected to teach and continue research. So much so good. But here comes the strangeness: any seated scholar may challenge any mathematical work of another seated scholar, who is then expected to defend it. This defense happens in public, with grudents and other seated scholars as an audience, and is conducted with truth blades until one or both scholars die. The outcome of the proof decides the fate of both scholars’ life work: one or the other’s work will get destroyed, either because it failed the proof (in the challenged scholar’s case), or because it was found fraudulent (in the challenger’s case). If a scholar survives long enough, they will be elevated to Master and become immune to further challenge.

In this book, we are also introduced to a young pilot Tor An yos’Galan Clan Alkia, who finds that his birth-world no longer exists and starts investigating why. Eventually he ends up at Osabi Tower and meets the other main characters.

Of course, Liad dea’Syl is eventually liberated. The rest of the book tells the story of the great migration from this corrupt universe to the new universe (in which the rest of the series takes place). We meet Dulsey again, this time accompanied by a fellow liberated batcher called Arin. The Uncle makes appearances, as well. Jela obtains Cantra’s promise to keep his tree safe after he dies; partly because of that promise, Cantra and Tor An decide to create a new clan, Clan Korval, with Jela honored as the founder. The Crystal Duology, as the two books are collectively called, thus tell an origins story.

An interesting point I had not remarked before: On Vandar (which we had encountered in Carpe Diem), the locals cursed by the wind. On Surebleak, a cold world, the favourite curse words appear to be related to frozen water (sleet being a common one). Cantra swears by the deeps.

These “books of before” are narrated by Kevin T. Collins. He is by far my favourite of the Liaden narrators. He has a very expressive voice and brings life to the characters. How he handles the difference between Cantra and Maelyn is magnificient.

All the books mentioned here are available in print, ebook and audiobook formats either standalone or (except for audiobooks) in an omnibus edition. At least Fledgling is available also as a legally free ebook. I am too tired today to go hunt for the links. Google is your friend.

It’s been a long day…

The story starts yesterday evening when I, with my father, visited the Helsinki-Vantaa airport to check in. I was flying with an exst (extra seat) reservation due to my physical size, and none of the self-service options worked. The upside was, I got to bypass all the long lines to the baggage drop desks and take the short queue to the service desk. With a boarding pass in hand, it was time for one last sauna in Finland, a short night’s sleep, and an early morning plane trip.

Things went well in Finland. We had lots of snow; this was no problem. We left the gate about on time, taxied to a deicing station and then took off without much of a fuss.

Deicing at EFHK
Barely above the clouds
Barely above the clouds

The fish salad I had ordered online was delicious. I seemed to get jealous looks from fellow passengers.

Finnair fish salad
Finnair fish salad

En route I saw a lovely cumulus (cumulonimbus?) cloud towering from the rest of the cloud cover.

Clouds
Clouds

The trouble began on approach to Düsseldorf. First, it seemed like we were given a long route, and indeed, we landed somewhat behind schedule.

On short final to DUS
On short final to DUS

And then we stopped, on the taxiway. The flight crew told us that our parking space was not ready, and no estimated time of readiness had been offered by the ground controller. It appears a little bit of snow put the whole airport into chaos. To a Finn, it looked ludicrous.

Waiting to park at DUS
Waiting to park at DUS

Eventually, we were allowed to disembark. Then, we were left waiting for a full hour for our checked baggage. How the heck does it take an hour to unload some bags from a plane?

Finally, I was able to take the nice Sky Train from Düsseldorf Airport to the airport’s train station. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the Sky Train in operation, but here’s one of the terminus at the train station and a part of the overhead track:

Sky Train terminus at the Airport Train Station
Sky Train terminus at the Airport Train Station

I then took the S1 train to Essen main railway station, where I had an hour to kill. I spent that time walking around the station, with my bags stowed in an expensive locker at the station.

Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf
Essen Hbf

I then went and collected my guesthouse apartment key, figured out how to get online there, and finally went to see my host at the University. Afterward, I spent an eternity looking for a simple grocery supermarket in the Essen downtown. It was hard to find, but I eventually chanced into a Real from where I was able to buy some essentials; but it is really hard to figure out what to buy when most of the brands are totally different from what I am used to.

This has been a very rough day, and I am glad it’s nearly over. Tomorrow, my three-month research visit to the University of Duisburg-Essen starts in earnest.

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Plan B

“Other people,” she said, apparently to the room at large, “give their wives flowers.”

Plan B is a rather different book from those published earlier in the Liaden series. First of all, it was first published about a decade after the previous book, due to commercial issues not under the authors’ control. Second, it is a plot-driven story with good solid existing characters instead of being a character-driven book with a plot to keep the characters active.

Some reviewers have placed the Liaden series under the category of military science fiction. In my opinion, Plan B is the only one that truly fits that label. The action takes place on a Liaden planet that comes early in the book under attack by the Yxtrang, with the invasion continuing until the end of the book. Military units, particularly the impromptu defense force formed of mercenary units that happened to be on-planet at the time of the attack as well as local volunteers, feature prominently; the familiar characters take on military roles if the already did not have it; and military action (involving land forces and air forces as well as space combat) is central to the plot.

This change of pace is well justified by the story arch of the Agent of Change sequence, of which this is the penultimate volume; after all, at this point, the characters have been introduced, the chess pieces have been placed on the board and all the initial moves have been completed. All that remains is actually seeing who comes on top in the fight.

Below the fold, I will discuss the book in a bit more detail; the discussion contains SPOILERS for Agent of Change, Conflict of Honors, and Carpe Diem.

Continue reading “Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Plan B”

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Carpe Diem and Prodigal Son

Normally, it takes me two to four weeks to listen to an audiobook from beginning to end, depending on the narrator’s speed, the length of the book and how much I invest daily in it. You see, normally I only listen for no more than an hour, often no more than 30 minutes, a day, while getting ready to sleep in the evening. Sometimes I manage a book in one week, if I have been having difficulty catching sleep and thus ending up listening for two hours or more an evening.

This week has been unusual. I’ve been at home due to a stomach bug since Wednesday, with not much energy to do anything. Listening to an audiobook is an easy way to spend time in bed, or in the bathroom, and takes less energy than actually reading myself, or even watching television. And if I happen to drift off (which happened often in Wednesday when I had a moderate fever), the Audible player’s automatic timer stops playing after 30 minutes or so (annoyingly, I must remember to set it up that way each time), and rewinding allows me to find a place I still remember having heard. Spending 12 hours listening to a book a day is not unusual in these circumstances. Thus, it is not surprising that I finished the 15-hour book Carpe Diem a little more than a day after I had finished Agent of Change. I capped it by reading (from an ebook, not an audiobook) the short story Prodigal Son, which revisits the key setting and characters of the novel I had just completed.

Carpe Diem continues directly from where Agent of Change left off, in fact overlapping by a chapter. Given that, this review will necessarily contain spoilers for Agent of Change. The book also picks up characters and worldbuilding from Conflict of Honors, which is a loosely connected prequel published between these two books; while Carpe Diem can perfectly well be read without that background, it does (like this review) contain some spoilers for Conflict of Honors.

Prodigal Son additionally contains significant spoilers for Plan B and I Dare, since it’s set after the events of those books. I will avoid those spoilers in this review.

Continue reading “Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Carpe Diem and Prodigal Son

Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Agent of Change

Since it was first recommended to me, the Liaden series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller has been on my regular re-reading list as one of my all-time favorite series. I’ve just started another reread – well, actually, I’m listening for the second time to the Audible audiobooks. Earlier today, I finished Agent of Change.

This is one of the most logical places to start the series; after all, it is the first book written and published. It is, however, not the earliest in chronological order, and there are good arguments for starting from, for example Conflict of Honors, or from several other portal books in the series. I am, however, drawn always first and foremost to Val Con and Miri, whose story starts here.

Here we have two relatively young people, both in perilous trouble when the story starts, who against their better judgment team up as they run one step ahead of their pursuers. Along the way, they set a room on fire, dine with large intelligent turtles, start a firefight between two factions of their pursuers, drink with mercenaries, and ride a psychedelic starship made of rock. Despite all these fireworks, the plot is fairly simple, with obstacles thrown in and evaded in entertaining but a bit too easy manner. Instead, the focus of the story is firmly in these two characters and their developing relationship, dealing with one’s low self-esteem and the other’s deadly mind programming, each helping the other.

Something that has bothered me over several rereads is whether Val Con deliberately mislead the turtles to interpret certain of his actions as taking Miri as his wife. As Miri later comments, it is usual to let the bride, at least, know before conducting a wedding ceremony (not to mention the huge issue of consent that is just waved away). Given that a turtle is an unimpeachable witness of such things, that could potentially lead to all kinds of nasty business. The issue is never directly confronted in the books, although the consequences are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

This book introduces us to the key aspects of the setting. There’s Val Con’s (so far unnamed) employer, whose unsavory methods (if not its goals) are made clear; there’s the Juntavas, on whose black list Miri had ended up; there are the four major power factions in the galaxy (Terrans, Liadens, and Yxtrang, which are all variants of human, and the larger-than-life Clutch Turtles) with their main relations clearly specified; and there is the surprisingly well-established role of independent mercenary companies in warfare. Val Con’s Clan Korval is mentioned but not developed much, and so is Clan Erob, which will feature significantly in several later books. The setting hinted at is richer than it first seems, but that is not surprising considering that (I believe) Sharon Lee had been working in this setting for a long time before anything was published about it. (I sometimes wonder why nobody ever comments about the name of Clan Erob.)

There are aspects of the detailed setting that betray the books’ 1980s vintage. Nobody carries comms on their person; instead, communications terminals are always bulky enough to require a desk, with public comm booths everywhere. Messages are frequently carried in printouts instead read from screens. There is no ubiquitous information network. These are, however, forgiveable. However, the larger setting contains aspects that have fallen mostly out of sf favour (psi being the most notable); I don’t mind, but others may.

Val Con’s survival loop is introduced very early on. It is an interesting idea, a device that computes a (presumably Bayesian) probability of mission success and personal survival for the situation at hand and allows its user to compute probabilities for many contemplated courses of action. Many specific probabilities are mentioned in this book, and most of them seem unnaturally low. If an agent has 70 % probability of survival, then it shouldn’t take many similar missions for them to get killed. But then again, as Val Con notes, he was not expected to survive even this long.

It is a beautiful book; Lee and Miller certainly have the gift and skill to use the English language in masterful ways. The book contains several languages in dialogue (Terran, High Liaden, Low Liaden, Trade, Clutch, and Yxtrang), which are indicated by differences in the style of English. Of all the authors and series I like a lot, Lee and Miller certainly take the top slot in English usage.

The audiobook is narrated by Andy Caploe. He reads very clearly, to the point of annoyance, but I at least get used to his style fairly fast. His character voices are recognizable but far from the best I have heard in audiobooks. The narration is serviceable.

Agent of Change is available in several formats: a Baen Free Library e-book, as part of the omnibus The Agent Gambit (ebook and paperback), and Audible ebook.

The social construction of chairs

No, I’m not writing about several people getting together in a wood shop to chat and make single-seat furniture.

Last July I started a series of blog posts about epistemology (that is, the philosophical theory of knowledge). In that opening post, I made the following claim:

How can I decide the (correspondence-theory) truth of the simple theory “there is a chair that I sit upon as I write this”, a statement I expect any competent theory of truth to evaluate as true? Under the correspondence theory of truth, my theory says (among other things) that there is some single thing having chair-ness and located directly under me. For simplicity, I will assume arguendo that there are eight pieces of wood: four roughly cylindrical pieces placed upright; three placed horizontally between some of the upright ones (physically connected to prevent movement); and one flat horizontal piece placed upon the upright ones, physically connected to them to prevent movement, and located directly below my bottom. I have to assume these things, and cannot take them as established facts, because this same argument I am making applies to them as well, recursively. Now, given the existence and mutual relationships of these eight pieces of wood, how can I tell that there is a real thing they make up that has the chair-ness property, instead of the eight pieces merely cooperating but not making a real whole?

Recall that the correspondence theory of truth says that a theory is true if every thing that it says exists does actually exist, every thing it says doesn’t exist actually doesn’t exist, the relationships it says exist between things actually exist, and the relationships that it says don’t exist actually don’t exist.

That argument almost screams for the following two rejoinders: the pieces of wood make up the chair, or, in other words, once you have the pieces wood in the correct configuration, the chair necessarily exists; and, it’s splitting hairs to wonder whether there is a chair that is distinguishable from the pieces of wood it consists of.

But both rejoinders fail. The first rejoinder says that eight pieces of wood automatically become a single thing when they are arranged in a chair-like configuration; but that is a claim about the reality, which itself needs to be evaluated under the correspondence theory of truth, and we are back where we started (albeit with a much more difficult question). The second rejoinder says that it doesn’t matter whether there is an existent called “chair” that is separate from its constituent pieces of wood; but that’s either a misunderstanding of the correspondence theory (it most assuredly does matter to it whether a thing exists) or an expression of frustration about the whole problem, effectively a surrender that masquerades as a victory.

As I mentioned in the original post, most scientists prefer to adopt a modeling appropach instead of the correspondence theory; the attitude is that we don’t care about whether a chair exists, because even if a chair does not exist, there still are the eight pieces of wood that carry my weight and we can pretend they make up a chair. Another way to say this is that a chair is a social construct.

The concept of social construction seems to have begun from a 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I must confess right now that I haven’t yet finished the book. However, if I understand their central claim correctly, it’s this: a social institution is always originally created as a convenient (or sometimes even accidental) set of customs by people who find it useful, but as its original creators leave (usually by dying) and stewardship passes to a new generation who did not participate in its creation (and as stewardship is passed many times over generations), the institution becomes an inevitable part of reality as people perceive it; in this sense, Berger and Luckmann (I think) hold that social reality is a social construct.

Ancient Egyptian woodworking via Wikipedia
Ancient Egyptian woodworking via Wikipedia

In the case of my chair, way back in the mist of prehistory, it presumably became a custom to arrange wood or other materials in configurations that supported a person’s weight. The generation that invented this practice probably just were glad to have places to sit. Their descendants, to the umpteenth generation, were each taught this skill; it became useful to refer to the skill not in terms of arranging materials but in terms of making things to sit on; further, some people never learned the skill but purchased the end result of another people’s skill; especially for these unskilled-in-wood-arrangement-for-sitting people, a chair was a real thing, and they often weren’t even aware that there were pieces of wood involved. I am one of those people: I had to specifically examine my chair in order to write the description in my quote.

In a 1999 book, The Social Construction of What?, philosopher Ian Hacking looked back at the pile of literature that had grown over the three decades since Berger and Luckmann’s book, and tried to make sense of the whole buzzword “social construction”. This is another book I haven’t finished yet, but I have found those parts I have read very enlightening. No-one who has read scholarly literature in the so-called soft sciences can have missed the tremendous impact social constructionism has had on it, and it’s hard not to be aware that there is a large gulf between many hard scientists and social constructionists evoking strong feelings on both sides. A big theme in Hacking’s book is the examination of whether (and if so, in what sense) there is an actual incompatibility between something being a social construct and an objectively real thing.

For me, however, it suffices to acknowledge that whether or not chairs exist in the objective world, they do indeed exist in the social world. Thus, once I have eight pieces of wood configured in a particular way, I indeed have a chair.

Hacking points out, however, that claiming an idea (call it X) to be a social construct is conventionally taken to mean several possible claims. First, that someone bothers to claim X a social construct implies that X is generally taken to be an inevitable idea. Second, claiming X a social construct is tantamount to claiming that X is not, in fact, inevitable. Third, many writers also mean that X is a bad thing, and that the world would be a better place if X were changed or eliminated. He classifies social constructionist claims in six “grades”: historical, ironic, reformist, unmasking, rebellious, and revolutionary. Of these, reformist and unmasking are parallel grades, while in other respects the list is in increasing order of radicality. Historical and ironic constructionism merely claim that X seems inevitable but actually is not; they differ in their attitude to X. Reformist and unmasking constructionism add the claim that X is a bad thing but neither actively seek change; they differ in how they regard the possibility of change. Rebellious and revolutionary constructionism additionally call for and attempt to effect change, respectively.

With respect to chairs, I am clearly an ironic social constructionist. I point out that we think chairs are inevitable but they, actually, are not; but I do not regard chairs as a bad thing. However, given current claims about the ill effects on health of sitting, I might eventually become even revolutionary.

Where do you stand?

Planet Haskell email is broken (UPDATE: fixed)

I became aware about a week ago that Planet Haskell’s email address had not received any traffic for a while. It turns out the community.haskell.org email servers are misconfigured. The issue remains unfixed as of this writing. Update: this issue has been fixed.

Please direct your Planet Haskell related mail directly to me (antti-juhani@kaijanaho.fi) for the duration of the problem.