Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Road Goes Ever On and On

I’ve finished the four extant books of The Steerswoman Series. I really liked them! The series isn’t yet complete - at least two more books are planned - and there are some delicious mysteries remaining. I wanted to jot down my speculations, hence this post. Please skip if you intend to read these novels, as much of the fun comes from understanding the larger plot threads underlying the story.

I should mention that I have done exactly zero research on the series, so there’s an equally good chance that all of my conclusions are already well-established fact, or are wildly off-base.


As I alluded to in my earlier post, by the end of the second book, I had narrowed down the planet’s overall situation to one of two scenarios: either we were witnessing a post-post-apocalyptic Earth, with the survivors of humanity rebuilding from a heavily mutated and irradiated wreckage; or we were witnessing the colonization of a foreign planet, with human life slowly replacing the native fauna.

Given the focus on stars and space at the end of the fourth book, I’m now fairly firmly in the second camp. My current working hypothesis is this:

A star-traveling race (let’s call them the Krue) discovered this planet. It’s perfect for supporting life, but unfortunately its native biome is too well-developed and hostile. So, they develop a vast, millennia-spanning plan to transform it to become more habitable for themselves. They create the four Guidestars and send down a small population of people to oversee the work.

Now, because the project would run for hundreds of generations, they couldn’t just leave a set of instructions or create some machines to run everything on auto-pilot. Machines break down over time, language shifts, power struggles would inevitably depose some leaders and raise others. So, the original architects focused on establishing cultural traditions that would endure over time. Oral histories, legends, creation myths, songs. These guide the people, most notably the Outskirters, to continue doing their necessary work. They do not understand (having either forgotten or never known) the purpose behind their lifestyle, but it no longer matters: it is the core part of their identity, and drives their entire society.

(This is, of course, a fascinating idea [assuming it’s right]. I’m reminded of some interesting studies on comparative religion, which observes that many aspects of religious texts that seem bizarre today make perfect sense in the context where the religion first arose. Hence why faiths from the Middle-east, where people were surrounded by hostile tribes and which required large populations to survive conflict and oversee sprawling herds, seem almost obsessed with fruitful procreation; and why native religions on remote islands, where overpopulation can lead to extinction, are more likely to embrace virgin sacrifice. Millennia-old cultural traditions exert a powerful pull on people’s actions today, extending much further than the influence of any political leader.)

I’m a little unclear on whether the original Outskirters knew what they were getting into or not. They were founded by one man who had no children and communicated with a distant lady from the stars. The original lines may have all been Krue, perhaps of a different order than the wizards. Or maybe only the founding figure was Krue, and the rest a separate population. The link is pretty strong, though. The way they tell time and distance is identical, and it seems like their original purposes align perfectly.

(Random shower thought: I wonder if “Seyoh” [the title for a chieftain of the Outskirters] is a corrupted form of CEO. That might hint at the original organizational structure of their tribes. It also fits nicely with their council/executive form of government.)

The “wizards” are the elite of the Krue: descendants of the original officers and engineers. Their responsibility is to keep the Guidestars operational and oversee Routine Bioform Clearance. Over time, though, they have waned in their stature. Corvus and Willam seem to believe that the wizards are less powerful than they were before. I suspect that they have become comfortable and stagnant in their ways. They enjoy being the elite of the planet, and have largely lost sight of their original purpose.

As for the Inner Landers… my current working theory is that Bel is right, that the Outskirters came first. After the first few cycles of Routine Bioform Clearance and Outskirter despoliation was completed and arable land was available, some people left the nomadic Outskirter tribes and started “civilization”. That explains the similarity in names used between the two cultures. I suspect that the elite Krue have been living in hidden cities (possibly bunkers or remnants of the original spacecraft); once civilization had advanced far enough, individual Krue implanted themselves as wizards. To do what, exactly? I’m not sure. Possibly to guide their society and keep them from interfering with the overarching terraforming project. Or just to get out of their bunkers and experience a different kind of life.

I’m still unclear on the internal workings and politics of the wizards. Ever since the beginning we’ve heard about the two major factions, “red” and “blue,” and the wars fought between the two. However, we’ve also since learned that Slado is a chief wizard who can command all the others. How can this be? For a while I thought that their division might just be a sham, an excuse for the Krue to start meaningless wars; this might be to keep the population in check, or to introduce new technology into their world, or to cover other actions of the wizards. But after the revelations of the fourth book, it seems very clear that (for example) the rivalry between Jannick and Olin is very real. Why, then, does everyone need to obey Slado?

I’d mentioned in my previous post that I suspected Slado wasn’t a wizard at all, but instead the name of a guiding council or a powerful artificial intelligence. That was mostly based on Corvus’s very cryptic statements about Slado, which made me think he wasn’t a real person at all. But the fourth book seems to make it very clear that he is real, and has both authority (the ability to command others) and power (the ability to destroy). My current theory is that Slado has the credentials necessary to control the Guidestars: it would explain why he was able to crash the first one, and the power he holds over the others. He’s essentially root or the sysadmin; if any wizard crosses him, he can simply cut off their access, at which point they will lose access to their most important “magic”. So he may not care about or guide their day-to-day activities very much, leaving them to fight amongst themselves; but when he makes demands, they must obey him.

So what, exactly, is Slado up to? If my theory about the extraterrestrial origin of the “humans” is correct, then the original Krue are still out there somewhere, planning to return. Kieran saw something in the sky that changed him: a star that became four stars and then one again. This seems like it must be a signal of some sort. What does it mean? As I see it, possibilities are two. Either it was a signal that the original Krue were returning; or that they would not return. (In the former case, the “star” was most likely a beacon, perhaps from an approaching ship; in the latter case, it might have been a distress signal, or perhaps a supernova.)

In either case, that knowledge changed Kieran. Perhaps he thought that, since the difficult work of rebuilding a planet was on its way to being completed, the wizards could loosen their grip on the people and let them evolve naturally. Or perhaps he came to realize that their project was hopeless, that the original architects would never return, and so it was up to them to model the sort of society they wanted to have.

Why did Slado crash the guidestar? If the ur-Krue are returning, then it may have been an act of sabotage. Perhaps he wants to rule this world, where his people have worked for so long, rather than return it to long-absent overseers. The purpose may have been to disrupt Routine Bioform Clearance, to abort or delay the project so the planet will be less desirable. Or perhaps the far Guidestar was an important element in transmitting information from the planet to the space-travelers, and by ruining it, he makes it difficult to be found or gives them concern about returning.

On the other hand, if the ur-Krue are NOT returning, then he may want to hide that fact from the other Krue. He seems to have been worried about Kieran disseminating whatever knowledge he found to the Steerswomen; if the Krue learn that they’re on their own, it may call their authority and methods into question. In this scenario, the fallen Guidestar wipes the records of Kieran’s discovery, and also makes it difficult for other Krue to learn this information themselves.

All of my speculation so far has mostly focused on the revelations in the 2nd and 4th books. The third is pretty weird, right? You could skip it entirely and the rest of the series would still make sense. But I’m sure it’s going to be crucial to the conclusion of the series.

The biggest revelation is that demons are intelligent creatures: social, with language, and some capacity for empathy. This suddenly makes the whole prospect of Routine Bioform Clearance much more complex. Humanity isn’t merely clearing out matter and native plant life; they’re committing xenocide. Xenocide against a deadly race, to be sure, but the total damage done by humanity (through the Krue and RBC) probably vastly outweighs the humans killed by demons.

At this point, it seems most likely that the demons are the native lifeform on the planet, predating the arrival of the Krue. By extension, quadrilateral symmetry most likely denotes original, native life, while bilateral symmetry is a sign of imported species. It’s POSSIBLE that the demons and the others invaded Earth, and the Krue are native earthlings who are reclaiming their planet, but that seems less likely.

One random thought I have had, though: Rowan notes that the demons seem ill-suited to walking on land. She observes that their bodies would make more sense if you imagine them swimming through the ocean. That’s a possibility, but if they are invasive species, I wonder if they may actually be suited to “swimming” through SPACE. That would also explain their acidic attack glands; I’ve had difficulty visualizing how those could work underwater, but they would be useful in space both as propellant and to break up obstacles.

In any case, though, the demons are here now. Which brings up an interesting question about the endgame: SHOULD Routine Bioform Clearance be restarted? Rowan and Bel see that it’s necessary in order to prevent a massive war between the Outskirters and the Inner Landers; but completing the original project would mean the entire destruction of all native life. If it’s possible to co-exist, then an optimal solution might actually be the cessation of RBF, with each biome maintaining its own lifeforms. That would be interesting, since it implies that Slado’s actions MAY actually be for the greater overall good (even if not intentionally so).

And, along the same lines, I’m curious how Janus’s story will end. He’s one of the better villains I’ve read lately, and Kirstein does a fantastic job at presenting his deception and treachery in stages so you’re fully horrified by his actions (capping with an over-the-top-but-thrillingly-deployed confession of cannibalism). He doesn’t show up at all in the fourth book, but he’s been too well-developed to disappear entirely. It seems likely that he has gone in search of the wizards, with the goal of restarting RBC and annihilating demons from the planet. Which, interestingly, may put him in opposition with Slado, the putative archenemy of the series.


Okay! That’s what’s bouncing around in my brain now, anyways. I’m off to read other posts and blogs on the series and see what I’ve missed!

1 comment:

  1. I realize I'm coming in more than two years after this post, but I just finished the fourth book myself yesterday, and had a thought about seyohs. I googled it, and this was the closest I saw to my own idea. Here are my own scattered thoughts in response to yours.

    First off, yeah, I would bet body parts this isn't Earth, and would have done so from the middle of book 2. It doesn't matter if "humanity [were] rebuilding from a heavily mutated and irradiated wreckage"; the only reasonable explanation for fundamentally incompatible life and body plans that are radically different from any Earth life is different evolutionary origins, and it seems that Kirstein is going for reasonable explanations. Incidentally, I suspect the Outskirters' goats are genetically engineered to digest redgrass and tolerate blackgrass (this was hinted at in passing in the first book).

    Regarding your speculation that "a star-traveling race (let’s call them the Krue) discovered this planet", yeah, let's not call them the Krue. Let's call them humans, and no need for scare quotes, as it's clear they have vestiges of Earth cultures. I'm almost positive Krue=crew, i.e. the crew of the vessel that brought the colonists, who (mostly) became isolated from the rest of the colonists and (likely many generations in, when most details of the mission were lost to most of the population) established itself as a superior caste and created the order of the wizards to maintain its authority.

    Regarding the Outskirts, my suspicion based on the songs and outskirter lore is that some of the crew (Krue) did go to the Outskirts to lead terraforming operations there, and were largely isolated from Inner Lands Krue aside from the use of links. Here's where we get to Seyoh. I don't think CEO makes a lot of sense. My thought was CO--commanding officer.

    As for the hard copies with images of stars, this is where we have to wait for the next books for more clues, but yeah, my first thought is that Kieran reviewed the footage from Gee-Three at Farside and spotted a fleet of 3-4 ships setting off from Earth (I think three, and the fourth star in the image is still our sun, but this is all a guess), most likely at relativistic speeds, and this fills him with a renewed sense of responsibility to the children, some of whom may still be alive when the fleet arrives and should have a sense of their place in the cosmos and a willingness to cooperate with the new arrivals. However, when he told Slado a few years later (or perhaps when he told Slado he was going to tell the Steerswomen and thus make it all public knowledge), Slado (a student who by then had exceeded his master) had other ideas, and killed Kieran, stole Kieran's access, and used said access to remove the G3 guidestar from orbit in order to prevent the wizards from finding out about the fleet (perhaps he intends to repel the fleet or turn the wizards/Krue/populace against it).

    I have no idea yet where the non-routine bioform clearance and the demons fit into all this. At the end of book 3, I thought maybe Slado might be ecologically minded and perhaps wants to save the demons from routine bioform clearance (even at the expense of human life, with maybe a plan for Rowan to come in to inform him that coexistence is possible after all, and thus Janus would become the REAL villain). But I no longer think that's likely; I do think Slado is the true Big Bad after all. My best guess now is that he's killing off Outskirts Krue, maybe to further cover his tracks.