Saturday, April 20, 2013

too damn picky I guess

I was reading a back issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction recently, and thinking once again that it had an old-fashioned feel to it. Retro, maybe. One story I enjoyed for the most part, because it had a very Edward Pangborn vibe:  enigmatic old man with Biblical name arrives at early-settler-type village, befriends adolescent narrator, reveals knowledge of advanced tech and lost history of colonisers of alien planet, is feared and accused of witchcraft by less-enlightened, lights out for territories with adolescent narrator. You see what I mean.
The Pangborn echoes kept me reading on, though after a while I started to wonder why far-future colonists would revert to a 1600s American Colonial sort of social structure, and why they would fear witchcraft (why would they know about witchcraft?) without the sort of pressures and fears that were present in the 1600s? Since there was a hint that the colonists were multicultural, why not revert to clans or tribes or monasteries? But yeah, okay, pick one, and the author did pick one.
And when the village crops depend largely on a steam-powered tractor that's a piece of ancient tech, why is knowledge of ancient tech suspicious? I get that fear-of-tech is a common trope in post-catastrophe stories, but they didn't fear tech, they'd just forgotten how to maintain it.

Near the end of the story, a sentence just jumped out at me. A sympathetic character says that our adolescent narrator will reach adult status and "choose a bride".
Wait, what? Choose from where? Because other than the narrator's dead mother, there were no women in this village. The speaking characters were all male, the named secondary characters were all male, the un-named tertiary characters were male. (Come to that, the only non-adult character was the narrator.) The enigmatic old man scores points by teaching the locals how to make devilled eggs and to add "aromatic herbs" to the stewpot (yeah, might want to be a bit more specific about which ones, this being an alien planet and all). He tells this to the men because there are no women present in the narrative. I skimmed quickly back through the story, and didn't spot any women.
I think I figured out why your colony isn't doing too well, fellows. And it's not just because you forgot how to fix machinery and make devilled eggs. (Speaking of which, where did they get the pepper?)

The more I thought about this story, the more worldbuilding problems I began to see. The villagers live apparently at the brink of starvation, one bad harvest and they have to start eating each other. Again, I don't think devilled eggs are going to solve that problem, and if hunger means you routinely pop wrongdoers into the stewpot, making stewmeat tastier is not the big issue. They have 'bottles' in which they could preserve food (hey, where did they get bottles? who made them? Is there a glass foundry somewhere nearby?) but don't bother to do so until the enigmatic old man suggests it.
Okay, maybe the lack of nutrients in the native plants or starvation because of climate change is making everyone stupid, as in some theories about what happened to the medieval Greenland colony
By the time I reached the end of the story, I was so distracted by background questions I had to re-read the last paragraphs a couple of times, which only made the problem worse.

It wasn't badly written. And I was prepped to enjoy a Pangborn-style story. But there were so many loose threads that I couldn't resist pulling on one, then on another, until it all came apart. I don't know if there's a moral here, unless it's Don't have picky readers.


Sharon Needles said...

No, I think the moral here is, "Do your research and pay attention."

batgirl said...

It was really disappointing to have those major worldbuilding holes, when the story was engagingly written, and the holes could have been so easily avoided.
Hah! I see that Lois Tilton noted the same point about the absence of girls and women from the narrative.