One of the reasons I’m so in awe of Gene Wolfe is the amount of very scholarly debate inspired by his work. Now, I’m not in his league when it comes to utterly, intricately baffling (1) writing, but hola, what’s this? Following the review at Eve’s Alexandria (an extended version of the earlier SFX magazine review I believe) we have the first analytical comment, which leads me neatly on to…
Race and prejudice in the world of the insect-kinden? And the answer is Yes.
There are fantasy settings where everyone and everything is nice until the Dark Lord shows up. However, even in such settings you still tend to find plenty of social stratification and division of labour between classes, nations and races/species, but it passes without comment: the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, and it’s all perfectly lovely until those darned orcs (3) showed up rocking the boat, taking our jobs, leering at our women and wanting to live somewhere there wasn’t a volcano.
Inequality and injustice amongst the insect-kinden, then, and by the bucket-load. The Emperor of the Wasps may not be Mother Theresa (4) but neither is he the be-all and end-all of evil. There’s plenty of evil to go around, large and small, overt and covert.
With Empire and its sequels I want to dig deep into that particular vein. It’s a topic that fantasy fiction is particularly well-placed to examine, after all: invent the world and you invent the rules, and so you can explore real-world issues with greater freedom than a book set in the actual real world. Fantasy has always been one of the traditional refuges of satirists – Gulliver’s Travels, for example, or Erewhon.
Social injustice (see the Steampunk diatribe here) is one thing, and for that it doesn’t matter if your Empire is Wasp, Roman or British. The Beetle-kinden are arguably the most enlightened kinden by our standards – after all they have humanitarianism, democracy, scholarships for the poor – surely they’re the touchstone for virtue? But in the interactions between the Collegium masters and magnates, and much more so when you get to the grime of Helleron, it’s easy to see that the Beetle-kinden have a far from perfect society – their elected Assembly is crammed with merchants and the idle rich (5), and haven’t you noticed, in a world which is by no means male-dominated, how many of the leading Beetles seem to be men… Perhaps the best that can be said for Stenwold’s kin is that they’re working on it.
Beyond their ivory towers, plenty of the other races indulge in the most open form of social injustice, slavery. Because of the focus of Empire the Wasps are the most obvious offenders, with their subject nations drafted to serve their war effort. It’s plain, however, that their slaver society is not purely fuelled by foreign import, as the case of the unhappy Hreya shows, sold to pay her family’s debts. Alongside that, there is sufficient mention of “good family” to show that the Empire, whilst young, is already developing the hereditary divisions between “those who rule” and “those who obey”.
And of course there are other slavers: most of the Ant-cities, and of course the Spider-kinden, and there are other divisions as well. In Dragonfly Falling a little more light is shed on the Spider-kinden, the enormous divide of wealth and power between their Aristoi and their Hoi Polloi. However…
The division of the kinden themselves cuts deeper lines into the landscape, and (as Nic points out) this is another kind of social divison – the kinden are all human, after all, (for a given value of human, as Pratchett might say). Their adherence to their various totems has drawn each kinden away from the others, until each is far more distinct from each other than neighbouring tribes, or even nations, but the differences in physiology are exaggerated, in their minds, by the perceived differences in culture and character. Each kinden stereotypes the others (6), and yet I’ve done my best to clutter the books with individuals who are clearly far from the supposed benchmark, and who suffer under the prejudice of those around them: everyone knows that Spiders are deceitful (7), that Wasps are aggressive, and that Flies are shiftless, larcenous cowards. Except that there are honest Spiders, kindly Wasps, courageous Flies even (8)(9). Except that the greatest divisions between the kinden, the ones wars are made of, are carried on now solely because they’re there, just like so many cultural divisions in the real world. The Ant-kinden city-states are enemies because, after so long being enemies, each cannot risk proffering the hand of friendship for fear of being taken advantage of, and so they live swords-drawn, skirmish after futile skirmish, because it’s easier than trusting. The Mantids hate the Spiders because… well, do they even know? Is there anywhere, outside of the oldest scrolls of the Moth-kinden, that records why they hate them so? And would it even matter? Even if the reason was a good one two thousand years ago, wouldn’t it be stale by now? And yet Tisamon’s people hate, and hate and hate, because to be seen to be not hating, to be (spirits forfend) fraternising, would be the great betrayal, attracting the loathing of your kin, exile from your home. And then there are the Beetle-kinden and the Moths, whose enmity doesn’t perhaps run quite to plan, because the Moths (of Tharn anyway) hate the Beetle-kinden for what was taken from them, their great dominion of the Days of Lore stripped from them like a robe. The Beetles, on the other hand (and with the exception of certain Helleron mine-owners), in spite of a millennium of slavery when the Moths were their overlords, view their former masters with a certain bemusement. If they would only come down from the mountains and just take part, then surely everyone would be happy, no?
But of course they can’t, and here we get onto what the posts identify. The Aptitude gap.
It’s not unique in fantasy to have races that can, and that can’t. Often there is a mystic race with a magic power that the plot focuses around, and the bulk of the book’s population will lack that power, and be hostile and unpleasant about it, despite the fact that the power is the only thing that can possible defeat the Bigbad. There will be a race that is the sole custodian of the Old Magic. Or maybe there will be a bloodline, royal or otherwise, that is the only heritage that can awaken the Runespork and defeat the DragonGripe Doomlord. Perhaps one individual prince has a destiny, and if he doesn’t do it, nobody can. Is it any less inequitable when it’s not a race but a family, a blue bloodline? I’d say the fascism, the chosen-race-ness of it all, is the same either way. Of course, as the prince/family/last scion of the elder race is usually the focus of the book, and a terribly decent chap/gal to boot, one never quite sees the inequality, because we’re on the inside looking out. What about all those poor bastards who did their level best to defeat the Gripelord of Wunderbrar, and had absolutely everything going for them except a Destiny? Why then it’s just like Young Siward bearding Macbeth on the battlefield, after all: “Are ye born of woman, laddie?” “Er, yes, why do you ask…?” HACK!
And so (by a rather circuitous route) to Aptitude, the Big Division. Because there are kinden that Can, and kinden that Can’t (and depending on what you’re taking about it will determine which kinden line up on the Can side of the barrier). The Apt kinden are on the up, the Inapt kinden are declining, but’s that’s okay, because they have their spirituality, so that’s all right then.
Except it’s not all right. Of course it isn’t. Even without the Empire it’s plain that at some point the mining barons of Helleron are going to decide that it’s more cost effective to deal with their Inapt neighbours by force, and at the rate the artificers are changing the face of warfare, how long before even the Mantis-kinden find that they’re set to go the way that the flower of chivalry of the Commonweal went, when the Wasps brought their flying machines and automotives against them.
So, is it down to this? Even though there are many kinden lined up at either end of the pitch, has it come down to “white men can’t jump?”
Now I’m going to answer this in two opposite ways, so witness the equivocational gymnastics carefully (10).
Firstly, and why not vive la difference? If tribes and nations cannot have distinct traits and capabilities in fantasy, then where? Fantasy fiction has giants and orcs and elves and dwarves and dragons, and surely they don’t have to all be the same under the skin? If that’s the criterion then I’m royally screwed already because the Flies fly and the Ants don’t. The kinden are divided and defined by their Art – but they’re all human nonetheless, no more or less human for their spines or their claws or their ability to manifest wings.
But that’s not (I hope that’s not) the point being made. Aptitude, as opposed to the variegations of the Art, is a mental division, and those are the harsh ones, because you can’t see the difference, or lack of same, and therefore it’s open to that eternal hobgoblin, interpretation. Lord knows there has been some extremely disreputable psychological research into the “intelligence” of real world ethnic groups. This is (as goes without saying, one hopes) not the sort of thing I’m trying to pull. I have no ethnic axe to grind.
But the Apt/Inapt division is there, and it’s real, and it’s a large part of what the book, and more particularly the wider series, is about. The broadest way to characterise it is to say that the world of the supernatural is closed to the Apt, whereas the world of the mechanical is unknowable to the Inapt, but there are dozens of other, less obvious ways in which the two sides of the insect soul fail to meet.
Therefore, emo ergo ego, the division is real, and where does that leave us?
Well, the series is called “Shadows of the Apt” for a reason. Aptitude is important, to the plot and to the world. It’s a multi-faceted two-way mirror with hidden depths (11) and you can be sure I’ll take my own sweet time about explaining why.
So much for firstly, so, secondly:
Just how immutable is Aptitude? After all, all Moths are Inapt, yes? And every Beetle is Apt, and never the twain shall meet? And what about Fly-kinden, so often overlooked? Apt, or Inapt? Because matters are neither as simple or immutable as they might seem. How impossible is it for that comprehension to come, of gears or of geases?
So, to round off, and inspired by the Alexandrian review structure, some quotes. The first is from Empire in Black and Gold:
‘There were a few exceptions, as always… itinerant Beetle scholars going native deep in the forests of the Mantids, propitiating spirits and painting their faces, and fifty years ago there had even been a Moth artificer at Collegium, brilliant and half-mad.’
but for the second I’ll allow myself the smallest spoiler, because it’s important: a tiny excerpt from Dragonfly on the subject of Aptitude:
“Ah, well, my own people have uncommon views,” he told her… “You did not know, I believe, that many of my kinden are Apt. We study mechanics and the physical principles of the world, although in truth we build little, and that must be from wood in the main, metal being hard to come by in our homeland.”
“I did not know that,” she admitted. “And so, I would guess, that you cannot help me.”
“Ah,” he said, pedantic as a librarian. “Ah, but yet many of my kinden are not Apt and have no gift for machines, and yet follow other paths, the physical principles of the world and so forth and so on, that some might call magic. And so you see, we are in something of a unique position, my kinden. For we are not surging forwards into the, progress of the world of artifice, nor are we clinging grimly to the darkness of the Days of Lore. We are… in balance, I suppose one might say. And these two halves of our culture, they are not two halves at all, for each tries to share its insights with the other, and just occasionally some gifted man or woman of our kind can understand the both…”’
(1) Originally written “baggling”. I have no idea what “baggling” might be (2) but it must mean something.
(2) Having never baggled.
(3) I always wondered if the Oxbridge Mr T’s root of ‘orc’ wasn’t ‘oik’…
(4) Still the touchstone of virtue apparently, or at least the cliché I always seem to fall back on when needing to contrast with someone nasty. One of these days the nasty is going to be Mother Theresa, and then you’ll be sorry.
(5) And Stenwold Maker himself seems to have a ready supply of money, does he not?
(6) And stereotypes itself as well, of course. How else to impose internal conformity? Mantis-kinden are especially guilty of this.
(7) And yet they’re so damned charming that you never think about it when they talk to you.
(8) Achilles, if I remember this correctly, asked to be given the courage of a fly, on the basis, I think, that a fly (one assumes the biting variety) takes on an enemy vastly greater than itself without hesitation.
(9) And the Wasps see things differently, of course. They have their own stereotypes, and it’s worth noting that there are only two other kinden in the Empire that have any kind of civic rights or prospects, and Flies are one. To the Lowlanders, Fly-kinden are an underclass, useful for cleaning chimneys or reaching into the grinding works of machinery. To the savage, oppressive Empire, they’re useful and productive members of society.
(10) Definitely should be the new Olympic sport in 2012. That or Olympic Stadium Finishing.
(11) And mixed metaphors.