Written by Michael Flynn
Exempting fables and other surrealisms, a novel is an artifact constructed from bits and pieces of the author’s experience and research that seeks to emulate nature. (And the Latin term for a construction is fictio.) We praise a novel when we say it is “true to life” (and note the distinction between truth and fact).
But some constructions are better than others. You ought not see the seams and the fasteners where disparate parts were put together.
On the Razor’s Edge, the fourth book in the Spiral Arm, features two rival interstellar combines: the United League of the Periphery and the Confederation of Central Worlds. Neither is an “empire” because the distances between stars require weeks, sometimes months, of travel, and weaken the effectiveness of government-from-the-center. Each world tends to go its own way.
The governing class of the Confederation (“the Names”) is more committed to centralized rule than the more far-flung and anarchic League and over the centuries it has developed a special institution of highly skilled troubleshooters called The Shadows of the Names. Here is where some construction work comes in, so put on your hard hats. We don’t want a future too much like the present or recent past. That’s like aliens being humans in rubber suits. One way of handling this is to bolt together bits and pieces of different cultures.
Organizationally, the Shadows are based on the tu ch’a yüan (the Censoriate) of Ming China, whose job was to shadow and censure government officials for improper public and private behavior. In a centralizing milieu like Ming China, the Censoriate helped ensure that every village mayor in the far flung empire toed the line. The Names likewise need something like the Censoriate to keep reins on their governors and generals and pull them toward the center.
But the Shadows are less a bureaucracy than the Ming Censoriate, (and more organized than the Frankish “eyes and ears of the king”). They are also warriors of exceptional skill. Psychologically, the Shadows are based on the decadent Franco-Burgundian knighthood of the 15th century, who wore gauds of honor and pageantry over underwear of grim pragmatism. To ensure the loyalty of the Shadows themselves, Shadows are indoctrinated from an early age in a quasi-knightly order packed in a fluffy cotton of tradition and ceremony. (Also, they are sent out in pairs. The second is unknown to the first and tasked with slaying the first should his loyalty waver.)
So if we imagine Frankish “eyes and ears” with the skills of Japanese ninjas organized like the Ming shadow bureaucracy and trained to devotion like the Knights Templar, we get something very like the Shadows of the Names.
One problem: A culture unfolds from within, and its various facets have a sort of organic unity. It’s difficult to take institutions from various cultures, bolt them together, and expect the assemblage to seem realistic. Ming shadows and Burgundian knights arose within particular cultural contexts with particular histories. We ought to wonder if the seams show.
Seven millennia of future history in the Spiral Arm has dissolved everything into a thoroughly blended historical soup. There is no longer any sense that this is Chinese and that is European. The historical soup has been poured into very different bowls in a series of renaissances over the course of time. The Shadows are not knights, and are not commissioners of the tu ch’a yüan. They are Shadows of the Names.
From the Tor/Forge July 8th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from the July 8th Tor/Forge newsletter:
- Confessions of a History Geek: Blending History and Fantasy by D. B. Jackson
- Ender’s Game Sweepstakes