Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Lifelode by Jo Walton

I really enjoyed Jo Walton's Lifelode for its ethereal feel. This is uncommon fantasy, with a real ear for how the storyteller's language sets the mood.

The story takes place in a rural setting with a medium level of magic, in a geography where the strength of magic and the speed of time's flow vary according to how far east or west you go. Like Vinge's Zones of Thought, there are regions with powerful magic and powerful gods, and regions where magic is absent and even ordinary thinking is slowed down. The village of Applekirk is a feudal setting, though there's more of a sense of the lords taking care of and protecting their subjects than of taking advantage of them.

Ferrand is the lord of the manor, and a gentle, just and foresighted leader. His polygamous household consists of his wife Chayra, his sweetmate Tavethe and her husband Ranal. Each has a 'lifelode', or calling that fills their days, and some have a gift with 'yeya' or magical mana. Tavethe's lifelode is keeping the house running smoothly, and she also sees shadows of the future and past selves of those around her. The household is busy with three children of different ages and temperments, each eager to grow up and find their own lifelode.

Into this mix comes Jankin, an academic from the west, with no particular magic of his own, but a driving curiosity about the history of a civilization that passed through this area centuries earlier, and Hanethe, Ferrand's great grandmother and a previous, reluctant, lord of the manor. Hanethe has been in the east having mysterious adventures for 15 years or so, while 60 years have passed in Applekirk. Hanethe is being chased by agents of a vengeful god she has wronged, but I'm more interested in talking about the setting than the main conflict, so you wan't get any interesting spoilers here.

Walton does a great job of fitting her prose to the scene, or whose story she's telling. When she talks about Tavethe, future, past and present are swirled together in an eternal now. When Walton is giving background on Applekirk, she also mixes past and future recklessly, in a way that makes the place seem unchanging, even as people are remembering or experiencing momentous events. And as Tavethe says occasionally, "The house remembers," and since the doors spontaneously announce the arrival of visitors or invaders and open politely for people with yeya and a strong connection to the place, it's easy to believe.

It's common for young people in Applekirk (and presumably other villages in the vicinity) to spend a year or two seeing what life is like a litttle ways east (for people with a touch of yeya) or west (for those with a more worldly bent), but they often return home and live out their lives where they started.

When Jankin is the subject, any little object or incident can suddenly shine with a special intensity as he focuses his attention, and learns something new about the history of the place, or how yeya works, or how people develop and exercise their skills (mundane or magical).

Melly, Taveth's daughter has a strong affinity for yeya, and becomes an apprentice to Hanethe for a short while.

When harvest time arrives, everyone bends to with a will, knowing their part already, except Jankin and Hanethe. Jankin has never lived on a farm, and has no relevant skills. Hanethe is no longer young and no one is willing to assign duties to her. But by this point, she is under threat and needs the villagers' support, so she does odd jobs that keep her visible like carrying water and refeshments to the workers. Jankin joins the reapers and learns about dirty and sweaty work.

The children are also drawn in great detail. Hodge is 6 and the natural son of Ferrand and Chayra, so he is the heir and everyone can tell that his lifelode when he grows up will be taking his place as Ferrand's successor. He is very earnest, and pays careful attention to the way that Ferrand leads. Still, he is easily distracted. Melly is 8, but less mature, except when her yeya comes into play. She hasn't yet learned to control it, except for small feats like bringing more from kitchen to dining room than will fit in her hands. She is excited to learn more, and fastens on to Hanethe, whose power is obvious, and who has been in the east.

This is a very satisfying story, with great mood, well-drawn characters, and interesting conflict. Even if the outcome is telegraphed, the twists and turns are surprising.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder

Karl Schroeder's Stealing Worlds imagines a near future where enhanced reality, alternate realities, and virtual world overlays compete with the conventional economy to provide alternate sources of employment and entertainment for anyone who wants it. Blockchain-based crypto-currencies make it simple for people to evade the strictures governments impose on real-world commerce. That, in turn, makes it possible for people looking for the distraction of having an adventure in fairyland, or Transylvania, or fight club world to pay others to make real-world resources available or act as NPCs or design huge virtual arenas in which to play.

Most of the action takes place in the US and Canada, but the action is presented as if it's a world-wide phenomena that spans the globe and undermines third-world dictatorships as much as it does the nanny state. There's enough crossing back-and-forth to show both how people are given an incentive to provide support services, and how interested parties would work to direct the attention and efforts of others to support their schemes.

For most of the story, the coordination is depicted as growing spontaneously out of the intertwined needs and abilities of the participants and those who work behind the scenes. If you already understand the way the invisible hand can lead people to solve problems for others without meeting them or getting explicit direction from them, it all makes perfect sense. Toward the end of the book, this story goes off the rails somewhat as agents are appointed for other interested constituencies like local wildlife or watersheds, or the carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Somehow these agents are able to know what limits need to be imposed in order to keep the environment healthy. Luckily for the story, they work more in the vein of directing development to the right areas rather than shutting down violating activities, but there's a little too much "Gaia Hypothesis" and distributed central planning for my taste.

There have been quite a few overlapping alternate reality stories recently, but Schroeder does a comparatively thorough job of showing how a parallel economy could work. This happens because the characters here play on both sides of the line, and have reasons (they're being pursued) to want to understand who's chasing them and how observable they are.

And then there's the story and the characters. This was a fun tale, with interesting people. The viewpoint character, Sura Neelin, is running to escape bounty hunters working for people who think her father gave her the McGuffin. This provides a reason to make use of the parallel economy's ability to move people around in the shadows and a reason to trade with shady characters who know other ways to hide without going into isolation. She works in several overlapping augmented realities as an NPC, and sometimes in the guise of her increasingly prominent primary character when she wants to affect the story line of one of the live action games that have become ubiquitous. She makes friends and learns to rely on them, and to be dependable when they need help. The plot provides plenty of opportunities for chases, firefights, and intrigue. It's a lot of fun.

The libertarian implications aren't prominent, but can be drawn out. The underground economy thrives, and is fairer to people who might get the short stick in the conventional world. There are criminals, but people can deal with them collectively in a more direct and immediate way than the sclerotic justice system would. Nobody advocates overthrowing the disfunctional governments, they just route around them.