I love it when you pick up a book with neutral expectations and within a single chapter, find yourself looking for extra reading time in the day so that you can stay in the flow of the story.
“The Steerswoman” gave that to me on the morning I opened it. It was an intriguing blend of the familiar (sword and sorcery setting with a hint of a high tech past, a search for a kind of gem that may not be a gem, a coaching inn filled with pilgrims, red-coated soldiers in service to a mage and a band of barbarian Outskirters with stories of night fights with heat-seeking goblin in the wild lands) and the new (Steerswomen – who travel the land asking and answering questions, building maps and curating knowledge).
The writing was like good camerawork, moving swiftly and lightly, coaching your eye to capture everything that was important without labouring any point.
There were no big info-dumps. No cliché-ridden D&D-based scene setting. The Steerswoman at the heart of the story was neither warrior nor princess, neither beauty nor freak. She was a little prickly, liked to travel alone and had an insatiable curiosity. She was self-aware enough to be likeable and curmudgeonly enough to be believable.
By the time she was ready to leave the inn the next morning, it is her curiosity and her openness to new things that I was most engaged with. I wanted to go where she went, see what she saw and put the puzzle pieces together alongside her.
Now THAT’S how you start a sword and sorcery series.
Except, I discovered slightly further into the book, that this isn’t a sword and sorcery series. It has swords and sorcerers in it but it is really a book about rational thinking and science.
The tone of the book was neither full-on adult fantasy nor typical emotion-laden conflict-ridden YA fiction. What it most reminded me of was Le Guin’s Earthsea series only told by a scientist, not a mage.
Beneath its skin, this is a story of earth where most knowledge of technology has been lost and two groups are in the process of recovering or rediscovering it, the Mages and the Steerswomen.
The Mages are a breed apart, guarding their knowledge fiercely from everyone, especially each other, and using it to acquire and keep wealth and territorial dominion. They hoard knowledge, brand it as magic and attribute their mastery of it to their superior breeding..
The Steerswomen are collectors of information and curators and disseminators of knowledge. They give honest, accurate answers to any question asked, to the best of their knowledge and abilities in return for getting answers to their own questions. In a world that has magic but not science, they are the rational pattern makers. The people who shape and reshape the world into new patterns as more data and more links between data are discovered. The Steerswomen place everything in the public domain and keep it open to challenge and change.
The blind spot that Mages and Steerswomen share is that neither will talk to the other.
It’s easy to see the Steerswomen as heroes and the Mages as baddies but the book is more complicated than that. Rowan, the Steerswoman at the heart of the story, is not an easy person to like. She is dispassionate and solitary, Her analytical mind and her insatiable curiosity distance her from the day to day life around her. She catalogues it but doesn’t necessarily feel any empathy with it. She is honourable, according to her lights, but is capable of being ruthless. At first, it seems that she will only kill when attacked but, as the book progresses and the stakes increase, she is willing to use torture and to bring wide-scale destruction and death.
I rather liked the idea that the people who live by sharing knowledge are just as tough and can be just as ruthless as those who hold power by hoarding it. It seemed more realistic to me.
As a story, “The Steerswoman” was an interesting puzzle with a few unique twists. As an exploration of what science is and how our knowledge of it grows, it is extraordinary. It was written thirty years ago but in this time when science is under attack, experts are branded as just another opinion and demagogs feed us “alternative facts” to make their case, I think it’s very relevant. Today, we have access to more data at a faster speed and with less effort than ever before but we are replacing facts with opinion, rational argument with storytelling and science with magical thinking.
NOW is a time when we need Steerswomen.
And yet, collecting data, curating knowledge, constantly challenging and updating patterns is not a normal way of thinking of behaving for most people. In my view, while it can be taught, it is in an innate ability for a small percentage of people. It contributes to the survival of the species but doesn’t necessarily lead to a comfortable life for those who think and act like Steerswomen.
With her way of life under threat, Rowan, the main character in the story, recalls what it was like when she first met others with the same habits of thought as herself.
She had spent her life alone in her strangeness, and had met only one other person like herself. When she joined the Academy, she was like an exile who had returned home.
I recognise that feeling.
To move forward, Rowan is put in a situation where she must lie to survive. She baulks at this, even to protect herself. She says:
“People need truth! They need it to be happy, to know what to do, to live!”
I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I think that polluting or displacing the truth is doing huge damage to people every day.
When Rowan finally understands the extent of the threat, I felt great empathy for her reaction. She says:
“…The whole way of life is threatened, for every one of us. I . . .” She paused, shaping her thoughts. “I can’t stand for it. I have to try to stop it, whatever it may take. Or at the very least, I have to know why.”
For me, that sums up the value set of people who instinctively think this way.
I loved the next part. A group of Steerswomen, used to being the most knowledgeable people in a room, have to be schooled by a couple of ordinary people, Josef and Bel, on how to lie convincingly.
These three methods are spot on. We should teach kids at school how to spot when someone (a Prime Minister or President for example) is using them:
“The best way to lie is to tell the truth.” The steerswomen looked at each other in perplexity. Bel expanded on Josef’s statement.
“That’s right, you say true things—except, you leave some things out. That way, the person takes what you’ve said and makes his own conclusions—the wrong ones, because of what’s missing.”
Josef gave her an affirming nod.
“And that’s your lie. And the second best way is to tell the truth—something obvious, something the other person knows down to his bones—and add your lie onto it, so long as it fits in.” “The person knows that the part he can check is true, and if the rest makes sense, he’ll believe it,”
Bel said. “And the last good way to lie is to say nothing. Let the other person guess as much as he likes, and when he’s dead wrong,” he said with a smile, “you tell him how clever he is.”