Saturday 13 April 2019

Book review: the Raven Tower

By Ann "Ancillary Justice" Leckie. A review; Goodreads.
Summary: good. As a novel, not as good as AJ. As ideas, better. In comparison to almost everything else around at the moment, clearly superior.

Don't read on if you don't want spoilers; this is in fact going to be more a discussion of the ideas in the book than a review.

The central character and near-omniscient observer is a God, who chooses to stay in a large boulder. In the context of the book, a "God" turns out to be an entity who, if it says a thing, that thing becomes true. Or if the statement is beyond the God's power, the God dies. So, not a God in the usual sense of the word, but a nice concept, and a well-defined one. We are given examples: a God wanting to be somewhere else needs to be careful saying "I will be in place X tomorrow" since they will either be there, or be dead. If X is 6 inches to the right of where they are now, then it won't take much "power", and will probably happen. If X is across the sea, that might prove problematic. But we're using here a rather odd sort of definition of "how difficult" a thing is; a stone rising in the air is as physically impossible as it is to fly over the sea; one has to allow some license to see one as more or less "impossible" than the other (see-also some discussion in GEB, I think, form 30 year-old-memories). Also, some Gods are more powerful than others, and some Gods are tiny. Oh, and the Gods can be sustained by worship or sacrifice: by a little milk, a little; by a voluntary life, a lot. There is no attempt to explain how this works, which is fine.

This God is Old, and not ambitious, and patient; and perhaps Breq-like has a concern for human life and the world.

Some sections manage to delightfully convey the expanses of time in pre-recorded history. The God relates their slow learning to communicate with humans: by tokens, mostly. And it slips in casually that this learning takes not just years, as the reindeer herders come and go, but many lifetimes. And this in turn conveys - or perhaps, attempts to discuss - how life might have been like for our own ancestors: they come across something unusual, an erratic boulder. Is it a God? Try worshipping it. Does it respond? No? Well maybe it's slow. Try coming back next year, and the next; perhaps the arrangement of knuckle bones appears to say something useful; and so on to the next life.

As the Gods are bound by the laws of this universe to perform their words or die, they learn to be cautious. The God often says, not "thing X happened" but "According to a story I was told, thing X happened". Because if you inadvertently say X happened, and it isn't true, your power flows without your volition to make it true. Them's the rules. During the now of the story it turns out that the God of the storyline is trying to escape the consequences of its words.

Now, I take something of a leap, and return to a favourite of mine ever since I discovered it, Law vs Legislation. And I wonder if Leckie has this in mind. I suspect not; if she has, she is very subtle. Here is Hayek on Legislation:
Unlike law itself, which has never been ‘invented’ in the same sense, the invention of legislation came relatively late in the history of mankind. It gave into the hands of men an instrument of great power which they needed to achieve some good, but which they have not yet learned so to control that it may not produce great evil. It opened to man wholly new possibilities and gave him a new sense of power over his fate. The discussion about who should possess this power has, however, unduly overshadowed the much more fundamental question of how far this power should extend. It will certainly remain an exceedingly dangerous power so long as we believe that it will do harm only if wielded by bad men.
This is almost exactly the power of the Gods: they have the power of Legislation. Compare that to how Human Rights legislation turns into court decisions; see for example this post of mine. The words the Gods speak are like Legislation: but these words can have unforeseen consequences, as shown by various court cases. The courts often don't consider "is this reasonable" (or if they do, different people have very different ideas of what is reasonable) but "is this what the law says".

I should add that the God also muses about the meaning of words. There are multiple languages, and there appears to be some attempt to say, effectively, if a God speaks and  says string-of-syllables which mean X in one language but Y in another, which one happens? This isn't really followed through, probably rather sensibly, since I think it is hard to take anywhere. You can't really go on without considering the mechanism that makes the Gods words True, and she doesn't want to do that.

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