And now for some hard SF

Banner of Souls — Liz Williams


2004’s Banner of Souls’ distant future features Martian warriors, malevolent ghosts, and kappa. Despite these fantasy elements, it amuses me to point out that this is a hard SF novel, if weighed on the same balance that declares Ringworld or Pandora’s Star to be hard SF.

In an era as yet unborn, one far enough from us that the surly warriors of Mars believe their terraformed world is the true home world of humanity, reproduction has been successfully decoupled from human bodies. It is no longer a biological function, but a more … industrial one, with new beings created according to the needs of their home communities (as seen by the oligarchs who run those societies). With their reproductive function no longer needed, males are almost unknown. Another side effect is that pair- (and other) bonding emotions like love have been largely abandoned, save when they are induced to serve as behavioral restraints on those who serve. It’s not a very nice world but it does appear to be a functional one.

Although the setting appears to be one in which change occurs slowly, if at all, the Solar System was transformed about a century before by the appearance of haunt-tech, a new family of technologies that were so radical an advance that people believe that the kami, the beings who gifted haunt-tech to humanity, must be highly advanced aliens. Perhaps in a hat-tip to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, haunt-tech exploits the Eldritch Realm, where spirits of the dead dwell … or at least that is the explanation everyone believes.

In the century since the witches of Nightshade made their bargain with the kami, there has been a long, quiet struggle between Nightshade and two defectors, Grandmothers, who resolved to make sure that Nightshade never had to make the final payment on their devil’s bargain. Now the Grandmothers’ long plan to forge their weapon, a young girl named Lunae, has come to fruition. This is good timing, because the kami’s final, dreadful payment is due.

Bound by imposed chains of love to protect Lunae at all costs, Martian warrior Dreams-of-War is dispatched to Fragrant Harbor, down to the flooded Earth, in order to protect Lunae from Nightshade’s legions of assassins. The surly Martian confronts enemies who can don stolen bodies like clothing, transforming friend into puppet. Nightshade’s own champion Yskatarina Iye, another warrior as capable and as bound by her conditioning as Dreams-of-War herself, has been so stolen.

I think I read this when I was in the mood for a classic Varley and although Williams’ prose is in no way like Varley’s, she oddly managed to scratch the right itch.

I am not sure what to make of the flood that drowns most of the Earth, but this might be an expression of the natural anxiety felt by those from Williams’ land of birth. Britain is notoriously only intermittently habitable; climate change has exterminated the humans living there seven times. The current inhabitants are all descendents of comparatively recent settlers. It seems reasonable that the temporary nature of their current abode must weight heavily on the unfortunates haunted by the tragic history of those doomed islands. Traditionally the actual killer is cold, but great floods are also featured in their myths.

The Chain, which links all the worlds of the Solar System, isn’t any more silly than Cowboy Bepop’s Phase Difference Space Gates, or Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga’s wormholes, in that the exotic matter  needed to prop open wormholes — perfectly acceptable in SF — is just as realistic a world-building detail as spirits from the Eldritch Realm.

The reuse of mythological names for the various new forms of humans might seem to make this a science fantasy but surely sticking those labels on made-people was just marketing at work?

I’ve seen a number of reviews over the years that were very concerned about The Problem of the Missing Men, or rather The Problem That the Problem of Missing Men Does Not Seem to Be a Problem for Anyone in the Book But is in Fact a Minor World Building Detail. It seems to me that this niggling detail arises naturally from the mechanization of reproduction. Once making new people is a function carried out by devices, what’s the point of paying for two sexes? And if you are going to only have one, my superficial and quite possibly incorrect grasp of the developmental pathways from embryo to male or female babies suggests that not only are female humans more robust on average than males — potentially huge aggregate health cost savings there — but making males requires more steps.

Abandoning affection as a voluntary form of pair-bonding seems to be an unfortunate decision. However, I can see that it might make sense to deny people any capacity for affection towards each other if the people calling the shots on the matter were power-mad oligarchs. Romance and friendship are notoriously destabilizing factors. Better to remove them entirely and enhance the rank and file’s ability to serve their betters.

Kahn’s 1960 On Thermonuclear War explores horrifying scenarios that range from barely tolerable to apocalyptic. Similarly, Banner of Souls depicts a world where most of the possible outcomes are, from our point of view, undesirable, but some undesirable outcomes are worse than others. Although their world is so grim that few of the novel’s characters can be entirely likeable, some of them — even poor, inflexible Dreams-of-War — manage it. There are no rulers who are exactly sympathetic, being as they are the products of an inhumane (although not inhuman) system, but one can certainly see that there are factions that are much worse than others. So much worse.

I wanted to reread this months ago but I had filed it  incorrectly creatively, so I settled for another Williams novel, Nine Layers of Sky. Having found my copy of Banner, I found that I must review it or the brain itch would not go away. Unfortunately for me, this book is not now in print and so today’s review is not a Rediscovery. But otherwise my decision was absolutely correct. No more brain itch.

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