Working Darkness Underground

Blade of p’Na — L. Neil Smith


L. Neil Smith’s 2016’s Blade of p’Na is the next Prometheus Award finalist selected for review by my complex sorting algorithm (I threw dice).

Four hundred million years of civilization is long enough for a race like the Elders to have developed some very odd hobbies. Among the avocations the nautiloid Elders dabbled in was Appropriating doomed or interesting beings from neighbouring universes. This did not end so well for the Elders in question (who committed suicide once they noticed the inherent contradiction between their ethic of ‘freedom for all!’ and ‘kidnapping’ [1]) but it has worked out pretty well for the Appropriated and their descendants.

Take Eichra Oren, for example.

Although the Elders and their neighbours eschew such inherently statist ideas as cops and taxes, there’s still a niche for a public minded fellow like Eichra Oren to make a living assessing and resolving the moral debts between citizens. Assessors are one part PI to one executioner.

The week begins normally enough, with opportunities to excel like helping intelligent spiders balance individual right to life and liberty with the simple truth that husbands are mighty fine eating. Disturbing hints that someone is scheming to begin Appropriating beings again are followed up with a string of deadly attacks. Oren and his talking dog Sam survive. Not all their friends are so lucky…

Oren’s focus is on individual level conflicts. He’s not the obvious choice when it comes to clashes on a grander scale. Such conflicts are well off the radar of anyone in the Elder realm. The Elders and those they influence turned their backs on ideas like war and conquest.

Those lofty principles didn’t stop someone else from declaring a secret war on the Elders.


First off, I’d like to assure everyone that though Sam is strongly implied to have gotten it on with an open-minded human sex worker, everyone involved was a consenting adult. Plus whatever happened, happened between chapters. It does raise the question of how much canine sexuality has been shaped by co-evolution with humans, which I think we can all agree is very Sirius business.

It’s a plot point that the Elders have in the past managed to fool themselves into thinking what they want to do is what they should do and that sometimes they are just flat out wrong. What nobody seems to have pondered deeply—yet—are the moral implications of cybernetically uplifting beings like Sam into intelligence so that they can serve the naturally intelligent. There’s a minor subplot where we see how badly this worked out for one uplifted entity who was turned into an obligate living weapon. That’s a specific example, not a consideration of the general case [2].

I tend to doubt Smith will ponder the Question of Sam (although it’s not impossible). He’s more interested in black and white divisions between the good guys (who by definition agree with Smith) and bad guys (evil statists!). Or in the case of this book, one ambitious individual with a really poor grasp of boundaries and no respect for other people’s liberty. Or for the idea of “other people.” I’ve been in theatrical productions with people like the antagonist in this book and I can assure you they’re pesky.

The basic problem I’ve had with Smith since at least The American Zone is that he wants to write mysteries but has gotten worse at having his protagonist actually solve them. In large part, it’s because given the choice of having his characters investigate or having his characters deliver political lectures, he finds it very hard to resist the second option [3]. The solution might be as simple as getting a collaborator charged with the mystery side of things, so Smith can focus on the stuff he cares about.

This was not as bad as The American Zone [4]—collection of and piecing together of clues does happen—but the resolution seemed rather perfunctory. If you’re a Smith fan already, this is a fairly typical Smith book and you will probably like it. If you’re not, you may find it slight [5]. It is, however, almost exactly what I (unfairly) expect from a Prometheus Award nominee: a slender plot bravely supporting a ponderous weight of simple-minded political exposition.

Blade of p’Na is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Feel free to comment here.

Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.

1: At least some of the people snatched from other worlds were about to die, so for those people being dragged off was better than the alternative. Smith pretty decisively refuses to put even one foot onto that slippery slope of “that bad outcome justifies ignoring our principles to avoid.”

2: While Sam is intelligent, that whole subplot made me wonder where libertarians stand on the issue of pets. “Can proper libertarians have pets” is no sillier than “can proper libertarians have kids, given kids cannot consent to be born?” or “is a tax-funded effort to save the planet from an incoming asteroid moral?”

3: The book is told first person from Sam’s point of view. Presumably anyone in the Elder-verse already is familiar with the history and political philosophy Sam related. This makes me wonder who the heck Sam imagines his audience to be.

4: Whose protagonist Bear has to be reminded he’s supposed to be solving a crime, not expounding on politics. In the end, the bad guys just explain to Bear what they are trying to do.

5: Or, like me, the slightness of the plot will let you become distracted by side issues, like whether Smith sees the inherent contradiction between immortals who persist in having kids and a comparatively low population or if the continual references to Antarctica having been ice free until 15,000 years ago in what is clearly intended to be our universe is something Smith tossed in for fun or something he believes.

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