The Steerswoman, by Rosemary Kirstein
Synopsis: A rationalist monk investigates why the wizards of her world want to destroy her order
Book Review: I’d heard this was a rationalist novel. I was not disappointed. Much of the meat of this book is in applying the tools of thought and observation to puzzle out what is happening, or to evaluate options and choose between them. Clues are fed to the reader constantly, some just before the puzzle’s solution is presented, others far in advance, and several things are left unknown to the protagonist at the end of the story which we as the reader have figured out (though we do have a massive advantage which I won’t get into due to major spoilage). A lot of the remaining action is in the domain of subterfuge and misleading your opponents, while attempting to see through their subterfuges. Unfortunately the writing of actual physical action (there are a few fight scenes) is kinda clunky. It doesn’t feel exciting, and it’s hampered by over-analysis, which takes the urgency out. That’s ok, I’m not here for the fight scenes, but it does detract from the book a little.
It endeavors to teach the reader a usable skill as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see the protagonist say (not literally, but close enough) “I notice I am confused” and go on to explain that there is no confusion in reality, and therefore something she thought she knew about the world is incorrect, and now she must find what it is. Written almost 20 years before Yudkowsky’s Sequences, and yet the similarities were astounding. Rationality is timeless. :)
The humanist/transhumanist ideals are there as well, from the protagonist’s deep-seated emotional aversion to spreading untruths, to the statement at the end that while the villains can kill individual rationalists, they can never defeat human progress, and thus as long as it’s possible for humans to grow in knowledge the villain will ultimately be defeated. It’s good stuff!
And the primary conflict is between value systems rather than good-vs-evil, which again fits the rationalist motif.
But is it a good story, you ask?
Yes. It is. The writing is solid (although there is an epidemic of people laughing their dialog that felt unrealistic). The plot keeps moving at a strong pace, and the characters are likable and relatable. So much so that I was angry at one of the characters when she did something reprehensible, and I was sad when one of the villain’s lieutenants was killed. There’s one really gripping scene near the beginning that gut-punched me with its unexpected tragedy – a prime example of no one being evil but the system being broken – that I won’t forget for some time. It has some rough patches, and a few errors I could do without, but overall it’s a good book, and I’m glad there’s another rationalist novel I can point to proudly. Recommended.
Book Club Review: If you’re not a rationalist, the novel isn’t quite as enthralling. As I said, it’s a good story, but it’s not stellar. I was told that the rough parts stick out more when you aren’t enamored with it. And it turns out that if you aren’t reading with some attention it’s possible to miss the puzzle altogether.
Also of interest – a couple readers couldn’t figure out the Steerswoman’s motivation, so the entire thing felt kinda rambling and unfocussed to them. At first I was confused. “What do you mean there’s no motivation? There’s an existential threat against their entire way of life!” It turns out that for people who don’t already deeply identify with a philosophy of pursuing truth and growing the knowledge base of all mankind, if an outside force threatens to both curtail all explorations of certain phenomena and permanently hobble the scientific spirit… that’s not really a big deal. I know, that sounds crazy to me too! But I guess not everyone places as much importance on those ideals, so they don’t see why others would risk their lives to defend them.
There are some great things for rationalists to talk about if they read this. There are a couple instances of the Steerswoman failing at rationality, which make for good topics. More importantly, there are a couple of systemic flaws in her order’s approach to rationality that really seem very glaring in my opinion. The merits of these are arguable, and one can speculate as to whether this was intentional on the author’s part and will be addressed in later books, or was oversight.
There were plot points that non-rationalists can discuss as well, in particular a couple moral decisions/shirkings that happen near the end which spark a fair bit of emotion. But in the end all I can say is that, as an aspiring rationalist, I am completely unable to say whether or not this book is a good recommendation for book clubs in an objective way. I liked it, and I am excited about it. If you are an aspiring rationalist as well, and you want to expose your book club to rational fiction, and they’ve already read Blindsight, this is a good book to go with. With the caveat that my judgment is colored – Recommended.