8th in a series: The Very Best of the Best edited by Gardner Dozois
Although science fiction writers can write about anything, if you read enough science fiction you’ll discover a limited number of themes repeated in endless variations. The challenge to the writer is to tell an old story in a new way. In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” Alastair Reynolds uses the theme of a primitive society that barely remembers its former technological glory. There is a great sense of wonder to that idea. One of the earliest examples I can remember reading is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. In that story, our current world civilization had collapsed and a rather medieval one had taken its place. Characters marveled and wondered about artifacts from our time creating endless speculation about us with wrong assumptions.
In “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” we’re again thrown back in time, or so we think. It feels like a 17th-century English town, but I’m not even sure we’re on Earth. Reynolds is famous for telling stories of the very far future. We do learn that their past had space travel and intelligent robots, but the people of this time have no understanding of that history, just shadowy myths. The story is about a 16-year-old girl, Kathrin Lynch, who is the daughter of the sledge maker trying to walk home without being sexually assaulted. She has in the past and knows it will happen again.
In the world of this story, whether far future Earth or a planet we settled that has forgotten that, knowledge is mostly based on superstition. This is a common aspect of our forgotten past theme. For example, the robots of their past are now the “jangling men” – a supernatural threat to scare children from straying too far.
Understanding the building blocks of this theme is not really important for enjoying this story. You can read or listen to it online. “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a wonderful tale because of how it’s told. Since I listened to it on the audiobook edition of The Very Best of the Best, the professional narration showcases Reynolds’ skills at conveying drama and emotion. By the way, I consider audio narration to be a magnifier, one that makes good and bad writing stand out. This might be true because audio converts printed words to something like watching a movie, allowing our ears to better judge the dialog.
I’m reading and reviewing these stories as writing lessons. From “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” I’m learning how Reynolds took an old theme and made it fresh. It involves a number of challenges. First, the setting of the story is old – even if it’s in our far future. Think about watching Game of Thrones on HBO. Is it set on Earth? Is it in the past or the future? How to capture those details without anachronisms? Reynolds sets “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” in a time that feels like old England to me, where people still believed in witches, and towns are ruled by sheriffs. He overlays this with myths that feel even older, yet we learn were founded on our future.
The basic plot of this story could be set in any time. In fact, it could have been written in the 17th-century or today. What makes it good is the storytelling. The writing is simple. Reynolds explains little. But much happens in the one hour it takes to narrate the audio version. It’s rich in vivid details.
I do have one quibble with this tale, but I’m not sure if I can bring it up without spoiling it for some readers. But I will since these essays are about story construction. The solution to Kathrin’s problem is a powerful weapon. This works in fantasy or science fiction, but would it be politically correct in a contemporary literary story? If we read a New Yorker story about a young girl telling an older woman about how’s she’s being sexually preyed upon and the older woman gave her a 9mm to keep in her purse as a solution, would we accept that story?
I know many Americans would answer yes. But that’s not what I want to get into. This is about writing, and the question it poses is: Should stories offer plot solutions with dangerous implications? I’m a lifelong fan of westerns. One of the major themes of westerns is violence is the solution. Do we accept this only for fiction and video games, or psychologically too?
When I think about writing fiction I seldom think of stories that involve violence. But pay attention to how often violence is integrated all the forms of fiction we consume. If I had written this story I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to create a rape scene. Nor would I have wanted the past technology to be symbolized by a weapon. I’m trying to imagine using this theme in a new way of my own making. What myths might our civilization give people thousands of years from now? What if in two hundred years climate change has totally wiped out our technological civilization? How will future people imagine our love of social media and computers? See, got a story idea already. But ideas are a penny a million. It’s the storytelling that counts, and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a good lesson in that.
James Wallace Harris, March 11, 2019