Thursday, May 9, 2019

Quotes from Empire in Black and Gold - part 2

I wanted to share some quotes from Empire in Black and Gold, both to show a little what Adrian Tchaikovsky's writing looks like, and to illustrate a few ideas from the text. This is a follow-up to my earlier post about the book.
Factions of the Lowlands

The first quote comes from chapter 5, and shows the opening ceremony for an annual Olympic-style game. I like it because it's the first really good introduction we get to all the species/factions of the Lowlands, and it's also the first time we see the Wasps.

"There was a crowd the length of the Pathian Way. The wealthy and more prosperous artisans rubbed shoulders unselfconsciously, sitting on the great tiered stone steps that lined the route. The ritual of the Games and the procession of the athletes were older than the College itself. These steps had been thronged like this when the city had been still called Pathis and the Beetle-kinden were second-class citizens and slaves, back in the Bad Old Days."

"Before those comfortable steps thronged the poor, but they made up for it with noise and cheer. Being poor in Collegium was only a relative thing, for the poor of Collegium enjoyed ample work, and sewers and clean wells with pumps, and there was food to be had from the civic stores when times were lean. Governance by academics, philanthropists and the wealthy was hit or miss, but it had always been fashionable to be seen doing charitable work for the lower orders. Even the greediest magnate wanted to be seen to be generous, and even false generosity could fill bellies."

"There was a roar among the crowd. People began craning forward, even pushing out into the Pathian Way, though there was a scattered line of the city guard to keep them in check, mostly middle-aged men in ill-fitting chain mail. Their presence was enough, though, and every tenth man was a Sentinel wearing the massively bulky plate armor that only Beetle-kinden possessed the sheer stamina to wear. The cheering grew louder and louder, for Collegium's own athletic best were the first band of heroes to enter the city by the Pathian Way."

"Helleron's team came close behind. The Helleron team were fed a little less approval than the city's home-grown heroes, but they received cheers nonetheless. They were mostly Beetle-kinden, and they and Collegium took the honour of that race with them to the field."

"Traditionally, the Ant cities came next in the procession. The first platoon of neatly marching Ants hailed from Sarn, which in the last few decades of political reform had become Collegium's nearest ally. They were a uniform breed, tan of skin, regular of feature. The Kes team followed next, looking much like their predecessors save for the coppery tone of their skins, and then the pale Ants of Tark following on their heels."

"A showing from Seldis and Everis came next, a score of Spider-kinden, both men and women, and each of them as beautiful as heredity and cosmetics could conjure up for them. Behind them was the combined Egel-Merro team of Fly-kinden, a jostling pack of little people casting looks at the crowd that were full of bravado and sly humour."

"And last, of course, straggled whatever of the other two kinden of the Lowlands had managed to put together for a team this year. There were just eleven of them, far short of any of their competition, and nine of them were Mantids. They looked down their noses at the patronizing crowd, stalked with a killer's grace between the great packed masses of Collegium like hostage princes entering into captivity."

"Amidst the Mantids were a couple of others, grey-skinned and grey-robed, shorn of any ornament, staring fixedly at the ground. These two were not official delegates from Mount Hain in the north. They were radicals, renegades. Like the few Moth teachers employed at the College, they were the exceptions to their race who had come to see the world beyond their insular home. The Beetle spectators looked on them with amusement nowadays. There was no ire left, among the people of Collegium, for a race whose reach had once shadowed all of the Lowlands."

"There was now a murmur running through the crowd. For there was, this year, another team. They brought up the rear, consigned there because the organizers had not known what to do with them. Their banner, their colours, repeated in their clothes, their armor, even the hilts of their weapons. Black and gold. All of it black and gold. They were men, every one of them. Some were pale and some were darker, and most were fair-haired, and handsome when they smiled. Some of them wore banded armour and some simply cut clothes, and all of them had short swords in their belts. They were not the rigid lattice of the Ants, but their step was close in time. Seeing them, all of them together, the people of Collegium understood that a new race, a new power, had fully entered into the Lowlands."
Apt-ness and Crossbows

The next quote from chapter 7 is one of the first times Tchaikovsky really lays out how the different relationships-to-technology work within the setting. We learn what it means to be "Apt" and see just how unable to use machines the in-Apt species are.

"Tynisa shook her head. 'Sorry, Totho. All machinery is bibble-babble to me.' "

" 'But you were brought up here in Collegium!' he protested."

" 'Sorry. You ever see a Spider-kinden crossbow-woman? Being Apt to machines isn't something you can just pick up. You're born to it or you're not.' "

"Che had seen Tynisa with a crossbow, once. It had been when they were both around twelve, and Tynisa had been determined to become good with it, as she had been with everything else she put her hand to. That day lingered in the memory because it was the first time Che had found something she herself could do, that her foster sister could not."

"But it's not hard, she remembered saying patiently. You just point it at the target and pull the lever. And the staggering weight of her understanding that Tynisa just could not grasp the notion, could not understand that the action led to the result. She almost shot Stenwold when she finally clutched the weapon so hard she mistakenly triggered it, and she could not even begin to reload or recock it. It was not just that she had never been trained, or taught. It had all been there for her, if only she could adapt her mind to take it in."

"Persistent myth related that the crossbow was the first tool of the revolution. Almost certainly there had been something else, something less warlike and more practical. The crossbow was what won the battles, though. Any fool could pick up a crossbow and kill a man with it, any Beetle-kinden, or Ant, or anyone Apt. Bows were an art form, crossbows but a moment in the learning, in the making. The world had been turned upside down within a generation by men and women armed with the crossbow and the pulley, the hand pump and the watermill. All the old masters of the Lowlands had been unthroned, their slaves prising mastery of the world from their impotent hands. The old races of the superstitious night were waning. Only the Spider-kinden held on to their power, and that was because they could play the younger races like a musical instrument. The world belonged to the Apt: Beetles, Ants, and most Fly-kinden these days, the races of the bright sun that drove out the shadows."

"And also the Wasps: an entire Empire of the Apt."

Locks are Technology Too

So this quote, from chapter 8, kind of repeats some of the ideas from the previous post, but I like it also lays out what the Spider worldview is like. We know that they can't really use technology already, but it's nice to get a glimpse of what they CAN DO instead.

"Tynisa discovered that the cabin door was her only way out, and the door was locked."

"Now if she had been a Beetle, that would have been different. She was quite sure that if she had been a Beetle-maid then a few quick jabs with a piece of wire would see her out the door and away as fast as her stubby legs would carry her. She even began to try that, kneeling before the lock and peering into the narrow keyhole, trying to imagine the pieces of metal inside that, in some way beyond her imagining, controlled whether the door would open or not."

"She simply could not do it: there was no place in her mind to conceive of the lock, the link between the turn of the key, the immobility of the door. Of all the old Inapt races, the Spider-kinden still prospered as before, but that was only because they found other people to make and operate machines for them. Spider doorways were hung with curtains, and they had guards, not locks, to keep out strangers."

The Motley Mafia

We don't see very much of the demimonde or criminal underworld, but we do get a glimpse. In chapter 12, we're introduced to one of several colorful gangs within Helleron. There are quite a lot of "half-breed" characters in the Lowlands (including the apprentice Totho), and we see very early on that there's quite a bit of prejudice against them ... so it makes a certain kind of sense that many of them who are denied other opportunities might end up as criminals. I actually find Tchaikovsky's portrayal of this gang to be reasonably sympathetic, especially compared to "Mister Motley" from Perdido Street Station. Honestly this crew would be pretty at home in Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque's city of Umberwell.

"There was a Fly-run eatery where Sinon Halfway, leader of the Halfway House cartel, held court. Some half-dozen Fly-kinden staff were serving three dozen men and women, and it was evident to Tynisa at first glance that there was a right end and a wrong end of the table to be kneeling at. The right end was closest to the enthroned figure of Sinon Halfway himself."

"He was a lean man just turning to fat around the middle, due to the few years now when he had not personally taken up the sword to defend his empire. He was dressed like a man about to flee the city with all his wealth upon him, but she saw that all of them were, more or less, the gangsters sported chains and rings, amulets and jeweled gorgets, even in one case a mail shirt made from coins, good silver Standards of Helleron mint. Sinon would have been worth, in gold and gems alone, a much as half the table, and she understood that it was a status thing. A wealthy man who hid his light under a bushel would gain no respect for that here."

"The name told true. Sinon was a half-breed, and she guessed that he was Moth-kinden interbred with the pale-skinned Ants of Tark. What should have been an unpleasant mottling had instead left him with milky skin traced with veins and twists of grey, like marble. It was an exotic, oddly attractive sight. His hair was dark, worn long over his shoulders in a Spider style. His eyes were just dark pupils circled in white, without irises. The melange of his ancestry had conspired to make a man at once unnerving and compelling."

"The gangstesr were a motley lot: Beetles, Ants, Flies, Spiders, plenty of half-breeds, and a few she could not name. They had scars, most of them, amidst the jewelry, so it had been a fight for them to get where they were."

The Origins of the Empire

We've been kind of following Tynisa, but here in chapter 19, we pick up with her sister Cheerwell learning about the origins of the Wasp Empire. It sounds vaguely similar to the origin of the Mongol Empire, and reminds me of Coins and Scrolls' vision of foreign invaders as a source of threat in the medieval world of his game.

" 'You must have a very skewed picture of the Wasp-kinden,' he told her. 'If you think of us at all, you must think we're savages.' "

" 'Not so far from the truth,' he admitted, and she raised surprised eyebrows. 'The Empire is young. Three generations, three Emperors.' "

" 'No, we don't live for hundreds of years. Nothing like that. Our Most Revered Majesty Alvdan the Second is not thirty years of age. His grandfather was one tribal chieftain in a steppeland full of feuding tribes, but he had, as the story goes, a dream. He took war to the other tribes, and he subjugated them. He brought all the Wasp-kinden together under his banner. It took a lifetime of bitter fighting and worse diplomacy. His son, Alvdan the First, built the Empire: city after city brought into the fold, the borders pushed ever outward. Each people we made our own, we learned the lessons they taught us. We honed the tool of war until it was keen as a razor."

"Our Emperor now, Alvdan Two, was sixteen when he came to the throne, and since then has not rested in furthering the dream of his father and grandfather. We have fought more peoples than the Lowlands even knows exist. We have defended ourselves against enemies who were stronger than us, or wiser than us, or steeped in lore we could not guess at. We have conquered internal strife and we have done what no other has ever done before us. The Empire is physically near the size of the entire Lowlands, but all under one flag and marching all to one beat. The Empire represents progress, Miss Maker. The Empire is the future. Look at my people. They have a foot in the barbaric still. They must be forced into discipline, into control, into civilization! But we have come so very far in such a short time. I am proud of my people, Miss Maker. I am proud of what they have brought about.' "
Maps of the World

In chapter 20, Cheerwell and her friend Salma discuss their peoples' visions of the larger world. Salma tells the fable that I relate below, and Cheerwell follows up by explaining that the only famous Beetle explorer ended up having all his accounts sold as children's fiction, because Beetle-kinded society could neither believe what he found nor take it seriously. You get the sense though that this world might contain nearly every possible type of insect-kinden if you travel far enough to find them. Here we see Locusts, Slugs, Woodlice, a pretty good description of how "foreigners" become "barbarians", and an outsider's perspective on the Lowlands.

" 'Where is there, out here?' Che wondered. The Lowlander cartographers had never been much for going beyond the borders of the lands they knew. It was part of the inward-looking mindset that was now giving the Wasps such free reign."

" 'Commonweal maps don't go into much detail here. Just "wildlands," that kind of thing,' said Salma. 'Mind you, they're mostly about a hundred years out of date at the least. It's been a while since the Monarch's Nine Exploratory Heroes were sent to the four corners of the world looking for the secrets of eternal life.' "

" 'The who sent for what?' she asked incredulously. He grinned at her."

" 'Three centuries ago the Monarch was very old, and he sent the nine greatest heroes of the Commonweal out into the unexplored parts of the world, because his advisors and wizards had told him that the secret of life eternal was out there to be found. Some went north across the great steppe, through the Locust tribes and the distant countries of fire and ice, and the ancient, deserted mountain kingdoms of the Slugs. Some went east where the barbarians life, and where the broken land is studded with cities like jewels, or to where the great forests of the Woodlouse-kinden grow and rot all at the same time. Some went west, and sailed across the sea to distant lands where wonders were commonplace and the most usual things were decried as horrors not to be tolerated. And some,' and here his smile grew mocking, 'went south across the Barrier Ridge, and found a land where no two people can agree on anything, and the civilized comforts of a properly measured life were almost completely unknown. And five of the Exploratory Heroes returned, with empty hands, but with tales enough to keep the Regent's wise men debating for centuries.' "

"She was agog, just for a moment, waiting. 'And? What about the others? Did they find it?' "

"He laughed at her. 'No one knows. They never came back. Some people still say, though, that the last of the Heroes still wanders distant lands, living eternally, eternally young, trying only to get his prize back to a Monarch who died just two years after the Heroes set out.' "

The REALLY FAR Far Away Lands

Finally, from chapter 40, another glimpse of the much larger world, in which certain peoples are so distant that, like in Charles Saunders' Imaro stories, they are believed to mythical. In this case it's the Centipede-kinden and Mosquito-kinden who are thought just be legends. I somewhat wonder if either species ever shows up in Tchaikovsky's series, and if they do, whether his Mosquitoes are at all like the Anophelii from China Mieville's The Scar.

" 'There is no hand from which I would not take help at this point. I would write to the underground halls of the Centipede kingdom or the Mosquito Lords if they were anything more than a myth. Perhaps, if matters grow much worse, I will do so anyway.' "


  1. I feel like you could run into some issues with "what counts as technology?", both logistically if you were trying to run it at the table, but more importantly, on a philosophical level. Also, while the different kinden having innate aptitudes would be cool for a tabletop RPG, I'm always a bit reserved about having human-like races with innate abilities, again from a more philosophical perspective. The cognitive neuroscientist in me does like the idea of these fundamental cognitive flaws inaptitudes though. That all being said, this seems like a really cool setting and I'll be keeping an eye on these books. I'd heard good things about Tchaikovsky, I think I might own one of his books (my kindle has gotten out of hand...). I've added the first book of this series to my kindle wishlist, will wait for a sale because I'm cheap haha.

    1. I think the cognitive thing is interesting, because it sounds like there's something BLOCKING them. Like the same force that lets some manifest wings, puts up a wall. I'm sure spiders could weave, can they operate a loom?? It's not abstract thought they can't do, they understand that the mechanisms are there, and even recognize the pieces that goes into it, but when they come to put it together it just... stops.

      That feels like an artificial barrier, or if it is 'evolved' in some way, whatever that means in this world, it developed due to very specific pressures- the need to channel 'magic,' for example. Like if magic falls apart once you understand it in totality, say, then magic-using cultures might develop a block against certain kinds of understanding.

      I'd be interested to see if there are even more extreme versions- like a character who can't understand a simple lever?

    2. I think that assumes a degree of cognitive coherence that I don't think is really true. Actually, what we think of as consciousness is really messy and imprecise and full of holes. One way to think of it are cognitive biases, like sunken cost fallacy, confirmation bias, or cognitive dissonance, but in many cases those can be reasoned through or compartmentalized. Ironically, compartmentalizing those things ("sure, they exist, but I / humanity is mostly rational") is itself cognitive dissonance.

      I think a more striking example though would be cases of psycho/neuropathology, things like inattentional blindness. People with certain kinds of brain damage only perceive one visual field consciously. However, if called out on the fact that they are only seeing / drawing / writing within half their visual field, they will adamantly deny it, and come up with any number of excuses for why they responded the way they did. They may seem rational in every other way, but totally unable to grasp or acknowledge that they're only processing half the visual field. There's some other cool stuff with inattentional blindness as well. It's been a while since I've read some of these studies so I may be forgetting some of the particulars or conflating inattentional blindness with another hemispheric phenomenon. Anyway, I could get into a whole thing on neural oscillatory dynamics as well and how that may play into it but that's more speculative.

      In any case, that's a long and not well articulated way of saying, the fact that they have certain fundamental cognitive inabilities does not necessarily suggest to me that there is external influence, it just highlights something that exists in humanity as well, but in a way that's more obvious (either because it's something that would not occur naturally, or because it's different from humans cognitive inabilities and therefore more obvious).

    3. In general, I think "tech levels" work better for cultures than for species, although obviously each "sub-race" of humans has quite a bit of innate ability here.

      In one way, I can understand and agree with the in-Apt being unable to use mechanical devices. In another way, it DOES feel almost fundamentally wrong. Let's do the wrong part first. In his "Connections" program, James Burke claims early on that a fundamental feature of modern technology is that NO ONE fully understands how it works. No one individual is able to understand every single part of any complex system - every system requires cooperation by multiple people who understand part of it to build and maintain. However - another fundamental feature is that can USE these devices despite not understanding them, and in fact, they're mostly so easy to operate that we can use them AS THOUGH we understood them, even though we don't.

      Regular bows and arrows require a whole lot of strength and skill and practice to use them correctly, like professional-grade cameras. The whole point of crossbows and firearms is that they're EASY to use, like push-button cameras. The idea is that anyone can take adequate aim and push the button. So Spiders, et al, being unable to operate a cross-bow ring slightly false to me, especially someone like Tynisa, who was raised from birth by a Beetle artificer.

      But on the other hand, I can kind of understand it. Think about the distribution of computer skill in our society. Some people understand computers on a deep level, can get them to do pretty much anything they want, and can write (or find) code to command them in all kinds of ways. There are people who can pretty much handle the user-interface of most software, but wouldn't begin to know how to do anything outside the box. And then there really are people who seem to understand nothing about computers, for whom the statement "just click that thing there" seems like an impossible request.

      What's missing in Tchaikovsky's world is those people in the middle - the people who can USE technology without understanding it. Everyone in his world either UNDERSTANDS it and can build it, or DOESN'T and can't use it at all.

    4. I agree with what you're saying, but I think that gets at a deeper issue of what counts as technology, and why? I'm willing to buy that the inapt are fundamentally unable to understand technology in a world where technology has some deeper metaphysical nature to it, not unlike magic. I think the logic of that gets fuzzy though when you include crossbows as technology, but not regular bows. Maybe it really is just a metaphysical inversion of Burke's "Connections" (which incidentally I've been quoting for years but totally forgot where I had learned that idea from). So bows are ok because they require a sufficient amount of physical skill, whereas crossbows are not ok because they are more difficult to make (presumably, or at least more complex in terms of the engineering) but are easier to use.

    5. I mean, the whole business of assigning "technology levels" to different kinds of tools, and ruling that some characters have a tech level low enough that they can use "these tools" but not "those tools" while other characters have a tech level high enough to use them all ... it IS a simplification and a gameificaiton. There's no question.

      And I feel reasonably comfortable with the distinction that crossbows and firearms are mechanical, and that this makes them a higher "tech level" than bows ... but also, you're right. What that means in reality is that it's harder to MAKE a crossbow than a bow, but actually, it's easier to USE a crossbow as well.

      In a game, I THINK it makes sense to peg "making" and "using" a tech device to the same single number - though I could be wrong. It just seems that if you want bows and crossbows to coexist in the same game, there has to be a REASON. Either some characters can't use crossbows, so they're stuck with bows that do less damage - or bows actually do more damage, but only "lower tech" (or higher-skilled fighter-type) characters can use them. If you match reality, where guns are both easier to use and inflict worse wounds, then you get the same result as the real world, where bows are used for sport but never for actual combat.

      The Apt, in-Apt distinction conforms to the rules of a game world, not to the way technological improvement actually works.

      I feel the same way whenever I see time-traveling characters from the future in a scifi book or show who supposedly learned super-complex math in elementary school. What they would probably learn, at most, was how to do complex math on a future calculator, but it would be the machine, not the person, who houses the understanding of how the math works. The people who learned "how to do math" in elementary school all live in the past - its our parents and grandparents who learned how to calculate square roots by hand the same way I learned long division. But I never learned square roots, because we just use calculators for that. But it feels more fun - for storytelling purposes - to have someone from the future able to do integrals and derivatives in their head than to accept that we put our knowledge into things so that we don't have to keep it in our heads.

  2. Excellent series. Much appreciated.