Not only science fiction, but more science fictional than anything else: Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books

If you haven’t read Kirstein’s Steerswoman books I envy you the chance to read them now for the first time.

I’ve been reading them since the first volume came out in 1989. That’s nearly twenty years, and we’re still only at four volumes—three as currently published. The first two volumes, The Steerswoman (1989) and The Outskirter’s Secret (1992) have been republished as The Steerswoman’s Road. That’s the place to start. The sequels are The Lost Steersman (2003), and The Language of Power (2004). I can’t wait for more. I would like the next volume more than I would like anything else at all. I think they have a very good claim to be my favourite thing still being written. They’re certainly in my top five books of all time, and they just keep on getting better the more I re-read them.

The world of the Steerswomen looks at first glance like fantasy. It’s low tech, and there are wizards. The Steerswomen are an organization of people, mostly women, who go around charting the world and inquiring into the nature of things. At the beginning of the first book the heroine, Rowan, is in a tavern trying to find out about some mysterious jewels. Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy. But it’s all a cunning illusion.

As is slowly revealed over the course of the series so far, there’s a science fictional explanation for everything. The wizards are using science that they keep secret, the world they live in is an alien world in the process of being terraformed, and wider things are going on. The reason it is, as Andrew Plotkin put it a long time ago, more science fiction than anything else, is because it’s about the scientific method and how to use it to discover the world.

It’s a very difficult trick to have revelations within a story that mean different things to the reader and the characters, but Kirstein dances over this constant abyss with delicate grace. The books are more than anything about the process of Rowan figuring things out—some of them are familiar to us from our lives, or from science fiction, and that only makes it better. These books really are terrific fun to read.

I’m trying very hard to avoid spoilers, because I’d really hate to spoil the way you come to discover things about the world over the course of reading the books. Let’s just say it’s a much more interesting situation than you’d initially think.

When people talk about intellectual pyrotechnics they usually mean something like Neal Stephenson’s virtuoso passages. Kirstein doesn’t do that sort of thing. Every word serves the story. But there are bits in The Language of Power where things dovetail together so beautifully that I want to cheer.

If you like science, and if you like watching someone work out mysteries, and if you like detailed weird alien worlds and human cultures, if really good prose appeals, and if you can stand reading a series written by someone brilliant who writes excruciatingly slowly but has no inconsistencies whatsoever between volumes written decades apart, you’re really in luck.

Meanwhile, having just re-read them I want more, and I want more now, but goodness knows how long I’ll have to wait.


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