Novel – Mother of Demons

Here’s a book I read on the Baen Free Library ages ago and finally got around to buying and reading in print at the beginning of December.

Mother of Demons by Eric Flint (sadly, no longer in the Free Library)

Superficially, it’s another “failed colony” story, similar to the premise used by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series for creating a fantasy story in a fundamentally sci-fi setting.

Darkover is still on my TODO list, but I can already tell that I tend to prefer such because I normally read fantasy despite the simplified morality, rather than because of it, and if a cosmology includes gods, I’m prone to seeing it as a hint of dystopianism… a sign that the children will forever be ruled by their parents… it may also be that my outlook on the world harmonizes better with authors who are drawn to writing such stories.

I love that the book has that mindset. It’s rich with intellectual knowledge, and even the title embodies it, in that, as the story points out, outside of the Abrahamic religions, “demon” essentially means “powerful outsider” without automatically implying “evil”.

On that note, this story isn’t a fantasy story. Rather, it’s more a blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi influences. A sci-fi setup, where the technology was lost, seen through the eyes of bronze-age land squids and human PhDs… and that’s what makes it good: It’s engaging to see the humans from the perspective of the aliens, and it’s engaging to read about the insights of the highly educated human characters from an author like Eric Flint.

(If you’ve ever read Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series (beginning with 1632), you’ll know what I mean when I say that this mixes in sociology, history, tactics, and religion… Eric Flint clearly loves to study history, then share that love in his writing.)

It does have the odd moment of humour, but it’s generally serious. A notable example would be this exchange between the main two surviving human adults:

Julius immediately named their hut “Sodom and Gomorrah.” And he demonstratively refused to come near it, fearing, or so he claimed, the wrath of God.
“You don’t even believe in God!” Indira had once protested.
Julius chewed his lip. No, I don’t. But you never know. And if He does exist, He has two outstanding characteristics. Judging, at least, from the Old Testament.”
“Which are?”
“He’s the most hot-tempered, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, intolerant, anal-compulsive, bigoted redneck who ever lived. And, what’s more to the point, He’s a lousy shot.”
“It’s true!” he insisted, in the face of Indira’s laughter. “Read the Book yourself. Somebody pisses Him off, does He nail ’em right between the eyes like Buffalo Bill? Hell, no! He drowns everything. Or He blasts whole cities, or drops seven lean years on entire nations.

— Mother of Demons by Eric Flint, p. 111

The core premise hinted at by the title, which gets revealed as the story progresses revolves around Indira (the historian and one of only a handful of surviving adults) seeing events unfold through a historian’s eyes, but being tormented by her inability to acknowledge that, no matter what she does, she will be instrumental in shaping history and, no matter what she does, a great deal of suffering is on the horizon.

The simplest metaphor I can give for her dilemma is that a cannibalistic analogue to the Roman army is on the march, and the leader of the next generation of humans has the potential to found an analogue to the Mongol Empire… but, at the same time, that’s not necessarily as bad as it may sound, because the mongols got a lot of bad press in the west. (The Mongol Empire was a beacon of religious tolerance and appreciation for academic knowledge… they just also pissed off medieval Europe with their pragmatism in the art of war and how effective it made them against chivalrous knights.)

Philosophy is a significant focus of the story… more so in the later chapters than the earlier ones. It starts out sparse, but then builds and builds, even as the history, which was never sparse, also builds and carries the readers along for the ride.

I’ve always been too fascinated by deep technical knowledge to dedicate proper effort to being a student of the softer sciences but, just in how its presented, this comes across as an amazing work on the history alone.

The story also makes excellent use of “the colonists are dependent on a local species, which have spiritual beliefs which preclude dissection” to justify limiting how much time is spent on describing the aliens’ biology, which is a clever solution.

That said, for all that I praise the story, I wish the second part had been structured differently, because it feels like it’s told almost exclusively in flashback (regardless of actual temporal progression) and that left me having trouble caring about the humans, because I wanted to go back to the alien characters.

On the other hand, when the time spent on the humans is good, it’s good. I love that it touches on the distinction between K and r breeding strategies and it was very satisfying to read an argument for why it should be inevitable for humans and aliens to have similar emotions (p.199) as a result of similar survival pressures needing to be processed by the brain and surfaced to the conscious mind.

To be honest, I suspect that my issue with the time spent on humans might be in part because I’m an aspie, so others may not have as big a problem with the structure as I did. I have mentioned before that, when I read Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (nominated for a Hugo award), I skimmed through most of it, bored out of my mind as I waited for the soap opera to give way to “good writing”.

As it approaches the end, there’s a lot of focus on military tactics, which helps to make things interesting in such a fractious setting. It’s a rare story where I enjoy a battle scene in print because I’m sharing it with a character who’s more or less critiquing it. (p. 296)

I suppose, if there was one thing I’d have to pick as the best part of the story, it’d probably be how masterfully Eric Flint piles on the fantasy-style “invent tons of words and cultural elements” world building without it feeling onerous to me. That’s a skill far too often underestimated (it’s one of the few areas that come to mind most strongly as something I don’t understand the rules of) and, if you’re talking subjectively (i.e. feeling onerous to me), it’s a test even professional authors don’t always pass. (For example, I’ve been meaning to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling but I just can’t find a time when I’m in the right mood to get into them.)

By fanfiction standards, it’d definitely be a 5 out of 5 but I’ve been slacking on print fiction for so long that I worry my intuition for how good print works are is out of touch with my current level of insight. As such, I’ll rate it a 4.8 to leave a little room above it for what I anticipate encountering when I read/re-read some of the other books in my collection. (The question is whether stories which avoid the issues I had with this are common enough to merit reserving an entire rating increment or rare enough that they should be distinguished by my equivalent to “nominated for/won an award” category.)

Either way, give it a read.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Novel – Mother of Demons by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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