Reality Skimming
18Jan/12Off

Dialogue #1: Matthew Graybosch (2 of 2)

Dialogues: Lynda Williams and a guest author tackle the same topic from two points of view.

Topic: Why did it have to be swords?

In Lynda Williams's Okal Rel Universe, Sevolite society settles even large-scale conflicts in a dueling system in order to protect precious habitable space from the potential damage of nuclear warfare. In Matthew Graybosch's Starbreaker, post-Nationfall society has seen a revival of sorts in the use of swords for the same reason Sevolite society insists on dueling as a means of settling disputes, even if Adversaries and active militia still carry firearms. Why, when many other weapon choices are available, does the sword play such an important role in speculative fiction?

Last week...

Matthew Graybosch at Niagara Falls Matthew Graybosch
studied computer science and applied demonology at Miskatonic University, but learned that even after the dotcom bust, software development pays better and is steadier work than exorcism. He is the author of Starbreaker, a serialized science fantasy novel published by Curiosity Quills Press, and lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and a cat who insists on reading the Okal Rel Saga with him.

Today...

Lynda Williams Lynda Williams
is the author of the Okal Rel Saga, published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Part 7: Healer's Sword arrives in 2012. Lynda's work features moral dilemmas in a character-driven, multi-cultural setting with radically different attitudes to sex and social control surrounding space warfare and bio-science.

Lynda Williams: Why Did it Have to be Swords?

What's the social function of combat?

Two fold. Sheer bloody win because your life depends on it. And a competition to identify the better man. It's usually been men, throughout history, and biology leans in that direction. Which only makes Vrellish culture all the more interesting, for me, but that's a separate issue.

The fascination Sevoites show for dueling is a combination of our culture's engagement with sports, jurisprudence and politics, because Sword Law combines these. Honor, meaning trustworthiness, is critical because it underpins economics. A cheating fencer is just as apt to cheat you on trade deals. A house that puts on a good show on the challenge floor is more attractive -- strong and trustworthy. So an honorable rep also functions as advertising and public relations. In Sevolite society, the cost of cheating is much greater than the cost of losing a single duel. Usually. And when it isn't, people are tempted. Just like Olympic athletes are tempted to cheat when winning becomes the only "good".

Ancient warfare is full of examples of competitive warfare vs. total warfare. It makes sense for any culture, not just reality skimming ones. Total warfare trashes economies and devastates populations. In the Okal Rel Universe, Killing Reach is a legacy of total warfare. Nesak wars border on it. The last three books deal with this delicate balance teetering and breaking down in patches. I believe war between Rire and Sevildom would be much worse than the worst Nesak war, though, because the signals for crying "hold enough" just wouldn't work and it would escalate to genocide.

The fact combat is personal and targeted to one enemy, is ultimately what makes hand-to-hand combat more honorable. Never entirely fair, for the reasons Matthew suggests in an email discussion: "A woman fighting a man twice her size is likely to be at a serious disadvantage in unarmed combat, though training can mitigate this risk. The use of swords can further mitigate this disadvantage, but the use of firearms can make the advantage commonly enjoyed by men over women almost irrelevant." What is "fair" though? If it means you play by the rules and have some opportunity to decide whether to engage, then hand-to-hand combat under Sword Law is much fairer than involuntary victimization of civilian populations in total war. In the same email conversation, Matthew writes, "The problem with firearms is that if you miss, you might end up shooting bystanders. Furthermore, the use of modern military firearms makes warfare impersonal. If the sword is a morally superior weapon, it's because it makes combat personal; you have to look the person you're fighting in the eye, and you can't dehumanize him and soothe your own conscience by calling him a mere target."

Here's the problem as I see it. There's always an element of any society that craves competition to get ahead, however that's defined. If you don't provide legitimate outlets for ambition, the society is in trouble. But these outlets should be regulated so as not to trash the neighborhood in their expression. I particularly like this quote from Matthew in our email discussion: "A sword is an extension of your body. A bullet can have your name on it. A nuke, however, is addressed "To whom it may concern".

In our world, the outlet used to be excelling in school. In the medieval world, it was becoming a knight. All sorts of unfairness, cheating and cruelty of various sorts abounded. But there were also rules. For example, knights might be abominable to peasants (particularly peasant bowmen) but they treated one another like gentlemen when holding prisoners for ransom. Honor didn't mean you couldn't beat a servant or rape a woman. It meant you had to be trustworthy in the eyes of your peers: friends or enemies.

Horth is one of my experiments in fairness. Is it fair to the opponent who goes up against him on the challenge floor or in space, that he's a spatial genius? Not really. Unless the person who volunteers for the experience is well aware of his talents, like D'Therd in Throne Price. (There's also the whole fairness issue in D'Ander's duel with D'Therd in Pretenders, but that's another matter.)

But flip the tables and suppose winning depends on an argument or social graces. Then Horth is at the disadvantage.

In the last book of my series, I introduce VRs -- super Sevolites with little personality, created by the Lorels. Eler advises crack swordsman Vras Vrel not to volunteer to go up against one of these beings and the sense of unfairness is there, again. Vras is a real person who duels. The VR is something else. The context in which Sword Law is an expression of civilized behavior is breaking down.

In my research on fencing I read a lot of historical accounts of the use of swords in both field warfare (where usage is very different) and personal combat of the more showy or personal kind. And there's nothing at all "nice" about the injuries. A person really does need nerves of steel to face someone else, one on one, who is planning to kill him, as well. As Erien always complains, in my saga, killing people with swords is an ugly, brutal business. And he's right. But it's still more civilized than cracking planets or stations using rel-ships.

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