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Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Last Hawk, by Catherine Asaro

Let's put it this way. I was sorry when I finished this book. (Catherine Asaro, The Last Hawk, New York: Tor, 1997) I wanted to know what would happen.

This is the first Asaro I have read. She writes what is sometimes called "hard" science fiction, that is, fiction relying on forseeable scientific developments for setting or plot. (Asaro has a doctorate in science.) It seemed more like space opera to me. A noble from the Skolian Empire (there are other books by her about that--the nobility are empaths, and augmented by internal computers and other technology) crash-lands on a planet which isn't in contact with that Empire, and fears such contact. He survives, and becomes a leading player in the politics and economy of the new planet. He is an empath, and is computer and otherwise augmented. He also becomes the husband of three different women (not at the same time, and, in one case against his will--two of them die while he is married to them) and, counting a previous girl who died on his home world, has three loves of his life. That's a lot. He sires two children.

The society is run by women. Men have some importance, but are subordinate. The most important cultural peculiarity of the society is quis, a game/ceremony/art form/something that everyone plays or does, with small objects of many shapes and colors, called dice. (They don't seem to be thrown, and there doesn't seem to be a random element in quis.) Some men are specialists at quis, and this is their greatest contribution to the culture. Asaro presents quis as a way of settling contests with others, and a way of influencing planet-wide culture, and also as a way of representing scientific concepts like atomic structure. It's a fascinating idea, but not fully fleshed out, in my opinion. I couldn't visualize the game, nor could I comprehend how manually placing objects, one at a time, could accomplish all that she said it did in anything like a reasonable amount of time. I also couldn't comprehend how male quis-players in one province influenced female leaders in another, when the males who specialize in quis are kept isolated.

There was little consideration of ethical issues, as, say, Ursula K. Le Guin does. More importantly, I find that the book doesn't exactly pass Le Guin's "Mrs. Brown" test:

A quite good simple test to detect the presence or absence of Mrs. Brown in a work of fiction is this: A month or so after reading the book, can you remember her name? It's silly, but it works pretty well. For instance, almost anybody who reads Pride and Prejudice will remember the names Elizabeth and Darcy, probably for very much longer than a month.
- Ursula K. Le Guin, "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," pp. 101-119 in Susan Wood, ed., The Language of the Night (New York: Putnam, 1979), p. 104.

By "Mrs. Brown," Le Guin, following Virginia Woolf, is speaking of character. Is there a real character in the book? I can't remember the name of the Skolian noble, and it's been less than a month. I do remember the name of the last woman he came to love, probably because it has an "x" in it. Ixpar is a memorable name. Our Skolian noble disappears at the end, probably going back to the empire, where, presumably, he is part of at least one more book.

Nonetheless, an entertaining book.

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