kaigou: so when do we destroy the world already? (3 destroy the world)
[personal profile] kaigou
Two stories now that I really would've liked to like, but the more I read of each, the harder a time I had with them. Here's the relevant parts from each teaser. From The Lascar's Dagger:
Saker appears to be a simple priest, but in truth he's a spy for the head of his faith. Wounded in the line of duty by a Lascar sailor's blade, the weapon seems to follow him home. Unable to discard it, nor the sense of responsibility it brings, Saker can only follow its lead.

And from The Alchemist of Souls:
When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods--and a skrayling ambassador--to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

The problem is that in both cases, these seemingly magical beings are real people.

I've run across lascars a few times in my own research, but they're not a well-known culture in the west. Wikipedia has a halfway decent entry on them, which summarizes things well enough:
A lascar (Lashkar, Laskar) ... was a sailor or militiaman from the Indian Subcontinent or other countries east of the Cape of Good Hope, employed on European ships from the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century. The word comes from the Persian Lashkar, meaning military camp or army, and al-askar, the Arabic word for a guard or soldier. The Portuguese adapted this term to lascarim, meaning an Asian militiaman or seaman, especially those from the Indian Subcontinent. Lascars served on British ships under 'lascar' agreements. ... The name lascar was also used to refer to Indian servants, typically engaged by British military officers.

Despite much digging on my part, there isn't a lot of Western/English study on the lascars. They were given about as much shrift as any other non-white sailor (that is to say, considered little better than animals and frequently treated even worse), and I've found only three instances of any western travellers making any attempt to record lascar culture. It was a kind of hodge-podge, in some ways; lascar ship-speech seems to have been a creole of Hindu, Dutch, English, and maybe some Arabic, although the majority of the lascars may have actually been Javanese.

But they didn't come from fantastical magical lands with fantastical magical creatures, or have access to fantastical magical objects that could force another person to be their mindless slave. (They might've fared better against the Dutch, if they had.) It is true, however, that in Javanese/Indonesian (and some Filipino) legends, kris daggers had their own kind of awareness or will. Again from wiki, but just summarizing better than the endless academic work I've been reading:
Both a weapon and spiritual object, kris are often considered to have an essence or presence, considered to possess magical powers, with some blades possessing good luck and others possessing bad. Kris are used for display, as talismans with magical powers, weapons, a sanctified heirloom (pusaka), auxiliary equipment for court soldiers, an accessory for ceremonial dress, an indicator of social status, a symbol of heroism, etc. Legendary kris that possess supernatural power and extraordinary ability were mentioned in traditional folktales...

The teaser describes an event that occurs in the first chapter, so I don't consider this explanation a spoiler. The story's protagonist, Saker, is supposedly a spy, and in the course of doing whatever spies do (it's about the only spying we really see him doing for most of the book), he crosses paths with a lascar.
The young man fac­ing [Saker] was at least a head shorter than he was, but the real sur­prise lay in his colour­ing. Black eyes stared at him out of a brown face, framed by black hair long enough to be tied at the neck. Not Lowmian, then. Pashali? A Pashali trader from the Va-for­saken Hemi­sphere? He was dark enough, but his clothes were all wrong. He was dressed in the typ­i­cal garb of a tar straight off a Lowmian ship. In the dim light it was hard to guess his age, but Saker thought him a few years younger than him­self. Nine­teen? Twenty?

Not much more than a youth, crouch­ing, arms held wide, body sway­ing slightly. The stance of some­one used to hand-to-hand com­bat. Bare feet. A brown-skinned sailor and no shoes. He’d heard about them: skilled sailors from the Va-for­saken half of the globe, but not from Pashalin. They were re­cruited from the scat­tered is­lands of the Sum­mer Seas and their re­luc­tance to wear shoes in all but the cold­est weather was leg­endary.

What did the Pashali call them? Las­cars, that was it.

By the end of the chapter, the two have gone their separate ways, but not before the lascar's magical kris comes barreling at Saker from across the warehouse. Again, not really giving a lot away to say the dagger seems to have intentions of its own, except that its intention is to stick close to Saker.

Why? Beats the hell out of me. It does next to nothing for him, but then, he does next to nothing for the next four hundred pages, anyway. The dagger is just a burden, rattling at his hip sometimes, and rather creepily sneaking across his bedroom floor at night, and generally making a nuisance of itself by always returning to Saker even when he tries to pitch it away. Saker just wants to be rid of it (no surprise) but eventually he starts to think maybe there's a reason it chose him, something he should be doing. Some burden he should pick up, some problem to resolve.

Or, tl;dr: yes, the author made a plot device of the White Man's Burden.

I put the two and two together about halfway through the story. I facepalmed like I haven't facepalmed since RaceFail. The kris, given to the lascar as sign of his mission, abandons him to go hang with the white guy. Because -- as both narrative and characters posit -- it realized it wouldn't get success with Mr Brown Guy. What.

It's only icing that the lascar gets possibly the least amount of POV time of any character in the book. Y'know, 'cause why have him speak when we've got a perfectly good white guy to do that for him?

Anyway, before I get too deep in the weeds, let me skip to the other story. Here's the first major description of these people-out-of-legend, dropped into the middle of Tudor England.

The crowds parted to re­veal a group of man-like crea­tures, the tallest of them no big­ger than Ned. They wore tu­nics of undyed wool, cream and dark brown woven in com­pli­cated geo­met­ric pat­terns, over breeches tucked into low boots. Sil­ver-streaked hair hung loose about their shoul­ders or was braided like a girl's and threaded with beads. Most out­landish of all were their faces, painted in whorls of blue lines that dis­guised their not-quite-hu­man fea­tures.

As the skraylings walked past, Mal thought he saw one of them turn and look up at him with slit-pupilled eyes.

A culture of people with faces painted in blue designs, who have magical liquid that lights up rooms but doesn't burn, who have marvelously magical medicines far beyond Tudor comprehension. Oh, and have what sounds like cat's pupils, and are distinctly non-human. I figured, a people from Norse legends, hrm, I thought I'd read a fairly good bit of Norse legends, and I don't remember any trolls or monsters or spirits or whatever called skraylings.

A few chapters in, I got tired of racking my brains and just freaking googled it. Turns out skrayling -- or skraeling -- means 'foreigner' or 'barbarian'. Or simply: 'people who are not like us'. As Wikipedia puts it:
Skraeling (Old Norse and Icelandic: skrælingi, plural skrælingjar) is the name the Norse Greenlanders used for the indigenous peoples they encountered in North America and Greenland. In surviving sources, it is first applied to the Thule people, the proto-Inuit group with whom the Norse coexisted in Greenland after about the 13th century. In the sagas, it is also used for the peoples of the region known as Vinland (probably Newfoundland) whom the Norse encountered during their expeditions there in the early 11th century.

In case you're at all uncertain, the Norse legends are referring to people who are undeniably, undoubtedly, completely human -- and whose descendents are alive today, in the form of Inuit peoples.

By the time I hit halfway through the story, I was running out of evens. I had to start thinking of the story's version of skraelings as being, idk, legendary creatures from the Norse version of Avalon, or Hibernia, or Atlantis, or some other always-reported, never-seen, mysterious island.

I mean, the story (unlike the other) has at least one supporting female character who isn't a damsel, and it tackles plots/themes of gender and sexuality in some really interesting ways. It also has a pretty thick plot, moves along at a good pace, and has a protagonist who's proactive, not reactive. Lots of pluses!

Except, except, its centerpiece is the total dehumanization of a group of people who exist. New World people, we're reminded; I'm not even given the out of pretending they're out of legends as in make-believe. They're out of legends as in 'long time ago'. The more the story reveals of the skraylings' skills, and magics, and pushes them into some kind of non-human capriciousness (much like how fairies/others are often characterized in fantasy), the less I felt comfortable about what I was reading. It just felt... wrong.

Switching back to The Lascar's Dagger, I admit I finished that story mostly out of a strange fascination over whether it could get any worse. (I'm not even touching its treatment of women; leave that for some other post.) This was the point I would've wall-banged, if it hadn't been an ebook. Saker and the lascar have finally met up, and we get a little bit of cultural backstory. (Btw, 'va' is the story's word for god, so it's overloaded with va-forsaken, va-cherished, va-forgotten, va-va-va, blah-blah-blah.)
[The lascar says:] “Until the ship Spice Dragon came to our shores, our nut­meg crop was sent, by our sailors aboard our boats, to Kota­banta. ... There, we all sell our spices to Pashali traders.” He heaved a sigh. “The trou­ble with you folk of the Va-cher­ished Hemi­sphere is that you think the Sum­mer Sea is­lands are all the same. You even bun­dle us to­gether and call us las­cars – that’s a mean­ing­less word to us. We are dif­fer­ent is­lands, with dif­fer­ent tongues, dif­fer­ent cus­toms.”

“Oh! That’s … very ig­no­rant of us.”

Ardhi sighed. “I sup­pose we are no bet­ter, if I am hon­est. If the Rani had un­der­stood that I’d have to come all the way to the Va-cher­ished Hemi­sphere, and that it was such a dif­fer­ent place to Pashalin, I doubt she would have sent just me, alone.”

Sure. Wait. What? Let me paraphrase:

Person A: We take over a multitude of cultures mostly unrelated except by geography, lump them all under the title of 'dark heathen', subjugate them, force them to convert, and enslave them to the capitalistic will of Western consumers.

Person B: We don't understand how big the world is.

Okay, see, NO. Not at all 'no better'. More like no freaking comparison at all. If there's any point in the book where I could feel privilege reaching out and slapping me across the face, it was right there, in that passage. No, no, it is NOT equivalent, and I simply could not see someone -- whose culture is being actively erased -- saying anything but: fuck yeah damned ignorant of you!

Or at least, certainly not what almost sounds like an apology: yeah, well, we're ignorant too, in our own way.

No. No. No. Not by a long shot. I am so on the nope train at this point.

Meanwhile, back in Tudor England, screw the spoilers. A major plot-point is that these fantastical not-skraylings can reincarnate into an unborn child. Eventually it's revealed that skraylings -- having a really low population despite having major population areas described as 'cities' -- had to start reincarnating into human children, since there weren't enough skrayling children to go around. Or something. Cue a long-term plot for skraylings to infiltrate human society.

Wow, it's like fear of the unknown/other sneaking in and living amongst us, taken to a magical degree. Which is one thing when it's a creature either fully made-up by the author, or based on totally fantastical other (vampires, fairies, werewolves, what-have-you). It's another thing altogether when the story makes it very clear that these skraylings are the indigenous people of the New World, come to Tudor England to negotiate a treaty. But that they're also non-human. Hell, they have cat-eyes and vestigial tails; they're practically animals. Makes me wonder if erasure might actually be preferable in this case.

I just cannot get away from any of that, and the text doesn't let me, either.

It doesn't help that as the (otherwise well-written, well-characterized -- err, for the humans at least -- and well-plotted) story reveals its cards, taking things to a logical conclusion opens up a rather gaping plot hole. Mainly, that the skraylings have been trading in/around England for several decades. Enough that several have already reincarnated, and are now pulling strings while in human bodies. But after all that time, only now do the skraylings send a diplomat?

Usually, when a country was organized enough to have someone willing/able to act as a diplomat, they did that part first, not as an after-thought. One exception just happens to be the lascars, who were mostly a rag-tag group of sailors from all over. They had no political flag of their own, and for the vast majority of their time sailing in/out of British ports -- when they were allowed to, which wasn't always -- they frequently were strongly curtailed, movement-wise on land. They were often constrained to stay on (or within sight of) the ship, while in port. No papers, you might say. Or, no country to be responsible if they acted up while on British soil. (And by the 1800s, racism was in there, too, but previously it was just distrust of people who travelled without some kind of formal/political agreement in hand.)

It hardly gets a lot of press if you're not reading the academic journals or digging through the more obscure/ignored parts of European history, but there were diplomatic missions to Europe from Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, even East Asia, in the early modern era. Trade was established as an agreement between rulers, first and foremost, because there were issues of military might, and access, and (usually) at least lip-service to the idea of an alliance. Traders frequently depended on those alliances to give them access to the allying country's defenses, when needed.

Except there's next to no mention at all of whom the skrayling ambassador represents. In fact, the skrayling ambassador acts more like a tourist than anything. Where's the lengthy presentation of letters between the country rulers, the exchange of significant gifts meant to establish some guise of friendship (or at least out-gift each other)? Instead there's a trip to an insane asylum (wait, what? what genius came up with that idea?) that gets rerouted at the last minute into a trip to the market -- a destination possibly more suitable when you're trying to convince a foreign ambassador of a country's value as a trade-partner. (Although I'm not sure this would be a genius idea in real-history, either, since the absolute last thing you want is some moron yelling something that insults the ambassador and wrecks all potential for good feelings between the countries.)

What else? A contest amongst several theaters, which will be judged by the ambassador -- again, wait, what? If it were a series of plays or recitals sponsored by the ambassador, and consisting of entertainment from the ambassador's country, that would be cultural diplomacy, and sure, that I could believe. If it were a series of entertainments that show the host country's greatness, sure. This is when we trot out our Will Shakespeare, or our Mozart, or whomever, preferably with them writing something in honor of the ambassador. But the premise of competing plays, written just prior to the events and more importantly, not vetted thoroughly by the crown -- just feels... uhm, why? Just to get the ambassador mixed up with theater-types, or to give theater-types something to do? Because no crown with two braincells to rub together would trust diplomacy in the hands of volatile, nothing-to-gain, possibly-bigoted (religious wars, remember) commoners. No way in hell, really.

From what I read of the distant ambassadors to England, France, Amsterdam, and Spain, they were lucky to get to see more than a glimpse of the 'real world' outside their carriage windows. At the very least, you could expect a few people running on ahead to tell unsavory types, or lower types, to clean up their act, someone important is coming, the streets have got to be clean and everyone shiny and smiling. Oi, it's not the Soviets invented that kind of facade.

Really, from what I've read of diplomats' memoirs (and commentary about diplomats), a visit was almost entirely a constant round of court-run, court-managed, court-ruled, events. Even the strangest peoples, from a Londoner's point-of-view, were feted to no end, because the gain was patents of trade, permission to build factories, reduced/relieved port fees. Regardless of what someone looked like or dressed like, they were still attached to a countries who had the means, if willing, to make a lot of people very, very rich.

And a good ambassador would sniff out pretty quickly (as if it weren't already obvious to those back home) that there were alternatives. The Dutch piss you off? Accept a cordial letter from Queen Elizabeth. The Portuguese get on your nerves? Agree to a deal with the Dutch Republic's representatives. In the early days of the early modern -- before the Dutch decided it was cheaper and easier to make slaves of everyone -- there was room for negotiation, and a fair bit of double-crossing.

Ultimately, an ambassador -- at that time -- stood as representative of the King/Queen. There was a shift in the early modern from the ambassador-as-messenger, to the ambassador-as-representative. Ironically considering the story, Queen Elizabeth was among the first to have her ambassador speak in her name, bestow gifts in her name, etc. The woman was damn canny, and she knew the importance of a good alliance -- especially one that didn't require she marry anyone. Did I mention there was a crapload of money riding on these trade alliances? Is this a bad time to mention that for much of Elizabeth's reign, the crown was in debt from its ongoing wars with the Continent, especially Spain? Cripes.

I'm not going to retype/modernize Queen Elizabeth's letter, but you can read it in full on page 78 of The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies (google books). This is not a woman who would've a) kept a diplomat cooling his heels for what reads like more than a week before seeing him, b) not entertained him with endless rounds of court-supervised parties & events, let alone c) greeted him like so:

"Am­bas­sador." The Queen's voice was still sharp, ac­cus­tomed to ab­solute obe­di­ence; only a faint qua­ver be­trayed her age.


"How did you like the fair?"

So much for the pleas­antries. Mal won­dered how quickly news had reached her. Prob­a­bly the same night, which meant the Queen had been wait­ing a day and a half to hear this story at first hand.

"It was most en­ter­tain­ing, Your Majesty," Ki­iren replied. "See­ing our peo­ple to­gether, as one – it re­mind me of home."

"Ah, your home. We have heard much from our ad­vis­ers about the wide lands of the New World, its rich­ness, and our great good for­tune in at­tract­ing your friend­ship. And now we are ho­n­oured by an am­bas­sador. Tell me, Your Ex­cel­lency, which prince do you rep­re­sent?"

"Prince, Majesty?"

"There is some leader amongst your peo­ple, a chief or po­ten­tate or king?"

She ges­tured re­gally, tak­ing in the por­traits of her an­ces­tors lin­ing the walls.

"There are many lead­ers, Majesty," Ki­iren said, "and many peo­ples. I speak only for Sha­ji­il­rekhur­rnashet, as most nu­mer­ous of all clans of Vin­land to visit your shores."

"The other clans and na­tions do not wish to send their own am­bas­sadors?"

"Per­haps in time they shall. I do not know their minds."

The Queen laughed sharply. "Would that I had so lit­tle care for the plans of my en­e­mies."

I just can't see this happening. Maybe with Queen Victoria, who by all accounts was a pretty sour old woman. But not Queen Elizabeth, not the woman who to the very end of her life continued to grant a number of lucrative trade patents, and was savvy enough to capitalize on the Dutch ability to alienate any decent person they met. And more importantly, not to make that mistake herself. (Her adopted son, on the other hand...)

My only guess is that the author spent most of her time researching -- and quite thoroughly -- the theater and Walsingham's spy-system, but forgot to study what drives the entire purpose behind early modern diplomacy: trade. That is: money. Did I mention the fact that there were massive amounts of investment riding on successful trade treaties? And yet this version of Queen Elizabeth keeps a potential trade alliance cooling his heels in the Tower? At the very least, where was the staff of twenty-something servants, all very much with an eye towards watching every little thing the ambassador does and reporting back on it? The Queen should've known when the ambassador got up to piss in the middle of the night, let alone whether he represented a king or king-like personage.

[Note the story doesn't even mention James I, Mary Queen of Scot's son; if Queen Elizabeth had married, what the hell did she do with her cousin's son? Setting him as her heir effectively unified Scotland and England; the crown was still embroiled with Spain and could ill afford war on another front. Nor does the story mention Raleigh, an intrepid traveller who would've been absolutely among those best-versed in any New World trading potential; the story even has magical elements and yet no sign of Dr. Dee, and if you know anything about that man, he would've been first in line to beat down the ambassador's door to find out more. For that matter, when the Queen sent Dee as her representative, he got a personal interview (as CP reminded me) with the Holy Roman Emperor, and Dee was nobody -- but he came with Queen Elizabeth's blessing, and that alone made him somebody.]

I guess, as I was mentioning to CP earlier, I could've forgiven a lot of this if the author had included a note at the beginning. Something like: the Norse 'skrayling' refers to a real people (the proto-Inuit, aka the Thule people), but I've intentionally pre-empted the word for my own purposes, and created an island, about the size of New Jersey, about two hundred miles off the coast of, say, Massachusetts. And maybe something about how although the word is a historical one, the skrayling and their land are entirely made-up and have nothing to do with, y'know, the actual living breathing descendents of those people who threw the Norse out.

(Not to mention as trade alliances go, a large island with suitable protected deep-water ports off the eastern seaboard of North America would've been considered a prime crossroads for trade. Stop, refuel -- hell, you don't even have to go all the way, if goods come to meet you halfway. Of course, this is ignoring that England was partly interested in the New World's resources, and far more interested in using it as a place for tossing bothersome people: puritans, quakers, single mothers, and people who didn't pay their rent.)

But in both cases -- skrayling and lascar -- the strong fantasy world combined with actual living histories -- where people did suffer from colonization and imperialism -- is just too much. Between the two, there's so much else wrong with The Lascar's Dagger that I can't even recommend it based on its plotline or characterization, cultural appropriation aside. As for The Alchemist of Souls, I guess it's an enjoyable few hours if you know nothing about trade, diplomacy, or the early modern period outside a few Hollywood movies -- and you didn't care about turning an actual culture into some kind of magical animal.

Unfortunately for me, I do. Unfortunately, because like I've said, there are other good things about the story. But I just can't get past the dealbreaker.

Date: 13 May 2014 01:22 pm (UTC)
tiercel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tiercel
As soon as I saw the word "skraeling" I said "uh-oh." Like you say, if you don't acknowledge that the word was used for real people, you're erasing them.

I had never heard of the Lascars and it sounds like their culture would be a fascinating setting for a book /about them/. Cultures are actually way more interesting without outsiders coming in and dominating the narrative!


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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