Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Finder: The Rescuers by Carla Speed McNeil

Creators have different views of their stories than readers do. There's background details that they mean as clues or indicators; there's the question of whether a series of events is unusual or typical; there's all kinds of things about a fictional world that stay mostly in that creator's head, molding the story but not necessarily being said in the story.

So reading a book with creator notes can be a very different experience than reading without them: the reader gets much more of the unfiltered Creator Experience, all of the "this means that" and "I wish there had been space to explain XYZ" and "everybody did M in those days; it was a super-popular fad for PDQ reasons."

I say this because I've been reading Carla Speed McNeil's Finder stories - thorny, thoughtful SFnal comics set on a transformed Earth perhaps a few thousand years on, after some unspecified major upheavals - in the omnibus Library editions, which have extensive, detailed page-by-page notes by McNeil. And I think I get wrapped around the notes, which give a sense of how McNeil creates worlds, how she thinks about societies, what she's interested in exploring about how people react to each other. And I frankly find that those notes make her societies feel much worse to me: more oppressive, more horrible, less friendly, more overwhelming, just utterly predetermined and regimented in varied but always unpleasant ways.

So I read Talisman a decade ago, in an edition without notes - and still spent time there digging into the worldbuilding and assumptions, since I'm that kind of reader even when a creator doesn't give me a key to the puzzle. But I've really been thinking more seriously about this world after reading Finder Library, Vol. 1 in 2018 and then three stories in Vol. 2 over the past year: Dream Sequence, Mystery Date, and now The Rescuers.

I still think this world is horribly dystopian, probably even more so than McNeil does herself. It's one of those "two diametrically opposed opposite ways of life" worlds - think of The Dispossessed - and those tend, at least for me, to make both options cruel and forced and unappealing.

But this time around, I had a related thought, which helped contextualize things. Creators always have ways of organizing worlds and stories in their heads, like everyone else - some ways of thinking are more typical than others. We're all familiar with the Engineer Method: every problem can be solved, everything can be reduced to specifics, everything is a matter of bringing the appropriate resources and insight to bear with the appropriate leverage.

McNeil is something like the opposite of that. She works from an Anthropological model: what weird things would this kind of society do, if they were allowed to do anything? What's the usual way these things go, and how can that be more story-rich? How much contrast can I draw between these two societies; how far can I push each of them? And what kind of unlikely things will grow up in the interstices between societies?

This is a world full of people who do things The Right Way, and would never consider not doing so. Depending on their specific society, The Right Way is entirely different - but it's always detailed and specific and demanding. There is a neat little box for everyone, and everyone is kept within their neat little boxes - no matter what, no matter who (as specifically comes up in conversation in this book) needs to be murdered to keep those boxes neat.

I tend to doubt societies actually work like that. People fight against boxes, all the time. (Particularly when The Right Way includes "kill those people.") They have pressure to stay in those boxes, definitely - but a lot of that pressure is official, and McNeil's anthro focus means we never see the official side: law and government are vestigial or remote in this world, and what we see is that everything is enforced by custom.

But those are the kinds of stories McNeil wants to tell - and heightening tension through rigid customs is not anything new. I might wish we saw more official teeth in the enforcement of the Right Ways, and not just random people, but that's not the kind of story she wants to tell, apparently.

The Rescuers is a detective story, and I'm circling the questions about the underlying world because detective stories are all about learning the details of a particular crime and finding out the secrets of the people involved; I'm not going to spoil that.

Series-hero Jaeger is back in Anvard, the gigantic domed city that's the setting for most of the stories in this series. He's hanging out in some vague capacity at the palatial mansion of a nouveau riche guy who supports (and somewhat indulges) the "Ascian" people - the two societies in this world are the far-too-Amerindian "Ascians," who live as nomads and are Good because they are Close to the Earth (but are also horribly superstitious and seem to live short, dangerous lives); and the civilized domed-city-dwellers, who are organized into a huge array of genetic "clans," who police tightly allowed divergences from their standard (think dog breeds, but people) and tend to all work in a small related cluster of jobs allowed to that clan. (Don't think about where food for the cities comes from: the cities are all metal and stone; everything else is howling wasteland filled with violent tribes and what seems to be a large number of also often-violent nonhuman sapients. This is a Hobbesian world at its core.)

So: Baron Manavellin has a pseudo-19th century Great House, in parklike grounds, carved out from the bottom level of a vast Trantorian city. It's not clear how he became rich, but in Finder it always seems that fame precedes fortune, which is the case here: he was a hero as a boy, saving dozens of other kids from yet another (accepted, everyday) horror of this world. Manavellin has a mostly-Ascian staff, for I think mostly benevolent-overlord reasons. Jaeger is there; again, it's not clear why or what he's doing, other than mooching off other people, which frankly I think is the point of his life.

(Once again: I do not find Jaeger as compelling or positive as the author evidently does. He's like that one cousin who reliably shows up at dinner-time and equally reliably is nowhere to be found at chores-time.)

A shocking crime takes place during a big fete at the Great House. Police detective Smithson takes charge of the investigation; he's smarter and more dedicated to his job than is typical for police in this area of Anvard. (This, of course, is typical of the detective story: the detective must have almost-insurmountable obstacles, and must be battling nearly alone.) Jaeger has skills that would aid the investigation, but the place of the Ascians in Anvard is also tentative and shaky; they're not citizens, and what (few and paltry) legal protections might apply to the clans don't cover them. So he both doesn't want to help, and doesn't think it will do any good.

Well, of course it won't do any good! This is Finder; everyone has to stay in their boxes and let the standard horrible society run the same way it always does. There's no other way for people to live and organize themselves, is there?

There's a secondary plot as well, but I'll leave that out. It's more anthropology, more "we have to live this way because of Reasons; we can never alter our Ways because our Ways are The Right Ways."

I should say here that The Rescuers is a tragedy, more or less. Finder stories before this have mostly been about people finding kinds of happiness despite their straitjacket societies and tiny allowed decision-spaces. But The Rescuers is the "Oops! All Tragedy!" of the Finder-verse, in which all those anthropological details make a thicket no one can manage to get out of in time to make anything positive.

So this one is a downer, but it's a downer deeply informed by all of the bedrock assumptions and details of this world. I still think this world is mostly a tragedy, most of the time, for most of the people in it, and McNeil has just previously carefully picked her moments and characters to show a few non-tragedy scenes. (I think she disagrees; that's how fiction is.)

It's excellent science fiction, full of details and moments, in a big, rich society. (Not a nice one, but how many societies, real or fictional, are inherently nice?) I would never in a million years want to live in any world created by McNeil, but they're engrossing to visit in fictional form.

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