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The Outskirter's Secret by Rosemary Kirstein
The Outskirter's Secret: The Steerswoman Series, Volume Two
Rosemary Kirstein

Having survived the events of the first book, Rowan continues to follow up on the mystery of the gems, fragments of what she now knows to be a fallen Guidestar, one of the four mysterious objects in geostationary orbit above the surface of her world. Where the first book took her around the comparatively civilized Inner Lands, this time she decides to journey to the location where the main body of the Guidestar fell, a location on the far side of the Outskirts, the homeland of her barbarian companion Bel.

There will be spoilers

Culturally, the people of the Outskirts are very different from the people of the Inner Lands; as Rowan realizes this is the result of divergence from a common origin after centuries of adaptation to an environment far more hostile to human life than the comparatively soft Inner Lands. The Outskirters see the Outskirts as their personal enemy. It takes Rowan a while to set aside her preconceptions to realize this is literally true; aside from their goats, there's not much in the Outskirts that a human can eat unaided and as unpleasant as the Outskirts are, they are a garden of Eden compared to the Face.

We get a much better idea about the ecologies of this world and despite terms like "demons" or "goblins" what we see are not the animals and plants of legend and commercial fantasy but something literally more alien, an assortment of lifeforms that fill the familiar niches of autotroph and heterotroph but whose chemistries and bauplans are like nothing on Earth.

While the Outskirters have an admirable oral tradition, they lack the resources Steerswomen bring to bear on history. Among other things, they tend to think of the way things are – with one notable exception – as the way things have always been, even though they know their traditions have a start date. What Rowan knows from old maps is that the Outskirts move with time; why they move and how turn out to be very important.

All this would be very interesting if Slado the wizard wasn't out there plotting in the shadows and if this wasn't a world short on meaningless coincidence (or tenses). There is one aspect of the Outskirter's lives that changed, the disappearance of a recurring weather anomaly; it is not a coincidence it vanished about the time the Guidestar fell and the consequences have implications for the whole of the human occupied world.

This would be the book where the harmless sounding terms "Routine Bioform Clearance" and "Rendezvous weather" show up.

Although the characters continue to talk about magic as though they are trapped in some sort of secondary universe fantasy, it's increasingly clear that this firmly science fiction and that the characters are probably living on an alien world whose lifeforms come from a lineage completely unconnected to ours (1). Once again, the text is reflected in the original Hescox cover:

Rowan and Bel might be dressed like they might be on speaking terms with the Riddlemaster of Hed but that's pretty big piece of obviously advanced electronics there and so readers knew going in to look for the scientific underpinnings of the world.

An aside: what possessed Del Rey to make the second book in a series part of their Discovery series? Don't get me wrong; being in company with Ammonite is no shame but it seems like an odd decision and one characteristic of Del Rey in the early to mid 1990s, prior to their great mid-list purge [2].

There's an incredibly misleading statement near the beginning:

A steerswoman might not know everything, but everything that a steerswoman did know was true.

They may believe this but it's not actually the case because for all their devotion to clear seeing, the Steerswomen can be just as misled by preconception as anyone. Rowan has a number of moments in the Outskirts where she realizes that her way of seeing the landscape around her leaves her blind or perhaps worse than blind to the things experienced people like Bel may see. It's not enough be have access to the facts; you also need the correct perceptual and conceptual framework to take full advantage.

While Rowan has no concrete idea why Slado is doing what he is doing, I have a guess but for reasons of spoilers I am going to use the mysterious arts of rot-13.

Sbe gur uhznaf naq gur bgure greerfgevny yvsr sbezf gb fcernq, gur angvir yvsrsbezf unir gb or rkgrezvangrq orpnhfr gur gjb pbzcrgvat rpbflfgrzf ner zhghnyyl gbkvp; pbrkvfgrapr vf vzcbffvoyr. V guvax Fynqb unf qrpvqrq jvcvat bhg n jbeyq'f havdhr urevgntr bs yvsr vf jebat naq vf gnxvat fgrcf gb cerirag vg. Hasbeghangryl vg qbrfa'g frrz yvxr gur greerfgevny ernyz pna or fgngvp; rvgure vg rkcnaqf be vg fuevaxf.

I can see no way this can end in tears and by that I mean Slado clearly means all this to end in tears.

I am very curious to see if in future books we ever get a hint about the motives of the people who set this whole state of affairs up. The origin stories we are told about this world don't really seem to cover what appears to have happened:

The three legends mentioned are:

"The gods became lonely and created the first humans as company. But the humans wanted to be equal to the gods, so the gods turned against them.”

“Across time, some animals grew more intelligent, and eventually changed into people.”


“As the gods went about their doings,” he said, “their power was such that it spilled over, spreading across the worlds. They did not care that this happened. But it caused much damage, and many strange things to occur. The spilled power entered objects, and they became alive: all the plants, the animals, and humankind. But of all living things, only humans could think and know. When the gods noticed this, they hated the humans for being aware, and seek always to destroy us.

None of those really cover "at least sixty generations ago, someone decided to drop a colony of humans onto an alien world whose very biochemistry makes humans burn at its touch, where dozens of generations would pay the coin of short lives and appalling child death rates to buy a patch of land with terrestrial biochemistry." In fact, since we know the first Outskirters had writing and none of their histories touch on this, it seems reasonable to suppose whoever set all this up went out of their way to make sure no histories from the very first days survived. Which raises the question "why?"

Outskirter's Secret can be purchased here

1: Although I still think there is a slim chance that this is the outcome of some The Nitrogen Fix or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind-level ecological mishap, I admit while blackgrass looks like the sort of highly invasive plant someone might create, it's much harder to explain where the demons and such come from.

2: I wonder if the long delay between this book and the next one protected Kirstein from being purged with people like Gilliland, Frezza and, I think, Watt-Evans (although he may have left on his own accord, actually. After he shows up to correct me, I will fix this section).

Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s); comment here or there.

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I first read Outskirter as Upskirter and thought "Is James reviewing an SF saga centered on creepshot photographers?"

Then I read Outskirter as euphemism for clothed only heavy petting and thought, "Is this some sort of Steampunk Chaste Erotica series?"

I was quite disappointed to discover that it wasn't about Victorian interstellar adventurers who frequently engage in dry humping, but nothing more.

Edited at 2014-04-29 04:21 pm (UTC)

Thanks for reviewing this series; the books are really good and deserve a much wider audience.

There are not words for how much I like and admire that series.

It was only on rereading the first one that I realized goblins (or, at least, the wood goblin she interacts with via sign language) are chimpanzees.

(face palm) of course they are.

That occurred to me when I read the first book recently. To be fair, I'd been primed by hearing so much about the series; I was on the lookout for science-y explanations. But the wood goblin had a pretty well-defined grasp of syntax for a chimpanzee, I thought. It seemed like either some bonus evolution has happened, or they're extraterrestrial chimp analogues.

I figured they had been genetically modified at some point.

It might be that at the time it was written the chimps' ability to use syntax was over-estimated or at least overhyped in pop-sci articles.

It's obvious that this is a lost human colony from David Brin's Uplift universe.


She's done that a lot: the dragons are robots, so that's what the demons are (I kept picturing Dalek-like robots). Only they're not.

Therefore the gnomes are native! Only, at least one kind is not. (There are multiple kinds, and I don't think they're all apes.)

Did this review show up on usenet?

Edited at 2014-04-30 11:45 am (UTC)

Did this review show up on usenet?

Um. Yyyyyyyyyes. Don't look at rasfw for a bit.

I think the GOBLINS are a native hexapod-based species. I think it's the GNOMES that are chimpanzees.

There's a point where Rowan is basically categorizing different kinds of animals, with, I think, the goblins, the silkworms, the "LITTLE SNAILS?!?" from Janus's map, some other bugs, and stuff being one type; humans, wood gnomes, cattle, goats, outskirter goats, Inner Lands birds, as a second type; and demons being a third type entirely.

I may be getting a lot of that wrong, of course.

Ah, gnomes vs goblins would explain my confusion, wouldn't it?

I'd ask her for a list of what we've learned about the native ecology so far, but... well. She has much more important things to do, and I want her to work on the next books after that. :)

Yeah, the same thing happened to me the first ... three or four ... times I read it. Somehow, my brain just sort of goes "fantasy humanoid critter starting with G" and stops there. It wasn't until it was so clear that the thing which hung around the Archive was completely unlike the heavily armored things that swarm around and kill people that I flipped back and forth until I realized that they were two different words.

I think the GOBLINS are a native hexapod-based species.

ITYM "quadrapod" there. Although hexapodia is a key insight.

Uh gnomes. The critters that hang around the archives are called wood gnomes by the steerswomen. The goblins are a purely native species.

They could be, but they kept seeming smaller than that in the descriptive passages at the Archives?

I love this series so much.

Gonna argue about one thing: "everything that a steerswoman did know was true" I think is true, for a specifically scientific value of true, which is, a steerswoman can point to how she knows it! Which is exactly how science works: which is exactly why we talk about the theory of gravity and the theory of evolution etc., because we have no revealed truth, but we have things that we can explain exactly how and why our observations lead us to believe that they are true. And yes, the steerswomen can be wrong, in exactly the same way that current scientific understanding is imperfect and can be overturned. It is still the closest approach we have to "true" - if you call that not true, there's not a whole lot of use for the word "true". Outside of mathematical proofs, of course.

Not that Slado is an angel, but I can see no way for this not to end in tears. As you note, it's either further gentrification or the end of humanity here.

I'm thinking the gods sound like galaxy-seeding type aliens here, but I hope not, because that sounds pretty weak.

Is the alien ecology that toxic to humans? (I need to re-read, and will, soon).
I remember they are incompatible, i.e. neither can digest the other (except for that one notable exception), and that buried terran carcasses/bodies will poison the surrounding alien flora, but I don't remember that merely touching an alien lifeform causes burns (assuming you meant a burning sensation and not actually going up in flames).

Well, a HECK of a lot of the Outskirts is corrosive to humans: demon flesh is highly corrosive, and they apparently evolved in a water body filled with some sort of toxic-to-humans salts; tangletrees will rip your skin off if you fall in them, because they've got a vicious barbed-wire-like internal structure, and so forth.

tangletrees will rip your skin off if you fall in them

You're thinking of the lichen towers here. IIRC, tanglebushes are just alien tumbleweeds (maybe with thorns).

I need to reread the series...

The fluid in demon eggs is corrosive and you can, I believe, get a rash just from brushing up against black grass.

I think blackgrass may be exploiting a broader spectrum of light than greengrass and that may be why it can outcompete greengrass.

The alien and human ecologies are mutually toxic, yes (and we find that out fairly early so it's not really a spoiler)

I feel mildly embarrassed that your rot-13'ed speculation never even occurred to me. I don't know that it's what's actually going on, but it makes sense. It would explain Slado's actions. And, of course, wizards have more abilities at their disposal, but aren't otherwise any smarter than any other people: Slado may have no idea about the culturally-enforced population pressure. It might well be possible to stop Routine Bioform Clearance where it is, and leave the demon culture intact, with the Inner Lands going smack up against blackgrass, but only by destroying the entire redgrass Outskirter culture -- even if Slado thought about that, he may have never even considered that the Outskirters would raid the Inner Lands to survive.

Or he may have thought of that, but considered it an acceptable price, figuring that, after a generation or two, it would all shake out: even if the Outskirters are individually much better fighters than Inner Landers, nomadic cultures never actually successfully conquer and hold cities in the long run (Except The Mongols).

Actually, I think the wizards know full well about population pressure. The "wars" they arrange are pretty clearly designed to cull the herd, so to speak.

I meant to mention: either Someone is maintaining and replacing the Guidestars, which I don't think the text supports, or Someone built orbiters that have lasted 60+ generations and seem intended to last many more.

Edited at 2014-04-30 03:28 pm (UTC)

Assuming that this universe doesn't have FTL (unknown), they need to have the ability to build durable tech just to have gotten here in the first place.

They don't have the problem our earth has of "lots of man-made space junk in effectively random orbits". Presumably, they could have cleared out any naturally-occurring space junk in nearby orbits.

I'm thinking the Guidestars are leftover starship engines. Casimir handwavium microwave photon drives, perhaps. Not sure why such a thing would need PV cells, though.

(Deleted comment)
... oooh. Now that's an idea.

I really need to do another complete reread of these.

I'm of the opinion that the Inner Landers were colonists, and the Outskirters were security/scouts. Note that the Krue and the Outskirters use SI measurements and 24 hour time while the Inner Landers use Imperial measurements and 12 hour time. The Outskirters also use a 12 point relative system for describing orientation which just screams "military" to me.

I also suspect that redgrass was bioengineered as an intermediary between blackgrass and greengrass for terraforming purposes. The Outskirts goats probably have some very interesting bioengineered bacteria in their guts that enable them to extract nutrition from redgrass. Said bacteria are inadequate to the task of extracting anything useful from blackgrass.

And consider the title given to the head of an Outskirter tribe.

Actually, I had noticed that; it was AFAIC, one of the earliest tipoffs. I just forgot to mention it in my previous comment.

I'm probably not the only one who had flashback to the Tesh and the Sevateem.

I was just noting that. "'seyoh' sounds kind of Native American. Wait, or like CEO. Or no, even simply, CO. Oh-ho."

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I think Slado was experimenting:

Fynqb qvqa'g oevat qbja gur thvqrfgne orpnhfr ur pnerq nobhg gur thvqrfgne vgfrys. Engure, ur jnf grfgvat bhe jungrire qrsrafrf gur cynarg unq. Fynqb vagraqf gb qrfgebl gur vapbzvat fgnefuvc jura vg neevirf. Ur jvyy hfr jungrire zrpunavfz ur hfrq gb qrfgebl gur thvqrfgne.

(Deleted comment)
My recent pet theory (which I posted on RASFW and am repasting here):

There's some emphasis on the poem about the legendary starship captain and (what seems to be) the ship's AI. It seems to be a tragedy, which implies that the ship crashed or was wrecked and this entire terraforming plan is a desperate survival gambit.

My idea: Gur pheerag Fgrrefjbzra guvax gurve anzr ribyirq sebz n thvyq bs zncznxref, ohg V org gurl'er jebat. Gur fgnefuvc negvsvpvny vagryyvtrapr jnf gur bevtvany "fgrrefjbzna" (n ploreargvp vagryyvtrapr genafyngrq sebz Terrx guebhtu n srzvavar fuvc cebabha).

Some google-scanning indicates that I'm not the first person to think of this idea, but there hasn't been much discussion of it.

(Deleted comment)
Rowan's dream in this book might support that.

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