Elizabeth Moon, ‘Vatta’s War’ series

I’ve been thinking about shared assumptions. Shared between the author and the reader, that is.

When an author creates an alternative reality, of whatever kind, then the people in that reality have values which they may or may not be assumed to share with the reader. This is something the author can decide. You could create a dogmatic fundamentalist society which worships zebras and bans mushy food, for example, with the assumption that the majority of your readers are not going to be of that mindset. If you do that, then that assumption of a difference will affect how you think readers will react to characters and events, and the way you choose to describe them. It’ll limit some of your options, and expand others. If, on the other hand, the society you create seems to be more or less a mirror of the one your readers live in, that gives you a different set of options and it gives your readers a different set of expectations.

The ‘Vatta’s War’ series is an engaging space opera in which the heroine overcomes dangers, discovers her own potential and saves the galaxy (more or less). It’s good stuff, simply but well written, with three-dimensional characters and enough science to seem convincing and consistent (at least to me) without being overwhelming. It’s part action story, part political thriller, but with enough emotional content to make the fighting have a point.

The one problem I have with it (after a re-read) is that I’m not sure of the extent to which the author and I disagree about execution as punishment and legal trials.

There are several planets and systems in the series, and they are distinguished by a range of political and cultural variables. An important factor here is the existence of genetically modified ‘humods’, which are the norm in some systems, occasionally found in others, and anathema in some (those whose cultural and religious values stress the importance of preserving a ‘pure’ humanity). This gives a nice easy parallel to racism, which is useful in demonstrating the heroine’s humanitarian, non-discriminatory values. No problem there: the author and I seem to be on the same wavelength, as we do over the issue of avoiding civilian casualties in war.

The point at which I paused and became detached from the story was the point at which a ‘bad guy’ character was sentenced to summary execution. This took place on a system in which courtesy is essential, to the point where an insult is a legal matter. The bad guy in question was challenging the heroine in court, and when he lost started raving and insulted the judge, which on that particular world carried the death sentence. There was some debate about an alternative punishment consisting of a personality alteration, but he decided he’d rather be dead.

The reason I paused was that I realised I shared only some of the heroine’s reaction. She was shocked by the fact that an insult could result in a death sentence, because it seemed to her to be an excessive punishment, but she wasn’t disturbed by the existence of the death sentence per se. Once I realised that, I looked back over the rest of the story so far, and realised that there were other points when my reaction as a reader might not have been what the author intended. There’s a key theme of revenge running through the story, and several points where direct vengeance seems to be preferred to legal trial and punishment. Since the whole scenario of the series is what happens when pirates get organised and pose a major threat to a number of worlds, and how you combat them without a central organised ‘police’, I’d been assuming the ‘at war’ situation the characters find themselves in explained their mindset when it came to action against their enemies. As the story went on, however, I began to think that the difference that exists in my mind between killing someone who’s shooting at you and killing someone as a revenge execution ought to be demonstrated more strongly. Towards the end, I was really hoping at least one of the bad guys would be arrested, tried and sentenced. Preferably not to death.

So is this a result of non-shared assumptions? Or was I thinking precisely what the author intended me to think?

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