Desert Storm and Technology

February 17, 2013

There’s a lot of action in this week’s two chapters. Chapter 5 concerns Thomas’s descent into the high desert. Deserts are perhaps the most prototypical hostile environment in adventure fiction. Jungles may be dark, disorienting, and hazardous, yet only because they abound with life. In a jungle story, it’s predators and diseases that the characters need to worry about. In the desert, it’s the land and sun themselves that are the main enemies. I’ve used desert environments before, in my own writing—although I’m not sure how well. I don’t think I’ve every been quite convinced that desert conditions (or other mundane problems) were really sufficient challenges in a fantasy story. So I added evil enchantments or squid-like monsters dwelling beneath the sand, to enhance the feeling of danger. Maybe a powerful group of adventurers crossing a desert plain needed that extra challenge, to keep the story interesting; or maybe not.

In The Broken Lands, it’s Thomas who first crosses through the desert, and Thomas is a much more skillful character than the younger Rolf. However, he’s still very much a man focused on action. When faced with the prospect of capture, he steels himself to fight first, then slay himself if capture should seem immanent. The change in viewpoint character is interesting, but in some ways it’s also a bit jarring to me. These books are, to a great extent, a coming of age story for Rolf. Of course, it’s common for the viewpoint to move around in fiction—especially epic fiction, where the action is taking place in many different locales. However, it can be a challenge to maintain interest in a teenaged protagonist and his or her growth, when the reader gets to spend some time following along with older, more mature protagonists as well. Characters who are practiced, knowledgeable, and in command of their situations require a different style of writing—and any character who is too effective may quickly become boring. (This may be one major reason why it is really difficult to write powerful wizards as viewpoint characters. Such individuals can work as occasional narrative foci—for example, High Lord Mhoram in The Power that Preserves. Apprentice wizards, learning along with the reader about the nature of magic, can also work. However, it may be too difficult to provide meaningful challenges for a character who can see into the future, strike enemies from a distance, and command the forces of nature, for a character like that to remain an effective protagonist.)

Of course, Thomas is not a wizard, and rather mundane challenges can be very hazardous for him. As he flees down from the slopes of the Cascades (which are accurately characterized as neither high nor wide enough to impede a determined crosser on foot), the leader of the Free Folk has a chance encounter with a large group of mounted scout troopers from Ekuman’s castle. Unfortunately, the whole episode with the scout parties, which occupies much of this chapter, was not very exciting. It felt like filler material—inserted to fill out a chapter that was only half a reasonable length. The escape from the soldiers does provide a way of getting the Silent Folk out of action, but that doesn’t seem like a great necessity, nor something that couldn’t have been accomplished another way. Because of the way Saberhagen broke his chapters—essentially whenever there’s a change of setting—he may have been stuck with too little plot for this section of the book. If he wanted to end the chapter with the thunderstorm cliff-hanger, he needed another major encounter to occur between Thomas’s departure from the cave area and his finding of the dead leather-wing.

I thought the description of that dead creature was really the most effective part of chapter 5. The image of the reptile, blackened as if it had been cooked from within, carrying a bag full of ashes and a mysterious magical box, really got me interested in the story again. The brewing storm that follows works pretty well, also, although it lacks the visceral power of the split reptilian body. The final blast of lightning at the end of the passage provides an effective conclusion—with some of the excitement that I found to be missing from the earlier encounter with Ekuman’s troops.

However, the main action this week is really in the cave of the Elephant, and I think the way Saberhagen presents the huge “beast” is fairly effective. As Rolf stares at the huge artifact, the reader quickly realizes that the Elephant is a tank. Yet the machine is explicitly described as most un-elephant-like, and I found myself wondering how this armored fighting vehicle came to be associated with the largest of land animals. But this question is quickly answered, when Rolf spots a stenciled regimental insignia—an elephant brandishing a spear in its trunk. This imagery is reminiscent of (but probably more evocative than) the actual symbol of the real 64th Armored Regiment, whose motto is, “We Pierce.”

It’s interesting how Saberhagen tries to balance Rolf’s complete amazement with everything he sees with the readers’ much better understanding of the military hardware involved. At first, the tank is described in terms that Rolf might use, but later, after the reader has gotten used to the device, Saberhagen has no qualms referring to its “treads,” even though I have a hard time imagining Rolf using a word like that. I could certainly relate to the way the interior of the tank was described. The lights and air circulation still work, but the plastic foam of the seat cushions flakes away when it is touched, forming a irritating dust—just like the original seat cushions from my grandmother’s dining room chairs. It soon turns out that the oxygen masks—which would be key safety devices if the tank were being used in real warfare—are in similarly poor shape.

Saberhagen specifically points several elements during the startup checklist out to the reader, starting with the nuclear power. (The description of the sounds of the reactor starting up, sounding like caged demons crying out in anger, were quite original and an effective return to Rolf’s way of perceiving things. It reminded me of another remarkable description of futuristic power generation, as seen by someone with no understanding at all of the technology involved—John Christopher‘s titular Pool of Fire.) Next we learn that the weapons systems are inoperative; a working flamethrower would probably make any future engagement the Elephant enters just too easy. Finally, Rolf moves on to learning to drive and steer the machine. I think it’s interesting that Saberhagen explains that two levers are used to go forward, go backward, and turn, but he never says explicitly that the each lever controls the treads on one side of the vehicle; readers are apparently expected to know this already.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing in this chapter, some of which I probably missed, even though I know exactly where the whole narrative is leading. However, I found it interesting that it’s inside the Elephant—inside a nuclear-powered device created by the United States military—that Rolf first invokes Ardneh. Rolf is clearly at home with technology in a way that most folk in his world would not be. He marvels at things that seem as commonplace to us a control levers. Yet he is not paralyzed by fear; he tries to make them work and envisions himself as master of the Elephant. He even offers himself as Ardneh’s avatar.

I found the description of some of Rolf’s thoughts quite effective—especially the idea that he has some notion what a demon ought to look like, but he has no idea what to expect from a god. Yet when he sees himself as master and driver of the Elephant, his mind goes back to the icon Loford had described, of Ardneh as a warrior mounted on his war elephant. In fact, throughout this trilogy, Ardneh is often associated with the imagery and attributes of Indra; at one point, the new god, apparently constructed by men to defend their freedom, will be referred to by a sobriquet that is clearly derived from descriptions of the old Aryan war god: “In the name of Ardneh—In the name of He-Who-Wields-The-Lightning, Breaker of Citadels….” The association of Ardneh with citadel-breaking has obvious relevance to the Elephant tank, but the connection to thunderstorms makes me wonder how much hand the mighty Ardneh had in the events unfolding around the Oasis as well.

At the end of this section, Rolf is rather abruptly captured, and we’ll pick up the story again with two more chapters next week.

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3 Responses to “Desert Storm and Technology”


  1. I was rather confused by the startup noises of the elephant, which seemed more like the rumblings you might expect from a large diesel engine than a hum of electricity from a (small) nuclear reactor. When your nuclear power plant is making noises like caged demons, it’s time to get the hell out of there.

    Overall, a nice couple of chapters, though.

    • Buzz Says:

      However a miniaturized nuclear reactor works, it’s probably going to have some mechanical components. In a real fission reactor, the operator needs to physically move the fuel rods into position close to one-another (or physically remove the control rods, or pump in the moderator water). What Rolf heard may have mostly been this. I think the next time they bring the engines online, the book points out that the Elephant was less noisy upon its second awakening.


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