I have read The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. (Despite the best efforts of the publishing industry.)

What a series! Like, damn.

  1. How we got here
  2. A brief note on structure
  3. A slightly longer note on epigraphs
  4. Defamiliarisation and distillation
  5. Let’s talk about wizards!
  6. The resources of the Cancrioth
  7. Baru’s periapsis
  8. Let’s talk about tulpas!
  9. What is a wound?
  10. Genocide
  11. The number of interest
  12. Kimbune’s Theorem
    1. The first ingredient: exponential functions and calculus
    2. The second ingredient: Taylor series
    3. The third ingredient: trigonometry
    4. The fourth ingredient: complex numbers and the path of inventing new numbers
    5. Cooking Kimbune’s theorem
  13. Barhu’s big plan
  14. An economic cancer
  15. History lessons!
    1. John Law in France
    2. South Sea bubble
    3. What to conclude?
  16. The reason for empire
  17. The motor driving ‘will’
  18. Where’s all this going?
  19. Racialised gender: the downfall of Cairdine Farrier

Last year, I read the first two books in Masquerade series, seeing Baru Cormorant as first a Traitor and then a Monster. Since then, and a great deal of really appreciated feedback, those books have sat in my head accruing emotions.

A quick aside on pronouns and such I actually had a chance to speak with the author briefly, albeit while they were going through some pretty tough circumstances. (I don't have that line anymore, so if you're reading this, Seth, hi! I really hope I do your books justice and I'd love to find some way to connect again.) I'm going to put a hard line up about speculating about Seth's personal life in this post. Since I don't have a way to check in anymore, I am going to be refer to Seth as Seth since that's the name on the book cover, and use 'they' pronouns because their Twitter bio said 'any pronouns' when it was up. But Seth, if you read this and you are uncomfortable with any part of that please let me know and I'll edit any of these posts.

Like the last two posts in this series, this is part review, part meta, part speculation—just an attempt to write down all the things bubbling in my head after I finish a book as rich as this one. Not an attempt to reach a final judgement, but to process the many questions raised, point out some of the things I appreciated, and so on. Just… to give the book the kind of engagement I feel like it deserves.

How we got here

Because it’s been a year since the last, I wanted to recap what this series has been about so far! A lot of this is only revealed gradually, but this is the picture as we have it at the end of Monster. Reading this is not necessary for the rest of the article, but it might be handy to refer back to.

A 2500 hundred word 'summary'

The Baru Cormorant series tells the story of a girl from the volcanic island nation of Taranoke, in a world that is physically similar to our own but with different geography, cultures, and history. But it’s also secondarily the story of a nonbinary Prince Tau-Indi Bosoka from a federation of broadly West African cultures called the Oriati Mbo, and of another secret rebel doing terrible things, Xate Yawa, from a cold feudal land called Aurdwynn, and of an Oriati expatriate navy girl, Aminata.

Chronologically, as I’m presenting it here, the story that we see begins in the Mbo. A small nation called Falcrest has overthrown its monarchy, and its new republican government (nicknamed the ‘Masquerade’) has rapidly started to expand and attempt to take control of the ‘trade circle’ of a sea that somewhat resembles the Indian ocean. In so doing, they challenge the long-standing power of the Mbo, whose diverse people boast of a thousand year history guided by a semi-religious philosophy called ‘trim’, a combination of deontological ethics and conviction in the long-ranging mystical influence of personal connections.

Unexpectedly, Falcrest defeats the Mbo on the sea. After the first battle, two men named Cairdine Farrier and Cosgrad Torrinde arrive in Lonjaro Mbo as part of a hostage exchange. They’re not just any hostages—they’re here of course as spies, each trying to understand how to crack open the Mbo, though they spend a great deal of their time getting tropical diseases instead. There, the Falcresti encounter a trio of young friends: the Princes (gender neutral title) Tau-Indi Bosoka and Kindalana, raised to fulfil an administrative and religious function, and their close friend Abdumasi Abd. As the war drags on, the kids fall out due to teenage drama. Prince Tau, who believes in Trim more than anyone, comes to believe that this falling out is the reason for the war—the large echoing the small.

In Monster, we don’t find out how this part of the story ends. Let’s move the camera to a cold, rebellious feudal nation called Aurdwynn. Xate Yawa is a stable girl living miserably under the aristocracy with her brother. She and her antiroyalist comrades, among them her brother Xate Olake, betray the aristocrats to Falcrest, believing they will do away with the aristocracy. But to her horror, Falcrest keeps the aristocrats around and at the same time, imposes all kinds of eugenic brutalities on Aurdwynn’s people. Yawa betrays an early attempt at rebellion, convinced it is not the time, allowing herself to wriggle into the Falcresti administration. She earns the dubious honour of becoming the person who carries out all the torture, conditioning and lobotomies of the Falcrest administration. But secretly, her goal is much like our main girl Baru: to ‘save’ her homeland of Aurdwynn from aristocrats and imperialists alike, by rising up in the ranks of the Masquerade until she has the chance to drive Falcrest out of Aurdwynn for real. We’ll come back to her later.

Also significant are the Tain family, from the proud but very poor north of Aurdwynn. We have Tain Ko, who has a relationship with Xate Olake (Yawa’s brother) and sides with the antiroyalists, and joins the rebellion against Falcrest; we have her daughter Tain Shir who is one of Farrier’s protégés; and we have her niece, Tain Hu, who ends up the duchess after Tain Shir kills her own mother on Farrier’s orders. At some point prior to that, but offscreen, we know Tain Shir fought a brutal guerilla war in the Oriati jungle for Farrier’s sake; at some point after, she goes off the rails and rebels against Farrier, pursuing her own one-woman anarchist campaign in far more direct ways.

The first book opens on Taranoke. Taranoke’s people have got things broadly figured out: they live off the sea trade with a society organised into extended nonmonogamous families, with relatively little regard for gender. Though there are conflicts between different cultural groups, even war, there is nothing like the brutality that Falcrest will soon unleash. Our picture of Taranoke comes across as near idyllic - not a paper utopia but a place where people are caring, and funny, and living pretty well. Though of course, this is perhaps in part because our viewpoint character Baru fetishises it in distant hindsight, even as she forgets more of her life there.

At the outset of the series, Baru is a child when Falcrest arrives to turn her home into a colony. Falcrest applies all the colonialist tools of exploitation. They play different cultural groups against each other, carefully lending its military power to one side so as to indebt Baru’s people to them; they insinuate their fiat currency into the island’s economy until the Taranoki are increasingly dependent on Falcrest; they use selective innoculations to protect their allies from the smallpox and cholera plagues they ‘coincidentally’ brought with them. And, of course, they build schools to indoctrinate the island’s young people into Falcrest’s ideology of ‘Incrasticism’.

(The specific tenets of Incrasticism we will discuss later in more detail, but we’ll note for not that it is a nasty fascist mix of scientism, eugenics, fetishisation of cleanliness, and Lamarckian delusions about heredity, all effectively oriented towards social control.)

Baru specifically is targeted by a man called Cairdine Farrier, one of Falcrest’s most powerful men and an element of the ‘Throne’ who (at least in their imaginations) are orchestrating Falcrest’s rise to power. She’s subjected to a program of grooming and indoctrination designed to inculcate a deep belief that, for example, expressing her lesbianism or otherwise moving against Falcrest’s interests can only ever end in disaster. In pursuit of this plan, as well as teaching her to associate Falcrest’s methods with power and knowledge and subtly moving to alienate from her family, Farrier has Tain Shir kidnap one of her dads, Salm, and claims to Baru he is dead as a punishment for homosexuality; he has her close friend Aminata attack her over her lesbianism; all the while he’s posing as a merchant, positioning himself as her benefactor and her route to the power to meaningfully oppose Falcrest from within.

Over the course of Monster, we found out that the Throne, far from being united in their methods of would-be absolute rule, are divided between two equally delusional theories of power—but though their theories are delusional, their consequences are very real. So Farrier is in competition with another man, a eugenicist and surgeon named Cosgrad Torrinde. Cosgrad is a proponent of a kind of Lamarckian heredity, believing particles of behaviour are acquired through action and then passed on, so that people can’t escape what he imagines to be the inherent tendencies of their race; he hopes to eugenically engineer the perfect citizen, by discovering a way that behaviours can be surgically implanted. Farrier, meanwhile, believes that his ‘Farrier process’ of operant conditioning can teach anyone to keep their ‘unhygienic’ impulses in check, and his proof is that he’s abused Baru into acting in Falcrest’s interest, not sleeping with other women, etc.

The context of this challenge is that a mysterious woman called Renascent, who has yet to explicitly appear on screen but apparently has hooks in both Farrier and Torrinde, has challenged them to prove their respective theories; the reward will be the blackmail material she holds on the other one. This is not unusual in a way: blackmail is the glue that holds the ‘cryptarchs’ of Falcrest’s secret government together in any semblance of unity. In particular, each cryptarch, upon their appointment, is compromised by an order to execute someone they love. For example, the character Svir—who we’ll meet later—has his partner Lindon under threat of execution for homosexuality. When they cannot go through with it, an exceptional, temporary stay of execution is granted by grace of the (lobotomised figurehead) Emperor—one which will be removed as soon as the cryptarch starts acting up against their patron.

The first book, Traitor, tells the story of how Baru earns the right to be named a cryptarch, in the role of Imperial Accountant for Aurdwynn. Baru’s task is to break the rebellion, permanently; she does this by first financially crushing one attempt, then—on a subtle insinuation from Farrier, via Svir—building up a second rebellion in its place, one credible enough to draw in the troublesome aristocrats who Falcrest wishes to remove and overthrow Falcrest’s incompetent governor, and then at the last minute reveal that she was an agent of Throne all along, bringing all the rebels into one place where Falcrest can liquidate them. Through this convoluted ploy, which involves betraying a very large number of people on the way, Baru proves both her loyalty to Falcrest and her capacity to pull the economic strings to manipulate nations.

In the course of the rebellion, Baru betrays people left right and centre. For example, she pretends to offer marriage to the Necessary King of the neighbouring Stakhieczi for long enough to get their military support, but humiliates him by turning out to be a traitor, putting his position and life at risk. She uses one Duke Unuxekome to get support from Oriati privateers, and through him, unknowingly uses Abdumasi Abd, only to betray them all to the Falcrest navy. And she makes a close ally of Xate Yawa’s brother, Xate Olake, who is hit especially hard by her final betrayal.

But there is one person she stays loyal to: she falls deeply for the duchess Tain Hu, now the ruler the impoverished northern province of Vultjag. She doesn’t allow herself to be with Tain Hu for long, too caught up in Farrier’s indoctrination to associate sleeping with a woman with misery. But they spend a night together on the last night of the rebellion’s apparent victory, before Baru arranges to send Tain Hu away so that at least she will be safe. Tain Hu, however turns herself in, presenting herself as the hostage to secure Baru as a cryptarch—and she is the one who proposes that Baru must kill her, so that Baru can make good on any of the things she believed she could accomplish for Taranoke. So Baru carries out Tain Hu’s execution, seemingly cold-bloodedly, closing Book 1 on an absolutely gut-punch, tragic note.

Monster concerns Baru steadily descending to rock bottom as she reckons with her grief and the conditioning of Farrier. Together with Svirakir, another cryptarch (who is secretly the brother of the Necessary King of the Stakhieczi), Baru flees the mutineer Admiral Ormsment who wishes to bring her down for her role in the Aurdwynn affair. Travelling with Ormsment is Baru’s childhood friend, Aminata, who has become an effective torturer of her fellow Oriati for Falcrest’s navy. She still desperately believes in Baru, and joins Ormsment’s pursuit to find out the truth.

Baru’s head injury, combined with the horrific circumstances of Tain Hu’s death, has left her with a condition known as ‘hemineglect’, where she is unaware of things on the right side of her body, and something close to ‘split brain’ or callosal syndrome. The left side of Baru’s brain is the one controlling her body, and it is not communicating with the right side of her brain. The right side of Baru’s brain has meanwhile come to represent a separate person, which she conceives of as essentially her image of Tain Hu—in Tyrant, the word tulpa is used, but we can get to that.

Over the course of the book, Baru hops between a series of islands, gradually giving in to drink and depression as she wrestles with her fear that she is truly Farrier’s creature, though not without chances to let her awful brilliance shine to crash the odd economy. She and Yawa are each tasked with tracking down the elusive ‘Cancrioth’, essentially cancer wizards and slavers who were long ago overthrown in Oriati legend. Confirmation of the Cancrioth would be immensely valuable for both Farrier and Torrinde, but moreover, the mission is a chance for them to test their respective theories of control: whether Baru, as an exemplar of the ‘Farrier process’, can maintain the control of her behaviour as an ideal citizen of the republic. Xate Yawa, meanwhile, is, by Torrinde’s standard, supposedly far more eugenically suited to this kind of work than Baru.

Torrinde has another project, anyway: the Clarified, who are eugenically bred and conditioned to be pliable servants of the republic, each one answering to a specific command word. This project has limited a success; many Clarified ‘wash out’, and of the two Clarified we meet over the course of the series, both end up breaking from their conditioning (in limited, partial ways—Iscend Comprine, who features in book 2, starts using her own command word). But through their training and specific brand of lifelong indoctrination, the Clarified tend to have pretty fucked senses of ethics, and a lot of lethal skills.

Over the course of Baru’s trip, a great many significant things happen. She becomes something like friends with Iraji, an Oriati boy described as a concubine for Svir, who reacts strangely whenever the Cancrioth are mentioned. She catches up with some of the survivors from Vultjag, and starts sleeping with one, a diver named Ulyu Xe and disciple of the Aurdwynni ilykari religion. And she meets Tain Shir, who has decided to pursue a long project: Shir will chase Baru and punish her for the way she used Tain Hu, and her in-practive devotion to Falcrest, by confronting her with the choice to sacrifice others and mutilating her when she chooses wrong. She also has a bunch of sex with a navy woman, a racist called Shao Lune who’s part of Ormsment’s mutiny. She’s a busy girl!

In the course of her travels, Baru encounters Tau-Indi Bosoka, now an ambassador in their 40s, who at first wants nothing to do with her. But she comes across Tau again as their ship is sinking, and Tau conceives of a ploy to draw Baru into the bonds of trim, by trapping them both in a sinking ship—and Baru ultimately confesses the truth to Tau. So, Tau ends up travelling with her to the island of Kyprananoke.

Kyprananoke is another victim of Falcrest, ruled by the brutal Kyprists who were once Falcrest’s chosen puppet government and, once Falcrest gave up on turning a profit there, held on by sheer brutality and their hold on the water supply. Baru shows up at the Oriati embassy and starts questioning everyone about Iraji, trying to discover if anyone’s connected to the Cancrioth. Admiral Ormsment catches up with the embassy, threatening Baru’s surviving parents in order to force her out to duel. In an attempt at a decisive break from her fall into ethical morass, to break from Farrier’s control, to avoid betraying Tau’s faith in her… Baru accepts. But at that moment, the embassy is stormed by anti-Kyprist rebels infected with an ebola-like disease called the Kettling. To contain it, Aminata, who is watching with her marines, burns the embassy and almost everyone inside.

Baru escapes, and in the chaos, ends up being taken to the Cancrioth ship she was taken for so long. At the outset of Tyrant, she is on the enormous Cancrioth ship Eternal, about to get to grips with the mysterious cancer wizards.

…phew, that’s a lot. And that’s just stuff that’s directly relevant to this book.

In short: in Traitor, Baru betrays the people of Aurdwynn, by playing at traitor to the Masquerade well enough to flush out the genuine rebels. But in truth she is genuinely aspiring to betray the Masquerade, and ultimately she believes herself loyal to Taranoke.

In Monster, she has painted herself as something abominable to even the vicious, blackmail-dominated world of the cryptarchs, someone who would betray her own lover. Or is she a monster because she has been turned into a loyal tool of Farrier, too fucked by his abuse to ever do anything that would make her happy or fail to act in his interests? In any case, from all sides, including herself, she is despised.

Now, we reach Tyrant. By tradition, the name of this book should mean that Baru’s tyrant-ness is ambiguous, arguable in many ways depending who you ask. Let’s see…

A brief note on structure

Traitor was divided into three sections: Accountant, Autarch, Warlord. Monster was broken into the fall of various places: of the Elided Keep, of the Llosydanes, of Kyprananoke. Tyrant is broken up into four sections; three are named after choices—Baru’s, Svir’s, and Yawa’s, each of the three main cryptarch characters—and one named after plague.

A slightly longer note on epigraphs

The first book opened with an epigraph:

A promise: This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.

The second book opens with a followup epigraph:

A question: If something hurts, does that make it true?

The third book opens with a different sort of epigraph, an anecdote from the real-world history that inspired the book:

In 1502 the samudri of Calicut, desperate to stop violent Portuguese incursions into the Indian Ocean trade network, sent two letters. One begged his neighbor the raja of Cochin to close all markets to the Europeans. The raja of Cochin, who saw Calicut as his historical enemy, leaked this letter to the Portuguese.

The other letter offered a blanket peace to the Portuguese admiral, Vasco da Gama.

Da Gama sailed to Calicut to demand reparations and the expulsion of all Muslims. When he was not immediately indulged, he seized hostages, hung them from his masts, and bombarded the city. That evening he sent the severed hands, feet, and heads of the hostages ashore in a boat, along with a note, fixed to the prow by an arrow. “I have come to this port to buy and sell and pay for your produce; here is the produce of this country.”

The note also demanded compensation for the powder and shot used to destroy Calicut.

If the people of Calicut did this, da Gama said, they would become his friends.

I was curious about the history behind this...

Calicut is officially called Kozhikode, and it’s a city on the southwest coast of India, at the time the capital of the state of Kerala. The ‘samudri’ named here are better known by the terms Samoothiri or Zamorin, and they were the long-term ruling dynasty of the city. Many of their individual names have not been recorded, so it is not known which specific Samoothiri leader confronted de Gama and his Fourth Armada, though it is apparently estimated to be the 85th. Kozhikode was at the time a rich city, benefiting from the ludicrously profitable spice trade around the Indian Ocean. The Portugese wanted a slice of the pie: a full cargo of spices would easily fund an expedition and then some. And longer term, they wanted to take over the trade entirely.

And de Gama’s beef with Muslims? That related to the Second Portugese Armada. Portugese traders visiting Kozhikode attacked an Arab ship, believing the Arabs were colluding to shut them out of the spice market. Furious, the Arab traders rioted and killed most of the Portugese; the Portugese blamed the Samoothiri for not doing anything, and started burning Arab ships and bombarding the city. de Gama’s Fourth Armada was explicitly set out to teach the Samoothiri a lesson.

As an aside in this aside, in order to reach India, Portugese ships had to sail all the way around the coast of Africa. The Second Armada somehow accidentally ended up visiting the region we now call Brazil, setting the stage for future Portugese colonialism in South America. But let’s return to de Gama.

You can read more about de Gama’s attack on Kozhikode here. Prior to his attacks on the Samoothiri, de Gama had been sailing down the coast of India (not at that point a unified country). His ‘factors’ (essentially trade-related ambassadors) negotiated fixed-price treaties, and established a system of cartaz licenses which merchants had to have to show that they were paying Portugese taxes.

He also, in an act of particularly astonishing brutality even by the standards of the time (as many chroniclers noted), attacked a Muslim pilgrim ship, looting its cargo and then sealing the passengers in the hold while he burned and sank the ship, and sending his sailors to spear any survivors. The number of people on board is estimated at 200-300.

Then, we get to the anecdote above. It’s pretty much as described. Part of what was at contention was compensation for the riot in 1500. de Gama demanded nothing short of full compensation for the loss of the Portugese factory (not as in a manufacturing plant, but as in a place where factors work), and refused to acknowledge the Samoothiri’s points about how much de Gama had already taken from Kozhikode.

As for what happened next, the 85th Samoothiri refused de Gama’s ultimatums. de Gama continued his bombardment, levelling the poorer districts, but left a blockade rather than land troops to completely sack the city. He hoped that the Samoothiri would eventually come to terms. This attack completely froze trade on the Indian Ocean for a period, and de Gama sailed around for another few months, negotiating another fixed-price treaty in Cochin.

However, de Gama was not ultimately successful in crushing the Samoothiri, who was able to recruit privateers through de Gama’s blockade to attempt a naval defense of the city. de Gama defeated the Samoothiri’s fleet decisively, but the incident left him afraid the Samoothiri would continue to resist, perhaps even allying with other European powers. He returned to Portugal to declare it would take more force to crush the Samoothiri and maintain Portugal’s holdings in Indiia.

The Samoothiri, meanwhile, sent an army over land to Cochin to demand their Portugese factors, and ultimately burned Cochin down, but was forced to leave the city when the Fifth Armada showed up. Kozhikode would continue to battle the Portugese for the next century; there was briefly a Portugese fort but the Samoothiri burned it down. But the city would not escape colonialism altogether: more than two hundred years later, Kozhikode would be conquered by Hyder Ali from Mysore, an ally of the British East India Company. After some time in exile, the Samoothiri would eventually return to Kozhikode as pensioners dependent on the East India Company for their income, but this ended after India became independent. They’re still around today, managing certain Hindu temples, and trying to get the Indian government to start paying them again.

What bearing does this have? For a fantasy novel series, Baru Cormorant is unusually rich in culture, history, and especially, thought-through economics. But it’s still not as absurdly complex and messy as our own world’s history. This is something of the nature of ‘world building’…

Defamiliarisation and distillation

What is the purpose of creating a fantasy novel, rather than merely writing about history directly? After all, even the densest, most thought-through fantasy world will always be a slim imitation of the cacophonous mess of ‘everything that ever happened on Earth’!

For me, it’s something akin to a line drawing vs. a photorealistic painting. The painting tries to create something as close to the light field we might perceive at the eye as possible. The drawing strips away a great deal of information; instead, it attempts to draw out something essential. It tells a story about how things fit together, about what the artist notices.

A fantasy novel is similar. There are many takes on ‘world building’, some very negative (‘the great clomping foot of nerdism’) and some positive. In recent years, various articles and youtube videos have sprung up offering advice on how to make your ‘world’ plausible in terms of geology, climate, etc. But all of this can seem very self-indulgent—not at all a bad thing, I like world building for fun!—without an actual purpose behind it.

Baru Cormorant is, of course, a series about colonialism. It wants to understand the mechanism of the history that created this present world order, of capitalist domination by the rich countries, and poke at the question—I believe—of how it may be broken. The question Baru asks at the beginning of the first book—why do they have all the power, and not us?—frames the series, especially since she offers an answer near the end of this book.

In this vein, worldbuilding represents a kind of thought experiment, or hypothesis. The underlying question is: how do people and societies work? The claim is: this is a plausible course of events. And by observing it, and considering it carefully, we might get an angle on the real world, also.

Why should Baru go to such lengths to build an imaginary world with a complex history, extensive cultural and ideological variation, and economics? I think the subject matter demands it. If you are to understand colonialism, you have to understand how its economics work; you need to understand how it produces its own colonialist subjects and keeps them working towards colonial expansion; you need to understand that (contra books like Imperial Radch), colonialists rarely took control through overwhelming military strength, but played off factions against each other, lending poisoned ‘support’ to make useful allies and puppets. If you try to write a simple story about resistance against colonialism, you will fail to understand your subject.

But it’s not just dryly relating things that actually happened; it is a dramatisation, compressing centuries of not much happening into a few decades, placing intense, dramatic personalities at the centre, and enticing us with weird alternative possibilities. Approaching it indirectly.

As such, it takes various measures to defamiliarise us from the history it’s drawing on. ‘Defamiliarisation’ is a technique in science fiction and fantasy where an everyday thing is described in unfamiliar language, to draw attention to it. Baru Cormorant does this a lot.

Not for everything: reading Baru Cormorant, I noticed that obscure technical terms would often be used without replacement. For example, I would occasionally have to look up words for parts of a boat, such as ‘coaming’, which refers to the bits around a watertight doorframe. However, more familiar ones would be given alternative names with similar etymologies.

For example, the Masquerade does not call people ‘homosexual’, but ‘isoamorous’; its homophobia is rooted in its eugenic philosophy. It does not call people ‘lesbians’, but ‘tribadists’; not ‘gay men’ but ‘sodomites’. Obviously, there is no biblical city of Sodom in this world, nor a Greek origin to offer ‘iso-‘ roots as an alternative to ‘homo-‘. But this substitution is defamiliarising—it lets us look at the Masquerade’s vicious homophobia in a slightly different light, calls attention to its specific ideological component to illustrate how something like homophobia functions.

The same trick is performed with certain common mathematical and scientific terms. Rather than \(pi\), they speak of the ‘circle number’, rather than \(e\) (Euler’s number) they speak of the ‘number of interest’ (as in, compound interest, where money rises exponentially). Rather than the North Pole, we hear of the ‘lodepoint’. These alternative names are rarely all that difficult to parse, and more obscure technical terms—particular in economics—are usually used without obfuscation, even with explanation.

To me, the purpose of all these tricks is to make the setting feel familiar enough to be comprehensible, but distant enough to be subject to scrutiny. The role of science is particularly interesting—in some ways, these books are much more science fiction than fantasy. Many of the weirder things in the book, like transmissible cancers, Baru’s mental state, or the Faraday cage people in lightning land we briefly glimpse at the end, have a basis in scientific research.

But though this book is based so heavily on science, it is deeply skeptical of the institution of science. In Baru’s world, as in ours, science is bound up with power, always. In the present, the Falcresti ideology of Incrasticism is a blend of familiar scientific truth and outright delusion, such as ‘Torrindian heredity’, but its proponents are oblivious to which parts are wrong. One chapter is directly titled ‘epistemic violence’, in which Baru witnesses a massacre by the Canaat rebels of Kyprananoke, who have correctly learned that Incrastic ‘hygiene’ is almost always a tool used by their oppressors to control and mutilate them, and in response have developed an ideology where all tools of Falcrest, from surgery to quarantine, are to be violently purged from the political body. (This seems to be an allusion to, for example, the Khmer Rouge treatment of ‘intellectuals’ during the Cambodian genocide, and the resistance to vaccination faced by white-controlled health NGOs.) I have more to say about this, but we’ll come to it later.

Through making science just a little unfamiliar to the presumably scientifically literate reader, we’re pretty obviously (to me) invited to view our own institutions of science with the same wariness that the characters view Incrasticism. Though this might be me just seeing confirmation of my existing beliefs :p

Mind you, it’s not a case of ‘rational European-analogues, mystical foreigners’. Science is not just a weapon held by Falcrest—we are often reminded that scientific techniques originated in the Oriati Mbo, contra the low opinion held of them by Falcresti racism (or ‘racialism’ as its termed in this world). At one point, we’re related the history of the Cancrioth… which means it’s time to talk about wizards.

Let’s talk about wizards!

In the last review, I declared my reservations about the concept of the Cancrioth. Their reputation is built up over the course of that book as shadow rulers equal and opposite the Falcresti cryptarchs, blessed with radiation-themed magic. As we meet the Cancrioth at the end of Monster, it starts to seem like their reputation has some truth: they do seemingly impossible things like cultivating transmissible tumours, even implanting them into a whale; they light their ship with radioactive light.

In this book, the Cancrioth are pretty quickly deflated in some ways, but in others their role becomes more apparent. Far from the secret rulers of the Oriati Mbo, as the cryptarchs project, the Cancrioth are a fairly obscure cult of cancer worshippers who rule almost nothing, but cultivate transmissible tumours in their bodies, trying to keep each ‘line’ alive since it is believed to contain an immortal soul. Beyond this knowledge, their only real asset is a very large ship, the Eternal, with a lot of expensive things on board. But this ship is a relic, and its cannons are useless against Falcresti warships.

Yet in a certain sense, the Cancrioth are wizards—or perhaps it would be better to say magicians. For this reading, I’m going to go slightly left field and refer to an entirely different book, Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. In this book, a bureaucrat goes to a planet held in a technologically limited state to pursue a magician who has stolen some forbidden tech. As he makes his pursuit, he’s drawn into mysticism, and various psychological tricks that work to convince him that his quarry is powerful and dangerous—a reputation he’s carefully built, drawing on this world’s mythology around transformation, traditional alchemy, etc. etc.

The bureaucrat is constantly questioning the nature of ‘magic’, while getting increasingly drawn into its rituals. As he learns about his target, the Gregorian, it becomes increasingly apparent that the magic is mostly various kinds of nasty ritualised abuse, self-serving philosophy, and manipulation. What makes the Gregorian an effective magician is his ability to convince other people he holds power, to get the whole world to play along with his performance.

Now let’s talk about John Dee, the man who coined the term ‘British Empire’ and advocated for its creation. John Dee was an alchemist and a mathematician and astronomer/astrologer etc., who spent much of his later life trying to figure out a way to commune with angels. And he had power, in large part due to his learned reputation. He was one of the advisors to Queen Elizabeth I, including on astrological matters such as the most auspicious day of coronation, and a navigational advisor on many of England’s voyages to conquer and claim various parts of the ‘New World’. He was associated with another alchemist, Edward Kelley.

In this time, to be a successful alchemist was to convince a feudal noble that you could advise them on spiritual and scientific matters—the philosophy of the time recognising no such distinction, though the question of whether one was a good Christian was more pertinent. After Dee’s death, he was surrounded by rumours about his sorcery—whether, for example, his communications with angels were actually evil spirits. A modern scientific view of people like Dee is of course to dismiss him as either deluded or a con artist: of course there were no angels. But Dees rhetorical positioning of himself as an occultist full of secret knowledge gave him influence.

The Cancrioth are practicioners of this sort of magic. There are a handful of major Cancrioth characters, each named for the location of their tumour: the Womb, the Eye, the Brain. They have no chain of command as such, but the crew of Eternal is divided into factions: the Brain wants to push Falcrest and the Oriati into war as the only answer to Falcrest’s imperial aspirations; the Eye and Womb would prefer that Eternal pick up Abdumasi Abd (who, it turns out, is a Cancrioth member) and go home.

At one point, Baru and Iraji engage in a spiritual confrontation with the Brain. Although Iraji was selected as the bearer of a particular tumour, for which he is well-suited as a host (the Cancrioth’s tumours can enter into benign symbiosis with their host, or kill them), he does not have a tumour, thus he has no magic power in the Cancrioth’s eyes. Tau figures out a way to grant Iraji power: Iraji puts a cancerous pig’s brain, full of malignant tumours, in his mouth.

It wasn’t the first magic Aminata had ever seen. The Oriati pirates she’d fought commonly used sorcery, the sympathetic destruction of Falcresti flags and uniforms and the use of spirit circuits to hold back fire. But this was the most violent, the most sudden, the most appalling in its effect.

He screamed at them through the cancer, and when the Termites heard that wail, when they saw the moaning man coming at them with cancer in his teeth, they all began to shout and to pull at each other, a diffusion of fear, so they would all have the excuse of someone’s else tugging arms to explain the retreat. “Incrisiath!” one of them screamed. “Incrisiath! A sorcerer!”

We see this scene through the eyes of Aminata, an expatriate Oriati who holds Falcrest’s skepticism towards Oriati magic, but also fears, based on Falcresti notions of heredity, that somehow her Oriati background will make her subject to magic:

Iraji screamed at her. Speak through it, Tau-indi had told him, speak so your voice becomes its hunger and when she hears that hunger she will feel her own immortata rise to answer it. It is the nightmare of all the onkos to be devoured by their own immortality, and for their Line to end in malignancy. Worst of all for the Brain, for her tumor is in her thoughts.

The Brain’s hands flew to her head. She fell to her knees on the clay-tablet flooring, and Aminata saw, distinctly saw, that there were tears of pain in the Brain’s eyes.

The magic worked.

At that sight she felt a cold twinge of migraine behind her own right temple. “No,” she said, out loud, “no, not me.” But she could feel it, she could feel the scream in her head.

It worked on her, too. The magic worked on her too.

This confrontation works, because to refuse the magical performance would be to deny the terms of the Brain’s own power as an ‘onkos’ (cancer holder).

There was a chance, even then, that the Brain might have refused him, and fought. One of the Termites might simply have shot Iraji. But there were people watching: the Brain’s people, her navigators and sailors, the educated folk who believed hard in her and in the terms of her power.

If a Termite dared interrupt this confrontation, then the Cancrioth would see sacrilege. And if the Brain did not yield, then her people knew, the way all believers know what they believe, that she would be struck down. Her tumor would swell up and drive her mad.

And she knew they knew it, in the way that one brain considers the knowledge of another.

“I yield,” she said. “I grant you passage.”

Like all stage magic, it’s in the presentation. In simple, physical terms, all that happens is that one person puts something gross in his mouth, risking infection by a malignant tumour, and shouts at everyone. But Tau-Indi, though not a sorceror themself, has understood the symbolic logic of the Cancrioth well enough to turn this gesture into a challenge to the Brain’s own power.

Later, Baru has a discussion about the nature of magic with Ulyu Xe:

Barhu grounded them in a flood meadow and showed Xe how to take temperature readings with a mercury thermometer.

“It’s like magic,” Xe said.

“It absolutely is not!”

“You told me that masters in Falcrest spend two years calibrating each thermometer to the tenth of the degree. That they must be stored with a certain ritual. That they can kill you if you break them open. That they must be destroyed before falling into foreign hands. That they can tell when people are sick before they even know.”

“But this thermometer works by clear, well-understood logical rules. Magic doesn’t work at all.”

Xe lay down on the bank and trailed her bare toes in the water. “You’d only be satisfied if magic were like a rag novel. A wizard shoots a bolt of lightning to animate a corpse. A warlock calls down a star from the sky to blind his foe. But that’s not really magic. It’s just made-up science.”

“No it’s not!” Barhu sputtered.

“Yes it is. If you can see how it works, it’s science. If a wizard were to show you a book of rules by which he combines various gestures and words and gems and metals to make his spells, it would be science, not magic.”

“What isn’t science, by your definition?”

Xe rolled onto her back and squirmed out of her skirtwrap. “When a witch raises a rabbit with the same name as a man, and kills and skins the rabbit, and then pisses through the rabbit’s skin into a pit of gravel, and the man gets kidney stones. The witch never touched the man. She never acted upon him. She only touched symbols of him.”

“Oh, fine.” Barhu crossed her arms and glared. “So magic doesn’t work except when it can be disguised as the coincidence of symbolic manipulation and natural occurrence? That’s very powerful.”

“The most powerful thing in the world,” Xe said, untying her strophium and sliding deeper into the water.

I think there is something deeply true at the heart of this. Ultimately, the difference between a wizard calling forth a holy light, and a person turning on a lightbulb, is the social meaning that we give to these acts.

And there is still a great deal of ceremonial magic even surrounding our ‘more accurate’ scientific understanding of the present. How does a crank mathematician, trying to explain how Einstein is wrong, actually, attempt to build an image of credibility? How does Andrew Wakefield build up his reputation as he peddles pure bullshit about vaccines? They replicate the symbols of science: degrees and doctorates, dry passive voice language, so on and so forth.

The Cancrioth too are scientists as much as wizards. When Baru speaks to the brain, she learns more about their actual history, not as magicians but as scientists.

I talked in the last article how one of the deep concerns of Falcrest is civilisational collapse—a collapse mirroring the fall of historical empires, especially such terms as the Late Bronze Age Collapse, or the fall of the Roman Empire, in our world. In Baru’s world, the most recent great empire to fall was known as the Cheetah Palaces, more than a thousand years prior to the events of the book. In their wake, various slave societies sprang up known as the Paramountcies. The Cancrioth developed out of the various parties in the Paramountcies assigned the work of stopping the slaves dying quite so much: advisors, educated slaves, and mystics. The weapon they discovered in their ‘Work Against Death’ is nakedly the placebo-controlled clinical trial:

It was Alu, lamchild of a priest-linguist, who suggested the method of home-group and journey-group that would revolutionize the world. Alu wanted a better way to test the medicinal effect of jungle plants. Alu knew a story about twin princesses, one of whom went out into the world to journey, one of whom stayed at home in the palace to study, each swearing to learn whether worldliness or scholarship made a better queen. The story was about the value of a monarch connected to the people and the seasons: but Alu extracted a different lesson from it.

The traveling sister had to leave a twin at home so she could learn how her journey changed her. How could you know if a medicine was successful without a group of untreated slaves “at home”? Maybe your new drug was no better than rest and bed care. If you were going to bring a plant to your lord as a panacea, if you were going to ask your lord to spend farmland and labor raising that plant, you had better be damn well sure it worked.

And it did work. Alu’s method worked. It condensed the whole Work Against Death, the entire menagerie of apotropaic magic, poisonous brews, and ritual surgeries, into a rigorous grid of tests that filtered the gold from the water.

The success of this form of scientific medicine motivated a similar reaction as it has in our world: the rich and powerful got big ideas about becoming immortal. But while our would-be liches look to tech like reparative gene therapy, the rulers of the Paramountcies ended up pursuing a different route. They discovered a part of the continent Oria where uranium deposits were close to the surface, ‘hot caves’ (presumably natural nuclear reactors like Oklo Mine) and ‘secret fire’. In our world’s language, what they discovered was both radioactive material and an ecosystem of bioluminescent animals and plants which responded to the presence of ionising radiation, like the radioluminescent paint used in old glow-in-the-dark radium clocks.

But the discovery of this water that inculcated cancer took a different route. The Cancrioth, and their masters, became convinced that tumours could carry an immortal soul, passed between bodies. They managed to selectively breed tumours which could exist relatively benignly in a human body, and treated the carriers of these tumours as incarnations of the same, immortal individual. And they started using those radioluminescent pigments, along with samples of uranium, to create a tradition of magic, in the terms described above. Of course, handling radioactive materials so carelessly risks radiation poisoning and cancer—but cancer is the whole subject of their cult, not something they fear! Sometimes, individuals may die to a cancer turned malignant, but as long as the transmissible cancers live on, those lives are not lost.

So, what do I make of the Cancrioth now I know better what’s being done with them? Previously, I thought of them as a sort of intrusion of overtly fantastical elements into a relatively grounded story. I have come around: I think the Cancrioth are compelling characters, as much as the others in the book, and that a cancer/radiation cult is not much more a stretch than what takes place in Falcrest. This book feels, to history, like a carefully-composed chiaroscuro painting vs. a photograph of nothing in particular. It’s not that the painting portrays something overtly unrealistic, but it is all arranged as a novel, an exciting story full of emotional swerves and character drama and secrets, taking artistic liberties where it needs… rather than simply repeating the banal repetitive messiness of much of history.

At the end of the book, Seth comments in an author’s note on both the Cancrioth, and the new society briefly glimpsed at the end:

In the acknowledgments to the last book I cautioned the reader that stranger ways of life than the Cancrioth’s exist in Baru’s world. We have now received a small glimpse into one of those strange ways. As ever, I leave the question of supernatural power versus scientific unknown in your hands. But I admit I am particularly proud of this one: it gives me special delight to invent things which probably could happen on Earth, had things gone a different, stranger way.

I am actually pretty into this! It just took me a bit to readjust. It’s funny—it seems now that each book addresses the reservations I had with the previous.

The resources of the Cancrioth

So, the Falcresti cryptarchs believed the Cancrioth to be their equal and opposite, secret aristocrats who ran the Mbo from behind the scenes. Even certain Mbo characters, like Tau at the depths of their despair, are disgusted by the thought that the Cancrioth were secretly intervening to manage things, rather than simple Oriati goodness:

“When the Maia invaded, and we thought we’d embraced them into peace, why, it was probably the fucking Cancrioth that set the beetles on their heartland crops! When we appealed to our common decency to stop the displacement of the jungle people, it was probably the fucking Cancrioth who bribed the migrants to turn back! And how about Taranoke, hm? Were you a Cancrioth breeding experiment? Maybe it was a game for them. Maybe one of them bet another, oh ho, watch, I’ll turn the fierce Maia into pineapple-eating sluts!”

But there is no evidence Tau is right. From what we actually see of the Cancrioth, their powers are highly limited. Their ship is ancient, overly large, and its diverse crew is not enough to run it properly. They are constantly low on water, and the loyalties of the crew shift between the different Onkos. The ‘shadow ambassador’ Baru was tracking, who we now refer to as the Womb, probably was not actually doing any spy shit after all. They have an alliance with an actual Oriati spymaster, but there’s no sign they’re actually in control. Eternal is sailing around looking—like everyone—for Abdumasi Abd, so they can recover his tumour, but meeting little success.

What of the times when the Cancrioth does wield influence? In Tau’s flashback ‘Story About Ash’ (which turns out to be a story-within-a-story, related to Baru near the end of the book), a sorcerer comes to Prince Hill—not actually a member of the Cancrioth, but using their methods—alongside a mob seeking the deaths of the Falcresti guests, Torrinde and Farrier. This sorceror does the flashy radioluminescent stuff, but they also demonstrate a strange immunity to pain, which is not explained. If we wished to give a scientific explanation, we might suppose she was on drugs, or had surgery.

Another time is of course the Brain passing on samples of the Kettling, though the Womb is emphatic that the Cancrioth did not create the disease. And the final time is the end of the book, when the Brain—who has herself cast in bronze—becomes a messianic figure for the anti-Falcrest war movement.

And their boat? Eternal is described as almost implausibly enormous, labyrinthine, and junk-rigged with eight masts, about 400 feet long (120 metres). A ship of this size has plenty of historical basis, particularly in the treasure ships of Zheng He, of China’s Ming dynasty, which had up to nine masts. The largest of Zheng He’s ships has been estimated at 135 metres by 55 metres; they would not have been particularly manoeuvrable, and nor is Eternal (Baru discerns some technical notes about its metacentre at one point).

For all its size, Eternal cannot compete with Falcrest’s torpedoes, copper hulls, and incendiary weapons. It only survives its one battle by the intervention of a second Falcresti warship in its defense. The Cancrioth are rich, and weird, but not particularly powerful players, except insofar as what they represent. Much of the book is spent trying to prevent Eternal from being sunk.

Baru’s periapsis

I’ve talked a bunch about the nature of the Cancrioth, but most of this is revealed in the first few chapters of the book. What does this all mean for Baru herself?

Of course, as with the previous, the book traces Baru’s development as she tries to stay true to her project of destroying Falcrest, while slowly going ever further to pieces. Where we left her at the end of Monster, she was in an awful state indeed: on the run, with few friends who don’t despise her, narrowly avoiding being lobotomised, in a deeply fucked up relationship with Shao Lune, drinking heavily, missing her fingers, increasingly losing to depression (here known as the ‘Oriati emotional disease’ because Falcrest, racist, you know). She’s been persuaded by everyone around her that her every action secretly advances the cause of Cairdine Farrier, no matter how she tries to escape his shadow.

At the beginning of this book, Baru decides on a desperate plan to make it all worth it, to ‘write Tain Hu’s name in the ruin of them’ as she once silently promised the dead Duchess. Her old plan was to provoke open ‘hot’ war between Falcrest and the Mbo, along with various other parties; a war that would be catastrophic for most of the world, but would absolutely annihilate Falcrest.

After meeting the Cancrioth, she seizes on a more direct idea: if she can bargain with the Brain, she can get a sample of the Kettling (not at all radiation poisoning, that was my misreading, the symptoms and transmission make it clearly ebola), and release it close enough to Falcrest that the plague will wipe out the city. And, of course, with its long incubation time, the pandemic would soon spread to everything else that is connected to Falcrest by the trade lines… but Baru at this point has set herself on destroying Falcrest, whatever the cost.

On Eternal, she wakes up to (rather inept) torture, and has a brief meeting with Tau. Tau, who, distraught over the ritual the Cancrioth performed to sever him from the web of Oriati social relations—a ritual he fervently believes in, pretty much alone among the cast, Oriati and otherwise—tells Baru that the events at the embassy demonstrate that all her fears about herself are true:

“Dare what? Talk about the woman whose death you use to justify your atrocities? She gave you permission to do a terrible thing. Now she is dead, so she cannot withdraw her permission. But you know her permit only reaches so far: it does not extend to Iraji, or to me. So you’re waiting for me to give you permission to sell Iraji and Abdumasi to the Cancrioth. You want me to say, at least we’ll be together again, damned together in chaos, Abdu and Tau. Really, you’ll be doing what’s best for both of us. Is that right? I think it is.”


A smile sweet like sugar rot. “You need me to be your little amphora, your bottle of reserve goodness, to shatter and use up. You’ve been dying a slow death since you killed Hu. You need to take another soul to finish your work. Only it’ll never be done. You’ll always need more. And no matter what you do here, Baru, I expect that by some strange coincidence it will end up being what Mister Cairdine Farrier wants. Don’t you think so, too?”

Which hits Baru’s anxieties like a shaped charge.

With all that on her mind, she ends up taking an offer of stolen cocaine (here known as ‘mason dust’) from Tain Shir as a way to spur herself into action. On that high, she confronts the Brain, and tries to negotiate for the Kettling. The Brain’s price is simple: Baru must infect herself with a deadly, malign transmissible tumour, guaranteeing that she has no interest in defecting to Falcrest to survive, and committing her to the end of Falcrest’s world.

When Baru can’t go through with it, her entire world loses its last vestige of structure. Her promise to herself was that all her sacrifices were for the ultimate good of Taranoke, and for Tain Hu specifically. Tain Hu sacrificed herself for Baru’s mission, and in Baru’s warped logic, she ought to be willing take the same sacrifice—and if she won’t give herself cancer, well, she must just be Farrier’s creature after all!

(The right side of Baru’s brain does not agree that Tain Hu would want her to die of cancer, funnily enough.)

By the time she is forced out of Eternal by Xate Yawa performing a ploy with Iraji’s life, she’s more or less outright suicidal. Tain Shir shows up with yet another ‘lesson’, and Baru, exhausted of the things she’s done, tells Shir to take her, not Ulyu Xe.

This is the bottom of Baru’s arc, and the beginning of her roundabout path to being something like a functional human being. But the impetus comes from a rather unexpected source—Xate Yawa.

Xate Yawa, we may recall, had a plan to deal with the humiliated Necessary King of the Stakhieczi: she would send him a lobotomised Baru as dowry for a marriage to her puppet governor Heingyl Ri, to demonstrate his revenge and secure his own power over his people. She’s seen Baru as nothing but a thorn in her side this entire time, and—after the rogue Clarified, Iscend Comprine, intervenes to stop Tain Shir executing Baru on the spot—she finally has Baru on her operating table. But at the last minute, curiosity gets the better of her, and she performs some experiments on Baru’s split brain, using the suggestion of a lobotomy to manipulate Baru into telling the truth. (As so often in these books, the suggestion of a thing is more important than the thing itself…)

So Xate Yawa is the first to figure out that Baru has a tulpa of Tain Hu running the right side of her brain.

Let’s talk about tulpas!

If you’re very online, like me, you might well have encountered the notion of tulpas in certain fandom subcultures (related to other fandom-occultism such as transformation hypnosis tapes—for some reason these things were quite popular in the My Little Pony fandom subculture). A tulpa is an independent sapient mind inside one’s own head. Unlike typical ways of being a multiple system (‘DID’), it is something deliberately cultivated. The term is actually one from Tibetan buddhism, but reinterpreted by Western occultists in a way that has relatively little to do with its original context. Practioners claim that, with the appropriate ritual practice, they can cultivate a tulpa in their mind, and communicate with it.

As we discerned in the last book, Baru is suffering from something close to ‘split brain’ or ‘callosal syndrome’. The two hemispheres of her brain have stopped being synchronised, except in particular moments of seizure induced by (for example) drugs. Baru’s left brain considers itself continuous in identity with her original self; Baru’s right brain considers itself to be Tain Hu. In effect, Baru has accidentally created a tulpa of her dead girlfriend. Occasionally, Tulpa!Hu will intervene in the narration through right-aligned text.

The word is used directly, when Yawa figures out what’s going on with Baru, along with an alternative, ilykari word, eryre. The fact that ‘tulpa’ is specifically identified as [a translation of] an Alphalone word suggests it’s not necessarily the notion of ‘tulpa’ we’re familiar with. Yawa offers a slightly more mystical interpretation: Barhu has cultivated Tain Hu’s soul inside herself, like the Virtues worshipped by the ilykari:

“Don’t look that way,” Yawa said, “you asked. To us a soul is not a great ineffable mystery. People are, after all, not very mysterious. A soul is simply the text of a person’s inner law, and a mind is the act of reading that law into the world. Through study and meditation you can read another soul’s law and copy it into yourself until it comes alive, so that you now have two books of law, two selves, two souls. Himu, Devena, and Wydd all studied and practiced their virtues so completely that they became those virtues. That’s why we emulate them.”

“But I haven’t studied the ykari. I haven’t meditated on a virtue … I just swear by them, very often, I take their names in vain.…”

“No, child. Your obsession was with a woman. Through study and obsession you have built inside yourself the soul of Tain Hu.”

Upon learning this, Baru realises that the second character of her name is the same as that of Tain Hu’s surname (at least in the Alphalone syllabary), and from then on, the narration calls her Barhu.

It’s easy to see (and, probably somewhere explicitly pointed out) parallels between what Barhu’s got going on, and the Cancrioth’s own belief in the transmissibility of souls.

Barhu’s near-lobotomy experience does not link the two halves of her brain and give her integration. But it is enough to do two things: to give her reason to start trusting herself again, rather than seeing Farrier behind every action she might take; and to win Xate Yawa around, as Yawa recognises her at last as someone pursuing the same cause by similarly awful means.

This is one of the first true friendships Baru has had since the death of Tain Hu—one where she is no longer keeping secret her fundamental goal.

What is there to say about this, if this is truly to be a commentary, and not a plot summary? Of course, this is a necessary step: if Barhu is ever to achieve something resembling recovery, she has to reconcile herself to tulpa!Tain Hu. This was well set up by the previous book—Yawa’s explanation is really nothing new—but it is a relief to see Baru finally reach the bottom of her downwards spiral, and understand herself a little better.

I mean, she also gets meningitis from it, but in terms of character arc, she’s past the worst, and on to the long hard project of building meaningful relationships not built on trauma, lies, and blackmail. Which is, overall, the theme of this book: Barhu slowly builds up genuine personal connections with the people she’s wronged, and starts thinking of a way to ‘butcher’ Falcrest that is not apocalyptic.

And as for the nature of the ‘tulpa’ itself? Yawa describes Tain Hu as a ‘law’—a person, here, is described by a way of thinking and behaving. This will align with the book’s notion of culture, which we’ll come to in a little while.

What is a wound?

This takes us up to chapter 9. Having broken the back of Farrier’s despair-conditioning, having at last adopted a little of Tau-Indi’s philosophy and put the immediate good of those around her over her long-term schemes, Barhu still has to figure out what she and her comrades are going to do about Falcrest. But first, she has a few atrocities to witness. She needs to understand the nature of genocide, and such-like things. We will consider Barhu’s plan, and whether it really represents a positive future, shortly. But in terms of Barhu’s personal development, what is now at stake?

To Tau-Indi Bosoka, Baru was a ‘wound in trim’, the network of personal connections that unites the Mbo and everyone else in humanity. To a ‘fundamentalist’ like Tau, who believes in the Mbo’s stories about how they absorbed their would-be conquerers and drew them into mutually supportive relationships, the answer to Baru’s trauma and the harm she’s doing is a kind of restorative justice: they must connect her to others in a genuine way. Tau’s own strength, they believe, comes from the network of personal connections they have as a Prince of the Mbo. And when the Cancrioth declare them severed from trim, making them a wound just as much as Baru, they fall into despair. Later, they start to recover from it, deciding that, even severed as they are, they can still act ethically.

About halfway through the book, Tau, on hearing about Baru attempt to sacrifice herself to save Ulyu Xe, comes up with a theory:

An awful brittleness in Tau’s voice: like ice on the verge of melting, warming but losing strength. “I think it is possible that the Womb’s spell of excision had, ah”—their voice cracked—“had effects she could never anticipate. Baru Cormorant was a wound in trim, an upwelling of grief, a hole. All those who knew her would find only abandonment and regret.

“But when one bond is cut, Iraji, the loose thread may fasten on another. I was cut loose. There were many, many threads seeking a place to fasten.…”

We probably don’t accept Tau’s interpretation, but Baru is increasingly internalising Tau’s philosophy: after she survives Yawa’s lobotomy table, she starts referring to trim to guide her actions, only devising after-the-fact justifications in terms of concrete gain. She tries to go ashore in Kyprananoke, before a certain event renders that futile, and help negotiate for release of water and advise people on containing the Kettling. She reconciles herself with the Tain Hu in her head when circumstances and drugs let her reconnect.

So this book is Baru stitching herself back into trim—in the metaphor she devises to Tau, like a spider reeling itself back into the social web. She is at last reunited with Aminata, and tells her some of the truth, though Aminata has her own arc of disillusionment with Falcrest to follow before she can come over to Baru’s little faction. She gets to know Iscend Comprine, even almost has sex with her at some point, though she’s still unable to believe the Clarified can defy their conditioning to act for Falcrest, still convinced that Iscend’s gradual process of escape is just a fantasy she’s playing out for Baru. She reconciles with Tau, in part on the basis of the above theory, and finally meets Abdumasi Abd, and treats him as a person, and in so doing manages to form a crucial alliance for her new grand plot. Even Tain Shir takes a different view of her.

And she finally meets her parents again—but we’ll get to that later!

A ‘wound’ in trim is thus the behaviour of someone who cannot be vulnerable, someone who can’t exist in a dynamic, stable relation to other people, and interacts through treating people instrumentally, through acting out trauma. To close the ‘wound’ is to create relationships with someone who does not have any, which give them space to find a new way of existing. I think there is something powerful in this, something reflected in the philosophies of restorative and transformative justice—but this is not enough in itself.

The danger is already apparent in the book: trim can declare exceptions, render certain people enenen, non-persons who are not subject to trim. In the Story of Ash chapters, a group of grieving Oriati people attempt to make such a declaration of Farrier and Torrinde, calling for their death; Tau and Kindalana (who I’m getting to!) intervene ritualistically, dressing up in the regalia of Oriati Princes and reminding the crowd of their philosophical/religious commitments—to hospitality, and to deescalation. But the Cancrioth remain enenen.

In a more simple case, a rich person can have deep, fulfilling relationships with other rich people, and still treat a homeless person, or the server at a restaurant, like dirt. Personal connections as celebrated in trim are necessary, but not sufficient. I don’t think the book fails to realise this at all—this is just what I am thinking, considering the proposed philosophy of trim.


The Tyrant Baru Cormorant does not use the word ‘genocide’ directly, but it discusses it at several points.

The Kettling plague on Kyprananoke has broken quarantine and spread out of control. Due to its long incubation period, ships could carry it to other ports before realising they are infected—Kyprananoke has become a plague bomb, threatening the rest of the world. Baru notes with disgust that the brain must have chosen Kyprananoke precisely because there’s a chance the plague may be contained.

The plague has also opened the door to a complete collapse of the social order, and factional violence between the Kyprists (former Falcrest puppets) and various groups of Canaats. Certain factions of Canaat are, with weapons such as machetes, attempting to purge anyone with signs of surgery or any other evidence of allegiance to the prior regime. To a Falcresti observer like Juris Ormsment, there is little question that the new regime will be as bad as the old, because of the necessities of holding power:

She turned her spyglass on the kypra islands. The first thing she saw was a raft of corpses swarming with crabs. Most of the capital islet Loveport had gone up in fire overnight, torched by Canaat rebels. Now that the initial rush was over, both sides were busy consolidating their territory and purging their ranks. Anyone with insufficient commitment would be killed as a collaborator; anyone who refused to denounce and punish collaborators would be killed as an enemy of the revolution (or of the state). It would go this way because that was how it had happened in Falcrest, after Lapetiare’s revolution. In a few weeks the Canaat leaders would turn on each other, and the winners would build a new government as cruel and selfish as Kyprism, because if they were not cruel and selfish they would be torn down by those who were. And the cycle would begin again.

Baru, meanwhile, resolves to go ashore anyway in her newfound deontological idealism, to help negotiate a truce for water, and manage plague. She owes, she says, these people her solidarity: after destroying one revolution on Falcrest’s behalf, she wants to do the right thing this time.

Falcrest, however, has an eventuality in place: it has created an ‘apocalypse fuse’, charges designed to explosively collapse one wall of the caldera near the island, so that the displacement wave will be concentrated by the remaining walls. This will create a ‘megatsunami’ that will rapidly wash over the entire island, killing everyone in one stroke. This somewhat complicated plan is inspired by real events: in 1958, an earthquake near Lituya Bay, Alaska caused a similar concentrated wave which completely scoured the trees up to 524 metres from the normal sea level. In 1963, a landslide into the filling Vajont dam reservoir created a wave over the top of the dam, which wiped out several downstream Italian towns.

Naturally, this Chekhov’s superweapon is fired—fired by Iscend Comprine, acting without orders, after none of the cryptarchs are prepared to pull the trigger. (In fact, Tain Shir is even asked to disable the weapon, but arrives too late.)

Even in the throes of meningitis, Baru is unequivocal on one point: the horrors of the Kyprananoki ‘democlysm’ are ultimately of Falcrest’s making. She expresses this point repeatedly throughout the book…

many quotes

To Svir:

“The rebels will be blamed,” she gasped. “Because all their evils are done in the open. The Kyprists are worse—they just make their crimes into laws—you must be sure it’s remembered! There was a tree where Canaat dashed children to death. But the Kyprists had jails, jails where they did as much and more.…”

On the island, after she witnesses a Canaat warband carrying out horrific massacres and training themselves to commit further violence through corpse-mutilation and deliberate disregard for Falcresti sanitation:

They were insane. They were insane and it made perfect sense to Barhu because this madness was, like her, made by Falcrest: a pattern of authority by bodily violence which remained, like a scar, after Falcrest departed.

This terror was ultimately created by the Kyprists, by their ruthless barbers and their use of mass thirst as a weapon. Kyprism was in turn an artifice created by Falcrest’s decapitation of all Kyprananoke’s traditions and the installation of a biddable new ruling class. No matter how vivid and imminent the horrors here, Falcrest was in a distant but powerful way responsible.

But Barhu could not bring herself to forgive the Pranist and his warband.

No matter the cause, these were people doing evil. To absolve them of guilt would be to deny their humanity, to deny that they had some intrinsic dignity and moral independence which only they could choose to surrender. To say that these people were doing monstrous things entirely of their own monstrous nature was to deny Falcrest’s immense historical crimes. But to say that these people were doing monstrous things solely because Falcrest had made them into monsters was to grant Falcrest the power to destroy the soul: to permanently remove the capacity for choice.

In a dream with Tain Hu:

She had learned how people could disembowel themselves. She had learned about the grove of smashed children, the sinkhole full of corpses, the terrible crimes committed in the name of revolution.

But the savagery and the barbarism were ultimately Falcrest’s. Falcrest had destroyed Kyprananoke’s old laws and agriculture. Falcrest had put merchants and barbers in charge, ordered them to stamp out disease, to maximize profit. Falcrest had erased Kyprananoke’s history and replaced it with a sketch of cleanliness and exploitation.

Later, Baru tries to explain what she saw to a group of Taranoki people in effective exile:

“You don’t understand!” But how could they? How could anyone who hadn’t seen it? “Listen,” Barhu begged them. “Kyprananoke was Falcrest’s holding before we were. When they were done with Kyprananoke they left. But it didn’t stop. The people they’d set in power held their posts. The wounds they’d cut kept bleeding. All the old ways of agriculture were gone. All the old ways of justice were disposed of. All the water was in the hands of tyrants. Things got worse and worse. There was resistance, and revolution, but it was as hard and cruel as the regime it fought. And when the situation became so terrible that it endangered Falcrest, they reached out and wiped Kyprananoke off the map. Everyone there is dead. They tried to get free of the chains Falcrest left behind, and Falcrest killed them all for it.

What took place on Kyprananoke, and what is in the process of happening on Taranoke, Baru considers far worse than one would conclude a direct reckoning of number of deaths. Baru’s world does not have a notion of genocide, which in our world was only recognised as a specific crime and entered international law in the years after the second world war (in part thanks to the writing of Raphael Lemkin linking the Holocaust to prior genocides, like the Armenian one).

But even without the word, when she speaks of destroying a culture in this way, genocide is what she has in mind. To Baru, a culture is defined by a particular way of living in the world—a set of practices that are adapted to a specific location, in ways that may not be obvious to Falcrest’s notion of scientific superiority. This comes out in a later conversation with Ulyu Xe:

“When Falcresti sailors arrived they thought the nardoo seeds would be good provisions for long voyages. But the crushing, the washing, and the cooking are all time-consuming and dull. So the sailors skipped the simple women’s work, milled the seeds into flour, and used the flour for bread. And they ate the bread, and shat their bodies out, and starved. They had all the best of Incrastic science and they couldn’t figure out what the Devi-naga all knew.

“It’s as if…” She groped for a way to say it. “It’s as if all the people who live anywhere in the world, no matter how primitive or savage Falcrest says they are, are accumulating interest. Learning things which can only be learned by being who they are, for as long as they have been. Oh, damn it, am I just calling them stupid? Am I just finding roundabout ways to say that these people are too backward to do science?”

“That’s a Falcrest conceit,” Xe countered. “We’re saying they’re clever in a way that’s not valued by Incrasticism.”

“How? How is it clever to do whatever your ancestors teach you?”

“Because your ancestors are smarter than you. Not any one of them, but all together. All those different ways of seal-hunting and flour-making combining and leaping down from generation to generation, sieved out by centuries of practice until only the best forms remain.”

Falcrest’s genocide of Taranoke is not just the extermination of a quarter of the population, but the disruption and attempted annihilation of the patterns that the Taranoki people were living out prior to their arrival.

Of course, ‘genocide: bad in fact’ would not be a particularly novel thing to say. What I want to note here is how this fits into the broader themes of the book: the ecological angle it takes on life. In this view, cultural evolution is like speciation and radiation; genocide is extinction. A culture is a pattern of behaviour, perhaps—but what is an organism but a pattern of behaviour of atoms and molecules and so forth, one which can reproduce itself through time?

This view of a way of life as ‘possessing’ something, which can be lost, is not so far from the UN’s own definition of genocide, which begins:

Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these human groups,

Baru takes a similar line, thinking of Falcrest’s aspirations to conquer and ‘digest’ the Oriati Mbo:

(…)And there were other good things in all the peoples of the Mbo, things no one could imagine or invent, ideas which could only be produced by being who they were, in the places where they lived, with the history they had.

Oriati Mbo was a book of incredible and unread wisdom. A book made of millions of living souls.

And Falcrest wanted to erase the book. Burn the pages for kindling, the people for labor. No one in Falcrest understood that there was anything written in it at all. They believed that some societies were civilized and some were primitive and that the civilized had nothing to gain from the primitive at all.

This notion has some power—at least in terms of recognising a culture as a living process, one that is evolving, not something static and eternal. But I also think there is a danger in framing genocide all about what a group might contribute (to whom? they already have it), even while recognising that part of the justification process for genocide is to deny the creations and accomplishments of the targeted group. Even were the dynamics of a certain group somehow provably reducible to things which existed elsewhere, even if it was true that the ‘civilised’ had nothing to gain on their terms, genocide would be evil. But that’s kind of obvious, perhaps.

Barhu’s emphasis on gain and loss perhaps comes from her own, personal preoccupation with trade—something which will prove to be at the heart of her plan to destroy Falcrest. And Barhu’s faith in the power of trade comes because she can see, at least in part, the significance of exponential growth.

The number of interest

In taking this ecological reading of culture, I am reminded of something Seth wrote on their Twitter—unfortunately I can’t get the direct quote—about the parallels between cancer and colonialism: a part of an organism or community ceasing to participate in symbiosis, but attempting to gather all resources to itself. (Seth said it better.) Let’s look at the thing that unites all the powers, and evils, explored by Baru Cormorant books…

Here are a few recurring motifs:

What do these have in common? In mathematical terms, there’s one obvious point of unity: exponential growth and decay.

An exponential function is something which appears whenever the rate of growth of something is proportionate to how much is already there.

That may sound a bit confusing, so let’s consider an example. Imagine a population of elephants, with plenty to eat. The more elephants there are fucking and making baby elephants, the more elephants will be born each generation. When you only have two elephants, the population grows very slowly… but as the herd gets bigger, the elephants appear faster and faster. Over a great many generations, it produces a curve a bit like this:

(plot to go here)

This is the the exponential function, \(\exp(x)\), or \(e^x\). Though there are many exponential functions, they can all be related back to this one through a simple rescaling.

Exponential functions are of deep importance to capitalist economics, because the one of the most awful, powerful tricks at the heart of capitalism—at least, once the brutal primitive accumulation phase has seized the means of production through direct violence—is to cycle your profits back into expanding production (‘expanded reproduction’ in the language of Marx). Everything in capitalism is keyed to an assumption of exponential economic growth, from the interest on a loan to the expectation of annual profits from a company.

All societies must reproduce themselves, all growing societies produce more than they need to just continue to exist—but capitalism made this growth the core of what a society is. If something—a company, for example—can’t keep up with the economic growth, it will be crowded out by its competitors, starved of funds or bought up and remade.

But it’s not just capitalism. Diseases, too, spread exponentially at first through a large population—something we’re all too aware of in the age of COVID-19. Cancer cells, not subject to programmed cell death, reproduce themselves on a similar trajectory, although the specifics vary for different cancers.

And radiation? Radioactive decay is something of the opposite: every atom has a random chance to decay in every instant, so the more atoms there are, the more quickly they disappear. In the specific case of uranium, the most common isotope (by far) has a half life in the billions of years—slow enough that it hasn’t all decayed already, fast enough that, in abundance, it creates some serious activity.

(While we’re at it… in a nuclear weapon (which even the Cancrioth have yet to imagine), the nuclear chain reaction exploits exponential growth in the other direction: one neutron becomes two, becomes four, each time releasing more energy until, in an instant, most of the fissile material has transformed and all that energy is ready to incinerate a city.)

Perhaps alone among the cast, the Brain is aware of the terror of exponential growth on the scale of societies:

“They understand the secret of power, Baru.”

“Which one?”

“The ability to improve one’s own power, no matter how slowly, triumphs in the long run over any other power. Time magnifies small gains into great advantages. If you are hungry, then it is better, in the long run, to plant one seed than to steal a pound of fruit. Falcrest applies this logic in all their work. They do not conquer. They make themselves irresistible as trading partners. They do not keep their wealth in a royal hoard. They send it out among their people, stored in banks and concerns, where it helps the whole empire grow. They do not wait to treat the sick. They inoculate against the disease before it spreads. All their power sacrifices brute strength in the present for the ability to capture a piece of the future.”

The thing about economic growth is that, though it starts out apparently slow, once it gets into motion it is one of the fastest-growing mathematical functions we encounter. This is what makes disease outbreaks so startling—and it’s what makes capitalism have such force.

Exponential, economic growth is Falcrest’s meta-weapon, but—Barhu eventually comes to believe—it is the weapon that can be turned against them too. I promise I’ll talk about her plan in a second!

Kimbune’s Theorem

But the interest in exponentials comes at a different angle, too. While visiting the Cancrioth, Baru runs into a mathematician who is determined to track down Abdumasi Abd for a different reason than most: in Abdumasi’s tumour is, supposedly, the soul of her husband, who died before she could win an argument. And what’s this argument about?

It’s about Euler’s formula. You know:

\[e^{i\pi} + 1 = 0\]

When I saw that formula on the page, I was like… Seth you absolute dork. Oh, sure, she’s invented the most famous, beautiful theorem in mathematics… And then I ended up spending a very fun afternoon introducing some friends to the significance of this formula, so it was pretty good in the end.

Naturally I came up with a reading of the book’s broader themes in relation to Euler’s formula. This is a bit of a nerdy aside, so it gets the box:

A recipe for Kimbune's Theorem

In the book, Kimbune’s formula comes across to Baru (who can’t understand the proof) as a bizarre connection between unrelated, but important numbers: an indication of the numerical structure of the universe, that Falcrest can’t perceive. But Baru, not a pure mathematician, does not grasp the proof, nor the heart of the formula, which is better rendered in the more general form:

\[e^{i\theta} = \cos\theta + i \sin \theta\]

Euler’s/Kimbune’s formula requires a lot of conceptual leaps to understand. We’ve talked about exponential growth and decay: but what this formula creates is a connection between that growth and circular, or more generally cyclic, motion. And in so doing, it creates the fundamental tool that we use to calculate with complex numbers, which ended up becoming vital to just about every branch of physics and maths.

We have a few topics to introduce: complex numbers, exponential functions, trigonometric functions and Taylor series. Or, in Barhu’s world, the Impossible Number, the Number of Interest, and the Round Number. (She doesn’t mention calculus—it’s not clear if the Masquerade has it!—but the usual proof of Euler’s/Kimbune’s theorem is through a tool of calculus called a Taylor series.)

The first ingredient: exponential functions and calculus

To begin: a little more on the ‘number of interest’. We spoke of the breeding elephants: but to understand what makes \(e^x\) special compared to, say, \(2^x\), we need to deal with not discrete, but continuous functions.

So let’s follow the path of Jacob Bernouilli, studying compound interest in 1683. We imagine a bank account, accruing interest over time. Let’s imagine an extremely generous bank awards interest at 100%. If you have £100 in your bank account, at the end of the year, they give you 100% more money, and you have £200.

Another, even more generous bank might offer 50% after 6 months, and another 50% after the full year. Despite seeming to add up to the same 100%, this is a better deal. After the first payment, you have £150; after the second payment, you get an extra 50% of the first payment, so the total you have is:


A pretty nice increase! And over time, this increase will turn into a bigger increase. The same goes for ‘turnover’ of a capitalist’s goods as they’re sold, and the proceeds reinvested into production.

Now, you can imagine slicing up the year into smaller and smaller slices, until the amount of money is continually changing by infinitesimal amounts. So if you get \(N\) interest payments each year, the amount you’ll have after \(i\) payments will be

\[£100 \times \left(1+\frac{1}{N}\right)^i\]

And the limit of getting “infinitely small payments all the time” gives you a special, smooth curve. In this limit, by the end of the first year, the money has grown by a factor of


This number is special: its decimal expansion goes on forever, without repeating itself. It can’t be written as a fraction: the best we can do is describe a process, like the limiting process above, which slowly gets closer to the value of \(e\).

Why is this number important? Instead of a complicated limit, we can view Bernouilli’s fancy infinitely fast compound interest formula as this number, raised to the power of the number of years that pass.

\[\text{money}(t)=£100 \times e^\frac{t}{1\text{year}}\]

We’ve just done some calculus. But there’s another, much nicer way to look at the exponential function than Bernouilli’s method. Calculus tells us a way to measure how quickly something is changing. If we have something called \(f\) which depends on time, then we can do a similar process of slicing time into smaller and smaller parts, and looking at how \(f\) changes. This leads us to a number called the rate of change or first differential of \(f\), which we might write


if we like Newton, or


if we’re more into Leibniz.

The exponential function has one very special unique property. Its rate of change is always equal to the function itself:

\[\df{}{t} e^t = e^t\]

This makes it incredibly convenient, expecially when it comes to ‘differential equations’. A differential equation comes up in a situation where we know the rules that describe how something changes: for example, the number of new elephants born in a year will always be a certain fraction of the number of living elephants. Or, the average number of particles that radioactively decay per unit time will be a certain proportion of the total. Hot things cool faster.

We can write this as an equation:


This says that the rate that something, measured as \(x\), is changing—growing or shrinking—is proportional to the size of the thing itself (and \(k\) is just a number to say how strong the connection is). A bigger thing grows or shrinks faster than a smaller thing. We can always solve this kind of equation with the exponential function, scaled up or down by some factor.

The second ingredient: Taylor series

Calculus gives us a special trick: we can approximate smoothly varying functions, with something that is (often) easier to calculate. We take a starting point—the time \(t=0\), say—and build up a ‘power series’, so that the rate of change, the rate of change of the rate of change, the rate of change of the rate of change of the rate of change, etc., all matches our function.

For example, a power series might look like:


At \(x=0\), the value of this function is 1, the rate of change is 1, the rate of change of the rate of change is 1, and so on all the way down. Which is exactly the same as the exponential function… and that’s not a coincidence, this power series is just another way of writing the exponential function!

Most useful functions can be approximated by a power series as long as we’re near enough to the point where we make the approximation. But \(e^x\) is very special, because the approximation is good for the entire number line! The further away from \(x=0\), the more terms in the power series you need to add up, but add up enough terms and you can get as close as you like to \(e^x\).

Which tells us why exponentials grow so quickly, faster than every ‘polynomial’ (function of powers, such as \(x^5 + x^4+3x^2\)). No matter how high the powers in a polymonial, \(e^x\) contains a higher one.

How did we find this Taylor series, which I seemingly pulled out of a hat? We use the rate of change. If you have a power of \(x\), such as \(x^5\), to find the rate of change, you take the exponent (in this case 5), multiply the term by that exponent, then subtract 1 from the exponent. In symbols (probably easier to follow):

\[\df{}{x} x^5 = 5 x^4\]

and in general…

\[\df{}{x} x^k = k x^{k-1}\]

This is all we need. Suppose we have some functioon, and we know the value of the function, its rate of change, the rate of change of the rate of change, etc. In less cumbersome language, its first, second, third, fourth… differentials. And suppose we suspect it’s equal to a power series:

\[f(x) = k_0 + k_1 x + k_2 x^2 + k_3 x^3 + \dots\]

where the \(k_0\), \(k_1\), etc. are numbers whose values we do not know. We can find the differentials:

\[\begin{align*} f'(x) &= k_1 + 2 k_2 x + 3 k_3 x^2 + \dots\\ f''(x) &= 2 k_2 + 3 \times 2 k_3 x + \dots \\ \end{align*}\]

Now, when we set \(x\) to zero, all the terms of every power series disappear except the one at the beginning! So we can find a general expression for the power series of any function (assuming certain technicalities hold up…)

\[f(x) = f(0) + f'(0) x + f''(0) \frac{x^2}{2} + \dots + f^{(k)}(0) \frac{x^k}{k!} + \dots\]

This is the Taylor series around zero. It’s the easiest way to discover Kimbune’s theorem.

The third ingredient: trigonometry

Now, let’s look at another branch of maths which Baru would surely have encountered: the geometry of triangles, circles, and trigonometric functions.

The trigonometric functions are, essentially, ways to describe points on a circle. Let’s say you start walking along a circle of radius 1—we call this the ‘unit circle’. To walk half the way round the circle is a special distance, which we give the name \(pi\) (the Greek letter pi). Like \(e\), \(pi\) goes on forever… it is, somehow, deeply baked into the geometry of flat space. Its value is approximately…


And if we keep going around the circle, we’ll have eventually walked a distance \(2\pi\). In the meantime, we will move through a series of \((x,y)\) positions. Assuming we start at \((x,y)=(1,0)\), and walk anticlockwise, then after we’ve walked a distance \(\theta\), we will be at a certain position. For example, if we walk a distance \(\frac{\pi}{6}\), we’ll be at position


The positions we go through around the circle are have been given names, defining two functions, called the ‘cosine’ and the ‘sine’ function for historical reasons. So after we’ve walked a distance \(\theta\), we’re at position


What’s so important about this? These functions, \(\cos \theta\) and \(\sin \theta\), turn out to have far more uses than just examining circles. (Kimbune’s theorem helps tell us why). We can understand this by looking at the rate of change. While the rate of change of \(e^x\) was just \(e^x\), calculating the rate of change of \(\cos\) and \(\sin\) turns one into the other:

\[\begin{align*} \df{}{t}\cos t &= - \sin t\\ \df{}{t}\sin t &= \cos t \end{align*}\]

So if we take the rate of change twice—acceleration, as opposed to velocity—we get back to where we started, with a minus sign:

\[\begin{align*} \df{^2}{t^2}\cos t &= - \cos t\\ \df{^2}{t^2}\sin t &= - \sin t \end{align*}\]

And this fact has a useful consequence. Let’s think about a spring. The further we stretch the spring, the stronger the force pulling it back to its original length. The acceleration of the end of the spring depends on the force. So we get another kind of differential equation:

\[\df{^2x}{t^2}=-k x\]

This kind of differential equation is called the harmonic oscillator, and it’s tremendously important to physics—to the point that it’s been joked that physics is just finding new ways to solve the harmonic oscillator. This is because all sorts of problems can be approximated by harmonic oscillators.

Because their differentials are so nice, and because \(\cos 0=1\) and \(\sin 0=0\), the trigonometric functions also have very helpful Taylor series. They essentially divide up the terms of the exponential function’s Taylor series between each other. Sine takes all the odd powers, and cos, the even. Only the signs (plus or minus) alternate.

\[\begin{align*} \cos x &= 1 - \frac{x^2}{2} + \frac{x^4}{24} \dots\\ \sin x &= x - \frac{x^3}{6} + \frac{x^5}{120}\dots \end{align*}\]

You might be wondering… if their power series are so similar, is there some deeper relationship between the trigonometric functions and the exponential function? There absolutely is, but to find it, we need to make one of the most profound leaps in mathematical history.

The fourth ingredient: complex numbers and the path of inventing new numbers

The thing we’re about to describe is known as the ‘imaginary number’. The name betrays the deep discomfort of the mathematicians who called it into being, but in fact the imaginary number is no more imaginary than any other kind of number.

To discover the imaginary number, let’s pretend we know nothing but counting, and adding things up. All the numbers we know about are the natural numbers:


Given two natural numbers, we can ‘add’ them together and get a third natural number: for example,


Now, let’s suppose we want to ask a question like: what number, added to 3, will give 5? We can write this as:


and we want to discover the value of \(x\). Sometimes, there is an answer: in this case it’s \(x=2\). But we want a general method that will always get us the answer; and moreover, we want to be able to handle cases like


which have no valid answer in the numbers we know.

To solve this problem, we create new numbers. For every positive number \(n\), we create a matching number written \(-n\), with the property that:


We call these numbers the ‘additive inverses’ of the natural numbers, because by adding them to the natural numbers, they cancel out to the ‘additive identity’, zero.

These new numbers mean that we’re no longer just working with the set of natural numbers. Now we have the integers:


We repeat this trick a number of times, as we build up our number system. For example, we invent multiplication, first by repeated addition for natural numbers:

\[x \times 5 = x + x + x + x + x\]

And we can work out how to multiply negative numbers, in order to make multiplication work in a way that is consistent. But then, we want to solve questions like, is there a number \(x\) which satisfies

\[x \times 3 = 6\]

We can solve this one with \(x=2\), but we can’t solve

\[x \times 3 = 2\]

without doing the same trick, and creating new numbers. Now, for every integer \(x\), we create a new number called its multiplicative inverse, written \(\frac{1}{x}\) with the property :

\[x \times \frac{1}{x}=1\]

Then, we multiply all these inverses with the existing integers. In this way, we build up the whole system of ‘fractions’ (all the possible products of an integer, and the inverse of an integer)—and now we’re in yet another new set of numbers, called the rational numbers. We’ve come quite a long way from our original natural numbers.

So inventing new numbers to solve a problem is really nothing new: we did it all the time.

Now, let’s consider one more operation: squaring, i.e. multiplying a number by itself. As before, we might want to solve certain kinds of equation, such as:


This equation has solutions \(2\) and \(-2\). But surprisingly enough, we often find equationss which can’t be answered using a fraction. For example:


has no solution that’s a fraction of two integers.

We have to invent yet more new numbers to solve this problem. These numbers, called ‘radicals’, lie ‘in between’ the rational numbers. We can approximate them by adding together a series of rational numbers. For example, the positive square root of 2—the number which, when multiplied by itself, gives 2—has the decimal expansion starting:


A decimal expansion is just a series of rational numbers to add up: \(1\), \(\frac{4}{10}\), \(\frac{1}{100}\), etc. But when you have an infinitely long list, you can find your way to numbers that aren’t rational. By adding the radicals, we find our way to the ‘algebraic numbers’.

Have we now discovered all the numbers? Not quite! There are real numbers which aren’t given by square roots (or cube roots, etc.). We can jump forwards a bit: let’s add every single number whose decimal expansion we can write down. This includes the numbers like \(\pi\) and \(e\) which we’ve met already.

Have we, at last, found all the numbers we’re likely to need? Unfortunately, not quite! And this is where we get to the amazing insight represented by Kimbune’s theorem.

Sometimes, the solution to an equation like


…is not somewhere in the ‘gaps’ in the number line. But we’ve seen what we have to do: we invent more numbers.

In fact, the first step is to just invent one new number, the square root of \(-1\). We call this number \(i\), or the imaginary unit. All the other square roots of negative numbers are just multiples of \(i\). The square roots of \(-4\), for example, are \(2i\) and \(-2i\).

That name, ‘imaginary number’ suggests there’s something distinct about \(i\) that makes it different from other kinds of number. But as we’ve seen, we made up just about every other kind of number to close a gap in the number system.

With \(i\), we can build all sorts of new numbers, such as \(5+3i\). These numbers don’t live anywhere on the number line, but we can imagine they live in a 2D plane, known as the complex plane. We call them ‘complex numbers’, and the nice thing about them is that we can solve any polynomial with a complex number, even ones without real roots.

Cooking Kimbune’s theorem

So we have our ingredients:

From here, it’s easy. Plug an imaginary number—let’s say \(i\theta\) where \(theta\) is some real number—into the power series for the exponential function, and apply the rule that \(i^2=-1\):

\[e^{i\theta}=1+i\theta - \frac{\theta^2}{2} - i \frac{\theta^3}{6} + \frac{\theta^4}{24} + i \frac{\theta^5}{120} \dots\]

Can you see the power series for the trigonometric functions hiding in there? Let’s rearrange the power series a little…

\[e^{i\theta}=\left(1-\frac{\theta^2}{2} + \frac{\theta^4}{24}+\dots\right)+i\left(\theta - \frac{\theta^3}{6} + \frac{\theta^5}{120} + \dots\right)\]

The power series for this exponential function is the same as the power series for \(\cos \theta\), plus the imaginary unit multiplied by the power series for \(\sin \theta\). Brushing over some technical details regarding convergence, we’ve proven…

\[e^{i\theta}=\cos \theta + i \sin \theta\]

This is Euler’s formula. It does a few things. It tells us how to handle complex numbers in exponents, which is not at all obvious. It gives a fascinating geometric interpretation of complex numbers, as a kind of polar coordinates. It leads into the whole terrifying world of complex functions with branch cuts. But we’re getting away from the main point…

That relentless exponential growth and decay? Kimbune’s theorem turns it ‘sideways’, transforming real numbers into imaginary numbers and back, in an endless circle.

Now, let’s imagine a point roaming the complex plane. At each instant, we can draw a little arrow to see which way it’s going (its rate of change). The bigger the arrow, the faster the change.

Exponential growth has that arrow point away from the origin. Exponential decay, back towards the origin.

And now we have a way to circle the origin, neither growing nor decaying, but always changing, ever faster the larger it is.

In Barhu’s world, the number \(e\) is called the ‘number of interest’. Interest is the result of a loan: it is money turned to make more of itself. But through Kimbune’s theorem, the process of interest is turned aside: not to expand but to transform…

Perhaps this metaphor is kind of a stretch? I think it’s a fun reading though, given what Barhu plans to do.

Barhu’s big plan

I’ve been building up to discussing how, exactly, Barhu aspires to ‘butcher’ the Masquerade. If, as we’ve seen, the Masquerade thrives by making everyone dependent on participating in its growth, how can it be destroyed without killing all those who’ve come to depend on it? For so long, Baru could not see an answer; she resigned herself to a vision of apocalyptic war.

In this book, in a meningitis-induced sex dream about her dead girlfriend, she finally figures out her answer: a plan which plays to her strengths, which she believes can bring down the Masquerade without taking everyone else with it. It’s one which plays to her passions and skills, born from her childhood in a trading port and belief in the potential for trade as a good thing, linking people together; a plan which she can pursue under Falcrest’s nose without them realising what she’s hoping to achieve.

At least, that’s the idea. Most other people are not convinced.

Barhu’s plan is to create a new trade route, between Falcrest and the Oriati Mbo—but one that she controls by virtue of an Emperor-granted monopoly. Powered by the enormous wealth she gains from this, she can increasingly take control of the Falcresti economy. This new trade route would link up most of the places we’ve visited in the story so far, bringing immense profit to each:

A map from The Tyrant Baru Cormorant. A red line connects the Western Mbo in the South to the Stakhieczi in the north, via Taranoke in the Southwest, the Llosydanes in the Northeast, Welthony Harbour north of the Llosydanes, and finally the Duchy Vultjag just south of the Stakhieczi.

The route is supposed to connect Segu Mbo in the Southwest to the Stakhieczi in the north, via Taranoke in the Southwest, the Llosydanes in the Northeast, Welthony Harbour in Aurdywnn north of the Llosydanes, and finally passing through the Duchy Vultjag.

Barhu keeps the second part of her plan close to her chest, but she finally explains it in a final meeting with the Brain:

Baru's plan in her own words

“This adjacent number is my estimate—a conservative one, I might add—of the percentage of total world trade, by value, which would fall under this concern’s monopoly. I know that thirty-five percent is a very large number. Again, I assure you it is realistic.

“And here is the percentage of Falcrest’s total economy which I believe we could ultimately entangle in the well-being of our concern. I expect we will pass the fifty percent mark within ten years.

“Once we have made our initial stock offering, I anticipate a frenzy of speculative trading: This speculation will be driven by the basic soundness of the concern’s position—we have a monopoly on a highly profitable trade, after all. I will drive speculation by issuing credit to investors, allowing them to buy stock through an installment plan. Details if you want them.

“This is where we begin to get tricky. Financial power means we’ll have considerable access to the Twelve Ministries and Six Powers. We’ll be able to buy our way into Parliament and raise our own merchant navy. But my ultimate goal is complete capture of Falcrest’s wealth, and to do that, we need to access the personal fortunes of the Suettaring elite.

“To secure that access, I plan to make my trading concern into a tax haven. The wealthy will not want to pay a share of their hard-won fortunes to Parliament. I will offer them a simple way to avoid it. Moving the money into my concern, and from there into Oriati Mbo, will place it beyond taxable reach. It can be invested in various assets there, and they can recover it whenever they want thanks to the, ah, fluidity of the Oriati hawala trust-banking system.

“It won’t escape your notice that moving this money into Oriati Mbo places it in range of your use. We can skim, launder, and misplace funds to meet whatever requirements you have. You will be able to buy all the metals, materials, and supplies required for an effective war. In effect, the total wealth of Falcrest will become your personal lending bank.

“And when the time is right, when I send the signal, you will strike. Not at Falcrest—a land invasion across the Occupation would be disastrous, a crossing of the Tide Column suicidal—but at the trade.

“There will be no Oriati civil war. No second Armada War. No Kettling. No democide and disaster. Let me make a bubble. Let me fill it with all Falcrest’s strength. And then help me burst it.”

  1. drive Falcresti investment into her trade monopoly by encouraging speculation
  2. encourage use of Oriati assets as a tax haven for the Falcresti elite, and thus take control of most of the Falcresti economy
  3. siphon out money from Falcrest using fraud
  4. use these funds to arm the Oriati
  5. the Oriati will attack Falcresti trade, cutting Falcrest out of the equation entirely, and bankrupting the Empire

The Brain is not persuaded by Barhu’s plan. While Barhu is obsessed with numbers, she drops the title of the book, and reminds her of the unspoken cost of capitalism:

“You want to be a tyrant,” she said.

“I prefer the term tycoon,” Barhu suggested.

“No. You will be a tyrant. You will be a creator and protector of tyranny. Do you understand what Falcrest does to us, if they have the access given by trade? Trim is outlawed. Family land is bought up and turned to cash crops. Children are worked in the fields. Men are killed and their killings blamed on their own conduct. Women are stripped of their children and brought into prostitution. Their sons are soldiers. Their daughters are sent as maids to the houses of the rich. You are asking me to open our doors to a pack of rabid dogs.”

In my somewhat strained metaphor of Kimbune’s Theorem, Barhu hopes to redirect the vast economic power of Falcrest not to expansion, but to transform it into something different. As she sees it, the vast expanding wealth of Falcrest could be stolen and transformed into vast wealth of Taranoke, Vultjag, the Stakhieczi, the Mbo; we later see her dream of a future world in which a kind of cosmopolitan scientific modernity would develop, complete with uranium-powered carriages, surgery anaesthetised by opiates, and ‘meat golems’ controlled by electricity. The people of this future would be diverse, but all the wealth the would enjoy came from trade.

In short, a perfectly bourgeois vision of the future.

The Brain is, quite rightly in my view, antsy:

“The best way to break a mill is to burn it down, Baru.”

“Not if you want to keep building mills and making flour! The reason Falcrest is winning is because its ways are stronger! I can steal that strength!”

“But it is still Falcrest’s strength. It is still that monstrous pillaging force which treats people like coin and coin like people. And if you try to wield it you are seduced by it. Take Alu into your body instead. Consecrate yourself into my trust.”

“Damn you,” Barhu hissed. “I can do so much more than carry a plague and die young. Don’t you see? The concern that rules this new trade could be mightier than the Republic itself! And I will own it all! I can force Falcrest to give justice to those it’s conquered!”

“Nothing you own by Falcrest’s means is owned by anything but Falcrest. When you think you possess them, that is when they possess you.”

In our own world, we have not exactly seen capitalism severed of empire. The old European empires have officially relinquished their holdings, but not before installing capitalist means of governance which live on; all of us now dance to the strings of the world economy. And the beneficiaries of that economy haven’t changed all that much. Capitalism, as an abstract force, annihilated prior modes of self-sufficient existence just as surely as Falcrest’s ships and incendiary weapons.

But Barhu would be at the top this time! Ready to technocratically ensure that nothing bad comes of her trade concern. So that would make it OK right?

The Brain does not, admittedly, have a much better plan. Her own method is to render herself a sort of messiah—by casting her current body in bronze, and having another person with the same tumour take up the cause—and stoke the various Mbo into war against Falcrest.

The question of whether something other than capitalism could have been born of the end of feudalism is one that we will never be able to definitively answer. In the history we ended up having, capitalism won, at this point anyway. The world was proletarianised: slowly, sometimes through the mindless action of the market but often through the deliberate efforts of the “workers’ movement” and its representatives, the ‘peasantry’ (self-sufficent farmers) that once made up almost the entire world population has been dissolved; at last all of us now depend on the market, and are thereby forced to work for a wage.

This is a process Baru, back in Monster, sees in positive terms, speaking to Svir of her plans to link Aurdwynn into the world market:

“Once their economy values currency instead of land, the peasantry will be able to profit and save off their own labor instead of tithing their incomes for protection—”

Here, we see her plan extend to the world. Barhu, the daughter of traders, the accountant… she cannot imagine how this trade would leave people not with opportunities for saving and profit, but propertyless proletarians structurally necessary for the whole machine to work. The hypothetical meat golems will do the work, right? Just like one day, we’ll be able to stop working because of robots and asteroid mining and clever technocratic computers, as the FALC advocates promise.

So as satisfying as it is to see Barhu absolutely annihilate Cairdine Farrier (we’re getting to that) and get back on her feet, it’s hard not to believe that the many people who point to the ghost of Falcrest in her plans are absolutely right. A ‘better’ Falcrest, perhaps: one without the eugenic obsessions and dreams of centralised control, but still a power that subsumes everything to its expansion.

An economic cancer

I’ve drawn one grandiose metaphor, linking the economic transformation that Barhu hopes to accomplish to the way, with an imaginary argument, exponential growth and decay becomes a contained circular orbit. But an economy is not just a point in a plane; it is a living system. And the book furnishes us another metaphor…

Elsewhere, Barhu muses (while pretending to be lobotoimsed—more on that shortly!) on what it was that enabled Falcrest to rise to its position in the world. She considers many angles—we’ll get to that in a sec—but one of them is Falcrest’s financial system:

There was so much she could say. The matter of money, Falcrest’s wholesale adoption of paper fiat notes and liquidity banking, which allowed them to move value more efficiently: you could not raise money from your people to fund an expedition if all their value was locked up in farmland and lumber and milk. But when it was stored in paper notes in banks then you could borrow from the people without actually taking their property.

Why do we organise our lives around the fiction of money at all? The details of the answer may vary depending on your preferred economic school, but all answers come back to the behaviours that money creates. Money defines a system of impetuses to act, and coordinating dynamics, which take a bunch of people living out our lives and bind us together into an economy moving towards, more or less, a common goal. If the chartists are right, and money was born from early states and kings to feed their armies, it was because of its utility in making sure food is grown, organised, transported etc.

So looking past Barhu’s explanation of the plan in terms of abstractions like ‘wealth’ and ‘money’, what she aspires to do is to inject a different organising principle into that developing process—a new system which will, though born of the same substance, rapidly grow to take control of its host’s functions, ultimately (she hopes) fatally.

We could, if we wanted to be cheeky, say she wants to give Falcrest cancer. But like the transmissible cancers of the Cancrioth, like real immortal cancer cell lines such as those taken from Henrietta Lacks, her economic cancer (she hopes) will outlive its original host.

So is she killing Falcrest, or rendering it immortal?

Maybe history can be a guide…

History lessons!

At the end of the book, while listing the scientific basis for their various ideas, Seth speaks briefly to the plausibility of Barhu’s plan:

The economic power of Baru’s notional trade concern is hardly exaggerated. Nor is the possibility of the near-total destruction of an imperial economy by mismanagement on the part of a powerful few: interested readers may look into John Law’s time in France and the neighboring South Sea bubble in England.

Well, I am an interested reader. Let’s find out more. (With apologies for people who aren’t concerned with 17th-century economics.)

I know you like to read about 17th century economic bubbles...

John Law in France

John Law was a Scottish economist. In the events discussed, Law created a bank that bought up most of France’s debt with the then-novel paper money, and consolidated all the trading companies of French ‘Louisiana’ into one Mississipi Company in the 1700s.

John Law's system: fiddly details

The region the settlers called ‘Louisiana’ was of course actually the home of an enormous variety of people, among them the Choctaw, Natchitoches, Tangipahoa, Houma, Kadohadacho, Taensa, Natchez, Caddo, Acolapissa, Ishak

None of these people were of much interest to John Law, who saw the potential vast profits of Louisiana as a key element in his elaborate currency experiment. So what was he trying to do? I’m going to do my best to answer, using sources like this paper (scihub link) and this page.

Our story begins in France, which has recently lost its big famous king Lous XIV. They’ve spent basically all their gold and silver money on wars like the War of Spanish Succession, and so the new regent of France is receptive to the economic theories of a Scottish economist called John Law, who was excited for the potential of paper money.

They didn’t jump in wholesale at first, using traditional means of managing their debt, like devaluing the currency. But John Law was given a bank, which would buy up the French state’s debt bonds in return for shares in the company as initial investment. In its function as a bank, it issued notes: merchants could bring bills of exchange (IOUs, basically) and get paper bank notes in return. At first, the bank notes represented a claim to a certain proportion of gold and silver coins from the bank’s reserve. As John Law had predicted, he could put many more notes in circulation than the bank’s reserve and still keep a functioning bank. Over time, he and the regent attempted to phase out the old currencies and turn the paper money into the only legal tender of France; John Law’s bank even took over such functions of the state as tax collection!

The second component of John Law’s ‘system’ was his Mississipi Trading Company, which subsumed various existing French trading concerns to hold a monopoly on exploiting Lousiana, which Law believed held an enormous amount of mineral wealth. This is where things started to go really wild. At first, Law sold shares in his company in return for those government debt bonds. He gave a big loan to the French government, financed through sale of shares, which the French government used to pay off the rest of their debt— they now owed it all to the Company. But soon, he was getting monopolies left and right to provide more secure funding than these government bonds—until he basically controlled the entirety of French trade, especially the planned exploitation of Louisiana.

Why would you want these shares? The shareholders would be entitled to dividends, and the belief in the vast profits soon to come from Louisiana kicked off a massive speculative bubble, kicking the share price up to absurd heights. And once the share price was going up, people wanted to have shares to cash in on the capital gains later. Paris went wild with people trying to get close to John Law, there was fighting on the street, people died…

So how did the bubble burst? I admit I don’t fully understand this part of the paper, but Law believed that he had to keep his share price high in order to achieve his various financial goals, such as the bank offering low-interest loans (low interest being something he believed a sign of a healthy economy). So as the speculative frenzy began to top out and people started to lose faith in the whole thing, and more people tried to cash in their shares before the going got bad, he ‘pegged’ the value of the shares—which means basically he ordered the bank to buy shares at 9000 livres of banknotes, which set a floor on what they’d be worth. But all these banknotes being issued to buy his own shares massively inflated the currency.

And it totally died when Law started fucking with that exchange rate to try and deflate the currency again. This caused such panics and uproar that he lost his government post and eventually fled in exile.

John Law’s ‘system’ collapsed after massive currency inflation and a loss of confidence in both his shares and paper money, ruining many investors. But what happened to the parent empire? They had to clean up the mess of the company, and basically ended up where they’d started in terms of debt—deliberately committing to pay certain increased debts rather than default on the whole thing. The whole episode helped discredit the monarchy, and apparently threw a severe wrench in the development of “French capitalism and industry” according to those capitalists in the second link.

So for individual French bourgeois and nobles, apparently it was tremendously bad news. I don’t know how strong a link you can draw to the French revolution, but perhaps it played a role in doing for the monarchy entirely.

But if we’re comparing Baru’s plan, the real question is—how did it affect French colonialism? It did not stop the French from ‘developing’ their colony in ‘Louisiana’ to some degree—perhaps not to the degree they would have if not for Law’s financial shenanigans, but it didn’t send them packing either. The French revolutionary government—which is in some part clearly the model for Falcrest—still held colonised territory around the world until the anti-colonial revolutions of the 20th century.

Of course, the speculative bubble is only part of Baru’s plan; but what we see here is that a speculative bubble alone, though on a scale comparable to the French government’s massive debts, is not enough to kill an early modern empire. Just to wound it.

South Sea bubble

The South Sea bubble was at first an insider trading scam, but grew into a kind of response by the English to the new financial experiment in France, during a time when Britain was at war with Spain. The colonial monopoly it pursued was the slave trade: the ‘South Sea Company’ would transport African slaves to South America, at the time still under the control of Spain and Portugal. It provoked a similar investment bubble when, much like John Law’s company, it started taking over government debt.

Unlike John Law’s bubble, which was driven by flawed economic theories but a sincere effort to… make France better at colonialism, hooray?… the South Sea Company was pretty much a scam from the outset, though a scam which played on rich British peoples’ enthusiasm to get rich off trading abducted humans to the most horrific life imaginable, so don’t feel much sympathy for anyone involved.

The South Sea bubble

The initial buying of government debts at face value offered a lot of potential for profit. Government debt was not particularly valuable at the time because people didn’t expect it to be repaid, so those in the know about the new Company could buy up debts on the cheap and sell them to the Company for their nominal value in Company shares. Later, they went public, and there was a massive spike in people buying shares from each other, inflating the price to a ludicrous degree.

One thing I was surprised to find out was that Isaac Newton owned £22,000 of shares in the company. It’s not known if he got rid of them before the bubble burst. But man, as much as I knew about his brutal treatment of counterfeiters and fellow scientists, ‘investor in the slave trade’ is kind of widely elided from history! What the fuck…

The story doesn’t seem to be as hard to follow as the John Law story. The bubble burst, a number of politicians were disgraced, and England passed laws to try and prevent future bubbles. Unfortunately, the South Sea Company did not die the way Law’s company did. After another war, England got its hands on the right to trade slaves to Spanish colonies, previously only available to France, and set up a number of slave-taking ‘factories’ in West Africa. Although this was not the real intention of the company, it went ahead and bought 34,000 people over the 25 years of operation, of whom about 30,000 survived the trip. (If that’s not sickening enough, that was considered a good survival rate by the standards of the ‘middle passage’). Eventually it was shut down because they didn’t do their accounting properly on their non-slave ships, or pay what Spain said they were owed.

As the continued slave trading indicates, the collapse of the speculative bubble, while it certainly did for various politicians, certainly did not put an end to British colonialism or slave trading. I don’t know if any particular country managed to escape the various speculative bubbles of this period. And on that note, it would be resistance of the enslaved people, such as the Haitian revolution, not some sudden British benevolence, which put an end to the slave trade.

What to conclude?

John Law got France to go bananas over a colonial expedition that found no resources to exploit; the South Sea bubble got England to go bananas over trafficking slaves to their ostensible enemies. They bankrupted many of the rich of their nations, perhaps even set the stage for the later fall of the French monarchy (though there were many other factors!), but neither episode stopped the empires from functioning as empires. At best, they just slowed them down.

Of course, the nakedly obvious conclusion is that colonialism is utterly, unimaginably evil. But that probably goes without saying.

As far as our world of fiction is concerned, Barhu’s plan is to create a similar speculative bubble to capture most of the wealth of Falcrest in her own colonial monopoly venture. By getting Falcrest to move their wealth offshore, she can create conditions for the Oriati to seize it.

But in practice, what would that mean? We know Falcrest has a fiat currency; what would actually be seized? Military control, perhaps, over the trade in actual, physical goods—and thanks to Barhu, Falcrest would not be able to finance a war to take back. I think that’s the idea, anyway. I guess we’ll find out in the fourth book.

The question that seems all the more pertinent after reading those histories is, would that be enough?

Money is, after all, a fiction. Certainly a powerful fiction, much like the Cancrioth’s magic—a system for getting people to behave in a certain way, a complex of beliefs and behaviours that reproduces itself.

But it is people who sail a warship, not money. Money makes sure that someone prepares them food to eat at the end, money gets those people to sail the boat, but the money is subject to change. When John Law wrecked the French financial system, the French government didn’t disappear: they set to work redoing the money to keep everything ticking over.

In this book, financial shenanigans are enough to force Falcrest’s navy to return to dock (a power play by Falcrest’s Parliament we haven’t yet discussed). But if Falcrest’s control over the world was truly at stake, would the economic snafu be enough to prevent them mobilising all force necessary to take it back? I guess Barhu, no stranger to war economics, thinks so: if Falcrest cannot pay their sailors’ wages, can’t move the chemical ingredients to the Burn workshops, outfit their ships, and do all the things that drive a war economy, they won’t be able to take back any control.

But the social relationships of domination won’t disappear as quickly. As Barhu herself notes, the animating principle of Falcrest is not its money, but something else…

The reason for empire

I said earlier that the series was framed by Baru’s early question of why them, and not us? Why did Falcrest arrive at Taranoke, and not the opposite?

I will quote her full answer now, since it’s one of my fave passages of the book:

Why Falcrest, and not Taranoke?

There was so much she could say. The matter of money, Falcrest’s wholesale adoption of paper fiat notes and liquidity banking, which allowed them to move value more efficiently: you could not raise money from your people to fund an expedition if all their value was locked up in farmland and lumber and milk. But when it was stored in paper notes in banks then you could borrow from the people without actually taking their property.

There were the ships, the superb rigging and coppered hulls and the chemistry of citrus and salt that kept the crews alive to sail, and the fearsome laboratories that produced the Burn. There was the culture of desperate and syncretic inadequacy, fear of the world outracing Falcrest, which had stolen the best of Stakhieczi astronomy and Oriati scientific philosophy. And the culture of revolutionary bloodshed, willing to use living bodies to discover the causes and cures of disease, to test which substances would do harm if used in piping, food, cloth.

And Lapetiare and his coffeehouses, where the art of debate grew from spectator sport to revolutionary spark, where the stockbrokers did their trading now. There were the pigs that gave Falcrest the annual flu, which made the Masquerade’s collective immunity so vigilant, which laid flat the populations of every new province Falcrest seized. There were the canals and the waterways, the ancient expertise at managing tsunami and flood that became the modern engineering that turned the mills that made the flour and the soybean meal that put the calories into the workers. And the sewers. And the aqueducts. And the republican government, which shifted the flow of a Parliamin’s corruption and favoritism from fellow elites to a Parliamin’s constituents, so that corruption at least helped the common people sometimes.

But all of those things were just limbs and muscles on the beast. They explained how Falcrest was conquering the world but not why. A strong man might have the ability to strangle or force a weak man. But nowhere was it written that the strong man was fated to kill or enslave that weak man.

Would Taranoke, given all these advantages, have gone to Falcrest, subverted and enslaved it, made it part of a Taranoki empire?

No. And the Oriati were the proof. The Oriati had their own heinous history, their own spasms of conquest: but for much of their millennium of unsurpassed worldly power, they had kept to their own borders and their own internal struggles. Their voyages had been for exploration and trade. They had been good neighbors.

Aurdwynn had of course washed itself in blood. The Maia had come to conquer, the Stakhieczi had counterinvaded to preserve the great green breadbasket that fed them. So you might be tempted to say that wherever cultures meet conflict was inevitable. But they had been two rival homelands at war over the middle ground; neither had ever made a possession of the other.

Yes, people had always been evil nearly as much as they had been good. Yes, happiness was rarer than suffering—that was simply a fact of mathematics; happiness required a narrow range of conditions, and suffering flourished in all the rest.

But Falcrest was not an innocent victim of a historical inevitability. Empire required a will, a brain to move the beast, to reach out with appetite, to see other people as the answer to that appetite, to justify the devouring of other peoples as right and necessary and good, to frame slavery and conquest as acts of grace and charity.

Incrasticism had provided that last and most fateful technology. The capability to justify any violence in the name of an ultimate destiny, an engine to inflict misery and to claim that misery as necessary in the quest for utopia. A false science by which the races and sexes could be separated and specialized like workers in a mill. And the endless self-deceptive blind guilty quest to justify that false science, so that the suffering and the misery remained necessary.

Falcrest had chosen empire.

Or, to cut it a little shorter…

But all of those things were just limbs and muscles on the beast. They explained how Falcrest was conquering the world but not why. A strong man might have the ability to strangle or force a weak man. But nowhere was it written that the strong man was fated to kill or enslave that weak man.

But Falcrest was not an innocent victim of a historical inevitability. Empire required a will, a brain to move the beast, to reach out with appetite, to see other people as the answer to that appetite, to justify the devouring of other peoples as right and necessary and good, to frame slavery and conquest as acts of grace and charity.

Incrasticism had provided that last and most fateful technology. The capability to justify any violence in the name of an ultimate destiny, an engine to inflict misery and to claim that misery as necessary in the quest for utopia. A false science by which the races and sexes could be separated and specialized like workers in a mill. And the endless self-deceptive blind guilty quest to justify that false science, so that the suffering and the misery remained necessary.

This passage reminds me very strongly of the theories on states written by Peter Gelderloos in his book Worshipping Power, which I discussed a little in the previous post. For Gelderloos, empires are just one realisation of the general horror of states; his preferred distinction is between states and stateless people, not organised hierarchically and centrally. Gelderloos is highly dismissive of deterministic, materialist explanations for state development, whether the dubious geographical determinism of people like Jared Diamond, or the Marxist belief in class struggle as the determining factor of history. He writes:

Hundreds or even thousands of years of social evolution, along authoritarian or “homoarchic” lines, were required for the emergence of haves and have-nots, individual property, quantification of value, toilers and parasites. And parallel to these proto-state societies, we have examples of alternative forms of social evolution with an equal technological complexity and similar productive techniques, that chose decentralized forms of organization, and non- or even anti-authoritarian cultural values. As regards societies with little or no economic stratification, there are hundreds of examples of human societies practicing a variety of modes of production and different forms of political organization, from hunter-gatherers in California to agriculturalists in southwest Asia, with no clear pattern, no deterministic link between one and the other. Even among primates of the same species, practicing the exact same “mode of production,” one can find significant differences in the level of hierarchy between different groups.

Having argued aginst determinacy, and that the formation of state structures tends to precede rather than follow the stratification that Marxists placed as ontologically prior, Gelderloos offers his own interpretation. Over the course of the book, he describes a bewildering variety of paths to state-formation, usually generated ‘secondarily’ from the interaction of a state with a stateless people. How, then, to predict what course a society will follow? Gelderloo’s answer is to refer to a notion of ‘will’—individual intent and a collective ethos:

Turning material and other forms of determinism on their heads, Christopher Boehm, in an extensive survey of stateless societies, demonstrated that the key factor allowing a society to be stateless was not its mode of production or geographic conditions, but an ethical and political determination to prevent the emergence of hierarchy: what he referred to as “reverse dominance hierarchy,” in which special functions were compartmentalized rather than centralized and potential leaders were closely watched, and were abandoned, exiled, or assassinated if they exceeded their powers or acted in a greedy or authoritarian manner. In contrast to a mechanistic trend in academia that would dismiss freedom as a subjective illusion or meaningless concept, we anarchists assert that will, both individual and collective (at which level it is often read as culture), is an indispensable force for shaping our society, our mode of production, and our relationship to the earth.

The motor driving ‘will’

We should definitely accept these cautions—indeed, if one is a communist, one must accept the possibility of a dramatic transformation of the world we live in—see it as fundamentally contingent, not inevitable. And I don’t particularly need to have faith in the supposed historical inevitability of the great revolution, especially given the track record of such predictions.

At the same time, to draw a line around ‘will’ and leave it unexplained feels like it is a bit of a cop-out. The things we want, that motivate us to act, cannot really be justified (beyond appealing to other, more ‘basic’ wants), but we can observe that they are not fully arbitrary either. After all, much of capitalism’s functioning, is conditioning us to buy what is being sold, go to work even when the boss isn’t there to force us… to play the game and express our desires in its terms.

Stereotypically dogmatic Marxists, of course, may reduce intention entirely to the supposed material ‘interests’ of a person’s class. To be sure, many allow a more subtle account, especially those who throw around words like ‘libinal economy’. Barhu, at least, is (naturally, given her experiences) able to see ‘will’ as something arising from ideology and history; she has seen first hand how Incrasticism is inculcated, and she sees her own desires (as we discussed last time!) as arising from the ‘engine’ of the world.

What of ‘collective will’? Something beyond individual people, evolving in many minds through constant conflict between all those who desire to shape it. We’ve seen that the Masquerade is held together by the spit and glue of blackmail, and that most of its powerful people would not even blink before sending their rivals to a miserable death. Yet “the Masquerade” functions, it can be seen as an actor; it is depressing to think that even those who oppose its project play a part in propagating it, wittingly or not.

To maintain a collective will, we circle back to the theme of control that runs throughout this series: all the schools for abducted, clinical courts and hygienic torture chambers; the ‘corrective’ rapes, operant conditioning, and delusions of eugenics. All of this is intended, in part, to maintain that “collective will” of the empire, and make sure its subjects continue to act as if “the Masquerade” exists. Whether because they believe in it, or because—like the prisoner who seems to escape, only for it to be an illusion, in the first book—they see no possibility of successful resistance.

This suggests, to me, that disrupting one part of Falcrest’s system—its economy—is not enough to kill the ‘will’ animating Falcrest, and transform whatever’s left of its people into ‘good neighbours’. But given that all these parts are not separate but interdependent, connected to each other through all these feedbacks… it’s not a separate goal either.

What would it take to force Falcrest to give up its imperial aspirations, short of a bigger fish showing up to colonise it in turn?

An aside on denazification

I realise that this is a problem that history has faced before. After the various capitalist powers (a term which I consider to include the USSR, with qualifiers) defeated Nazi Germany in the second world war, they faced the problem that much of the population of Germany had been thoroughly indoctrinated into the Nazis’ ideology, from childhood on up. The government was heavily bound up in the Nazi party and its apparatus. Somehow, they had to disillusion everyone of Nazism—and, not wanting a repeat of the end of the First World War, they did not seek to humiliate Germany with ‘reparations’, but rebuild it.

This is not a subject I’m all that intimately familiar with—my friend E_____, if she ends up reading this, may point to severe errors or oversights in the history.

Nevertheless, here is my understanding. Part of the project was to attempt to deny anyone ignorance of what the Nazis had done, by spreading images and video of the liberated death camps and concentration camps used in the Holocaust, and even forcing nearby civilians to help bury rotting corpses or exhume mass graves. Another part of the project was artistic: films in the decades after the war, such as Die Brücke (1959), attempted to deflate Hitler’s war mythology by portraying how it was used to send people to miserable, pathetic, meaningless deaths.

And of course, part of the goal was to get rid of all the Nazis in positions of power, and apply carceral punishment to those who had done the most horrific things. But it didn’t go as planned. Trying to assess an entire country’s population to determine who ought to be punished for supporting the Nazis proved bureaucratically impossible. The West German government ended up keeping many Nazi officials on in various capacities—sure, the ones running death camps went to Nuremberg, but many of the others got to continue much as they were. With the Cold War brewing, both the Americans and the Soviets needed their side of Germany to become economically functional, and keep general ‘good will’ to make sure the other did not seem more appealing. Bans on Nazi literature and art faced accusations that they were just doing the same as the Nazis. Even the Nuremberg trials were controversial.

The Americans were also, of course, extremely hypocritical in their treatment of Nazis. Figures such as Wernher von Braun, who had unambiguously used Jewish slave labour to build his rocket bombs, were extracted to America because their expertise was just too useful. The Soviets did much the same, both powers racing to collect German rocket scientists before the other gy.

Increasingly, and especially once the West German government took over from the American and British occupations, official denazification stopped, although Nazi symbolism remains banned to this day. In East Germany, the Soviet-backed government portrayed themselves as being much more sincerely anti-fascist, but then this was used to rhetorically justify the East German government’s own repressive measures like the Berlin Wall which had little to do with stopping any Nazis. And they weren’t above keeping useful Nazis around.

Of course, in the long run, Germany eventually became a capitalist state like so many others—quite an economically powerful one within the European Union. Like most countries in Europe, it has its problems with the current forms of fascism, and is invested in maintaining the brutal border regime that daily lets migrants drown. I can’t tell you that much about modern German politics.

My main point with this is—even in a situation where bigger fish absolutely did come in and win by military strength, transforming the ideology and social systems proved far easier said than done, and ultimately the victorious powers decided they had other plans.

Where’s all this going?

On this specific angle, I’m left with three questions:

  1. what’s Seth going to have happen in the next book?
  2. what do we think should happen in the next book? artistically, and by our understanding of this little world in a bottle
  3. what does Baru’s fictional struggle tell us about our own?

Of course, we’re not going to find the recipe for overthrowing capitalism for genuine communism in a fantasy novel. Still, novels help us frame questions—though as this book repeatedly points out, the person who frames the question has a great deal of power to shape its answer.

I genuinely don’t feel like I know if these books will end up in a victory, or a final tragedy—or whether I’ll agree with the presentation of whatever future Seth chooses! Though, more than any other fiction I’ve read in a long time, I feel like they grasp what’s at stake in this world.

Perhaps Baru’s trade venture will succeed beyond her dreams, and as such we will see her world end up on the same course as our own, with the national empires eventually giving way to an internationalised capitalism as the true power (the ‘divided god’ in the words of the Chǔang collective). Perhaps, with Oriati trim rather than Falcresti self-interest shaping the motives of this economy, trade will not come to rule over people; the Falcresti economic instruments will die off (‘wither away’ we might even say) with the state that spawned them, and the products of work will move according to need, coordinated by some other principle than profit. Though it’s hardly clear how this will happen.

And perhaps Baru and co. will find themselves needing to be overthrown as the power goes to her head. Perhaps Tain Shir will finally get to exact her revenge. (Actually that seems pretty plausible! That gun has spent a long time waiting to be fired. I’m pretty sure Tain Shir will kill Baru at the end, whatever else happens.)

Of course, perhaps the possibilities raised by the lightning-soaked continent in the East of Baru’s world will throw a wrench in all of her plans, and something totally unpredictable will happen. I trust Seth enough to believe it will be well-founded in what has come so far.

But for all this to mean something beyond ‘that was a good fucking book’? Like Baru, all of us who read this are in positions where we’re deeply involved in a truly despicable system—and like Baru, we must play along for now, awaiting our opportunity to cause damage that matters and prove that their control over us wasn’t real. Like Baru, we must look to our own power—though collective power, rather than individual, holds more promise.

Much of Baru’s framing, of butchering an empire, is still relevant: we face the problem of ‘reconfiguring’ what can be salvaged of capitalism, and destroying what cannot. Whatever happens ‘next’, we must eat or die.

When writing a pseudo-historical novel like this, there are some very difficult lines to walk. The miserableness of real history means it’s hard to reach for too happy an ending—nobody wants to be like “oh, oppressed people of the world, if you’d only done this, you could have killed the European empires and been free back in the 1700s”. I don’t think Baru is likely to do that, at all. But that leaves a different space: bittersweet endings, recognition of limits.

Of course, conversely, we also don’t want to shackle ourselves to history: by imagining what might have gone differently, in other circumstances, we keep open the imagined possibility that things will go differently the next time around. A ‘horizon of communism’.

I wish I could say, having considered all these angles, taught myself this history, I now have a clear insight into our real world, a tool to focus me. I do not have anything so definite… but I still appreciate the chance to consider.

Racialised gender: the downfall of Cairdine Farrier

I have spoken at enormous length about Barhu’s big plan. But a lot actually happens in the second half of the book, as well—Barhu explaining economics is a pretty minor part, all told!

Because this is the book where she finally kicks Cairdine Farrier’s ass, and oh boy is it satisfying. The way she does it, though, is not to lean on her own ‘savant’ genius: it is the alliance she builds with Tau, Abdumasi, Yawa, Iscend… and in particular, Kindalana.

I have not talked very much about Kindalana in this article. Not because she’s not important—but because, as a non-viewpoint character, we have less idea what Kindalana is thinking and planning, and her screen time is limited to when she is around Tau (and, eventually, Barhu). Yet Barhu’s victory over Cairdine is as much Kindalana’s as her own.

To understand how all this fits together, we have to understand a bit about Falcrest’s notions of gender.


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