The Problem with Gideon The Ninth’s Space Necromancers

What would the transition be like going from Longsword to rapier? I’m reading Gideon the ninth and I’m curious how accurately it handled it, Gideon is used to a longsword and for plot reasons needs to shift to a rapier quickly, she has a teacher, and she’s not a master, but is 3 months believable to become passable with a rapier

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Is it realistic? No, not really.

The problem with Gideon the Ninth’s training sequence is really the downplaying of Gideon’s opponent’s skills rather than Gideon herself. The irony is Gideon would be better off were she starting from zero rather than training over (or re-training) her current skill set. This is compounded by the novel desperately wanting to be realistic or, at the very least plausible, and leans hard into tropes from the martial arts genre (specifically anime and film) without really understanding those tropes or the purpose they serve within the narrative. Gideon tries very hard to escape the dreaded “You Trained for Five Minutes and Are Now Beating Seasoned Masters” while walking right into it.

We went over Gideon’s issues with the rapier at length in a previous post so I’m not going to cover it again. Gideon is a novel where you really need to keep your disbelief suspended. If you, the reader, can’t ride the Rule of Cool straight off into the sunset or insert yourself as Gideon into the narrative, the experience may not be enjoyable. There are a lot of aspects in the novel’s worldbuilding and the characters’ approach to their situations ultimately don’t make that much sense in context.

On the surface, Gideon the Ninth is high concept gold. The marketing hook is “lesbian necromancers in space” which perfectly sells itself. Everything after feels like a debut outing in execution (which is what the novel is) and, really, a “babby’s first.”

Necromancers in space may seem novel, but they’re really not. At least, if you’re familiar with the sci-fi, fantasy, and the science fantasy genre. The label for Science Fantasy is new, but the line between science fiction and fantasy has always been blurry. Any fiction chasing Star Wars regularly ends up straddling the two, along with martial arts and sword and sorcery genres. P&P RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons have their own science fantasy spin off worlds like Spacejammers, and tabletop strategy games like Warhammer 40k perfectly encapsulate that bleak, overly edgy to straight up edgelord, grimdark setting Gideon the Ninth is attempting to bring to life. Necromancers are all over science fiction in wide and varied fashion, from the flamboyant like Chronicles of Riddick’s Necromongers to the sinister like Dead Space’s Necromorphs, even when they’re spun as highly advanced, tech wizardry like The Borg from Star Trek. (Yes, The Borg are necromancers who practice space magic. Fight me.) To a very straightforward case in Babylon 5’s Soul Hunters. Warhammer 40k has at least four different necromancy variants from the sorcery practiced by the Eldar and Dark Eldar, to the more techy-magic done by the Imperium, and straight up borging by the Necrons where souls are uploaded into new robot bodies. There are more, a lot more, including Sith Sorcery, but if we sat around cataloguing every instance of necromancy and unnamed necromancy in sci-fi (before we move over to traditional fantasy) you’d be reading a full length encyclopedia.

You may wonder what this has to do with realism and Gideon’s training. Well, here’s the thing, the direction might make sense in a setting without necromancers, but we have necromancers. So, why is a living champion (especially a hastily retrained one who’d be subpar without the power of plot) necessary in the first place? I’m not suggesting they don’t need a champion to fight for them or a bodyguard to protect them while they cast lengthy spells. The question is: why does said champion need to be alive? Why go with a hastily retrained mortal champion who’d die from a little blood loss and you have to blackmail into serving you when you could have the greatest swordmaster of your house that’s been accumulating experience for the past thousand years? It’s not like there’s a shortage of highly trained, skilled, and successful warriors to choose from, especially when the barrier created by death is no longer a concern.

In a setting without necromancers, Gideon’s training creates a basic problem when fighting seasoned professionals and the problem results from being she’s already trained in a different kind of sword fighting. From a conventional wisdom standpoint, I’m sure this seems backwards. Writing advice will often hammer home that what a character needs is training and, often, writers with limited backgrounds misinterpret this as meaning any kind of training will do.

While it’s true that you’ll pick up on the basics faster, the minute details become the killer. It is actually more difficult to retrain the reflexes you’ve spent years developing than starting from scratch. The rapier and the longsword are both sword combat, they are just close enough to completely fuck with your brain’s trained understanding of how to hold the weapon, how to stand with the weapon, how to parry with the weapon, how to block with the weapon, how to counter and thrust, and the trained in reflexes associated with these techniques. The important thing to remember about training is that while your reflexes aren’t naturally automated, they become that way over time through arduous training. Teaching your body to react automatically to incoming stimuli to reduce reaction times is one reason behind that arduous technical repetition. When you’re transitioning from one similar skill set to another, these trained reflexes will conflict and compete over which fires first. In simplistic terms, the lizard portion of your brain goes, “a sword? I KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH A SWORD!” and proceeds on that trained trajectory until it is automatically stopped by your higher/conscious brain functions, or interrupted by the realization your body’s position is entirely off and it can’t execute the maneuver, or flies straight into the jaws of death. This isn’t so bad when you’re transitioning from karate to taekwondo and all you need to worry about is a slight variance in knee placement for a sidekick chamber. This is a real danger with weapons where you might accidentally suicide on a failed lunge.

Three months isn’t enough to prepare Gideon for a series of duels to the death with seasoned professionals who’ve made this type of dueling their specialty. Outside of a lucky first draw and YEETING into some beginners luck like a British soldier dueling a Frenchman in the after hours section of the Napoleonic War. (Yes, that actually happened. What, did you think Wellington’s ban on dueling served no practical purpose?) Beginner’s luck doesn’t survive the scrutiny of tiered competition, your future opponents are observing your fight and strategizing. For Gideon, the rapier training itself serves as back end narrative justification for Gideon’s presence in the story, even though it doesn’t address the basic question of why a living champion is necessary.

So, why risk it? Kill Gideon and import a more suitable, useful soul into her corpse. With enough practice, the rotting part becomes a question of aesthetics and nose tolerance to foul smells.

(And don’t give me that crap about the fear that other necromancers will interfere with the spells. There’s workarounds to interference. Gideon has no real defense or innate protections against magical interference from another necromancer, at least not as established by the novel prior to the tournament beginning and would be normal for cavaliers. And, in the grand scheme, when there’s bound to be cheating anyway, who suffers less from a spell to rot off an arm? A living person or a corpse that doesn’t feel pain? Necromancy affects living tissue too, energy, and also souls if souls aren’t classified as magical energy, depending on the rules. We know that the necromancers in Gideon’s setting can do some sort of permanent enchantments because most servants are the shambling dead, not alive. It doesn’t take much to jump onto the next step and it seems weird no currently practicing necromancer ever figured out how to make a phylactery, or a soul cage, or soul-swapping/body-hopping, energy leeching, reverse-decay, ascension to an energy being, becoming a licht, or any of the other methods the Average Joe necromancer uses to extend their life. Or, you know, all the sci-fi/space ways you can do it too like cryo freezes when travelling slowly between planets.)

And, you know what? Longswords are much better at dismembering corpses, especially ones that can’t bleed to death. So, why even bother with a rapier in the first place?

-Michi

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