I’m Sorry, But People Don’t Learn That Fast

A very recent review of Arms-Commander opined that the book was, as expected, essentially Recluce “comfort food.” I think it’s more than that, but as an author I can live with such a commentary. What really bothered me about the review was the opinion that Saryn’s opponents should have learned from others’ mistakes and adapted to her tactics.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because it’s far from the first time this criticism has been aired, both regarding my fantasy and SF, and the critics don’t seem to have learned from their mistakes, either.

There are several points that the “critics” don’t seem to understand. First, there’s a vast difference between “receiving information” and “learning.” Learning requires not only assimilating the information, but responding to it and changing one’s actions and behavior. To learn from someone else’s mistakes, you have to know about them and understand why they were mistakes. In a low-tech society word doesn’t travel fast, and sometimes it doesn’t travel at all. And when it does travel, you have to be able to trust the bearer of that news. You also have to have enough knowledge to be able to understand what went wrong. Now, in the case of Saryn, and Anna and Secca in the Spellsong Cycle, most of their opponents — and officers — who made the mistakes didn’t survive them. Even when a few did, those that did weren’t likely to be trusted, especially in Lornth, where most lord-holders don’t trust any other lord-holders.

Even if knowledge of such defeats reached others, the knowledge of how those defeats occurred didn’t. This isn’t unique to fiction. The conquests of Alexander the Great tend to follow the same pattern. He had a new way of waging war, and yet almost no one seemed to adapt. Even with more modern communications, how many generals in World War I sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths, essentially in exercises in futility, seemingly unable to understand that the infantry charges of the past didn’t work against barbed wire, machine guns, and deep trenches? Even the high-tech U.S. armed forces took almost a decade to switch from conventional war techniques to wide-spread counter-guerilla tactics in Vietnam [and some critics contend we never did].

Even if you do understand what happened, to counter it you have to change the way you operate, usually the way you’ve trained your forces and your commanders and subcommanders. Even in the best of cases, this doesn’t happen quickly. I’ve been a teacher and a swimming coach, and my wife is a singer and voice teacher, and we both know it takes years to get most people to change long-held and incorrect techniques. It’s not something that happens overnight or even in weeks or seasons. And sometimes, after a certain age, people simply can’t change their way of dealing with matters.

Finally, even if you think you want to learn, if that learning requires letting go of long-held beliefs and biases, in many, many cases, it simply won’t happen. Instead, you’ll attribute the problem to other factors or ignore it totally because you hold those beliefs so dearly.

Yet the medieval level holders and barons of Lornth, with no communications faster than horses, no understanding of what really happened, no trust in each other [which was what caused many of their problems to begin with], and no desire to change their tactics and way of life, should have understood what Saryn was doing, essentially before they even had word, and revolutionized everything they knew about warfare and fighting in less than a season?

The idea that any significant fraction of people, and particularly institutions, learn, adapt, and respond quickly is more fantastic than anything I’ve ever put in print.

4 Responses to “I’m Sorry, But People Don’t Learn That Fast”

  1. Sanguinius says:

    And all this is, of course, leaving aside the little detail that the people she was fighting against were the ones who were most unwilling to accept the possibility of Westwind or women in power in general, as those who had that mental flexibility were more inclined to support the Regents. It's somewhat of an oversimplification (though not much of one) to say that those willing to learn were already on her side, and those inclined to stick their heads in the sand were fighting against her.

  2. Daze says:

    Following up on the Vietnam ref, all the indications are that none of the lessons from Vietnam got learned in time to do the right counter-insurgency things in Iraq (and probably aren't being done in Afghanistan as we speak). See Thomas Ricks' Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq for excruciating detail on this. And that's with modern communications and plenty of time to change training etc. I'm guessing that the "critics" are comparing the story to their experience of computer war games. They think that when Saryn's opponents lost, they got to go back and replay that level again until they got it right.

  3. Val says:

    Critic.. I think you are overestimating me ;) I once saw a very nice T-shirt that said "more people have read this shirt than your blog" or something similar and my blog is in that category.

    Anyway, the review discussed can be found here.

    Given the level of insight in the political and military situation several people of Saryn's side display, not the mention party trying to fight a way by proxy, I don't think it is entirely unreasonable to expect some on the side of the Holders to be able to see where the conflict is heading early enough to make an attempt to avoid a messy defeat.

    Saryn does fight a handful of battles over a time period that is sufficient for news of the outcome, however distorted, to reach the Holders. Given the track record of the Angels in the decade or so preceding this book that certainly gives them clues as to where their campaign is heading.

    Would that have changed the outcome of the conflict? Or changed the Holders' convictions? Probably not. Seeing no change in their attitude and strategy whatsoever makes the Holders as a group appear inflexible and not all that bright (on top of horribly sexist). I suppose there is something to be said for the approach taken in earlier Recluce novels where at least some of the considerations of the opposing faction where shown though bits of conversations the reader sees as an observer.

    Val

  4. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Some "opponents" do see things clearly. Neither High Holder Shartyr nor High Holder Jharyk cares in the slightest for Saryn or what she brings. Both are intelligent enough to avoid getting entangled. Most of Saryn's eventual supporters are not all that enthusiastic, but are realistic enough to see where matters are headed. In the end only about half the High Holders actually are inflexible enough to resort to war, and, of those, several have no way to know what they face.