Alastair Reynolds’ “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” is a magnificent post-apocalyptic tale about a teenage girl following the Campbellian hero myth that illustrates Arthur C. Clarke’s well-known quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The story is fresh and fascinating, because Reynolds skillfully usurps the typically male gendered hero myth to establish a female hero/ine.
The story takes place in the far future as the “Great Winter” is waning and after a long forgotten, yet on-going war between humanity and the “jangling men,” which are an army of rebellious robots. The Earth bound characters equate past technology and recovered artifacts as magical or wonderful. They exist in a pre-industrial society that is occasionally encroached upon by fallen “angels” from both sides of the unseen war. The scrap and wreckage of these fallen bodies is referred to as “skydrift,” i.e., strange matter that falls from the sky.
The title character and heroine is Kathrin, a sixteen year old girl on an errand to deliver two hog heads and twenty candles to Widow Grayling, an old woman that is sometimes called a witch, but she’s someone that Kathrin trusts and does not fear. Kathrin rises above her station as “the sledge-maker’s daughter” by challenging the explicit and undesirable advances of a privileged male. This episode steels Widow Grayling to pass on two gifts to Kathrin. These gifts are male tools/symbols of masculine authority and power, because they originate from a fallen human male soldier in the future war. Grayling obtains these tools after showing compassion to the fallen “angel.” Additionally, the soldier gives her an understanding and knowledge above the male power hegemony of her community as embodied in the “sheriffs.” Grayling choses to pass on the technological artifacts as well as the power of knowledge to Kathrin, which imbibes her with power both in might and understanding. As the story closes, the reader sees that she also has wisdom to control her new found power, and it signals the beginning of her new life as the heroine setting out on the path of her own choice.
As an example of feminist SF, it is effective and intelligently written. However, it’s not as reactive as works by authors such as Joanna Russ or Marge Piercy. Though, I can see its alignment with Piercy’s later work, He, She and It, and Reynolds’ story has a more active female character than Tenar in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.
I definitely recommend everyone check out this story. You may find it in Interzone #209, April 2007.