The Taborin Scale by Lucius Shepard
Those who have read some of these reviews will have detected my interest in semiotics which studies how meaning is communicated. The process depends on our ability to attribute meaning to signs. So, for example, a collector may hold an old coin in his hands and, by observing the surface detail and applying imagination, gain some insight into the time when people routinely handled the coin as money. Think of Sherlock Holmes who is able to make deductions about Watson’s father from a pocket-watch in The Sign of Four. There is meaning even in the slightest scratch if only you have eyes to see. For those who use symbols as a part of their faith, there can be multiple levels of meaning in, say, a statue of an elephant for someone who believes in Ganesh, to a cross for someone who believes in Christ. All such signifiers stand in the place of the originals. They trigger a recall of our stored beliefs and memories. Potentially, they give added meaning to our lives.
All this works well so long as you do not have access to the original. But imagine the loss of significance in the image of a godlike dragon, if you live in the shadow of its body. This is the position for inhabitants of Teocinte, a burgeoning city built on and around the body of the Dragon Griaule. Indeed, you can get an idea of how devalued the Dragon has become because, in a classic case of rampant capitalism, the city government has presold the Dragon’s skin and bones for traditional medicines, aphrodisiacs and more social purposes. Never has so much indignity been heaped upon this great Dragon, and all these scavenging merchants need now is evidence the dragon is dead. Obviously, it might not go down to well with the godlike animal if people start to dismantle it for parts while it is still alive.
Into Teocinte comes George Taborin, a coin dealer looking to buy new stock and planning on a little R&R while apart from his wife. In one transaction, he acquires a small scale, supposedly from a dragon. Shortly afterwards, he makes a deal with a prostitute, buying her services for the scale. However, just as handling a coin may evoke earlier times, so cleaning and rubbing the scale may also induce transport. In this case, George and the prostitute find themselves in an earlier time or, perhaps, a different dimension with no sign of Teocinte. Shortly after their arrival, a young Griaule herds them to pools fed by lazy streams where they are left to practice wilderness survival skills.
The fascination of this novella by Lucius Shepard is watching how George and the prostitute relate to each other. Both, it seems, have journeys to make as they adapt to differing circumstances. With Griaule as a catalyst, the best and worst of their characters come into view. When George encounters other abductees and rescues an abused young girl from them, a different balance comes into the relationship with the prostitute. Even in a wilderness, life can take on the mundane trappings of married life. Even in a mundane life, violence may be necessary in self-defence.
This work may see the end of the series of Dragon Griaule stories which would be a shame. It has been entrancing to watch the relationship between the Dragon and this world unfold. I hope for more.
A final word about the physical book. Quite often, books published by Subterranean Press are merely functional, but this has an additional design element with the front and end papers being a high gsm, coloured blue in honour of Griaule, and embossed in scale-like fashion. It’s a nice touch and doubly justifies the price — a good physical book to hold and excellent content to read.