Finding Hope in Books, Quick Thoughts

There’s a fifth book out in the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders. Thus far, I’ve only posted here about The March North (an oversight on my part), but I love the whole series. I acknowledge freely that this series is not for everyone—it is not particularly accessible to a casual read—but there’s something to this series that I love, and which moves me in ways that I haven’t found regularly in books for quite a while.

A brief jaunt sideways: I have been a long-standing fan of the Ring of Fire series, started by Eric Flint with the book 1632. At this point it’s long, involved, and serpentine in its narrative’s twists and turns across concurrent books, but I have continued to read (almost) every new entry in the series. For a long time this series was comfort food. Even as I came to recognize the ways in which its idealized portrayal of a particularly inclusive and community-based set of American beliefs didn’t always match history (and didn’t include as many kinds of people as I’d like it to), the idealism that served the series as its foundation was heart-warming and reassuring. We’re better off working together, we’re better off including people and sharing our beliefs, we’re better off helping each other. We can disagree and still find ways to build together. We are stronger together than we are apart, and people are the heart of a nation; aristocracy, as a tiny and overly self-centered fraction of the populace, is at its best an ornamental contributor which can do the most good by advocating for and making space and prosperity for those less well-off than themselves.

It’s obvious why the series felt so comforting when I compare that message with the messages told by many of the other authors I was reading when I started the Ring of Fire series. 1632 was uplifting where other stories were dour, it embraced community where the others proclaimed lonely individualism as the only option, and it had people working together to make a better future where other stories showed people scrabbling against each other to come out on top. For all that I now see gaps in the stories, the Ring of Fire series felt like a salve. It was hopeful.

Which brings me back to the Commonweal series by Graydon Saunders.

This series caught me on so many levels.

On the surface, it’s refreshing to find books which frequently make use of gender neutral pronouns and don’t bother to gender most characters, while also making it clear that there are a variety of people and genders present rather than letting the reader always assume that “unmarked” means “male.” Similarly, it’s a pleasure to find books which so clearly include a wide variety of sexual preferences and orientations as utterly normal. Saunders does an excellent job of creating a setting in which people are welcomed and in which persecution along our own societies’ fracture lines feels alien and anathema.

But the philosophical and ethical determination underpinning the Commonweal is even more inspiring, and it’s all the better for the way in which Saunders bakes the Commonweal’s principles into the narrators’ assumptions and reasoning. Because all of the books are written in the first person (though the narrators vary), these principles are revealed gradually as people wrestle with moral and ethical quandaries or face the unthinkable.

How does one best further the survival of the Peace without exercising dominion or exalting anyone over anyone else? How can a society faced with extinction-level threats move itself into the future without sacrificing its ideals? And how can powerful people exist in such a society when their own capabilities may threaten that society?

How can societies which assume the equality of their members and acknowledge the personhood of outsiders persist in a dangerous world? And what does doing that look like… in a world wracked by a calamity of wizards and all the damage of millennia of magical war?

Which brings me to the setting itself, which continues to delight me. As someone who grew up on genre fiction and learned early on that sometimes settings just didn’t make sense (and that that was okay), it’s a treat to find a setting which digs deep into the reality of a world in which “a wizard did it” is both an explanation and a curse. Even better, it very seriously examines how a community of mostly not-wizards can survive when magic users have existed in a Hobbesian state of nature for long enough to twist much of the world into a fire-and-forget arsenal of “war by other means.”

It’s a deeply nerdy exploration.

And the answer is: that’s hard.

But it’s a story about a community that is dedicated to not only surviving, but to not compromising on their fundamental ethical ideals. And that feels good to me.

It matters that those ideals are ones which appeal to me, of course.

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is one of the few other books I’ve read recently that feel similar. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower fits too. Not, in either case, because the writing is similar… but because the feeling of hope and perseverance despite obvious terrible circumstances is so powerful.

I’ll have to write more about this series again later, but I strongly recommend The Commonweal. If you’re good with trying military fiction, start with The March North. If you’d rather read about experimental transhuman wizard school, start with A Succession of Bad Days.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Holy crap, this is a good book.  Many thanks to Monica for the recommendation and the loan.

It turns out that Octavia Butler knew what she was doing when she wrote Parable of the Sower.  She managed to create a believable (and deeply grim) future; perhaps more impressive, the grim future she envisioned in 1993 still feels like a compelling vision of our potential future, even if the dates and tech seem a little bit off.  To be perfectly honest, I find the future shown in this book to be especially frightening because of the fact that I remember imagining something very much like it in my early childhood.  Except, of course, I had no conception then of the persistent undertones of racism that are seamlessly integrated into Butler’s story.

Somehow, despite writing about a world that is so clearly dying, about people caught in the death throes of a failing state, Butler writes a protagonist who retains all the hope that you could possibly ask for.  And this isn’t because our narrator is naive or stupid: it’s because she has looked carefully at the world around her and recognized that she has a choice between giving up and killing herself, or deciding to do something to change things.  And she’s clearly unwilling to give up.  I find her really refreshing, a wonderful narrator to follow through such a wounded world.

I’m not saying that it necessarily feels good to read all the way through; the truth is that this book is quite painful at times.  But it’s also uplifting in a way that only people enduring in the face of adversity can be.  And not just enduring, but people who refuse to simply prey upon each other, and who instead try to make something better from the world around them despite how ruined it is.  I like that a lot.  I find it inspiring, and I think that because of that this story fulfills an extremely important role.

Because I’m on a tight schedule today, I’m going to make this one brief rather than going into further depth about the story or its construction.  I admire what Butler has done with this story, and I wish she were still alive for me to thank her for writing it.  I hope that you pick it up and read it too.  If you’ve read it yourself, please weigh in with your thoughts below.  I’d love to hear them.

As if the good story weren’t enough, this is yet another good example of a teen female narrator for me to learn from.  Yet another reason for me to like the book.