Take The Long Train Home

Techniques tracked:
-rising action
-character/villain development (or lack thereof)

Stephen King’s annual doorstopper, The Institute, was released this past September. The book begins with Tim Jamieson impulsively deciding to take a flight attendant’s offer of a voucher to give up his seat on a plane to NYC. In no apparent hurry, Tim decides to hitchhike there instead, but on the way ends up taking a job as a “Night Knocker,” the equivalent of a night-shift cop who’s not allowed to carry a gun, in the tiny South Carolina town of DuPray. We learn Tim in fact used to be a cop in Sarasota, Florida, but left after a warning shot he fired ricocheted and killed an “innocent” bystander who was phone-recording the altercation Tim was trying to handle; his wife also left him because he didn’t want to have kids due to the world being too evil. 

We then switch to Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old kid in Minneapolis with an off-the-charts IQ. Shortly after Luke takes the SAT and gains admission to both MIT and Emerson, he’s kidnapped in the night by a team of three people who kill his parents. He wakes up in a room that looks identical to his former one, but is in the Institute, hidden deep in the woods of Maine (where else?). Luke was not kidnapped because of his prodigious intelligence, but rather for his minor telekinetic abilities; the rest of the kids in the Institute are either telekinetic or telepathic, or in rare cases, both. Luke befriends other Institute prisoners where they currently reside in “Front Half”–Kalisha, Nicky, George, and Iris, who give him the lay of the land; they’re shortly joined by a new arrival, an even younger boy named Avery who has stronger telepathic abilities than most of the residents. We meet the utilitarian Mrs. Sigsby, who runs the Institute, and her sinister head of security, Trevor Stackhouse. Although they present an intimidating front, the Institute has been around for several decades and is in a state of disrepair, since it’s hard to hire repair workers and keep the place a secret. 

The Institute doctors subject the (pre)adolescent residents to regular tests, including one apparently designed to make them see “dots,” which the kids refer to as the “Stasi Lights” and seem to appear when their abilities are functioning. Some kids have worse reactions to the tests than others. It turns out the aim of some of the tests is to enhance the kids’ abilities, and when Luke lies about having gained some telepathic abilities from one, he’s subjected to the “immersion tank” and tortured, but still manages to keep his new enhanced abilities a secret. One by one, his friends start disappearing to “Back Half.” Kalisha telepathically beams Luke some images of what goes on there, revealing that the kids watch movies that revolve around some individual that they’re being conditioned to use their collective abilities to remotely assassinate. Participating in such collective psychic efforts strips the kids of their cognitive capacities to the point that they’re no longer themselves, the stage at which they go to the back half of Back Half and are eventually killed and incinerated. (Sinister.)

Luke befriends an Institute housekeeper named Maureen who’s known to be friendly to the kids, but who’s really just been posing to report any secrets they tell her to Mrs. Sigsby. But then Luke is able to do enough research on an Institute computer to help Maureen out of her ex-husband’s whopping credit-card debt so that she’s able to use her savings to send the son she gave up for adoption to college, and with the added factor that she’s suffering from some kind of terminal illness, Maureen decides to help Luke escape. Avery also uses his telepathic abilities to help, Maureen silently giving him instructions for how Luke can get out and where to go once he does. Luke manages to dig and squirm under a fence, almost getting stuck but inadvertently using his telekinetic abilities to lift it enough to free him. (He also has to cut off his earlobe with a paring knife Maureen left him to get rid of the tracker they implanted in it when he first arrived.) He follows Maureen’s directions and makes it through the woods to a docked boat, taking that downstream to a train yard, where he boards a train that will make several stops, including DuPray, South Carolina. 

Due to the Institute’s general deterioration and the removed tracker, it takes Sigsby and Stackhouse longer than it should to catch on to Luke’s escape. Both want to handle the situation on their own without having to call their higher-ups (specifically the “lisping man” who will answer the phone line Sigsby has for emergencies), as they fear it will mean the end of their careers, and possibly their lives. Figuring out how Avery communicated with Maureen from surveillance footage, they use their “zap-sticks” to torture him, and he reveals where Luke got out of the boat he took, but not that he got on a train. When another girl, Frieda Brown, gleans and rats out the train part, Avery is subjected to the immersion tank, but in their rush they neglect to first give him the regular shots to stifle his powers, and the torture ends up increasing his already powerful abilities. Meanwhile, they send out people to wait at all the stops Luke’s train will make. Luke jumps the train in DuPray and runs into a signpost right in front of Tim, who’s gotten a second job at the town’s train yard. Unfortunately, another person present when Luke jumps the train is a stringer for the Institute (they have lots of people on their payroll) and lets them know where Luke is. Sigsby gets a team together and goes with them to DuPray.

Meanwhile, Luke shows Tim and some others a flash drive Maureen gave him with footage she took of the back half of Back Half (also referred to by residents as “Gorky Park”) with the catatonic kids, which helps them believe his wild story. Sigsby and her team infiltrate the police station and there’s a shootout that kills a lot of people, but with the help of some DuPray residents, including the homeless conspiracy theorist Orphan Annie, Tim and Luke are able to take custody of Mrs. Sigsby, who took a minor bullet wound to her ankle. They call Stackhouse, who stayed behind at the Institute, and Luke makes a deal to exchange Maureen’s flash drive for his friends, who with Avery’s help figure out how to combine and channel their powers to overcome some of the staff and free the residents of Gorky Park. When Stackhouse manages to remotely lock them in an access tunnel as they try to leave Back Half, they call out to Luke for help. Stackhouse concocts a plan to poison them with a gas made from bleach and toilet cleaner. 

Tim and Luke return to the Institute with Mrs. Sigsby in tow. Sensing a trap, Tim manages a bait-and-switch where he makes Mrs. Sigsby put on his backwards cap and take the wheel of their van so that she’s mistaken for him when Institute staff open up on their van with a hail of gunfire. Sigsby is killed, but Tim and Luke, lying in the back, survive. At the same time, in the tunnel Avery uses his telepathic “big phone” to call to kids at other Institutes all over the globe to join their power to his, and sends his friends out to the playground, sacrificing himself. He channels the combined power to lift the Front Half building off the ground, destroying the other buildings in the process. Almost all of the Institute staff is killed except for Stackhouse and a couple of others, who surrender to Tim. 

Tim keeps the group of Luke’s friends who escaped, who then get sent off to their closest living relatives one by one with fake stories of how they were kidnapped and released. The lisping man visits before Nick and Kalisha leave to warn them to keep their mouths shut about what happened and to try to justify the mission of the Institute, which was built off of research done by Nazis. The lisping man claims to believe that the assassinations carried out by Institute children have saved the world from annihilation over 500 times, revealing that they have a handful of “precogs” who can tell the future to a point that they can pinpoint who needs to be killed to prevent nuclear apocalypse. Luke disputes the veracity of the precogs’ predictions based on statistical analysis, and can tell from his mind-reading powers that the man is not as confident in his claims as he seems (including that the world will soon end and it will be Luke and Tim’s fault). Tim convinces the rest of the kids not to believe the man’s rationalizations, and Luke says goodbye to Kalisha. The End. 

For probably the first half of The Institute I found myself less invested than I was in the first half of King’s doorstopper from last year, The Outsider, but the payoff at the end plot-wise was far better in The Institute. As always, King manages to keep the reader in “cracktastic” suspense throughout with a highly action-based plot, compensating for what by literary standards is fairly lacking character development. (For me what this usually amounts to is being engrossed while I’m reading the book but forgetting most of it once I’m finished.)

The characters might not end up being all that developed, as we will see, but King’s ability to rove points of view across a wide range of characters and capture their distinct (if at times clichéd) worldviews remains impressive. He’s the king of the ensemble cast, among other things, a probably not insignificant factor in the success of his movie and television adaptations. He can drop us into any character’s mind at any time, and maintains a pliable narrative psychic distance that allows him to tell us things characters don’t actually know:

[Luke] was asleep at once. He slept through the stop at Portland and the one in Portsmouth, although the train jerked each time a few old cars were subtracted from 4297’s pull-load and others were added. He was still asleep when the train stopped at Sturbridge…

King is also able to use point-of-view switches to generate suspense–we get to simultaneously see what’s going on with the good guys and bad guys, meaning we get to know what each side doesn’t know. We know how close Institute personnel are on Luke’s trail when he’s on the train. We know how close the bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas is to going into the vents of the tunnel where Luke’s friends are. Were we simply stuck in the position of the good guys, knowing the bad guys are up to something but not in a position to know exactly what, we might identify strongly with their fear being exacerbated by the unknown, but it turns out actually knowing some of the specifics of that unknown is a richer experience of the potential horror.

In terms of character development, let’s start with Tim, whose decision to get off the plane to NYC starts the book. Tim gets the first part of the novel (out of nine parts). His book-opening decision is later cited as a possible precog flash, based on the idea that everyone has some low-level precog powers. Logically it seems a good starting point for the plot, since if Tim hadn’t gotten off the plane the fate of Luke and the Institute would have necessarily taken a different course. Tim’s chronic tension would seem to reside in a decision he made before the one that starts the book, the decision that led him to be on the plane in the first place, which involves the incident that caused him to have to leave the police force (a lot of the tension in the first part stems from the slow reveal of why Tim is so aimlessly drifting, potentially answering the question of why King didn’t start the book with an actual scene of the altercation that got Tim kicked off the force and only has it later recounted in dialog when he’s applying for the Night Knocker job in DuPray). The wife-leaving-him chronic tension is fairly undeveloped and random and seems more designed for thematic overlap with the question at the heart of the Institute’s existence–is the world (ir)redeemable? Eventually Tim will start dating a colleague from DuPray, but how the failure of his marriage informs his behavior in his new relationship is completely unexplored. You could say that another way Tim’s chronic tension comes into play is that the man who didn’t want children because the world was too evil ends up with Luke as his pseudo-child at the end, the one kid who probably knows more than anyone else about how evil the world really is, which would probably be more satisfying if Tim’s belief in the evil of the world had actually been developed rather than just stated once:

…ten years on the force had made him cynical. Sometimes he brought those feelings home (try often, he told himself when he was willing to be honest), and they had become part of the acid that had eaten away at his marriage. Those feelings were also, he supposed, one of the reasons he had remained so closed off to the idea of having a kid. There was too much bad stuff out there. Too many things that could go wrong. 

The lack of development of this aspect means that by the end it ends up feeling like Tim has impacted the plot, but not that the plot has impacted Tim. Pacing-wise it felt to me that the first part went into too much detail about Tim’s Night Knocker routine in sequences that did not adequately develop any of his chronic-tension issues. Of course most of this first part is designed to introduce characters who will play a pivotal role in the climactic shootout, but again the characters seemed more designed to express certain ideas or serve a plot function rather than feeling like actual people–primarily Orphan Annie, the homeless woman who seems like a nut for believing in conspiracy theories but whose beliefs are revealed to be more on point than anyone would have thought.   

It seems possible King opens the book with an extended section on the adult Tim before moving on to the real main character, Luke, to keep the book from feeling like it’s YA. One of the more interesting aspects of Luke’s character, his initially defining trait–his prodigious intelligence–is not the reason the Institute is interested in him, but it will be the reason that he is the one who is able to take them down. The introduction of Luke’s minor telekinetic abilities before he’s kidnapped felt a bit clunky: 

Luke got up with some relief and tossed his lunch sack in a trash barrel by the door to the gym. He looked at the pretty redhead a final time, and as he went in, the barrel shimmied three inches to the left.

Luke later thinks about the trashcan moving once or twice, but there’s no other instance of his telekinetic powers before he gets to the Institute. In a way this makes sense because his telekinetic abilities are supposed to be fairly minimal, and it seems that he doesn’t even recognize that it’s actually him causing the movement. So maybe you could justify the clunkiness of the telekinetic introduction, which means the real issue here comes back to character development: Luke has none. If he potentially struggled to manage his towering intellect and so part of this journey was him learning to appreciate it, that might be one thing, but the one scene that shows how Luke’s affected by his intellect and how it has the potential to turn him into a fish out of water, when he’s with the older kids taking the SAT, doesn’t show this to be a real or recurring issue; he’s able to joke with the older kids and gain acceptance fairly easily. (This scene really seems like it should have been developed in contrast to his interactions with the others at the Institute rather than as similar to it.) If he was potentially scared of going off to college as a kid who’s barely hit puberty, then what he has to do in the acute tension of overcoming the Institute could have given him the confidence to proceed into the adult world while he’s still a child, and there’s almost lip service paid to this idea when, early in the novel, Luke admits he’ll need his parents to move to Boston with him to go to college, but this is merely a passing reference rather than a developed issue; Luke seems more or less fine with the idea of going off to college as a twelve-year-old before he’s kidnapped and taken to the Institute. Yes, by the end we understand he’ll now have to go to college without his parents because his parents are dead, and we probably understand that he has been pushed into early adulthood by his ordeal and so he will be able to manage college without them, but this aspect of the narrative isn’t really emphasized or reinforced. In the end, Tim pretty much accurately sums up Luke’s character development: 

He wanted to tell Luke that he was brave, maybe the bravest kid ever outside of a boys’ adventure book. 

Or not. 

The book’s two main protagonists, Tim and Luke, are white males. The main person of color in the cast, Kalisha, is (shockingly) relegated to a supporting role. Kalisha is the fulcrum of a love triangle between Luke and another Institute boy, Nicky, that ends up being of absolutely no consequence to the plot, even though King leans on it in a (cheesy) attempt to bring about emotional closure at the very end.

Another white male, Avery, actually seems to have more character development than Tim or Luke along the way to setting him up as a pivotal plot device. Avery has a more developed chronic tension that’s emphasized repeatedly–he did not have friends in his life before the Institute. The dynamic among Institute children is of course quite different than in a normal school environment, which means Avery won’t be ostracized there like he used to be, even if he still is, predominantly, an oversensitive crybaby. Avery is so grateful for the friendship of the others that he’s willing to help Luke escape at risk to himself; the crybaby withstands torture, and at the end stays behind to call the “Big Phone,” knowingly sacrificing himself to enable his friends to escape. This aspect of his character development becomes heavy-handed in the final moments of Avery’s arc: 

They maintained their circle until the end, and as the roof came down, Avery Dixon had one final thought, both clear and calm: I loved having friends.

The irony that Avery is actually in a position to enjoy some aspects of life more at the Institute than outside it is echoed in the character who actually manipulates him to give up Luke: Frieda Brown, another child who’s been kidnapped for the Institute. Frieda is mentioned a handful of times before she comes to play her pivotal role in the plot, one instance seeming to emphasize a certain likeness to Avery’s defining trait: 

[Luke] waggled his fingertips in the free air outside the Institute for a moment or two, then got up, dusted off his bottom, and asked Frieda if she wanted to play HORSE. She gave him an eager smile that said Yes! Of course! Be my friend!

It sort of broke his heart.

This defining trait might potentially lead both Avery and Frieda to prefer life at the Institute to life outside it, a surprising and ironic development, but it leads them to act in different ways: Avery to sacrifice himself so his friends who don’t prefer the Institute can escape it, and Frieda to take action so that Luke’s escape will enable her to stay there rather than leave, and so she gives up the critical info about Luke’s escape that Avery had managed to withhold even through torture. This development is of course necessary to keep the rising action going and thus create a more nail-biting plot. The book can’t end with Luke simply crawling under the fence, hopping a train, and making a clean getaway. There have to be more obstacles to complicate that process, and there has to be a more direct confrontation with Institute personnel, a confrontation King has set up with one of the book’s epigraphs invoking the biblical story of Samson:

And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. 

Over the course of the novel Luke specifically brings up or thinks about this story of Samson bringing down the temple roughly four times (which also ends up feeling heavy-handed). One of these passages early on specifically indicates that Luke will not be content to just get away, that this cannot be the narrative’s endgame: 

This was no dream, it was really happening, and to get out of here no longer seemed enough. That hard thing wanted more. It wanted to expose the whole kidnapping, child-torturing bunch of them, from Mrs. Sigsby all the way down to Gladys with her plastic smiles and Zeke with his slimy rectal thermometer. To bring the Institute down on their heads, as Samson had brought the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines. He knew this was no more than the resentful, impotent fantasy of a twelve-year-old kid, but he wanted it, just the same, and if there was any way he could do it, he would. (emphasis mine)

Now let’s talk about the character development of the villains, those who run the Institute. With this reckoning Luke is about to bring crashing down upon their heads, they might have the most potential to actually face their wrongs and grow as people–since we seem to be dealing with people as our villains here, and not some kind of demon from an evil dimension that I only recently realized was a connecting thread through a lot of King’s work.  

We get very little detail about our primary antagonists Sigsby and Stackhouse, though the latter is occasionally softened by being the only one to call the former by her first name, Julia, an implicit reminder of her humanity. They both think at different points that their jobs are basically their lives, so the stakes are certainly higher for them when their jobs are threatened by the novel’s acute tension, but what this also means is, again, lacking character development. The most we seem to learn about any Institute staff members’ past is that they are some form of ex-military, which would seem to be a commentary on the ethics (or lack thereof) of our country’s military-industrial complex. Maureen gets a posthumous monologue about the torture she witnessed during the Iraq War, making an explicit connection to how this enabled her to witness the torture of children without resistance, but these things we learn about her past again feel more like character being used for thematic development rather than the other way around. 

The fact that the villains here are human beings instead of interdimensional demons allows for a complication of their motivations–despite the fact that they are torturing children, they believe they are doing this to save the rest of the world from destruction; thus, they are not pure evil in the way that so many monstrous incarnations of Satan in other King narratives are. 

(On a side note, I’m currently in the middle of the first season of the King-inspired and -produced Castle Rock on Hulu, in which the main villain is a guy some characters believe to be an incarnation of the devil, and, whoever he is, causes a lot of violence and chaos wherever he goes; when my partner keeps demanding why he’s doing these things, the only answer is, well, he’s the devil, which is not a satisfying explanation. A force being evil simply because they are evil is just not that dramatically interesting. The show’s good enough in other ways that I’m hoping there is in fact a more complex explanation, but that remains to be seen.)

Sigsby’s uppity self-righteous attitude, not to mention her being the one to actually issue official Institute torture orders, has her marked for destruction from the novel’s outset, not unlike Cersei from Game of Thrones. (King pays explicit homage to Martin twice in this novel by having Tim read A Song of Ice and Fire after he moves to DuPray and by referring to his wife Tabitha as his “sun and stars” in his Acknowledgments.) Sigsby at least gets a less disappointing death than Cersei being crushed by rocks when Tim pulls his clever trick that ends up getting Sigsby shot by her own henchman. This could be an apt symbol of her being engulfed by a mess of her own creation, but nothing about Sigsby’s experience during the showdown in DuPray or her return to the Institute as a hostage seems to come close to actually changing her attitude about the things she’s done. Her change is merely a surface one, from alive to dead. She doesn’t change or develop in any other meaningful way. She’s simply a Bad Guy, designed for the reader to derive maximum pleasure from her death. (Cersei’s general attitude may not have changed by the end of her arc, at least not in the TV version, but we definitely got more significant insight into her motivations along the way in a way that made her feel developed.) 

Stackhouse would seem to have even more of an opportunity to change or reflect on his actions, since he’s one of the very few taken alive after the Institute is destroyed, but we learn nothing about how this affects him either. Here’s the last mention we get of Stackhouse: 

Tim decided not to pursue the Stackhouse question. It was obvious he wouldn’t get anywhere with it, and besides, Stackhouse was old news. He might be in Brazil; he might be in Argentina or Australia; he might be dead. It made no difference to Tim where he was. 

There’s also the potentially weird fact that Sigsby is the one who accompanies the team to DuPray while Stackhouse stays behind to look after the Institute–it really seems like it should have been the other way around, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, because even though they technically end up in very different places (dead v. alive), they end up in the same place, character-wise, with the loss of this place that was their life not actually making them rethink their priorities or motivations.   

Interestingly, the character who actually has to deal with the moral reckoning the most is the lisping man, the initially faceless higher-up on the other end of Sigsby’s Zero Phone. But again this is less character development than thematic development (verging into proselytizing) as the lisping man lays out the rationale behind the Institutes, which we’ve by now discovered dot the globe, with his ends-justifies-the-means logic, the monstrosity of which could be fit for Catholic propaganda. The lisp is a good trait to show him getting flustered in the course of the conversation as Luke challenges him, though also seemingly unnecessary if Luke can read his mind, as Luke does to specifically point out the man has doubts about some of the claims he’s making with such seeming certainty. The debate comes to a head with the hypothetical of if what they were doing would be worth it if it could be definitively proven they actually had at least once saved the world, and Luke says no. So I guess we’ve all learned a moral lesson here. I still know nothing meaningful about the lisping man as a human being. 

King has been an outspoken critic of Trump on social media, and people have noticed the parallels between the situation of the kids in the novel’s Institute and the kids being detained at our country’s southern border. King told the hosts of The View that the parallel was inadvertent: 

I try to keep my politics separate from the stuff that I write. People like story. People want story and if they want the news…they can go on and get [it].

Others seem convinced the commentary is more intentional, but the writing process as King describes it would be more optimal; trying to write a book with a particular (political) message is basically narrative suicide. King says he really had in mind old CIA and Nazi experiments, which makes sense. The issue is that he did seem to be writing with a message in mind about how wrong those were even if they were ostensibly for good reasons, so there’s still a certain didacticism that saturates the reading experience a little too much for my taste, even if I did appreciate his probably most overtly political comparison: 

They were stronger together, yes, but still not strong enough. No more than Hillary Clinton had been when she ran for president a few years back. Because the guy running against her, and his supporters, had had the political equivalent of the caretakers’ zap-sticks. 

Sounds like he’s really keeping his politics separate from his storytelling…

The most moving part of The Institute doesn’t come until after its ending, in King’s Author’s Note, in which he recounts how Russ Dorr, the man who has been his research assistant since the 70s and who was originally his children’s pediatrician, recently died. (I particularly enjoyed the passage about how Dorr was the only one aside from his wife who got to see King’s fiction “before it was fully dressed and ready for its close-up.”) The details about Dorr’s contributions to specific plots over the years (in particular the climax of Under the Dome; and one of his final contributions was The Institute‘s bleach-and-toilet-cleaner gas) really brings home a relevant aspect of King’s unparalleled productivity–he’s had a significant amount of help.


A World Apart, Part 2

The Obelisk Gate (2016), the second book of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, is the only book of the trilogy to follow two narrative threads instead of three–the first being Essun at Castrima where she was reunited with Alabaster at the end of Book 1, and the second circling back to what happened to Nassun when she left Tirimo with Jija right after he killed Uche at the beginning of Book 1. Essun’s thread is still relayed in the second person as it was in the first book, while Nassun’s is told in the third person. (Schaffa gets two point-of-view chapters, but not enough to qualify for a full-blown thread.) 

In Book 2 we learn that Jija figures out his daughter Nassun is an orogen because she gave a diamond she found via her orogeny to a lorist she wanted to learn from, and the lorist gives the diamond to Jija. When Uche knows Jija has it in his pocket, Jija figures out that Uche is an orogen too, and kills him. Nassun comes in shortly afterward and escapes a similar fate mainly by virtue of some inadvertent emotional manipulation (primarily calling him “Daddy”). Jija and Nassun travel north for a year trying to get to a place where Jija has heard there is a cure for orogeny, which he continues to be conflicted about, even when Nassun uses it to save him. When they get close to their destination, they’re saved from a group of bandits by none other than Schaffa, who we’ve learned escaped his literally explosive confrontation with Syen at the end of Book 1 by virtue of calling on a power that ended up claiming a lot of his former self and memories, so he’s essentially a different person now. 

Schaffa runs a community of orogenes known as Found Moon within the comm of Jekity, where he teaches and bonds with Nassun, much to Jija’s consternation. Nassun learns she’s able to connect to a sapphire obelisk floating nearby, though the first time the connection is inadvertent and causes her to turn another young orogene to stone. She then uses this power to help Schaffa and two other guardians at the nearby Antarctic Fulcrum (which she sessed while connected to the obelisk), where the orogenes have killed their guardians, turn everyone there to stone. She wants to use her abilities to remove the knot from Schaffa’s head she sesses is causing him pain, but he won’t let her, saying he won’t be able to protect her if he does; the thing in his head, and the other two Jekity guardians, want to kill her due to her obelisk-related abilities. She is visited by a stone eater she names Steel who says he can help her. When Jija confronts her about not being healed of her orogeny and she admits she likes doing it, he hits her and in response she ices his house. Later, he attacks her again, attempting to kill her, and she uses the sapphire obelisk to turn him to stone. 

Meanwhile, in Castrima, Essun learns she can connect to an obelisk at Alabaster’s behest. As his entire body slowly becomes stone, he teaches her to sess the silver threads inside the obelisk and living things that is the stuff of orogeny, known as magic, and explains that he was taken by the stone eater at the end of Book 1 to a city in the earth’s core, where he learned that the obelisks were created to harness the earth’s magic, but then something went wrong and caused the moon to fly out of orbit. He started the rift to create enough energy for an orogene to harness and use the networked obelisks (the Obelisk Gate) to get the moon back so the earth won’t induce future Seasons. 

After barricading herself in and being evicted from Castrima’s control room where she was doing research, Tonkee grabs a mysterious piece of metal that then buries itself in her flesh, causing Essun to have to cut off her arm. Hoa disappears from Castrima for awhile then returns saying he was fighting stone eaters who want to stop him from achieving his vision. Eventually Castrima gets a message from the nearby bigger comm of Rennanis that Rennanis wants to requisition them; a stone eater shows up to say the comm can join them–except for orogenes, a condition that upsets the delicate balance Ykka the Castrima leader has brokered between stills and orogenes. This stone eater grievously injures Hoa, who re-hatches himself through a geode, revealing himself to be the stone eater that was trapped in the obelisk Syen raised from the harbor in Allia in Book 1. Hoa says the Gray Man stone eater’s agenda is to let humanity die, so he wants to stop Alabaster’s objective of using the Obelisk Gate to re-harness the moon, which would end Earth’s wrath and the Seasons with it. As tensions between stills and orogenes in Castrima escalate, Essun kills a still who’s attacking a rogga child (triggering her because of what happened to her son Uche), and is going to kill more before Alabaster stops her, but the effort of doing so kills him in turn. 

When the Rennanis army attacks Castrima, it turns out that Ykka knows how to network orogenes together, and uses their combined energy to incite deadly boil bugs to attack their attackers. Connected in this network to Ykka, Essun finally realizes how orogeny and magic can work together to be even more powerful. When stone eaters attack, Essun calls on the onyx obelisk, whose power almost kills her, but she manages to use it to call the other obelisks and traps the stone eaters inside them. Once Castrima is secure, she uses the Obelisk Gate to track Nassun (which Nassun sesses in turn). Using the Obelisk Gate turns one of Essun’s arms to stone. The End. 

In this second installment we get clues as to the larger function of the obelisks as conductors of this substance of life known as magic. We also get the explanation of why Hoa is so dedicated to Essun–she was the one who freed him from the obelisk he was trapped in. And a relationship forms between Schaffa and Nassun that is the antithesis to both the relationship Nassun has with her mother and that Essun, once Syen, had with the former Schaffa. There’s also the conflict between orogenes who are Fulcrum-trained and those who aren’t (Ykka); pros and cons are presented for each but it’s what Essun learns when she’s connected to Ykka, who hasn’t learned to suppress herself in the way Fulcrum-trained orogenes have, that leads her to be able to open the Obelisk Gate and achieve her goal of saving Castrima–saving it, at least, from its external conflict. 

Chapter Outline:

1 Nassun, who wanted to become a lorist, gives a diamond to a visiting one who this lorist then gives to her father, Jija, which is how he figures out she is an orogen; Uche asks about the diamond in his pocket when he shouldn’t know it’s there, which is when Jija kills him. Nassun walks in shortly thereafter and he leaves with her. 

2 Essun goes to see if she can connect with an obelisk and Ykka insists on coming along; Essun is successful. 

3 Schaffa survives the blast Essun induced with the obelisk on the ship at the end of Book 1 by calling on a power that costs a price to help him survive–a significant chunk of his identity and memories. A man finds him when he washes up on the beach and takes him to his fishing comm, where a boy, Eitz, realizes from his uniform he’s a guardian and who Schaffa takes with him after he kills his family. 

4 A hunter returns to Castrima infested with boil bugs that Essun is able to remove with her orogeny, but they’ve done enough damage the man has to be killed. 


5 The end-of-the-world rift occurs as Nassun and Jija are on the road and Nassun diverts it to prevent it from killing them. 

6 Essun talks to Tonki about how long humans and obelisks have existed, and then to Alabaster, who tells her she has to learn to manipulate the stuff of orogeny that the obelisks contain–silver threads once known as “magic.” 

7 After a year of traveling Nassun and Jija arrive in the Arctic, where Jija’s heard a rumor there’s a cure for orogeny, and when they’re accosted by bandits they’re saved–by Schaffa. 

8 Essun integrates into the routines of helping out Castrima. She joins a hunting party who sees another group crucified on trees as some kind of territorial message. She starts training the comm’s younger orogenes. She argues with Alabaster about why he caused the rifting and he agrees to tell her everything. 

9 Nassun and Jija are taken into the comm of Jekity, which has a community for its orogenes called Found Moon. Nassun bonds with Schaffa during her training, and can sess silver threads in him, and how his sessipina causes him pain. 

10 Alabaster tells Essun what happened to him after the stone eater took him at the end of book 1–he’s taken to a city at the earth’s core, where he learns how the obelisks were created to harness the earth’s magic, but then something went wrong and the moon was thrown out of orbit. He tells Essun why he caused the rift that started the season–it will provide enough energy for an orogen to harness and channel through all the obelisks networked together (the obelisk gate) to return the moon to its orbit, which will prevent the earth from causing future seasons.

11 Schaffa dreams of his past and resists the urge of his sessipina to compel Nassun into obedience.  

12 Nassun is able to sess the silver inside Schaffa and elsewhere. When she’s startled awake by another orogen boy, Eitz, she instinctively reaches for an obelisk and inadvertently turns him to stone. Schaffa tells Jija (and has to threaten him) that Nassun will be staying at Found Moon from now on. He tells Nassun she has a higher purpose in remedying an old mistake he had a part in.

13 Alabaster talks about using node maintainers to help him open the obelisk gate (i.e., connecting and channeling multiple obelisks). Tonkee has barricaded herself in Castrima’s control room to do research, and when Ykka kicks her out for this, Tonkee tries to take a mysterious piece of iron (which seems to possibly be what’s in Guardians’ heads that gives them their powers) and it burrows into her body and Essun sesses silver threads coming from it, then has to cut off Tonkee’s arm to stop it. 

interlude: Hoa says stone eaters are slowly devouring Castrima and that in his recent absence he’s been killing them. There is one stone eater in particular who has a vision opposite to his that he’s trying to fight. 

14 Six months pass and Castrima is running out of food. One day they get a message that the nearby comm of Rennanis wants to requisition them, and Essun sesses an army nearby. A stone eater shows up from there saying Castrima can join them, except for its orogenes, sowing discord. Essun discovers Hoa in her room almost destroyed by this other stone eater, and feeds him his stones. He rehatches through a geode as the stone eater she saw trapped in the obelisk in Allia. 

15 Nassun and Jekity’s three guardians (including Schaffa) visit the Antarctic Fulcrum that Nassun sessed through an obelisk. Learning these orogenes killed their guardians, the Jekity guardians attack, and Nassun helps by using an obelisk to turning everyone there into stone. The other guardians and the thing in Schaffa’s head want to kill her for this, but Schaffa protects her. A stone eater visits Nassun saying he can help her. 

16 Hoa tells Ykka and Essun that the gray stone eater (who’s behind the Rennanis threat) wants to wipe out humankind and make sure no one else opens the Obelisk Gate so the season will wear on and wipe everyone out. Ykka and Essun argue whether they can trust Castrima’s stills under threat of an attack.  

17 Nassun practices her orogeny to the point where she think she can heal the thing in Schaffa’s head that causes him pain, but he won’t let her because then he won’t be able to protect her from the other Guardians. She goes to see Jija, who hits her when she says she’s not trying to cure herself of orogeny, but get better at it, and she ices his house. 

18 Hoa says actually the Gray Man stone eater does want Essun to open the Obelisk Gate, but for his own purposes. As Ykka is having people vote on how to respond to Rennanis, there’s an altercation where a still accuses a rogga of attacking them, and to keep peace Ykka kills the rogga. Then Essun sesses a still attacking a rogga child and kills her using an obelisk, and Alabaster keeps her from killing more people, which kills him. Essun says the comm won’t vote, or she’ll kill them.

interlude: Hoa tries and fails to make a truce with Gray Man. 

19 Rennanis attacks after Essun tries to speak to their representative Danel and is stabbed. Ykka knows how to network orogenes to generate enough power to excite the boil bugs into swarming the attackers. When Essun’s connected to Ykka she sees how magic is connected to everything and the obelisks, and she finally understands how orogeny and magic can work together to amplify each other’s power. The stone eaters attack and then Essun calls the onyx obelisk which almost swallows her but then she’s able to use it to call the other obelisks and traps some stone eaters inside them. With Castrima safe she uses the Obelisk Gate to track Nassun. 

interlude: Hoa puts Essun to bed; one of her arms has turned to stone. Hoa talks to Lerna about the geode of Castrima being badly damaged in the fight, but now that Rennanis is empty/killed they can go there. 

20 Nassun sesses the Obelisk Gate and her mother, then Jija attacks her with a knife and she uses the sapphire obelisk to turn him to stone.

A World Apart, Part 1

N.K. Jemisin’s ambitious Broken Earth trilogy begins with the novel The Fifth Season (2015). At the beginning of the beginning, we’re told that the world ends when a man, in conversation with a stone eater, breaks the earth, inducing what’s known as a Fifth Season, an extended period of climate change manifesting in cold and darkness. 

The first book alternates chapters between what initially appears to be three different characters: Essun, whose chapters are told in the second person, and Damaya and Syenite, whose chapters are conveyed in the third person. 

Essun has orogenic powers, meaning she can manipulate the earth’s heat and energy to her own ends. Orogenes are looked down on in the society of the supercontinent called the Stillness, as indicated when Essun’s husband Jija beats their three-year-old son Uche to death after figuring out he has orogenic powers. Essun discovers Uche’s body around the same time she quells a shake caused by the man at the beginning breaking the earth. Her orogenic identity revealed by having done so, Essun flees her village after learning that Jija fled earlier with their daughter Nassun, who’s also an orogene. On the road, Essun meets a strange young boy calling himself Hoa, who appears to know where Nassun is. 

Meanwhile, Syenite, a Fulcrum-trained orogene with four rings, is sent on a two-part mission with the ten-ringer Alabaster: first to reproduce, and second to visit the town of Allia to use their orogenic powers to fix something that’s blocking the harbor. Along the way, Alabaster enlightens Syenite about some orogene history she was ignorant of, showing her a node maintainer station where orogenes are kept just alive enough for their orogeny to be manipulated. After Alabaster is mysteriously poisoned but saves himself by hijacking Syenite’s orogeny to join with his own, Syenite inadvertently raises an obelisk from Allia’s harbor with a stone eater trapped in it. When a guardian then tries to kill them, the obelisk sucks Syen up and a stone eater spirits her and Alabaster away to the island of Meov, where they actually let orogenes be leaders. Syen has Alabaster’s baby, Corundum, and for a couple of years they live a happy life. 

We also meet the child Damaya, who is outcast from her family after inadvertently revealing her orogenic powers and who’s then retrieved by a guardian named Schaffa, who takes her to the Fulcrum in the Stillness’s biggest city, Yumenes, where orogenes are trained to use their powers with precision. Ostracized by her peers, one day Damaya meets an outsider, Binof, who’s snuck in looking for something whispered about in secret histories, and they discover a giant pit a guardian refers to as a “socket”; Schaffa kills that guardian shortly thereafter for acting erratic. Damaya is revealed to be Syenite in her final chapter, after she takes her first ring test and chooses her orogene name. 

Still on the road, Essun and Hoa meet a commless geomest woman calling herself Tonkee, and Hoa inadvertently reveals himself to be a stone eater when he turns an animal that attacks him to stone. Hoa loses Nassun’s trail when he senses a nearby community full of orogenes, Castrima, living in a crystal-filled geode and led by an orogene named Ykka, who Essun then joins with Hoa and Tonkee. Essun realizes Tonkee is Binof (thus revealing Essun to be Damaya/Syenite), who tells Essun the socket they found in the Fulcrum as children is where obelisks come from, and that she’s been following Essun for years because she noticed that an obelisk was following Essun. 

Back on Meov, Syenite joins a pirating expedition that takes her near Allia, where she quells an active volcano that formed in their confrontation with the guardian who tried to kill them. This gives her presence away to the guardians, who sail to Meov to retrieve her and Alabaster. A stone eater drags Alabaster into the earth, and when Schaffa comes for Syenite, she smothers Corundum rather than letting Schaffa take him, since she fears Schaffa will make him a node maintainer. She then summons a nearby obelisk, causing it to send a pulse so powerful it presumably kills everyone in the area, though she manages to survive. Sensing the pulse from this obelisk is how Hoa, who’s revealed to be the narrator, found her. 

In Castrima, Essun is told someone named Alabaster is asking for her. He’s attended by a stone eater and has partially turned to stone himself. He asks her if she can control obelisks yet, and she realizes he’s the one who caused the rift that started the season, using an obelisk. He asks her if she’s ever heard of something called the Moon. The End of Book 1. 

Jemisin does an excellent job of establishing the acute tension right away, presenting the rifting that the trilogy is named for in the prologue, along with some basic information about this world called the Stillness. Interestingly, a major acute event for Essun, the murder of her son by her husband, is actually not directly related to this worldwide acute tension. It seems like Jemisin could have written it that Jija ended up finally detecting Uche’s orogenic powers when Uche did something in response to the rifting, but we’ll learn definitively in Book 2 that this was not the case; Jija would have detected Uche’s powers at this particular point in time even if the rifting had never happened, while Essun’s response to the rifting does reveal her orogenic powers, meaning she would have had to flee at this point whether Uche had died or not. These two acute events that we start with only coincidentally occur at the same time, but the coincidence provides Essun a sense of direction once she does flee; it gives her an objective that heightens the general tension–she needs to find her daughter Nassun, and the journey to do so is the thread through the whole trilogy.  

Another source of tension driving the narrative of the first book in particular is the implicit question of how the three separate storylines we’re following–Essun’s, Damaya’s, and Syenite’s–will end up intersecting. The presumption on first read is that the three characters are on trajectories that will lead to them all meeting up and doing something together. While this is the case in a sense, it’s a genuinely satisfying surprise that they all turn out to be the same person. Even after the reveal that Damaya was Syenite, I still didn’t guess that they were also Essun until the reveal through Tonkee/Binof, though I probably should have. This conceit might have felt deceitful if it weren’t fitting for the character: it symbolizes how the character essentially has become different people at these particular transition points in her life. The transition might be a little more definitive for Syenite turning to Essun, since she has to hide her previous identity to evade capture by the Fulcrum’s guardians, and since Essun is not supposed to be perceived as an orogene at all, but the transition from Damaya to Syenite is significant since she’s stepping into an identity that’s primarily defined as orogene. 

Following three different threads is good for pacing, drawing out tension in each one when we’re left with a cliffhanger that then won’t receive immediate resolution. We build toward something horrible that happened in Syen’s past, the event that caused her to have to become Essun, then end Book 1 on the cliffhanger of that past returning to her in the form of Alabaster, whose reappearance and question about the Moon indicate he has something in mind that he wants her to do. This, in conjunction with the potential of a reunion with her daughter, helps compel the reader on to Book 2.

Another interesting aspect of the overall story is the nature of orogenes themselves, or rather, their place in society. They essentially have superpowers, but are not venerated for them; instead they’re ostracized and feared, subsumed into the menacing bureaucracy of the Fulcrum, where they’re kept on a tight leash by the guardians, whose nature Alabaster encourages Syenite to question (who controls the guardians is a question we’re still left with at the end of Book 1).

The negative general attitude toward orogenes (often referred to by the slur “rogga”) is viscerally revealed from the beginning when we see that a man was driven to beat his own child to death because of his orogene nature, and is underscored further when we see how Essun has to flee when her nature is exposed, even though it’s exposed through an action that helped her village, using her powers to protect it from damage by a shake. Orogenes’ powers are even more vital to survival during a Season, and it seems to be this very need for them that breeds hatred of them. The prejudice seems to largely derive from the fact that some orogenes are not skilled at controlling their powers (hence the need for the Fulcrum) and have the potential to cause inadvertent but serious damage (especially since the powers manifest in response to strong emotions). Yet the inadvertent damage orogenes do (demonstrated primarily through the way Damaya’s powers are revealed) pales in comparison to the violence done to them in the name of combating their inadvertent potential violence, like Damaya’s treatment by her family, or Schaffa breaking Damaya’s hand as part of a lesson all Fulcrum inductees are given in order to understand the importance of controlling themselves.

The world building in the book is one of its most impressive elements, all derived from the basic concept that superhuman powers affect (or afflict) multiple people instead of just one person like traditional superhero narratives. People’s negative attitude toward orogenes, who manipulate the power of the Earth, could be read as a byproduct of their negative attitude toward the Earth in general, fostered in response to the cataclysmic Seasons that all but wipe out the human race. There’s an extensive glossary at the end of the book for all the weird stuff in this world, but it’s not technically necessary since Jemisin writes in a way where you can glean the necessary information along the way (it’s not difficult to interpolate that a “shake” is an earthquake), though there’s more information on the history of past Seasons than she manages to slip into the action.

One way Jemisin conveys impressions of the story’s larger world is through epigraphs, the use of which are unique for two reasons: first, because she puts them at the end of the chapter rather than the beginning (which makes logical sense in general since when you read an epigraph before you’ve read the chapter it’s attached to, you’re unable to glean its larger meaning or connection to the material), and second, because the epigraphs are not from our world, but from the story’s world, in the form of proverbs and diaries and pieces of “Lorist” texts, “stonelore” being historical accounts of what’s happened in the story’s world. (The question of history and what happened in the first place to start the Seasons will be explored much more extensively in Book 3.)

That people have an antagonistic relationship with the Earth due to the Seasons is an aspect of the world that is constantly reinforced through the language they use, specifically, through the way they curse. “Evil Earth” is a favorite, as are invocations of “rust” instead of “fuck” (as in “What the rust?” or “too rusting busy”), though on occasion traditional curses like “fuck” and “shit” will still be used. At times the Earth-based cursing can feel a little excessive (“bloody, burning Earth”; “burning, flaking rust”; “burning rusty fuck”; “Earthfires and rustbuckets”), but it’s still a handy creative expression of the world that makes the reader feel fully immersed in it because the characters feel fully immersed in it. It also does a good job of showing when Essun is upset, which is often. We’ll rejoin her in Book 2


Chapter Outline:

Prologue: the way the world ends for the last time: the land of the Stillness is described with its greatest city, Yumenes. A man and a stone eater talk there before the man breaks the earth. Obelisks, monuments from an older civilization, will also play a role in the world’s end. The son of a woman in Tirimo, Essun, is dead. A strange geode hatches a boy who heads for Tirimo.

1 In Tirimo, Essun finds her dead son Uche in her house after her husband Jija beat him to death when he realized the boy had orogenic powers. A local, Lerna, the only one who knows of Essun’s orogenic powers besides her two children, takes her to his place to rest and tells her people know there’s a rogga in town since the devastating shakes that happened nearby missed Tirimo in a perfect circle. Essun resolves to leave.

2 The child Damaya has been banished to her family’s barn after inadvertently revealing her orogenic powers. A guardian, Schaffa, retrieves her to take her to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, where orogenes are trained. 

3 Tirimo’s headman Rask has closed its gates due to the shakes, and Essun goes to talk to him to get him to let her leave, revealing she’s an orogene, while Rask reveals people saw her husband Jija leaving town with her daughter Nassun, whom Essun assumed Jija had also killed. When Rask takes her to the gate, the guards suspect she’s the town’s orogene and try to kill her, but Essun kills some with her powers and the rest flee. 

4 The formerly feral four-ringer Fulcrum orogene Syenite is assigned a double mission with a ten-ringer; she meets him in his suite and, in spite of his rudeness, has sex with him to fulfill the first part of the mission, reproducing. 

5 Traveling away from Tirimo, Essun meets a little boy by himself who says his name is Hoa.

6 Traveling toward the Fulcrum with Schaffa, Damaya gets a lesson in relations between guardians and orogenes when Schaffa breaks her hand.

7 Hoa reveals to Essun that he knows where her daughter Nassun is, but not how he knows. 

8 En route to the Fulcrum’s assignment, Alabaster and Syenite sess a major shake that Alabaster quells by using Syen’s orogeny against her will. Believing it was caused by a node maintainer (orogenes who are supposed to prevent such shakes), they go to a station and find them all dead, including a child (possibly Alabaster’s) who’s strapped in a chair; Alabaster reveals that many are sedated and forced to perform orogeny out at such stations against their will. 

Interlude: Islands and other continents are not things people talk about in the Stillness.  

9 Syenite and Alabaster arrive in Allia for their job and Alabaster ends up poisoned by his hotel food, but yokes Syen’s powers to his to use orogeny to expel the poison, explaining to her that it’s “parallel scaling.” 

10 Camping at a roadhouse, Essun and Hoa have to flee when something unseen attacks it, but then have to go back for water, where they meet a commless geomest woman. A kirkhusa attacks Hoa, who turns it to stone.   

11 At the Fulcrum, Damaya is ostracized after a boy named Maxixe talks to her, and when she frames him for stealing her shoes to get back at him, she inadvertently reveals more serious stuff was going on with other grits, like trading sex for liquor. 

12 Syenite goes to do the coral-clearing job they’ve been assigned by herself and ends up releasing an obelisk with a dead stone eater trapped in it from the bottom of Allia’s harbor.

13 The geomest, Tonkee, travels with Essun and Hoa, and they talk to people at roadhouses about what they’ve seen. Hoa says he’s lost Nassun’s trail because of a place he senses nearby where a lot of roggas are congregating. 

14 The Fulcrum instructs Alabaster and Syen to stay put. Alabaster won’t talk about the obelisk until they’re walking outside, and reveals that he can control it. They encounter a guardian who tries to kill them, but then the obelisk Syen raised from the harbor sucks her up, and shatters.

15 Essun et al get to the pseudo-comm with all the roggas, where they’re taken in by the rogga leader, Ykka. Essun is devastated that Nassun and Jija aren’t there. 

16 Syen and Alabaster wake up on an island, where a stone eater brought them. They’re welcomed by a community of pirates (Meov) who put roggas in charge. 

17 A non-rogga named Binof enlists Damaya’s help to find something she’s suspicious the Fulcrum is hiding, and they discover a secret chamber with a strange giant pit the guardian who catches them refers to as a “socket.” This guardian starts talking strangely and Schaffa violently removes something from the base of her neck, killing her. He has Damaya take her first ring test and she chooses the rogga name “Syenite.” 

18 Essun gets a tour of the crystal-filled geode where the comm of Castrima resides. 

19 Syenite and Alabaster debate over who will get Innon, Meov’s charismatic feral rogga leader who’s sexually interested in both of them, and then both end up taking him. Syen is pregnant. 

Interlude: A happy period for Syen. 

20 When her son with Alabaster, Corundum, is two, Syen convinces Innon to let her go on a pirate raid with him, and when she uses orogeny on a couple of ships, has to kill them so word doesn’t get out there are orogenes on the island. Then she insists on going back to Allia, where she quells an active volcano created by the obelisk with the stone eater.    

21 Essun realizes that Tonkee is actually Binof, and Tonkee explains how she’s been tracking her for years because she’s had obelisks following her, and that the socket they found in the Fulcrum is where the obelisks come from. Hoa confirms he’s a stone eater, and Essun runs into Lerna, her friend from Tirimo. Hoa tells her a man named Alabaster is asking for her. 

22 Guardian ships descend on Meov. A stone eater drags Alabaster into the earth, and to keep her son Coru from becoming one of the node maintainers, Syen kills him when Schaffa tries to take him, then calls on the power of a nearby obelisk, killing almost everyone in the vicinity but surviving herself. Sensing the pulse from the obelisk is how Hoa, the narrator, found her. 

23 In Castrima, Alabaster, attended by a stone eater and partially turned to stone, asks Essun if she can control obelisks yet. She realizes he’s the one who, with an obelisk, caused the rift that started the season. He says he wants her to make things worse and asks if she’s ever heard of a Moon. 

Bird Box v. Elevation

‘Tis the season to watch movies, if you’re my family, anyway. According to questionable figures uncharacteristically released by Netflix, we were hardly the only ones streaming their new post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock. The film is technically split into three timelines but predominantly follows two: the beginning of an epidemic in which people commit suicide when they see some kind of unidentified creature(s), and five years later, when Bullock’s character Malorie is rowing her two small children, all of them necessarily blindfolded, down a river to a survivors’ compound. In classic narrative-hook fashion, the film opens in the latter timeline, with Malorie barking orders at the children that they aren’t to take their blindfolds off, no matter what.

The film is adapted from the 2014 novel by Josh Malerman. I haven’t read the book, but according to its Wikipedia synopsis, major changes in the adaptation would seem to include the third timeline, which, immediately preceding the river-journey timeline, is introduced a bit later in the film. In this thread, Malorie and the children are still with Tom, one of the survivors from the first timeline, who in the book is apparently killed with all the other original survivors at the climactic point of that timeline, when Malorie and one of the other original survivors give birth. There are two reactions one might have to seeing the creatures–instant suicide, or, if you’re already crazy (in what some have pointed out is a problematic depiction of mentally ill people), remaining alive to try to force other people to look at the creatures. In the first timeline, before this distinction has become apparent, the original survivors let a man, Gary, into their house who turns out to be one of these crazy people and kills them all by exposing them to the creatures. In the movie, Tom kills Gary and survives with Malorie, developing a romantic relationship with her, while in the book Gary kills Tom and escapes, leaving Malorie alone with the children–who then apparently that same day gets a call from a rando telling her about the survivors’ compound. The change of keeping Tom alive would definitely seem to increase and contribute to the acute tension, as it’s his eventual death, in the third timeline (which is also, in the movie, when they get the call about the compound) that drives her to take the risk of the river journey, risky not just for navigating a river blindfolded but because she can’t be sure the compound isn’t inhabited by the insane people. Developing a deeper relationship between her and Tom also creates a greater emotional impact when he dies saving her and the children. 

One major aspect of the film reminded me of a new novella, Elevation, that I’d just read by Stephen King, who also happens to have declared himself a fan of Bird Box. Neither of these texts offers an explanation for the mechanics of their central premise: Bird Box never explains what’s caused the shadowy beings that psychologically manipulate people into suicide upon sight to appear at this particular point, and Elevation never explains why its protagonist Scott is undergoing a rapid weight loss that manifests physically (he feels lighter) but not visibly (he doesn’t look lighter). Both texts instead position themselves as more interested in the consequences of these premises than in the literal logistics of them. 

Bird Box pulls off this lack of explanation more effectively than Elevation because it actually provides something in the way of chronic tension for its main character. The first scene in the timeline where the epidemic starts shows us a pregnant Malorie working on a dark painting that she tells her sister is “about people’s inability to connect,” at which point her sister tries to convince her that she will, in fact, be able to have an emotional connection with her own baby, which Malorie doesn’t seem to believe. Interestingly, the closest we get to an explanation of what exactly is going on with the creatures is when one of the original survivors, Charlie, describes (in something of a stilted heavy-handed speech) similar occurrences of such creatures in different mythologies that “take[] on a form of your worst fears or your deepest sadness or your greatest loss,” which include:

…the Surgat from ancient Christian occult beliefs that made pregnant women encounter their unborn children as other creatures such as lobsters or spiders.

Something in the movie that doesn’t seem to be in the book (synopsis) is when Malorie tells the kids on the river that one of them is going to have to look when they get to the rapids if they’re going to be able to navigate them, and that she’ll be the one to choose who looks. We’re set up to think that she might be inclined to choose the child who’s not actually hers to consign to certain death, but when it comes time to choose, she decides that nobody is going to look after all, indicating that she’s forged a comparable maternal connection to both kids. (Maybe this wasn’t in the book because it seems unlikely a four-year-old would have been able to help her navigate rapids blindfolded any better without a blindfold than with one.) 

Via Tom’s death and the call from the survivors’ compound, the movie’s third timeline contributes to the narrative’s acute tension, thus justifying its existence, but it goes further by continuing to develop Malorie’s chronic tension. Before Tom dies, we see a contrast in their approach to parenting the kids: Tom wants to give them hope for a better life, while Malorie wants them to never forget the harshness of their reality. Not only that, she seems to be using the harshness of that reality to forego forging a stronger emotional bond with them herself–why bother when they could lose her at any second or vice versa? This lack of connection is underscored by her not giving them names but instead referring to them as “Boy” and “Girl,” while they call her not “Mom,” but “Malorie.”  

In the climax of the action, their boat is overturned in the rapids, but everyone manages to make it to shore (extremely unlikely, but the general premise has already asked the audience to suspend its disbelief in the unlikely, and by this point we sure as sh*t don’t want those kids to die). Stumbling blindfolded around the woods trying to find the compound, Malorie trips, falls down a hill, and gets separated from the kids. The creatures start calling out to the kids in Malorie’s voice that it’s okay to take their blindfolds off. Malorie gets back to Boy and starts calling for Girl, but Boy tells her that Girl is scared of her, inciting Malorie to call out a litany of all the things she’s done wrong by way of apology, and Girl comes to her before the creatures get her. This is a satisfying climax because the events of the acute tension have led to a moment that forces the protagonist to reevaluate her understanding of the chronic tension–she confronts that her harshness and attempts to forego an emotional connection for the sake of pragmatic rational survival attempts (“Every single decision I’ve made has been for them,” Malorie defiantly declares to Tom. “Every single one.”) have essentially made her as scary as the creatures they’re trying to escape. She has to reckon with the fact that her means of protection have almost cost her the very thing she was trying to protect. In a way, she’s confronted her worst fear without having to actually look at the creatures who were supposed to show it to her.

Contrast this with the plot of Elevation: our protagonist, Scott, is losing weight inexplicably without actually seeming to. The closest thing Scott has to chronic tension is an ex-wife, and while we don’t necessarily need an explanation of the weight-loss phenomenon, we could do with something in the way of an explanation for the breakup—but we don’t get anything there, either. What we get is something that seems to amount to chronic tension for the town where the story is set, Castle Rock, a King standby. A married lesbian couple has opened a restaurant in town, and the predominantly closed-minded conservative population doesn’t like it. Scott himself, who is their neighbor, never has a problem with it, though the lesbians, or one of them, anyway, has a problem with him, seeming to take his mindset for granted as an extension of the rest of the town’s. When this woman, Deirdre, a former pro runner, aims to win the annual Turkey Trot so she’ll have the privilege of lighting the town’s Christmas tree, Scott makes a bet with her that if he wins, Deirdre and her wife will have to have dinner with him, while if she wins, he’ll never bother them again. Since Scott presents externally as overweight and out of shape, Deirdre considers this a safe bet, but, thanks to his condition, he’s able to gain on her in the final yards of the race. When she trips and falls, he helps her up and lets her win. Deirdre and her wife have dinner with him anyway and become his confidants (Deirdre felt the strange phenomenon afflicting him for herself when he helped her up, since part of it is that anything he touches becomes weightless). Scott’s gesture of goodwill, compounded with something of a misleading picture in the local paper, results in the town’s acceptance of the lesbian couple and the unmitigated success of their formerly threatened restaurant. As Scott becomes increasingly lighter, he enjoys the goodwill of his new friends, then, at the end of the book when his weight has dwindled to nothing, lets himself float peacefully away into the atmosphere. 

The New York Times Book Review characterized the book itself as “light” in its subject matter, offering it as something of an anecdote to the heavy times we live in. Which could be another way of saying it lacks any meaningful substance and is essentially designed to manipulate warm feelies, as per so much meaningless mass appeal entertainment. While it tackles “the weight of closed-mindedness and prejudice,” as the Review puts it, this aspect of the book felt more preachy than integrated into a coherent narrative. King’s books often elevate plot over character, but in a book that actually focuses primarily on a single character as opposed to King’s more typical sprawling casts, Scott is woefully lacking in development due to that absent chronic tension. The change Scott undergoes is all surface–his weight. This acute tension cries out for a concurrent chronic change: what has this inexplicable experience of losing weight caused him to confront about himself and/or his past? What deeper change parallels the surface one? Nothing. Without this parallel change arising from the inexplicable circumstance, the lack of explanation of that circumstance becomes more glaring. You can only get away with not explaining such strange circumstances if the reader’s satisfied with the exploration of the consequences of those circumstances, and in this case, there are no meaningful consequences to explore. 

This is not to say that the preachiness of the Elevation’s prejudice aspect might not ultimately do some good for the readers who are satisfied with getting surface rom-com-type warm feelies rather than more substantial character development (and/or who think Stephen King is the second coming of Christ). I happen to be a recently engaged lesbian myself, and over my annual holiday sojourn, a family member suggested I was getting married to “make a statement.” (This was the same family member, incidentally, that I bought Elevation for as a Christmas present and the reason I happened to read it in the first place after seeing how short it was.) So I couldn’t help but be struck by the depiction of the town’s small-mindedness and hope that it might call my family member’s attention to her own small-mindedness: 

“If those women had kept it on the down low they would have been fine, but they didn’t. Now there are people who think they’re trying to make some kind of statement.” 

Lastly, I wanted to note Bird Box‘s use of an objective correlative, the box of birds the movie’s named for. The birds first appear in the movie in the earlier timeline, when a group of survivors makes a run to a grocery store. Why a cage full of birds would be in a grocery store is something else that you’ll have to suspend your disbelief for, but per Robert Boswell’s spandrel rule, the scene in which they’re introduced doesn’t exist solely to introduce them—it makes logical sense that the group would need to make this risky supply run, and we also see an exchange that starts to show us the effect seeing the creatures has on “crazy” people. The birds turn out to be an alarm system for when these crazy people and/or the creatures are around, which is why Malorie takes a box of birds with her on the river trip. She’s also been told to follow the sounds of birds to get to the compound once she gets past the rapids, and has to listen for them over the psychologically manipulative sounds of the creatures. The birds in the box survive being overturned in the rapids (suspend your disbelief again), and make it to the compound with Malorie and the kids, at which point Malorie asks the kids if they should let the birds go be with their friends. The kids agree, and the birds—three of them, not incidentally—fly up out of the box and away. This emotional culmination of the birds’ use as an objective correlative provides the narrative’s resolution: Malorie and the kids have attained their goal of making it to the compound, where it’s implied their quality of life will be vastly improved as they reconnect with other people, and the birds flying out of the box that symbolizes Malorie’s previously circumscribed existence drive that point home—not least because a story Tom tried to tell the kids earlier that Malorie refused to let him finish turned out to end with him climbing a tree to discover a nest of birds that then flew away. And not to mention this is also the point that Malorie finally gives Boy and Girl their real names, Boy after Tom and Girl after her real mother. Cue the waterworks.

I’m by no means claiming that Bird Box is a masterpiece of literary craft–The New Yorker‘s movie critic Richard Brody outlines several reasons that it isn’t, including that its world-building is “thinly and lazily conceived”–but compared to Elevation it’s a much better crafted piece of mass entertainment, predominantly because, to a certain extent, at least, it lets the character carry the plot rather than the other way around. Elevation’s conclusion of the weightless Scott simply drifting away could be read as a literal manifestation of the latter.


“A Larger Reality”

Since its inception, the genre of science fiction has been a man’s world, but the most notable exception has been, of course, none other than Ursula K. Le Guin, whom we lost after her immensely prolific career at the beginning of this year. Le Guin received renewed attention for the speech she gave in 2014 when she accepted the National Book Foundation Medal at the National Book Awards ceremony, in which she emphasized the “need [for] writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”

Le Guin’s arguably best known work is The Left Hand of Darkness, originally published in 1969. Offering a vision of a species of human that’s transcended gender, the work seems ahead of its time, especially relevant today amid our current state of gender politics and lacking governmental diplomacy. In keeping with Le Guin’s credo that we need writers who are “realists of a larger reality,” Le Guin structures the novel by alternating chapters tracking the ongoing acute tension thread of action with chapters that break from that action to offer other lore from that world that underscores the action thematically while also shedding light on the function of the narratives our culture tells itself, and how these narratives resonate through history. 

1 A Parade in Erhenrang
A visitor from Earth, Genly Ai, visits the nation Karhide on the planet Gethen/Winter. He witnesses a parade culminating in the keystone ceremony where the king, Argaven XV, mortars an archway with (animal) blood. Ai’s guide is the head of Karhide’s parliament, Estraven, who later that night invites Ai to dinner to tell him he can no longer be his patron and won’t be recommending to the king Ai’s mission to “bring about an alliance between Gethen and Ekumen,” since Gethen is at a turning point and Estraven’s found himself falling out of the king’s favor while others who maintain it, like the king’s cousin Tibe, are against Ai’s mission. Ai is mad at himself for being tricked by the self-serving politician. 

2 The Place Inside the Blizzard
A “hearth-tale” from during the reign of Argaven VIII about two brothers who “vowed kemmering” to each other for life even though they weren’t supposed to after one had a child. After the one who had a child committed suicide, the other was driven out as an outlaw and fled into a blizzard, and started to get frostbite until they entered a strange white land where they were healed and met their brother, who said they could stay there forever. But the first one didn’t want to and fled; he was found later after having lost his left hand to frostbite, and died shortly thereafter. 

3 The Mad King
Genly Ai goes to visit King Argaven XV, hearing a report while he’s waiting that Estraven’s been exiled for treason. Argaven tells Ai that he considers him a tool of Estraven’s, and wants to know why he wants Gethen to join the Ekumen’s alliance, which includes 83 worlds and 3000 countries. But Argaven is not swayed by Ai’s argument that the union will advance trade and knowledge, difficult to achieve between worlds so distant from one another. Ai shows him a machine capable of instantaneous communication with other worlds, but Argaven is unimpressed and believes he’s being tricked to be taken advantage of.

4 The Nineteenth Day
An old East Karhidish story about a lord who pays the Foretellers to ask when he will die, and he receives the answer that it will be on the 19th day of the month, but they don’t say what month or year. When a servant goes and asks the Foretellers how long his lord will live; they say longer than the servant. The lord, enraged the servant couldn’t get a better answer, kills the servant and then goes mad and eventually hangs himself on the 19th of the month.  

5 The Domestication of Hunch
Having failed in his mission, Ai heads east with a caravan to gather information from the Foretellers. After a mildly harrowing trip to an isolated outpost in the mountains, he meets the Foretellers and poses them his question: will Gethen be part of the Ekumenical alliance in five years? After a seeming channeling of their collective sexual energy (they’re supposed to be celibate), they answer a straightforward, yes. The Weaver Faxe expounds to Genly about the virtues of uncertainty. 

6 One Way into Orgoreyn
Estraven barely manages to leave Karhide and makes it to Orgoreyn before his three-day limit is up and he would be killed. He works in fisheries for awhile before he becomes secretary to a powerful official there, Yegey, and tells them that he thinks the king’s cousin Tibe has designs to manipulate Argaven and change the face of Karhide, starting with a border dispute over a valley. Estraven believes the only way they’ll be able to maintain their own sovereignty in Orgoreyn is talk to Genly about the Ekumenical alliance. 

7 The Question of Sex
Notes from the first Ekumenical landing on Gethen (forty years before Genly’s arrival) lay out how the sexuality of the androgynous humans on Gethen apparently works: they go through cycles of “somer” and “kemmer”; during the latter the attributes of one gender or the other is adopted and sex and conception will occur (the same individual might be different genders in different periods of kemmer). Vowing “kemmering” is the equivalent of marriage. The note-taker postulates that the lack of gender might be responsible for their lack of war, while conceding that the extreme cold climate might also be responsible. 

8 Another Way Into Orgoreyn
Eventually Genly returns to Karhide, where Tibe begins actively promoting war. A former kemmering of Estraven’s asks Genly to deliver some money to Estraven; Genly agrees and journeys to Orgoreyn, enduring a raid on a small town along the way. He again meets Estraven and delivers the money, suspicious that Estraven orchestrated his arrival. 

9 Estraven the Traitor
A recorded story about Estraven’s line before the reign of Argaven I, a time when Karhide was actually at war because of border disputes and one of Estraven’s ancestors, injured, ended up at the cabin of his enemy, but they discovered their hands were identical and vowed kemmering to each other. The next day more enemies showed up and recognized Estraven’s ancestor as the Lord’s heir and killed him, but later his newborn baby was brought to the Lord and named heir, and his brothers tried to kill him for this but he killed them and, injured, ended up back at the enemy’s cabin. They again recognized they had the same hands, and Estraven vowed peace and gave up half the disputed lands, and for this he was labeled a traitor. 

10 Conversations in Mishnory
Estraven warns Genly in vague terms not to be used by the same faction. Genly is warned there’s a Karhide spy present before he eats with the Orgota people and tells them about his mission, revealing info he didn’t in Karhide about how easily he can be picked up by an orbiting ship. He learns of the existence of SARF, Orgoreyn’s secret police. 

11 Soliloquies in Mishnory
Estraven muses about the politics behind Orgoreyn’s Commensal of Thirty-Three decision about what do about Genly the envoy; the secret police think he’s a Karhide agent and that the alliance he’s promoting is a hoax. The secret police also control all communication in Orgoreyn, unlike in Karhide, and so the public has no idea of Genly’s presence. Some members of the Commensals want him to bring his ship down as proof, but he won’t do so until they’ve announced his presence in a gesture of goodwill. Estraven warns Genly he needs to show his ship as proof before it’s too late.  

12 On Time and Darkness
A myth from North Orgoreyn’s “book of the Yomesh canon” about Meshe the seer who was born at the center of time and does not see darkness, which is part of the support used for the theory of the expanding universe.

13 Down on the Farm
Genly is arrested and taken on a harrowing truck ride with two dozen other prisoners to a “refectory.” He works in a sawmill and is given drugs like the rest of the prisoners to prevent them going into kemmering and other drugs that erase his memory before he’s interrogated; the drugs increasingly physically debilitate him until he can’t work anymore. He makes friends with another old infirm prisoner, Asra, who tells him some myths before he, Asra, dies. 

14 The Escape
Estraven, using forged papers, makes his way to the prison where Genly’s being held and poses as a guard, breaking Genly out and dragging his unconscious form out into the harsh winter forest. Genly eventually wakes and Estraven explains why he did it, because he thinks Genly ended up where he did because Estraven put too much trust in certain members of the Thirty-Three who he hoped would use him to make the alliance and gain power over Karhide, but who ended up selling him out to the SARF. Estraven tries to convince Genly that he’s been working to forge the alliance all along. 

15 To the Ice
They decide on a route back to Karhide that will avoid inspectors and be about 800 miles. Estraven steals provisions and they set off on snowshoes with a loaded sled weighing 300 pounds. Genly gets sick from some meat they eat but they keep going. 

16 Between Drumner and Dremegole
Entries from Estraven’s daily journal about the journey: they’re trying to pass by an erupting volcano, and to find an ascent that’s not too steep to get to the plateau on top of a glacier, which delays their trip because they have to keep moving west to find a way up when they’re trying to go north. They finally make it up. Things get a bit awkward when Estraven goes into kemmer, and they discuss the Terran species of women. They’re getting light on food. 

17 An Orgota Creation Myth
An Orgoreyn creation myth about how the sun melted the ice into “ice-shapes” that then created the rest of the world, including men, though the first man to wake (Edondurath) killed the rest except for one that escaped and eventually came back to mate with him when he was in kemmer to then create the rest of mankind.

18 On the Ice
Ai’s perspective as they continue the ice-trek, which is much colder now that they’re out of range of the volcanoes, making Genly vulnerable to frostbite, but they continue on. We revisit the kemmer conversation they had and Genly concludes they share a platonic love that they tacitly agreed sexual relations would have threatened, though he’s not sure if he’s right about this.  

19 Homecoming
We stay in Ai’s perspective as they continue; their progress is hindered when the snow stops and it becomes overcast, essentially blinding them when there are no shadows cast on the ground for them to detect changes in the terrain. After Estraven’s almost killed falling into a crevasse he decides to change their route, though it will take longer. They have to go several days without food but make it into Karhide and are provided food and shelter by villagers whom they don’t reveal their identity to. They have to go another 150 miles to get to a town with a big enough radio transmitter for Genly to call his ship. An old friend of Estraven’s gets him a false identity and a job so he can stay in Karhide. Genly gets to a transmitter station and sends a signal to his ship. When he returns, Estraven is fleeing because his friend betrayed him to Tibe. He’s shot at the border and dies in Genly’s arms. 

20 A Fool’s Errand
Genly is taken back to Erhenrang and received by the king, who will join the alliance. He’ll wait to revoke the order of exile against Estraven until after the ship arrives. The ship does arrive, and Genly is startled to see it’s now unfamiliar men and women. Months later, after they’re all exploring different parts of the planet, he goes to see Estraven’s father and meets his son to give them Estraven’s journals and tell them what happened. 

The End

The “larger reality” the book seems to reflect is that deception and mistrust in politics are universal–even when the nominal gender categories of “men” and “women” don’t exist. The chapter that explicates how kemmer works postulates that the differences in their sexuality might be responsible for their lack of war but then himself offers a supposition to counter this (it could be the cold weather). The fact that the very next chapter has the character of Tibe actively promoting war further underscores that this society’s sexual characteristics have not made them immune to this seemingly human problem. A later chapter (9) with a past story confirms that war has definitely existed on this planet. The SARF secret police also seem to be a parallel to our CIA, especially when a reference to “the farm” is included–though this is referring to a prison rather than a training facility.

Thus, it’s interesting to consider how much of a role in the plot the androgyny of the Gethenians actually plays. The most direct role it seems to play is when Genly is imprisoned and given drugs to prevent him from going in to kemmering that have adverse effects on him and debilitate him to the point where he’s utterly infirm. It seems Estraven still would have had to rescue him even if he hadn’t been unable to do anything. It also seems like the plot developments don’t occur because of the androgyny, but in spite of it; we do see how Genly’s lack of understanding of the culture impedes his ability to persuade them of the benign motives of his mission, raising the larger thematic question of how sex and gender impact our real-world politics. It’s also interesting that in spite of the Gethenians’ capability to be either gender, Estraven is referred to as “he.” 

The narrative model would seem to be a classic one: the protagonist, Genly Ai (pronounced “eye” or “I”), gets what he wants, but it comes at a cost–his friend’s life. The interesting narrative development within this model is that the person who becomes his friend and helps him with his mission is someone he originally considered an obstacle. 

One narrative tension the androgyny provides is the question of what exactly “kemmer” means; Le Guin offers us a myth in the second chapter of two brothers who have vowed kemmer to each other without giving us an explicit explanation of what this means, which she waits to reveal until a later chapter with a previous scout’s field notes.

One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.




Men v. Women, Part 2: The Power

While the premise of Naomi Alderman’s sci-fi novel The Power shares the exploration of gender roles via an alternate reality with Stephen and Owen King’s doorstopper Sleeping Beauties, Alderman’s slimmer volume is more ambitious and more successful in achieving its ambitions both structurally and thematically. The story about women gaining the power to shoot electricity from their fingertips is bookended by letters between a man named Neil and a woman named Naomi that frame the narrative as one actually written by Neil–a device that works to turn the content of the story on its head, especially when you take into account that the novel Neil has written is “historical.”   

Inside the frame, the narrative is divided into chapters that shift between four main characters experiencing the emergence of the electrostatic power, though later on, chapters are given here and there to other characters; the chapters are divided into parts that provide a decade-long countdown to a cataclysmic global war. Our four main characters are 1) Roxy, the daughter of a British mob family who witnesses her mother’s murder and whom the power manifests in very strongly, 2) Tunde, a male reporter who travels the world chronicling the power’s effects and the buildup to war as rebellions break out, 3) Margot, a woman who rises up the American political ranks from small-town mayor to senator, and 4) Allie, an abused orphan who hears a voice in her head that leads her to start a new religious movement as Mother Eve. 

These four characters follow separate independent tracks for the first parts of the novel, their paths eventually converging as they move toward the the war that starts in Moldova–rechristened Bessapara by its new leader Tatiana Moskalev, who’s implied to have killed her husband, the former oppressive ruler. Margot is called on to pledge political support for Tatiana’s war against the forces threatening to undo Bessapara, while Allie and Roxy essentially become Tatiana’s soldiers–until Tatiana goes crazy with paranoia and Allie, her right-hand woman, deems it necessary to kill her. The skein that a woman’s electric power comes from is located in a muscle along the collarbone; Roxy, who peddles a drug called Glitter that amplifies the power, is betrayed by her own father (whom she let go instead of killing after finding out he was responsible for the murder of her mother) and has the power literally cut out of her. Roxy flees to the mountains and ends up rescuing Tunde when a gang of women are about to kill him after he discovers that the female friend he’s been sending all his reports and photos to has been publishing them under her own name, having reported him dead. Margot’s daughter Jocelyn, who’s never had very much of the power until Allie wakes it in her, almost dies trying to take out Roxy’s brother Darrell once he has Roxy’s skein implanted in himself. Darrell thinks the women working for him–Roxy’s former gang–will respect him when they see what he’s capable of, but instead they turn on him and kill him. Roxy tries to talk Allie, the new ruler in Tatiana’s stead, out of going through with the war, but Allie is convinced that “‘the war of all against all'” is “‘the one way to put it right.'” She agrees with Roxy that the spiraling worldwide war will drive them all back to the Stone Age, but thinks that after this the women will come out on top, so it’s the necessary path. 

In an attempt to convince her otherwise, Roxy advises Allie to look up the wife of the man Allie killed for raping her before she fled to become Mother Eve. Allie finds that this woman (who always clearly knew about her husband’s abuse) is running a children’s home for the New Church–Mother Eve’s church. The woman, Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor, claims they did what they had to out of love for Allie and in order to discipline her, essentially taking credit for making Mother Eve and her church what they are. Allie realizes this means that “[h]er own roots are rotten.” When she tells the voice in her head she can’t tell good from bad, the voice tells her it’s “more complicated” and that there’s “never been a right choice.” Allie decides to call on America to support them in the war, and Margot, in the wake of Jocelyn’s injuries, assents. The End of the narrative within the frame. 

The book’s arc essentially explores what would happen if women instead of men were the physically stronger gender, and seems to imply that women would do the same thing to men that men have done to women–oppress them and use their physical advantage to exert dominance rather than to work for harmony. (The fact that women are doing this in response to having once been oppressed by men complicates things.) The Bessaparan regime under Tatiana becomes increasingly oppressive, at one point enacting laws that forbid men to be outside if they’re not escorted by a woman. Women are also capable of rape, able to shock a man into a condition where he’s able to consummate against his will. 

Roxy’s arc specifically explores how showing mercy in this world is dangerous. When she lets her father go after finding out he was behind her mother’s murder, he returns to have her skein cut out of her, stripping her of her power. Roxy and her father actually get the last scene of the book (aside from a coda from the Book of Mother Eve), an uneasy peace established between them as Roxy mentions that she’s met a bloke (Tunde) and might have grandchildren; whether the advancement of the race is a happy ending is at this point certainly questionable. Roxy’s thread of the altercation with her family could be read as a smaller scale version of the book’s larger men-versus-women conflict, and that she still advocates to stop the war after what she’s been through is a small victory of the human spirit. (That the violence happens anyway is a noticeable contrast to the Kings’ Sleeping Beauties, in which the men pass the climactic test to not engage in more violence after already having engaged in considerable violence.) 

Strewn throughout the text are images of objects discovered hundreds of years ago, reminding you that the text is historical and describing a period apparently long in the past. What the present looks like in the wake of this distant past moment is only disclosed in the letters between Naomi and Neil, when Naomi refers to the war Neil’s writing about as the “Cataclysm” and essentially reveals that men and women have fully switched roles; women are the aggressors, men the peacemakers, and “’what it means to be a woman’ is bound up with strength and not feeling fear or pain” to the extent that Naomi finds it difficult to read a portrayal of woman as the opposite. 

Naomi is also skeptical of the idea that, shortly before this period, women didn’t have skeins. She also voices a kind of ironic double inverse of the book’s premise: 

I feel instinctively – and I hope you do, too – that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places.

Here the real Naomi Alderman seems to be cleverly addressing potential criticism of her own premise–that if women were in charge, as they become with the gaining of the power, things would be peaceful instead of escalating to war as they do in this narrative; she’s calling attention to the oversimplification of this assumption. Neil’s response:

As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women … that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? Just asking the question.

They debate the historical accuracy of the book and thus thematically call into question the accuracy of our understanding of history in general, which is certainly something to think about. The narrative device of this frame is really what pushes Alderman’s novel from great to mind-blowingly great. It helps her truly show the far-reaching consequences of the Cataclysm that Neil tackles in his narrative, that it’s caused history as we know it to be repeated with the gender roles reversed, which means the new society of the present isn’t actually any better, but is, in fact, essentially the same. But Neil, firmly cast in the female role, seeking the more powerful Naomi’s approval, isn’t portrayed as a pure visionary:

Some of the worst excesses against men were never – in my opinion anyway – perpetrated against women in the time before the Cataclysm. Three or four thousand years ago, it was considered normal to cull nine in ten boy babies. …there are still places today where boy babies are routinely aborted, or have their dicks ‘curbed’. This can’t have happened to women in the time before the Cataclysm.

Except we know it did…as the final paragraphs of their exchange end the book, the device of the narrative frame comes to symbolize gender itself: 

[Neil:] Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.

[Naomi:] You’ve explained to me how anything you do is framed by your gender, that the frame is as inescapable as it is nonsensical. 

In the book’s final line, Naomi then goes on to suggest Neil publish the book under a woman’s name, in the service of the book reaching “the widest possible audience”–a suggestion that implicitly maintains the current system under the auspice of challenging it, which seems appropriate and familiar, coming from the dominant party in the power structure. 

The conceit of the “power” itself and what it leads to is a reminder that humans are machines: 

So she puts her palm over his heart and gathers the handful of lightning she has left. She sends it into him right there, in the place where human beings are made of electrical rhythm. And he stops.

As such, the conceit of the electric power that propels the narrative feels more organic to the subject matter of the power struggle between men and women–with the frame revealing that to have power is to abuse it, that this is human nature rather than a trait specific to one gender or the other–than Sleeping Beauties‘ conceit of women falling asleep and sprouting moth-like cocoons. Another important difference between these two novels is that the conceit in The Power gives the women agency to decide how to use their physical dominance over men, while in Sleeping Beauties when the women gain the capability of savaging men via their cocoons being torn off, they necessarily have to use it, stripping them of any complicating moral culpability.  

The specificity of the details is in large part what pulls off The Power‘s conceit, as is the case with any conceit that stretches the bounds of realism. It’s a nice touch that the origin of the power that leads to this cataclysmic war itself has origins in war as part of the scientific explanation for it: 

“Says in the Wall Street Journal this morning that a multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War. It’s changed the human genome. All girls born from now on will have the power – all of them.”

Although Guardian Angel had been forgotten after the Second World War, it continued to concentrate and magnify its potency in the human body. Research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women. / Any woman who was seven years old or younger during the Second World War may have skein buds on the points of her collarbones – although not all do; it will depend on what dose of Guardian Angel was received in early childhood, and on other genetic factors. These buds can be ‘activated’ by a controlled burst of electrostatic power by a younger woman. … It is theorized that Guardian Angel merely amplified a set of genetic possibilities already present in the human genome.

It seems worth nothing that Alderman wrote this novel as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, through which Margaret Atwood selected Alderman as her protégé. In the novel’s acknowledgments, Alderman also thanks female sci-fi writing legends Karen Joy Fowler and the late Ursula Le Guin. She is apparently in good company.


Once A Slave…

Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred, published in 1979 with a graphic novel adaptation released just last year, uses a sci-fi time-travel frame to produce a powerful take on a historical narrative. The sections of the book are divided by each time Dana goes back in time from 1976 to 1815. Each time she goes back, she seems to stay longer, until after the midpoint, when her visits start to decrease in length. 

The book begins with the first-person narrator Dana noting that she lost an arm on her last trip home. She’s in the hospital being visited by her husband Kevin, whom the police suspect caused her injury, since neither Dana nor Kevin can offer a satisfactory explanation of what happened. 

In Part 1, “The River,” Dana notes that she and her husband Kevin have just moved into a new house the day after her twenty-sixth birthday when she suddenly vanishes from their living room and appears on a wooded riverbank, where she sees a boy, roughly five years old, drowning. She rescues him and gives him CPR despite the boy’s mother thinking she’s killing him. When the boy, Rufus, is resuscitated, a man suddenly appears and sticks a rifle in her face. Scared for her life, Dana suddenly returns home. Kevin says she vanished for only a few seconds, though she was gone for several minutes. 

In Part 2, “The Fire,” Dana is home later that same evening after explaining to Kevin what she experienced when she again vanishes from her house. This time she appears in a room where a boy about eight years old has just set some drapes on fire, and she throws the drapes out the window. Questioning the boy, she discovers that he’s Rufus, the boy she saved from the river, and realizes he’s apparently one of her ancestors–Alice is the mother of her ancestor Hagar–though she’d never realized one of her ancestors was white. She thinks she might have been called back to ensure Rufus’s safety so her ancestor Hagar is actually born (deciding to ignore the paradox that if Hagar failed to be born then Dana couldn’t be there trying to ensure that she could be born). When Rufus directs her to go to the cabin of a nearby free black woman for safety–the mother of his “friend” Alice–some white patrollers have gotten there first, and beat Alice’s father, who is a slave, for coming to visit them without a pass. Later one of the patrollers returns and tries to rape Dana, who suddenly returns home when she knocks him out with a fallen tree branch. Back home, Kevin, who says Dana was gone only for a couple of minutes when she experienced being gone for hours, surmises that Dana is drawn back in time to Rufus when his life is in danger, and returns when her own life is in danger. 

In Part 3, “The Fall,” Kevin ends up coming back with Dana because he’s physically touching her when she’s called back. Rufus, about twelve years old, has just fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. Kevin and Dana, after explaining where they’re really from, end up returning to the house with him, and Kevin is hired on as Rufus’s tutor while Dana helps out the slaves in the house and kitchen, struggling to deal with Rufus’s overbearing mother Margaret. Dana and Kevin live there for some time before Dana is whipped for teaching a slave how to read by Rufus’s sadistic father Tom, and suddenly returns home before Kevin can get to her. 

In Part 4, “The Fight,” Dana is called back after eight days at home when a black man is in the process of beating Rufus to death. The man is Alice’s husband Isaac, who’s beating him for raping Alice. While Alice is free, Isaac is a slave; Dana convinces him to leave Rufus alive to not make things worse for himself, and to flee with Alice while he still has time. Alice is eventually caught and Rufus buys her, her freedom forfeit since she helped a runaway slave. Alice was viciously beaten, but Dana manages to nurse her back to health. Rufus tries to get Dana to talk Alice into sleeping with him without having to be coerced by beating. Five years have passed there since Dana was there last, and she asks Rufus to write to Kevin, who wrote Rufus with his address after he moved north. When Dana eventually discovers that Rufus lied about mailing her letters to Kevin, she tries to run away, but another slave rats her out and Rufus and Tom immediately recapture her, at which point she’s viciously whipped again. Then Kevin shows back up because Tom wrote him to tell him Dana’s back, after finding out Rufus had promised and failed to do so. They try to leave immediately but run into Rufus, who pulls his rifle on them. Dana goads him into almost shooting her so he won’t shoot Kevin, and Kevin manages to fall on top of her when she’s sent back so that he makes it back too. He’s having a difficult time making the transition back home when Dana is sent back to Rufus the next day. 

In Part 5, “The Storm,” Dana appears in a rainstorm and finds Rufus drunk and facedown in a water-filled ditch. Six years have passed. After saving him, she has to nurse him back from an illness she eventually figures out is dengue fever. As soon as Rufus is out of mortal danger, Tom Weylin has a heart attack, and when Dana is unable to revive him, Rufus makes her work in the field as punishment. Rufus’ mother returns and he makes Dana take care of her. The other slaves, particularly Alice, mock her for being too submissive, but Dana still helps Alice with her plans to run away, despite being worried because she’s just had her second baby–Hagar. Rufus sells some slaves he insists are part of a sale his father set up before he died, but then later when a field hand takes an interest in Dana, Rufus sells him too. When Dana challenges him about this, Rufus hits her, breaking the unspoken code between them. Dana slits her wrists with the knife she brought with her to make it back home.  

In Part 6, fifteen days pass in the present before Dana’s called back again on July 4th, but only three months have passed in the past. She discovers that Alice has just hung herself and intuits she was called back to prevent Rufus from shooting himself. She finds out that Alice hung herself after Rufus sold her children, but it turns out Rufus lied about that to scare Alice after she tried to run away, and the children are really with his aunt in Baltimore. Dana convinces Rufus to write certificates of freedom for his and Alice’s two children. When Rufus implies Dana’s going to have to replace Alice and tries to rape her, Dana stabs and kills him. The place where Rufus was gripping her arm during the altercation turns into the wall of her house when she’s sent home, and when she tries to pull free, her arm rips off. 

After her arm heals, Dana and Kevin visit Maryland to search through historical records, discovering a record stating that Rufus died when the house burned down. Dana assumes that Nigel, the slave who she saw saw what she did before she was called back, burned it down to cover what she did. The End. 

Butler could have written a straight-up historical novel about slavery, but that would mean the main character would have to be someone from that time period. By framing her story with the time travel narrative, her protagonist has a different perspective than those around her–for Dana, slavery is even more horrific than it is for the slaves. While the novel is technically sci-fi due to the time-travel element, the time travel itself hardly dominates the story–rather the focus is what’s gained by it, the novel perspective. There is never any explanation offered about how the time travel works or what’s causing it, though Dana does note at the story’s beginning that she’s just moved into a new house; one could speculate that has something to do with it, though there’s no concrete confirmation. The fact that her arm fuses with the house at the end could perhaps be circumstantial evidence of this (literal) connection. Regardless, Butler has provided a powerful symbol that slavery takes something away from you, that you are no longer the whole person you once were once you’ve experienced it. She also provides a lesson in narrative tension and structure by starting the story with the fact that Dana’s lost her arm: she tells us the horrible thing that happens in the beginning, providing a hook to make the reader wonder what happened to cause such an incident that makes them want to keep reading. 

The explanation we do get about how time travel logistics is that Dana travels back to the past when Rufus’s life is in danger and returns to the present when her own life is in danger. These mechanics draw an implicit likeness between these two characters from the beginning, one underscored by the idea that Rufus’s being her ancestor is also part of the reason the time travel is happening. 

From the very first line, Butler plays with the theme of home: 

I lost an arm on my last trip home. 

Though on first read the reader doesn’t know her trip involves time travel, once you do know, the line still reads ambiguously, designating the time she’s traveling to in the past as home, or the time where she lives in the present as home. The word “home” appears in the book 183 times, and for the most part unequivocally refers to her home in the present, in Los Angeles in 1976 with Kevin. But as the book progresses things become muddier, starting with Kevin’s difficult adjustment to coming back after five years in the past: 

“Christ,” he muttered. “If I’m not home yet, maybe I don’t have a home.”

After several trips to the past, Dana notes a sense of relief in seeing the Weylin house: 

I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home. And having to stop and correct myself, remind myself that I was in an alien, dangerous place. I could recall being surprised that I would come to think of such a place as home.

The complications of the home references underscore the difficult fact underlying the book’s whole premise: that without Rufus’s forced subjugation of Alice, Dana’s family would not exist. 

Another tie-in with the confusion-of-home theme is when the text draws likenesses between Kevin and Rufus: 

I was on my back when I came to and there was a white face floating just above me. For a wild moment, I thought it was Kevin, thought I was home. I said his name eagerly.

“It’s me, Dana.”

Rufus’s voice. I was still in hell. I closed my eyes, not caring what would happen next.

“Dana, get up. You’ll be hurt more if I carry you than if you walk.”

The words echoed strangely in my head. Kevin had said something like that to me once. I opened my eyes again to be sure it was Rufus.

Kevin is clearly characterized as a loving husband, but he inadvertently hurts Dana several times. After the very first time Dana disappears, he’s impatient for her to explain what happened: 

“Tell me!” he demanded.

“I would if I knew what to tell you. Stop hurting me.”

Contrast this with Rufus overtly hurting her but still doing so in a way that from his perspective is for her own good: 

Rufus caught me easily and held me, cursing me, hurting me. “You take your whipping!” he hissed. “The more you fight, the more he’ll hurt you.”

Then there’s when Kevin and Dana are finally reunited after having been separated five years: 

And he was off the horse and over the laundry yard fence, pulling me to him before I could take another breath.

The dull ache in my back and shoulders roared to life. Suddenly, I was struggling to get away from him. He let me go, confused.

“What the …?”

I went to him again because I couldn’t keep away, but I caught his arms before he could get them around me. “Don’t. My back is sore.”

“Sore from what?”

“From running away to find you. Oh, Kevin …”

Kevin then wants to enact vengeance on the one who hurt her–Weylin–but Dana discourages him from doing so because she believes that in the long run, such an action would hurt her worse, a repeat of a debate they had from early on in their coming to the past together. Kevin’s potentially making things worse for her with the good intention of defending her underscores the fundamental rift in their experiences of life due to their races.

Then, when Dana and Kevin make it home shortly after that, Dana insists they make love, though Kevin’s afraid to: 

He was so careful, so fearful of hurting me. He did hurt me, of course. I had known he would, but it didn’t matter. 

Rufus’s capacity to hurt is shown to be a product of her resistance in the book’s climax: 

He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away. … He was not hurting me, would not hurt me if I remained as I was.

This underscores that Rufus’s violence toward Alice and to a lesser degree Dana stem from feelings of love. 

The characterization of Rufus is probably one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. 

And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. 

Rufus is not an outright monster–his father is much closer to that, though this is also complicated by Tom’s characterization of being “fair,” manifest when he writes to Kevin about her when Rufus doesn’t–but Rufus seems a perpetual child. The fact that we get three episodes of her with him when he’s still literally a child, at ages 5, 8, and 12, help underscore this feeling of perpetual childishness. When we first meet him as a man (though at roughly 17, that term is debatable), he’s just raped Alice, a brutal gesture that’s complicated by the fact that he’s done it out of actual feelings for her: 

“I didn’t want to just drag her off into the bushes,” said Rufus. “I never wanted it to be like that. But she kept saying no. I could have had her in the bushes years ago if that was all I wanted.”

“I know,” I said.

“If I lived in your time, I would have married her. Or tried to.”

The logic that Rufus uses to manipulate Dana is infuriating, like when he tries to convince Dana to talk Alice into not resisting his advances, because if Dana doesn’t, he’ll beat Alice, and why would she do that to her friend? As if Dana is the one responsible for the harm to Alice rather than Rufus. This logic returns powerfully in the climax, when Rufus is about to rape Dana. She has long intimated that they’ve had an unspoken understanding that if he harms her, she’ll harm him in return by not saving his life the next time she’s called back to–this is in large part also why Dana’s experience of slavery is so different from her fellow slaves–she actually has some form of power over Rufus, though this is complicated by her knowledge that if she lets him die, she’ll be doing harm to all the slaves on the property, because they’ll be sold and separated. 

In the climax, when Rufus intimates he’s about to violate their unspoken understanding, she brings up his kids, as if to say, watch what you do, or you’ll kids will end up fatherless: 

[] He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away.

“Rufe,” I said, “your children …”

“They’re free.”

“But they’re young. They need you to protect their freedom.”

“Then it’s up to you, isn’t it?”

I twisted my hand, tried to get it away from him in sudden anger. At once, his hold went from caressing to imprisoning. My right hand had become wet and slippery on the knife.

“It’s up to you,” he repeated.

“No, Goddamnit, it isn’t! …”

Their complicated relationship is symbolic of the slave’s relationship to their master, of how it’s not just one of pure simple hatred, that there will be moments where each recognizes the other’s humanity–however fleeting these moments may be–and the irony that these fleeting moments of such recognition actually make existence with such an institution more painful, not less.