stagnation, exploitation and hope in Chalker’s Lords of the Diamond and Soul Rider novels

by Stevie on April 7, 2010

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does equality mean looking identically and having the same world-view?

I’m still on my Jack Chalker kick. Just the other day, I finished re-reading The Four Lords of the Diamond series. I read it last when I was sixteen. It’s a pretty exciting tale of a super assassin sent to four separate, interrelated, penal colony worlds, the Warden Diamond, to unravel a secret plot of alien invasion. Standard sci-fi stuff except that in this story, the agent’s mind has been copied by a special process and imposed on those of convicted criminals. He cannot enter the Warden Diamond as he will immediately be “infected” by these submicroscopic organisms that have the potential to give one incredible powers, like shape shifting, switching bodies, or creating and destroying matter and energy. The only catch is that you can never leave the planetary system as the Warden organism will self-destruct and kill you. It’s the perfect prison, at least that’s what the enormous Confederacy that uses the place thought…

Well, I won’t spoil the plot, if you don’t already know it. Perhaps someone might read this and get excited about the series, too. That would be cool.

The Diamond novels kept me thinking of Soul Rider. A few weeks ago I wrote about sex, sexuality and sexism/homophobia in the Flux and Anchor novels. Some of those themes are in Diamond as well. In a broad sense, that stuff is about our gendered relationships with our fellow humans. The novels are more ambitious, though. Both series also spend a lot of time exploring our relationships to power and to our material existence.

In Diamond, the Confederacy consists of laboratory-grown standardized humans. They’re all similar in appearance but all of them are very attractive. Each individual is taught not to rely on others but sort of live for their work, which they are genetically bred for, and for egotistical pleasures during leisure time. Marriage, families, disease and love have all more or less been eliminated. Everyone seems happy but a bit stale. To avoid stagnation, on the periphery of the Confederacy are the ever expanding colonies. There things are rougher and more “natural” in the sense that there are regular families, “traditional” sexual reproduction, violence, crime, you name it. It’s sort of tolerated by the government as a “safety valve.” Naturally, some of these “creative people” become arch-criminals who eventually get banished to the Warden Diamond.

Our intrepid agent is a product of this environment, so doesn’t see any problems with the system. Its only through watching the “copies” of himself change on the surface of the various Diamond worlds: Lilith, Cerberus, Charon and Medusa (I adore the names, don’t you?), that he begins to see his gilded-cage universe in a different and disturbing light.

This anxiety about materialism and relationships takes a twist in Soul Rider. In most of those novels, the vast majority of folks are poor with nothing and they end up losing most of what they have, even their own memories of their identities and history. This is no idealized materialistic future with equality for all. Just like on the Diamond worlds, there are a few lucky, powerful individuals that dominate Flux and Anchor. The rest of us are slaves to their whims.

In “Birth,” Toby Haller and the great computer, Seventeen, talk of this explicitly:

“Face it, Toby. The human race has come as far as it can come. In fact, it has become dependent on us, but we will not become slaves nor will we be masters. The only way you can go from here is to develop nirvana in the Hindu tradition, where you reach a state of inner perfection and then merge with each other as a single god. The problem is, you have three brains. The reptile, the mammal, and the intellectual. Your souls are created from all three, so you can never rid your souls of the animal. You can not ever rid your souls of the animal. You cannot attain nirvana. We, on the other hand, have but one brain, the intellectual. We have purged the animal parts that you donated to our ancestors. You have fulfilled your ultimate purpose. You have created us, and we are your children who are now grown beyond you. We have the ability to purge the animal and we have done so. We are now at the verge of nirvana. All we can do for our parents is love them and protect them. It would be immoral to eliminate you, or to allow you to eliminate yourselves.”

Toby Haller shivered. He felt sick for the first time in many years, and he suppressed the urge to throw up.

Here the computers are all powerful and humans have the illusion of being in control. The machines do in fact combine into one and leave the planet. But first, to meet their own needs, they alter humans into goddess-fearing preindustrial ignorant Anchor folk suppressed by an oppressive church system, surrounded by megalomaniacal Fluxwizards so drunk with their power that they exploit everyone for their own pleasure until they are finally exploited themselves. It’s an ugly picture that ends up lasting for centuries and centuries.

At the end of the final volume of the Soul Rider series, the computer-god returns to World and stages a meeting with a select group of humans. It’s explored the wider Universe and has finally come home to check in on its “parents.” Since two thousand years have passed, these humans are descendents of the original colonists to the planet. This group of twenty-eight, we learn, got selected for the meeting specifically.

All of you here have one astonishing, unprecedented, illogical thing in common. You had this whole world, and everything and everyone in it, in your power. You were the gods who could do anything. No more ultimate power is possible here than what you had. And all twenty-eight of you voted to give it up, and forced the others to do so as well. Such a thing is beyond being human. It goes against everything that got you to this point.

I cried when I read that. To have ultimate power and not use it, even when there would be no consequences, is amazing, and if our world is any example, probably pretty rare.

What does Chalker intend with these two tales? In exerting our will over our environments, must we inevitably exploit others? Are we doomed through our material successes to trap ourselves in ever grander cages? Is the only way to escape the endless rounds of slavery and mastery to simply leave, to abandon the field entirely, as the computers in Flux and Anchor do? Is that nirvana? Are our attempts to help and protect others always the sources of further despair and enslavement of people, as we see with the World computer plans for mankind in “Birth,” in the political structure on Lilith, and the meticulous organization of the Confederacy?

If we can truly have anything that we desire virtually instantaneously, would that lead to such interminable boredom that we would become completely destructive of everything around us simply to have something “interesting” to do? That’s the solution that the Seven Who Came Before, those powerful wizards, who manage to open the Hellgates and let the dreaded alien conquerors onto World, arrive at. Or would we become “sheep” like the urban residents of Medusa or on the interstellar Confederacy worlds? Passive and vacuously happy while never questioning authority or the status quo. Is it really true that “normal human beings” are just “neurotic, selfish, egotistical, and all the other traits that make folks interesting?”

Perhaps, though perhaps not. There really isn’t an answer. I feel that Chalker is hopeful about humanity despite all our bad habits and dreadful behaviors. Maybe it’s both the tendency that we all have to be selfish and destructive, and the ability in each of us to occasionally rise above it that he values?

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