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02 August 2009 @ 06:28 am
Thoughts on Below the Root, cross-posted to my journal  
Like many who found these books, I discovered it via the game which was VERY ambitious for 1984, allowing you to choose the race and gender of your avatar with NPCs and other game mechanics reacting differently depending on your choice. It also appears to be the first game that was a canonical sequel/addition to an existing universe, and not merely an "adaptation" or non-canonical story with the universe characters/concepts. Translation: It paved the way for stuff like The Force Unleashed.

I still make it a point to re-read the whole trilogy every couple of years. It influences my writing and might even have influenced some real-life political views. Overall, the Green Sky trilogy is a nice chaser to wash out the taste of heavier (and more mean-spirited) fare like Brave New World or Woman on the Edge of Time more than they are "kids books."

The world of Green Sky is the true main character of the piece, and Snyder describes it in richly poetic detail, showing off its more disturbing elements while still maintaining a romantic beauty. Greed, violence, anger, even grief are tamed out of people, and not even the words remain (a bit like 1984's Newspeak in eliminating concepts by eliminating words). People live their lives in placid and humble contentment, lives guided by ritual, and any discomfort can be treated with the local soma, a sacred Berry. Expressions of anger or even the sight of two-year-olds squabbling over a toy are considered as embarrassing and tasteless as we'd consider racial slurs.

The exceptions to this docile existence are the special caste of Ol-Zhaan. Ol-Zhaan are the judges, peacemakers, governors, and healers. Two thirteen-year-olds per year are chosen, whisked suddenly into a position of great honor and fame, and ritually elevated to be "above and apart" from ordinary Kindar citizens, who consider those carrying the "D'ol" title to be nearly godlike. They are reputed to be extremely powerful in Spirit-gifts, able to read every thought, able to telekenetically lift twice their weight, heal wounds, and influence plant growth (among other abilities).

Now, add one kid who, despite being chosen for the Ol-Zhaan, steadfastly refuses to believe he is above and apart from anyone. Add the closest thing this society gets to a hard-boiled cynic from the wrong side of the tracks. Mix in some living, breathing proof of the Big Lie. Watch all hell break loose.

The backstory unravels through the first book. A group of researchers, sensing that the governments of Earth were going to blow themselves to hell, took their group of psionically-gifted war orphans and fled the planet, hoping to establish a new world on Green-Sky. With their knowledge of psychology and the telepathic abilities of their charges, they believed they could create a society where violence, and all things that spawned it, could be eradicated.

The problem came up when the kids started to grow up, and the head researchers disagreed about what to tell them about Earth. One, D'ol Neshom, said to let the kids know the full truth of their bloody heritage. The other, D'ol Wissen, argued that the only way to keep violence out of the society was to keep the "Kinder" (many of the "alien" terms in the book are bastardized German) a secret from them. Well, Neshom ended up dead under sudden (and questionable) circumstances. His followers ended up exiled in huge, underground caverns. Wissen and crew sealed the caverns with an enchanted growth (also the source of the local soma), and told the Kindar that they'd been eaten by monsters that lived underground. So long as the Kindar never ventured to the forest floor, and stayed among the branches of their massive tree-cities, everything would be okay.

However, so that there's be a watchful eye on the populace for those who showed signs of falling to the Dark Side, there had to be an elite who would know the truth, an elite "apart and above" ordinary Kindar with special training and conditioning - Ol-Zhaan.

Now, for an indeterminate number of generations, things went smoothly. Kindar society flourished, people lived in peace with each other and their Spirit-Gifts, the Berry consoled those in pain. Sure, every so often, the Ol-Zhaan would have to find a bad seed and exile them below, telling their loved ones the sad news that they'd met with a bad end on the forest floor, but there was no want, no crime, no violence or even so much as the concept of violence. The Dark Side had been eradicated from the society above.

Things begin to fall apart by the time the book opens. Fewer healthy babies are being born. There are more Berry addicts than ever (including the protagonist's eight-year-old sister). The root keeping the "monsters" out is withering. There are more people being "eaten" by the monsters every year. Top it off with the people's ability to use their psychic gifts withering at earlier and earlier ages.

Raamo is shocked when he realizes that his "average" psychic gifts may actually be the most powerful in all of Green-Sky! Yes, the Ol-Zhaan are no more "Force Sensitive" than the average Kindar plucked off the nearest branch. The Ol-Zhaan recruited him because he was the only one who had enough psionic ability to keep the jail shut. Neric (the local cynic) recruits him into trying to unmask the Ol-Zhaan for what they really are and to find out what's really trapped underground. Raamo and Neric venture to the forest floor, and find a girl, descended from the exiles, who managed to slip through one of the dying spots, part because she's underfed. The exiles and their descendants - Erdlings - have created their own society below. It's less ritualized and peaceful then the Kindar (though still a bunch of hippies by Earth standards), but a damn sight more democratic. Problem is that they're all slowly starving to death.

When all of this hits, they confront the Grand Mistress of the Ol-Zhaan who reveals that she'd chosen Raamo to be her successor, part due to his psionic skill, and part due to the fact she developed a conscience in her old age and was looking for a way to help undo some of the harm she and her predecessors caused. In doing so, she was hoping to reverse the decline Green-Sky found itself in.

The other two books of the trilogy deal with something that a lot of Sci-Fi doesn't; the aftermath and reconstruction of the social order once the Big Secret is out. The Erdlings were freed, the truth revealed, the Ol-Zhaan dissolved. Plenty of suspicion, resentment, anger, and threats of violence returned to society, though those got dealt with. It was still a bit of a mess, but it was a much more honest mess.

Oddly enough, one of the reasons Snyder green-lighted the game as canon? It was because she killed off one of the main characters in the final book, realized later she had made an awful mistake with that, and set up the game's plot to rescue the fellow!

The parables about racism are obvious, but the stuff you see on second and third readings are the questions about whether there are things in human nature that no amount of ritual and training can exorcise, the (dubious) wisdom of keeping some things secret from the general public and in the hands of the few to "protect" the masses, and what being "apart and above" others does to someone.

I can't even look at Star Wars without shaking my head and saying that the Jedi made the same mistake as the Ol-Zhaan, and that while Luke did his best to remedy it, Raamo succeeded and Luke failed. Also, considering how many FS crew Exile managed to pick up? Well, I have a bad tendency to wonder if that trait is more common than either Jedi or Sith will admit! It would certainly endanger their "apart and above" status...
(Deleted comment)
Allronix1: fandomallronix1 on August 4th, 2009 09:29 am (UTC)
*laugh* My sister, brother-in-law, and assorted roomies are VERY much into Star Wars - novels, comic books, games, etc. My bro-in-law and I have VERY different ways of seeing the Galaxy Far, Far Away, and while discussing the Clone Wars, I said that "The damn Jedi made Wissen's mistake, and doomed the frakking universe as a result." Bro-in-law never read the books, and didn't get the reference.

And, while BtR is my all-time favorite game (playing it now is more of a meditation and memory exercise), my second-favorite in terms of hours played and analysis done is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Edited at 2009-08-04 09:35 am (UTC)
couteau_suisse on August 4th, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
Interesting... having only played the game and not read the books, I didn't realise there is that much of a dystopian element in them. It's almost disappointing! Here I was thinking that in Green-Sky they had figured it all out properly for once!

(Thought the wissenberries were less like soma and more like optional yet really fantastic ice cream.)
Allronix1allronix1 on August 4th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
There was, but they are the rarest of rare. They realized what a horrid mistake they had made and set about making it right. The majority of Kindar and Erdling embrace unification. Yet, because sentient beings will handle issues differently, some will react with fear and anger.

This is why, in-game, some Kindar characters will get a icy reception at some households and Erdlings get a cold shoulder at others. Pomma, being considered a living symbol of the unification, is able to get friendly treatment wherever she goes. This also explains the Nekom. They are Erdlings mad as hell over their exile, and wishing to take out their anger on former Ol-Zhaan (responsible parties to their exile), Kindar (who they see as complicit), and Erdling supporters of unification (who seem willing to forget the sufferings of their own people in exchange for Kindar comforts). The Saltite are Kindar opposed to the unification because they still think of the Erdlings as disruptive ("they were exiled for a REASON and can't fit in. They'll bring nothing but violence."), and resent the changes to their once-"perfect" social order.