I cannot give without taking, I cannot take without—
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Content warning: police and gun violence
Before I tell you about the amazing books I just read, I want to tell you about Tortuguita. They were a medic; a builder of houses; a defender of forest land on the outskirts of Atlanta. They were a beloved community member.
Last week, they were shot and killed by the Atlanta police, during a raid intended to dismantle a protest camp. Those gathered were fighting against Cop City, a proposed development of an “urban warfare” training campus for Atlanta police. The facility, if built, would lead to the felling of countless trees on the 381 acre parcel. The camp where Tortuguita was killed was set up among these trees.
I didn’t know them, but I could have; in this person, I see myself, and people I love and look up to. There is so much loss around us, from the people murdered in California celebrating the Lunar New Year to the countless lost every day to Covid. It is impossible to grieve fully for those we do not know, to not be numbed by the ongoing mass death event that is now.
Do what you need to do, to keep at your important work. But: everyone counts. Even though there are so many, everyone counts.
The amazing books I read are the Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin. They take place over a broad swath of time and space. In one place and era, a guiding principle is that “life is sacred,” and no living things are killed. Rather, they are simply used for their capacities and skills, the assorted abundance they produce. This so-called sacredness is compared to a treacherous other:
“We have been told stories of how the world was different, long ago. Once, cities were not just dead themselves, stone and metal jungles that did not grow or change but they were actually deadly, poisoning soil and making water undrinkable and even changing the weather by their very existence.” (from The Stone Sky)
(Limited spoilers, from here forward)
As the three books progress, we encounter many iterations of societies that seem distinct at first, but ultimately are similar. In one, beings who can channel energy from the earth are hooked up (out of sight) to massive stones that store that energy, and power civilization; in another, beings who can quell deadly seismic activity are essentially lobotomized and caged in tremulous areas.
Here, a nod to Ursula Leguin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, in which the price of a good life for all is paid by the suffering of one person. Leguin may as well be writing about any of The Broken Earth’s civilizations, or of ours. This is why I read science fiction, and why I write about it; the things we know to be true are easily forgotten when we stand too close.
The moment when Everything Really Goes Wrong in the series is when one of these societies concludes that instead of oppressing/enslaving a group of people, they can instead basically reroute the Earth’s power to power human society, and all will be well. These ~well meaning folks~ inconveniently don’t realize that the Earth is alive until they try to pull off this engineering feat and the Earth strikes back.
Thus the name: Broken Earth. At the beginning of the series, we are offered that this is the story of how the world ends for the last time. We’re offered the explanation that the world has ended many times, but usually the planet is fine.
Of course, this is familiar; our current struggle to prevent this iteration of intelligent life from obliterating most other life, and ourselves, rages on. It is likely that after us, the planet will continue to host complex organisms.
That the trilogy takes place over tens of thousands of years is shocking, at first. But although these societal patterns of focused oppression justified by ease for the few (or many) repeat over such broad time, it is also a reminder that the ways in which we change current conditions is as significant as anything.
There is basically no reciprocity, no steady state, at scale in the Broken Earth societies—only at a relational level. We can strive for stability in the bigger picture, but in the interim, the most impactful way to make reciprocity present at all is at this small scale. As we consider and struggle towards that big balance, we must hold close that in the meanwhile, everyone counts.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I've been audiobooking my way through Dune (spoilers by the way) and I'm struck by the importance of ecology to its plot. I already knew about Frank Herbert's history before starting the book, that his research into restoration attempts of the Oregon Dunes inspired the novel. But Dune goes far beyond the ecological roots I expected.
Everyone in this book is always observing. One of the first moments that struck me was a character observing, watching the citizens of desert planet Arrakis staring at the trees while passing the gate of the city's palace.
“Those are date palms,” he said. “One date palm requires forty liters of water a day. A man requires but eight liters. A palm, then, equals five men. There are twenty palms out there — one hundred men.”
Water scarcity is everywhere on Arrakis: wells drip and then suddenly run dry, innovative stillsuits and tents are built for its conservation. The culture and religion of the indigenous Fremen is soaked in it: spitting in front of someone is a sign of honor, and crying is a profound gesture, giving "water to the dead." Drought flows through every place on Arrakis where water does not.
Time is also strange in Dune, not circular with the future feeding into the past but rushing all at once with past, present, and future all boiling to the surface. Chapter epitaphs are penned by Princess Irulan, writing about the man her cousin Paul Atreides would become a generation after the events of the novel. Paul is surrounded by prophecy from the book's first pages, the past predicting the future, first calling him the Kwisatz Haderach, the shortening of the way, and as soon as the Atreides land on Arrakis, Mahdi, the one who will lead us to paradise.
This collapsing of time only accelerates after Paul gains prescience, the ability to see all possible branching of the future. There are few conflicts in the second half of the novel which Paul, and therefore the reader, haven't foreseen. We know the plot before it happens: Paul's victory on Arrakis, his claiming of the empire, his eventual Jihad. This should make Dune a boring read, er, listen.
But ecology replaces plot as the source of mystery and adventure. The mystery of the connection between sandworms and spice drives the book, and as it unravels we accumulate more mysteries: the death of the sandworm and the water of life, the sandtrout and pre-spice deposits, the sandwalkers, the eternal consciousness of the reverend mothers. Endless beautiful connections.
With an ecological focus, the crux of the plot is not whether Paul will reclaim control of Arrakis, but whether the efforts of the Fremen to make the desert flower with their careful stores of water will win out over the extractive thirst for spice of the Atreides, the Harkonnen, the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the Empire. The planet, Arrakis (Dune), is the heart of the novel, not its rulers.
This makes Dune an origin point for a whole subgenre of ecological sci-fi. H. R. Giger's drawings for Jodorowsky's Dune adaptation seed the design of Alien's Xenomorphs. Octavia Butler's firey California and complicated alien colonialism grows alongside it and the Broken Earth branches from them both. Even Avatar in its anthropocentric failure flails to create an ecology that is its own story. But where Avatar makes a plug-and-play planetwide consciousness to generate empathy, Dune explore a planet with painful limits. Greening Arrakis with non-native Earth plants would come at the expense of the sandworms’ unique ecology, and sandworms themselves are foreign to the planet, though deeper in history. It's an ecology without simple morality, but with endless beautiful complications.
"I cannot give without taking, I cannot take without—"