Thursday, November 5, 2015

Utopia Hunters, by S.P. Somtow

This week I'm reviewing the third book in the series which is referred to, by my friend anyway, as The Inquest. I will also be reviewing the fourth book later this month because my friend foisted the last two books upon me at once so I want to read them as quickly as possible and return them because unlike certain other slackers I could name, I try to return books loaned to me in a timely manner. Anyway, for my readers who haven't read my reviews of the previous two novels, you can find Light on the Sound here, and The Throne of Madness here. Onwards with Utopia Hunters.

To provide a bit of a refresher for people, The Inquest occurs in a distant future where humanity is scattered across the galaxy, inhabiting thousands or perhaps millions of worlds. The only thing connecting all of humanity is their rule by the distant Inquest, viewed by most people as immortal god-kings, watching humanity from their starship palaces as they drift through the galaxy. However, figuring out even that much is a little difficult in the beginning if you start with Light on the Sound. As I've said in my previous reviews, Somtow has a habit of interspersing lengthy passages of purple prose with some refreshingly direct exposition, but until this book I had felt like I was missing some vital pieces of the puzzle. I had an overall idea of what seemed to be going on, but I feel much more aware thanks to Utopia Hunters.

The book is a collection of short stories set within Somtow's universe, some of which feel relevant to what's going on, some of which don't. With Somtow's writing I almost feel like I have to guess what bits are going to be relevant and what bits won't be later on, and if I'm wrong I have to go back and poke around again. The short stories to me seem rather unrelated, and having one of the main characters say she doesn't understand why people keep telling her stories makes me ask the same question. Surrounding this is the frame story of Jenjen, a lightweaver artist who has come in contact with the Inquest and, much like us ordinary humans, is desperately trying to understand their seemingly ineffable motivations. To the book's credit, the short stories do manage to shed some light on that, as well as the Inquest's terrible flaws. I finally got confirmation of several things I suspected before in Throne of Madness, which leaves me rather disliking the Inquest as an institution overall. Hopefully this book will have provided useful information for the final book in the series.

Most importantly we're told the Inquest's philosophy, which I had kind of guessed at before but was trying to piece together from disparate bits of information. Basically, the Inquest believes that humanity needs chaos from time to time to keep from becoming stagnant or entering the dead-ends of utopias. So the Inquest (in their compassion) has taken it upon themselves to create ''war'' from time to time in the galaxy and shoulder all the guilt for killing people. Basically the Inquestors play a game called makrรบgh, and based on who wins or loses certain planets will be destroyed to keep humanity from becoming stagnant. And in their compassion (that gets repeated a lot) the Inquest tries to mitigate the destruction by shipping as much of the population off-world in people bins before they totally destroy the planet. To summarize: The Inquest blows up planets from time to time to keep things from getting too boring for humanity.

As my readers may have guessed, this annoys me to no end because this is the Broken Window Fallacy taken to the extreme. For those of you unaware of the Broken Window Fallacy, it runs a little something like this. There's a bakery in the center of town, and one day some yahoo chucks a brick through the front window of the bakery, completely shattering it. The people of the town gather around and make the usual comments of kids these days. However, one person speaks up and says maybe the vandal did a good thing for the community. Because now the baker has to buy a new window, which is money that will go into the pocket of the window-glazier. The window-glazier in turn will spend that money on other things, causing a ripple of productivity to go through the community. So perhaps, a little destruction can be good for the economy! The purpose of this thought exercise is to explain the economic booms in the United States, Europe, and Japan after World War II. Perhaps the destruction of World War II caused such a need for capital to be spent that it allowed economies around the world to prosper.

The simple fact of the matter is that this idea is utterly fallacious on every scale. On the micro scale, the fact that the baker has to buy a new window doesn't help the baker. He's now out the money he needs for the new window. Money which he could have spend on new equipment for his bakery, or a new suit of clothes, or any number of other things. Instead that capital is spent on repairing things that they shouldn't need to fix in the first place. With World War II, the economic prosperity for the United States can be explained by the absolute destruction of the industrial infrastructure of pretty much every other nation in the world at the time, leaving the United States the sold industrial superpower. However, extensive investment under the Marshall Plan ensured that Europe and Japan were also able to quickly recover their industrial power. All the resources that are used in a war on things like planes, tanks, guns, bombs, and so on, are resources that can't be used elsewhere and for possibly better purposes. Wanton destruction is only detrimental when it's inflicted. The Inquest's approach of randomly destroying planets in an effort to keep humanity from becoming stagnant is perhaps worse than the Broken Window Fallacy because humanity doesn't even get anything tangible out of it. It seems to be destruction for destruction's sake, which is completely pointless and wasteful.

The worst part is that the Inquestors insulate themselves from the destruction they cause, and Jenjen actually calls them out about it in the book. A lot of Inquestors surround themselves with art in various forms. Paintings, sculptures, music. The idea is to keep from ever having to think about the destruction they cause. There are people whose sole job is to remind Inquestors of the worlds they've destroyed, but they seem to often be shunted aside so as not to harm the Inquestors' delicate sensibilities. It's like the Inquest are children who are given the power to do anything they wanted, and they decide to use that power to burn anthills down, call it compassion because the ants have to leave their hill, and then assuage their guilt over the whole matter with pretty things.

My friend has told me we're not supposed to like the Inquest, but it makes me wonder about these books to some degree. Because ultimately liking characters helps you get invested in a story and care about whether they succeed or fail. Since I don't care one bit for the Inquest I rather hope that they collapse with the oncoming civil war and absolutely nothing is left in their wake. Humanity is left to ponder the galaxy without the Inquest, and considering the Inquest seems to do nothing but burn planets, I think the galaxy will be much better off. We'll just have to see what the next books brings.

- Kalpar  

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