Jul. 11th, 2017

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Adiamante, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Orbital Resonance, by John Barnes

Two books written in the 90s about consensus societies.

The focus of the personal stories are very very different -- one is an elder dealing with the death of a loved one (Adiamante), and the other is coming of age (Orbital Resonance). The focus of the societies are somewhat different too -- one is about how to make a society that lasts, and the people in this society would consider it a failure if their society fell apart a hundred years after the story because of tensions that began during the story. The other is about how to make a society that produces something that needs to be produced right at that exact historical moment, and the story is about how, several years in, the thinking that produced the society wasn't good enough to keep the society going (though the society itself is expected to last...long enough to produce what they wanted to produce, I guess).

They both talk about how being a leader in a consensus society is a thankless task, and in both of them, leadership is taken on by the main character anyway because it needs to be done and because they are suited to the task (though in Orbital Resonance, the character was designated for leadership by certain aspects of the way she was raised, and in Adiamante, it was just an accident of circumstance).

And they are both, in some sense, about bullying. Orbital Resonance is about bullying within a society and Adiamante is about bullying from outside the society, or between societies.

I found Adiamante a lot more troubling and frustrating than I remembered. The cybs (the invaders of Earth, come to get revenge for being thrown out long long ago) are so unrelatable -- we don't see anything good about their society -- it's almost like it's cheating. Or at least, it's a pretty unambiguously villainous society -- they always live down to the expectations the main character has about their behavior. Every single time. It's not that anything they do is outside the spectrum of human behavior or the behavior of human groups, it's just the worst side of it.

But the people of Earth, while we do get to see them as people, and much more sympathetic people, act in really troubling ways too. Their main goal seems to be the very long term stability of their society, and they have a set of rules they believe they have to follow in order to keep their society intact, and these rules make them act in ways that are completely counter-intuitive and somewhat cruel.

Basically, they seem to think that telling the truth about their capabilities is a use of force, and that uses of force will tear their (or any) society apart.

So basically, the way they treat the cybs -- who they realize have come for revenge -- is to refuse to warn them that they are capable of defending themselves because that would be a threat, and threats will destroy their society. So the cybs go forward with trying to get revenge and are destroyed entirely, while the people of Earth destroy many of their own people too with the effort.

And it makes me uneasy, because I think it might be true that if they'd told the truth about what they could do, then instead of settling things by force in a way that allowed them to call themselves justified (and thus, by the assumptions of the book, preserve their society), they might have ended up in a Cold War and even more difficulties.

And yet.

They destroy the cybs without warning, and without any attempt at actual communication besides oblique stuff like showing them bits of history and letting them get attacked by mutant animals because they think the cybs should figure out that if the animals of Earth are dangerous, then so are the humans.

Maybe their society can survive in that way, but I don't think they get to claim the moral high ground. Is it really true that the only way to deal with bullies is to wait for them to attack and then defeat them utterly whatever the cost to yourself? And never try to talk truthfully with them?

(It's the solution Ender came to in Ender's Game too, though in a less reasoned way...)

Meanwhile, the ideas the book puts forward about making threats as something that will in the end destabilize the society that makes them -- that's interesting, but to me it feels like a situation where prediction is not possible. I try to compare this with history, but it's really useless, because things that this story would call "use of force" or "making threats" happen with such ubiquity in history, so there's really no precedent for such a situation. Yes, it might look like this...or it might not. Who knows?

And then there's the question of holding a society together by throwing out those who don't fit in the society, which is another thing the society is based on (and apparently works for them). The cybs are not the only ones that get thrown out of the society, they're just (so far as I can tell) the largest group, that were sent the furthest away. But if your society is built around the idea that you will throw out a certain number of people, then however stable your society is within itself, you're building instability into the world outside of your society. And maybe you can always be more powerful inside than outside, but how can you be sure of that?

So basically, this version of a consensus society seems to be sowing seeds of destruction outside of itself, no matter how good it is at holding itself together. And they seem to be incapable of seeing that, or it's just irrelevant to them, because they don't seem to care about anything outside of their own society.

Orbital Resonance shows a much younger consensus society, one just forming, and the characters are school aged children. But it also looks at a lot of the same issues, in my opinion, just from a very different perspective.

We see a lot more about the way the society works in Orbital Resonance: instead of being told about the ancient rules of the society, we see some of the workings of the society in action. This society appears to be more fluid, the consensus is not always stable, it can fluctuate wildly in ways that show how harmful consensus can be when it mean ganging up against an individual, and no one actually knows how it works or even how it's supposed to work. (And therein lies the story...)

But like Adiamante, the society is imposed from outside (not by rules created long ago, but by the parents of the main characters). The consensus is more fragile in some ways because it doesn't really have the force of tradition behind it -- it's all new to everyone -- but in some ways I think it's stronger because it's clearly emotion that makes it happen, not reason. This is also why the consensus seems more dangerous. It's not well understood, and the whole of society can turn against someone with scary speed.

But there are social forces at work that try to contain bullying to some degree, and protect the other values of the society. The most important value, the one that the characters hold on to the most, though, and have the strongest emotional connection to, though, is consensus itself, and not being alone. I feel like there are a lot of things going on to try to force (though I don't think the characters involved see it as force) consensus to happen and to protect it when it's attacked -- though again, there's a cost to this. It can be hard on the members of the society.

Bullying happens within the society, but peer pressure is also especially strong and can lead to violence.

And in the end, the society pushes out the people who are unable to belong to the society. When I was reading this, I wondered why the solution for the society in the end was that the parents would leave, because the reasons that are given make no sense to me. They say that since neither the children nor the parents understand how the society works, there is no benefit to having the parents around.

It's true that some of the things that are done in the name of creating the society and giving children specific roles within the society seem a lot like abuses of power when done on such a scale (it might be considered institutional bullying), and yet, it's also shown that the parents provide useful things to the society. All the parents have jobs (except the main character's mother, who quit, and this was a very bad thing socially for the main character). The main character's father provides therapy for another child character, and it's presented as being not just helpful but something that it seems it would be hard for him to do without.

So they're losing a lot of skills when the parents leave. And that's not even considering that the people who designed the society probably have a better understanding of the society than anyone else, even if they don't know everything about how it's developing now that the children are older. Plus, would the parents want to leave? The ones who designed the society surely have an interest in seeing what happens with something they've spent so much time creating, and most of the parents don't seem to have any other home to go back to.

Which is to say that while the main character doesn't seem to think it's a big deal, just a natural thing, that the parents are leaving...but it can't possibly be that simple.

Do the parents feel threatened by the potential for violence within their children's society? Do the children feel threatened because they've been manipulated according to a plan from outside for so long? What's going on under the surface, that the main character might either not see or not want to see?

I think the knowledge that their society can be manipulated from the outside is actually what the children are afraid of, though, even though the main character doesn't say it or doesn't realize it. They don't want to be open to outside influences, or even have their society explained to them from the outside. They want to shape their society from the inside, among only people who have the same understanding of what a society should be like and what kind of interactions and relationships between people make sense to them.

Their society doesn't have any room for anyone who isn't within the consensus. A consensus society has no way of dealing with unresolvable disagreements or differences, or with people who are unable to adapt to the consensus. And being unable to adapt to consensus -- that's their parents exactly; this has been very clear in the relationships between children and parents all through the book.

It's a very YA type of ending, getting rid of the adults, and that's how I always read it before, just adolescent wish fulfillment, but I think it makes more sense as a way that the force of the consensus is flexing, not just to keep some people within the society, but to protect the society, once it has formed, against those who are not within the society and never can be.

(I do think they're going to end up with different society to society relationships with outsiders than the one in Adiamante, though. Unlike the Adiamante society, they're not the most powerful society around.)

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