Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking Trilogy: Knives, Questions, and Monsters of Men

Patrick Ness’s award-winning first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go, introduced us to a world of war, love, sacrifice and Noise (read my review here). The second book in the series, The Ask and The Answer, won Publisher’s Weekly award for best YA science fiction novel. The conclusion of the trilogy, Monsters of Men, won the 2011 Carnegie Medal and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel, an unusual accolade for YA literature. The first two books are already on their way to the big screen under the direction of Robert Zemeckis. 

The knife in The Knife of Never Letting Go symbolized the power our decisions have to altar the
trajectory of our lives for good or evil. In The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men, the New World (a colonized planet) is put to the edge of that knife.

After the events in The Knife of Never Letting Go, three separate plot lines emerge: Todd is forced to live with and work for the Mayor when he takes over the wistfully named town of Haven; Viola joins a group of rebels; and the Spackle prepare to take back their planet. To further complicate matters, an advance ship of new settlers has landed, and they have enough firepower to lead one side of this war to victory. Will war truly make monsters of them all? Is there a path to peace, reconciliation, and redemption? And is anyone beyond forgiveness?
"What is important me in the Chaos Walking books…is the complexity of a person. That you are at one time many contradictory things. That a terrible thought doesn't make you a terrible person. That a mistake is natural and human even though everybody blames you for it. You are going to mess up but that is not the point; the point is how you react to it, how you fix it, how you grow from it." 
Ness has done an excellent job capturing this complex contradiction in his characters. The Mayor, for example, is a horrible man who at times does noble things. He seems fascinated by the goodness in Todd even as he destroys Haven. At one point he tells him,
“I’ve been watching you... The boy who can’t kill another man. The boy who’d risk his own life to save his beloved Viola. The boy who felt so guilty at the horrible things he was doing that he tried to shut off all feeling. The boy who still felt every pain, every twitch of hurt he saw on the face of the women he banded.” He leans down closer to my face. “The boy who refuses to lose his soul.”
The Mayor slowly begins to recognize the draw of goodness. There is something about Todd that offers hope to them all. He tells Viola,
“I could have died today. And I did not because Todd saved me. It may not have been what you wanted, but if Todd saved me, then I am worth saving, don’t you see? And if I’m worth saving, then we all are, this whole place, this whole world.”
Viola isn’t quite as interested in seeing if the world can be saved. When she sees that Todd is in trouble, she shoots a missile she knows will slaughter the Spackle and escalate the war. She wonders, “If this is what Todd and I would do for each other, does that make us right? Or does it make us dangerous?”  She fights with the rebels to defeat the monstrous Mayor, but she is on the verge of becoming that which she fights.

So is Todd. As much as he wants to bring down the Mayor’s regime from the inside, he slowly succumbs to the cycle of fear, power, and violence. When the Mayor teaches him a mantra that will help to hide his thoughts from others and calm himself, he uses it even though something inside recognizes it’s a bad idea. “I am the Circle and the Circle is me,” he says over and over. It calms him, true. It also builds a wall between his conscience and his actions. He is all that matters; all of life simply circles back to him. The more Todd becomes numbed by this mantra, the more he finds himself becoming hard, cold, and capable of justifying actions that would normally have appalled him.

Meanwhile, one Spackle in particular (called The Return when he escapes from captivity and returns to his home) is determined to get his revenge on Todd. He singles out Todd because Todd, unlike the other men, knew the killing and torture of Spackle was wrong but did nothing to intervene. He longs to fight, to kill, to make Todd and those closest to him pay for what was done to his people. Even as the leader of the Spackle works toward a peaceful solution, the Return seeks to undermine his attempts.

Is forgiveness and redemption even possible for those who do monstrous things? And is there a way to avoid walking into chaos again?

When asked what monsters people most struggle with, Mr. Ness responded that the biggest one is the inability to see differences as just differences. We tend to see differences as better or worse, and from that mindset we experience either fear or disdain, which lead to violence and war. Not surprisingly, Mr. Ness’s solution to violence is for his characters to see, understand, and embrace their differences.

The Spackle embody the solution. All the people think that the Noise – the sharing of private thoughts with everyone around – is a grievous violation of privacy. The Spackle, however, are so intertwined by the Noise that they function almost as one. They feel each other’s pain, think each other’s thoughts, and in some ways experience life through the lives of others. This oneness offers them a place in a story bigger than just one individual.

The Return experiences what it is like to be fully known and still loved in spite of the monstrous things within him. He can' hide the fact that he has escalated the war (at the cost of countless Spackle lives) just so he could get revenge on Todd, but the Spackle still embrace him, allowing him to experience their pain and their love. When he finally surrenders his anger and pride, he realizes that the forgiveness he has received must be passed on.
“I saw [Todd] again for the flawed [person] that he was, and as the Source forgave the Knife, as the Source provided absolution for everything the Knife had done – for everything Todd had done – I felt my voice provide it, too, I felt my voice join with the Source’s and offer my own forgiveness, offer to let go and forget every wrong he had done me, every wrong he had done to our people.”
This is apparently the answer for humanity as well. If Todd, Viola, the Mayor and rebels could understand each other, they would offer absolution instead of anger, friendship instead of hatred, and peace instead of war.

This strikes me as a compelling but inadequate solution to the problem. As I noted in my review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, simply knowing or understanding the other side is not a sufficient solution. For some it creates empathy; for others it confirms prejudices.

If our world is characterized by good people increasingly understanding other good people, all will be well. If our world is characterized by monsters increasingly understanding other monsters, all is lost. Even if we grant that most people live somewhere between those two extremes, why should we think that understanding will automatically lead to goodness? There is a danger in touching the darkness – sometimes it touches you back.

The ability to empathize with others is a virtue. Perhaps the things that make monsters of other men will break our hearts and challenge us to offer love toward those we tend to dismiss or despise. On the other hand, if our attempt to understand clouds our ability to discern whether or not some differences are, in fact, better or worse, we are in trouble. Without a shared understanding of genuine goodness and moral clarity, we may well empathize our way into the very chaos we seek to flee.

That, too, would make monsters of us all. 

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