No. 7: The Golden City
Back in 2005 I was wandering through Borders and saw a cover that caught my eye. That’s how I usually buy books. Every once in a while I pick based on a recommendation or name recognition, but usually there’s just something about the cover or title that piques my curiosity (that’s how I ended up with a copy of In Defense of Elitism). That day I noticed a freshly released book called The Traveler. As I had never bought a new hardcover book before, I figured this would be a good way to go. And I was pleased with my decision.
Michael and Gabriel Corrigan are brothers with an odd past. Their family lived “off the grid”, a life without anything that couldn’t be bought with cash, out of sight of “real-life surveillance networks”. Their father was a Traveler, a prophet of sorts with the ability to visit other realms and reach people in a profound way, and the brothers are in danger because they might have inherited his ability.
Judith Strand is a nondescript woman working in a nondescript office in London. Her father is anything but “nondescript”. His name is Thorn, and he’s a Harlequin: a warrior obligated to protect the Travelers. Judith was trained to follow her father, but has chosen not to. That changes when her father is murdered in his home. Judith becomes the Harlequin Maya.
Here’s the cover teaser:
Summoned by her ailing father, Maya is told of the existence of the brothers. The Corrigans are in severe danger, stalked by powerful men known as the Tabula—ruthless mercenaries who have hunted Travelers for generations. This group is determined to inflict order on the world by controlling it, and they view Travelers as an intolerable threat. As Maya races to California to protect the brothers, she is reluctantly pulled back into the cold an solitary Harlequin existence.
I thought the book was phenomenal. It’s exciting, questions some fundamental things about technology that I tend to take for granted, but is wholly focused on human drama. Pretty impressive for a first novel.
Hawks describes a world in which people almost willingly enter into an electronic prison, where every thing you do is monitored and logged; you can be tracked or manipulated, depending on the interests of the person at the controls. Two groups are warring over this prison…one trying to expand it, the other trying to destroy it. This book is the reason I don’t do online data backup.
It also caused me to start thinking about how technology was affecting my life for the first time. I’ve been thinking more deeply on the subject, thanks to John, but this was my first exposure to the idea that there’s more to the implications of technology than “it depends on how you use it”. I really anticipated the second in the series.
I was disappointed.The Dark River was fun and interesting, but it fell flat. It wasn’t bad, just not what I’d been waiting for. It’s been more than a year since I’ve read it, so I can’t be specific; but it didn’t carry me through the way The Traveler did. I had hoped The Golden City would make up for it.
For 280 pages it did not. The writing was like a catalog of similes (yes, that was intentional), few of which even made sense (“She looked at it like a British woman who’d just found something distasteful on her lawn…”); the dialogue was not really believeable; and some of the characters decisions were completely senseless and only served to advance the plot. That’s why it took me more than 2 months to finish.
Thankfully, page 281 began the climax of the series, and things got interesting. This section is the most powerful, I think, because it’s strength rests in one man’s deep internal conflict, and three extended monologues, which Hawks uses incredibly well to express the beliefs and tactics of the two sides of the conflict.
On the one hand is the Tabula, who will do anything to gain control. That includes creating a series of worldwide crises that create an environment in which people willingly sacrifice their freedoms for security. On the other is the Resistance, a loosely organized group that wants to wake the sleeping “drones”-those who allow themselves to be deceived by the world as it’s presented to them. There are some wonderful passages in this last section, and they require no context to be fully understood.
‘The world has become a dangerous place, but we now have the technology to protect ourselves. Who could object to these simple changes? What could possibly be their motivation?’
‘And who stands with [the child molesters, rapists, thieves, and murderers]? As usual, we have the cocktail-party intellectuals and left-wing college professors…[and] certain right-wing Bill of Rights crazies with old-fashioned ideas of personal freedom.’
The technology that we absorb in our everyday lives did come about by small changes. First a phone for every home, then multiple lines, then cordless, then wireless, now we must have text and web in addition to calling, or we won’t be able to function. That’s how small freedoms get taken away as well. There are laws being proposed to outlaw the use of salt in packaged food, and to put a tax on non-diet soft drinks. But who could be against healthier food?
Of course, the long term result is what we find in Demolition Man, the only place you can get a good burger is underground, where the “good folk” don’t go. How will that type of scenario play out in the real world?
“Ideology is dying in this age”
Ideology is today commonly understood as the thing standing in the way of productive politics. We decry the “ideologues” on both sides, not for their ideas, but for standing by them. We say what we want are leaders who will “compromise” and “work together”. In his final speech Gabriel recognizes something very important: ideology is good.
We don’t need more compromise, what we need is for honest and passionate men and women to develop their ideas and do the hard work of convincing others to stand with them. In Gabriel’s world the death of ideology is due to the collective power grab of the world’s leaders, all trying to enhance their own kingdoms; in ours the cause is much the same.
Leaders care less about the ideals that drove them to seek office in the first place, and become consumed with the task of staying there, which means they will go whichever way the wind blows in their districts. Church leaders forget the calling they received from God and become consumed with popularity and attention, and so will compromise orthodoxy to gain a following.
The methods for both of the above groups of leaders are the same: distract us with pretty things. Politicians use money, social programs, free stuff, etc.; preachers use cheap grace, undiscerning tolerance, and, yes, free stuff.
…there are very few leaders that challenge the public to be brave and take responsibility for their lives. The political credo of our times sounds like an all-powerful parent talking to a child: Sit down and don’t ask questions. We’ll take care of everything.
We feel powerful…
Most of our lives are consumed by uncertainty—job security, our health, our kids health, college hopes, etc.—so it is at times comforting to think that the government will take care of us. But that doesn’t always solve the problem, so we turn to what may be the most insightful statement in this book:
Some of you have seen the future clearly. For these people, it feels as if we are trapped in a gigantic mall, frightened by hiding our fear, trudging from store to store, carrying objects purchased for some reason—now forgotten…
When people believe they have no real power, their only choice becomes what to consume. Our society’s constant emphasis on buying things has nothing to do with the loss of morality. We feel powerful when we buy something, so we are easily manipulated to buy more.
We are constantly trying to fight against our brokenness, and the feeling of powerlessness, but we can’t seem to find the right way to do it. We try to control ourselves, we try to control others…spending is another kind of control. But it’s like a drug, satisfying our urge for power, and deadening us to the world around us, and the consequences.
In the end the book was entertaining, and made a good argument about the intrusion of technology into our lives, though that argument was all but complete in The Traveler. I would recommend the series to anyone with an interest in technology and dimension-hopping. If you’re interested in the philosophy, buy The Traveler and borrow the Golden city so you can read the last 70 pages.