Rating: 5/5 ⭐
“It’s not about truth…It’s about what people believe.”
There were a ton of quotes that resonated with me from this book and choosing just one to give a glimpse of what to expect was difficult, but I chose the one above because it’s so encompassing, it’s almost meta.
The book is presented as a manuscript that was found under floorboards in Stockholm in 1996, written by a psychologist by the name of Dr. Miriam Gregory. I found the format a fascinating tool to tell this story, as it reads like an autobiography or memoir with the addition of footnotes by those who found it and published it. I urge you to read everything in the book – don’t skip the introduction or the interludes and be sure to read the acknowledgements and the about the authors portions as well. These last two sections will give you some insight into the Within the Wires podcast, which is another project the authors work on together and takes place within the same universe as the book. I highly recommend giving it a listen – I myself started right after finishing the book. It’s not required by any means, but it will give different perspectives about the same universe and helps to make the whole experience more immersive.
Now, on to the book itself. I’m not normally a fan of dystopian fiction – it’s usually far too depressing for me. However, ordinarily if I read or watch something dystopian there’s some part of me thinking that could never happen. Being divided based on virtues? Eh, doubt it. Being forced to compete in a deadly tournament called the Hunger Games? Maybe a little more plausible, but still surely the people wouldn’t let that happen, right? But this, this book feels much too plausible. It’s an alternate history that kicks off during the Great Reckoning which takes place in the early 1900s. Dr. Gregory’s timeline isn’t concrete since record keeping when she was young was nonexistent, but the footnotes try to provide some clarification throughout – basically this book takes place from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s, I think. And then Dr. Gregory intersperses her “present” thoughts, so those are early 1990s, I would guess. The Great Reckoning sounds much like World War I except it seems to have started earlier and just…didn’t stop. Obviously it did eventually, but basically the Great Reckoning seems to take place of the two world wars in our actual history. However, whereas the bulk of those two wars took place in Europe, the Great Reckoning involved fighting all over the world, and destroyed towns, cities, and more everywhere as well.
This is likely how the discussion for the New Society really begins. The New Society grows out of the realization that “tribalism begets fear, which leads to aggression”; therefore, every effort is made to prevent tribalism. And that means preventing families from existing. Women are still encouraged to get pregnant and have babies as part of the repopulation effort, but those babies are taken immediately from them as soon as they’re born and put into early care centers. Then after a certain age they’re moved to education centers, and then at age 10, they’re put through what is known as the Age Ten Protocols. That’s where basically their memories of life before the age of 10 are removed – so they’ll have no recollection of those they grew up with, even if they grew up with biological siblings. And yes, despite the fact that the Society is based upon the belief that tribalism of any kind is dangerous, children would be placed in the same centers as their siblings. But once they go through the Age Ten Protocols, they aren’t meant to remember their siblings, and certainly not their parents, and so later on, if someone tried to contact a family member, they could be jailed if caught. And they were. And this is where Dr. Gregory starts having a crisis of conscience. She understands what the Society wants to do, but she believes that putting a grandfather in jail because he was sending his granddaughter birthday cards is cold and unnecessary, that what the grandfather really would need is counseling in this case to break those bonds.
It’s an interesting concept, but I go back to the initial quote – that “it’s not about truth” but rather “what people believe.” This is striking not just because it resonates clearly with me in a very real world manner – after all, how many times have we seen a supposed scandal blow up and be reported on only to realize after looking into it further it wasn’t anywhere near what they claimed? There are numerous examples of this that I won’t get into here, but suffice to say if you watch the news and question what you see, you’ll have something come to mind. However, the other reason this quote resonated so much with me is because of the footnotes throughout the book. Sometimes they’re exactly what a footnote should be – presenting clarification or supplemental information to help readers understand what a particular passage is about. But other times, they’re casting doubt and outright demeaning Dr. Gregory’s character. Which, the introduction of the book notes that it’s being published and they’re basically leaving it up to the reader to decide how much is real (keeping in mind, obviously, this is a book of fiction) and yet, the footnotes call Dr. Gregory a liar many times without actually saying that word. They’ll refer to her as fabricating details or stories, or accusing “upstanding” people of heinous wrongdoing that they couldn’t possibly have done. Towards the end, they state that an institute that Dr. Gregory writes about doesn’t exist. They tried to find it and couldn’t so clearly, it doesn’t exist. They call her out for fraud, they note that she sounds crazy, they scoff at her work and call it a conspiracy theory. It’s interesting to me, that this group tries to act like it’s allowing the information out so that trusted people can read it, because they aren’t likely to turn it into a conspiracy and build a rebellion on the claims of Dr. Gregory, but at the same time they’re not leaving any kind of judgement up to the reader – they’re very explicitly making judgement calls about the information Dr. Gregory writes and calls it into question. In fact, at one point the authors of the footnotes even use the phrase “proof is not assertion”, a twist of the logical fallacy phrase “proof by assertion.” Basically, it’s “an informal fallacy in which a proposition is repeatedly restated regardless of contradiction and refutation.” (As defined on wikipedia.) So they’re accusing Dr. Gregory in this way of using an informal fallacy to try to make her point when they too are doing the exact same things. Claiming that she is maligning someone that they were never able to accurately identify just because it seems logical is the same thing, is it not? And that’s just one example. But again, it also comes down to that quote – “It’s not about truth” but “about what people believe.” So which will you believe? Those who wrote the footnotes? Or what Dr. Gregory wrote?
Overall, I found this book extremely compelling and I’m eager to reread it to see if I can catch things I may have missed the first time, especially if I do so once I’ve finished listening to the podcast.
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