I have a very vivid memory from when I was a teenager and I watched one of the Star Wars movies for the first time in many years. Those movies had always been favorites when I was a kid. But something changed when I saw it as a teenager; it was like all of the sudden the story clicked together. As a young child, I had appreciated those movies for the sci-fi adventures that they were, with the robots and aliens and heroes and heroines, but there must have been parts that I didn’t even realize I hadn’t understood. Because watching it with older eyes, all of the sudden it was like a whole new story. I noticed different things. I understood plots and themes that I hadn’t remembered from my childhood experience. That was the first time I realized that sometimes things you love and things you hate are worth a second look later on, because as you grow older and change, so does your understanding and interpretation of those things.
About 15 years ago, I read a book called The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk. It is a utopia/dystopia novel and I LOVED it when I read it then. At the time, I doubt I’d read any speculative fiction or science fiction/fantasy and I thought this futuristic earth (set about 40 years from now, 50 years from back then) had some very scary parallels to how I saw our own society moving. What really moved me, however, was that it also had the most amazing idea for a cooperative society that I could ever have imagined. This society took care of all its people, valued hard work, celebrated diversity and fiercely protected the earth.
Lately I’d really been thinking about the book again, and wondering if my impressions would change now that I’m older and have a little more life experience under my belt. My own copy long ago disappeared, so I requested one from the library and I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in it ever since I cracked the binding. This review will be in two parts, because I plan to talk a lot more about content than I normally do with a book review. I also couldn’t wait until I finished the book to start writing about it.
The book shows us two separate societies. One, as I’ve mentioned, cares for all, respects and cherishes all and celebrates diversity in ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. It works tirelessly to heal the damage done to the environment. The other is a neo-fascist society that oppresses all people of color, all religions except their own and all women. It has no regard for the environment, only for profits and power. Here’s a warning to all of those conservatives out there: I always hesitated recommending this book to people because it is an ultra-liberal story. It also has content that some people may find offensive—things like group sex, gay sex, and witchcraft. One thing that I loved about the story, however, is that none of those things are presented in a graphic, titillating or demeaning way. The parts that I found offensive, were the racism, “moral purity,” pollution, abuse, exploitation (of people and of the planet and our resources) and violence that were de rigueur for the dystopian society that threatens our protagonists’ world.
The overwhelming theme that I remembered from the book was the thought that you become what you do. If you kill someone to avoid being killed, that only makes you a killer. The other idea was choice. Each individual, each society has choice. You can choose to accept, or reject anything imposed upon you. The choices may be grim, but they are still choices. And if enough people reject the grim choice, the oppressors may learn to make different choices, too. Both are powerful messages that you can apply to many aspects of life, both large life choices and small everyday choices.
What I’m realizing as I’m re-reading this novel, is not so much how I view the story differently now, but how prophetic the book may actually be, and how much my initial read of the story may have changed me in the last 15 years. We understand more about global warming and the environmental damage our industrial society is creating than we did 15 years ago. We’ve also seen how discriminatory ballot proposals can sway entire presidential elections. Both are very scary realities in our world and the characters in this book reap the consequences of our environmental and social neglect.
As for how it changed me, it’s hard to say that this book alone shaped my views, but I’m certain upon revisiting it, that it did help change my views about many social issues. While not the only factor in shaping my current views, it was definitely a backdrop to the formation of many of my personal beliefs. I would much rather see one of the two realities illustrated in this novel over the other. The choices I make today either move toward one reality or the other. I can choose to buy a bottle of water, or buy a filter for my faucet and re-fill a bottle with tap water. I can water the plants on my deck with collected rainwater instead of water from the faucet. I can choose to buy locally grown, sustainably harvested organic produce to support a farmer I know, or I can choose produce trucked from across the country or across the world that may line the pockets of a big corporation, or exploit a poor worker unbeknownst to me. I can vote for equal rights for all our citizens, or I can vote to discriminate against a particular group. I can vote for healthcare for all…or not. Personal is political. My every day choices do make a difference in the larger world. I’m certainly not perfect. I occasionally do buy a bottle of water, but then I do my best to recycle it. The difference is awareness and intention and overall trend. If more people lived their lives and thought about these things in small ways every day, then maybe we would change direction of the world.Stay tuned for part 2…