Not-So-Free-Will: A Bern Retrospective Part 3
One of the major themes explored in the Bern Saga is the question of personal identity. Each of the major characters are orphaned. They are removed from their native homes. The idea of them floating in space, of being “lost” while simultaneously existing in a vacuum, is meant to highlight this. What kind of person will Molly become? How will these horrific and sometimes wonderful events in her life change and affect her? How will she navigate this flurry of obstacles, and who will emerge on the other side? These are the basic questions of any coming-of-age story, and I wanted to take that genre to another level with the Bern Saga.
Early on, we are shown how widely varied Molly’s life could become. When she is attending class at Avalon High, there’s a palpable sense that this is who she could be: an ostracized girl with massive potential caught up in the dreary hum-drum of a banal existence. (Isn’t this how many of us feel, and often?) She talks about becoming a tug pilot, about the commercial sector. In the simulator, we also get an idea of what her military life might’ve been like, which is to say marginalized and bullied. What I’d like to try and prove with these books (and this blog post) is that these are the sequences of events that her life could have followed, but they would not have greatly affected the person of Molly Fyde. All these events could do (or not do) is reveal various layers and traits already dormant in her nature.
The conversation between Cole and the Bern Seer take this exploration right up to the surface. I wanted this to be the last thing in book three to highlight what book four would be about. If you’ll notice with each book, the last scene presages what the next book will be about. That is: the epilogues segue into the prologues. In the Land of Light’s epilogue, we are given a new theory of Free Will, posited by Cole and refined by the Seer: Free Will does not exist, but the idea of Free Will should, for just the notion of it affects our behaviors, or responses to one another, our culpability, and our expectations.
How different are Cole and Walter? Are they light years apart? Both grew up in slums. Both grew up in the shadows of “better and mystical” places (Cole with the better parts of Portugal and Walter with Earth). Both came of age in bands of boys going on raids, stealing, conning, lying, evading authority, etc… Both are bright, both are capable, both are able to worm their ways out of the packed soil of their cultures. Why are they so different, then? Why is one always willing to sacrifice for Molly, while the other is always willing to betray her? Culture can’t be the answer, for the horrors of Cole’s Portugal surely equal Walter’s Palan (I believe they exceed them. At least, I meant them to). The answer is inglorious, I’m afraid: Cole and Walter are different because they are different. Simple as that. The core identity of each was nearly fixed at birth, honed through experience, and revealed through their actions. Why does this make you, the reader, cringe? That’s the conundrum of their not being Free Will. Lets explore that feeling!
The Bern Seer asks Cole, “Could you have not fixed that leak?”
At first, we (and Cole) assume she means that he failed to perform the task. What she is really asking is if he could have refused. This irks Cole, but he eventually decides that he would not want to be the sort of person who would ever refuse to fix the leak, all other details of the scene being identical. There are many people who would, in that circumstance, find an excuse to not fix the leak. Their distaste for manual labor might be stronger than their honor. Their fear of not performing well might be stronger than their desire to help out. Any number of competing desires and motivations would cancel out or overpower in a particular way, leading to a different outcome. And here is where the idea of Free Will is flawed (and more cringe-worthy than predestination). If Cole were really free to decide, he could have been a person capable of saying “no.” That’s not who he is, or a person he would be proud of being. It’s not a character we would love the same way. The fact that he is constrained by his nature is a good thing, not a limitation. A true limitation would be the inherent chaos and randomness of Free Will. To be so malleable in our tastes and drives that any action is possible, any outcome just as likely, would be far worse than to be guided by our basic makeup.
The back stories for each character highlight this. Look again at the Poem of Madness at the beginning of The Fight for Peace:
Five links stand out in the chain that binds our will.
There’s the primal urges, wound tight in nucleotidal strands.
There’s the faith that surges through our clasped and superstitious hands.
There’s the politics of Kings and Queens, and their many rules.
There’s culture which forms mobs of motley fools.
Last comes our decisions, stacked up in piles of regret that we long to forget.
These five links stand out in the chain that binds our will.
They hold us, guide us, coerce us . . . and we rattle them still.
Here are five of the great limiters of our ability to choose our actions randomly (something I hope to have shows to be distasteful). They are not only in the order of the back stories to follow, they are in the order of their strength of influence on us (according to me). First we have our biological makeup, our DNA (the nucleotidal strands). These are revealed in the Wadi’s story, as her circular romp through the canyons follows her evolutionary drive from youth to giving birth. As much as the Wadi struggles against this route, she glides along it. The reason we can love and celebrate her is that her unique and wonderful makeup allows her to deviate more than most. Her drive, powered by an innate ability to love and to fight, eventually unlocks a type of Wadi youth that hasn’t been known on Drenard for millennia. This innate power and wonderfulness is why we love some characters and why they can effect incredible changes in their environment. This is the rattling of the chains.
Next we have superstition, which is tightly linked to our primal urges and is nested just below the influence of our DNA. Cole’s back story comes next and details his time with the Church, a time when he learned how vast and horrific conspiracies could be, and a time that sparked even further his latent distrust of authority. Cops with black eyes, Admirals shot through windows, brothers turned on each other to escape from Glemot, Navy men killed on the streets of Palan, a mother’s body unplugged before him, a best friend dead by his hands … are these the actions of our beloved protagonist and Molly’s true love? They are, but they are also the actions of a character consumed by his distrust. The question could be posed: is this distrust borne from his lack of a family in the slums of Portugal? To which I would ask: Did he reject his family due to a core distrust of authority? One cannot come before the other. They both are. Cole rattles his chain as he loves and trusts Molly. A pattern is forming that I hope the astute reader can see. Each back story ends precisely at the moment they are about to meet Molly for the first time. Molly, the enabler of our Free Will, as illusory and weak as it may be.
Kings and Queens are next. These are the cultural outcomes of an evolutionary tendency to form up around alpha males and females. This nests just below our superstition (which is just a pejorative term for linking cause and effect, however tenuous that link). Anlyn’s story is overtly about social order, bounding rules, the majesty and travesty of organized rule. She is born into a very hierarchical society, one that limits the freedom of its women in a callous attempt to “protect” them. Drenard has a strong royal system, one to which she belongs, but is rejected by due to her gender. She is simultaneously first in line to the throne, and powerless to ascend it. When she flees Drenard, her nature being one to avoid conflict, she finds herself in Darrin, where she is strapped down and forced to engage in warfare, something quite contrary to her nature. The result (more overt refutation of Free Will) is a descent into near-madness (which is what happens in the real world when organisms are forced to counter their innate urges). She becomes a shell of herself. An alpha female she never wanted, and must inhabit a zombie-like state in order to manage. When her chain is literally cut, she quickly reverts to her pacifism, begging Molly to never need to fly again. The rattling of her chain, of course, is the choice to subject herself to the discomfort of ruling in order to save others. Her larger sacrifice is mirrored in her back story. Just as she chooses a pacifistic path in the diverging canyon, and is later forced to fight in an attempt to save her cousin, in the larger scheme of things she finds herself moving from an ambassadorial campaign to leading a fleet of fighting ships. In the end, she accepts the rule of her people, but is able to do so only because the “hot” period of testosterone and war can be rejected for a “cooler” era of her choosing. Anlyn rattles her chain when she defies the social order and replaces it with her own. She can’t help but do this. We wouldn’t love her any other way. And again, Molly is, inadvertently in some ways, the impetus.
To not lose the reader in tedium, I’ll just note that Walter and culture come next, followed by Edison and decisions/regret. Edison’s back story was cut from the final draft due to length; I used Campton as a stand-in, which worked very well since they were accomplices and share the same burden of genocide. In many ways, Campton worked better since he was a lone observer of the calamity and all that followed, self-exiled as he was on the Orbital Station. I’ll end the discussion with a series of notes on Free Will which I hope will do several things: I hope these points will solidify the doubts of any who harbor them, cause those on the fence of this issue to lean in my direction, and form cracks in those who staunchly defend the illusion of Free Will.
First: If people are free, why do they choose unhappiness? This is the most damning evidence against Free Will. People not only spend much of their time unhappy, stressed, angry, upset, jealous, etc… They also tend to repeat the same mistakes and harmful patterns over and over, even as they profess a desire to refrain from these actions and emotions. The field of psychology rests on these trends. Were we all Free, we would surely use this mystical power to feel the way we want to feel, not the way our biology responds to our environment, forcing us to feel otherwise. Just by observation alone, Free Will does not exist.
Second: The only alternative to a core nature that guides our emotions and actions is either anarchy or randomness. Each of these is worse than possessing an innate “self.” Anarchy would mean no rules apply. Perhaps some magical or mystical “soul” or “spirit” guides us, which makes a mockery of freedom. Or perhaps everything we do is completely random, a most inglorious solution. For those who cringe that our innate goodness and faults might guide our life’s course, please consider how much worse anarchy and randomness are!
Third: Would we really want to be Free? Cole wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. The things that make me distinguishable as an individual are the reliable actions in particular scenarios. I can be counted on to fix the Seer’s leak. I can also be counted on to fail reliably in some ways. I would rather be bound to these courses, and rattle my chain as I attempt to better myself, than live under the illusion that I am “Free.”
Which brings me to my fourth point: Too much misery is caused by the notion that all our decisions are made in a vacuum and with perfect freedom. Evolutionary psychology does much to free us from the burden of our baser selves. Only by understanding how we are limited can we learn to appreciate our progress. There is freedom to be had in knowing in what ways we are slaves. Our behavior is much like bashing against glass walls that we cannot see. We bloody and bruise ourselves in confusion. We lash out against our urges, not even seeing them as such. We are left battered and helpless, scared of ourselves and our actions. But Oh! When we learn to see these walls. When we listen for the sounds of rattling chains, that awareness of our constraints frees us from fighting more than we can win! The fight for peace, which each of my characters wages and wins, comes as much from wise acceptance as from right action. The struggle takes place in the confines of our skulls. The victory is a mind at peace, in love, aware, finding beauty, guiding others, forgiving, learning patience, trusting, accepting ourselves, and creeping along for betterment.
The Bern Saga, in the end, isn’t about saving a universe. There are countless universes. Saving something even as vast as all that we can see with our most powerful telescopes is trite and meaningless on that scale. The Bern Saga is about saving ourselves, about living life to its fullest, about redemption and love. It is Lucin’s story, if it’s anyone’s. It is Mortimor’s story, perhaps most of all. Each of us is more unique than the unfathomable void in which we are fortunate enough to live in. What takes place within us, surely, is more spectacular than all the fireworks we can conjure beyond.