For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Waitomo Glow Worm Cave, New Zealand (c)

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I love living in the future. I love that my smartphone may be used as a compass, as a camera, as an e-book reader, and as a gaming machine. I love that there are such things as e-readers so I don’t have to carry five books in my purse all the time. I love that I can access any tv show or movie that I want through my PS3 or through my laptop through internet streaming services. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; there are so many aspects of 21st Century life that seem to commonplace to us now, but would’ve been so amazing even to younger versions of us twenty or thirty years ago. Technology has made our lives easy, amazing, and comfortable.

Some technological improvements seem like witch’s curses though, like “Sure, Miss Mermaid, I’ll give you legs, but you won’t have a voice” type of deals. Genetic modification of agriculture results in pest-resistant and higher-yield crops, but these super-crops harm the local ecosystems and encourage the development of super-weeds and super-pests. Medication has been developed as therapy for detrimental diseases and conditions, but the side effects are just as bad as the sickness themselves. And, closer to home, the internet and www were conceived as the great social equalizer, enabling people to share their ideas and to communicate on a global scale — and people just use it to post cat pictures (hey!) and to bully and send hurtful and hateful messages anonymously. This novel asks the question, “what happens when the use of technology goes too far?” or “would we all be better off if technology wasn’t available in the first place?”

This was where the evil began. What was the harm, the Lost used to say, in creating a wheat strain with a shorter growing time, one that would produce more grain per stalk? What was the harm in devising a plant with such a complete array of nutrients that it would render growing anything else for food pointless? What about a plant that could subtly poison the ground so as to make it only capable of providing sustenance for that kind of plant? What about extrapolating all of that beyond the world of plants–to animals? To people?

For Darkness Shows the Stars is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the idea of technological innovation is forbidden. In this universe, people are grouped by a strict caste system: they were either a Luddite, Reduced, or Post.

Many generations earlier, a good number of the population, the “Lost”, reveled in technology and all its benefits. They invented things, created new species of plants and animals, and had genetic enhancements to themselves and their unborn children. But something went wrong; instead of being enhanced, the children of the Lost ended up incapable of higher levels of thought and speech. This event became known as the Reduction, where the children of the Lost almost became like true children who needed to be cared for. The Luddites, as their name implies, were the group of people who were against technology; because of the Reduction, they ended up in the side of right and were now tasked with running the world and its Reduced population.

The last caste is the Post, also known as the Children of the Reduced (COR). Where the Reduced are lacking, the Posts are born with normal intelligence and capabilities. However, as children of the Reduced, they are still treated with the same distance (and even disdain) by the Luddite upper caste.

This is the universe where the story’s heroine, Elliot North, resides; a world where the caste, not the individual, is what matters the most.

For Darkness Shows the Stars is inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, however you didn’t need to have read the Austen to appreciate this work. The set-up, the names, and certain events were definite shout-outs to Persuasion, but Diana Peterfreund has created in this book a hybrid that incorporates the spirit of Austen with 21st century sensibilities.

For instance, Elliot North is much more outspoken and willful than Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. Elliot takes over the management of the estate, while her indolent father and sister pose and preen and spend money they don’t have. Baron North, her father, is also a far more cruel character than the merely vain Sir Walter Elliot. He prides himself on being a true Luddite, imposing his will not only on his real children but also the welfare of the Reduced under his estate’s care. This creates the tension between father and daughter — Elliot grew up thinking of the Reduced and Posts as her friends. She doesn’t think of them as sub-human, as mere workers on her family’s estate. She actually befriends a Post boy born on the same day she was, a boy named Kai.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil everything for you. If you love Austen’s romance, this novel will have it for you in droves. If you are like me, and appreciate Austen’s quiet brand of social commentary, boy, this book was made for you. I really enjoy Peterfreund’s approach to science and technology here: she’s not saying that all technology is bad and will cause the downfall of the human race, but rather, that it should be tempered with caution. The Lost wanted to alter nature to benefit themselves, not realizing that the consequences of their actions wouldn’t affect them, but their children and their children’s children.

It is not all without hope, however. The emergence of the Post-Reduction proves that no matter how beaten down the human race gets, it will continue to get back up. That no matter how much we humans screw with nature and the universe, it will still take care of us and put us back on the right track.

This post is part of #RRSciFiMonth hosted by RinnReads


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