Through Joan Didion’s Looking Glass: A Review of Starhawk’s Novels

Reviewed: The Fifth Sacred Thing, Walking to Mercury, and City of Refuge, all by Starhawk. Discussed: Hippies, Earth Wind and Fire, Utopias, Problems Encountered When Writing Utopias, Counter-Cultural Trends, The Martian, Francis Bacon, and Humanistic Education.

To write Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion lived in the Haight-Ashbury back in ’68 and wrote about what she saw — a feeble attempt to form a counter-culture, a counter-culture which in her mind attracted nothing other than drugs, dropouts, and dramatis hippae. According to Didion, the people involved wanted little more than to either get high, join a club, not go to war, escape from their stuffy parents, or some combination thereof. Despite this, 1960's counterculture enjoyed such a degree of popularity that the governmental establishment criminalized pot as part of a perverse political strategy, and the cultural establishment created the musical Hair, which allowed audiences to happily rubberneck the hippy movement. Decades later, aspects of sixties counter-culture have recrudesced into mainstream culture, as evidenced by the rise of organic/ethical food, yoga, and meditation.

What would a whole city based on idealized counter-cultural principles look like? (Burning Man is out as a possible answer because it is a temporary party and not a stable society. That being said, the question of what Burning Man might be like if it were permanent is an interesting one — would the local culture evolve to include noise ordinances, insurance, and tent owners’ associations?) In other words, what was on the other side of what Didion was looking at?

The author Starhawk provides an answer via her apocalyptic, fantasy-romance utopian adventure series, comprised of The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993), its prequel, Walking to Mercury (1997), and its sequel, City of Refuge (2015).

The Fifth Sacred Thing takes its name from the so-called “classical elements” belief system (which is also responsible for inspiring the name Earth, Wind, and Fire). In the series, the portrayed utopia is organized around the principle that the four “elements” of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire are sacred and cannot be owned. When all four of these are tended for, the fifth sacred thing — spirit or love — can be found. Such an organizing principle is clearly at odds with the capitalistic and individualistic tenets of Western commodification; Starhawk does her best to illustrate how such a society could work.

In the books, said utopian society is San Francisco, also called “The North,” and in a sense, the utopia the real main character of The Fifth Sacred Thing. To use a lot of nouns in the hopes that I might disguise description for insight (a trick I learned from YouTube), this fictional San Francisco is a relatively nonhierarchical multicultural ecotopia, comprised of a racially diverse set of pagan, polyamorous, and feminist witches (both male and female), who run their matriarchal-leaning city on principles of permaculture, cooperation, and applied meditation. Los Angeles, by contrast, is a dystopian wasteland replete with a Fundamentalist and fascistic government, one which rations water, manufactures diseases and supplies immune-boosting antidotes to keep people in line, a strictly hierarchical culture based on power and fear, and a society in which people are forced to work (sometimes explicitly as slaves) or bred. It is a land in which any semblance of humanity (laughter, music, creative expression, etc.) has been thoroughly repressed. Rarely has the largely one-way Northern to Southern California cultural divide been so stark and caricatured.

The strongest part of the series is Starhawk’s seeming conviction that a utopian society like the type she envisions is possible. While the specific characters and plot of the book are fiction, the suggestion is that some of the ideas it is based on are not, more or less. (One clear exception: those parts necessary to balance out the antagonist’s power, ie. those parts which are necessary to move the plot along. ) The weakest parts of the series come when writing strains under the weight of shoe-horned ideas and philosophical underpinnings (of The North), or the ludicrously “evilized” South. I imagine everyone who reads the books will find them preachy. Some readers — those open to or interested in some or all of the ideas presented in the book — likely won’t care too much about the preachiness. Fans will also have to learn to gloss over other curious features of the writing, including a twee-like fascination with bad puns and what can only be described as a subtle defensiveness. For instance, more than once will a protagonist say something like “Well, I’ve long known that fiction is truer than non-fiction” in response to being questioned. This type of thing leads to the impression that the author is trying to talk directly to the reader, instead of letting you come to a conclusion implied by the writing.

As for the specific books themselves, here’s a brief rundown: in The Fifth Sacred Thing, the protagonist Maya Greenwood is a young doctor-healer who ventures down to the Southern wasteland while the armies of the South creep north towards her home. Which happens to be a society built more or less on peace and love and has chosen not to invest in anything remotely resembling conventional methods of defense. Walking to Mercury follows Maya’s grandmother’s internal and external journeys through a messy love triangle, a Nepalese trek, and an anti-nuclear-proliferation protest. In City of Refuge, Madrone and her partner Bird head down South in an attempt to inspire the locals and start a revolution. The Fifth Sacred Thing is the most visionary of the three novels, and because of this it is also the most notable (especially because it was published in 1993, well before some of the countercultural aspects upon which it is based became popular.)

Dystopias seem easier to write than utopias. To write a dystopia, all one has to do is imagine the world, but worse, more corrupt, less humane, more insensitive, and more full of poorly designed systems. Utopias, on the other hand, are hard because for them to be plausible, exciting, and visionary, the author must be able to write about societal systems that are both sufficiently novel, allowing the reader to get excited, and sufficiently detailed, so that the reader can buy in. Technically speaking, an author writing a utopia can either a) rethink and reinvent aspects of society from the ground up, or b) bring together enough non-mainstream but workable social systems to render the society plausible. Starhawk has chosen the latter strategy, and generally succeeds, especially in The Fifth Sacred Thing. For instance, instead of reinventing a new religion and set of cultural traditions, the San Francisco ecotopia (later named “Califa” in City of Refuge) embraces many of them — including those from Pagan, Jewish, and liberal-Christian traditions. Curiously, of the world’s major religions, Islam and Hinduism aren’t mentioned.

In addition to the feats of imagination, dystopias seem easier to write than their utopic cousins due to the practical problem of character motivation. Basically, there’s a certain level of individual emotional maturity implied by an extremely free and open society. Such maturity necessarily means that there is little interpersonal drama, which is one of the major sources of tension that so often causes PLOT. It also means that characters are less likely to have conflicting motivations, which is another impetus for characters to a) make mistakes and b) grow from them.

For example, in a society where everyone’s needs are met, no one is isolated, and issues of ego are kindly recognized for what they are and humanely treated, it seems very unlikely that a person would be motivated by revenge, jealousy, narcissistic tendencies, or anything that could result from them using emotional suppression as an internal emotional regulation strategy.

For another example, take unrequited love, that classic element of plot and character development. Surely in a society of extremely mature people, the average person’s psychological organization is such that they wouldn’t romanticize people who aren’t interested in them, because they aren’t feeling lonely, isolated, or alienated, and it isn’t a healthy habit? To put it another way, narratively speaking, how much of Grey’s Anatomy might evaporate on contact with characters who are all experts at processing their own feelings, who can set strong emotional boundaries, and are masterful communicators?

Some utopias, including the one imagined by Issac Asimov in his Foundation series, and in the utopia imagined in what seems to be one of Asimov’s main inspirations, New Atlantis by Francis Bacon, are best classified as intellectual utopias. (Asimov’s utopia is run on principals of technology; Bacon’s utopia is run on principles of science, knowledge gathering, and empirical methods.) However, in an emotionally utopian society like the kind Starhawk envisions, the main tensions must come from either a) the outside, b) newcomers who haven’t yet done their work or realized they have work to do, or c) young people who haven’t yet grown up. All three elements are present through out Starhawk’s series.

From a character point of view, some of the thinnest parts of the series are when people from The North are portrayed as having normal-to-our society-like issues (for example, burnout and alienation). In fairness, this is a thorny problem for authors, for it is just at the edge of how readers and writers understand fiction to work. Not that it is an impossible problem — The Martian shows that there is an appetite for practically no character growth, and only one, un-conflicting motivation (to get home). Most of the entertainment value in The Martian comes from watching the main character solve problems.

In The Fifth Sacred Thing, and City of Refuge, Starhawk solves the utopian problem with the dystopian foil. Walking Towards Mercury, which is more experimental in form, side-steps the issue because it takes place prior to the utopia being formed. I found City of Refuge clunky, because it isn’t grounded in the same kind of utopian envisioning that grounds The Fifth Sacred Thing. And while Starhawk’s writing improves over the course of the three books, the latter two don’t capture the same energy as the first one. If you only pick one, I’d go with The Fifth Sacred Thing.

Despite the at-times awkward writing, awkward plot devices, and faith-based declarations which no character could think to re-skin in different words, Starhawk’s series makes you wonder what society would be like if it weren’t for the psychopaths and low-empathy, greedy people. Perhaps more than anything else, Starhawk vision implies a trauma-free or fully healed society. With neither friction nor trauma nor abuse nor social isolation nor income inequality, there is no explicit police department (though there are mediators) because there aren’t impulses to crime. If only organizing a society around the four classical elements were that easy… and if only organizing a society around such principles would guarantee such results!

Funnily enough, the idea of the four sacred elements is used to a great effect (and possibly great affect) as an internal organizing framework in The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You, by Kara McLaren. This book is the most internally oriented book I’ve read, and I’ve been intentionally looking for such work for several years. (The only other book that comes close is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication.) It is tempting to think that society en mass reflects something about how individual psyches are organized. People have said that one’s interpersonal relationships mirror one’s intrapersonal relationship. If society is composed of nothing more than interpersonal relationships, then the ideas contained in McLaren’s book would seem to be a key ingredient. Whether this would lead to the literal society portrayed by Starhawk seems unlikely — McLaren is not about worshipping water, for instance, only using it as a metaphor to describe how emotions flow in and out of consciousness instead.

While society is in fact composed of more than just interpersonal relationships (people relate to ideas, institutions, groups, and so on), perhaps it is high time we start educating children about inter- and intrapersonal relationships. Because it seems very likely that to get any closer to a utopian society, we will have to add “How People Work” as a subject taken at many different grade levels, in addition to Science, Math, History, and Language Arts.

Until then, it will be up to fiction authors to sell us on their vision.

Data Scientist. Writer. Humanist

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