For Darkness Shows the Stars

darnessBy Diana Peterfreund


A post-apocalyptic retelling of Persuasion. It’s Jane Austen. And it’s Sci Fi. It’s a Jane Austen Sci Fi. Is it my birthday?? It’s like someone reached into my brain, took the two things I love most, and combined them together to make a book.

Hundreds of years ago, humanity tampered with nature. They tampered with crops, first to make them yield higher crop ratios, then to use as weapons. They tampered with animals, creating strange hybrid creatures. And they tampered with themselves, playing with genes to give themselves faster reflexes, higher intelligence, stronger muscles. But in playing with their own DNA, they caused something terrible: their children were Reduced – born with a lower intelligence so that they could only say a few words and do simple tasks. The only ones that were spared were the Luddites, who refused to take the gene treatments, and hid themselves away on their remote island in caves. After the great war, the Luddites are the only ones left, along with their Reduced workers. But now, several generations later, something is happening – Reduced are giving birth to children with higher brain functions, ones who are just as capable of intelligence as the Luddites. These post-reductionists work on the Luddite farms, but not all of them are happy with their lives there.

Elliot North is a Luddite, heir to their refusal to accept technology, as well as to the family farm. She tries to keep the farm running, and curb the excesses of her father, Baron North, and her sister Tatiana. But Elliot has a secret. She once loved a Post boy named Kai, but refused to run away with him when he left the farm. Now, four years later, several rich Posts have rented her grandfather’s shipyard, and Kai is among them. But he doesn’t love her, not any more. And she doesn’t love him either, despite what she begins to feel for him again. Or so she tells herself.

I thought this book was great. It took a little while to get the hang of the jargon, as it always does in a sci fi, but once I figured out what a Post and a Reduced was, it was all good. The apocalypse scenario was pretty cool, and quite plausible. It definitely could happen that in manipulating DNA, we would make our children into a lower intelligence. As stuck up as Luddites like Elliot’s father are, you can see where they’re coming from. It’s not that they think themselves superior to the Reduced – they are superior. And their ancestors were the smart ones, shunning technology and hiding in caves until the danger is over.

I love Persuasion. It’s such a deep, sad, regretful book. You can feel dear Jane wishing she’d made different choices in life. Anne is a woman looking back on her past choices and regretting what she did in the name of propriety and family, instead of following her own instincts. But, I must admit, Anne’s a little boring sometimes. You can’t blame Capt. Wentworth for overlooking her when they meet again – she’s become a pretty dull little mouse. But Elliot, Elliot has some flare. Unlike Anne, who takes insults quietly, Elliot fights back when Kai is unkind to her. She stands up for herself when she has to, even without the backing of a Lady Russell figure.

The story didn’t follow Persuasion exactly (pretty hard to do considering the sci fi setting), which I really liked. It diverged enough to be its own story, while still following the general outline of the original. I could follow along to what was happening, while still being surprised by clever turns in the narrative. That’s what i like to see in these kinds of stories. Use the original as a jumping off point, but by all means, have your own plot. Even have some  twists, that’s totally ok. If you can make a dyed in the wool Janeite like me surprised by your story, you’re doing something right.

There’s even a healthy dose of social commentary there, as a good sci fi stories should have. The Luddites use the Reduced for menial tasks, as that’s all they can really handle. The trouble comes when they continue to use Posts like that, even though Posts have a normal intelligence. Basically, the Posts are slaves on their estates. So they keep the class problem between Anne and Capt. Wentworth, but make it more pronounced – Kai is a Post, and therefore below Elliot’s notice, except as a worker on her farm. Even though he comes back from his travels fabulously wealthy, he is still of lower social standing than her. It harkened back to the plantation days in the American south, and the prejudices that people still carry, even today.

I didn’t know what to make of the anti-technology bent of the Luddites. On the one hand, you can’t stay still forever, and innovation is essential if you don’t want to stagnate. On the other hand, their ancestors had only survived because of this anti-technology stance, and dabbling in that kind of genetic manipulation again could lead to the same consequences. So I get Elliot’s dilemma, and it’s an interesting one. I’m just not sure I would have made the same choices that she makes, considering that she thinks the future of her whole world is at stake.I would have liked to see this dilemma explored a little more, rather than swept aside in favour of the romance. I thought the resolution to this dilemma was a little too quick, considering how Elliot has been agonizing over it. She should have come to terms with it a bit more slowly, rather than all at once.

One part I thought slowed down the book considerably were the letters between Elliot and Kai, starting from when they were children. As you know, dear readers, I’m never a fan of letters. They always slow the action down to a grinding halt. These letters are used to the story of Elliot and Kai’s friendship in flashback, but I found it disjointed that one set of letters would be from four years ago, and the next from eight years ago. They were infrequent enough that I had forgotten their context by the time I came on the next one, and was confused that they didn’t follow in sequence. I’ve got nothing against telling a story in flashback, but the jumping around in time was confusing for me.

Also, a tiny bit disappointed that with a title like that, this didn’t take place is space. Dear Jane would work great in space. Maybe there’s an opening in the literature for a humble writer such as myself?

Overall, this book combined two things I never had enough imagination to think would go well together, and made them into something that just fit. Dear Jane’s books are about people, not about places, which is why we still love them 200 years after they were written. And if people never change, why not have the story set in a post-apocalyptic future? Works for me.

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