In the article I discussed in my previous post, David Brin argued that a rigidly hierarchical pyramidal social structure was an “attractor” in the mathematical sense of the word: a pattern or shape towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve.
I’ve often seen Dark Eden described as a ‘dystopian’ novel but, though life may seem grim in Eden, the society itself, as described at the beginning of the book, is actually in many ways utopian. It has not settled into one of those rigid hierarchical pyramids. There are no distinctions between rich and poor; women are at least as powerful as men; murder and rape are unknown.
In the second Eden novel (Mother of Eden) all this has changed. Most of Eden has succumbed to the pyramidal attractor, and the majority of its population live in one of two highly stratified societies, one founded by John Redlantern, the other ruled by the descendants of David Redlantern. In the case of the ‘Johnfolk’ at least, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are really no more than serfs, ruled over in a more-or-less feudal way, by ‘chiefs’ who are the heirs of those who were John’s lieutenants in his protracted struggle against the Davidfolk. The great rift in Eden’s human community that was depicted in the first book, was the catalyst which set in motion the process of stratification which also included the increasing dominance of men over women.
One of the things I was interested in exploring in Mother of Eden is how those hierarchies work. My main protagonist, Starlight Brooking, comes from one of the few remaining exceptions to the pyramidal norm, and she finds it bewildering that such a very number of people can exercise so much control over so many. Why don’t the people at the bottom of the pyramid simply refuse to do what they’re told?
She discovers there are many reasons, one of which is the fact that the system of stories and beliefs which people use as their source of meaning has, to to speak, been rigged so that it bolsters the status quo. Another is a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ kind of paradox: yes, if all the ‘small’ people rose up together, they could defeat the ‘big’ people, but if some stand up to the big people and the others don’t take their side, they’ll end up a lot worse off than they would have been if they kept their heads down. Another again is that even people who seem low down in the pyramid, and look like they are getting a pretty bad deal, do in fact turn out to have at least some stake in in maintaining the structure as it is.
I won’t say how it all works out for Starlight, but I will say that I think people sometimes forget that last point when they are thinking about politics in the modern world. It simply isn’t the case that the world can be divided up in ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the rest of us’, however much we’d like to place ourselves squarely on the side of the good guys. In a country like the UK, even middle-income people who don’t think of themselves as especially well off are, by global standards, not only very rich, but quite possibly richer (at least in purely material terms) than will ever be possible for the human race as a whole.