I recently finished Marissa Meyer’s book Cress. It’s the third installment in her Lunar Chronicles series.
What follows here is less a review and more a discussion of something I realized when I finished this particular book, but which has been there all along, gently teasing at the edges of my mind and tugging at the corners of my heart…
There might be mild spoilers, but I don’t think so. All the same, if you’re worried, go out, buy Cinder, Scarlet and Cress (and pre-order Fairest) and get reading and then come back and join the conversation.
Okay, disclaimers over – diving in.
I fell in love with Cinder the moment I saw the cover. It’s brilliant, and it describes the book perfectly.
Then I read it and I loved it even harder. The writing is brilliant, the characters are true, the story is mind-blowing. I became an instant “Lunartic.”
Scarlet upped the ante again, adding whole new layers of depth and intrigue to the story, enriching the world Marissa Meyer has created. It provided another 36 hour reading marathon and a book hangover so heavy it appears I forgot to review it.
And now Cress. This is by far and away the best book in the series to date.
I read it strictly for pleasure, no sticky notes in hand, no intention to review or discuss it. But this one – stuck with me. In a way that the others didn’t. (The others stuck, but just as fun books I can’t wait to foist on every person I know who is over the age of 12, and a few who are younger…)
Perhaps it is just the timing of this one, but I realized as I read Cress that it was challenging some important notions, pushing some important boundaries, encouraging some important discourse. I’ve read a few reviews to see if anyone else is talking about this, I couldn’t find anything. And I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of the author, or just me imposing my political views on these books – but… There is a deep brilliance in these books.
As I read Cress it hit me.
Marissa Meyer is challenging us to re-examine our definition of “human” of “citizen” of “us.”
I suppose in a way this is a common theme in sci-fi, where there are all sorts of sentient beings co-existing and we are challenged to find the “human” within the alien. Honestly, that has always been one of the strongest draws for me to sci-fi and speculative fiction – this expansion of what counts as humanoid.
But there is something deeper and more direct going on in the Lunar Chronicles. The Lunar Chronicles directly challenge our narrow definition of “human” in ways that many other stories do not. In much sci-fi, the aliens are still aliens. Sure we may parlay with them, work with them, coexist with them – they are humanoid, but they are not human. We may grant them the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as humans, but there is a subtle undercurrent that says we can revoke that decision at any time.
We have leveled the playing field, but we reserve the right to pull the aliens out of the game if we perceive them as a threat to us winning. Like the USA did to Japanese Americans during World War II.
And this is how things begin in the Lunar Chronicles. There are various us/them groups and splits and divisions. There are the Earthens – humans. But within that group there are also cyborgs (Hello Cinder!) who while still technically human, are legally “less than” to compensate for being mentally & physically “more than.” Not to mention the androids, who are just AI machines, or is Iko more than that?
And then there are the Lunars – and within the Lunars there are subgroups such as “shells” – Lunars with no powers, Lunars who may as well be Earthen – but who are actually more powerful than Earthens because they are immune to the power of other Lunars. Then there are the queen’s wolves, genetically enhanced killers programmed to do the Lunar queen’s bidding. And the Thaumaturges – the powerful leaders of the queen’s army.
In Cinder and Scarlet as all of these groups were introduced, we were encouraged to see the differences, we were encouraged to understand the strife keeping them all apart. But in Cress, as the “tower” (a satellite) falls, so too does the illusion of separateness begin to crumble.
We begin to see, and understand, and feel the innate humanness of all of these groups. We are challenged to break down the mental barriers that have been built up and see past the prejudices to the deeper truth.
Lunars began as humans. Despite a despotic ruler, Lunars are human still. Just as Japanese Americans were still Americans, whether we could bring ourselves to see it or not.
We see Cinder’s existence challenge Prince Kai’s notion of humanity – can she still be fully human as a cyborg? As a Lunar? Can he still love her?
We see Wolf challenge everyone’s notion of humanity, including his own – he’s not only a Lunar, he’s also genetically altered and enhanced to be a killer. Can his core human override his animal programming? (An analogy to The Hulk would not be out-of-place here.)
What about Cress? She is Lunar, yes, but she is a shell – her own people were supposed to have killed her as an infant. She is feared by them for her ability to resist their control, and feared by Earthens because of her birth place. But inside, is she really so different? Is she any less worthy of human dignity, human respect, human rights?
When I look at the world Marissa Meyer is building, I see the parallels on our own world – the divisions of “us” and “them”, the ideas that the strong must be limited to protect the weak, but in a weird contradiction – that the weak are also somehow simultaneously less worthy of the full set of rights, responsibilities and privileges that come with full citizenship. I see the same lines being drawn around different groups, trying to define them, designate them, shield them from others and others from them.
But, in Cress, I see the beginning of hope – the beginning of a better way, the start of understanding and compassion.
And it begins on a personal level. It begins with people willing (or forced through sheer dumb luck and rabid desperation) to engage “the enemy,” to extend the smallest amount of wary, guarded trust… And I see it build out from there.
This is something that I see here in our world too. Yes, there are many people who have created bubble-wrapped echo chambers, online, in social media, in personal interactions, in the news they watch and read – selecting only those sources that reinforce their world view and tell them they are right and the others are Others – strange, incomprehensible & scary.
But more and more, I am seeing a brave few break down their own walls and start following, reading, engaging “Others” only to discover that they are more alike than anyone ever told them.
I remember the last time I got arrested in China. (For those who don’t know, I was arrested in China 3 times in a 3 month period with my parents. Long story.) We had finally made it to Beijing, we had just gotten our hotel room for the night. We thought we were in the clear. And then the police knocked on our door. To be fair, it was the nicest interrogation we had on our journey. The captain took us out to a restaurant and asked us about our trip, where we went, who we talked to, what our purpose was in going places we weren’t allowed to be, whether we took any pictures, etc. The interrogation took long enough that his officers had plenty of time to ransack our room, make copies of our journals, run background checks using our passports, etc. and determine that we were probably not spies.
At the end of the interrogation, I remember the police captain offered his hand to my father and then pulled him in for a hug. There were genuine tears in his eyes when they pulled apart. “I have been told my whole life that you are the enemy. That America is evil and corrupt. That you are poisoning the world. But now I have met you, and I see that we are not so different at all. We both want our children to be healthy and get good educations. We both want good food for our families, and to be able to provide shelter and clothing for them. We want to live our lives in peace. I think maybe that all over the world, this is true. I think maybe people are all the same, we all want the same things. I think maybe my government, and your government are wrong. I think maybe they should have dinner together and talk and maybe they will see this too.”
And then he walked us back to our hotel room, talking and laughing and crying some more with us.
When I travel, that is why I travel – yes to see the different ways that people express their humanity, but also to remind myself that at the end of the day, we are all far more alike than we are different. We are all striving for the same goals. We all want the same basic things – to take care of ourselves and the people we love. While we might live under different governments and different faiths – at the end of the day we’re all citizens of this planet, and we are all equally deserving of the same basic human rights and the same compassion. When we allow ourselves to drop our shields and engage “the enemy” with an open mind, we often discover that we’re standing on the same common ground, striving to reach the same common goal – we’re just taking a different path to get there.
Cress pushes this idea of expanded humanity, expanded citizenship even wider – challenging us to take off our “us” and “them” lenses and see past our divisions and our prejudices to look for and hold dear the common humanity that we all share and begin to build a better world based on that.