The Worthing Chronicle is a novel originally published in 1983 by American author Orson Scott Card (Of Ender’s Game fame), and follows the experience of a young man named Lared as he is exposed to dream memories of a fantastic past and a troubling present. A meditation on society, control, longevity and the dangers of too much power, The Worthing Chronicle is a very interesting read.
If you would be a God, you must pay the price.
Jason Worthing was a telepath, and the best of the ark captains sent to conquer and seed humankind anew on a hundred new worlds.
He vowed that his new-world would be different from the stagnant one he had fled. He established his colonists and his descendants; and when he was sure that they would survive, he sealed himself in the last somec chamber in all the galaxy, triggered to awaken him when his world had built a new civilization.
But using somec to disturb and manipulate the natural course of life cultivated dangers of its own…
Having read The Worthing Chronicle I’m not entirely sure which side of its own argument it comes down on. We have a society that was becoming stagnant and decadent because all of the brilliant minds were rewarded by longer and longer periods in stasis, meaning they had no real time to actually do anything productive. This society is essentially destroyed for the greater good of the species by a character who goes on to basically be thought of as the devil, and the character of Jason Worthing goes on to essentially become the God of a new society. Of course, he decides to keep the whole ‘keeping important people in stasis’ thing going ‘just for a little’ until everything gets set up. By the time he decides to go to sleep until civilisation has sort of reasserted itself, he comes out to find out that basically one society is using their psychic powers to essentially keep everybody else happy in the pure sense by literally changing their memories of things and healing them to keep them living entirely free from negative consequences of any element of life.
I think that as a result of the rather heavy-handed religious overtones of all of the flashback content of the story, I was actually more interested in the travails of the poor folk of Lared’s village as they had to come to terms with the fact that there were no longer powerful beings watching their every move and keeping them safe. It was thought provoking to say the least. To consider what would happen in a society where basically nothing could hurt you and nobody died except of old age. The fact that they ended up developing a whole bunch of superstitions and traditions that would have been insanely dangerous otherwise speaks to the idea that fear of consequences educates a lot of our behavior, but it really didn’t feel applied in a reasonable way. Any society that, because of no consequences, has a coming-of-age tradition involving throwing somebody on a raft and setting them on fire would certainly not bother with things like stairs down from the second floor of a building when they could just hop out a window.
It seems maybe a bit of an odd quibble to have, but when a large part of the plot of this story is the character largely responsible for this state of affairs trying to justify to Lared why suddenly there is pain and loss and death, and we’re dealing with people being traumatized by the new state of affairs, kids sleeping too close to the fire and rolling in, and people accidentally hitting themselves with axes, a lot of the other elements of their society seem to account for the things we consider obvious risks and consequences that they never would have. Why did they cook meat properly if they’d never have been allowed to get food poisoning? Why do they have private bathrooms if they’d just be made to clean up after themselves and have their memories removed about it happening? Even having houses at all started because shelter protected you from predators and weather. They didn’t care about the consequences of just enough things to make it a salient plot point when they suddenly had to deal with those consequences, but nothing more.
While I appreciate any novel that is going to provoke some thought about the greater nature of the universe, it felt a little heavy-handed and obvious. When your story hinges on the philosophical questions you’re posing, and the wrangling with them done by the characters, it shouldn’t be so easy to sum up the whole of your point in one sentence. “Happiness is meaningless without negative emotions to work in contrast” is literally the whole of this novel, with maybe a subtext of “Stagnation breeds decadence” which is more a variant of the former than a separate concept.
But then, despite being the very entry-level version of the philosophical concepts it espoused, The Matrix was still a perfectly good movie, and by the same token, The Worthing Chronicle was a perfectly good book. The concepts will be novel to some, or at least novel in this particular arrangement, and even if you see where he’s going with it, it is a well-written journey. The flashbacks involving Abner Doon in particular were interesting to read, and watching Lared’s village struggling and dealing with suddenly having a personal concept of fear was probably the best part of the book. Worth reading as part of eventually getting to all of Card’s works, and worth reading on its own if you like to have some philosophy and existentialism in your SFF. I wouldn’t start reading Card with this though, for that you still need to hit up Ender’s Game (And don’t see the movie).
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Endeavour Press via NetGalley