The topics and questions below are far from exhaustive, and I encourage you to come up with your own. If you’re not discussing Not Even Light with someone else, I hope that you’ll enjoy mulling over the questions by yourself.
The Future as Past
When I came across this quote from Natsuhiko Kyogoku after I had begun writing Not Even Light, it inspired me to think of my book as “a novel of the future as past.”
“Our future is just a past yet to arrive, our past a future come and gone.”
In what directions might someone’s life go if it were informed by the perception of time in the quote? How would our world be different from what it is if this perception of time were inherent in human consciousness? Someday our future will become someone’s past as in the case of Travis, his friends, the cobots, and the Meeks. They all judge us harshly. Do you think we deserve this judgment? Does it look at all likely that our species is going to do enough to save itself from the Long Last Days?
The Green Man
In NEL, the Green Man is a nightmarish bogeyman who, along with other freakish imaginary creatures, supposedly snares and savages the unwary traveler along the paths of the Big Woods. The farm olders frighten the kiddies with horrific stories of the Green Man, who is, in fact, an ancient symbol of rebirth and regeneration associated with the natural cycle of life and death and who might be considered a guardian of the forest. How might the long-term effects of the Long Last Days be related to the transformation of the Green Man from a positive force of nature to a man-killing ogre?
Sometimes characters’ names are chosen for specific reasons. For example, I gave Dyani her name because, as she herself explains, it means “deer” in her Native language. It also means “smart and swift.” Her name, then, connotes a person a bit on the wild side and capable of taking care of herself in the Big Woods. Her dog Stashi is named after my own dog, a lovely Brittany who was our family’s friend and companion for fifteen years. (NEL‘s Stashi, though, is much more growly.) The names of other characters are reflections of the book’s themes. Travis’s name comes from the French traverser, “to cross over.” Travis crosses over from one sort of life to another—and then some. The names of Teacher Avner, Dunc, Bors, Marek, the Meeks, Adahy, and Hadi are not randomly chosen, either. But, is it necessary to know their names’ origins? Would knowing that “Meeks” is an ironic comment on Matthew 5:5 or that “Avner” means “father of light” add significantly to your understanding of their roles in the story and their relation to important themes of NEL? What does your name mean? Does it in any way relate to the path your life has followed? If you have an opportunity to name someone, how will you decide what name to choose?
Luck and Determinism
What evidence is there that Travis and his acquaintances believe luck and randomness are significant and dynamic parts of their lives? Bors does hold with this view. In Chapter Six he kills a crow with a rock just before sending the crew on their quest for the Edit-H cache. He says: “I’d say ‘good luck’ to all of you, but really, there’s no such thing, is there? Not that crow’s lucky day, was it? One wonders what brought it to that particular branch of that particular tree at this particular time, doesn’t one? And where did that hand that threw that rock come from? What a chain of circumstance! What a linking together!” Why would Bors be likely to see the world as deterministic? At the end of NEL, Travis says that “our little army will do our best to keep hope a part of the new story we’ll create.” Is Travis being realistic? To what degree do you think that Travis, Dyani, Dunc, and Hadi can overcome the negative aspects of the post-apocalyptic world they live in? How much control over their lives do they have? To what extent are you able to overcome negative aspects of your reality? How much control do you think you have?
Astrophysicists tell us that once something, even light, crosses the event horizon of a black hole, it cannot escape its grip and vanishes from our perception forever. When he first hears of black holes from Teacher Avner, Travis is astounded by the concept which he soon transforms into a metaphor for his stunted life on White Cedars farm. Why does Travis, who Teacher calls a “bright spark,” feel nervous about leaving the farm where he says dreams are turned into a “gray, porridgy mush”? Why does he choose to take his chances in the Big Woods instead of becoming a teacher himself? What kinds of metaphoric black holes does Travis encounter on his journey to the Edit-H cache and back to Mount Forest? Though his crew destroys the Edit-H cache, how have they not completely escaped the effects of the social and cultural black hole the world has become in the aftermath of the Long Last Days? What black hole have the Meeks fallen into? What black hole do the cobots inhabit? Have you ever struggled to emerge from a black hole of your own? What resources did you employ to release yourself?
Jack and the Beanstalk
It’s a story most of us know—at least those of us of a certain age. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that many children today know the story of the legendary giant-killer. Somehow the story survives the Long Last Days, though, and Chapter 14 opens with Travis’s recollection of hearing the tale from a traveling storyteller. He says, “I could hardly keep the questions bubbling up in my head from spilling out and interrupting….” Why does this story excite Travis so much? In what ways do Travis’s questions relate to the quest theme of NEL? How would you answer Travis’s questions? When you first read or heard “Jack and the Beanstalk,” did any of these questions occur to you? What parallels do you find between Jack’s story and Tarvis’s?
The Three Paths
Dyani explains the clan tattoo she has on her cheek as follows: “We find and follow paths, and our mark stands for the three paths—one that threads together the moments of someone’s life, one that the tribe walks together, and one that leads to revelations.” How many paths do you think the average contemporary human consciously follows? Which of the three paths do you think is the most important for most people?
Travis refrains from telling us explicit details of his relationship with Dyani. Why? Would you expect this from someone raised in a post-apocalyptic setting? Is it consistent with his character? Is Travis prudish or is he being respectful of Dyani? Would his telling of his larger story be improved if he did reveal those details? Or is it better because he doesn’t? What do you think Travis sees as most attractive about Dyani? What does Dyani find attractive about Travis? If they find each other again, how do you imagine their relationship will develop?
Before working out your answers to the following questions, I recommend that you view “Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development: A Micro Lesson” on YouTube to have a common basis for discussion.
Which major NEL characters are the most morally developed? The least? What evidence from the story supports your answers? How would you characterize the level of moral development of the Meeks? the cobots? Why? To what stage of moral development would you assign those living today who would be most responsible for the Long Last Days to come?
Assume that humans eventually succeed in defining moral behavior objectively and precisely enough to develop algorithms that will enable a machine intelligence to make decisions about right and wrong in ways analogous to human moral reasoning. If in the future a machine’s programmed algorithms can consistently produce more evolved moral judgment than the conventional moral training of human beings, would it be prudent to allow them also to judge us? What dangers do you see in this. Bors’s morality is based on rules derived from observed human decision making regarding moral choices. At what stage of moral development is Bors? Though Bors is able to mimic human emotions, he has no feelings whatsoever. In NEL, when do human emotions support moral growth? In whom do they impede moral growth?
The song Hadi sings to himself in Chapter 14 comes from the fifteenth century anonymous poem “Western Wind.” Here it is in its entirety:
“Western wind, when wilt thou blow,/The small rain down can rain?/Christ, if my love were in my arms/And I in my bed again.”
Hadi, having read this poem years before in a book from a “two-shelf library” in Talking Trees farm, has invented his own version.
“Western wind c’mon ‘n’ blow. Pour down your cooling rain. Christ put my love back in my arms and light the world again.”
Some of the original poem’s expressed longing for cleansing and restoration, for stability and love carry over into Hadi’s version. But the last two lines are significantly different. Do you think Travis’s analysis of the last two lines of Hadi’s song are sound given the world he and Hadi inhabit?
The setting of NEL is the far future in what was once southern Ontario, Canada, and Western New York. Some name places have survived, but all the rigid national and regional boundaries imposed on the area have vanished, and it seems likely that the same is true for the rest of the world. This is a science fiction commonplace, yet it does raise significant questions about culture, society, and the individual. Who would enjoy living in a world without nationality and who would not? What kinds of people would be most likely to thrive in a setting like that of NEL. What kinds of people would be least likely to thrive? What human associations would be most effective in increasing the survival chances of their members? How would you fare in the Big Woods?
The Wizard of Oz
Cobots and Meeks and Flies, oh my! Some of the allusions to Oz jump off the page in NEL; others are more subtle. How many did you notice? In how many ways does the quest theme of NEL parallel that of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? In what major ways does the quest of Travis, Dunc, Dyani, and Hadi differ from that of Dorothy and her Ozite friends? In what ways are the endings of the stories very different?
Teacher Avner comes to White Cedars farm from a “brainery near Tronno (Toronto)” with his small library and an eye out for any “bright sparks” among the children of White Cedars farm. What would you suppose the principal objectives of education are during the times of NEL? How is Teacher different from the other olders of White Cedars farm? How different a person might Travis be without Teacher’s influence? What would you say is Teacher’s greatest contribution to Travis’s growth?
Donkey Cart and Barter Days
No money. No banks. No investments in stocks and bonds. No retirement savings or pensions. No crypto currencies. No non-fungible tokens. “Good scrip and real goods” are the means of exchange of things and services in the world of NEL. In our complex world supporting 7.9 billion people, this would clearly be an unworkable universal system. But suppose there were a global catastrophe that nearly annihilated the human population. What would you do in order to survive if money no longer had any value? How would you obtain goods to trade? What service would you have to offer in a post-apocalyptic world? In what ways would you have to change in order to survive in the world of NEL? What would your job prospects be?
No one knows where they come from, precisely what they look like, or what motivates them—which might be completely incomprehensible to humans. One thing they are not, though, is a deus ex machina.
Some time after their encounter with a Fly, Dyani says this to Travis: “Remember I told you about my clan mark, about the third path? Well, I sure feel like I’m on it now—and I hope you’ll be joining me soon. D’ya think the Flies are gonna walk with us, too?”
Travis replies: “Sorta. The feeling I’ve got is they’re not here to grab our hands and keep us from stumbling around like we’re kiddies learning to walk. They’re not our keepers, and they’re not really our friends. I think they’re watchers like you said, studying us and waiting to see what we’ll do next. They fanned a spark in you and me and got a fire going, and I believe they’re gonna whisper in the ears of anyone like us who shows a sign of wanting to keep us all from falling deeper into the black hole we’re in.”
What evidence from the story supports Travis’s interpretation of the role of the Flies in human affairs? Why might the Flies never have communicated with Hadi and his friends?