Podcast Episode: Non-Conflict in Rejoice

“When selfishness becomes a pathology, there will be many innocent victims.” That is one of the many brutal truths of human behaviour explored in a modern take on first-contact sci-fi. I’m talking about Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson.

Let’s get this book undone.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today we will discuss Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart written by Steven Erikson… and yes, this is the same Steven Erikson who authored the famous Malazan Book of the Fallen. I discovered Rejoice after it was recommended by a BookTuber I deeply respect, Jarrod from The Fantasy Thinker, and bought the book while watching his video! I was convinced that quickly!

There will be two episodes for Rejoice. Part One is this: my usual deep-dive into the book themes, and part Two is a Guests Talk with other BookTubers–so stay tuned for it!

That said, let’s start with the usual disclaimers. First, there are spoilers in this podcast. Second, you will hear my subjective analysis of this book, so you’re allowed and entitled to disagree and differ.

So, what is it about? What are the themes of Rejoice?

The story begins on a Canadian morning when a fictional sci-fi author (Samantha August) is notably abducted by aliens. She’s taken to the spaceship orbiting the moon, where she meets an alien artificial construct named Adam, who explains he’s here on behalf of three alien species to perform an intervention on Earth–and they want Samantha to be their spokeswoman. Therefore, in the chapters where she’s on the spaceship, they debate about the intervention’s consequences, while other chapters follow different peopleas they experience this phenomenon, from premiers to engineers, from abused housewives to recovering drug addicts.

Rejoice is often considered a book about post-scarcity… but I disagree. We don’t see much of the post-scarcity within this novel, but rather how Adam removes the underlying obstacles that prevent post-scarcity from happening and the socio-economic dilemmas that unfold. These dilemmas are two of the episode’s subthemes, namely:

  • Humanity’s lack of empathy, and
  • Conflict and competition as the baseline of our social constructs.

As I see it, Rejoice presents these subthemes as caused by a single underlying factor–violence (both mental and physical), and how violence against everything is, actually, humanity’s identity. It is a sorrowful concept, but one quite truthful given our warring history.

Let me quote the book to explain this. Early on, we meet Casper, an arms dealer in the Middle East, who thinks of violence as humanity’s underlying factor by saying,

“There were plenty of international agreements and prohibitions against selling arms to known terrorists, warlords, and death squads. But the truth was, everyone mostly looked the other way. War was a good business, after all, and good business kept the world machine well lubricated. The gears needed turning in that machine, and blood worked as well as oil."

Nevertheless, Rejoice explores humanity’s violence both towards other life forms on our planet, and between humans. Let’s tackle them in order.

At the start of the book, Adam (the alien AI) raises some force-fields preventing humans from harming animals and vegetation. These barriers expand, displacing populations away from rainforests, national parks, and sections that were migration corridors… and logically causing massive population displacement, affecting food distribution (since cattle and crops are lost) and other markets (since oil pipes and mines can’t be accessed).

Of course, this takes humanity by surprise, and politicians scramble to understand what’s happening amidst an economic downfall… which, from our current perspective, can be reasonable as the government structure is a machine often slow to react, and built to consider multiple aspects of society, with sovereignty being one.

Yet the goal of Rejoice is to explore the validity of these very same arguments, and does so through Samantha (the abducted writer). While on the spaceship, she watches this unfold and voices her concerns about driving poor people away from their homes. Adam, the AI, states, “At present, many nations possess the wherewithal to manage this displacement. Food is plentiful, transportation capable, labour available. If humans are suffering, it is due exclusively to lack of will on the part of fellow humans.” Samantha replies, “Because of the political complexity. Sovereignty, logistics, the cost.”

She makes a sensible point, because imagine what would happen if, out of the blue, an entire country lost access to all its farms, or all its cattle, and so on; scarcity would take hold, populations would go unfed, food would become extremely expensive, and even a quote-on-quote “luxury” good. To worsen things, imagine that such scarcity and displacement is caused by an unknown alien that is clearly many orders of magnitude more advanced than humanity. As I see it (and in alignment with Samantha’s argument) the first reaction would be to find the aliens, stop the forcefields, and prevent foreigners from getting in because the lack of food is already starving/displacing your own citizens… right?

Well, no. That argument I just did, that sequence of steps is only valid within the current mindset all governments have. It’s like following the steps of a recipe that we know has already failed. If you replace the quote-on-quote “alien” with any other event (from natural catastrophes to newly appointed rulers), how many times in history have we seen similar steps being applied only to end up with misery, diseases, homeless humans, and broken economies? Unfortunately, too often–and that is the point that Rejoice makes.

In the book, as so often happens in life, instead of attempting to figure out what’s happening while helping those displaced, politicians only care about the quote-on-quote “invasion” of sovereign land, both from humans being forced to move and from aliens theoretically enforcing new rules on human soil. And if you think of it, that way of prioritising the event while fostering further division… is human.

It is based on our own, made-up rules needed to co-exist–which apply until an external event mandates a change. It has happened throughout human history, and it happens in the book through Adam’s intervention. Rules are never static; we, humans, are perennially changing, both at an individual and social level, while there are also external, unstoppable events that trigger that change. This change will always challenge the equilibrium that a way of being enforces during a period of perceived balance, thus bringing in a new way of being.

Where am I going with this? To the same point that Rejoice goes. That change is unstoppable and that, because of it, now and then the old ways don’t work anymore, and we are required to think outside the box. You’ll see that this idea repeats quite a bit throughout the book.

But going back to the plot, there is nothing humane about how the in-book human governments behave. They focus on figuring out the force-fields, expel the human invaders, and kill the aliens–the displacement and the scarcity doesn’t matter. Therefore, the international situation tenses and some countries threaten others with war if the displacement across borders isn’t contained.

While this happens, Samantha accuses the AI of being heartless since the AI (at the start of the book) was not “making up” for the governments’ shortages when dealing with the displacement crisis. It’s an absurd idea, so Adam answers with a rhetorical question, “[Am I] As heartless as the unwillingness of the capable nations to help the incapable nations? As heartless as considering cost in the face of imminent human suffering?”

Both sub-themes become evident early on. Governments display a lack of empathy against fellow humans, which is furthermore constrained by our current social constructs (both political and economic) and the governments’ resistance to change. What I found interesting is that, throughout the book, the individuals end up being more able to adapt that institutions of any type–we’re often show that the larger and bulkier the institution (of whatever type) the more unwilling to adapt they are, and the more they try to continue to be as they were.

This is a point Rejoice makes. It doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t argue in favour of one ideology or another. Rejoice posits that humanity needs a reset, a new way of thinking, and, more importantly, a new identity not built upon violence.

Once the forcefields stabilise, nature begins to reset itself; animals migrate, herds find each other, and species considered endangered begin to blossom. This is very early in the book, so Samantha is still stuck observing everything from the spaceship–and here is where the discussion on human violence against the environment (and other species) truly begins.

At that moment, Adam (the alien AI) explains, “The relationship between your species and other species in your world is also an engagement. [It all] invokes a presumptive exchange, wherein your species elevates its own particular needs over that of [the others]. […] By reducing domestic life-forms to units for consumption, organised and valued on the bases of weight, quality, variety, and so on, the notion of suffering is sidestepped.” To this, Samantha replies, “Economics is the altering of language from the holistic to the specific for the purpose of applying a value system to shit we don’t really own, only pretend to. […] Any human population reaches a threshold where organising everything into categories is the only way to manage the complexities of civilisation.”

What they are saying here is that we, humans, are looking at the world in the wrong way–we do not want to work in tandem with the world itself, with the environment and the other life-forms we share this space with. We dominate, not blend in–and because of this, all of our social constructs are based on human superiority, on human control. Want to build a city? Chop the forest! Want to move parcels faster? Extend a canal! Want to travel faster? Build a highway through a forest! Want to go on holiday? Displace people and animals, that lovely sightseeing place is now a hotel!

If you look at human history, many traditional cultures respected the environment and treasured it. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t use what the world gave them (like water, or food, or animals), but that they used it mindfully. With consideration that everything can be spent. They gave the world itself the same respect they would give another human–knowing and respecting boundaries.

However, our current culture and constructs do not have that respect because, as Rejoice posits, they are built upon the premise of violence as a means to control; deforestation and unabashed construction can be seen as violence against the world. This is actually discussed in the book. Further down the plot, the Canadian Minister for Parks and Recreation tells the Prime Minister,

“The flaw was the very words we used, Prime Minister. Seeing the land as a resource, which by the very meaning of that word meant it was ours to use, and, eventually, use up. […] It all existed to be converted into wealth. […] But we mistook all of that for ownership. It was never that. It was stewardship at best. […] We must balance need with capacity to ensure the health of both."

Interestingly, another minister agrees, adding that: “It was a war between short-term and long-term thinking. There you have it. Reduced to its basic, unassailable core. […] Profit now. Suck it dry, then move on, reinvesting what you earned, so you can rinse and repeat.” That sentence actually clarifies that idea of violence against the world and how the current human culture continue to disrespect it. Yet then again, it is not one side or the other (e.g., green or as-is, or vegan or not). For each of this arguments the book posits the same–that we need a new way of working with our planet. Our current arguments, even when some are laudable, are still based on our current ways of thinking.

After I wrote my GoodReads review1 I noticed others arguing that this books leans towards one ideology or another. I don’t see it as such–Rejoice is a thought experiment, more philosophy than ideology, because it aims to ask the uncomfortable questions that only a philosopher would ask, even when there is no answer available. As I see it, there is a third sub-theme, because if it isn’t this-or-that social system, then it’s something out-of-the-box, but what?

Hold onto this new, third sub-theme for a bit–we’ll revisit it after a brief detour into how Rejoice presents violence between humans.

After the world-preserving force-fields, Adam uses them to prevent human-to-human violence in any way. A husband tries to hit his wife and the barrier is there, a police will shoot a thug and the barrier appears, two troops are fighting, and suddenly they can’t do so… People can be peacefully apprehended and incarcerated, but law enforcement changes, and nobody can commit crimes.

Watching this, Samantha says, “Authority is fragile. Even the smallest groups establish a set of rules governing behaviour. […] A lot of this relates to identity, to how a group chooses to define itself. […] It’s all about control, and by extension, authority, which brings us back to the threat of violence. The fist behind the veil.”

First of all, at this stage, they are not talking about self-defined identity, but the concept of social constructs and humanity-wide identity. Think of it: the dynamics between countries are dictated by the principles of deterrence, both economic and political, with war as the ultimate threat. Within countries, laws work under the same principle of punishment as deterrence (do this or else). Even at work, school, or between parents and children, we apply punishment–follow the rules or else. These anti-violence force-fields redefine authority at any level.

Remember, ultimately, Rejoice posits that violence, of any shape, is humanity’s identity.

Following the discussion on violence as a means to exert control, Adam argues that “[It] relates back to a notion of identity. But one where to belong is to live and to not belong is to die. Where believers are allies and non-believers are the enemy.” In other words, Adam considers that a human’s individual beliefs (including what each individual perceives as ethical) can be used to justify violence. Samantha says that “[…] we acquire the habit of closing off avenues of compassion, of being selective. But we don’t do it collectively; we do it individually, within a general framework defined by cultural mores and taboos.”

We are verging the philosophical here, but the link can be split in five parts:

  • an individual’s beliefs help them find others alike,
  • thus creating a group,
  • that requires a social construct for its governance,
  • which then uses violence to govern,
  • and the original beliefs to limit empathy towards the outsiders to strengthen the group’s internal bond.

In the book, because Adam doesn’t give humans any sort of information about its plans or the phases of the intervention… those points I mentioned above begin affecting everyone, from a vlogger doing YouTube lives, to politicians trying to decide how to rule amidst a plummeting market and laws that don’t need enforcement anymore. People, humanity as a whole, begins questioning that very sequence that we use to construct social identity_, and therefore what is the human identity when violence is not an option.

It’s curious but also grim. We humans have violence and conflict so ingrained that without it, we’re left scrambling.

Again, while this happens on Earth, Adam and Samantha continue their discussion. Adam explains that, “Beliefs provide the unseen, rarely examined scaffolding upon which attitudes, opinions, and certainties are founded. […] They are held to be self-evident and unassailable. Most conflicts, no matter the scale, are essentially a clash of such belief systems. […] Conviction can, if unchecked, lead to a form of ego-centrism that dehumanises everyone else, and would make of them little more than symbols.”

As I mentioned before, those five parts: those that share the beliefs are in, the others out. They are others, and thus not worthy the same respect. Regarding that sub-theme of empathy, and to answer Adam, Samantha says it clearly, “[…]we justified every act of domination as being righteous. […]”

Think of how many times humanity has used this argument to start wars, to discriminate, and to bully. Probably, you’re thinking of wars sprung due to religion, but that’s not always the case. Think of two opposing industries, and regardless of whether one is green and the other isn’t, you’ll see that the competition is often violent and with the goal to oust each other (yes, yes, the invisible hand leading the market… that’s not the point here). Now consider countries and how they have manipulated beliefs to justify genocides and country-wide discrimination. Reduce it to individuals, and you may have a barfight as a quote-on-quote ‘warning’ to change beliefs or leave.

For us humans, it’s always a case of one side being right and the other side is wrong… and we base those on our beliefs, informed or misinformed as they may be. People accept the current law as long as they believe in that law–otherwise, they’ll march and ask for a reform.

Nevertheless, it is not only that the current social constructs are based on violence, but that they also contribute to more violence. To explain this, I’ll mash up quotes from the different secondary points-of-views of the book, starting with a science advisor, Ben, who tells the CIA director, that violence “[It’s] the logical result of endemic disenfranchisement. Poverty breeds anger. Stress breeds fear.” The following excerpts (also from secondary characters) will show how everything comes back to this idea.

Another character is Kolo, a young warlord in Africa who, after being driven to extreme poverty, began to plunder villages and enslave people. After the violence ends, Kolo reflects,

“If left alone, it could be that people got better, generation after generation. Their thinking changed ways. […] If left alone, people could rise from what they’d once been. But that world didn’t exist. Instead, the people who never learned arrived, in blood and bullets, and made sure that nothing changed, that the old crimes repeated. They stoked the fires of hatred and made the darkness a place to be feared."

If you remember the quote from Casper, the arms-dealer thinking that war and riots quote-on-quote “kept the world machine well oiled”, Kolo’s view is the victim’s side. He became a warlord because, as the science advisor said, “poverty breeds anger, stress breeds fear.” Let’s keep going; this idea repeats.

A cosmonaut named Anatoli is travelling with the president, who is rambling about power and ruling. Deep in thought, Anatoli thinks, “The poor never went away. They just laboured under whatever regime held sway, their daily lives unchanged and unchanging. He’d seen photographs in history books […], faces blank and eyes hidden in shadows as if to saying to the future there is nothing you can give us that we have not already lost.” Souring during the trip (and after rambling a bit more), Anatoli reaches an explicit conclusion. He thinks, that first-world countries “[…] didn’t shelter their own, didn’t feed their own, didn’t heal their own, and yet, in the midst of all this inhumanity, they held themselves as the pinnacle of human civilisation.”

Does this idea ring a bell? It ties up directly to the discussion at the start of the book, when Adam points out how heartless our civilisation has been, thought human history, to help those in need. It is, as a matter of fact, a reasoning directly linked to the first subtheme–that humanity, as whole, lacks empathy… because if we had empathy, then our social constructs would either prevent poverty and starvation, or deal with it swiftly. In that case, in Anatoli’s words, the poor would quote-on-quote ‘go away’.

Nevertheless, our society is based on profit and, as Samantha pointed out very early, “the cost” of literally everything. Dealing with poverty has always been a matter of cost and, especially, on the will of the capable nations to help the incapable nations. Just like that quote I mentioned earlier, we classified animals and cattle into value, and we do so again with humans… effectively dehumanising our own misery to reflect it into numbers, and making it easier to deal with.

It’s cruel, but worse off, it’s another manifestation of the underlying violence that humanity applies to everything. Again, and as Samantha said, we fear each other because we know what we are capable of. Humanity has been, and continues to be, very willing to let a large part of it starvate and suffer.

In other words, we know what humanity is quote-on-quote “capable of” as a whole, because our social constructs enable and cause violence towards each other and the environment. We converted the world into value and resources to make it easier to abuse it without feeling sorry for it, and then appeal to beliefs of any sort to encourage ourselves and harm fellow humans under the guise of being righteous (to whatever the cause).

Eventually, Samantha agrees to be the Intervention spokeswoman and ends up giving a speech in the UN. As part of that speech, she clarifies the idea of violence as humanity’s identity and how every single social construct depends on and enables it. She says:

”[…]But for too long we have viewed competition solely in the realm of our fellow humans. We have devised an economic system that depends on it. We’ve created social hierarchies that are built upon competition. The problem is: for every winner there are a thousand losers. Our system of competition is damaging us, but we’ve lived with the belief in winning and losing for so long that we don’t know any other way to live. For all that, it’s killing us.

That is the core idea of Rejoice–if violence is humanity’s identity, and if our current systems (whatever the ideology) reinforce a lack of empathy and pervasive disenfranchisement… what else is there? What else is not based on violence and conflict?

In the book, the UN General Secretary, a surgeon called Adeleh begins asking that very same question, concluding that if no human-to-human violence is allowed, the current social constructs and institutions must change. For Adeleh, it’s not a matter of ideology but of thinking out of the box–and we return to that third sub-theme of if it isn’t this-or-that social system, then it’s something different, but what?

In a conversation, Adeleh tells another character, “There lies our immediate task. Determining, individually and collectively, what has to be over what we think it has to be. We are being invited to seek a new definition of human nature, no more, no less, and surely you can see that this determination now poses the greatest challenge our species has ever faced.”

The discussion continues through the many secondary points-of-view. For example, a sci-fi writer is called by a Prime Minister. This writer says, “[…] Proper governance at this moment is no longer chained to maintaining the status quo. No longer pressured by special interests. The old games are dead. Their very language is dead. […] We need to redefine civilisation. […] The pressure is off, but we as a species have existed under that burden since the very first city sprang up nine or ten thousand years ago. We don’t know any other way to live.”

Rejoice doesn’t really give an answer to what this new, different way is–it just posits the question. What could it be?

Almost towards the end, we get the focus on another character, Simon, an engineer leading a company that was building drones and other tech. Adam gives them (and other companies) blueprints of different technologies–and Simon decides to use it to travel to Mars. When the secretary asks how he will convince investors, Simon says, “Our new currency is knowledge. […] Inform the investors. We’re all in on a manned mission to Mars, and the payoff is knowledge.” Mary asks, “And how will that knowledge pay out in practical terms, Simon?” Simon just laughs, and says “I haven’t an effing clue.”

Yet in the end, and throughout human history, knowledge has been the catalyst to unleash change and enable society to progress.

As I see it, Rejoice is not really about post-scarcity; in this book, human society never manages to actually live in post-scarcity for more than a month or two. The point (again, in my subjective opinion) is about the obstacles to overcome to reach that post-scarcity, and how humanity as a whole needs a mindset change–one that will lead us away from violence at all levels. Will you find the answer to what that is in this book? Not at all, but if you’re like me and enjoy a good discussion on political philosophy, you’ll likely love it.

Rejoice is a profound book, and I barely scratched the surface. So, to make amends, in a fortnight, I’ll be hosting a new Guests Talk with a few BookTubers to discuss this book–so stay tuned!

Also, if you like my bookish deep dives, please follow the podcast (on whatever platform you’re listening to), and if you’re on YouTube, subscribe to my channel–that will mean a lot to me! In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Rejoice: A Knife To The Heart!

Thanks for listening, and happy reading.

  1. You can also read my review of Rejoice on Goodreads, and follow me there as well! This was another 5-star read! ↩︎