I’ve mentioned Brandon Sanderson before. I consider him one of the storytelling Masters of our era. However, I’ve mostly read only his longer works, like Mistborn, Elantris, Warbreaker, and, most especially, his Stormlight Archive novels. It was only recently that I had the opportunity to read some of his shorter works, and not only was I entertained, I was fascinated. As evidenced by the fact that I more or less plowed straight through them one after another. 😉
As I was reading them, I was struck by a recurring theme, addressed in different ways and with different results: identity. The questions of who we are, what has made us who we are, and what we choose to be, at any given moment, play a major role in each story. I’ve seen the same in his novels and series, but seeing it in short format really caught my attention.
Speaking about each of them very briefly:
Dennison Crestmar is the much-younger brother of a legendary military commander, Varion, the greatest tactical and strategic mind that a certain interstellar empire has ever known. Varion has never lost a battle, never even come close, not in his entire life, and, in the course of two to three decades, has reconquered an empire that had been so diminished that it barely qualified as such any longer. In Varion’s shadow, Dennison, who has never won a single battle in his entire life, appears to be an abject failure. But things are not always what they seem.
Varion is not, and has never been, a loyal servant of the Empire. He’s been conquering and converting various anti-Imperial factions to his service, and as he finishes conquering everything the Empire once lost, he now moves, with all of his vast, carefully-cultivated resources, to conquer the heart of the Empire, taking the throne for himself. The Empire’s end is nigh, and it’s only hope: a young man who is not simply Varion’s brother, but his clone, created specifically as a counter-measure. Except, as Varion has never lost, Dennison has never won. How’s a defective clone supposed to save the Empire and defeat his invincible original?
Well, being “perfect” is not what it’s cracked up to be. Varion micromanages each battle, trusting only in himself. That means he isn’t just the linchpin holding the Empire’s enemies together, he’s the sole deciding factor in their impending victory. Having never known defeat, which is what Dennison lives and breathes, and what every other mortal has experienced, Varion has a unique vulnerability: he has never had to deal with it. He’s never had to pick himself up again out of agony and despair, he’s never even had to retreat. His “perfection” isn’t a strength, but a glaring weakness. It’s merely a question of exploiting it.
All Dennison has to do is whip up an illusion of things going wrong, and Varion promptly self-destructs.
The one victory of Dennison’s life, one plagued by self-doubt, was to give Varion just a brief little taste of such. Just like that, Varion’s self-identity is destroyed, taking him with it, while Dennison has now forged his own identity.
What if the Matrix was meant to be something beneficent? Mix together a few warped ideals taken way too far, and you have a lot of people whose brains are kept in jars while they live their entire lives in their own virtual reality, each one custom-made so they’re the most important person in their world, or State, as it’s called.
Kai has lived his entire life in a medieval fantasy setting, where he is the chosen one meant to rule the entire world. That done, it’s time for him to meet others like him. In particular, he’s supposed to “breed” with someone. He’s not exactly thrilled by this prospect, and feeling rebellious, so he picks the least-compatible person on the list of candidates. When he meets Sophie, however, he finds himself drawn in by her. Their coupling is interrupted, however, by an old enemy, someone he slighted in passing due to his frustrations at living in a contrived world with contrived people and contrived events.
The situation quickly escalates but between his own capability to adapt and Sophie’s assistance, Kai triumphs. And then, right at his highest moment, with Sophie looking radiant… she kills herself. She was a fake, a false person controlled from afar by his enemy, the real tool of revenge. His enemy gives him something great, and takes it away.
The story ends with Kai choosing to learn from his experience with Sophie: to stop living in the isolation that has been imposed on him since birth. He can never escape the virtual reality he’s in, but he can form real relationships with the others trapped alongside him.
Kai grew up in a false world, with false people. He has been defined by the world around him, and the world has been defined by him, according to someone’s guesses and calculations. He’s weary of it all. However, through his ordeal, he comes to make a choice: to leave his little bubble, as much as he can, and interact with other real people. He’s choosing, in this small way, to define himself.
So! The young hero goes off to battle the evil God King that rules over the world! He wins!
…so, what happens next?
What happens to the hero that has fulfilled his destiny? What happens when that destiny turns out to be so much more complicated than he thought? What was it like to grow up as a chosen one, anyway? Where has he come from, and where will he go now? Especially when he learns that he only won the battle, not the war.
Sanderson is very good at exploring “what comes after.”
In Awakening, the hero, Siris needs to make a new path for himself, and in following that path, he learns that nothing is quite as it seems. Especially himself. Then, in Redemption, we see him wrestling with his darker urges, trying to use them without giving in to them. He is, basically, experimenting with who he wants to be, trying to be the best version of himself.
And on the flip-side in Redemption, the God King that Siris so hates and has tried to kill has an origin story of his own. We see where he came from,what made him… him. And we see his ultimate moral victory over the hero, as he chooses, in his final moments, to give Siris every chance he can to defeat their mutual enemy, to save their world. The villain dies redeemed, while the hero lives ashamed. But, there is a silver lining here: if the villain can be a hero, why can’t the hero? The story ends with Siris inspired to do better by his enemy’s final, selfless act.
Side-note: I love how both of these these stories explain magic as being sufficiently advanced technology! 🙂
Also, pet peeve of mine: an unfinished story. Sanderson managed to do that to me twice with these. I really want to see more, all the way to the final conclusion! 😉
Some people are heroes simply for the achievement of survival, day-by-day, in a harsh and hellish land. Such is Silence, a truly dangerous woman. She lives as the keeper of a waystop by day, and thrives as an infamous, mysterious bounty hunter by night. She gets paid to kill criminals.
This one doesn’t have so much a question about identity as a statement of how strong someone is when they know who they are, what has forged them, and what they intend to do. She has solid psychological ground to stand on, and make her stand on. She’s in Hell, so what? Whatever happens, she can handle it, so bring it on.
Sixth is his name! Trapping is his game! 🙂
There is a pronounce Polynesian texture to this story, which makes it fairly original to my experience. As an islander, and a trapper, Sixth is no stranger to danger. I think he may just live in the single most complexly dangerous setting I’ve yet seen, where nearly everything on his island is trying to kill him, and everyone else, and the waters around it are also filled with immense predators. That’s a special kind of pressure, which leads to some strange and despairing thoughts he tries not to think, wondering why the island he worships and protects keeps killing its own protectors.
It’s especially bitter as he considers recent events. His people are islanders. They use special birds which have special abilities to survive and thrive, and these remarkable birds have caught the attention of foreign mainland nations, who are more technologically advanced and very keen to unravel the mystery of the birds. Through them, Sixth’s people have been influenced by an even more advanced power, the Ones Above (aka, extraterrestrial people).
Fortune smiles on Sixth as he finds and chooses to help one of these mainland people, a reckless woman who nearly gets herself, and Sixth, killed on multiple occasions. That might not seem so fortunate, but through their meeting, they are able to detect an intricate trap laid out for their people by the Ones Above. There is something they want: the source of the special birds’ abilities. But there are laws preventing them from just taking it, so they have a plan to circumvent the letter of those laws while breaking the spirit of them.
And there is the reason for Sixth’s island, and the other islands, to kill their own protectors: to teach them how to avoid traps and hidden dangers, and kill anyone caught unwary. At least, Sixth sees the purpose of it all, the purpose behind who he has been, and he sees who he can become.
Now this one, I read awhile ago, and it has an identity theme that is much more overt.
The main character, Shai, is a forger of particular ability. It’s her magic system, where she can alter what something is by forging a different history in place of its own. It needs to be believable, and so it needs to be subtle, but those small changes can make for dramatic differences. She can do it with objects, she can do it with a person, she can even do it with herself. She can literally become someone else, some other version of herself, temporarily.
At the same time, she is delving into the identity of an emperor, one who is barely alive after an assassination attempt. He has no identity left, no mind, no soul, so her task, with her life on the line, is to restore it with a forgery. And so she does, successfully, but with one small alteration: she restores the man’s fighting spirit, snuffed out long ago, so he will act to liberate his empire from the corruption which suffocates it. He’s back, and better than before.
This one, also, I read some time ago. It’s about Stephen Reeds, a crazy man with a fragile hold on sanity and rational thinking. He’s a genius of phenomenal mental capacity, but, on some level, he can’t seem to handle his own remarkable capabilities. So, he has hallucinatory people to be great and smart in his stead. Basically, his identity is divided in pieces within his own mind. And this is how he manages to function in normal society.
So, we have a defective clone surpassing his original, a man choosing to live differently than he has, a hero wrestling with who he is while the villain dies a better man than he has lived, a woman who lives a double life and overcomes any danger, a man who finally finds his purpose in life, a young woman who can alter who she is and what other things are, and a man whose rational mind is in pieces.
You see what I mean, about a running theme of identity? What it is, how it forms, how it changes, what it does, etc., it keeps popping up in Sanderson’s works. It makes perfect sense, though. After all, what are stories, if not the means to discuss who we are? 🙂