Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett
In Locklands, Robert Jackson Bennett closes out his FOUNDERS TRILOGY in epic style, raising the stakes to literally “all of creation” and upping his characters’ (some of them) power levels to god-like heights, all while managing to keep the story grounded in the personal thanks to Jackson’s typically sharp characterization. Being the concluding novel, two things should be obvious: one, you need to have read the prior ones and two, there will be inevitable spoilers for those prior books.
Eight years have passed since the events of Shorefall, and they haven’t been good ones for our characters. The sort of collective-AI intelligence Tevanne, thanks to its forcible “twinning” of minds (basically taking its “host” over and making them extensions of its own mind), has been steadily extending its dominion, taking over nation after nation until only two pockets of resistance remain: the free state of Giva, created by our main protagonists from the earlier books (Sancia, Berenice, Clef, etc.); and an area controlled by their other enemy, the uber-powerful hierophant, Crasedes Magnus. Early on though, the Givan group learns that Tevanne has captured Crasedes. Bad enough that Tevanne is now free to bend the full enormity of its power toward them, but even more catastrophic is that Crasedes holds the knowledge of a doorway into “the other side”, a place where one can rewrite, edit, or simply erase all of known creation. Aware of the apocalyptic nature of the threat, Sancia, Clef, and Berenice are forced into ever more desperate ploys to try and defeat their seemingly undefeatable foe.
Plot-wise, as noted, the stakes are raised about as high as is literally possible here. And some of the action mirrors that epic scale, reminding me in an odd way of the old-time SKYLARK OF SPACE / LENSMAN space operas where planets were casually hurled about as weapons of war. We’re not quite at that level here, but we’re also not that far off. As one might expect, though, we don’t start at that level. In a well-orchestrated bit of plotting, we begin with a bang and events gradually step up from there via one major scene/section to the next until they’ve fully escalated to “battle of gods” level. I wouldn’t call the pacing frenetic, but it definitely steadily ramps up (OK, maybe I’d call the latter part of the novel frenetic). Puzzles also become more difficult (and the consequences more severe) as our resistance group is faced with one seemingly unsolvable problem after another).
The grandiose scale of action is nicely counter balanced by Bennett’s close focus on a small group of characters, not only as individuals but as friends, lovers, parents, and more (more on the “more” later). All that epic battling could have distanced readers from the story, but Bennett keeps us carefully grounded thanks to the vivid characterization. Berenice and Sancia’s love story is the most powerful aspect of this, and it would take a heart of stone to not be moved by several of their scenes, particularly, well, one that I won’t detail so as to avoid spoilers, but you’ll know the killer pages when you get to them. But beyond those two we also have the relationship (such as it is) between Clef and Crasedes — filled in and deepened by a series of flashback interludes which again, I won’t say more on so as to avoid spoilers — and several other relationships that receive fewer words but still have some emotional impact.
Intertwined with plot and character are a number of thought-provoking themes/subjects, something I’ve come to expect from Bennett’s novels. The FOUNDERS TRILOGY has always been a “big idea” kind of series, exploring a host of societal questions involving power, capitalism, slavery, the cruelty of humanity, inequality, etc. Here, one of the more fascinating elements is the idea of “twinning minds,” set up as a stark contrast between Tevanne, who forcibly takes over its hosts and the Givans, who freely choose to share thoughts and feelings with each other. Or not. Some stay closed off to others, some share with a small number of people, and others do a kind of mind-melding in larger numbers, forming groups called “cadences,” described as “many twinned people of similar temperament who had grown so close together that they’d aligned into what was, in essence, a singular identity.”
The issue of choice/consent is made explicit several times as we’re introduced to the concept: “No one was forced or compelled to join a cadence . . . People could … break their connection with the cadence and walk away a singular person again … It was quite rare — and those who did walk away often missed the experience and returned.” The benefits are practical and tactical — soldiers who can act as a truly cohesive unit knowing what each other is up to at all times instantaneously — but go beyond that, creating as it’s said, a greater sense of empathy, of compassion, and seemingly doing away (or at least greatly reducing) issues of tribalism. Sancia, for instance, notes how the ship housing Greeter (one of the Cadences), “was always full of people … Tremendous throngs of people. People from all races, all nations, all cultures … The sheer variety of hair alone — in color, in length, in style — was astonishing, let alone the manners of clothing, language, diet, and more.” Later she muses on how it reminds her of “a cathedral . . . brimming with people … always there was the sound of whispering, and confession, and forgiveness, and understanding.” As Greeter succinctly puts it: “We have invented a new way to be human.” Here again, Bennett offers up both a searingly intimate perspective from within the minds of the main characters as well as a grander societal perspective as he zooms out to show the impact such a willing, intentional, purposeful setting aside of individuality might have.
The concept also allows for an interesting juxtaposition in that their twinning, and particularly the super-normal abilities of the Cadences, is what has kept Giva in the fight and allowed for great advances, but this melded-mind power is complemented by the individual decisions and personal attributes of the main characters, and both these aspects involve a willingness to sacrifice, to submerge one’s own singular desires (even for life) for a greater whole. Equally interesting is how much of what has created many of the current problems were born out of individual choices, though I won’t say more on that so as not to give to much away.
Another subject is the use of and reliance on technology (in this case, scriving). Early on Sancia tells Berenice, “One day we will invent a way out of this. We’ll find some key, or tool, or trick … Won’t we?” (Climate change, anyone?). But toward the end, it is Sancia who tells her council: “There is no inventing our way out of this! … We can’t hope to just, just scrive our enemies away! There is no magic fix …” This last line is echoed by several others in the novel: “We thought we could strive our way into liberation … into salvation … trying to follow in the footsteps of clever men with clever fixes” and “It’ll just go on. More fixes gone awry. The mad pride of men who think themselves engineers of all creation.” It doesn’t require much insight to see how this translates into our own world, with our clever technological solutions that breed further problems and prompt more tech to solve those problems, thus creating, well, you know the story.
Here, technology isn’t good or bad in and of itself — it can be a tool for either — but what it is not is a solution. Technology in an immature society, or one governed by tribalism of whatever sort (race, class, gender, etc.), or one where oppression is the rule rather than the exception, will always, will inevitably it seems create as many problems as it solves. If you don’t work on the people, the tools aren’t going to do much good and may do harm. One of the benefits of the mind-meld, then, is the way shared feelings/thoughts create a true empathy that makes it difficult to mistreat or harm or oppress others. And, as one character says, it’s a lot harder to “abhor someone else’s behavior when you also instantly understood why that gone about that behavior to begin with.”
As with the other elements discussed, while the technology or societal themes are large concept, Bennett never lets his novels spin away into the abstract. What drives this novel as much as the technology or the societal ills is the singularly human and oh so individualistic experience of grief and its possibly shattering impact. Though yet again, I’ll leave the details to be discovered by the reader.
My one complaint about Locklands is that it felt too short (believe me, a rare complaint from me). Not that the ending was abrupt (the ending ending in fact was nigh on perfect), but that I wanted more time for some of the characters’ changing relationships and altered views of themselves to be fully explored, and more time for some of the high concepts and their ramification to be considered. But if the biggest complaint is wanting more, that’s a pretty good affirmation of just how excellent this book is, and really the series as a whole, which has its long arcs and continuing thread lines but also feels nicely varied book to book in style, focus, and theme. Given that this trilogy and Bennett’s DIVINE CITIES trilogy are two of my favorite series in the past decade, I can’t wait until the next first book of the next trio…
It’s funny that you feel like this is too short, since I’m at the halfway point (of the 550) and finding myself looking longingly at a couple of shorter books on my TBR stack (Universal Harvester and I’m Thinking of Ending Things). But my liking for the main characters (Berenice, Clef and Sancia) is keeping me going.
This series does add another way of fighting magical battles to my previous list (in addition to: shooting bolts of mind- or will-directed energy at your opponent, transforming into a monstrous creature, and trying to do a purely mental takeover of your opponent’s will). Since the original list I also realized there is casting spells (using language) at your opponent (Harry Potter etc.) and using some “power” to cast physical objects at your opponent (e.g., the “glassdancers” of Brian McClellan’s In the Shadow of Lightning being a recent example). Bennett’s trilogy combines the latter two methods into a unique hybrid: scriving the spells onto physical objects that are then used either as weapons or as a means of altering reality. Really, it’s a good thing Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton didn’t catch on to this one!
I’m not sure I knew Locklands was that many pages. It didn’t feel that way to me, though I didn’t need more plot. I just would have liked another 20-30 pages (if that) to linger with some of the character moves/revelations, as the characters were so well drawn and their relationships so key. Good Edmond Hamilton reference. The list sounds like fodder for a good essay!
I agree with nearly everything you say here, and Bennett is one of my favorites. I can’t help being a little bit sad, though, at the way this series progressed. Much of what I loved about Foundryside was the cleverness of the magic/technology, which allowed for inventive solutions to problems. As the tech grew more elaborate and powerful, it also grew more abstract and harder to understand (as tech does), and lost that sense of being something the reader could understand. (And yes, I understand that that was a significant part of the excellent contemplation of technology Bennett was prompting.) The books also grew darker and more global, losing the intimate, local, relatable feel of the first one. Sancia’s relationship with Clef, a shining delight of the first book, grew sadder and more complicated. Her relationship with Berenice, similarly, was more mature, but also more sad. So although I thought enjoyed Locklands and the series as a whole was masterful, and there are reasons for all of those choices and they contribute to the philosophical weight of the tale, I missed the absolute delight that Foundryside brought me.
I get all of that. I think those feelings are what I was getting at somewhat with the desire for more time spent for instance in the relationship moments. Wondering if there’s an inverse relationship between “weight” and “delight” (as opposed to enjoyment).
Okay, on to the trivial. Did this trilogy give Gregor a fair shake?
I know that Gregor is a tragic character, and I do think Bennett is investigating the concept of The Lone Hero (a thing Gregor believed himself to be in the first book, at least) with his arc. And I’m sure he’s having some fun with the Metamorphosis angle, since Gregor, like Gregor Samsa, is a creature of metamorphoses, only one of his own will (and he—our Gregor– miscalculated on that one).
It’s hard to discuss without spoilers, but while the book does try to, well, “rescue” Gregor, it felt like very little, and literally too late (BTW, this is my structural complaint about the book—how much is made right in very few pages at the very, very end!) Anyway, any solace to Gregor is offered at the very end.
I think Gregor’s tragic arc is deeply powerful, and necessary… but I’m left feeling cheated on his behalf. It might be as simple as that last minute “here’s something nice for Gregor” moment.
I’m with you on that one. Felt like too little, too late
Do you think we’d be satisfied if Gregor’s story had ended completely tragically? That feels thematically right–although I would have been sad.
Scriving just seems like too powerful a technology to lead to any good end. Consider that with much more limited technology, e.g., internal combustion engines, nuclear weapons, computer networks, and “better living through chemistry”, we have come close to destroying ourselves, with no one wielding real power sufficiently concerned and effective to put the brakes on. Scriving is just waiting for the next Tevanne, or some other entity with more benign but ill-conceived goals, to destroy “reality” itself. But few authors want to write a story where technology has this lethal outcome (can see why, based on the shocked reactions to Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light).
Bennett’s voluntary group mind entities (like Greeter) also seem like a naive concept. The group’s tolerance and lovingkindness shake out of an aggregation of people ridden by feelings of shame, guilt, fear, self-hatred, hostility to others, greed, envy and other less than virtuous emotions–the “monsters from the id” that destroyed the Krell in Forbidden Planet. We can barely stand ourselves, even ignoring the unconscious or subconscious mind that everyone has heard about since at least Freud, yet somehow adding us all together into a larger entity brings only the positive qualities to the fore? The optimistic tone is perhaps necessary in a popular genre work, but it requires a huge suspension of disbelief.
Oh, yes, Mrs. Lincoln. Other than that I thought this was a pretty good series.
I’m not sure I’m as strongly skeptical as you Paul, but I had a somewhat similar feeling of those points being glossed over, though I was OK (mostly) with it since as Marion said they weren’t a focus. The movement into those collectives and shaking out the issues is grist for an entire novel I’d say focusing just on that idea
@Paul–One person’s naivete is another person’s revolutionary act, I guess. As I get older, I lean more heavily into the idea that hope and optimism are acts of courage. Which indirectly brings me to Greeter, Design and the other cadences.
I think it would have been safe and easy to end this series with people backsliding into the same behaviors we saw at the start. It takes vision and courage to imagine a genuine change in nature (an evolution), which is what Bennett attempts here with the unintended consequences of the cadences. It’s not just a desire for a happy ending; it’s the story playing out the big questions it raised at the beginning of the trilogy—one of which I think is a version of your very question, Paul: Can humans handle scrying without destroying themselves?
At the level of plot, I accept the cadences (and don’t find them implausible necessarily) for a couple of reasons. One is that they *are* unintended consequences, which is much of what these books are about. Tevanne is an unintended consequence, and so are the cadences. Sancia and Bereniece, who basically created them, aren’t comfortable around them, in part for that reason.
Another reason they work: they aren’t the main plot of the book, or even the theme. I mean, isn’t this book basically “about” grief and isolation? The main plot is the desperate race to stop Tevanne from doing what it wants to do. The cadences are right there, helping out, and they’re not an afterthought, but the story isn’t presented as “the history of the cadence.”
Bennett himself doesn’t offer the cadences as any kind of perfect solution, in part because they don’t save or “fix” the world. Yes, they rebuild a few things, but look at what they’re doing at the end. On Sancia’s world, humanity didn’t “save itself” by everyone joining in a collective.
About that collective, though—isn’t The Great Green Wall (https://www.greatgreenwall.org/) a collective? Surely their idea is stupid. I could easily hide myself in my suit of self-protective cynicism and point out why this is a ridiculous enterprise and all the ways it will fail. Or I can take the brave step and decide that all kind of groups getting together to plant one billion trees in Africa is the right, the optimistic, thing—even if it’s not perfectly envisioned and executed, and even if it’s a simplistic or even naïve solution to global warming.
I guess I’m saying the cadences worked for me. We might agree to disagree on this one.