James Alan Gardner is the author of a series of books referred to as the League of Peoples books. This series, in all of its depressing and hopeful glory, is one of the most comforting things I re-read on a regular basis.
“The League of Peoples is a fictional interstellar polity present in a series of novels by science fiction author James Alan Gardner. Although theoretically made up of every sentient race in the galaxy, in actuality the League is controlled by (from Humanity’s standpoint) hyperadvanced beings who have little concern for wants, needs, and desires of the less evolved races.
The League effectively has one law – no dangerous non-sentient creatures can cross between star systems. A dangerous non-sentient is defined by the league as any being which kills a sentient being or through negligence allows a sentient being to die. Any dangerous non-sentient that attempts to circumvent this law, or any being who knowingly aids in the attempt, is instantaneously but painlessly executed by the League. Although this renders interstellar war impossible, it does not prevent mayhem on individual planets, nor does it stop unethical behavior that stops short of murder.”
This has many repercussions, not least of which is to the soul of the human race. One of the principle questions the series raises is, what do you do when you know you don’t matter?
The character who ties all the books together is a woman named Festina Ramos. I’m going to quote at some length again. This is a passage from Expendable, taken from James Alan Gardner’s website. Festina Ramos is a member of the Explorer Corps for the human Technocracy. Here she explains what that means:
Listen. Here is what all ECMs knew.
Violent death is rare in the Technocracy. We have no wars. The crime level is low, and few incidents involve lethal weapons. When accidents happen, victims can almost always be saved by sophisticated local medical centers.
There are no medical centers on unexplored planets. Death may come with savage abruptness or the stealthy creep of alien disease. In a society where people expect to ease comfortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone killed in the prime of life is deeply disturbing. If it happens to someone you know, the effect is devastating.
Unless…the person who dies is different. Not like everyone else.
Two centuries ago, the Admiralty High Council secretly acknowledged that some deaths hurt Fleet morale more than others. If the victim was popular, well-liked, and above all, physically attractive, fellow crewmates took the death hard. Performance ratings dropped by as much as 30 per cent. Friends of the deceased required lengthy psychological counseling. Those who had ordered the fatal mission sometimes felt a permanently impairing guilt.
But if the victim was not so popular, not so well- liked, and above all, ugly…well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.
No one knows exactly when the High Council solidified this fact of human behavior into definite policy. In time, however, the Explorer Corps evolved from a group of healthy, bright-eyed volunteers into…something less photogenic.
Potential recruits were flagged at birth. The flawed. The ugly. The strange. If a child’s physical problems were truly disabling, or if the child didn’t have the intelligence or strength of will to make a good Explorer, the full power of modern medicine would be unleashed to correct every impediment to normalcy. But if the child combined ability and expendability in a single package–if the child was smart and fit enough to handle the demands of Exploration, but different enough to be less real than a normal person…
…there was an Explorer’s black uniform in that child’s future.”
In some ways, the Expendable Crew Members are a complicated metaphor for the position of humanity within the League of Peoples. Not good enough, not bad enough to be repaired or restored. And just as the Expendables form elaborate coping mechanisms for their position, so does the human race. Each book in the series looks at a different path some individual human takes or has taken, and how that plays out.
There is a pervasive quality of depression through this series. What do you do, what is your purpose, when you know your existence is pointless? In Expendable, we meet Festina and her dogged insistence that purpose is a thing one makes for oneself. In Vigilant purpose is a form of apology and restitution. Hunted shows us what happens when a purpose is forced onto a person, and how one can regain personal agency. Trapped is a book for failed and fumbling knights, that reveals the high cost of holy quests. In Ascending purpose is claimed in the face of death. And in Radiant a number of universe-level secrets are revealed, so I won’t go into it here.
There is a theme I harp on. That theme is, It’s Not About You. You Are Not The Hero, You Are Lucky to Be a Sidekick. Everyone is, of course, the hero of their own story. When we are reminded that the world largely doesn’t care about us one whit, it can be a painful shock to the ego. James Alan Gardner writes about that, about that shock, and about the more useful or less useful ways we can choose to deal with it.
I think this is one of the most critically important life lessons we all need to learn, to understand. I think we must each recognize that other human beings are at the center of their own stories. The guy who cuts you off in traffic isn’t cutting you, personally, off. He doesn’t even see you. The garbage tossed onto the side of the highway isn’t thrown out to make you pick it up, it’s thrown out with no regard for anyone else, at all. The fossil fuels we steal from the future are taken because no-one understands that the future is real, that consequences exist.
I ask my kids all the time, “what did you think was going to happen?” I ask my kids all the time, “would you like what you did to be done to you?” In the League of Peoples books, humanity are the children. Limited and fumbling and behaving in ways entirely against their own self-interest. Yet the entire point of the series is, we can and do grow up.
I debate with myself whether Gardner undercuts his premise somewhat by making the narrators of his books Special People With Purpose. I think it’s a fine line. Mostly, I think he pulls it off. The protagonists are special, but it is made clear that they are special only on a most human and limited scale. Like a four-year-old being the best finger-painter in pre-school. Your opinion may differ from mine on this, and I think there is room for valid disagreement.
I hope you each reader this do try to find a copy of Expendable and give it a try. Gardner is a great writer, the prose is excellent. His characters are, uniformly, engaging and vividly different from each other. Moreover, the characters are a variety of races, sexes, sexual orientations, ages, and ability levels. All the narrators are human, more or less, though many supporting characters are not. Yet Gardner deftly avoids mapping human cultures onto alien races. The aliens are alien. And deeply weird.
I do not find this series depressing. I find it uplifting. I am at a point in my life where I appreciate books that understand that I know I’m not the protagonist of anything. I appreciate books about people who are not on a quest, but are just doing their jobs. I appreciate books about the failed, the muddled, the atoning. I like books about finding hope after hope is really a stupid option at this juncture.
If you like Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency or Orbiter for their bitter, bitter optimism; if you like Shadowunit or Fringe because here is a place where the flotsam and wreckage find a home; if you like Neal Stephenson’s books because of the intricate and detailed world-building — if these things are true, you will love the League of Peoples. Give it a shot.