The Alchemist

November 23, 2014

Societies and individuals obey different, sometimes conflicting, moral systems.

Like all of Paolo Bacigalupi’s books I’ve read, The Alchemist deals with the moral relations between ourselves, our environment, and each other, though it explores the theme in a refreshingly novel way. A fantasy novella, The Alchemist presents an allegory for what got humanity into the current climate mess, and what’s keeping us in it.

In the city of Khaim, the use of magic is now punishable by death. While most everyone once used magic to help themselves and heal their loved ones, humanity soon learned that magic had a terrible consequence: bramble. A spiny, choking vine which feeds on the residue of magic’s use, bramble poisons all with which it comes into contact, especially people. It’s even overrun entire cities, rendering them uninhabitable. And so magic has been outlawed. Technically.

The residents of Khaim are constantly fighting a losing battle against the bramble, driving it back with fire and hatchets. It doesn’t help their situation that the Mayor of Khaim, with dreams of turning his backwater town into a majestic city, allows his own majisters unfettered use of magic on civic projects. And despite the twin threats of summary execution by the state or a slow and painful death from bramble, most people continue to use magic in private, and they all have their reasons. Even our protagonist, the alchemist Jeoz, whom the villain Scacz takes to task for his exceptionalism:

“Magic brings bramble,” he said. “And even you, alchemist, hungered to use it.”

“Only a little. To save my daughter.”

“Every spell maker has a reasonable excuse. If we grant individual mercies, we commit collective suicide. A pretty puzzle for an ethical man like you.”

Jeoz eventually discovers a way out of this disastrous situation. But when he shares his discovery with the Mayor, he learns that those who have power in a crisis won’t necessarily want to see the crisis end.

Woven throughout the story are two kinds of failure: blindness to the consequences of one’s actions, and unwillingness to change course when the dire consequences of one’s actions are perfectly apparent. Most everyone commits the latter, and to the question of why, the answer in Khaim (as in our world) is that collective morality obeys a different set of rules than for individuals. For the individual, avoiding death by bramble would outweigh the minor convenience of using magic. But for society, somehow the calculus is changed, and The Alchemist points us to a few reasons why:

  1. The tragedy of the commons: the benefits of using magic are private, while the consequences are shared. Even if the consequences are disastrous, the moral responsibility is diluted.
  2. Social acceptability: if everyone believes that everyone else is using magic, it both makes it easier to make the same bad choice, and makes it harder to argue publicly against it.
  3. Failure of leadership: when those most able to prevent catastrophe (Khaim’s mayor, our government) instead take actions to bring it about ever faster, it makes individuals’ choices to avoid catastrophe seem insignificant, even meaningless.

Chances are, if you’re not disturbed by the calamitous costs our current way of life is exacting on the environment (and our grandchildren), it’s because you think we’ll find a technological way out of it. That we’ll invent a means of climate control or carbon dispersal. You may be right (in fact, we’re approaching the point when we have no other choice but to hope so), but The Alchemist illustrates a the dangers of such magical thinking. Ignoring the unconscionability such a gamble over the future of our species— even if some technology does emerge which can save us, can we really trust the same power structures which got us into this mess to use the technology responsibly to get us out of it?

Typical for Bacigalupi, The Alchemist’s end is lacking in rainbows and butterflies. But I wish the novella were at least longer. This is an interesting world, with still more unexplored possibilities. I suppose I must hope from Bacigalupi what I hope for our world: a sequel.