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[Earthsea] The Power of Perturbation
Chaos is the last refuge in an unfair fight
This is week eight of our summer Wizard of Earthsea book club. This week’s chapter is “Hunting.”
It’s a very quiet chapter of Earthsea, even though it’s the first time Ged confronts the Shadow on his own terms. There are always lulls in the chase and time to recover amid the care of strangers. One of Ged’s tactical choices stood out to me:
On the sea he wished to meet it, if meet it he must. He was not sure why this was, yet he had a terror of meeting the thing again on dry land. Out of the sea there rise storms and monsters, but no evil powers: evil is of earth. And there is no sea, no running of river or spring, in the dark land where once Ged had gone. Death is the dry place. Though the sea itself was a danger to him in the hard weather of the season, that danger and change and instability seemed to him a defense and chance.
When you are already losing, introducing more noise and chance is your best bet. I’m not as sure that Ged needs to rely on this kind of advantage—he still seems like he is operating from a sense of despair. But I think his overall reasoning is correct about who is favored when you seek out a chaotic environment.
The pandemic has had some of the disruptive effect of the sea that Ged seeks out. I contributed to a one-year pandemic project called Breaking Ground. We were focused on what small, good things might suddenly be possible when the rules were in flux. (My two contributions were “Locating Our Invisible Wounds,” “Snow Days and Slack,” and “All Aboard the Generation Ship.”)
Usually, when I think politically, I’m focused on how to give the gift of predictability. People who are vulnerable benefit enormously from a clear, regular process, where you don’t have to find an angle or pay a “time tax.”
But this always starts with the assumption I’m trying to smooth the way for people to access a mostly functional system. Seeking out rougher ground like Ged makes more sense when you feel the fight is rotten from the start, and you’re trying to stave off an otherwise inevitable loss, rather than pushing for a hard, but possible win.
The other quote that stuck with me was the change in how Ged conceives of his struggle:
He knew now, and the knowledge was hard, that his task had never been to undo what he had done, but to finish what he had begun.
There’s very little we do that can be cleanly undone. Expecting to return to the status quo before a mistake, rather finding a new way forward, sets us up for thwarted effort and profound disappointment. I’ll have a piece on this theme (broadly interpreted) for Fairer Disputations soon.
“The Terrenon...will tell you that name.”
“And the price?”
“There is no price. I tell you it will obey you, serve you as your slave.”
[This quote about] there being no price since using the Terrenon is as easy as slavery, was jarring for me, as it probably was for Ged as well.
Slavery obviously exacts a price from the enslaved person. It also comes at the price of the morals of the slaver and slaveholder. A more subtle price of moral injury, a disorientation or callousness, may be paid by anyone who witnesses or is complicit in and feels powerless against the injustices of slavery.
And lastly, as we see among the oarsmen, society pays a price for slavery, in the form of division.
On September 26th, 1983, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov chose not to launch retaliatory nukes, even though the Soviet early warning system was blaring that the Americans had launched a first strike. He thought it could be a false alarm (and he was right). If he had followed protocol, he would have passed the alert up the chain with the recommendation to launch, and then most of us would be dead or not born.
This week, I’d like to hear your reflections on this chapter, especially:
When have you benefited from more chaos and noise as a way to even up an unfair fight? Have you ever deliberately made a situation more chaotic because the state of play was unworkable?
Have you ever gotten stuck trying to undo or erase something that couldn’t be reset in the way you hoped? What did you ultimately do instead?