If you have read our blog in the past year, you probably know that I am obsessed with Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series. It follows twelve-year-old Sophie Foster as she discovers her heritage as an elf, develops her telepathic abilities at a magical school, and fights to learn how she is linked to a mysterious rebel group known as the Black Swan. Full of non-stop action, fabulous cities, and plenty of humor, the series also raises some intriguing questions about an elven society meant to be perfect.
Should individuals give up privacy for safety?
All elves wear tracking devices around their necks. No one really explains why, especially as elves supposedly rarely break the law and surveillance should therefore be unnecessary. I suppose if one’s child did not arrive home on time, one could ask for their location to be tracked, but wearing the equivalent of a dog collar hardly seems like it should be required in a world where death almost never occurs. Even more interesting, however, is that Sophie welcomes her tracking device and feels safer with it. Not once does she or anyone else question why the government needs to track everyone. They seem to believe entirely in the integrity of their government. And perhaps they assume people with nothing to hide have no reason to protest being tracked? The book really does not dwell on these questions, so it is unclear if the book is truly suggesting that tracking is a positive good or if this is simply a world-building element meant to illustrate how a crimeless society would function.
Would equal incomes mean an equal society?
All elves begin at birth with enough money to last their entire lifetimes (even though no one has yet died of old age) and all elves therefore are able to live in mansions built of crystal with anything from swimming pool-sized baths to aquarium-lined walls. However, their world is talent-based, so individuals with no special talent (telepathy, phasing, inflicting, etc.) have to wear working-class clothes and work in specially-built working-class cities. And the nobility (recognizable by their capes) look down on them. The books seems to suggest that people will always find a way to have the few rule over the many.
What is guilt and how does it affect people?
Supposedly elves are very sensitive to guilt and go mad when they do something wrong, so this is why crime rarely happens. And yet there are rebels kidnapping children, creating fires, etc. And the government routinely exiles people including children and does things like commit memory breaks to read the minds of lawbreakers and find out their secrets. Memory breaks cause people to go mad. Apparently elves equate “legal” or “sanctioned by the government for the safety of society” as “morally right” and so can do terrible things if assigned those actions by their council. So my sense here is that “guilt” is relative. If an elf can justify their actions or perceive a wrongdoing as minor, their minds are safe (just as humans silence their consciences with justifications for their behavior). Again, the books do not really go into details here to ferret out why elves feel they ought to rebel against the government sometimes but other times see the government as defining moral law. But there is much to think about here in regards to the relationship of the individual to the government and civil disobedience.
How does a “perfect” people see themselves in relation to others?
One of the most obnoxious things about the elves is that they see themselves as perfect because nonviolent and so they look down on other species, including the goblins that serve as their bodyguards. They even refuse to help dying humans because humans simply are not worth anything to them. In other words, this is yet another way elf utopia has failed to eradicate problems such as pride and the prejudice that results from it.
Have you read Keeper of the Lost Cities? How do you think Messenger handles these questions?