Book Review: The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk
Published in 1993 The Fifth Sacred Thing is a Sci-Fi adventure written by neopagan author Starhawk. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, in the year 2048, environmental collapse has devastated the world. The oceans have acidified, plagues have decimated most of humanity and technology has declined; with no communication between vast regions of the world. The United States has broken into several regions. The book focuses on two regions. The first being the utopian city of Ecotopia - built in the present-day city of San Francisco [Naming the city Ecotopia, Starhawk pays homage to the book of the same name published in 1975 that helped inspire the Green movement]. The city of Ecotopia is an organised confederation of councils and guilds – think 1936 Barcelona without the countless acronyms. The councils operate through group consensus in decision making, drawing from Starhawks years of experience as a nuclear disarmament peace activist and advocate for participatory democracy. Ecotopia lacks a police force, army or any form of coercion.
To the south of Ecotopia is a dystopia ruled by the Stewards, a fascist regime that uses the religion of an apocalyptic evangelical movement the Millennialists to coerce and enslave the population. We learn from the character Bird, on his return to Ecotopia and escape from Steward imprisonment, that the Stewards are building an army to invade Ecotopia. At the time of the book's release the Stewards' characters were criticised for being caricatured and one dimensional. Although in light of recent geopolitical events, from Abu Graib to Daesh, precipitating U.S citizenry rallying to Make America Great Again, I believe Starhawk's caricature of the fanatical to be precise.
The book follows the story of 93-year-old Maya her grandson Bird and mid-wife Madrone. Weaving between everyday life in Ecotopia and Bird and Madrone's adventures south to the land of the Stewards, we are introduced to other rebel groups actively resisting the Stewards through armed violent struggle. There are disused nuclear power plants, rebel mutant populations, laser gun battles and wandering souls, recalling imagery from 1980's dystopian films The Ravages starring Richard Harris. The narration at times reflects psychedelic counterculture reminiscent in post modern surrealism of Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night.
Passive nonviolent resistance is the leading ideology of the citizens of Ecotopia. Maya's vision “There’s a place set for you at our table if you will choose to join us,” becomes a rallying cry for the community of Ecotopia passively resisting the invading Steward army.
Being a fantasy genre, Starhawk delves into the magical world of telepathy, psychic healing, religious polytheism and for added cringe factor, polyamorous relations that add a sort of 60’s tantric free love theme to the plot. Starhawk's belief in Ghandian principles of nonviolence and her neopaganism is evident. The sceptic might be critical of a faith based polytheistic society, nevertheless the spiritual aspects of Ecotopian society have more to do with ritualistic ceremony than mere '..opium for the people'. The rituals are informal and are used to create social bonds. There is no hand of God swooping from the sky to halt invading armies. And being opposite to the millennialists; no bully pulpit to sermon the people. The closest to divine intervention would be the magical realism invoked when Madrone has a psychic connection with bees!
A salient moment is when Maya reflects on the day that the people of the city of San Fransisco rose up to reclaim the commons by “smashing the roads to make gardens.” It is a potent reminder of the intrusion roads play in cutting public access to the commons and each other. Yet life in Ecotopia is far from ideal. The citizens of Ecotopia are torn between their commitment to passive resistance and the human instinct to fight against their oppressors. Divisions are created and at times interpersonal relationships and loyalties are tested.
The drawback to the book is the excessive descriptive prose and the over-sentimentality of the main characters, although many reviewers found this appealing, some including myself found it irritating. It took a while for the book to find its pace and some careful editing could have helped, since the plot really begins when Madrone ventures into the land of the Stewards.
Although despite this, I had initially come to the book looking for libertarian principles in organisation described through fiction. The book is strongest when describing the participatory democratic decisions of the city guilds and the nonviolent resistance to the Stewards. Which is further explored in a sequel. For an introduction to Starhawks approach to participatory democracy I recommend Starhawk's essay on participatory meetings. The nineteenth century slogan “From each according to their ability to each according to their need” no doubt inspired Starhawks vision for her utopia. Food is grown using permaculture, is abundant and no one goes without. There is a faint corollary to the 1516 book Utopia by Thomas Moore, with Moore's vision of the welfare state and no private property; but without the cynicism.
Identifying as a pagan of the Goddess movement Starhawk's anarchist philosophy would be attune to Tolstoy's Christian anarchism mixed with modern ecofeminist identity politics to balance gender and racial disparity. A follower of Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy might enjoy the spiritual dimension to the book. Conversely, Starhawks dismissal of atheism is odd, the characters describe atheism as 'old fashioned', I would criticise this premise as being overly presumptuous and narrow minded. That being said, Starhawk dares to construct alternative modes of society based upon historical precedent thus providing an alternative narrative to the doomed forecasts of the dystopian Anthropocene.
By making Mayas vision emblematic to the ideological beliefs of the main characters, Starhawk teaches us the valuable lesson in free will and choice. “There’s a place set for you at our table if you will choose to join us,”