Following on the success of her 2011 Hugo and Nebula awards nominated The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from her Inheritance Trilogy, N. K. Jemisin’s new novel The Killing Moon, was officially released to rave reviews this week. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC, so when Future Fire editor, Djibril al-Ayad suggested I write an essay about some of the themes instead of a review, I was delighted.
In interviews and guest blogs, Jemisin has talked about how wanting to write about ninja priests evolved into a novel about a priest who brings death with love.
“And the clincher of his character was that he wouldn’t be doing it for some paltry material reward or to satisfy a bloodthirsty god; he would be doing it because he cared. He would intend only the best for his victims; indeed, he would be trying to save them from a far worse fate. He would love them. And what could be more effective — or relentless — than an assassin motivated by love?”
The book as a whole touches on so many important themes: religion, abuse of power, fratricide betrayal, the meaning of family and love, and the struggle to protect a way of life. The issue which resonated most powerfully with me, however, was the idea that the time and manner of one’s death could be chosen, either by an individual or by others. By another name, this is a topic most of us are familiar with – euthanasia.
Most of us in the SFF community are aware of Sir Terry Pratchett’s campaign to win the right to decide when and where to end his life before the Alzheimer’s that has attacked him destroys his mind. Currently the UK government forbids this.
In last year’s BBC Two Documentary, ‘ Choosing to Die’, Pratchett sensitively tackled the extremely complicated issue of euthanasia. He declared from the outset that, in his opinion, the timing of his death should be his choice, not the government’s.
We also saw footage from his visit to the Swiss euthanasia group Dignitas, and watched the death of 71-year-old millionaire Peter Smedley – a sufferer of motor neurone disease.
The Guardian article makes the point that death in this type of environment does not come cheaply.
Of course, for many terminally ill people, the warm, safe, relatively pain-free death offered by Dignitas is not an option. It costs around £10,000 and many could either not afford it or would not wish their families to have to pay for it.
In the Killing Moon, the Gatherer Ehiru provides this service almost for free, out of love. He serves the priesthood of the Goddess Hanaja. In the book we are told that many, especially those in pain from terminal illness, see the coming of the Gatherer as a blessing.
But there are others, for whom the right to decide has been abrogated. Family members at the end of their tethers and resources may decide that it’s time to send old grandpa on his way to the land of dreams, Ina-karekh. Or, in other more ominous situations, a contract is requested for political reasons, making the Gatherers into de-facto assassins, something many people in the city of Gujaareh regard them as in any case.
Ehiru frowned. “Women need no Gatherer’s assistance to reach Ina-Karekh--”
“In this case the commission is requested as a kindness, both to her and to her city. Her soul is corrupt, the supplicant says.
“Has an Assay of Truth been performed?”
“Unnecessary. The supplicant is beyond question.”
We also meet Talithele, the ailing mother of the circus caravan leader that helps Ehiru, his apprentice Nijiri and the Kisua diplomat Sunandi escape from the soldiers of the corrupt prince. When Ehiru offers to relieve her pain by sending her to the Land of Dreams she vehemently refuses him, preferring to experience all that is life for as long as she can.
Jemisin has spread out before us four possibilities for dying. Which would we chose? And what are the political implications of each? In The Killing Moon, the Gatherers are able to do their work because they are supported by the dominant religion of the community. In out real world choosing death by suicide is forbidden or frowned upon by many of the world’s religions. Would getting the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury to amend their views make euthanasia more or less likely?
More troubling is the second example. Would easing the prohibitions on euthanasia result in more families deciding that Granny could no longer make an informed decision and sending her on her way, with or without her consent?
And finally I don’t think we can discount the possibility of some governments deciding to ease the suffering of deranged dissidents or political challengers with an easy send off. Clearly the issues swirling around the topic of euthanasia are many and complicated. Jemisin’s book doesn’t offer any answers but it does prod us to think about the questions.
So, what would you chose? I personally share Pratchett’s concerns. My greatest fear is to end up bed-ridden and unable to communicate. Would I chose euthanasia if it were offered? I don’t know. Do read N. K. Jemisin’s brilliant new book, The Killing Moon; then we can talk.
The Killing Moon, N. K. Jemisin, May 2012, Orbit Books