All Else We Left Behind: Air Logic by Laurie J. Marks

Just shy of eighteen years since the publication of Marks’ first Elemental Logic novel, the story of Shaftal—of Karis and Zanja and Emil, their spouses and children and loved ones—reaches its conclusion in Air Logic. In the previous volume, an assassination attempt was made on Karis’s government and her person. Though the attempt was foiled, the larger problem of an active resistance in Shaftal to peace with the Sainnites remains unsolved: people in the wind, plotting the overthrow of the G’deon they consider false for her attempt to close out the brutalities of war without seeking vengeance.

As we’ve discussed previously, Marks’s novels argue that progress is only possible if people are able and willing to change—but also to forgive, to allow room for growth and rehabilitation, all at the same time. Finding that third path isn’t a comfortable task. Air logic as it has been represented throughout the series is implacable and the people gifted with it are as well, possessors of rigid internal structures of moral certainty. I’d argue, then, that it makes a great deal of thematic sense for the final book to have a vested interest in exploring the problem of rigid certainties and inflexible beliefs as a stumbling block on the path to peace.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Air Logic is, ultimately, a book about extremism: how it roots and spreads, how to dismantle it, how to recover from it. The direct metaphor of air logic allows Marks to illustrate and complicate her arguments across a plot following our familiar cast as well as the conspirators at the same time—several point of view chapters, for example, are centered on Chaen, a would-be assassin captured in her attempt on Karis’s life. Chaen and her son are both members of the Death-in-Life resistance cult that has grown up around the machinations of a rogue air witch names Saugus, a man who believes with complete moral certainty that the only path to a peaceful Shaftal is the total extermination of the Sainnites.

Moral certainty can be, after all, seductive. As we see in our daily lives, people often embrace a violent and reactionary surety rather than working toward a more challenging, socially-conscientious ethical complexity. Marks explores the problem of extremism from within and without a specific movement in Shaftal, paying particular attention to the young men that have joined it. Tashar, for example, is a sometimes-point-of-view character from a rich trading family who has committed treason for the sake of little more than attention. He thinks, “No one had ever known or loved him. No one had ever recognized his longing to belong, to know the truth, to do remarkable things, to be courageous. No one but Saugus.” Keep in mind, again, that Tashar is a scion of a family of intense privilege whose main business has been in importing the destructive drug from Sainna that has killed thousands of his own people. Tashar doesn’t care about exterminating Sainnites for the sake of Shaftal—but he certainly does care about his own ego.

It is a deft turn with which Marks is able to illustrate the familiar path of radicalization for young disaffected men in our world, despite the lack of patriarchy in the world of the novels. Tashar is fundamentally selfish. Maxem, too, is selfish—and brutally violent in his air logic, his lack of empathy, his belief that only he knows what’s right and is allowed to act however he pleases as a result. Chaen’s motivation, though, isn’t the same as that of the young men she’s joined with. As she tells herself, and later Kamren, she did not believe in the idea of a “true” and “false” G’deon that Saugus used to motivate the soldiering sorts. She believed him, however, to be a man of principle dedicated to the same kind of blind vengeance against Sainnites that she desired as a salve for her own wounds.

But what can be done about those poisonous, destructive extremist beliefs? Throughout Air Logic, Marks provides a handful of answers toward the complicated third path we’ve talked so much about in other arenas. In the context of her metaphor, the inflexible conviction of an air witch is both a strength and a weakness, ideally tempered throughout life with education as well as external checks and balance. The major flaw of air logic, as Norina has explained many times previously, is that it is weak to powerful belief. Often, when faced with fire logic from Zanja, Norina has thrown her hands up and admitted she can’t perceive if it’s factual truth or not because Zanja believes her stories so much they are true to her, inside her heart and mind.

Air logic slips into dangerous territories when used to manipulate belief or when unable to parse belief from fact. The air children—including the traitor, Maxem—are in the process of learning from Norina that their instinctual drive to be right at all times is a deep-seated flaw as much as it is a raw power. After all, if one becomes so internally convinced that everything they believe is correct at any time, it legitimates monstrous abuses of power. Checks against this are needed, as is the ability to listen to other people’s logics and change one’s mind, inflexible though it might be. Maxem’s encounter with Saugus as a child was the first time he faced someone who understood him flat out and wasn’t made uncomfortable by him. He would do anything for that acceptance, and because he is unable to sort out belief and certainty, he falls direct into Saugus’s control without question.

Conversely, after Chaen begins to integrate out of her extremist sect into life with the G’deon and her government, the major difficulties she has are all related to her inflexible belief systems and the pain of being wrong. Admitting to one’s flaws and cruelties, admitting to having believed in error, is presented as a slow and hideously uncomfortable process that takes constant challenge. As commander Kamren observes to Chaen, discussing paladin philosophy and the process of changing one’s political position based on new information: “What a maddening life it is, to be committed to a way of living while also remaining open to all possibilities.”

The striking thing about this observation is the balance it requires between internal certainties and external facts, the emphasis on a willingness to be wrong or for certainties to change. Another angle on the importance of being willing to adapt is the argument that “fire logic awakens air witches to humility,” because fire logic allows for less-than-concrete certainties. While air logic is a moral logic, to use the framework I discussed previously, fire logic is an ethical logic—received moralities have a distinct right and wrong, but ethics require leaps of logic and integration of outside facts, outside influences or opinions.

Moral logics are inflexible, forming the base of political and religious extremism and discouraging individual thought or philosophical inquiry, while ethical logics encourage debate, complexity, and empathy without sacrificing the idea of the good. Fire and air balance one another by contradiction, frustration, and challenge. However, sometimes that’s what you need—a good kick in the ass to startle you out of your rut of regular belief. Norina has served that purpose for Zanja and vice versa. The real political and social goal of the new government, as Zanja and her associates determine via a complex card reading, is to create for their people a “poised and unified balance”—as opposed to a stagnant or inflexible one. Poise refers in this case to the poise of muscles ready to spring, while unity allows for the settling that allows families to grow and contentment arise.

As for the government that can make that kind of flexible but reliable social order possible, the elements in harmony provide checks and balances—as does having a team of advisors from different backgrounds all listening to one another and adapting as much as possible for the best shared outcome. Those crowded, liminal arenas of debate by necessity require the most work but are also the most productive spaces. The black-and-white certainty of air logic is perhaps fastest and sharpest, but it is not necessarily correct. People need to be allowed to change and grow. The discipline of hope that Marks argued for in the first novel in this series involves, in part, believing that people have the fundamental capacity to do better.

Chaen and Maxem are the embodiment of people’s capacity to recover from the poison of violent extremism. Both were predisposed to the reductive simplicity of Saugus’s dogma,; Chaen through her unresolved trauma at the hands of Sainnite soldiers and Maxem through his sense of superiority and sadism allowed to run unchecked. Not all people are redeemable, of course, as Saugus was executed per the hand of the law—but those under the influence of radical extremism might be rehabilitated, if willing, if able, and if the right supports are in place to do so. As Chaen observes at the end of the novel, once she becomes a Paladin and Maxem is accepted after probation to the Order of Truthkens:

Now they would once again spend a winter under the same roof, and eat and work together as did everyone in that rebuilt house, who crowded together in a few rooms and worked together to build a few more rooms that they would occupy next winter. Some buildings, Chaen thought wryly, are never big enough. Some buildings are always being built.

The House of Lilterwess, too, is a metaphor: once razed to the ground in conflict and at the close of the novel in the process of being raised once more by different hands as a broader space, a growing space. Some buildings are always being built. People, too, are a process in motion. To pursue radical optimism, to dedicate oneself to the discipline of hope, is to believe in the potential of growth—the potential of a better future, with more rooms and more people to fill them together. Forgiveness is not simple, and it must be earned, but progress toward a better version of oneself is always on the table.

And it does, in the end, all seem to work out. Wars can be ended, extremism can be quashed or rehabilitated. I found my eyes stinging a bit after Zanja discovers that her meddling with the distant past has saved a portion of her tribe from genocide. Her world has been reversed: those are not her people, as in that version of her timeline she’s dead, so she cannot truly return to them—but she can continue to function as the Speaker of her own timeline, to train an apprentice and pass down traditions that she thought were long dead. The brief paragraphs of conclusion for other characters are also emotional at the end of such a long journey—Karis and Zanja leading a long life together, Garland having the room to pursue a romantic relationship and leave behind the last tatters of his soldiering, Emil recovering in part from the damage done to him by Maxew and pursuing his scholarly life with Medric, so on and so forth.

Not everyone survives, and no one survives unscathed, but the defeat of Saugus relied upon their familial bond above all—the love and hope they’d built together, the sharing of wife to wife, the child raised amongst a whole passel of adoptive (queer!) relatives. The discipline of hope relies on communal life and love, doing the hard work of coming together and staying together across differences in culture, belief, conviction. Marks time and time again refuses pessimism or grim acquiescence in favor of insisting that, while some people might be monsters, the far greater portion have the capacity for good. There is real power in the dedicated, intentional, thoughtful project of hope with a steel core. The Elemental Logic series provides a compelling, thorough argument in its favor, one I’ve enjoyed reading from beginning to end and which left me cautiously optimistic about the world in which I’d like to keep striving toward a more survivable future.

The Elemental Logic Books are available from Small Beer Press.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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