My choices were not free, Duan. No choices are ever free. I thought you understood that.
I have been asked about this line from Insurrection, if it means I am a determinist. (Ok, the questioner didn’t use that term, but that’s what she was getting at.)
Do I believe that our lives are fated, that some force (religious) or set of forces (societal, etc.) rule us, or do I believe that we have free will, and therefore the freedom to create our lives?
My answer, being a student of both history and philosophy, is (and my students hate this) “it depends.” Or, more confusingly to college freshmen: both.
Insurrection and the upcoming novels are all set amongst the problems and conditions of a decaying empire. This doesn’t surprise anyone who knows me in my Other Life, as I have a degree in the British Empire (yes, you can get degrees in that), and have read and studied and taught issues of imperialism, colonialism, independence movements, assimilation, cultural appropriation, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
Let me step back from empire a moment and look at history in general. There are two main schools of thought that rule how we approach the human story (which is, by the way, how I define history): the “great man” school of thought, and the “zeitgeist” school of thought.
The Great Man theory rests its assumptions on the will or force exerted upon human affairs by individuals — this is often what gives rise to a lot of “what if” or alternative history stories: what if you went back in time and ran Hitler down as a ten-year-old? Would World War II still have happened? What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had stayed home that day – would World War I have still broken out? What if Henry VIII had stayed happily married to his first wife, and England had thus remained Catholic?
It doesn’t have to be literally one man, of course, but it focuses on the choices and decisions made by individuals and how those shape history.
Great Man vs Zeitgeist
Zeitgeist comes from the German (who were some of the first to truly study how societies work). The “temper of the times” or “spirit of the age” is one way to define it.
That school of thought says that, yes, although Hitler was instrumental in moving Germany toward World War II, the war would have happened anyway without him — maybe at a slightly different time, maybe with somewhat different goals, possibly without the Holocaust (although he was hardly the only antisemite in Europe), but the forces that created it would still have exerted their pressures on Germany, and those forces would have moved her to react the way she did.
Back to how this applies to Insurrection, and the original question, the issue of choice. . .
Duan, coming from the oppressed peoples, assumes that Kor, being the oppressor, has ultimate freedom of choice in how he approaches or treats the Iridelli. He is seeing things from the “great man” perspective (although, Kor, being Kor, would just smile at the term and take it as his due).
Kor, although he never bothers to really explain it, knows that he is a cog in a large, impersonal machine that only wants results — if he fails to deliver them, he will be replaced, and therefore he makes his decisions based on his understanding of those larger forces — much more of the zeitgeist view. (Admittedly, he also makes his decisions based on assumptions of superiority that are patently false, although he won’t come to see that for a long time.)
Does this mean Kor bears no responsibility for how things play out and the suffering the Iridelli endure? Of course not! And his growing understanding of that will be a large part of his arc in the novels.
Issues of Empire
There is a tendency in imperialism/colonialism studies to see only the “black and white” (I use the term with full knowledge of the sad irony) issues: the oppressor is wrong, evil, and terrible. The oppressed are by virtue of being oppressed, right, good, and justified in whatever tactics are necessary to rid themselves of the oppressor.
There are enormous shades of gray in between those, however, and Insurrection is in some ways an examination of how those might play out for actual people. . .how the relationship aspect (because one thing my studies of history have taught me is that people are people, no matter what the era, society or culture) affects the larger picture, and how, in turn, that larger picture impacts individuals and the choices they make.
Could Kor have chosen not to impose the conditions that drive Duan to his terrible decision? Could Duan have made a different decision at the end and would it have changed anything? You’ll have to read the story and decide for yourself. . .
So there you go: do we have choices in life or are our lives fated or determined in some way?
Articles of Interest
The British Empire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Empire
The British Empire Website: http://www.britishempire.co.uk/