Rich, chewy philosophy, with snake-headed aliens and lots of dead bodies. Plus body horror.
We all know The Trolley Problem, right? In this post-The Good Place world, it’s hard to imagine anyone has not run across it in some form or another. It permeates the zeitgeist. It structures The Discourse. But just in case you are one of today’s lucky 10,000, it goes like this: You are standing at a junction in some trolley tracks, with a trolley racing approaching. You can’t stop it, because [insert Reasons here], but you can switch it to a different track. Five people are working on the rails ahead of the trolley’s current path, doomed if you do nothing. One person is working on the alternative track. Do you pull the lever? Do you make the decision to doom that one person in order to save the five?
This is a popular set-up for ethical thought experiments, with many variations that probe people’s human life accounting principles. Suppose the only way to stop the trolley was not to pull a lever, but to physically throw another person onto the track in front of it? Suppose the one person was your brother and the five were strangers? Suppose the one person was your own ethnicity and the five were another ethnicity? Suppose the one person was human and the five were aliens?
Suppose the one person was Earth and the five were the rest of the galaxy?
Seth Dickinson’s Exordia is, at its heart, an in-depth exploration of The Trolley Problem and its variants, as lived through the three primary characters. Because, despite the infinity of forms that the moral thought experiment can take, there are, in essence, only three ways to engage with it. You can play the game; you can refuse to play the game; or you can be the person who sets the trolley rolling in the first place.
Anna came to America as a Kurdish refugee, and her whole life shaped by the horrifying version of the trolly problem she was faced with as a child. An Iraqi soldier gave her a gun and told her that he would spare her village if she shot her brother and father in the head. She played the game straight. She saved her village.
Erik, our second primary character, is a military man, who has spent a significant portion of his career working under the auspices of an operation called Paladin. The role of Paladin was to dispense justice to (assassinate) military contractors who committed atrocities outside the scope of American military or civil law. Unlike Anna, who was forced into the Trolley Problem, Erik engaged in the moral calculus willingly. But it is the same reasoning, at heart: if you murder this man, now, you will save more people later by stopping him. Yet because Erik had the luxury of engaging willingly with the game, he also had the luxury of refusing to engage. Eventually Paladin’s scope of action ballooned beyond the boundaries that Erik is willing to condone, and he not only withdrew from Paladin, he also used his personal connections to put a stop to it entirely.
These personal connections take the form of Erik's childhood best friend, Clayton, who masterminded Paladin in the first place. Clayton's philosophy on Trolley Problems encompasses the third perspective: he creates them, and imposes them on others. He makes other people actually pull the lever. He did not assassinate anyone through Paladin. He recruited others, and gave them the order. Erik, refusing to play the game any longer, noped out of Paladin, and in the process destroyed his relationship with Clayton.
All this is a substantial amount of backstory backstory, revealed in the first pages of Exordia, but it is vitally important backstory to set up Clayton, Erik, and Anna in their three philosophical trolley camps.
Because then aliens invade! Two opposing multi-snake-head aliens, representing two factions of a galaxy-spanning conflict. One of them, Ssrin, forms an alliance with Anna. Ssrin is the rebel, fighting the good fight (as she sees it) against the governing overlords, Exordia. She is alone, unsupported, the little guy against the empire. She is to Exordia what Anna’s Kurdish village was to Iraq. The other, Iruvage, aligns himself with Clayton. Iruvage represents the interests of Exordia, and is backed by the power of an immense spaceship that has no qualms about nuking multiple major cities to get Earth governments to do what he wants. He is to Ssrin’s rebels what the United States is to every country in the Middle East.
Do you get it? Do you see the parallels? It’s not, I grant, subtle, but it’s not wrong either.
Both Ssrin and Iruvage are desperate to get their hands on the book’s Macguffin, an artifact code-named Blackbird, which has appeared in Kurdistan and can upend the galactic power structure if only Ssrin—or Iruvage—can figure out how it works. Naturally, Earth’s governments are also interested to figure out what is up with Blackbird. So all the players in this game converge on Kurdistan: scientific teams, military teams, Ssrin and her agents, Iruvage and his agents—and, alas, the innocent civilians in the local town, just trying to live their damn lives. Not accidentally, this is the same town that Anna saved through her solution to the Trolley Problem imposed on her as a child.
Many arcane discussions of entropy and souls and prime numbers and damnation and information theory and the nature of existence surround the scientific teams’ attempts to unravel Blackbird’s secrets. This is made all the more pressing by two external pressures. First, exposure to Blackbird results in appallingly body-horror-filled death; and second, Iruvage has informed world governments that they have 14 hours to figure out how Blackbird works, or Earth will be destroyed in a rain of nuclear fire.1 Actually, quite a large amount of this book follows the scientific investigations of Blackbird, and I feel like I’m doing Dickinson a bit of a disservice in skimping over it. He’s done his research. It’s great science fiction. If you want brilliant scientists being brilliant, there’s tons of that in this book. But it’s not what makes this book so striking. So, let’s return to urban mass transport infrastructure.
Against this backdrop of galactic conflict and scientific activity, Clayton recruits Erik and Anna, and they join the other masses of Earth’s Last Best Hope in Kurdistan, where the mother of all Trolley Problems await them. Do they nuke a small group of Kurdish refugees if such an action will allow them to satisfy Iruvage and save Earth? Do they allow Earth to be destroyed if such an action will allow Ssrin to achieve her objective of defying Exordia and save the rest of the galaxy?
This is where each character’s historical Trolley stance comes into play, and I have never read anything as satisfyingly clear-sighted as Dickinson’s articulation of these perspectives.
In Erik’s opinion, only weasels play trolley games. Heroes jump down there and start pulling people off the tracks. Heroes pass laws regulating better trolley brakes. That’s how you make a society (Loc 9106).
This view is the crux of Erik’s fundamental rift with Clayton. In Erik’s eyes, Clayton is worse than a weasel, because, recall, he’s not just agreeing to play the trolley game; he is creating it. He sets up Trolley Problems in the first place and imposes them on others, because this manipulation serves, as Clayton sees it, the greater good. Indeed, Clayton might well see his behaviour as another sacrifice of sorts, because he is benefitting the world at the price of his moral rectitude.2 But such a code is not only evil on itself, it spreads evil to everyone who accepts it. Erik refuses to accept it.
If other people or outside circumstances create evil, well, the evil is theirs. To condition your own morality on their evil would itself be evil. You cannot say, well, they’ve set things up so I can kill ten people to save a hundred, so now it’s okay for me to kill ten people. What you do instead is kill no one and try to save a hundred and ten. And if you fail, and they all die, that fucking sucks, but at least you denied yourself the cheap out of “the greater good” (Loc 9092).Anna, on the other hand, has no use for this idealism, and counters Erik’s philosophy with a blisteringly apt commentary on American exceptionalism. Only someone who is confident that their actions will not be the sole barrier between life and annihilation can have the luxury of virtuous self-sacrifice, of uncompromising morality. ‘You’re quite sure America is going to stick around to judge you,’ she tells him. ‘And you want to be judged well. But the only people around to judge me were God and the people I saved. And God didn’t do anything for them. So I had to step up’ (Loc 6057).
The little guys don’t have the luxury of noping out of the game. And now, with the entire planet facing annihilation, Earth is the little guy. No one will be left to judge Erik’s actions, and so the fundamental assumption of Erik’s uncompromising morality falls apart.
And Clayton? Well, on the one hand you’d think that Clayton would be the first to pull the lever, the first to knuckle under Iruvage’s demands. Utilitarianism, baby, save the greatest number. That’s how trolley philosophy works. That’s how Clayton works. Except it’s not, because Clayton does not play trolley games, remember. He creates them. He controls other people’s moral decisions; he does not like allowing others to force them upon him.
These character dynamics on their own would make for a rich, chewy read, but they are far from the only thing going in this book. Secondary characters have their own arcs and philosophies, which make the eventual body count all the more poignant.3 Political and racial tensions are described with sophistication and nuance. Characters from China, Russia, Nigeria, the Phillippines, Iran, and Kurdistan are given their own viewpoints that felt fully realized, with each allowed their own personalities and desires that shaped them as individuals, rather than representatives of token diversity, while still being informed by their national and ethnic identities. And I should mention again how good the science bit of the science fiction is.4
Now, I must acknowledge here that the reader will not be walking away fully satisfied, because Exordia does not end with a completed story. It seems to be leaving room open for a sequel. That’s fine, honestly. Given the size of the conflict and the stakes invoked in this galactic Trolley Problem, it would almost trivialize the scope of the vision if it could be finished off in one book. And future books might well serve to elaborate on the bits of history and politics that were left unexplored—namely, those of Exordia. While Dickinson’s understanding of Earthly sociopoliticoeconomic pressures is razor-sharp, he leaves an awful lot of vagueness in his descriptions of how the aliens work. It tends towards rather woo-woo quasi-religious hand-waving vibes, rather than a fully fleshed out social and political governance structure. But that’s fine. Exordia, the novel, takes place on Earth. I will be perfectly happy to wait for future books to explore the celestial politics of Exordia, the galactic power.
1 Indeed, several cities are destroyed quite early in the book, which is a quite effective plot device to skip over the tedious disbelief that aliens are real which would otherwise be a necessary part of the narrative. Dickinson wants Earth’s governments to get their tails in gear right quick, and so he drops nukes to speed that process along. ↩
2 There is a brilliant Borges story about this perspective, called ‘The Three Versions of Judas’. ↩
3 I really must emphasize that there is a shockingly high body count and a distressingly large number of nuclear explosions in this book. Really, truly. No, more than that. Dickinson is not here to play games (except trolley games). ↩
4 I suppose I should also mention that I am not an expert in entropy and cosmology; and I am not Kurdish, Russian, Chinese, Filipina, Mexican, or queer. It is entirely possible that I’m missing some glaring errors in Dickinson’s approach to all of this that would hurt like a broken tooth someone who has actually lived the lives of Dickinson’s characters or researched entropy and pink noise. But from where I sit, it feels good. It feels real. It feels respectful, and sensitive, as if Dickinson has done his research and talked to the right people about it. I might be wrong. But I don’t think so. ↩
Nerd coefficient: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention
- On point philosophical point-counterpart discussion of Trolly philosophy
- Rich, well-realized characters with diverse lives and roles
- Snake-headed aliens
- Body horror
- Enormous body count
Dickinson, Seth. Exordia. [Tor Publishing Group, 2023].
Borges, Jorge Luis. 'The Three Versions of Judas.' In: Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley. [Penguin Books, 1998].
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.