Post-Holiday Reading: City of Stairs

You can't tell, but these are stairs to a church. Get it?
From Flickr user rablem22

Following Planetfall, I decided to jump from science fiction to fantasy in the form of Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. I don’t think I need to wax rhapsodic about the quality of the book too much, as that territory is well-covered, and I agree with the shared high points others have noted: the diverse cast of characters, the intriguing setting, the constant entertainment value, and the jealousy-inducing quality of the writing. This book is smart and fun and cool and left me excited for the next book and interested in checking out Bennett’s back catalog. You should probably read it soon, unless you hate fantasy and/or awesome things.

With the book’s goodness thusly vouched for, I’d like to focus the rest of this post on one of the book’s central concepts. It’s one with some interesting connections to a similarly central idea in Planetfall. That’s right, we’re going to talk about religion!

(Be warned, vague spoilers lurk in the depths beyond!)

Planetfall and City of Stairs posit universes and societies with generally perpendicular experiences of religion.

Planetfall takes place in an apparently materialist universe, where any genuine experiences of the divine are best explained through delusion or the sufficiently-advanced-technology/aliens trope. It’s also centered on a society where religion is cynically used as an artifice to manipulate the true-believing majority of the population.

By contrast, City of Stairs takes place in a (mostly) godless universe that used to have deities until one guy up and killed them as part of liberating his people from oppression. The story takes place decades later in a society where the colonized have turned the tables on their former colonizers, and as part of their dominance have forbidden discussion or even recognition of knowledge about the old, dead gods.

In other words, Planetfall takes place in a society where people are tricked into believing in a divine being that isn’t there, while City of Stairs is set in a society where people are forced to deny belief in divine beings that were there and whose impact can still be felt throughout the land. What they have in common is a ruling cadre/class attempting to manipulate their followers’/subjects’ experience of faith. (Returning to the metaphor of perpendicularity, we can imagine that as the point where the lines intersect.)

Obviously, it’s mostly happenstance that I happened to read these two books back-to-back. Still, I enjoy exploring the different ways they treat the same subject. As someone who generally doesn’t like thinking about people using religion as a tool of manipulation, it’s fascinating to see two very different explorations of the same concept. (For the record, I very much understand that this type of manipulation does happen at all scales in all societies; that’s just not a space I like to spend much of my head time in.)

I’m now most of the way through Terry Pratchett’s Mort, which is set in a universe and society where gods, magic, and anthropomorphized constants like Death are commonplace and generally accepted. All I need to round out the collection is a book that’s set in society that accepts its materialist universe and I’ll have all four configurations! For what it’s worth, though, my post on Mort will likely follow a different train of thought. Stay tuned!