Can We All Speak Words of Radiance?
Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive” has a lot to teach us about nuclear power.
I’ve always thought of fantasy authors as scientists, their novels giant experiments. When an author writes fantasy, they are creating a universe with its own physical laws, investing it with a believable magic system and filling it with interesting peoples and cultures. They then hit “run” and see how these features interact to provide backdrop and context to their story.
I make it sound so easy.
In reality, this science experiment part of writing, known as “worldbuilding”, is only a small part of what makes a good novel. Well-developed characters and clever plots breathe life into what would otherwise be a lifeless experiment. Nevertheless, quality worldbuilding is essential for good fantasy to become great fantasy. Great fantasy has the reader leaving behind their knowledge of how our universe works and accepting — at least temporarily — the reality of another.
Brandon Sanderson has certainly achieved that with his ongoing series, ‘The Stormlight Archive’. The series started back in 2010 with ‘Way of Kings’, which has sold over a million copies and was voted the best fantasy novel of the 2010s on goodreads, with three books and two novellas released since.
But the Stormlight Archive has more to offer than just being a great story. Perhaps it’s just my nuclear-addled brain, but I find throughout Sanderson’s work lessons for both nuclear technology and nuclear advocacy. Read on to find out why.
SPOILER ALERT: The following text contains spoilers about the plot of the Stormlight Archive series.
Spren, stormlight and energy
The Stormlight Archive world — called ‘Roshar’ — is inhabited with spirit-like beings called ‘spren’. Most spren are physical representations of emotions like fear, anger and shock, or elemental forces like heat, gravity and the wind. Some spren are intelligent and can form bonds with humans that later become central to the storyline. Many spren can be captured and put to use in human technology powered by a strange energy called ‘stormlight’.
A major arc of the story focuses on the unintended consequences of humanity’s past attempts to harness this technology. However, instead of working to use the technologies responsibly, knowledge of them was deliberately hidden and their use suppressed for hundreds of years by a religious orthodoxy. There is a lesson for nuclear power here: we should regulate technologies to prevent their misuse, but taking this too far can lead to the good they bring being lost, misunderstood, or even forgotten.
Carrying the flame of knowledge
In the Stormlight Archive, a group of demi-god warriors called ‘Heralds’ are tasked with helping mankind defeat the forces of evil. The Heralds personify justice, honour and fortitude, and also bring vital knowledge and learning to better equip humanity in the fight against a tyrannical god. This is just like Prometheus in Greek mythology giving humans the gift of fire against the will of Zeus, who preferred to keep them in the dark so as to better control them.
Sometimes it feels like nuclear advocates must act as the modern Prometheus (or a Herald, if you prefer), spreading knowledge of nuclear ‘fire’ to improve lives and protect the planet. Just like Prometheus was punished by misanthropic Zeus, their efforts are often thwarted by well-funded anti-nuclear organisations with questionable intentions.
Note: In the Stormlight Archive, Zeus’s role as the angry god seeking to dominate mankind is fulfilled by the deity called ‘Odium’.
Words of Radiance
The Heralds work with the heroes of the saga, known as ‘Knights Radiant’ (a suitably nuclear name), who are people invested with magical powers by swearing certain oaths. These oaths are mostly promises to protect the vulnerable and to encourage others to reach their fullest potential. Perhaps we should make an oath like this when working with nuclear power — a promise to deliver affordable, clean energy that brings quality of life for all.
The Knights Radiant work to a kind of Stoic philosophy that emphasizes action, persistence, incremental self-improvement and self-forgiveness; undoubtedly a useful set of tools for the nuclear advocate, faced as they are with endless ideological and personal attacks and a fight they may never see the end of in their lifetimes.
Take those powerful words: the First Ideal of the Knights Radiant (looks great on a t-shirt, by the way):
“Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before destination.”
Even this simple phrase offers so much: the value of life at all times; the imperative to be strong, both physically but also morally by not succumbing to vice; how it’s not about where we are going or what we achieve but about how we get there, meaning failing is better than winning if it means sticking to your values.
One of the central characters, ‘Dalinar Kholin’, is the greatest embodiment of this emotional strength. Dalinar is left the task of leading the forces of good against evil, all while struggling with his own internal demons. He has a lot to teach about never giving up the fight:
“A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us.
But if we stop, if we accept the person we are when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination. To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.”
— Dalinar Kholin in Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
Wise words that have helped me get through some of the challenges of the last couple of years.
Dalinar also has the ability to manipulate the three ‘realms’ (dimensions of reality) to deliver — seemingly out of nowhere — vast amounts of stormlight. This feels just like how we can alter the structure of the nucleus to unlock the hidden wells of energy within.
Say the words
I get it. This is fiction. Yet I still find myself inspired by the ideals of the Knights Radiant. I still try to speak my own Words of Radiance. I still see lessons on how to take powerful, mysterious forces and put them to good. If you read the books, I hope you find inspiration, too.