By Casey Wilson
By all rights, For Darkness Shows the Stars shouldn’t work. Diana Peterfreund’s latest novel is, in its most succinct form, a post-apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. As such, it is a bit of an uphill battle. Austen’s novels are intimately connected with the society of their time and place, and Persuasion is arguably her most mature story.
Peterfreund mostly avoids the pitfalls that could follow, by turning the future into a revision of the past. Extreme genetic modifications caused the “Reduction,” sparing only the “Luddites” who had rejected the practices entirely. The Luddites have thus stepped forward as the “caretakers of humanity” – specifically of the Reduced, who still bear the changes of the Reduction, most notable in their inability to speak in anything more than monosyllabic words. Some of the Children of the Reduced (or Posts) have moved past the limitations of their parents, however, and are again seemingly “normal” people. This world creates both an ingrained class-system – that is being upset by the rise of the Posts – and takes away most advanced technology, leaving us with a world as close to that of Austen’s as we can perhaps expect that far into the future. (Peterfreund discusses the choices she made in her world building over on John Scalzi’s The Big Idea series — it’s worth checking out.)
This also allows her to place heavy burdens upon her young protagonist – named Elliot, in a nod to Austen’s own heroine – that give some added heft to the choices she has to make. Before the novel begins, she has already had to choose duty to her family’s estate and a desire to protect the Reduced that live upon it from her father over the whims of love by rejecting her childhood friend Kai’s request that she run away with him. When Kai returns years later – as he must, in any good romance – they each still bear the scars of that decision. There is anger and hurt, mixed in with the feelings of love that remain. Peterfreund uses their childhood letters to each other to explore their past, and while they provide an ideal ramp up to the final letter of the novel, I found them to be the weakest part of the novel. There is plenty of charm to be found in them still, but I often wanted them to offer a little more depth than what their few sentences could share.
What does add some depth, however, is the way that Elliot constantly has to revise her worldview as the novel progresses, especially as she begins to question her dedication to Luddite society. There are a lot of questions ripe for discussion here, particularly with regard to the pros and cons of rampant technology and genetic modification in our food – and ourselves. But the novel only ever seems to brush up against these questions rather than address them head on, which I suppose can function either as an opportunity for readers to take up the questions themselves or a cop out – I’m more inclined to think of it as the former than the latter, though I’m not sure I’d argue either way.
On the whole, then, I think that For Darkness Shows the Stars does unexpectedly well with its potentially difficult premise. It’s not Austen, but it’s not meant to be. I’ve only read Persuasion once, a few years ago, which I think may be the perfect amount of distance to have with a novel like this – close enough to smile at the nods to the original, far enough to avoid any unnecessary outrage with the retelling. If you are the type that can forgive an urge to replace Austen’s England with two secluded islands in a far-off future, then give this book a shot. At worst, it will make you want to reread the original; at best, you’ll come to love Peterfreund’s vision as well. That’s a win-win, in my book.
Casey is a PhD student.