Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of D’ni, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.
Myst: The Book of D’ni is not a particularly successful book. It doesn’t really have any characters, its plot is disjointed, and its events have little to no bearing on the rest of the series. I’ve slotted it into the fourth place here because its events take place between Riven and Exile, but in all honesty it could have gone anywhere; in fact, its presaging of the themes of Uru might actually make it more relevant there. These are the challenges when working with a book as disorganized as this one. Like Riven, The Book of D’ni is highly ambitious, but unlike Riven, it falls very short of its goals.
I’m not generally in the practice of rehashing the plot in these essays, but in this case I’m going to make an exception, as I’m guessing most of you have either not read this book or have forgotten most of it. The book opens with characteristic vagueness, describing Atrus and a crew of workers drilling their way out of his prison room in D’ni. These workers, we learn soon, are the Averonese, a people Atrus recruited from a new Age specifically to help him accomplish his central task: to find survivors of the Fall wherever they might be. Atrus and the Averonese (and Katran, when the book deigns to mention her) travel throughout the ruins of D’ni, linking to various ages, sometimes encountering groups of survivors, sometimes not. Eventually they discover a hidden chamber below a building and a long-lost Linking Book that takes them to Terahnee, a civilization which shares a common ancestry to D’ni. It’s a luxurious and prosperous land and they take to it immediately, making plans to move the D’ni survivors there. However, it is soon revealed that the Terahnee society is dependent on slave labor. Immediately after this revelation the Terahnee people begin to sicken and die from a plague accidentally transmitted by the D’ni, allowing the slaves to revolt. There are skirmishes and people die. Atrus and his party eventually extricate themselves from the mess, the links between Terahnee and D’ni are again severed, and the book closes with a monologue from Katran about how Atrus’s life is informed by some sort of prophecy that we’ll never hear about again. The book has any number of subplots within that framework, but they don’t really inform any part of the larger plot. That overarching structure is all you really need to know.
Where The Book of Atrus was largely character-driven, D’ni is more plot-driven, which is rather unfortunate as the plot leaves a lot to be desired. The authors’ intent appears to have been to construct a story about what happened to the survivors of the Fall. It’s a worthy concept, but the challenge with any abstract concept is to find the story that can be built around it. In this case, the story they found consists of a bunch of aimless ruin-wandering and a completely unrelated tangent about Terahnee, all built around characters who had no connection to pre-Fall D’ni. Disjointed as it is, it’s difficult to discern any central theme or intent in the book, which is probably what makes it such a forgettable entry in the series. It’s not just that it doesn’t relate to the rest of the series, it hardly even manages to relate back to itself.
While it’s not a central theme per se, the corrupting power of the Art is a concept which recurs throughout the book. D’ni’s signature accomplishment, the ability to create links to any possible world, creates any number of temptations, which is why it was a highly elite and restricted profession in the D’ni civilization. Power corrupts, and the Art represents a source of absolute power, and therefore a cause of absolute corruption. Throughout the book we see the Art used both for good and for evil, a theme which (again) will reappear extensively in Uru.
Atrus, unlike the D’ni of old, Writes without any checks or balances in place, which would seemingly put him especially at risk of corruption. To compensate for this, he’s always painted as an extremely moral person, one who theoretically is above its temptations. Even so, he too uses the Art to his advantage, sometimes with little concern to his influence on the worlds he links to. This highlights an important issue, one that’s been explored in depth in a different fictional universe: Star Trek. Like the D’ni, the characters of Star Trek have a technology (warp drive) which allows them access to a practically infinite number of worlds. Civilizations which have developed warp drive have a distinct advantage over those which have not, since it enables them to do as they please with no fear of retribution. For this reason, Star Trek’s characters are all sworn to uphold a principle called the Prime Directive: under no circumstances may one interfere with pre-warp civilizations. While this principle would itself be used occasionally to justify atrocities over the course of the series, its intentions are clear: it’s meant to prevent the people with warp drive from running roughshod over the people without it. The point of this digression, naturally, is that Atrus seems to see nothing wrong with violating the D’ni equivalent of the Prime Directive when it suits his purposes. He needs laborers to help him in his quest to find D’ni survivors, so naturally he writes a link to an Age (Averone) which seems likely to have willing workers. Granted, he doesn’t enslave the population (all his workers are volunteers), but his very presence affects Averone with all the subtlety of an H-bomb. By exposing the Averonese to possibilities beyond their wildest dreams, he has irreversibly altered their entire civilization. The Averonese elders are suspicious of Atrus, and while the book attempts to paint them as short-sighted, one can’t help but see the situation from their perspective: Atrus has effectively appeared out of thin air and filled their youngest generation with feelings of inadequacy. Never again will they be content to live in their one tiny world, and their entire way of life is now at risk of disappearing; being assimilated into the fabric of New D’ni. This is especially apparent when Atrus, later in the book, proposes migrating the Averonese to Terahnee. His intentions (as usual) appear to be in their best interests, but only so from his perspective. His distanced observations lead him to believe that life in Terahnee is objectively superior to life in Averone, but the fact is that Atrus is not Averonese, and not qualified to make decisions on their behalf. Simply by appearing in Averone and talking to its inhabitants, Atrus has done serious damage; in effect, he has completely destroyed the Averonese way of life. That the supposedly-well-intentioned Atrus seems unconcerned about this is suggestive of just how potent the Art’s corrupting influence is.
The book’s primary abusers of the Art, though, are the Terahnee, who’ve been completely corrupted by its lures and use it primarily as a tool of enslavement. In the context of the book, Terahnee largely serves as a counterpoint to D’ni. The two civilizations share a common ancestry, but branched apart due to disagreements over how to build their societies. The D’ni concluded that it was best to live in the dark, suppressing pride to avoid corruption, while the Terahnee instead basked in their abilities, creating a world celebrating their own beauty. Eventually both sides saw fit to break ties with the other. This contrast is played frequently throughout the book: D’ni is dark and moral, Terahnee is light and immoral. This black-and-white depiction of the issues is a bit unfair, naturally, and overall tells us what we want to believe: that the D’ni were good at heart and undeserving of their fate. While in the confines of this book the Terahnee serve as a cautionary example, in the context of the rest of the series they instead became a precedent. In The Book of D’ni only the proud can be corrupted by the Art, but Uru concludes that ultimately everyone is corrupted by it. In light of Atrus’s behavior toward the Averonese, that’s not hard to believe.
While the book’s exploration of the dangers of the Art is mature and well-reasoned, its characters are consistently and unapologetically naive. Atrus assumes that the Averonese don’t mind his influence, he assumes that any D’ni survivors will be glad to see him, and (most notably) that Terahnee really is as perfect as it looks. He shows no sign of ever having been hurt, which is particularly bizarre considering all that he’s gone through by this point in his life: betrayal by most of his closest family members, years of solitary exile, and seeing his life’s work erased. That he persists in assuming that everyone else is as moral as he is defies belief. None of the other characters is any better. Even Katran doesn’t seem to think the Terahnee might be hiding anything, and the Averonese just tend to assume that Atrus knows best. One of the only characters who doesn’t come across as woefully naive is Ymur, an ex-slave who becomes the primary antagonist in the book’s final chapters. At one point early in Ymur’s character arc, Atrus proposes a plan to build a new Terahnee for the slaves to repopulate, basing its structure on that of D’ni. Ymur bristles at this, saying that Atrus’s plan amounts to swapping out the old masters for a set of new masters. Atrus denies this, but Ymur is insistent:
“Why should we listen to you, Atrus of D’ni?”
“Because I have your interests at heart!”
“Our interests, our yours?”
Atrus stared at Ymur, understanding suddenly that whatever he said he would not convince this one. Ymur was set against him, set against reason itself.
This passage in particular (found on page 374 in the paperback edition) highlights the issues of naivete that afflict most of the characters in this novel. Atrus believes that Ymur is set against “reason itself,” but really Ymur is the only person present who’s actually allowing his past experiences to inform his thoughts. Atrus, somehow, has managed to Hakuna-Matata himself into a childlike know-nothing who is taken by surprise at every turn, but Ymur, having been beaten down too many times in his life, is not about to let someone else take the reins now that he’s finally in control. He has no reason to trust Atrus, a complete stranger who was fraternizing with the enemy only a few days before. This is another major shortcoming in this book: the only characters who are actually thinking are generally depicted as being misguided, while those we’re supposed to be rooting for just blunder around like a bunch of wide-eyed preschoolers.
Despite the inconsistency of his depiction, Atrus is the only character who undergoes significant changes in this book, making him the protagonist. The change I refer to comes in the form of a revelation near the end of the book (pg. 395). The sudden revelation is a literary technique most prominent in the short stories of James Joyce: at the climax, the primary character comes to a sudden realization that things he’s been doing are misguided. In Atrus’s case, he realizes that trying to rebuild D’ni in its own ruins is a mistake. It’s one of the few moments in the book in which we get a feel for him as a character, a sense that he’s thinking and considering the meanings of his actions. Atrus’s decision to abandon the fallen City comes suddenly, but nonetheless is a deeply personal one informed by his own ethics and recent experiences. It’s important from a series perspective as well, as it will lead to his decision to write Releeshahn and set a precedent for the abandoned D’ni we’ll see in Uru. (The question itself, whether to rebuild the City, will also be reconsidered in Uru.) While the moment is largely downplayed, it’s perhaps the most important moment in the book, and can safely be considered its climax.
The Book of D’ni is perhaps the weakest link in the entire Myst series: it lacks the strong characters we’ve come to expect, trades surprise for predictability, and shrouds everything in vagueness. Still, it illustrates a number of issues raised by the premise of the series, providing, if nothing else, a basis for future discussion. This thread will be picked up again in Uru, which will build on these themes in a more complex and fully-realized way. While it is not in itself a successful work, I suspect its existence may have informed much of Uru’s complexity, and for that I much appreciate it.
- Factual nit-picking is not the primary motivation behind these essays, so I resisted discussing one particularly glaring problem in the main body: the absurd detail that the Terahnee language is a nothing but a slightly-accented version of the D’ni language. The D’ni/Terahnee split occurred “several thousand years” before the events of the book, which would place it around 5000-4000 BC. The people living on Earth at that time were speaking something so long lost that we don’t even have a name for it: the Hittite language, the oldest member of the Indo-European language group (to which English belongs) didn’t arise until 1650-1200 BC. All other Indo-European languages arose in the time between then and now, and include everything from Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Russian, and Sanskrit. So, unless both D’ni and Terahnee societies exercised extreme control over spoken language (which would be practically impossible), one would expect that the two groups would be speaking languages further-removed from each other than English is from Hindi.
- I didn’t talk much about Marrim. She’s the only really memorable character introduced by this novel, but doesn’t really have any importance to the plot itself. She’s memorable primarily because she’s developed: the book occasionally takes her perspective and reveals her thoughts, and we get a sense of her conflicted feelings for Averone vs. New D’ni. She’s intriguing enough that I remembered her being the primary character of the book, but in re-reading I was surprised to realize how little she actually appears. The unpublished fourth novel in the Myst series was to be The Book of Marrim, attention which the character certainly deserved. (There was a “preview” of the book released in an extremely limited edition, but I’ve never seen it. If anyone could get me a copy I’d be happy to include it in this series.)
- To continue the Prime Directive issue, it’s also interesting to consider why Atrus always writes Links to worlds where the people are more primitive than him. Linking to equal or more-advanced civilizations, while surely possible, is far too risky. While a more-advanced civilization would probably have the means help him restore D’ni far more efficiently, he’s not interested in inflicting a Prime Directive violation upon himself.
- The Maintainer Suits are designed to protect a human body from practically any adverse physical conditions, but the fact is that there’s really no need to do so. The system could easily be made fully-automated instead. Since it’s established elsewhere in the book that Veovis was able to make corpses Link, we know that flesh needn’t be alive in order to do so. Therefore it should be possible to make a completely self-contained device that would fulfill all the functions of a Maintainer Suit. A small piece of leather could be used to complete a link (see Gehn’s gloves in Riven) and automated systems could record all pertinent data (a feature which already exists in the current version of the suit). Thinking “in-canon,” I’m guessing the D’ni had this system in place and Atrus just didn’t know about it; the automated device was supposed to be used first and the full suit only second. The slim version of the suit seen in Uru was possibly used third.
- Atrus mentions offhand that as far as he knows, Katran and Anna are the only two women in the history of the D’ni civilization who learned the Art. This is consistent with other installments of the series, and I have to ask: if you, as a writer of fiction, are creating a whole new fictional universe, what’s the point of including blatant sexism in that universe if sexism is not itself a theme of your story? Since D’ni is generally depicted as an enlightened society (at least before Uru came along), I find it odd that its exclusion of women is generally not commented upon. Furthermore, it’s just unrealistic: D’ni had a high standard of living, lots of advanced technology, and had existed as a stable civilization for thousands of years. The odds are that a women’s rights movement should have arisen by the time of the Fall.
See Also: Star Trek reviewer SFDebris’ analysis of the Prime Directive (video).
Next time: Myst III: Exile
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