Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Book of D’ni

Atrus and company in the ruins of D'ni

Myst: The Book of D’ni is not a very good book. It doesn’t have any substantial 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 chapter here because it takes place between Riven and Exile, but the book’s events are so marginal that it could be skipped entirely without consequence. It has numerous plotlines, most of the irrelevant to the series overall, and much of the action revolves around peoples who have never appeared before or since. Like Riven, The Book of D’ni is highly ambitious, but unlike Riven, it falls very short of its goals.

Let’s begin with a quick overview of the plot. Atrus, we learn, has recruited some people from an Age called Averone to help him search for D’ni survivors. In the first act, Atrus and the Averonese (and Catherine, when the book deigns to mention her) travel throughout the ruins of D’ni, linking to various ages, and occasionally finding survivors. There are occasional mishaps and small subplots, none of which contribute much to any sort of larger arc. Eventually they discover a hidden chamber below a building and a long-lost Linking Book.

In the second act, the group uses the book to link to Terahnee, a civilization which shares a common ancestry with 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 entirely built on slave labor. This introduces a conundrum of sorts, as Atrus wouldn’t dream of joining the Terahnee now that he knows their dirty secret. This dilemma solves itself in the third act, in which the Terahnee people begin to suddenly sicken and die. As it turns out, Atrus’s people forgot to use hand sanitizer and thus exposed the Terahnee to a plague. This enables a massive slave 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 severed, and the book closes with a monologue from Catherine about how Atrus’s life is informed by some sort of prophecy that will never be mentioned again. Curtain.

Where The Book of Atrus was largely character-driven, The Book of D’ni is more plot-driven, which is rather unfortunate as the plot leaves a lot to be desired. The question of what happened to the D’ni after The Fall is an interesting one, but it’s not by itself a story. The story the authors construct around this concept consists of aimless wandering in D’ni followed by a completely unrelated story about Terahnee. The former doesn’t tell the reader much that she doesn’t already know (most of the D’ni died, a few didn’t), and the latter does nothing to address the central question. It’s not just that the book doesn’t relate to the rest of the series, it barely manages to relate to itself.

The closest the book comes to having a central theme is its frequent allusions to the corruptive power of the Art. 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. The question of whether it’s possible to use the Art without becoming corrupted by it will be a recurring theme in the series from here onward, particularly in Uru. The Book of D’ni shows the Art being used both for good and for evil, but does not attempt to make any sweeping judgments about whether the Art itself is evil. The book’s position is that the Art can corrupt people, but that some people manage to resist its temptations.

Exhibit A in this case is Atrus, he of the unwavering moral compass. Atrus, at a glance, seems resistant to the abuse of the Art’s power, but he too uses it to his advantage, and shows little concern for his influence on the worlds he links to. To better explain the issue I’m getting at, let’s take a brief diversion into Star Trek. In the universe of Star Trek, the warp drive technology can be used to carry people to and from an infinite number of worlds, and is thus a close analog to the Art. Civilizations which have developed warp drive have an incredible advantage over those which have not. For this reason, members of the Federation are sworn to uphold a principle called the Prime Directive: under no circumstances may one interfere with pre-warp civilizations. The intention of this principle is clear: it’s meant to prevent the people with warp drive from running roughshod over the people without it.

Picard faces the consequences of a Prime Directive violation

Atrus, you may note, does not adhere to the Prime Directive. If he needs laborers to help him in his quest to find D’ni survivors, he writes a link to an Age where he will find willing workers. Granted, he doesn’t enslave the Averonese (his workforce consists entirely of volunteers), but by exposing the them 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 point of view: Atrus has effectively appeared out of thin air and filled the people with feelings of inadequacy. They are no longer content with their one 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, along with the D’ni survivors. His intentions (as usual) appear to be in their best interests, but only so from his perspective. His “objective” observations lead him to believe that life in Terahnee is superior to life in Averone, but Atrus is not Averonese, and therefore not qualified to make decisions on their behalf. In effect, Atrus has completely destroyed the Averonese way of life just by interacting with them. That the supposedly-well-intentioned Atrus seems unconcerned about this is suggestive of just how potent the Art’s corruptive influence is.

The primary abusers of the Art, though, are the Terahnee, the actions of whom become the primary storyline of the book. The Terahnee arc is predictable at best. Terahnee at first appears to be a flawless paradise, a trope which any astute reader will recognize as a sign of hidden sins. The reader knows implicitly that there’s no way this is going to work out, which kills any potential for suspense.

From a thematic perspective, Terahnee largely serves as a counterpoint to D’ni. Both 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 which exalted their own beauty. Eventually both sides saw fit to break ties. This contrast is played frequently throughout the book: D’ni is dark but moral, Terahnee is bright but immoral. The situation is completely black-and-white: there are no bad people in D’ni, and there are (with one exception) no good people in Terahnee. This shallow interpretation will later be contradicted in Uru, in which the D’ni are depicted as a corrupted culture as well. Thus, the series ultimately concludes that everyone can and will be corrupted by the Art, and in light of Atrus’s behavior toward the Averonese, that’s not hard to believe.

While the book’s treatment of the Art is mature and well-reasoned, its characters are consistently and unapologetically naive. Atrus makes endless unfounded assumptions: that the Averonese don’t mind his influence, that any D’ni survivors will be glad to see him, and that Terahnee really is as perfect as it looks. Furthermore, he shows no sign of ever having been hurt, despite the fact that at this point he’s survived attempts on his life by both his father and his sons and years of solitary exile. Atrus’s ability to live through so much evil and still trust everyone he meets defies belief. None of the other characters are any better. Even Catherine doesn’t seem to think the Terahnee might be hiding anything, and the Averonese simply assume that Atrus knows best.

The only character who doesn’t come across as woefully naive is Ymur, a former 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 rebuild Terahnee and give it to the slaves, basing its new government 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, or 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 naivite that afflict most of the characters in this novel. Ymur is not set against “reason itself,” he’s just the only character who allows his past experiences to inform his thoughts. He has been beaten down too many times in his life, and he is not about to let someone else take the reins now that he’s finally in control. He doesn’t know Atrus at all, and therefore has no reason to trust him. This is another major shortcoming in this book: the only characters who are actually thinking are generally depicted as misguided, while the ostensible protagonists blunder around like a bunch of preschoolers.

Factual nit-picking is not the primary motivation behind these essays, but The Book of D’ni contains one blunder so grievous that I can’t resist pointing it out. This is the matter of the Terahnee language, which is described as 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 BCE. At that time, our ancestors spoke something so long lost that we don’t even have a name for it. English is a member of the Indo-European language group, which began with the Hittite language around 1650-1200 BCE. All other Indo-European languages arose in the time between then and now, and include 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 even further-removed from each other as English is from Hindi. It’s a minor point, perhaps, but still a major credibility issue in a book that has enough problems as it is.

The book’s climax hinges on a revelation, a common literary device in which a story’s protagonist comes to a sudden realization that he has been misguided and that his life must change. (This technique is most prominent in the short stories of James Joyce.) Atrus has such an experience near the end of the book (pg. 395), when he concludes 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 the reader can feel for him as a character, someone who is thinking and considering the meanings of his actions. Atrus’s decision to abandon the fallen City is sudden but nonetheless deeply personal, a conclusion reached by soul-searching and the lessons of his recent experiences. The decision is final and far-reaching: D’ni the city will be forever abandoned, and D’ni the people will move on. While the moment is a quiet one, it’s the most important plot point in the book, and one that will be echoed later in Uru. As a protagonist Atrus tends to be pretty flat, but no other character in the book does anything this significant.

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 doesn’t add much to the reader’s knowledge of the Myst‘s universe. Still, it illustrates a number of issues raised by the premise of the series, providing, if nothing else, a basis for future discussion. While The Book of D’ni is not, in itself, a successful work, it contributed to the overall depth of the series, and for that I have to give it some credit.

Posted on October 9th, 2016. Filed under Myst in Retrospect. Tagged as: , , ,

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