I grew up on a toxic waste dump. I realize that sounds melodramatic, but technically it's accurate. My childhood home was ringed by no fewer than five Superfund sites - and, as we like to say, those are just the spots they've cleaned.
When I was a kid people weren't so concerned about the pollution. Arsenic was in the dust we kicked up on the playgrounds, on the berries we picked in the woods, in the small ponds where nothing lived and no birds ever stopped. The waterways were lined with gray heaps of slag from the copper smelter, in some spots enlivened by oil-slick rainbow stains made by unknown chemicals seeping out from the rocks. We were told not to fish or swim in the bay, which seemed to us kids to be hilarious: looking down off the docks into the still, metallic depths, we couldn't picture fish living down there at all, let alone anything you'd think of eating. And that was just the water. I still don't know what the mills were belching into the air, or what they're still churning out - sometimes, when the wind is right, you can both smell and taste the air: a sulphuric grit which stings your eyes and irritates your throat.
Now it's been spruced up. They sealed off the slag heaps and built fancy condos on top of them, planted new grass along the edges, dug up people's lawns and replaced them with new, cleaner topsoil. The smelter company offered a cash settlement to the people living closest to the plant, and they took it, even though the surveys hadn't been completed. They worked hard to restore the bay, and now when you stroll through the new grass and out along the docks you can look down to see bright colonies of starfish and sea anemones clinging to the piers, and deeper down, the quick dark shapes of fish.
Later, of course, we learned that the pollution went farther and deeper than the smelter operators had admitted to. Too late for the people who had settled, and too late for all of us who grew up splashing in that water and breathing that air. Statistics are readily available about disease rates in my hometown, telling us that you're much more likely to die of obscure cancers or get heart or lung disease there. I haven't seen anything on autoimmune disease, except that it's a hotspot for diabetes. I'm curious mostly because everyone I know, just about, has something crazy and unlikely wrong with them. Lupus, MS, celiac disease, autism, Crohn's disease, asthma - you name it. We're a sickly bunch.
We're not alone. All over the planet, people grow up in the shadow of industrial toxins, watch their kids and their friends get sick and die, watch their own bodies with wary concern. What can you do? You go on. Sometimes your pain and your poison can be transmuted into something beautiful, into art, into action, into something meaningful. Sometimes you just have to learn to accept your limitations and endure the pain.
And so this is a story for us. Here is a world where profit has trumped issues of morality and health, where generations grow up living with the legacy of pollution. It's sort of a counterpoint to the sunny ending of the Liveship books, where dragons and men are reunited and the deformed people of the Rain Wilds are transformed into something better. In this new series, we meet the people who were left behind, still deformed, without the hope that some magical intervention will save them from themselves. How they go on, and how they learn to transform themselves, is nothing short of inspirational.
This is what fantasy is best at, and this is why it's necessary.