The Fifth Sacred Thing: Book of the Month April 2023

Detail from The Fifth Sacred Thing cover art

The Four Sacred Things are earth, air, fire, and water. Nobody can own them or profit from them, and it’s our responsibility to heal them and take care of them. That’s the basis of our politics and our economy.”

Such is the basis of this New Age-y eco-utopia set in the near future in San Francisco. The fifth sacred thing of the title is”spirit”, and it can only flourish when the first four sacred things are taken care of.

However, there’s more to this novel than flower power and free love (although it doesn’t scrimp on either of these). The utopia is an enclave in a hostile world, “a green island in a toxic sea”. The planet is polluted. North America is ruled by religious fundamentalists and cut off from the rest of the world. Outside of our utopia, drinking water is scarce and expensive. Stewards control the water, and by doing so control and coerce the population at large.

This utopia was hard-won and inevitably will not remain unchallenged. Traditionally, a utopia is a static, perfect ideal that is explored over the course of the book. This example is a precarious paradise. The subject matter of The Fifth Sacred Thing is more about the response to external threat.

The inhabitants of the utopia are pacifists, whereas the Stewards with their armies very much are not. The book explores what happens when a non-violent society is confronted by a violent one. Can principles of non-violence be sustained when you are under attack?

The question of what pacifist and/or non-violent utopians should do in times of physical threat seems timely. Whether it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the policing of protests, putting pacifist principles into practise in the face of violence is not at all straightforward.

To join an in-person discussion of the book, and more generally how to be pacifist and/or non-violent in the face of conflict (and the difference between the two), come along to the next meeting of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective on Monday 1st May.