AN ETHICAL LOOK AT The Keeper of the Lost Cities SERIES
(After my book review of the first novel in this series, I entered into conversation with Sydney Rosenberger a children's librarian. She offered these penetrating observations about the rest of the books in the series and their problematical ethical lacunae. Reviewing a series is a massive undertaking. My heart rejoices in Sydney Rosenberger's engagement and reflection. I urge you to absorb her insights and talk to your children about morality, utilitarianism, and human dignity. This essay is an excellent entry point.)
I consider very few things more enjoyable than a bulky book series that I can’t put down; maybe that’s why I have so greatly enjoyed reading Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series. The books are the cotton candy of my reading diet: fluffy and free of much real literary merit. Sweet, scrumptious, and pure fun. That said, the further into the series I have read, and the more I reflect on the books, the more I find that which gives me pause. The series presents some subtle but heavy moral problems, and these are problems about which reviewer and parental circles are largely silent.
The Ethical Elephant in the Room
My main problem with the books is that the main character Sophie was literally crafted—concocted—by other elves to fulfill their own agenda. We learn in the first book that Sophie was created, probably in a lab, by a shady, presumably evil organization called the Black Swan. She has hand-selected special abilities and memories and information implanted in her brain, for what purpose she doesn’t know. But it clearly gives her a sense that her life is not her own, even a sense of distance from her own identity. This premise could lead to a fascinating exploration of big questions about free will or about the ethics of utilitarianism. Is Sophie beholden to the Black Swan’s plans for her, or is she free to chart her own path in life? What emotional traumas will Sophie have to overcome after learning that the Black Swan tampered with her personhood so intimately? These moral and ethical problems could have enhanced the depth and drama of the series.
The ethical problems in the series swell as the series unfolds. Did Messenger, the author, create this ethical problem without the ability to deal with its impact? And so, the series attempts
to justify this utilitarian creation of Sophie to fulfill some unclear purpose. In books two and three we learn that the Black Swan are actually the good guys in the story and created Sophie to save the elven world. All is well, we’re told, because the Black Swan took great care of Sophie. They hand-selected excellent human parents for her. They have secretly watched over and assisted her throughout her whole life. This is supposed to make us–and her–feel better about her situation.
All of the Black Swan’s care for Sophie and her welfare do not erase the fact that they created her to be a tool. An object. The Black Swan describes her as “something to get people’s attention” (Lodestar, p. 608) and “a force for change and good” (Legacy, p. 670). But these are terms we use to describe things, not persons.
We need to ask our young people who read this series: Is it okay to treat persons as objects? Is it okay to treat persons as objects as long as they consent? As long as they go along with what you want?
The Black Swan also imposes burdens and sacrifices on Sophie that they have no right to dictate. For instance, in Sophie’s world, elves must register for a genetic matchmaking process before they marry. Marrying without the matchmakers’ seal of approval makes an elf a social pariah. To maintain secrecy, the Black Swan refuses to release to Sophie her own genetic information, automatically excluding her from this matchmaking process. The Black Swan’s solution? Sophie should stay single forever (literally forever—elves live on indefinitely). Readers are told, rightly, that the matchmaking process is meaningless and prejudiced and that Sophie does not need the matchmakers’ approval if she chooses to marry. Even so, there is no excusing the fact that the Black Swan has usurped Sophie’s future and vocation by taking the element of choice away from her.
A Mirage of Freedom
There’s a larger issue at play in the Black Swan’s de facto control over Sophie. Yes, they reassure her repeatedly, she is completely free to decide whether she wants to cooperate with their plans for her. In fact, they value her freedom and individuality so much, we eventually learn, that they never created any one specific plan for her so that she can decide how to best use the powers they’ve given her to help the elven world. We see how Messenger tries to add freedom back into the story, as a value because the good guys want to finally show some restraint: they respect her free will by always giving her a choice as to whether she wants to continue with their plans for her. The problem is that the freedom the Black Swan grants Sophie, however well meant, is illusory. They’ve done everything at the cellular and social level that they can to manipulate her. Sophie is a young teenage girl with a good heart, thirst for justice, and innate drive to please; she’s told that she is her world’s best, if not only, hope of solving its problems and keeping evil forces at bay. Can we really be expected to believe that she will not feel an obligation to at least try to use her powers to save the world? Isn’t she in a highly coercive situation?
And regardless of whether Sophie chooses to become the savior figure they’ve designed her to be, the Black Swan has already irreparably tweaked Sophie’s genes, taken her from first her genetic and then her human family, and guaranteed that Sophie will never be quite normal or fit in anywhere. And if she wants to know the truth about herself—who her parents are, what the memories implanted in her brain mean, the full extent of her ever-expanding list of special abilities—she depends on the Black Swan. There are several touching moments where the Black Swan’s members prove themselves to care deeply about Sophie, but they have still irrevocably bound her to them without the consent her dignity deserves.
Thumb-Wrestling with the Ugly Truth
Author Shannon Messenger does wrestle, however weakly, with the morality of Sophie’s genetically modified and enhanced, IVFed existence. Sophie does recognize her own objectification, at least to some extent. When the Black Swan’s leader describes her as “my greatest achievement,” Sophie reflects, “There was a softness to the words. A warmth. But the words were still wrong” (Everblaze, p. 447). Likewise, when Sophie learns the identity of one of her biological parents, she is furious at that parent for subjecting her to dangerous genetic experimentation, a dangerous life fighting villains, and never fitting in. The parent tells Sophie, “I was told that I could help [the Black Swan] create something—” “Something,” Sophie interrupted” (Legacy, p. 670). These moments ring true, are emotionally powerful, and showcase Shannon Messenger at her writing best. Scenes like these provide readers with food for thought about the ethics of Sophie’s life situation and the figures behind it.
A “Justified” Existence?
Unfortunately, after exploring the messiness of Sophie’s genesis, the books ultimately present Sophie’s lab-made creation as justified, even good. In the same scene where Sophie is (understandably) raging against her parent for subjecting her to a dangerous life, the parent says, “I thought it sounded like the only way I’d ever be able to have a child” (Legacy, p. 671).
The implicit message here is that the ethical questions about bringing a child into the world the way Sophie was are ultimately moot because Sophie fulfills this parent’s desire to have a child. The implied reasoning is that “having a child, through any means, is justifiable.” But part of ethics is the question: are the means themselves respective of the dignity of the human person?
Is the parent’s wish for a child superior to said child’s well-being? This is further evidence that Sophie is treated as an object created to fulfill another’s goals.
While Sophie has yet to forgive or accept her genetic parents’ role in her conception, she does come to accept, even embrace, her life as the Black Swan’s project. Mid-series she tells the Black Swan’s leader, “Thank you…for giving me this life—crazy and confusing as it always is” (Lodestar, p. 608). Sophie’s newfound sentimentality for her unorthodox genesis reads as a bit uneven given how many times she later expresses resentment toward the Black Swan for withholding information from her; regardless, Messenger's message conveys that the Black Swan’s decision to create Sophie, while messy and sometimes dangerous, is ultimately a legitimate and perhaps even commendable course of action.
The Truth Must Shine Through
I find it interesting that, even while condoning the Black Swan’s use of Sophie for their own ends, the novels are never able to completely paint such treatment of Sophie in a positive light. Sure, Sophie’s parent tries to justify being involved in the Black Swan’s plans by a desire to have a child. Yet Sophie still feels betrayed and spirals into deep melancholy after learning the parent’s identity. Sophie expresses gratitude for being created by the Black Swan. After all, who regrets being alive? Who would revoke the gifts and talents given to them by Nature? But in the most recent book, she also laments, “The Black Swan loves to tell me I have a choice in all of this, and I guess I do for certain things. But it’s not like I can change my genetics. Or everything I’ve gone through” (Unlocked, p. 380). Sophie also refuses to steal her genetic parents’ identities from the Black Swan leader’s mind because “[I] know how it feels to have someone invade [my mind] and mess with[my] memories. I’m not doing that to anyone else” (106).
At an instinctive level, Sophie (and by extension Shannon Messenger) understands that there is an inherent wrongness to how the Black Swan has used her. One of the most interesting aspects of this series is how it tells the truth—people can never be objectified without negative consequences—in spite of itself. As of this writing, the series has two remaining novels to be published; I hope (although with very little optimism) that Shannon Messenger will acknowledge the messiness and even condemn the Black Swan’s utilitarian treatment of Sophie in these final books.
I suspect that, rather than deliberately enforcing a utilitarian worldview, Shannon Messenger has opened up a bioethical wormhole that she is either unable to or uninterested in addressing more closely in her work. Messenger sometimes neglects in-book ethical dilemmas that don’t directly serve the plot. For instance, the Black Swan outright deceives Sophie’s human family to carry out their plan. A member poses as a human fertility doctor to implant Sophie’s embryo in her mother; after Sophie has to leave the human world to go live with the elves, the elven ruling Council orders that Sophie’s family’s memories of her and their own lives be erased, and that they be given new, false memories and identities. These actions are intended to keep the human Fosters hidden from malicious elves, but the fact that no character in the series ever questions the morality of this deceit is not only troubling, but feels unbelievable. Since the fate of Sophie’s human family serves only to move the early plot forward, the story does not dwell on ethical conundrums here but keeps the action coming.
Frankly, there’s a kind of utilitarianism in Messenger’s neglect of ethical knots. She’s altogether too comfortable with ethical problems as long as they move the plot forward. Likewise, the premise of Sophie being spawned in a lab to save the world is treated as a jumping-off point for adventure, not a matter of philosophical debate or very much character development. Readers are not encouraged to dwell on the Black Swan’s affronts to Sophie’s agency. Is the author even aware of the moral questions she raises? If readers truly engage with the world of the story, though, such questions will naturally arise. And we need to talk about them.
It’s Not All Bad News
You know that I am not here to outright condemn the Keeper series. The books have their merits. Positive adult role models and strong nuclear families abound. Sophie also shows great courage and integrity throughout the series, admitting to breaking the law and reading a teacher’s mind without permission, running back into a collapsing building to rescue a friend, and never failing to build up her friends with a pep talk. Messenger is particularly skilled at delving into the relationships that form and exist between characters, and the friendships in these stories are uncommonly palpable for middle grade. The books also allow for reader delight because they are pure story, which is increasingly often not the case in middle-grade novels where activist thought overwhelms the narrative.
What are some other worthy aspects of the Keeper series? The elves also place great value on life. Rather than birthdays, they celebrate conception dates, “the moment your life began” because “the day you were born is simply the day you took your first breath—no more significant of a milestone than when you spoke your first word or took your first step” (Neverseen, pp. 371-2). Elves are also honored with a special tree made from their DNA after they die; Sophie gets a tree after she is presumed dead, but the elves let the tree live on even after they realize their mistake. Their rationale gives us the wonderful line, “Would it be right to kill them, simply because we planted them by mistake?” (Exile, p. 75). This emphasis on life is in places shallowly done (elves don’t believe in ever killing another human creature; this means that not only are they vegetarians, but they also train carnivorous animals like T-rexes and woolly mammoths to be vegetarians too). Explicit respect for life is uncommon in today’s children’s fiction, though, and is charming to see here.
Starting the Conversation on Utilitarianism
The Keeper of the Lost Cities series requires deeper thinking and more careful moral analysis than surface-level reading suggests. More discerning readers may be able to use the novels as a launchpad to explore issues in bioethics and philosophical questions about how humans can violate each other’s freedom, and what the natural consequences of those violations are. Parents may want to be careful, though, that their children are well-grounded in their understanding of personal freedoms and the evil of treating a person as an object, before handing their kids a copy.
The series is incredibly popular (and has recently been optioned for a movie). Kids will likely be exposed to the books and the ideas that they present. Keeper series aside, our society is witnessing a rise in “designer baby” technologies and often assigns people value based on what they can do—how they can contribute to society—rather than on their inherent dignity. It seems almost inevitable that today’s kids are going to encounter and have to grapple with the ethics of utilitarianism in some way. My hope in writing this essay is that parents will be ready to point out and help kids tackle these moral issues, whether they deem the keeper books appropriate for their children or not.
Sydney Rosenberger is a life-long lover of books, especially children's books. She received her B.A. in English and history from the College of William and Mary and holds a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Louisiana State University. She is currently a children's librarian at a public library.