The Fifth Sacred Thing is a novel by Witch, ecofeminist and peace activist Starhawk---her first. The novel is set in a vision of the twenty-first century in which California is ruled by the Stewards of a nameless, faceless, ruthless Corporation, which controls water, food, medicine, and all other vital resources, withholding them from anyone who disobeys their strict rule. The power of the Stewards is backed by the religious fanaticism of the Millenialists, fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Second Coming was aborted in 1999 when Jesus Christ rejected the world because of sinfulness. The Millenialists enforce the Four Purities: Moral Purity, Family Purity, Racial Purity, and Spiritual Purity, which institutionalize the legalized repression of queers, domination of women, oppression of people of color, and condemnation of anyone who does not subscribe to the official state religion. Those who violate the Purities are said to have relinquished their souls; they are sent to government-run breeding programs which produce more "soulless" individuals who are bought and sold by the ruling class for prostitution and cannon fodder.
The only exceptions to the totalitarian dystopia of the Stewards and Millenialists are the Web, a loose-knit underground network of guerrilla resistance fighters, and the people of the San Francisco Bay Area, who never submitted to the rule of the Corporation. The North is a neopagan paradise in progress---multilingual, collectivist, egalitarian, respectful and inclusive of all races, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and religious traditions. Everyone works, no one goes hungry or lacks shelter, and everyone respects the Four Sacred Things: the elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. (The Fifth Sacred Thing, which lends the novel its title, is Spirit, which is nurtured by the other four.) One of the most respected elders of the community is 98-year-old Maya Greenwood, a writer whose books on earth-based spirituality helped found a culture of equality and respect. But the North's utopia is threatened by an onslaught of virulent diseases that even the most skilled healers can barely keep at bay. One of the healers is Madrone, the granddaughter of Maya's longtime lovers, who suspects the epidemics plaguing the city are germ warfare from the South. Her worst fears are confirmed when her long-lost lover, Maya's grandson Bird, escapes from prison in Angel City (the Stewards' name for Los Angeles---one of the dictates of Racial Purity is a total ban on Spanish and all other non-English languages), where he has been a captive for ten years. The good news is, he's alive and has contacted the Web. The bad news is, the Stewards are massing an invasive force to attack the Bay Area.
Thus, the stage is set for an inevitable confrontation between the best and worst possible future worlds Starhawk could imagine. The North has no defenses to speak of, having devoted all its energies to caring for its people in a socially responsible and ecologically sustainable manner, so at Maya's urging, they resolve to face their would-be oppressors with nonviolent resistance. As Bird organizes the city's short-term survival efforts, Madrone travels south to ensure their longterm survival by aiding the Web and finding a cure for the biological weapons.
I liked that the novel was completely upfront about its politics, which were very appealing to me. Big surprise, right? Anarcho-communist polyamorous bisexual feminist neopagan hippies take on imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal theocracy, non-violently, and win (oh, quiet; like that was really a spoiler?) Starhawk ambitiously addresses racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, cultural and ecological imperialism, militarism, and religious fundamentalism, and reminds her readers that these are all intertwined and interrelated---that it is not enough to challenge a single system of domination and oppression on its own, as all the above "isms" and "phobias" reinforce each other. I admired her vision of nonviolent revolution, which included as many races, sexes, sexual orientations, and cultural, religious, and spiritual traditions as she could fit (maybe more; it felt a little forced at times). Finally, I liked that her book was liberally flavored with lots of mutually enjoyable consensual sex of many varying degrees of emotional connection between the participants.
What I didn't like were the author's attempts to predict the future of technology and magic. I can grit my teeth through psychic healing by laying on of hands, but I draw the line at computer networks powered by crystals with minds of their own in rapport with certain specially talented "teccies". Nuh-uh, won't go there. I can suspend disbelief for all kinds of magic: trance states, visions, and visualizations, dream telepathy, even mystical symbiosis with bees, but the crystals are right out. Sorry. But that's really my biggest complaint, keeping in mind that this is a first novel (more on that later).
All in all, The Fifth Sacred Thing is good escape literature for neopagans and New Age freaks, especially ones willing to suspend disbelief and ascribe even more motivation to inanimate objects than I do in my most paranoid moments. It feels a lot like a stereotypical first novel at parts, stretching kinda far and trying awfully hard. But it's very sincere and heartfelt, all the way. Does that make for melodrama here, there, and maybe even everywhere? Perhaps. But I can live with that.
Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. Bantam Books, 1993. I will admit that I read this book very quickly, embarrassed to be as sucked in as I was, and so apologize for any mistakes or omissions in this writuep due to my sloppy reading.