Biosci Fi: Brendan Sanderson’s Mistborn – Alomancy As Welfare

Guest Poster, Prof. Ryan Calo, former director of the SLS Center for Internet and Society

When the popular fantasy writer Robert Jordan died in 2007, his estate handpicked Brendan Sanderson to help finish Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series.  I thought Sanderson did a lovely job on the final books and decided to read one of his previous novels, Mistborn: The Final Empire.  It turns out that Sanderson’s tale of inequality, though in respects overdone, enjoys strange and unexpected parallels to ongoing research into the bioscience of class.

In the world of Mistborn, nobles subjugate a laborer class of “skaa” in part through a monopoly on “alomancy”—the ability to ingest and “burn” certain metals.  Burning the right metals confers on the alomancer a variety of powers, including greater physical strength, heightened senses, and the ability to “sooth” or “rile” emotions in others.  Burning the wrong metals can lead to sickness or death.  The ability is passed on genetically, appearing only in nobles or their illegitimate skaa offspring.

The conceit that a ruling class might be physiologically distinct from the general population is hardly new—H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine comes to mind.  Even the use of metals to delineate between rulers and commoners has a famous antecedent: Plato thought of different classes as having souls of gold, silver, iron, and bronze and attributed inferior political systems to the mixing of roles.  And of course many have scrutinized how gold backs a currency or steel fuels a war effort.

I still found myself thinking of Mistborn specifically as I read some recent research concerning the impact of ingesting metals on human affairs.

There is the absence of metal.  Roughly half of Cambodian women suffer from anemia during pregnancy, The Atlantic reports, in part because they lack access to iron cooking implements.  The result is impaired cognitive and other development in children and higher rates of maternal mortality.  A Canadian epidemiologist virtually eliminated anemia in some villages by creating an iron fish that villagers place in inexpensive pots.  Enough iron burns off from the fish, which is a symbol of good luck, to bring woman and children back up to normal levels.

There is also metal’s presence.  Research collected by Mother Jones this month demonstrates an apparent link between lead burned in gasoline and the prevalence of crime.  Lead appears to correlate with lower IQ and greater aggression.  You tend to see more lead in low income, downtown areas with high traffic.  The article goes so far as to suggest that the drop off in crime in American cities in the nineteen-nineties is best explained by stricter lead control put in place around the same time.  There are numerous problems with the argument and its constituent studies, but it seems likely that the presence of lead in the body is at least a meaningful contributor to bad life outcomes.

Metal is not destiny, and not even the proverbial one percent can jump over buildings like Sanderson’s mistborn.  But it is interesting to ponder the how metal in the body divides, and how law or policy can influence class through alomancy.

Ryan Calo

Assistant Professor, School of Law

University of Washington