I really enjoy the genre of “alternate history” — the idea of taking one moment in time and twisting it so that something went differently, and then rolling everything forward to see how much variation we’d get, it’s just so very fun. It’s the concept of the Butterfly Effect, applied.

Embers feels like… not the opposite, but the inverse of that, somehow. It’s taking the way things are and attempting to roll history back to see what some of the big moments were that created this state of affairs. And it gets to ask some really interesting questions as it does so.

Take as a given that, 100 years before Avatar: the Last Airbender really kicks into action, the Fire Nation committed genocide. They killed every last air nomad save, importantly, one. The show tends to paint this as a single event, a single day in which all four air temples were targeted in a coordinated attack, Sozin’s comet making an overwhelming strike possible, but do pay attention to the fact that they aren’t the “air nation”, they are the air nomads. They wouldn’t all have been in the temples; there would’ve been many nomads out being nomadic, and the Fire Nation had to hunt them down too.

This is, obviously, horrible. Genocide is one of the definitive evils, and the Fire Nation did it more effectively than any historical genocide has managed.1 But remember one part of those historical genocides: they weren’t immediate. Hitler didn’t wake up one morning and declare by executive fiat that it was time to kill every Jewish person on the planet… he, and others, spent years building up hatred against them.2 Painting them as the villains, as sub-human, as an insidious evil that was out to destroy the world. One evil dictator does not a genocide make. Humans are, at their base level, not that easily controlled. World War II was full of tales of people who did their little bit to help, who saved one or two people.

And now, ask yourself: how, exactly, did the Fire Lord convince his people that the Air Nomads had to die? How did he make them hate the Air Nomads, so much that every soldier sent into an air temple was willing to fight and die to eradicate an entire people?

Embers is a fascinating read, that goes deep into these sorts of questions. What are the cultural differences between the nations? How was one Avatar expected to solve all the problems of the world, given how dang big a place the world is? How can you put the world back in order after a century of oppressive genocide… without letting the vengeful Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes turn around and start slaughtering their way through the Fire Nation? All sorts of fun questions. With fun bonuses in the form of the end-of-chapter notes, where Vathara goes through and explains some of their thinking in what’s going on, the historical concepts driving it, all that sort of stuff.3 I highly recommend it, and it is, delightfully, free to read.

  1. Although, that concept is something that Vathara argues against, as well, over the course of the story.
  2. Frankly, “years” is an understatement; antisemitism has centuries, millenia at this point, of history. Look up the history of pogroms.
  3. The use of the chapter-end-notes in transformative works is such an interesting piece of meta-material in this form of writing. It’s almost like the footnotes of David Foster Wallace or Terry Pratchett, but can set aside the fourth wall entirely and speak directly to individual readers, if they were there and commenting as the piece was being written. Someone get a sociologist over here to look into this.

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