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Literature / The Overstory

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The Overstory by Richard Powers is a 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel which explores the topic of trees and humanity's relation to - and destruction of - the environment through the lens of an Ensemble Cast of nine characters, each with their own lives and backstories that are all - some directly, and others more subtly - connected by trees.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, "Roots" is a series of short stories, each focusing on one of the main characters. The second part, "Trunk", focuses on how five of the characters are joined together in an ecological movement while continuing to follow the lives of the other four. The third part, "Crown", deals with the fallout of the last part's ending over a time period of twenty years, while the shorter fourth part "Seeds" acts as an epilogue to the book as a whole.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Jorgen Hoel hits his son John for recklessly destroying one of his chestnuts. An example of Deliberate Values Dissonance given that the scene takes place in the 19th century.
    • Adam's father is physically abusive to him in general and at one point he breaks Adam's wrist as punishment for him slapping his mother. Leigh calls him out as well for treating her as The Unfavorite. Adam's mother is also rather distant and destroys the scientific specimens he was collecting.
  • All Deaths Final: Seeing how dissatisfied people are with the endless, pointless leveling and resource-taking in Mastery Online, Neelay decides that the game should be drastically revamped to force the players and their world to suffer consequences for their actions, including that all player deaths will stick.
  • All for Nothing: After spending years volunteering to plant new trees, Douglas discovers that it is just part of a program in which an old tree is cut down for every new one he plants. He doesn't take it well.
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  • All Part of the Show: Professor Rabinowski's students fail to realize that he is dying because of the suspicious timing of him apparently being in trouble just when he is lecturing them about the bystander effect.
  • The Aloner: Nick after his family's death.
  • Amicable Exes: Dorothy and Ray, especially because of how she has to be The Caretaker for him.
  • Angst Coma: Though not exactly a coma, immediately post Heroic BSoD Ray has a stroke that leaves him permanently debilitated.
  • Anti-Escapism Aesop: With regards to the fictional game Mastery: players end up dissatisfied with the constant pointlessness of the game, and the beauty of its graphics can never hold a candle to the real world - the only problem is the real world being filled with more permanent consequences, but Neelay thinks that is just what would give the game meaning.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: Douglas Pavlicek, a Neitzsche fan who will go on about the pointlessness of humanity's endeavors, who also stands out as one of the most idealistic and determined to do good in the world out of a cast full of characters like that.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Adam is considered "socially retarded" by his school (growing up in the 1960s where diagnoses would be less widespread), is Super Gullible as a child and Hates Being Touched. One of his colleagues as an adult refers to him as "borderline autistic".
  • Ambiguously Brown: In-Universe, a lot of characters are confused about Mimi's ethnicity.
  • Arc Words: "People change into other things."
    • "Look the color!"
    • "This will never end."
    • "How does a man rise or fall in this life?"
    • "First there was nothing. Then there was everything."
    • "The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help."
    • "What they do?"
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Adam is rather oblivious about humanity and so easily fooled, but manages to give himself an astute understanding of human nature and even devote his life to studying it just through research.
  • Birds of a Feather: Patricia and Dennis, who bond over their shared love of plants and studying them.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: The police already know that Douglas had committed a serious crime, but they exaggerate their knowledge of the identities of his accomplices in order to get him to name them. He sees right through it when he notices that among the pictures of his real friends and crimes he committed are people he doesn't know and crimes he had nothing to do with.
  • Breaking the Fellowship: Adam, Nick, Mimi and Douglas part ways at the end of "Trunk", due to a combination of disillusionment, blaming each other for what happened, and needing to stay apart to avoid being caught.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Teenaged Adam tries to get out of as much work as possible despite being plenty intelligent enough to do it. He later ends up doing lots of work, but only because he's running a "business" of doing people's homework for them for money.
  • Butt-Monkey: Douglas tends to suffer a lot of injury and misfortune throughout the book. In his own part alone he ends up in the Stanford Prison Experiment, and gets shot out of a plane and suffers burns and a bullet wound in addition to falling, only being barely saved by the tree he falls on. In later parts, Douglas gets pepper sprayed in the groin, has a truck crash into his car, falls eighty feet, and ultimately ends up in prison, and has some kind of tumor that he is too dejected to even bother checking if it's dangerous.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Douglas acts like this while he is "imprisoned", and spends the rest of his life trying to avoid this trope. Adam studies this trope. Though that doesn't stop him from falling victim to it himself when Professor Rabinowski has a heart attack in the middle of his lecture.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Leigh calls out her father after the tree chosen to represent her, an elm, dies from Dutch elm, saying that he chose that tree knowing it would die because he never liked her in the first place.
    • Stephanie does this to her mother, and still feels horrible about it given how she died soon afterward.
  • The Caretaker: Dorothy becomes this for her husband due to his severe brain damage.
  • Cool, Clear Water: Averted. Douglas thinks to himself how bad an idea it is to drink from a certain natural body of water, despite it looking perfectly beautiful and clear.
  • Courtroom Episode: Patricia testifying before a court in "Trunk" and Adam's trial at the end of "Crown".
  • The Chosen One: Olivia, who is chosen by the beings of light to help save the trees. To a lesser extent, other characters are influenced by the trees like Neelay, who is inspired by them to focus his video game design on exploring and understanding the environment, leading to The Sylvan Prophecies.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: The disappearance of Adam's sister Leigh makes him become a lot more cynical than he was as a child.
  • Dark Secret: The events at the end of part 2 become one to everyone involved, given that they would end up in prison for the rest of their lives if anyone found out.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: Patricia's father is kind and has a great relationship with his daughter, and ends up dying when she is fifteen years old. Mimi's and Neelay's fathers as well, though they are both older (though still young adults) when their father's die.
  • Demolitions Expert: Mimi, as part of her job as The Engineer.
  • Determined Defeatist: Everyone, but especially Patricia, who becomes convinced that humanity won't be able to save the trees. but devotes herself to trying anyways. Despite her Not Good with People tendencies, she deeply admires humanity because of this trope.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Neelay mentions someone who killed his own mother because she tried to get him to stop playing Mastery 8.
  • Driven to Suicide: Winston Ma kills himself in the second short story. Patricia nearly commits suicide after being ridiculed by the scientific community, but decides against it at the last moment foreshadowing her doing the same near the end of the book when she believes that, with her work in the seed bank finished, the best thing for a human to do for the world is take herself out of the picture, and decides to kill herself during a public speech to send a message. Once again she stops at the last moment. Then there's also Ray Brinkman trying to rip off his life support but failing.
  • Drama Bomb: The ending of part 2, in which five of the protagonists set a fire in a construction area, which then goes horribly wrong and leads to Olivia's death.
  • Eco-Terrorist: The main character's actions veer into this by the end of part 2, culminating in an arson that leads to one of them being killed.
  • The Engineer: Mimi is an engineer and thus ends up being responsible for the building of forts and barricades, and later the Demolitions Expert.
  • Ensemble Cast: There isn't a single protagonist of the novel - it follows nine characters, each of whom get their own chapter at the beginning (except for Dorothy and Ray, who share one) and alternate short segments throughout the rest of the book.
  • Epigraph: There are several at the beginning of the book.
  • Evil Laugh: Dorothy when she manages to buy time for her Reclaimed by Nature yard to not be destroyed. Not out of actual villainy, though, just because she is an amateur actor who likes to ham up her responses.
  • Explosive Stupidity: A very much Played for Drama example: an attempt at arson goes wrong when the devices set to detonate and set the place on fire explode too early - and Olivia is caught in the blast.
  • Facial Dialogue: Mimi becomes an expert of this in her job as a therapist, able to understand and communicate a lot to people just based on staring.
  • Famed in Story: Neelay becomes a very famous video game designer, and Patricia becomes quite well-known for her science and her bestselling book. Adam to a lesser extent is well respected in his field and when he's arrested, his trial and the circumstances behind it becomes news.
  • Fan Disservice: Douglas gets his pants cut apart... in order for someone to pepper-spray that area.
  • Foot-Dragging Divorcee: Olivia and Davy. Olivia notes they really should have gotten divorced in days, but ended up dragging it out for months. Also Dorothy and Ray in a different way, where Dorothy refuses to get divorced like she originally planned, despite her boyfriend's urgings, because the planned divorce was before Ray had a stroke that left him incapable of possibly following through with it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Not forgone from the beginning of the book, but the start of part 3 reveals that truth behind the arson at the end of "Trunk" will be revealed to the public twenty years later. A lot of other details are also casually mentioned earlier in the book, like that Mimi will be wanted by the government for arson or that Adam will one day be on the top of a tree with the people below wanting him dead.
  • Forgets to Eat: Douglas often forgets to drink during the war and ends up blacking out from dehydration.
  • Futureshadowing: The interludes at the beginning of each part tend to feature a vaguely-described scene from much later in the book, like the one between parts one and two which describes a man in a prison (with who he is and how he got there being revealed much later).
  • Generational Saga: Nick Hoel's story in the first part follows this format, tracing the history of his family from his first ancestor that immigrated to America more than a century earlier to him.
  • Girlfriend From Canada: Neelay lies to his mother about having a girlfriend after years of her expressing her worry about him never having one.
  • Ghost Town: Douglas eventually lives in one/helps keep it maintained.
  • Going Native: Adam ends up joining forces with the protestors he initially just wanted to study.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Not only does a certain plan to set a construction area on fire fail at its activism purpose, but one of the people involved is killed in the process, and the rest are forced to flee to avoid being arrested for it.
  • Green Aesop: The book is focused on showing the owner of trees and the environment and the tragedy of humans destroying it.
  • Groin Attack: Douglas gets pepper sprayed in the groin at one point.
  • Hates Being Touched: Adam is uncomfortable with being hugged as a child.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Olivia, pre-Character Development.
  • The Hermit: Patricia spends a long time living alone in the forest after being rejected by the scientific community. Though at first she nearly crosses the Despair Event Horizon, she eventually grows to enjoy being alone and has trouble going back to humanity. After part 2, Douglas lives happily alone as the sole custodian of a Ghost Town.
  • The Hero Dies: Olivia and Ray.
  • Heroic BSoD: Douglas after finding out that old trees are being cut down for every new one he plants, this after he has already devoted years of his life to planting them.
    • Nick after Olivia's death.
    • Ray after his wife finds out that he knows she was cheating on him, and he realizes that she is going to leave him for good. Which causes him to reevaluate everything else he's build his life on as well...
  • High-School Hustler: As a high school student, Adam does people''s homework for them for a profit.
  • High-Voltage Death: Olivia is electrocuted by the plug in her college dorm. She comes back.
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: A brutally subverted example: when The Hoel chestnut is cut down, sprouts grow on top of it ready to become new trees, but these are destined to be destroyed by the blight anyway.
    • Played straight in a fashion near the ending, where Adam discovers a bur clinging to him while in prison, and isolated from all other plant life.
  • Humans Are Morons: Characters often reflect on just how self-destructive humanity is, and blind to the rest of the world.
  • Hyperlink Story: There are nine separate main characters with eight different short story backstories, all of which gradually connect together, some more vaguely and thematically and others by the characters in question actually joining together.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: Much of the cast concerning Olivia.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: The first short story starts out by telling the story of Jorgen Hoel, a new Norwegian immigrant to America, and follows his descendants. The second story follows Ma Sih Hsuin/Winston Ma as an immigrant from China to the US, and then follows his daughters.
  • I Have Many Names: Several characters collect their fair share of alibis, Nom de Guerre and In-Series Nickname over the course of the book. There's Douglas Pavlicek/Doug-fir/Faint/Prisoner 571/The Child Clown (as Adam internally refers to him as), and Mimi Ma/Judith Hanson/Mulberry.
  • In-Series Nickname: "Plant-Patty" (Patricia), "Bias Boy" (Adam), "Faint" (Douglas), and that's not counting the names the activists give themselves.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: A Played for Drama example. Adam thinks to himself that, no matter what the studies show, he will make sure his knowledge of cognitive biases actually makes him a better person. Seconds later, him proceeding to do nothing when his professor has a heart attack.
  • It Kind of Looks Like a Face: In Brazil, Patricia and her team discover a tree with bark in a shape that looks like a human woman.
  • It's for a Book: A variant: Douglas claims the incriminating true written account he wrote was just a work of fiction.
  • Jeanne d'Archétype: Olivia. She's a young, charismatic woman who inspires her group of True Companions towards their mission, is The Chosen One courtesy of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane visions, and ends up dying during her mission, in a manner that involves fire. Adam lampshades this at one point.
  • Just One More Level!: Neelay's game Mastery produces this reaction from gamers In-Universe.
  • King Incognito: Neelay pretends to be a normal user of Mastery 8, the game he designed. The user we see him talking to doesn't fall for it because the absurd amount of buffs his character has.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Dorothy thinks about the Trope Namer.
    There's a thing people in the theater call hanging the lampshade. Say there's a big ugly piece of pipe sticking out the backstage wall, and you can't get rid of it. Stick a shade on it and call it a fixture.
  • The Last DJ: Neelay gets a reputation as this for giving away his games for free even as the rest of the industry tries to make a profit. However, he also eventually switches to selling his games at the end of his "Roots" chapter, when he realizes his next dream project won't be able to be accomplished without the funding.
  • Like Father, Unlike Son: Adam's son is a practical child with no interest in the kind of scientific exploration his father always loved, who dreams of being a banker. Adam feels like he's never quite able to connect with him.
  • Literal Cliffhanger: Or rather tree-hanger. Nick nearly falls off of Mimas during a huge storm. There's later an actual cliff example with Douglas falling from a cliff and managing to grab onto a tree before he falls further.
  • The Lost Woods: How the western Cascades are described when Patricia visits them.
    She presses on fissures of bark and her fingers sink in knuckle-deep. A bit of bushwhacking reveals the extend of the prodigious rot. Crumbling, creature-riddled boles, decaying for centuries. Snags gothic and twisted, silvery as inverted icicles. She has never inhaled such fenced putrefaction. The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderweb leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks in terraced ledges. Dead salmon feed the trees. Soaked by fog all winter long, spongy green stuff she can't name covers every wooden pillar in thick baize reaching higher than her head.
    Death is everywhere, oppressive and beautiful. She sees the source of that forestry doctrine she so resisted in school. Looking at all this glorious decay, a person might be forgiven for thinking that old mean decadent, that such thick mats of decomposition were cellulose cemeteries in need of the rejuvenating ax. She sees why her kind will always dread these close, choked thickets, where the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed. Where the fable turns dark, where the slasher film builds to primal horror, this is where the doomed children and wayward adolescents must wander. There are things in here worse than wolves and witches, primal fears that no amount of civilizing will ever tame.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: Nick survives his whole family being killed by toxic gas during a family reunion thanks to his car breaking down.
  • Living Lie Detector: Dorothy is great at telling from people's faces when they are lying.
  • Married Too Young: Olivia gets impulsively married in college, and divorces very quickly when she realizes how bad of an idea it was.
  • Matricide: Neelay mentions someone who killed his own mother because she tried to get him to stop playing ''Mastery 8''.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Olivia's visions with the creatures of light that she starts having after her Near-Death Experience.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Adam's mentor, Professor Rabinowski, dies while Adam is in college.
  • Metaphorically True: Olivia tells Davy that her father is a human rights lawyer, which is "not entirely false" (he's actually an intellectual property lawyer).
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Discussed a lot throughout the book, in particular in relation to how people ignore the destruction of the natural world because it is so immense, preferring to focus on the stories of individual people.
    The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands. But they share a core so obvious it passes for given. Every one imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgive—character—is all that matters in the end. It's a child's creed, of course, just one small step up from the belief that the Creator of the Universe would care to dole out sentences like a judge in federal court. To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
    • Inverted from Neelay's perspective, who is interested in science fiction because he as trouble getting invested in stories where the fates or only a few people rather than millions are at stake.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Most of the stories in "Roots" start out by introducing their protagonists as children.
  • Moustache de Plume: Patricia goes by Dr. Pat Westerford in professional writing during her youth, in order to disguise her gender.
  • Narrative Filigree: Used to great effect to describe the stories of the trees in addition to what the human protagonists are doing, such as when the life of the tree that is about to save Douglas's life is described in detail during his segment of "Roots".
  • Nature Lover: All of the protagonists.
  • Near-Death Experience: Olivia has one after being electrocuted, during which she sees beings of light that tell her that she has a purpose.
  • Nom de Guerre: The people involved in the activist organization all get tree-based code names.
    • Nick: Watchman
    • Olivia: Maidenhair
    • Mimi: Mulberry
    • Douglas: Doug-fir
    • Adam: Maple
  • Not Disabled In VR: Neelay and his father share a poignant moment of exploring together in the unreleased beta of Mastery 8 like they used to do when Neelay was young, despite how in real life Neelay is paralyzed and his father is sick and dying.
  • Not Good with People: Patricia is always a bit isolated from other people and prefers working alone with plants, but this is taken Up to Eleven after she is shunned by the scientific community and takes to living completely in the forest. She's happy with her life but is reluctant to interact with any people at all, if she can afford to. She later somewhat develops out of it, but always prefers spending time with just Dennis and the trees if she can help it.
  • Not Me This Time: Douglas and Adam are prosecuted not only for the fire they actually started, but for several fires started by Eco-Terrorist groups that had nothing to do with them (though some used the same taglines).
  • Not So Above It All: Professor Rabinowski discusses in his lecture how everyone who studies cognitive psychology is this - knowing about biases doesn't in any way make you immune to them. Adam learns this about himself the hard way.
  • Odd Couple: The terminally earnest, practical Ray and the intuitive, freedom-seeking Dorothy. Deconstructed as while their differences bounce off each other well, they eventually cause severe conflicts in their marriage.
  • Parachute in a Tree: A variant where the parachute fails. Douglas falls out of a plane during the Vietnam War into a tree, which ends up saving his life (as noted on the trope's page, this can be Truth in Television.
  • Parting Words Regret: Though he doesn't die, Dorothy feels horrible about the words she said to Ray just before his stroke: "It's over, Ray. It's over. The two of us are over. You aren't my responsibility. We don't belong to each other, and we never did."
    • Stephanie regrets calling her mother a bitch months before she died.
  • Passed in Their Sleep: Dennis.
  • Planning for the Future Before the End: Neelay and his father discuss their plans for the release of Mastery 8, knowing that the latter probably won't survive to see it.
    • Nick and Olivia also have a moment like this, with Olivia desperate to hear his reassurance that what they had together will never end.
  • The Philosopher: Douglas likes to discuss philosophy with anyone he meets.
  • The Plague: Not one for people, but for trees: the real life blight that killed most American chestnuts is described.
  • Police Brutality: A group of police officers use tear gas on protestors, despite the fact that they had physically restrained themselves so they cannot move (and thus cannot harm them), even going to the point of trying to use the gas on Mimi, who has asthma and so could die from it, before Douglas breaks his restraints and attacks the cops to save her.
  • Power Trio: Siblings Mimi, Amelia and Carmen Ma, each one who is associated with one of the three mythical trees they take as their father's inheritance.
  • Pride: Patricia, given her interest in Ancient Greek works, compares the fallout of her first scientific paper (where her findings are savagely criticized) to someone being destroyed by their hubris - had she not allowed herself just a bit of overconfidence in the conclusion of an otherwise measured work, or tried harder to disprove some of the initial objections against her, none of this might have happened.
  • Prolonged Prologue: The book has an unusual structure, with a good third of it spent on short-story prologues for each of the major characters, etc which can work as a stand-alone story independent of the rest of the book. It isn't until part 2 where the threads start to connect.
  • The Promise: One that isn't mentioned until he's already broken it: Adam promises that he will never lie to his son.
    • There's also Nick promises to Mimi that he will never kill himself, no matter how bad things get.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: The world is still in a horrible place and the protagonists' efforts seemingly meant nothing, but there might still be hope through things like the artificial intelligence Neelay is helping to design and its ability to give humanity the information it needs to understand what's going on, or Patricia's seed bank.
  • Reclaimed by Nature: Douglas thinks to himself about how this will happen to all of civilization after he sees this trope in action in Vietnam.
    • Dorothy and Ray later let this happen to their own land.
  • Regretful Traitor: Douglas feels horrible about telling the police that Adam is Maple, even if he did it in order to save Mimi and Nick.
  • Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: Dorothy and Ray are about to get divorced before Ray's stroke forces her to stay and take care of him. Though she still is dating someone else, the experience makes them rekindle their bond with each other.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Patricia's ideas about trees that she promotes in her first paper are ultimately Vindicated by History, but when she first publishes the paper, skeptics point out good reasons why her results don't necessarily mean what she thinks they do (just because a tree is detecting a chemical message doesn't mean another tree "sent" it, or Patricia could have missed damage from insects that directly activated the defenses). Downplayed in that Patricia did legitimately try to couch her findings in skepticism, but a bit of overconfidence in her conclusion combined with the scientific community of the time's instinctual distaste of the ideas she is promoting leads her to be quickly shunned by everyone.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Many of the characters in the first part are associated with various trees, with their own fates matching up with the trees' symbolically. Adam fully subscribes to this idea as a child, but as an adult trained in cognitive biases believes connecting people to trees as symbols is just a symptom of people specifically looking for the symbolism.
  • Sadistic Choice: Douglas is given the opportunity to turn in one of his friends, probably sentencing him to a life in prison, in exchange for the others being promised complete safety.
  • Sarcastic Confession: When asked how his field research went, Adam mentions that he was in jail for five days, which the professor questioning him just assumes is a joke. Given his area of expertise, Adam presumably knows well how to do these and avoid being caught.
  • Saying Too Much: When the police question Douglas, he claims to no nothing about the crimes he is accused of, but when they offer to give him a more lenient sentence in exchange for telling them the names of his accomplices, he expresses indignation at the idea of betraying them that gives him away.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Mimi's mother has dementia near the end of her life.
  • Science Hero: Patricia is a scientist who studies trees, and she uses her knowledge of trees to advocate for them, inspiring people with the books she writes. She later travels the world collecting a seed bank from many different species of trees.
  • Scenery Porn: Powers goes into great detail about the appearance of trees and natural scenery.
  • Secret Test of Character: Professor Rabinowski disappearing with a dramatic thud while he is trying to test his students on whether their knowledge of cognitive biases like the bystander effect can help them avoid the biases seems like a transparent example of this. It really wasn't.
  • Self-Sacrifice Scheme: Patricia discusses the Real Life example of Tachigali versicolor, the suicide tree, which only flowers once in its life and then, with its seeds only wind-pollinated and so not able to travel into a more open space, dies immediately afterwards to give its offspring the space and nutrients they need to survive. This is all to foreshadow her own intentions.
  • Shoo the Dog: Mimi tries desperately to get Douglas to leave her, knowing that them being together will make it much easier for them to be caught for their crimes.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The whole plotline with the five protagonists in the environmental movement ends this way, with them accomplishing nothing, the forests they tried to protect being destroyed anyway, and one of them being dead.
  • Shown Their Work: The book is filled with information on the science of trees, especially during Patricia's parts (given that she studies them). Adam's parts also contain a lot of info on behavioral psychology (given his own occupation).
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Alena only appears for a few pages but is responsible for the police finding out about what Douglas and Adam did and the two ending up in prison.
  • So Bad, It's Good: Ray's acting is this In-Universe during the theater plays he performs in with Dorothy.
  • The Social Expert: Adam, given he's a professor of cognitive psychology.
  • Sole Survivor: Only one of the Hoel's six chestnuts survives. This chestnut later proceeds to become a Sole Survivor on a much greater scale after the blight kills nearly all of the rest. This parallels Nick also becoming the sole survivor of his family.
  • Soulful Plant Story: Shows up quite a lot because all the short stories in the first book are about trees. The first story tells the generational saga of a family and their chestnut tree which was the sole survivor of a blight and has seen many people be born and die and it ends with the next generation's protagonist also being the sole survivor. The second story has the death of the mulberry planted in the garden of the family it focuses on coincide with the suicide. While the next section of the book contains several plots, one of them qualifies, where two protagonist spend a year up a tree as an environmentalist protest, only for it to be cut down anyway.
  • Stanford Prison Experiment: Douglas participated in it during his youth, helping to shape him as a person throughout the rest of his life as he's haunted by how much of a useless bystander he was.
  • Starter Marriage: Olivia and Davy, who get married impulsively in college and end up only being married for two years.
  • Strong Empire, Shriveled Emperor: The contrast between the paralyzed, physically helpless Neelay and his sprawling video game empire is noted several times.
  • Stumbled Into the Plot: Mimi gets involved in activism when the pine trees near her office get cut down. Douglas gets involved after he wakes up in a park and happens to discover trees being illegally cut down.
  • Stopped Numbering Sequels: In-Universe, the Mastery games stop being numbered after Mastery 8, and just starts being called Mastery Online, with new updates constantly being added.
  • Suicide, Not Accident: In her chapter in "Roots" Patricia plans to kill herself by eating poisonous mushrooms, knowing that her family is aware she has a habit of foraging for her meals and they will assume it was just a mistake.
  • Super Gullible: Adam as a child is extremely gullible and easily tricked by bullying peers into doing anything.
  • Talking Down the Suicidal: Mimi does this completely non-verbally to Patricia near the end of the book.
  • Talking to the Dead: Adam mentions he often talks to his presumably dead sister Leigh. Nick also does this a lot to Olivia.
  • That Man Is Dead: An older Patricia thinks this aboutt her younger self who first published the idea that trees can communicate, after she discovers that her hypothesis has been Vindicated by History.
  • Thinks Like a Romance Novel: Dorothy can't help but compare her escapades to adultery novels she has read.
  • Took a Level in Cynic: Patricia becomes increasingly pessimistic about her ability to actually save the trees, but feels pigeonholed by the success of her first book into giving people messages of hope.
  • Took a Level in Idealism: Adam becomes much more idealistic after spending time with the environmental organization he is studying.
  • True Companions: Nick, Olivia, Douglas, Mimi and Adam become very close to each other during their work in environmental activism. They think of themselves as willing to die for each other.
  • Unishment: Douglas is punished for illegally obstructing trees being cut down by... having to planting trees for community service. He's quite happy with the deal.
  • Unwanted Rescue: Olivia begs the others not to get help for her when she is horribly injured, because she knows that they will all be thrown in prison for the rest of their lives and their mission will fail if they get help, assuming she wouldn't have died anyway. This is also why Adam never actually gets help for her.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Dorothy and Ray's marriage, where she was planning to be divorced all along and already has a boyfriend who wants to marry her but his current state of health leaves him unable to give meaningful consent to divorce and means he needs her as his caretaker, and Dorothy refuses to take advantage of him like that for her own happiness even if their marriage was already ending before hand.
  • Values Dissonance: Adam an this advisor discuss this trope at one point:
    Adam: "It's like this. I think of myself as a good man. A good citizen. But say I'm a good citizen of early Rome, when a father had the power, and sometimes the duty, to put his child to death.
    Professor Van Dijk: "I see. And you, a good citizen, are motivated to preserve positive distinctiveness...."
    Adam: "We're trapped. By social identity. Even when there are big, huge truths staring us in..."
    Van Dijk: "Well, no. Clearly not, or in-group realignment would never happen. Transformation of social identity."
    Adam: "Does it?"
    Van Dijk: "Of course! Here in America, people went from believing that women are too frail to vote to having a major-party vice presidential candidate, in one lifetime. From Dred Scott to Emancipation in a few years. Children, foreigners, prisoners, women, blacks, the disabled and mentally ill: they've all gone from property to personhood. I was born at a time when the idea of a chimpanzee getting a hearing in a court of law seemed totally absurd. By the time you're my age, we'll wonder how we ever denied such animals their standing as intelligent creatures."
  • The Vietnam Vet: Douglas serves in the Vietnam war during his short story.
  • Vindicated by History: In-Universe, Patricia's findings about the communication of trees are ridiculed initially, until years later when she has already fallen out of favor and people start discovering trees really can communicate with each other.
  • Walking the Earth: Patricia travels the world looking for trees for her seed bank.
  • We Are as Mayflies: Trees live a lot longer than humans. The characters often reflect on how fast and short their lives are compared to those of trees.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Though not covered much in the story proper, it's mentioned that the environmental groups are often fighting with each other whenever there's not a major threat around.
  • Wild Wilderness: There are naturally lots of them among the settings of this novel.
  • Workplace-Acquired Abilities: Adam's status as The Social Expert and Mimi's as The Engineer both come from the skills they learned from their actual jobs.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: All of the time, especially in the scenes where Watchman and Maidenhair live on top of Mimas.
  • World-Wrecking Wave: One founded in Real Life - the first short story describes how the chestnut blight spreads throughout North America and kills every chestnut in sight.
  • Writer Revolt: In-Universe, the people working with Neelay turn against him when he suggests drastically changing Mastery to make it All Deaths Final and make the resources limited.
  • Writing About Your Crime: Douglas writes a long journal of sorts of everything that happened when he was an environmental activist (though he refers to his allies by their code names), including their arson and accidentally getting Olivia killed. Though he never intends to publish it, it gets discovered by a visitor to his house, leading the police to quickly figure out that he is describing real life events and try to determine just what the real names of the other three people involved were.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Mimi delivers a mental one to Douglas, despite not actually being able to contact him.
    "In the absence of any word from her, he'll torture himself without limit. He'll think she despises him. His betrayal will bore into him and fester, fatal. He'll die of some simple, stupid, preventable thing-a rotten tooth, an infected cut he fails to treat. He'll die of idealism, of being right when the world is wrong. He'll die without knowing what she's powerless to tell him-that he has helped her. That his heart is as good and as worthy as wood."
  • You Are Number 6: Naturally appears during the part of Douglas's story on the Stanford Prison Experiment. Douglas is number 571.
  • You No Take Candle: Winston Ma talks like this, thanks to immigrating to America as an adult and never really having the time to learn proper English.


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