Themes, Motifs, Symbols

Themes are the universal ideas explored in a work of literature.

Motifs are repeating devices that can illuminate a book’s themes.

Symbols are objects or characters or even colors used to allude to abstract ideas or concepts.

Themes in Concrete Park Volume 2: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

First and foremost, Concrete Park explores the theme of slavery vs. freedom. The planet Oasis is a prison colony. The young people sent there by a desperate Earth are slaves. Even if they can survive a one- or two-year sentence in the mines deep below the planet’s surface (and many don’t), they are released to the hell of “Scare City“, which is itself a kind of prison. None of these human exiles will ever return home; the sentence is for life, however long or short that turns out to be.

The story has echoes of the “middle passage“, of the Atlantic slave trade in displaced, captive Africans, and of the new world these slaves and former slaves built on an alien continent from which there was no return. There are also echoes of the 18th Century founding of Australia as a penal colony for the British Empire’s poor and unwanted. There are echoes of the impoverished Irish, who suffered the potato famine, only to be criminalized and shipped to the far end of the known world to suffer the privations of world-building on a hostile new continent, complete with original peoples who didn’t want them there.

The world of the story also has echoes of present-day America, where more than two million people, mostly black, are imprisoned, the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in the world. How are your moral and ethical choices warped when you’ll never be anything more than a prisoner, anything more than a number?

Another theme the book explores is that of identity. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Here, in the unlikely circumstance of a prison planet, the young human exiles have been given a fresh start. Will they be who they were  on Earth, or will they take the chance to be someone new? It is no accident that two of the story’s major characters, Silas and Monkfish, are literal shapeshifters. Others, like Isaac, face the challenge of trading old ways for new. He’s a character raised amid hate and fear, and he’s going to “the hate and fear Olympics”. Will he be transformed by this new world or will he transform it? Haunted by what she was, Luca will try to make a new life as what she wants to be, someone loved and capable of loving, even if it is with the Lena, who may be a ghost or spirit product of Luca’s own desires.

Identity is further explored in the duality of appearance and reality. Many characters are not what they seem, and they reveal themselves in action and in the thoughts that we, the reader are privy to.

Many of the characters we meet in Concrete Park find identity and meaning in gangs, in being part of a group, right or rong. If being a prisoner can warp your moral choices, the double imprisonment of loyalty to a gang or barrio can make your choices even more constrained.

Finally, an important theme of Concrete Park is violence, its uses and the damage it does. The world of Scare City is a Hobbesian nightmare, a war of all against all. The characters in this story often face situations where even a just person must behave violently in order simply to survive, they do not have the luxury of debate. How is this like our world today? How is it different?

Motifs in Concrete Park Volume 2: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Connecting the themes of freedom vs. slavery, identity and violence are motifs like the recurring internal monologues of the various point-of-view characters. We are permitted a window into the characters’ hidden motivations and desires. Silas, particularly, avails himself of this device to let us in on his duplicitous plans.

Another motif, tying the story together , is the radio chatter of Chavez on Radio Gigante, and his words of peace often form a deeply ironic commentary on the often-violent action we are seeing. The gulf between words and deeds highlights how far this new society has to go.

Repeated sayings, such as Luca’s “I am not dying today” are another recurring motif.

Symbols in Concrete Park Volume 2: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

One of the clearest symbols at work in Concrete Park is visible on almost every page: the bar codes on the characters’ faces. These are constant reminders of their slave or prisoner status (it’s noteworthy that even the powerful alien, Silas, wears one when he shape-shifts into his human disguise). They are so ubiquitous, they are often notable by their absence. Luca, for instance, has no bar code in the present-day story, but has one in her flashbacks. The reason is not explained. Yet.

Another symbol, echoing the dual nature of many of the characters is the twin suns that hang in the sky over Oasis. Luca and Lena are first seen embracing beneath these suns, emphasizing their twinned natures. The twin suns also hang in the sky to emphasize, every day, that we are not in Kansas anymore.

Luca wears a cheap plastic flower in her hair. On this planet where nothing grows, her flower symbolizes hope and even beauty.

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