Last week I caught an episode of Almost Human pretty much by accident. I have to say it was pretty fantastic. The story followed Dorian the android and a human detective as they tried to track down an illegal sexbot ring that was using human DNA in the skins of their androids. The show had a nice sense of humor, some cool advanced technology, good action and pacing, and excellent dialogue. It culminated with Dorian being present for the ‘death’ of a sexbot made with the illegal skin. It was the climax of the episode’s central theme – what happens when you die, and how can others derive comfort from it? It really was very, very well done.
Accordingly, I expect Fox to cancel it within 12 episodes or so.
Anyway, the exploration of human morality through the lens of androids is not a new one. It arguably dates all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy. In Caves of Steel we meet Detective Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw and watch a dynamic quite similar to that of John and Dorian, except the roles are more stock: whereas Karl Urban’s John is the one that is emotionally damaged and unavailable and Dorian is empathetic and open, Bailey is the poster boy for emotional appeal compared to Olivaw’s bloodless logic. In Asimov’s case, however, he was attempting to show the technology of the future as helpful and wise despite its frightful appearance. Almost Human is doing something a bit different; it is taking a more even-handed approach to the prospect of advanced tech, showing the horrors as well as the benefits. Dorian is meant to be more human than John and in many ways he is. Unlike Asimov, who is asking social and economic questions, Almost Human seems to be concerned about psychology, morality, and humanity on a more personal level.
In this sense, then, Almost Human owes less to Asimov, all noble and ponderous upon his gilded throne of Golden Age Science Fiction, and a great deal more to the fallout-choked alleys and half-religious psychadelia of Philip K Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans save via extremely intricate post-mortem physical exams or less-than-reliable ‘empathy tests’ based off the assumption that androids are incapable of feeling empathy. The society of the book adopts this mantra as the quintessential definition of humanity, and yet the action of the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating just how foolish a definition this is. Humans are shown not to be empathetic at all and not only towards replicants; they hurt each other, they judge each other, they demean each other with casual familiarity. The world, as shown by Dick, is hostile to life in all its forms, and no creature comes to expect quarter from any other, replicant or otherwise. This is not to say that there is no hope, but rather to demonstrate how we who feel that humanity is doing just fine haven’t really stopped to look at ourselves. Dick does this with Replicants, as artificially creating the ’other’ to be abused by the so-called noble, pious, empathetic forces of humanity makes it easier for us to see ourselves.
So, too, does Almost Human attempt to show us reflections of ourselves in the person of androids, in the hopes that we can actually recognize ourselves better when faced with that which we define as not ourselves. These stories, when done well, are hard to watch. They have the power to levy biting criticism unfettered by the softening insulation of social context or apologism. These stories are also not easy to do – too many of them fall into trite echoes of ‘traditional’ values (Spielberg’s AI comes to mind). So far I feel that Almost Human has done a good job, but it is very early. I will keep watching, though. I hope very much they can keep it up.
The comic book store argument is a staple of the geek subculture. You’ve seen it on The Big Bang Theory dozens of times: Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard sitting around their living room, arguing until they’re blue in the face over whether Thor’s Hammer can penetrate Cap’s Shield, or what the difference is (or ought to be) between zombies and mummies. As much as I gripe sometimes of the stereotyping of geekdom by that show, I do have to admit in that one respect they are generally spot-on. It is a thing. It happens all the time.
But what is the point? They aren’t real, so why bother?
Do you go around telling kids there’s no Santa Clause [sic], too?
Let’s ignore the spelling error for a moment and take for granted that the commenter in question is not referring to the Tim Allen film franchise, both loved and admired by all humanity (he gets fat by magic – comedy gold!). Let’s engage the essence of the critique here: why ruin all the fun? It’s a worthwhile question, and it does deserve an answer.
Geeks have these conversations because they are fun. They are fun in the same way that analyzing literature is fun, or critiquing the fashion choices on the red carpet is fun, or really any act where you pass judgment on something is fun. It isn’t just geeks who do this – we all do this. Having opinions and backing them up with arguments is part of the deal with being able to think. Can such arguments go off the rails? Sure they can. Conflicting opinions can often be confused with personal rancor, feelings can get hurt, and all enjoyment can get sucked away by some guy crossing the line. Most of the time, though, this doesn’t happen.
Part of what makes these geek conversations unique is the fact that their subject matter is often entirely fictional. There is no empirical definition for the weight of Thor’s Hammer, only what can be inferred by circumstance. I once had an argument with a guy about how lightsaber duels weren’t reflective of what a duel with a plasma sword would really look like. My critique was oriented around the supposition that the plasma wouldn’t have the same mass that the sabers seemed to when fighting – less mass means less inertia, which means a whole different set of fighting techniques become possible, thus changing the duel. His argument was that we had no way of knowing how densely packed the plasma was in the blade, therefore it may have the same mass as a lightweight sword of the same length. I came back by citing the conservation of mass – if the plasma had that much mass, where did it go when the blade retracted? Lightsaber hilts do not get visibly heavier when shut off, therefore…
You get the idea.
These conversations are often fun. They ask us to think and analyze what we observe and to draw conclusions from it. This is how human beings learn. This is how we adapt and change. If nobody asked such questions, nothing new would happen. Now, granted, science fiction and fantasy franchises aren’t the most important thing in the world to debate, but to equate critiquing their conventions with ruining Santa Claus for little kids is unfair. For one thing, that implies that scifi/fantasy is only for children, which I object to in the most strenuous terms possible (I mean, have you even read Freud or Jung?). For another, that suggests that we are having this conversation for the express purpose of ruining something for someone else. Not true. We’re trying to change it, in our small way. We’re trying to say it can be better. We try not to have these arguments with people who don’t care or don’t want to hear them (at least the more socially facile of us do) – the last thing a geek really wants to do is ruin somebody’s fun. If you like the old thing, well fine – opinions differ. If you have such a problem with my disagreement, offer me a robust defense. Debate it.
It should be fun.
(Three men cluster around a table, viewing images of the Kaiju attacks on San Francisco and elsewhere. They are the PRESIDENT, DOCTOR THINK, and GENERAL COWBOY)
PRESIDENT: Well, gentlemen, we need a response to these giant monsters. Our planes and tanks aren’t cutting it.
DOCTOR: If I may, Herr President, I believe the primary difficulty lies with the fact that our pilots are shooting the giant monsters with machine guns and flying so close to their bodies that they can be struck by the beasts.
GENERAL: What? You want ’em fly way up in the sky, like sissies? Up close – that there is how a MAN fights!
DOCTOR: If you possess a vehicle that can fly thousands of feet in the air, why would you feel the need to give the giant beast a haircut. Also, Mr. President, we should be shooting missiles at them, not bullets.
PRESIDENT: The missiles haven’t worked, Doctor Think.
DOCTOR: We could build bigger missiles. We don’t even need to put them on planes, actually. Terrestrially-based missile silos could support ordnance of sufficient dimensions to render a Kaiju of even twice this size completely…
GENERAL: Blah, blah, blah! That’s all you eggheads ever do is flap yer gums when it’s time to do something. Well, Mr. President sir, I’ve got a plan. What if we built giant goddamned robots – really big fuckers with cool-ass names like…uhhh…Danger Stan or Super Tower Piledriver!
DOCTOR: Why would we do that? We barely have such technology developed, and the expense would be…
GENERAL: Now’s not the time to penny-pinch, poindexter! We need us some big ass robots to beat down these big ass beasties in some kinda gawd-amighty throw-down. (makes jabbing motions) Pow! Whammo! Biff! Foom!
PRESIDENT: Are you suggesting that the robots will punch the monsters?
GENERAL: Fuck yes! How awesome would that be?
DOCTOR: What you are suggesting it engaging in hand-to-hand combat with giant creatures that will be both faster and better suited to such things. It is pointlessly risky and expensive, not to mention impractical.
PRESIDENT: The Doctor does have a point.
GENERAL: Listen, I got it all planned out – we just get the robots to link with our brains, right? You eggheads can figure that out, can’t you? That way the robot will move just as fast as the monster, and then it’ll be martial arts chop-socky against alien monster brawn. (makes karate chopping motion) HAI! Badass, yeah!
DOCTOR: One person’s brain will be overloaded by this. We’ll need two people at minimum to operate one body for a made-up pseudo-scientific reason I am citing right now. The challenges to finding two people suited to do this with each other will significantly decrease the numbers of robots we can field.
GENERAL: Bah! We’ll just have them fight each other with sticks. Believe me, brother, once you try and bash a guy’s face in with a stick, you’ve seen into his fucking soul, amirite? (to president) High Five!
PRESIDENT (leaving GENERAL hanging): Stick Fighting?
DOCTOR: The stick-fighting plan is irrelevant. The point is that this is the stupidest possible way to fight these creatures. You are engaging them on their own terms! They emerge from the water – do we propose to make these robots able to swim?
GENERAL: Why swim when you can walk? Look, fellas, you’re missing the *point* here. This would be AWESOME! The guys that beat down these things will be such studs they’ll be able to score in a convent! Who doesn’t want to watch a giant fucking robot wrassle himself a big-ass sea monster?
DOCTOR: I presume you would give the robots claws and teeth and such. At minimum, giving them a centauroid structure to lower their center of gravity will…
GENERAL: No, no, NO! No teeth, no claws, none of that shit. These robots need to be saleable in toy stores, and nobody wants a hero with giant fangs. I guess we can give them a sword, but all pilots should be trained not to use the sword except in dramatically appropriate moments. Punching, fellas – this is all about the punching. OOO! We could even put rockets on their elbows to…
DOCTOR: Could we give them poison spines?
DOCTOR: Electrify the hull?
GENERAL: Then how could they wrestle? No!
DOCTOR: Could we at least make them fly?
GENERAL: That’s why we have dozens and dozens of helicopters on stand-by!
DOCTOR: You know, we could have the helicopters armed to assist…
GENERAL: Nope! Wouldn’t be fair. We want a classic throw-down, understand? Like in the movies.
DOCTOR: Surely, Herr President, you see how foolish this idea is.
PRESIDENT (scribbling in a notebook): So, General, what do you anticipate the licensing revenue would be for these things…
DOCTOR: That’s it. I’m going back to Austria, where we will never, ever see a Kaiju. Good luck, idiots. (exit)
From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:
Why don’t you write something real?
Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.
I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.
I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.
Tolkien once wrote:
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?
Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.
In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.
So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.
You will never know my name, because one has never been given me.
I am known as slop, blob, smack, gobbler – a faceless, eyeless, amorphous thing you relegate to trash heaps and waste sites.
I am one of a species you threw away. You think I’m stupid, you think I can’t understand you, that I don’t care what a waste you’ve made of my life.
But I do. I do care.
I understand you, too. There is a certain familiarity you develop when you eat another species’ trash for long enough. I know what you so-called ‘Great Races’ are, how you have succeeded in conquering species like my own. I know why you think yourself great. The Union has made you inviolate; with each cycle you gain more and more, while things like me have less and less.
You may tell yourself that the more you eat, the more scraps there are for the slops that ooze through your sewers (and that’s what we do, isn’t it? Ooze…slink…trickle…it makes you feel better, doesn’t it, to know that the things you grind beneath your heels have no bones?) Yes, we eat better. That might be enough for some.
I, though, am still hungry.
The good thing about having no bones and having natural textural and chromatic control over my skin is that I can really be whatever I want. Me and some other Tohrroids do it. Always have. We don’t ooze; we walk, we stride, we jump. We weave in and out of your fat, contented societies, hidden more by your inability to imagine us doing it than by our own cleverness.
What do we do, then, as we wander through your world? Well, some just want to hide and live the good life, some want to steal from those who have stolen from them. As for me, I want to hurt you. I will hurt you. Think you can stop me? Think again. I am your servant, I am your friend, I am your wife, I am your children. I can look like anything, I can be anywhere. Put up your guard, hire a food-taster, blood check your retainers every night – it won’t matter. I will eat your bones first, and let you suffocate under the weight of your pointless, meaty mass. Then, for the first time, you will hear a gobbler laugh.
I’m coming for you, Dryth. Make peace with your precious Law.
I’m midway through Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, and the more I read, the more I grow to appreciate Lynch’s command of vulgarity. For those of you who haven’t read any Lynch, his Gentlemen Bastards series is, for my money, one of the if not the best fantasy published in the past ten years or so. It is, essentially, the Sting/Ocean’s Eleven, but set in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Mediterranean world during the Italian Renaissance. Good stuff.
As his many of Lynch’s characters are thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals of the lowest sort, they swear a lot. But as these are so often very clever thieves, con-men, and inveterate criminals, they swear artfully. The words ’fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘asshole’ are masterfully crafted into some of the more colorful and amusing metaphors I’ve encountered. My recent favorite is this phrase, spoken of a boorish, arrogant, stupid ass of man who has ruined the lives of numerous people:
I wouldn’t shit on his head to give him shade from the sun.
Just bask in the layers of that metaphor, would you? Let it wash over you. I’m telling you, for all its vulgarity, it’s beautiful. When I initially read The Lies of Locke Lamora (the first book in Lynch’s series), I felt as though the profanity was a bit overpowering. He was overplaying the card, I felt, and going from clever and edgy to merely crass. Now, though, either Lynch is growing on me or his has mellowed and tempered his f-bombs into something more than simply shocking. They are evocative epithets, laced with emotion, that give the reader a front-row seat to the seething tempers of Jean and the outrageous frustrations of Locke, as well as all the other raw moments of all the other colorful characters inhabiting Lynch’s dirty world of crime and skullduggery.
There is something to be said for swearing. The proper curse at the proper moment is the naval broadside of the spoken word. It has power and depth and feeling. If used cleverly, the word ‘fuck’ can paint pictures lesser words would have to work very hard to match. In Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, the poet Martin Silenus delivers his part of the narrative with a profanity-laced tirade against the world. The first lines read:
First came the Word; then came the fucking word processor; then came the fucking thought processor; then came the death of literature. And so it goes.
There’s a rhythm there – a poetry, if you will – I find important to the timbre of Silenus’s voice. There’s a kind of electricity in it, and not because I’m ‘shocked’ by bawdy language – I’m from Boston, so trust me when I say I’m used to it. Rather it is because the word ‘fuck’ and its weaker cousins is a word that does not hide any of its meaning. It is bare and raw; it cannot be misunderstood.
Now, am I saying that science fiction or fantasy stories/novels don’t swear enough? Well, sort of. I do feel that the genre, as a whole, is needlessly bowdlerized to be ‘suitable for children’, even though so much of the genre is not intended for the tender ears of true children, but rather for the teenagers and adults that make up the majority of the audience. If you don’t think those folks are acquainted with a few swears, then I have some shocking news for you.
Of course, profanity just for the purpose of being profane isn’t a good idea – there is no call to be offensive needlessly. Profanity needs to serve an artistic purpose, as absurd as that sounds. Also, there will always be people who will jump all over you for even the mildest transgressions (I’ve been scolded for saying ‘goddamn’ before, which I find pretty hilarious, honestly). Of course, folks whose ears are that tender are going to be offended by a wide swathe of things and trying to please them is like trying to get that guy who only likes cheese pizza to try a slice of sausage and pepper – it’s a waste of your time and, ultimately, it’s their loss.
In the end, cutting out a whole segment of language that is used and used often by lots and lots of people is sort of like tying one hand behind your back. I say learn to use the hand, get it to work for you, and there is some real magic that can happen there.
As usual, I am in the process of putting together a new science fiction/fantasy setting in which to set stories, novels, and potentially a homemade RPG or two. This one is space operatic, so we’re talking giant spaceships, exotic aliens, high adventure, and a healthy dollop of weirdo mysticism. You can read a bit about the world here, if you like. Talking about it, though, isn’t the central thesis of this post. What I want to talk about is the creation of a badass.
Not your basic, run-of-the-mill, loner badass, though. I’m talking one of a whole society of badassery. My world needs a class of super-dudes that every little kid wants to be for Halloween. The dude who gets top billing on all the movie posters. The guy who cosplay fanatics break their wallets to dress as. How does one create such a thing? Well, once you allow for lightning to strike so that your book is the most popular thing ever, the rest comes down to a kind of basic character alchemy. You find stuff that’s awesome and you add it up together somehow. Here’s my process, as it stands:
Step #1: Pick Ninja, Pirate, Samurai, or Marine
Okay, okay – I know somebody is going to start crowing about their Ninja Pirate, so lets just cut this one right off at the start: you don’t get two. You might think you get two, but you don’t. Ninjas are sneaky assassins who study the arts of subtlety and stealth to kill their enemies. Pirates are brash, freedom loving duelists who excel at pithy dialogue and clever tactics. Samurai are honor-bound super-warriors with a stoic demeanor and ancestral codes of respect. Marines are tough-as-nails destruction artists who believe in their survival and the survival of their men in situations that usually overshadow their apparent abilities. You can try adding some of these together, but it quickly becomes a muddle. Pick one to start.
I pick Samurai.
Step #2: Does He Have A Gun or a Sword?
Sure, he can have a gun and a sword, but which is his favorite? Which is the thing he uses most, the thing that defines him best. And by ‘sword’, by the way, I don’t mean it has to be a sword. I mean does he fight with his hands, or does he blow stuff away from a distance? In the first place, you’re creating a group that is up close and personal in their battles. You should expect to write a lot of duels between individuals or small groups. If you’ve got a guy who is worshipping the gun, he blows up big things and guns down hordes of nobodies like its nothing. For that character, combat isn’t a contest of individual wills but rather an environment to be survived, akin to a violent storm or a sweltering desert. You aren’t going to zoom in on everybody they blow away, but you will be following their trail of destruction with a variety of crane/wide shots (to use movie terminology).
I pick sword.
Step #3: Barbarian or Sophisticate?
Is your group of bad-asses on the inside or the outside of the social order/civilization? For example, the Fremen are outside, whereas the Adeptus Astartes (the Space Marines) are inside. The Jedi began on the inside and wound up outside, but they really belonged inside all along. Barbarians are there to destroy or conquer the corrupt society, whereas sophisticates are there to protect the jewels of civilization from the barbarous ravages of the uncivilized. They are two halves of the same coin and, while they may switch sides during the story, there is a default setting to be considered.
I pick Sophisticate.
Step #4: Walk or Ride?
Does your dude go about his business on foot, or does he ride/fly/pilot himself into his incredible acts of derring-do? If he’s on foot, to some extent this means he is a part of the fabric of the battlefield. He cannot leave at a whim – his story has him bracketed by circumstance, trapped in situations he must either resolve or be destroyed by. If he rides, he swoops in suddenly and can depart suddenly, too. He is aid unlooked for, and therefore often operates alone. This is the difference, essentially, between the fighter pilot and the grunt: the fighter pilot has a plush airbase to fly back to, while the grunt hunkers down in the mud and holds on with his dirty fingernails until the job is finished. Most of your superhero types ‘ride’ in some way (Superman’s ability to fly basically counts), while your grittier heroes get stuck in.
I pick Ride.
Step #5: Born to Rock or Tooth-and-Nail?
Do folks who become badasses of this variety become so by virtue of birth (like Jedi or Aes Sedai), or do they choose to become this thing, forsaking all other goals in the pursuit of their awesomeness (Shaolin Monks)? In the first place, they are engineered to be awesome, which gives them a certain aura. In the second case, they are mentally determined and driven to succeed, which gives them a certain grit.
I pick Born to Rock.
Step #6: Magic or Muscle?
What is the secret to their super-ness? Do they have access to unique tools or superhuman talents or, instead, do they learn that the most dangerous weapon is just their own will to win? In the first place we’ve got your Jedi and your samurai and your cyborg super-soldiers. In the second place we’ve got your kung-fu masters, battle-tested campaigners, and your Dirty Dozen-esque commandos.
I pick Magic.
Step #7: Work It All Together
I’ve got myself a Magic Sophisticated Samurai, born to rock while Riding with his Sword. In my science fiction setting, this works out to my Dryth Solon using super-advanced nano-technology and quasi-organic armor to fly through space ripping things apart with his incredible nanite-blades, having become so by being raised from birth to be the supreme arbiter and bearer of his House’s honor and word. Cool, right?
Try this little system with other famous groups of badasses:
Jedi: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Walk, Born to Rock, Magic
Space Marine: Marine, Gun, Sophisticate (or Barbarian, depending on chapter), Walk, Tooth-and-Nail, Magic
The Kingsguard: Samurai, Sword, Sophisticate, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle
The Fremen: Ninja, Sword, Barbarian, Ride, Tooth-and-Nail, Muscle
And so on and so forth…
It might be incomplete, but tell me I’m wrong.
In my darker moments, I wonder sometimes whether being free is really worth it. I consider the vast swathe of my freedom that I do not use and cannot envision using. If it were gone, would I miss it? If I didn’t miss it, would it matter? As obsessed with liberty as we are, it sometimes seems as though its benefits are intangible or perhaps outweighed by its drawbacks.
Oh, and there are drawbacks. Freedom means carte blanche for any jackass to do any jackass thing they damned well please, more or less. Civil Society is essentially based on the idea that complete and total freedom is a fundamentally bad idea that achieves the opposite of it’s intended goal. As laid out by Rousseau in The Social Contract:
What man loses as a result of the Social Contract is his natural liberty and his unqualified right to lay hands on all that tempts him, provided only that he can compass its possession. What he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that belongs to him. That we may labor under no illusion concerning these compensations, it is well that we distinguish between natural liberty which the individual enjoys so long as he is strong enough to maintain it, and civil liberty which is curtailed by the general will.
It can be seen, then, that instances of natural liberty, rather than permitting one to do as they please, instead result in one being forced to guard what they have against others that would take it. The citizen is thusly deprived of ’Moral Freedom’, in that they are unable to consider matters any higher than their own survival. In this loose philosophical framework we can see the historical provenance of anarchist societies, economic collapses, the opportunity for tyrants to rise, and a whole mess of horrible mayhem that results when everybody decides not to listen to rules set out for the common good and instead decide to see how much they can wring for themselves out of the system. This happens when the pressure is off, so to speak – when we are free to do as we please. If humans (and cultures) were perhaps wiser, kinder, and less selfish, then maybe we wouldn’t have these problems. They aren’t, though, so we do.
Of course, I always come back to the side of liberty. Being free to do as I please is better than the alternative if for the simple fact that there is no guarantee that the alternative will be a good fit for us collectively. It could be horrible – much worse than freedom sometimes is – even if it isn’t necessarily so.
Science Fiction has explored this conundrum often, and nowhere more potently than in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Where as Orwell was busy scaring the pants off of us with his 1984, Huxley’s dystopian tale is always there, in the background, seeming infinitely more terrifying. You see, whereas Orwell writes a horror story, Huxley makes a hypothetical argument. The argument goes like this: What if society made it so you were never bored, never sad, never hungry, never injured, never sick, never poor, and never lonely, and the only thing you had to give up was your ability to think for yourself?
Do you make that deal? If you’re the ruler of the world, do you force your people to take it?
Before you snort at the thought of giving up your precious liberty, think about it for a second. Think hard: an end to all suffering. ALL suffering. Are you able to fulfill your full potential and wow the world with your genius? Obviously not. But even if you are never ludicrously happy, you will never even be a little bit sad. Even if you never fall in love, you will never be alone. Even if you never believe in God or explore the depths of existential philosophy, you will never feel their lack, either. In a very real sense perhaps you won’t be human anymore, but would you care? Would any of us?
What makes Huxley terrifying is not the ‘wrongness’ of his world, it is the fact that it is all too easy to understand the rightness of it. When I feel depressed about the human race and about the (more-or-less) great society in which I live, I wonder whether we aren’t all just fooling ourselves into thinking we deserve to be free. Maybe this is what we get. Maybe, as Agent Smith points out in the Matrix, we couldn’t handle utopia anyway and we need to have suffering in the world in order to accept it as real. Maybe that’s what freedom is – feeling pain. Suffering for the benefits of liberty. It’s just that sometimes I’m tired of it; sometimes I just want somebody to come give me my dose of soma and make the world go away.
What is it with fantasy novels and the Middle Ages? I mean, seriously, think about it for a second: you have a genre in which you can do anything, anywhere, with anybody, and where is it always set?
12th-14th Century England. Every damned time.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good medieval fantasy world as much as the next guy, but it does get old. To some extent I need a break from knights and castles and monarchies and so on. I need something fresh. Something more exotic, with perhaps fewer old Europe overtones. There are authors who have done this, and done it well (Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World comes to mind), and those works serve to remind us that Tolkien didn’t set any laws about where we could go and what we could do in fantasy. Just because he pirated Saxon lore to make Middle Earth doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps.
Of course, that doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of Europe as a whole. As much as we need more African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American fantasy worlds (boy howdy, do we!), there is a reasonable argument to be made that fantasy literature is traditionally rooted in European myth and, as it is primarily marketed to Europeans, it seems reasonable that Europe and its reflections will remain a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre for a long time to come. Fine then.
So why does it need to be the middle ages all the time?
When I say ‘all the time’, I mean that literally. So many fantasy worlds are apparently frozen in a kind of permanent quasi-feudal society. It never changes, never grows, never evolves. Go back a thousand years in the world’s history, and they’re doing the same things – wearing the same armor, using the same technology, building the same kinds of places, farming the same kinds of stuff. Why is that? Are they just incapable of technological advancement? Are the people in that world just stupider than the ones in ours? Seems improbable to me.
The fantasy world should grow and change like our own. It should have shifts in culture and history and technology and religion, just like we have. It should change, and the way it reflects our world should change with it. Why not fantasy set in the High Renaissance? The Victorian Era? The 1950s? The Napoleonic Wars? The Ancient World? Why not have cultures based more on Renaissance Russia or 3rd Century Turkey?
The answer comes back to my old belief that fantasy novels are, at their heart, conservative. The fantasy genre is so often about the prevention of change, the preservation of the old in the face of the new. New is almost always bad in fantasy worlds. Change takes the form of conquerors and monsters, evil curses and world-shattering magic. The heroes, meanwhile, must dig up something ancient and powerful or listen to the counsel of the aged and the wise in order to prevail. Their victory is the preservation of the status quo or, perhaps, the reinstatement of that which was unrighteously usurped. Are we not all waiting for Daenerys to regain the Iron Throne? Do we not pine for the fall of the Old Republic and the doom of the Jedi? Are not the elves and old Gandalf the wisest voices in Middle Earth? Is not the existence of the Dragon Reborn proof positive of the cyclical nature of existence – nothing new under the sun, just the same old stuff come again? If the young save the world, it is not to remake it, but rather to restore it to the condition their forefathers maintained before them. There is always the attempt to return, to go back, to undo.
And yet we have the potential to explore so much more in fantasy literature. We can explore the repercussions of the new and the revolutions of thought and belief that go with it. We can shape a world that reforms itself, that learns from its mistakes, that leaves the past behind it and moves on to a brand new day. Perhaps this treads on the toes of science fiction too much – that has always been the genre of those who would look forward – but in an era where science fiction is increasingly obsessed with our society’s demise, maybe it should fall the fantasy to pick of the slack. Maybe fantasy can show us a way forward that science fiction, so tied down by the negativity of modern society, has forgotten how to find.