First of all, if you’ve got some time on your hands, listen to this interview with David Brin (and thanks to my friend, David, who drew my attention to it). There is more stuff to talk about in that interview that I could possibly stuff into a single blog post (or, at least, not if I wanted anybody to ever read it all), but I want to explore and correlate a couple things he talks about there which I find both fascinating and very true.
Speaking broadly, Brin differentiates between our ‘romantic’ selves and our ‘rational’ selves. The first is the thing that makes you cry at the end of Old Yeller and the second is the thing that makes you understand that the end of Old Yeller makes perfect sense and was the right thing to do. Brin associates our romantic selves with a lot of what has happened in human history, much of it bad, ranging from the Dark Ages to our love affair with Star Wars. The rational part of us he attributes to the proliferation and success of modern democracy, the creation of our current civilization, and the scientific Enlightenment.
Interestingly enough, I bet you find Dark Age barbarians and Star Wars much more fun than democratic reforms and scientific studies and that, right there, is exactly what Brin is getting at: our default state, the state we prefer, is the romantic one. It makes for better stories, higher adventure, and the glorious conservative myth of a golden age long past. There are a lot of different places I can dig in here, but let’s start with this one: This theory of the ’romantic self’ is the underpinning of a vast majority of fantasy literature and religious and cultural mythology.
Take kings or the idea of monarchy, for example. Every fantasy has ‘em, pretty much, and if they don’t, they often have wizards, demigods, noble houses, emperors, or ruling demi-human species as a fill-in. These kings are also often heroic figures or, if they aren’t, they are waiting to be deposed so the ‘true’ king can be installed. Aragorn needs to take command of the Armies of Men to defeat Sauron; Daenerys is rightfully the heir to the Iron Throne; Rand al’Thor is the Dragon Reborn and would everyone please stop getting in his way and listen to him for once! History, likewise, is awash in kings, both heroic and villainous, and, indeed, the majority of history has been under the thumb of some kind of absolute ruler.
Our enchantment with them, however, supposes that there is such a thing as a ‘good king’ or that monarchy itself is a wise or workable system. This is our Romantic selves talking, not our rational ones. As Brin points out, it took the weakening of top-down authoritarian systems to bring about the technological and social advances that have created our current civilization. A top-down system discourages competition, while a more egalitarian system encourages the kind of competition and innovation needed to improve and advance, since the genesis of those things comes from dissent from popular opinion, something that doesn’t happen under the rule of a Robert Baretheon or even an Aragorn.
Fantasy, though, is primarily under the influence of this romantic notion that there is some single golden-child who is the right person to tell everyone what to do. Everyone from Star Wars’ Jedi Knights to the Mistborn of Sanderson to Harry Potter perpetuate the idea of ‘specialness as societal cure,’ even when mitigated by apparently liberal ideals that the heroes happen to support (because, after all, no good king would forbid free speech, obviously). Such stories and their appeal is, on some level, powered by a direct connection to that basic human romantic notion that there is a person out there who can tell you what to do and be right all the time, absolving you from your own troublesome duties of thinking for yourself, making your own decisions, and taking ownership of your failures and successes. If you don’t think that’s a thing, you need only read a history book – everyone has been doing that since forever.
Fantasy, then, is ultimately a conservative genre in its most literal sense – the conservation of old modes of order and old modes of doing things (based often off the fuzzy logic of metaphysical powers and spiritual manifestations) for the purpose of retaining what our romantic brains tells us is more fun and interesting. There is no law that says it must be so, however; I like to flatter myself that my own work in the fantasy genre breaks this mold, if only a little bit. After listening to David Brin, I may just up that from ’a little bit’ to ‘a lot’. Magic in Alandar is already egalitarian (you needn’t be born with power to use it – anybody with discipline and a good teacher can do it) and Tyvian Reldamar is already an iconoclast, but I can go further. I should go further.
Fantasy should join the best work of its speculative cousin, Science Fiction, and show us where we ought to go rather than making us miss where we’ve been.
I’ve got a game of Warhammer 40,000 against a friend of mine coming up this weekend, which has led me to give the idea of the ‘super-soldier’ some thought, as the Warhammer 40K universe is one awash in so many super-soldiers that the one army that doesn’t use genetically engineered/cybernetically enhanced/psychically modified supermen to fight their battles is a notable exception in the whole length and breadth of the galaxy. (For those of you who care, that one faction is the Imperial Guard, and they make up for it by taking gigantic tanks everywhere)
Anyway, all of us should be familiar with the bog-standard super-soldier storyline. It goes like this:
- Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society creates super soldiers to destroy enemies.
- Super Soldiers Destroy Enemies and HOW!
- Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society no longer needs super soldiers/doesn’t want super soldiers anymore.
- Super Soldiers feel marginalized.
- Super Soldiers proceed to smash government/madman/religion/secret society or their designated representatives.
This is, essentially, the plot of everything from Soldier to the Horus Heresy to Universal Soldier and so on. To be perfectly honest, it’s a fun story, if a bit predictable. The extent to which the story is silly or powerful or interesting varies widely dependent upon execution. That isn’t really what I want to talk about here, though. No, what I’m mostly interested in is the following question: Why do we like this story so much?
I mean, in the first place, when objectively considered, the whole idea is terrifying. Creating people who have no other purpose but slaughter and destruction is bad enough, but then to have them run amok is even worse. The genetically engineered super-soldier isn’t (or shouldn’t) be ‘cool’, since what he/she does is objectively terrible. We, of course, come from a society (among many societies worldwide, mind you) that glorify war, so the whole ‘terrible-ness’ of their behavior is easily lost on us.
Furthermore, when you consider their daily lives and what it consists of, the appeal of the super-soldier should drop even further. I mean, all these guys do and all they can do is practice killing things. I know many of us think that killing things, at least in the abstract, is fun, but I strongly suspect that it is anything but. Even career soldiers in our professional military don’t spend their whole lives fighting in wars against overwhelming odds. Heck, many of them don’t even kill people at all. Those that do have to work very, very hard and those that go into battle wind up dealing with really terrible amounts of stress, anxiety, and, well, violence. Violence is rather inherently unpleasant and, indeed, much of the joy of victory in violent encounters is the knowledge that the violent encounter is over. I would question the sanity of any person who prefers being shot at to not being shot at, full stop. If we consider that a super-soldier has nothing to look forward to at all beyond a violent death, it at once becomes obvious (a) why they tend to revolt against their masters and (b) why being a super-soldier is an inherently raw deal.
This brings me back to the original question, then: if the actions of a super-soldier are naturally reprehensible and the life of a super-soldier isn’t appealing, then why are super-soldiers such popular implants in science fiction writing? Heck, many of these stories make a point of showing us just how terrible it is being a super soldier, and still we think “man, Kurt Russel was soooo cool in Soldier!’ Isn’t that just a little, you know, perverse?
There are, of course, a whole host of answers to this question, some of which are likely contradictory. We, being contradictory creatures anyway, shouldn’t be troubled by this, however. I would like to present, however, a brief list of reasons why I think we love super-soldiers so much.
- We Love Violence, But We Don’t Like Getting Hurt: The super-soldier allows us to enjoy the adrenaline rush of warfare without the pesky realities of human frailties getting in the way. We don’t need to worry about Van Damme in Universal Soldier because he’s not a real guy, anyway. He can take it. The super-soldier is the superhero of warfare: gets the job done and can skip over the pesky consequences involved in murdering dozens of people and being shot a bunch by bad guys. It justifies the things we like about action heroes already, except with ‘Science!’. It is safe to identify with him, since he can survive where we could not.
- Our Grotesque Love-Affair with War: Some super-soldier stories have been referred to as ‘war-porn’, and the metaphor is an apt one. Wars, as far as we violence-loving action fans are concerned, have the disadvantage of being either fairly short conflicts waged by ordinary people in modest theaters or long, drawn-out conflicts involving complex political and social upheaval. In both cases, the act of blowing things up is constricted by the pace of history or the ugliness of human behavior. The super-soldier lets us condense what we want to read about in warfare (explosions and glorious battle!) while leaving out the stuff we don’t want to read about (why are we fighting anyway? Is this war just?). Bah! Phooey! Just bring on the robot-ninjas, give the space marine a machine gun, and let ‘er rip!
- They Can Destroy The Problems We Can’t Engage: Many of us live with unrestrained frustration at the political world. We don’t trust the government. We fear terrorists. We worry over nuclear war. We want somebody to do something about organized crime. Regardless of the respective realism of these concerns, the super-soldier, much like the superhero, gives us an outlet to vent them. In this sense, he isn’t altogether unlike any action hero, except he is something constructed which inherently makes him achievable. None of us are likely to become Superman and there is little chance of there being more than one John Rambo in the world, but super-soldiers can be mass produced. They are the very literal answer to the question ‘what can be done to stop ‘x”. The answer is ‘fifty Adeptus Astartes in Power Armor will Shoot Them All!’ Viola! All our murderous social fantasies embodied!
So, there you go, my .02 on the issue, if, indeed, it is an issue at all.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to organize a company of Imperial Fists Space Marines to smite their brothers, the Ultramarines, in glorious battle.
I’m in the middle of reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (which, by-the-by, is amazing), and something about the mood of the whole thing has struck a chord in me. The age of Wolfe’s Urth (which we come to understand is some distant evolution of our own Earth) is a palpable thing. The dust and detritus of the half-remembered past seem to fill every decrepit alley of Nessus. The wonders of the past and the horrors of the present in that book are presented simultaneously, without nostalgia or sentimentality, really. Severian’s world, as strange is it is, merely exists; it is not open to critique.
On the surface, Urth seems to be situated in the distant past. We have guilds, headsmen, citadels, and old moldy libraries. The world is ruled by an Autarch, who is readily identified as a kind of absolute monarch, and our ‘fantasy world’ gears are cleanly engaged. But then things start to change a bit; Severian comes across things that seem anachronistic. There are technologies present that we do not, as yet, possess. There are oblique references to the Apollo Moon Landings (‘before the moon was green’) and other things, as well. You quickly realize that this is not the alien past, but the alien future. So alien, in fact, that you do not recognize the least part of it. Yes, they seem primitive, but the parts of their culture and technology that are far superior to ours are so ingrained as part of their world that they scarcely notice them as unusual. They lack the curiosity about such things that we would naturally expect.
Wolfe is not the only writer to do this. Frank Herbert creates such a world in his Dune novels; Warhammer 40,000 is a naked and brutish attempt at the same thing. On the surface, what such stories enable us to do is experience both the kitsch of the medieval world as well as the wild imagination of science fiction without exposing either to undue cognitive dissonance on the part of the audience. We get drawn into the world and accept it before we start wondering how it came about. By that time, of course, we are already hooked; we no longer need the explanation and, even if we get it, we are likely to be forgiving. The passage of millennia enables almost anything to be plausible.
Deeper than that, though, and the thing that really gets me engaged, is the way in which such stories are able to engage deeply-held cultural and social biases of what constitutes ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’. We commonly look at technology as a linear progression rather than a fluid adaptation to social and environmental needs. We forget that the internet was not predestined to occur and, likewise, forget that if it were to cease to exist, we would continue along without it anyway. The day after Rome fell, the Romans were still Romans or, conversely, they had ceased being ‘Romans’ a long time ago anyway and it hardly mattered. They had a mess to clean up, that’s all. The passage of time shall erase all that we’re familiar with, but it may return from obscurity that which we have forgotten, too, should it be needed. Like all successful species, we are very adaptable critters.
And so, when looking at scifi/fantasy (or ‘science fantasy’, as Wolfe’s work has been called) stories of this kind, we find ourselves faced with the realization that our current reliance on (x), whatever that is, is not the thing that defines us, or at least not essentially. Those peripheral concerns change the circumstances somewhat, but not the essential spirit of what it means to be human. We will forever build things; we will forever forge new ideas and new inventions; we will always seek to make our mark on the universe. Whether we do it with a branding iron or a laser is a side-concern. The choice is not one of ‘how advanced we have become’, but rather ‘what method we culturally accept’.
I will close with a brief anecdote: A friend of mine who is very Italian attended an exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science showcasing artifacts from Pompeii. What struck him most was the display of women’s jewelry and cosmetics as well as men’s rings. He said he could have seen any of those things being worn by Italian relatives and friends on that very day. Indeed, his comment initiated a scene in my mind’s eye: A Roman man with a fat gold ring on his pinky sits in his coach, gazing worriedly at the spewing Vesuvius. “Angela!” He calls, “Let’s go! You can put your makeup on later!” Angela yells from the villa, “Michael, I’m not going anywhere without my face on, I don’t care if the mountain does explode!”
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
I’m in the middle of reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. I’m not precisely loving it; I don’t dislike it, either, but I was expecting to be more wow-ed by it, given how much love it’s received from fans and critics and such. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks trying to put my finger on why I’m not really jazzed by it. I have a theory: I’m not impressed with the villains.
I don’t know about you, but villains are often my favorite parts of any given book/movie/show/play or whatever. I like Othello over Hamlet because I find Iago so damned fascinating and Claudius rather dull. I’ve always had a soft spot for Captain Hook, thought Cobra had all the coolest vehicles, and would rather command a Star Destroyer than own the Millennium Falcon. Bad guys – really cool bad guys – make or break a book for me.
So here’s the thing with the Mistborn Trilogy: It is a world where the Dark Lord actually won and, a thousand years later, everybody been’s living under his thumb. When I saw that on the book jacket, I was pretty damned excited. “Oooo!” I thought, “This book outta have some pretty fantastic bad guys.” Turns out, not really. I mean, the Steel Inquisitors are pretty cool, but they never do anything to get my blood going. They torture some folks with hooks, they execute a bunch of innocent people (by beheading, which seems a bit passe), which is okay, but they never hit me in the guts hard enough to make me either want them dead or think they’re awesome. As for the Lord Ruler himself? Well, turns out he’s mostly just grumpy and tired of people’s crap. His Obligators? They’re fascist bureaucrats, yeah, but they seem to spend most of their time observing marriages and enforcing laws. Unjust laws, yes, but, I don’t know, not evil enough, right? This is a world under a thousand years of darkness, right? Where are my mountains of skulls? Where are my cauldrons of blood on every street corner? Why aren’t I scared of these guys? As for The Well of Ascension, the worst folks get is Straff Venture, and he’s mostly just a callous jerk and cruel father. He’s no Darth Vader.
For me, villains run in two varieties. They either make you hate them so much you need them to get justice or you won’t be able to live in the world anymore or they make you so excited with terror that they’re the most awesome guys in the book. Let me list off some of my favorite villains that fall into either category:
Villains I Love to Hate: The Seanchan (The Wheel of Time), Cersei Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Freys (A Song of Ice and Fire), The Others (from Lost…early seasons), The Bondsmagi (Lies of Locke Lamora), Gollum, Wormtongue and Saruman, Arthur Donovan (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and so on.
Villains I Just Love: Darth Vader, The Forsaken (Wheel of Time), The Nazgul, The Druchii (Warhammer), Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Blofeld (of James Bond fame), Benjamin Linus (from Lost), JR Ewing (Dallas), Dr. Doom, Darkseid, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), and so on and so forth.
The Mistborn Trilogy, for as cool as the heroes are and for as much fun as Allomancy is, doesn’t have villains that fall into either category for me. This means the heroes are striving and fighting and struggling against enemies I find somehow underwhelming or the threats they pose seem abstract or indirect, rather than visceral and horrifying. There is nobody pitching lovable little Bran out a window on page 35. What we’re given is institutionalized cruelty on a social level. This is, of course, every bit as cruel and terrible as pitching a little boy out a window, but it doesn’t always feel that way. It is very easy to disassociate oneself emotionally from the cruelty of social institutions. That is why, after all, so many social institutions are cruel in real life. Sanderson, of course, is making a statement about the cruelty of social institutions; his work is, on some level, meant to be political and religious critique. I can appreciate that, of course, but that still doesn’t engage me.
I need my bad guys to pitch kids out windows on a whim, simple-as.
I had a brief Facebook exchange with some friends regarding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road recently, and it got me thinking about apocalyptic literature. Now, I should preface this by saying I’ve only read parts of The Road and never the whole thing, primarily because it is such an upsetting book and I don’t particularly relish reading something so bleak. Then again, on the other hand, it is truly beautifully written, so I find myself coming back, reading a bit, and then putting it down with a shudder. This demonstrates it as a work of true and raw power, if nothing else.
It also draws me to reflect upon what, if anything, is the purpose of post-apocalyptic literature as a whole. It is very much in vogue these days (though primarily as interacting with the uninspired trope of the zombie apocalypse. For my thoughts on this, see here.) and this shouldn’t be seen as accidental. It’s a reflection of our cultural insecurities, ultimately, as evidenced by our perceived status as ‘top of the world’ and the added realization of the vulnerability of that status. You can see the same thing happening to literature written in cultures in similar situations, such as HG Wells’ apocalyptic visions during the height of Victorian Britain, the rash of numerological fears in ancient Rome (they had their own version of the ’2012′ myth), and others, as well. We fear the end because we see no way to go any higher or any further. When you can’t go up anymore, the only way to go is down.
But what, today, does wallowing in our own self-destruction provide us? It’s ghoulishly fascinating, of course, but is that all it is? Is the idea to just sit their and grimace as we watch our society torn down by barbarism and nod sagely, saying to ourselves ‘it had to happen?’
God, I hope not.
Stories that lead us nowhere but to human extinction are upsetting and miserable. Far be it from me to forbid the use of tragedy (it’s a trend in scifi that could use a bit of disruption), but the unhappy ending isn’t wholly my problem. My problem is that the hopeless apocalyptic tale is, essentially, bad tragedy. Tragedy is supposed to be a lesson. You should emerge from the experienced as enriched as you are harrowed. I find nothing enriching about witnessing the end of the human race with no hope for survival.
The subtext of a wide variety of apocalyptic stories I’ve read is that we, humans, are so broken, flawed, and miserable that we can’t help but screw ourselves over even in the midst of devastation. This is partially true, of course – we humans are miserable bastards sometimes and often do stupid, short-sighted, or cruel things. It is not, however, universally true. Stories that portray humanity without that goodness, nobility, resourcefulness, and perseverance that characterize a good bit of our history are lying to us just as thoroughly as those that portray us as exclusively possessing those traits. Presenting the apocalypse just as an excuse to jeer at the meanness of human experience is not terribly enriching, or at least I don’t find it so. It is powerful, of course, and horrifying and all the rest of it. I, however, find tales of redemption all the more powerful, though.
If you’re going to lie to me anyway, I’d rather the lie be sweet than sour. Maybe, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I am still an optimist. Or, perhaps, I just won’t cede reality to the pessimists just yet. The world will yet turn; we may yet be saved. Take the tales of the apocalypse as warnings, but not portents. Our future is not yet written in stone.
Just how long can you go getting everything you want?
The simpleton answer is ‘forever’, but you need to think a bit harder than that. Consider how human beings use their time at the moment. In the so-called Third World, much time is spent surviving – getting food, getting water, maintaining shelter, etc., etc.. Proportionally less time can be spent enjoying oneself thanks to the insecurity of their situation. Move up to the so-called First World, and ‘survival’, as such, is generally easier. We spend a lot of our time working to make money, yes, but we have more opportunity to entertain ourselves and much greater ability to acquire whatever it is we want, though that is limited by income. Still, when compared to the huge number of people in the world who make less than a dollar a day, your ~$700 a week job is pretty sweet.
Still, we in the First World aren’t satisfied – we want more money, more property, better vehicles, better skin, bigger muscles, smaller waists. We want the train to show up at the exact moment we step onto the platform, we want our iPhones to function while miles above or beneath the surface of the Earth, we want our fridge to re-fill itself with ice cream all by itself, and for that ice cream to be somehow healthy for us. These are, in common parlance, “First World Problems”.
Okay, so say we solve all those problems. Eternal youth and health. Unlimited fun and games. No work at all. No danger.
Cancer cured, traffic eliminated, energy for free, and all the healthy ice cream you can eat forever and ever and ever and ever. Then what?
In Utopia, we probably start complaining about even smaller things. We want to re-arrange the freckles on our face into a pattern more aesthetically pleasing. We want our dogs to talk to us in Scottish accents that are more realistic than the ones we genetically engineered them to talk in now. We think it’s really inconvenient having to hold our breath underwater, so we push for federal legislation mandating all children be able to breathe water.
So, eventually, say we get all that. Then what?
If you take away all the challenge, all the struggle, all the potential for failure…what do you have left? Iain M Banks explores this (somewhat) in his Culture series, and Arthur C Clarke goes through Utopian ennui in Childhood’s End. Others have covered it, as well. Even Idiocracy, to some extent, wonders what a society of near-perfect comfort would do to us. To my mind, it isn’t positive. It would have negative social effects we have difficulty imagining.
I write this, now, just as Johns Hopkins is discovering a way to regenerate adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells. It’s still unclear what this might mean for humanity, of course, but it has great potential to make the comfortable even more comfortable. I think about that a lot – and talk about it often on this blog. How much comfort do we really need, anyway? When did living into your seventies/eighties and dying equal ‘dying too young?’
What I hope for these technologies is that they aren’t simply used to make the wealthy and the powerful (in which I include most residents of the First World) immortal – they really, really don’t need to be. What I’d rather see is these technologies deployed so that all of us – all humanity – can live in the state of relative comfort that we First Worlders do now. I think this because, ultimately, First World Problems are good problems to have – not too terrible, but not so easy that we forget what it means to be alive, to struggle, and to achieve.
I’m not going to touch what happened in Colorado. It’s monstrous, and I have things I want to shout the same as everybody else. Shouting, though, is seldom wise and never calm, and wisdom and serenity are most important in the face of terrible acts.
So, to shift gears a bit and steer us away from the immediate and into the realm of the metaphorical (as is the wont and duty of every spec-fic writer), let us consider Superman and Batman. Of the two, Batman is much, much more popular. He has the best stories, the best writers, the best of everything. To call him ‘better,’ though, is to betray a cultural bias, not state a fact. Batman and Superman are poles on a spectrum of behavior. Their goals are identical, their heroic roles in society are similar, but their philosophical underpinnings are fundamentally at odds.
Criminals are, by nature, a superstitious, cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become – alone.
All societies posit values through the heroes they idolize, and Batman is no different. If he is popular, it is because he scratches something we want scratched. So, what is that thing?
Batman is an avenger. He fights crime with terror. He responds to criminal threats with threats. He is the visceral, essential wish-fulfillment of a society which has lost hope in the goodness of its own societal framework. When you look at the news and recoil in horror at the terrible thing some jackass has done to someone else and you feel that deep, cold knot deep in your guts – that’s Batman. Batman would go and kick that guys ass. He’d break every bone is his goddamned body until he was weeping with terror and begging for mercy. And then, because Batman (because we) is the hero, he gives it to them. He gives it to them, though, with a promise: I’m letting you go, but if you ever…
Batman doesn’t mess around. He doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t hold hands. He’s a regular guy who’s made himself superhuman by dint of his own personal obsessions, which is itself a perverse reflection of the American Dream. He devotes his massive wealth to populist causes, but we know and he knows and everybody knows that the real work to improve society happens on the street. That’s what we go to see – Batman making the people who terrify us quake in terror. His mania is our release; his story is stress relief for the modern urbanite who fears for their safety.
He’s also identifiable. He’s flawed, lonely, and mortal. We see ourselves in him more readily and wish to be him with more ease. His life seems at once idyllic and adventurous – wealthy, carefree playboy by day; courageous, brilliant hero by night. Every kid’s dream, right? Even once we grow up and see the cracks in Wayne’s psyche, we still find Batman’s life appealing. That says something about us. Something very important.
They can be a great people, Kal-El–they wish to be. They simply lack the light to show the way.For this reason above all – their capacity for good - I have sent them you… my only son.
~Superman, the Movie
Superman is different; Superman is not us. Superman is held to a higher standard than Batman. If Batman fails somehow, if corruption continues to spread despite his efforts, if he beats the Joker unconscious and the Joker lives to kill again, we accept this as part of Batman’s humanity. He doesn’t need to be perfect. Superman does and, to some extent, Superman is.
Superman’s the nice guy with the great physique and the gleaming smile who does the right thing, all the time. He works hard for little pay as a reporter, trying to tell people the truth. When he stops crime, there isn’t much fuss – they can’t stop him, they can’t harm him. He walks into the bank, bends the crooks’ guns in half, and marches them off to jail. He does this in plain sight; he is not frightening. He doesn’t use tools like terror or cruelty, even against those who deserve it. He smiles a lot. He’s chivalrous to women. He tells the truth.
Superman is not as popular as Batman, and it should come as little surprise that it is because of what Superman represents, ultimately, to the viewer. In Superman stories, it isn’t Superman who fails or makes mistakes. He is not culpable, morally or otherwise, in the terrors that afflict Metropolis. This is distinct from Batman who, as a wealthy person and a regular human being, is de facto embroiled in and responsible for the society in which he lives. The Kryptonian (and country farmboy) is not so tainted by the stains of humanity and the big city. He is a faultless paragon; if anyone has failed or made mistakes, it is us. While Batman holds up a shadowy mirror in which we may examine our own faults, Superman stands on a pedestal as an exemplum of what we ought to be.
Ironically, there is something harrowing about this. It’s all well and good to indulge in your darker side with Batman, but appeal to your lighter side? Ask you to do the right thing? Demand that you take the high road, like Superman does? We sneer at that. Some of you are sneering at that right now. “Oh, well, being good is so easy when you’re Superman!” you say, or “Superman doesn’t get dirty because the writers don’t let any dirt stick!” Well, maybe you’re right, or at least partially. The writers don’t let dirt stick to Superman, true, but expecting dirt to stick is simply cynicism. Superman sees in us something good and light and honorable and asks us to bring it out (it is not accidental, the Christian overtones in that quote I put up there). That’s hard work. That’s deeply dangerous thinking. Superman isn’t stress relief or visceral satisfaction, he is inspiration. He is a call to be better people.
It is telling to me that Batman is so much more popular than Superman. It isn’t just because Batman has had the better choice of talent (remember, the talent is attracted to his story, same as us), but also because we think we live in Batman’s world. We don’t have to, though, which is what Superman has been trying to tell us all these years. As a character created as a reaction to the Nazi brand of Fascism (which also built its power upon certain strategies Batman might recognize), he stands in direct opposition to visceral action as a result of that cold feeling in our guts. That feeling makes us love to escape into Batman, yes, but we mustn’t forget Superman, since his is the world and he the example that we all, ultimately, want to become.
Science Fiction, by and large, deals in monolithic political organizations. The Federation of Planets, the Galactic Federation, the Terran Empire, the Global Hegemony, and so on and so forth. Here’s my question, though: where the hell do these writers get off thinking this is going to happen? The may become a bit of a rant, so here we go:
The answer is zero. Zero times, as in never. Not once, even for a minute.
I mean, I understand the authorial motivation for creating a single world government–the world government in those scenarios is simply an analog for the author’s own national government and culture that, for the sake of convenience, has eradicated or supplanted all other indigenous world governments. It makes things easier, certainly–everybody speaks the same language, politics becomes notably easier to understand, and you can spend most of your authorial energies on writing about the stuff everybody actually cares about (that being ray guns, spaceships, and bloodthirsty aliens).
The thing is, though, that it is enormously unlikely to happen as imagined by so many authors. At the very least, humanity would have to change significantly in order for it to occur. In the fullness of time, perhaps, this will happen, but right now it is practically impossible. Can you imagine the UN actually passing laws? Laws that the rest of the world actively obeys? I can’t. Why listen to the UN? What do I care if some guy in Central Africa thinks Europe has too much money? Who is he and his people to badger me about my use of incandescent light bulbs? Screw him. I say, with full realization that this is a heartless and selfish position, that I couldn’t care less about the opinions or problems of a group of foreigners I barely know anything about.
Scoff at me as you like, enlightened ones, but consider this: I am by no means alone. There is some science behind this, too. It’s called Dunbar’s Number, and it basically dictates the human brain is incapable of maintaining social relationships (i.e. ‘caring’) with more than a finite number of people. Now, this can be made abstract to some extent (I can care about my country or my state or my city, for instance), but the relationship is necessarily different. In any case, this simple concept demonstrates a severe limitation to the establishment of a World State.
This idea is only exacerbated by the fact that there are such profound cultural differences across the world. These differences cause major diplomatic disconnects, misunderstandings, and are great barriers to these peoples making common cause with one another. Do you think the women of the West are likely to embrace Saudi Arabia? Are the Turks ever likely to see eye-to-eye with Greece to the point where they’d merge states? Do you think the Taiwanese are going to be re-absorbed into China without a fight? Not likely. I’d be less surprised if all of Mexico applied for US statehood.
Our future, assuming we have one (and I keep hoping), is going to have disparate political factions and nation-states for
a very long time. Should a galaxy-wide empire be established, it isn’t going to be some kind of Galactic Republic. We are more likely to see the pan-galactic feudal states of Dune or Warhammer 40,000. These governments are not made up of a people unified, but rather by a collection of disparate people subjected to the will of a greater external force that, by hook or by crook, binds the galaxy together to one will.
Sound dark? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. I’m afraid I don’t see the alternative, however, unless people cease being people and become something else. Granted, this might just happen, but I’m skeptical. Interestingly enough, if it is to happen, it may come from the places we least expect it. Take the Internet, for instance–if there is any place where human divisions are made less prominent, it is there. Then again, there are also those corners of the internet that make you despair for the future of our race more than anything else (I’m looking at you, comments section on YouTube and Yahoo Answers).
As I’ve said before, predicting the future is ultimately a fool’s game. All I can do is look backwards and see what’s happened before. The evidence, I feel, is pretty clear: No Federation of Planets for us. We are more likely to wind up with the Baroque Machinery of the Golden Throne.
This is more me thinking out loud than expositing a theory: Do/Have/Will Social Constructions (i.e. governments, political ethos, economic theory, social mores) constitute a kind of technology?
The knee-jerk answer is ‘no’. Technology is most commonly applied to engineering and the harder sciences – it involves
tools, gizmos, or arrangements of same in ways to ease our lives. If we consider technology in wider sense, however – as from the Greek tekhnologia, which means ‘systematic treatment’ – couldn’t social constructions fit? The modern postal service, for instance, is a systematic treatment involving, at its heart, a societal convention of what constitutes ‘mail’, how it should be treated, and who is responsible for it. Yes, the crunchier kind of technology is involved, but those are merely time-savers. The inherent social construction of ‘mail’ is something else and, I feel, somehow technological.
I’m thinking about this for two reasons at the moment. First is that I’m teaching a class on Technology in Literature this spring, featuring a lot of science fiction works that we will be analyzing in historical contexts, and I’m noticing just how much society dictates technology and vice versa (more on that in a minute). The second reason is that, given all the social upheaval in the world (Lybia, Syria, Italy, the OWS movement, etc., etc.), one is forced to wonder if there isn’t a better system that we could implement to organize ourselves. Science Fiction is awash in such theories, from Heinlein’s various and sundry new societies in novels like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all the way to Iain M. Banks Culture novels or Star Trek’s Federation of Planets. Could any of that stuff work, one wonders? Is the reason it hasn’t so far is that we just haven’t ‘invented’ such a society yet?
Getting back to my first point above, it’s fairly clear that technology has a formidable influence over social constructions (just look at Facebook or, hell, look at the compass) AND that social constructions have a formidable influence over technology. After all, the reason why Europe wound up conquering most of the Earth isn’t because they were inherently smarter or better, but because they had a fractured social landscape that encouraged warfare and emphasized the acquisition of land in such a way that encouraged the growth and development of military technology to the point where they were simply the best at it (and please don’t start pleas for the skill and mastery of this or that indigenous people at warfare – the results really speak for themselves; the British Pound still trades favorably against all international currencies and the Zulu nation are a disaffected minority group in a mid-level African country holding a mere fraction of Britain’s much-faded influence and power. Guess who won that conflict?).
One of the problems, perhaps, with thinking about social structures in terms of technology is that we like to think of
technology as a linear progression, no matter how many technological dead-ends and reversals have shown themselves throughout the millennia. Societies, we have been trained to think, are not better or worse than each other so much as they are different. You can’t sit there in judgement of Russia’s predilection for Vodka and insist it is ’less advanced’ than the cultural constructions of other places. Society doesn’t really work that way, does it? We aren’t taking steady strides towards the Social Singularity, are we?
Or is it the other way? Is technology not actually striding towards anything so much as it is following one of many, many possible paths that may or may not pay off, but does not indicate the ‘right’ way to do anything. What kind of world would we live in, then, if Betamax had trounced VHS, or where Tesla had overcome Edison? Still better: what kind of world would we have lived in where that would have been possible?
Wheels within wheels within wheels…
One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay
of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously–the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the Forest of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.
As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go–it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.
The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.
Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography–they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor–a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.
One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire (and after this I promise I’ll stop complaining about it) is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away–I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.
My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it (my current atlas is on loan–hint, hint, Serpico…), and, furthermore has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s an old one to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the center–the Dragonspine–which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.
Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.