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.
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.
And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.
The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.
At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.
This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.
But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.
Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.
Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.
Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?
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 there 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.