Okay everybody, bear with me for a minute as I heap some love upon the 1982 movie, Conan the Barbarian.
Conan is a legitimately great movie. I could write a dissertation on that movie. Dammit, I should write a dissertation on that movie. But not now, not here. Suffice to say that the John Milius tale of a orphaned boy sold into slavery and his long, dark road to revenge is one of the most compelling tales of human will and the ironies of human suffering I’ve ever watched. This movie is, I feel, Schwatzenegger’s best performance of his career, and he mostly has Robert E Howard and John Milius to thank.
But enough of the gushing – let’s get into the details. What drives the original Conan movie (I didn’t see the remake; it looked terrible and, furthermore, it’s a movie that really didn’t warrant remaking, anyway) is one thing: The Riddle of Steel. The Riddle goes something like this:
Crom, the Mountain God, possessed the secret to make steel – a strong, silvery metal that is also flexible. A race of giants stole the secret from Crom and, in his wrath, the mountain god crushed them. He left the secret of steel, however, on the battlefield, for men to find. At the start of the movie, Conan’s Father says:
The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts…
[Points to sword]
This you can trust.
The very next day, Conan’s father, mother, and all his people are slaughtered in a raid. He and the other children are sold off to slavery. Conan himself is tied to a mill wheel for his entire childhood, until he becomes literally as strong as an ox. And so begins his story.
The Riddle of Steel is just that – a Riddle. Conan’s father does not know the answer. Conan lives most of his life under the illusion that the true ‘discipline’ of steel is a fine sword and a good suit of armor. It’s wealth, power, the trappings of glory, a fine horse and a full flagon of wine, all of which might be won by a good blade and the skill to wield it. He is, however, wrong.
There are two characters in the movie who know the answer, or at least guess at it. The first is King Osric:
There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.
Osric, once a powerful northern barbarian just like Conan, now sees what his steel has earned him: nothing. He is helpless against his daughter’s betrayal. His only hope is to use the wages of his steel – his wealth – to get Conan to somehow bring his daughter back. He is weak, and he doesn’t know how it can be done. Of course, Thulsa Doom is the one who truly understands the Riddle. When speaking with Conan, he says this:
Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
[coaxes the girl to jump to her death]
That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste.
That is the ultimate trick to the riddle. Steel is nothing without flesh. Power over the flesh is power over steel, by definition.
Even when told, Conan cannot accept the answer to this riddle. When he finally gains his revenge, when he casts down Thulsa Doom and destroys his snake-cult, he is left brooding on the steps of the Mountain of Power, trying to consider the implications of his ‘victory.’ We do not exult in Conan’s revenge and neither does the barbarian. He has not really ‘won’ anything – all he can do is sit there and consider his loss. What does it mean, now that Doom is gone and Conan’s great revenge is completed? Is he better off? Has anything really changed? He, perhaps, can be seen to be ‘free’, but free to do what, exactly? Steal? Pillage? Conquer a kingdom like Osric’s? Indeed, later in Conan’s life, he does all these things. But so what?
One of the many, many reasons I love this movie is because it shows revenge for what it is: empty and cold. Those who would trade an eye for an eye do not understand the Riddle. The key to the world is not held in a blade, but it is held within yourself. The film is full of people who, on some level, are trying to answer this riddle for themselves - they try to find something external to themselves, something that will grant them power or safety or peace or wholeness. Osric and his riches, the snake cultists and their religion, Valeria and her search for love, Conan and his desire for revenge. None of them find the answer, because they are looking in the wrong place. As Conan sits and broods, does this dawn on him? I do not know.
This struggle is a universal one. All of us are seeking the answer to that great Riddle – how do we get what we want? How do we become great? The great majority of us are looking, ultimately, in the wrong place. We should look within for that power, for what else do we have more complete control over than ourselves? Conan’s struggle in life is an exaggerated mirror of our own struggles. We are shaped by our pains and our tragedies and our victories alike, and the realization of this is important. Even as we read this - even as I write this – we nod and say ‘yeah, totally, I get it.’ But we still don’t. We don’t really understand, just like Conan does not. We look around us and see bleakness and tragedy and emptiness, but we are missing those things that are truly fulfilling and which aren’t forged from steel but, instead, from our own flesh and blood. This is the Riddle of Steel; this is, ultimately, the Riddle of Technology itself.
So, I just got a rejection letter for a story I submitted to Analog. This, in and of itself, is unexceptional (sadly) and part and parcel of this whole ‘trying to be a successful writer’ thing. What made it interesting to me, though, was the list of things they tag onto the bottom of their form letter. Ordinarily these lists are comprised of somewhat disingenuous reminders of what makes a bad story (i.e. a list of most common reasons why they reject things) and they are typically quite uninformative for someone who knows their way around plot, character, and the genre in general. This one, though, had a peculiar one that had me scratching my head. It went like this:
—Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
This, to me, basically says ‘we prefer happy endings and victory to tragedy and defeat. If the guy loses, at least make it awesome.’ Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I don’t think so.
Now, I’ve noticed the trend for science fiction stories to end on an upnote before. The one most consistent thing I’ve gleaned from reading the Writers of the Future anthology is that the vast, vast majority of scifi stories end in victory of some kind – occasionally bittersweet, but consistently upbeat in some fashion. This note on my rejection letter left me wondering ‘is this a thing?’
Yes, it is a Thing
I’ve spent a bit too much time this morning trying to think of science fiction titles with downbeat endings – tragedies, in other words. I generally think of scifi as a genre that lends itself to the grim and dark but, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see my error. Think for a second: how many downbeat scifi titles that end ’negatively’ can you name? Here’s my list:
- The Planet of the Apes
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- The Sparrow
- A Canticle For Lebowitz (sort of)
And…hmmmm…nothing much else. Even those are a stretch.
Granted, I’m definitely missing a few in that list, but if you go down the list of the darkest, most depressing scifi stories ever and you’ll still get the upbeat ending, nine times out of ten. Terminator? John Connor wins! Aliens? The Aliens are always defeated eventually. Zombie Apocapypses? 99% of the time the last band of survivors finds a cure, escapes from trouble, or what have you. Even Children of Men, one of the darkest, most dismal scifi universes ever, has the woman with the last child escape England and vanish into the mist – that, my friends, is hope.
What’s up with that?
What is Up With This
I suppose this trend isn’t unique to science fiction – most stories in any genre end happily somehow. They might be troubled victories, but the protagonist seldom loses, seldom sees his plans thwarted, seldom finds his efforts futile. I guess, on some level, we all like to think that the happy ending is out there for all of us, no matter how terrible things look. Alien brain slugs might be eating our neighbors, but we, dammit, are going to find a way to survive.
Part of this also might have something to do with science itself. Science is an inherently positive discipline in some ways, or at least it is perceived as such. We like to think of it as constantly striding forward, fixing problems, uncovering truths. Such a glorious and wonderous discipline cannot lead to tragedy! Why, that would mean we, humanity, were fundamentally wrong about something, and we can’t have that. Oh no no no! We dare not even think of such things!
Is this a Bad Thing?
I am a big believer in the power of tragedy, myself. My natural predilection is for my stories to have at least partially tragic endings. It has taken a surprising amount of effort on my part to pull myself away from that habit, and I am stuck asking myself sometimes why I’m trying so hard.
A good tragedy isn’t depressing, it’s somehow fulfilling. It’s like a meal – it sticks to your ribs, makes you think about it for months afterwards. They can hurt your heart, but it’s a good kind of hurt; it’s the kind that makes you realize you’ve grown somehow. You’ve understood something that a victorious ending might not have illuminated. You’ve grown.
Now, I’m not saying every single thing I read or write should end sadly – far from it - but I am suggesting that, if this is a stipulation of the genre, we ought to bend it a bit, if not break it outright. Not every tale of our future selves ends well; we should be courageous and willing enough to explore that.