On the morality of fiction…

I have oft written about politics and fiction (… politics in fiction … politics of fiction …) but other than a few forays into the nature of evil, I haven’t touched much on fiction and morality. This actually seems kind of odd, since much of my late work has dealt with the idea of morality and speculative religion from a number of angles.  Anyway, I came across two essays that cover the topic from two very different angles themselves.

The Taste for Magic” by Tom Simon is a great read (though if you’re of a pagan bent, you’ll need a thick skin to get through the middle and the harsh— albeit second hand— critique of occultism) that I think offers some deep insights into the moral implications of magical systems from a Catholic perspective.  And if you don’t think that’s quite relevant, you probably don’t think Tolkien or Lewis are relevant, and I can’t help you. The money shot is this graph:

There is an Old English proverb, Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile: ‘A man does what he is when he can do what he wants.’ Of all the devices invented by man to make his will effective in the physical world, magic is the purest and most direct. There is no better way to show what a man is really made of than to grant his wishes. What things will he wish for? Will they be good or evil? Will he take care and forethought in his wishing, or will he be swept away on a flood of unintended consequences, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? And above all, what will he do when he is faced with the outcome of his desires? Having made his bed, will he lie on it, or try (in vain) to shift the responsibility? And if he has done harm to himself or to others, has he the character to clean up after himself? These questions are at the very heart of character, both in fiction and in life. In reality they are never unambiguously answered, because our means are inadequate to our ends, and most of our wishes are beyond our power to enact. But in fantasy, where wishes are horses, we can ride wherever we will. We can see the naked moral act and judge of its quality

And for something completely different, so much so that it could have come from another planet, we have, “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change” by Nick Admussen. This one does not address SF/F as a genre, but its rationale is arguably sfnal on some meta level.  The vibe one gets from this article is much akin to the vibe one gets from the Mundane SF movement, which makes sense since the authors’ heads seem to be in the same place as to where our planet may be going, and what literature should do about it. If you ever saw my reaction to the Mundane SF manifesto, you’re probably guessing my reaction to Admussen’s “Proposals.”

Well, yes and no.

Certainly I will not be following these “Proposals” myself, as most of them align against my individualistic ethos, and some of them feel as if they align against the whole Western tradition of story.  However, there is a “but” here.  Even if I will not answer Admussen’s call to arms, he does an excellent service to any author who reads him, even for, maybe especially for, those who do not ascribe to his views.  By proposing these particular shifts in the structure of literature, he highlights the fact that there is a moral component to the structure of literature. And while I don’t advise anyone to start writing polemics (though more power to you if you can make that stuff entertaining)  I do think it improves anyone’s fiction to be conscious of the moral statements they’re making with their fiction, not to lecture or instruct, but simply to avoid the dissonance that happens when a story’s implicit morals and explicit moral pronouncements aren’t in sync with each other and/or the author’s own moral outlook. Knowing what your story’s structure might be saying on a moral level is a keen insight that should be worthwhile in any author’s metaphorical toolbox, whatever their own particular beliefs.

 

A playlist for the 2016 election…

This election is remarkable in that whoever wins will be absolutely loathed by a plurality of the populace, and distrusted by a majority. It is quite possible that on inauguration day our president elect will have underwater approval ratings. If there is any state out there that splits by less than the margin of error, we are probably going to see a reprise of 2000 and a return to “selected not elected” as a meme, with further damage to the infrastructure of our democracy. Our best case scenario at this point is for Gary Johnson to do well enough to deny anyone an electoral vote majority and kick decision to the incoming congress, something that would make the premise of Designated Survivor look like Reagan’s second term. So here are seven tunes appropriate to watching our republic burn.

  1. O Fortuna— Carl Orff: This election is the bastard stepchild of Fate and Karma, and the final line “mecum omnes plangite!” (“everyone weep with me![“) seems appropriate.
  2. Fortunate Son— Creedence Clearwater Revival: We seem on the verge of electing a Democratic administration set to continue years of unbroken military adventures, so yeah.
  3. Edge of a Revolution— Nickelback: I know what you’re saying. “Nickelback!? Everyone hates Nickelback!” But consider, if Nickelback’s doing protest songs, something is very wrong in this country.
  4. 99 Luftballons— Nena: Say what you want about the Cold War, it produced some catchy tunes. Since we’re reviving the specter of nuclear annihilation, we can at least bring back the fatalistic German pop music that went with it.
  5. Crack of Doom— The Tiger Lillies: This one is sort of self explanatory.
  6. Killing Strangers— Marylin Manson: No particular rationale, but every time I see a campaign commercial I have this running in my head accompanied by a John Wick firefight.
  7. Ticking Bomb— Aloe Blacc: Another self-explanatory one, from another action movie.

 

The news media is horrible and it’s filled with horrible people

You remember Ken Bone, right? The guy in the red cardigan that became an internet meme? Or, more accurately, became promoted by the mainstream media as an internet meme. He rose to prominence on October 9th. He tried to exercise some control over his pre-ordained fame, and did an AMA on Reddit, and all of a sudden we have so-called journalists gleefully deconstructing every potentially objectionable thing this poor guy ever said or did on the Internet.  This wasn’t any sort of rational investigation, the man was a private citizen of little or no notability except that which the media gave him.  But, because the media gave him that, he had to be destroyed.  By October 14th, the New York Times— let me repeat that— The New. York. Times. was gleefully, and somewhat condescendingly, printing details that Mr. Bone had posted on one of Reddit’s pornography forums following in the footsteps of that paragon of journalistic virtue Gizmodo. (And I’m sorry, Gray Lady, the fact you cast your story as a story about faux-journalists blowing up a faux-story about a faux-celebrity and causing a real person real damage, that does not excuse you. In fact it makes you the worse actor because of the pretense that, if it ain’t your shit, so you can fling it how you like and not get dirty.) And they aren’t the only big paper indulging in this pathetic excuse of a story.  This is not some angry Internet stalker doxxing someone on 4chan.  These are supposedly legitimate news agencies first creating a celebrity, just to the point where the poor guy might be notable enough so they can engage in the moral equivalent of revenge porn without getting sued.

Everyone involved in this story should be ashamed of themselves. And have their browsing history made public.

How to get your readers to trust you forever.

(Or at least until you screw up big time.)

I’ve been listening to a new (for me) favorite author on Audible, Gregg Hurwitz.  If you’re one of my SF/Fantasy fans, don’t feel too bad if you don’t know him.  He’s a thriller writer, not SF, and if that isn’t your genre and you don’t pay attention to the NY Times bestseller list, he may have escaped your notice.  But, on the basis of two of the fifteen books of his I’ve been through, Survivor and Orphan X, I highly recommend him. Survivor, in particular, does something that instantly earned him my trust as a reader. To talk about it, I’m going to have to enter spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned.

Trust from your reader is a nebulous thing, but it really amounts to how willing that “willing suspension of disbelief” actually is. As a thriller author, Mr. Hurwitz has a tougher row to hoe than myself. Everything Gregg Hurwitz puts on the page must have a level of real-world plausibility that many SF and Fantasy authors don’t have to deal with. More importantly, for his books, that willing suspension, that trust, can be much more fragile. A reader who’s already bought into werewolves may have a bit more flexibility to accept strange mutations of police  or medical procedures. A contemporary thriller writer doesn’t get that kind of slack.

So how did Mr. Hurwitz gain my trust?

In his book Survivor, his main character is a guy on the run from the Ukrainian mob. Nasty dudes. He is also in the early stages of ALS. He’s still mobile, and, at the moment, is only having a few neurological symptoms here and there.  So we have a great setup (my description here doesn’t do it justice) with a guy who’s facing life threatening issues on two sides, one of which is certainly going to kill him. I’m on board. (I should also mention that Hurwitz has a Stephen Kingesque ability to create sympathetic characters, both heroic and villainous, with very quick precise strokes.) So as the novel goes on, the symptoms of the ALS become worse and worse… And suddenly I’m wondering, can the disease progress that quickly?  It’s only been a few days. Maybe, I think, Hurwitz is taking some liberties with the symptoms.  Ok, I’ll give it a pass because I’m caught up in everything else.  But it nags me.

Then he sees a doctor. And Hurwitz, like magic, explains exactly what’s happening. Our guy, who’s been prominently popping his ALS meds along with an antibiotic prescribed in the first few chapters by some other ER doc, is having an adverse drug interaction. We’ve been watching his body react to the antibiotic he’s been taking nearly every chapter…

If you’re a writer and can answer a reader’s unvoiced question like that, in a way that it all makes sense retroactively, you got their trust.

 

Luke Cage II

I’m two episodes further along than I was my last post. And damn.

[POTENTIAL SPOILERS]

Luke Cage manages a mid-story twist that’s on a par with the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the shower scene in Psycho. It’s all the more impressive because it’s not an information reveal— at least, not in the sense that the information revealed is the plot twist. Luke Cage manages a moment that forces you to reassess the roles several characters play in the story (as in, who, fundamentally, the story is actually about) without any major piece of hidden information, no secret plots or allegiances suddenly coming to light, no one revealing that X is suddenly Y. It’s just one character doing something that’s been set up for seven episodes, and the reason it’s shocking is because it’s 1) sudden, 2) brutal, and most important 3) breaks an ingrained expectation of what roles specific characters are supposed to serve, and how their stories are supposed to play out.  It not only breaks the generic tropes of the crime drama/superhero story we expect, but also deliberately takes a right turn away from the expectations laid by Marvel’s two prior Netflix shows.

I have no idea where this is going now, and I love it.

Luke Cage— or what Marvel can learn from itself

I’m only five episodes into Luke Cage and I think I can say Marvel’s managed to hit it out of the park again.  Like the prior two Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage manages to draw on all the strengths of the MCU in a smaller-scope more street-level fashion.  It perfectly encapsulates one chief strength I’ve mentioned before, superhero as trope as opposed to genre.  What Winter Soldier owes to 70’s era espionage movies, Luke Cage owes to the Blacksploitation flicks of the same era, while still being relevant, modern, and part of the wider Marvel universe.

It also shows that Marvel’s Netflix lineup continues to avoid one of the major problems of the MCU.  (See, I’m not a complete drooling Marvel fanboy, I admit the movies do have some problems.) Like its two small-screen predecessors, Luke Cage has a primary villain who isn’t a non-entity, a plot device, or completely ‘meh.’

My favorite Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy has an antagonist that could be swapped with the one from Thor: Dark World and no one would even notice.  How many great scenes do you remember with Red Skull or Whiplash?  Do you even remember anything about the villain from the first Iron Man movie beyond the climatic fight scene?  When the high water mark of cinematic villainy is the guy from Ant Man and Ben Kingsley pretending to be a terrorist, you have a bit of an issue.

But in Luke Cage, Cottonmouth is a villain that’s as fascinating and scary to watch as Wilson Fisk or Killgrave.  The achievement is that much more impressive since a lot of his character echoes that of Fisk; the snaps of violence, the deep roots into his city, the desire to be a pillar of his community… but the acting sells it.  Cottonmouth has an edge of desperation that makes him both more sympathetic and more threatening.  Whenever he starts laughing, you expect someone to die.

Yeah, the series is recommended.