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A few discussions and comments online have prompted me to revisit some old ideas. For instance, Charles Stross recently brought up the whole fantasy-is-a-pro-monarchy genre idea, and James Nicoll touched on writers working in genres where the “core political assumptions” (such as contempt for the rule of law in UF) went against the writer’s personal beliefs.

Leaving aside the Stross comment, which I’ve sniffed at before, let me throw a question out to you: Do you read/watch/consume entertainment because you want your real world and real life to be modeled after it?

I think of this as a specifically science fictional protocol: Writers creating worlds in which they want to live (or, conversely worlds they don’t want to see come true, as in “If This Goes On…” stories). I don’t read or write that way, personally. I don’t read war stories because I want to spend time in a bunker. I don’t read gritty crime fiction because I want to have a knife-fight in an alley. I don’t read fantasy because I think hereditary heirs really make the best tyrants.

I think most people feel this way. Does the true thrill of a Spider-man comic come from the way he circumvents the judicial system? Not for me.

Still, sometimes a book will go in a direction that pushes my political buttons. Nick Mamatas has said he will not cheer for a cops who catch the bad guys by breaking the rules. That’s fair enough, although I enjoyed the hell out of the first Dirty Harry movie when I was younger and less aware of the implications. But does that mean I wanted a real-life Harry Calahan? Not then and not now.

So, is it just that we, as a culture, have certain blind spots to iffy political assumptions in our entertainments? Do our individual subcultures have institutions or norms that we like to see rejected or portrayed as baddies (like environmentalists, or the military, or government bureacrats)? Do writers have an obligation to create stories that are true to their belief system? Rule of law=good thing. Flouting rule of law=not so good thing? Or are we free to do something else entirely with our fiction, and to hell with the so-called message?

Because lemme tell you: I may write about vigilantes, but that doesn’t mean I’m pro-vigilante. But do you see Child of Fire (if you’ve read it) as a pro-vigilante novel?

I’m curious what others think.

Mirrored from Twenty Palaces. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 70 comments — Leave a comment )
nick_kaufmann
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC)
Do you read/watch/consume entertainment because you want your real world and real life to be modeled after it?

Oh, hell no! I read and watch a lot of horror entertainment, and sometimes I'm in the mood for something really gory, but no way I don't want that stuff to happen in real life!
seawasp
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
Series like the "Saw" movies really worry me, sometimes.
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seawasp
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
Yes and no. It's sorta like the death penalty. In theory, I'm in favor of it, for a particular type of killer who cannot be cured, will not stop themselves, etc. In practice, no, because we don't have a perfect judicial system and one mistake would mean executing an innocent man. You can let a man out of prison if you've mistakenly locked him up. Without resurrection spells, it's hard to apologize to the dead.

I write stories in which certain aspects of it are things I would like to be able to do/see/etc. Perhaps the largest of these aspects is that in most stories the protagonist encounters a problem, and comes to understand the problem, and deals with the problem -- even if it's an earthshakingly huge problem, or one that in real life would be legally complex or impossible to address. The real world is filled with problems that we can't FIX as individuals, and perhaps not even as large groups. In my fiction, I like having the power to Make Things Better.

Am I in favor of vigilantes? I'm in favor of Spider-Man (classic) and Captain America (Classic) and Thor (Simonson era). I put in the () notations to make sure it's clear I'm not interested in later add-ons that blurred their essential natures. If I could be sure my vigilantes were REALLY Captain America, sure. But I'd likely get Batman wannabees with anger control issues and an unwillingness to do the research.

Fictional heroes of that type have the advantage that the author can give us, the readers, the assurance that the hero's sense of right is CORRECT. That when they take these risks, it'll work out. In real life, it won't, almost certainly.

I do generally put myself in the hero's place when reading, so in a sense I *do* want to do what they do. But I want to do it with their abilities, with their sense of justice and rightness, and if I change anything, I want the changes to be for the better.

This is of course what makes me re-write some stories that REALLY piss me off, because here I am in the ostensible hero's position and they (or the author) end up making things WORSE at the end in a way that just makes me grind my teeth. Rewriting it stops me from grinding my teeth and thus saves on dental bills.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
Part of the appeal of Spider-man is that he can do things the rest of us can't AND that he turns over the bad guys to the cops.

I think Marvel was initially quite surprised by the number of people who thought of the newly-introduced Punisher as a hero.
ltwelve2
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
>Do writers have an obligation to create stories that are true to their belief system?

I struggle with this a lot. I recently finished writing a novel in which the central theme is the sacrifices people make to achieve their dreams. In the end, the story demanded that the characters sacrifice too much, and things go very badly for them. The subtext seems to be that people shouldn't reach for things which may exceed their grasp, which is not *at all* what I intended when I started, nor is it a message I'm comfortable with. But it's what the story needed.

How the hell do I square that? I have no idea, but I'd love to get other perspectives on this, too. I'll keep an eye on the comment thread here and pray for enlightenment.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
It sometimes annoys the hell out of me that readers take story events as moral lessons.

Imagine this: you read a story about two co-workers who hit the bar after work. One heads home early so he can get up for work. One stays out, gets much too drunk and oversleeps his alarm clock. The conscientious worker is killed in the 911 attacks, while the partier watches the whole thing in horror from his New Jersey apartment.

Is that a "lesson" telling people they should blow off work? Drink a lot? Or is it a study in survivor guilt and suddenly finding yourself bereft of friends and purpose.

As I say, annoying, but one thing you can do is use subplots to explore other aspects of a central theme. One person sacrifices too much, one too little, one to no avail, one doesn't need to, etc. It's an effective trick, if you can be super-subtle about it.
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seawasp
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
On the specific "I want it to come true" concept... that depends on what's coming true, and exactly how. I would LOVE to actually be able to enter and see The Arena as I described it... but at the same time I really don't like the idea of a universe that includes things like the Molothos. If I get to enter my worlds and retain the Author advantage, of course, that changes things.

I'd love to think there's strange supernatural things out there. But I do NOT want to actually discover that Virigar and his brood of soul-ripping puppies exist. I'd love to meet Arischadel, and think the world would be better for beings like him being in it -- but if the cost is to also have things like demons and blood-drinking non-stylish and unsympathetic vampires running around, no, thank you. I'm not Jason Wood and I don't have his special advantages.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Frankly, I don't even want to visit Florida because of the snakes and alligators.
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burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, in many kinds of fiction we become the protagonist's "invisible buddy" as Clive Barker once put it. We can review all their decisions and approve or not approve.

IRL, all I know about these sorts of conflicts is what I read in a news article. How good is this information? Unless I can be a WINGS OF DESIRE-style angel, following people around like a ghost, I'll never know.
barbarienne
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
I don't think that writers necessarily write about the worlds they want to inhabit any more than readers read about worlds they want to inhabit. If we did, the world would be a lot more fucked up than it is.

I said once upon a time that the reason people write about feudal monarchies is because that is the structure of the modern corporation. It's people writing about what they know.

I cheer for people doing things in fiction that I would never cheer for in real life. That's the fun of fiction: it's a safe place (in that it's not real) to explore all the ick that everyone has inside themselves, but they're afraid to take a look at. (Not everyone has the same ick, but we all have something.)

Are there things in fiction that I enjoy more because I would like them to be real? Probably. I love movies and shows about clever people being clever and doing good all the while (which is why I love Leverage). But I can also get behind a mindless slugfest, or a dramedy, or a romance.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
I love love the concept of fiction as a "safe space." I'm stealing it.

However, I have to disagree about writing worlds they want to inhabit. It seems to be deeply ingrained in science fiction readers and writers. I once heard Spider Robinson shaking his head over people who read fantasy; he assumed that, because he read sf because he wanted to imagine living there (which he explicitly stated) he thought that fantasy readers really wanted to live in pre-industrial agrarian societies.

Which is weird and kind of silly, but I've come across it many times since then. How else do I interpret Stross's comment that fantasy readers are pro-monarchy?
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ardentdelirium
Mar. 17th, 2010 03:53 pm (UTC)
no. what entertains in fiction does not necessarily entertain in life. Rakes amuse more in novels than in life, to paraphrase Austen. I love Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything because its a movie. In real life Lloyd's a co-dependent stalker. In movies, he's romantic.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 05:10 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've rethought Lloyd Dobler, too. Creepy.
seawasp
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:20 pm (UTC)
I also should note that no, I don't see Child of Fire as a pro-vigilante novel, mainly because he's not a vigilante in the same sense. Vigilantes in the Dirty Harry or Batman sense are going outside the known law to enforce the known law on those who avoid punishment through normal legal means.

In Child of Fire, Ray is working for an agency that enforces laws of its own, on things not generally known to exist, for which -- if they WERE known to exist -- there would probably be specific laws on how to deal with them, and large official organizations to administer those laws. But there are no such laws and thus the problem is that there IS no "known law" to operate inside of or outside of for Ray. Yes, he violates OUR laws, but he's not operating under them any more, and cannot, because our laws don't have the knowledge or mechanisms to handle his assignments.

So in this sense, Ray's actually more a cop or special agent. He operates by the laws of the organization he is employed by, and our laws aren't relevant except in the sense that they provide obstacles or tools for him to evade or to use -- rather like local customs in some murder-mystery series.
sinboy
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)
It should be notes that Ray broke our laws even when he was operating under them. He's not a law abiding guy.
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sartorias
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
I want to be entertained, not preached at. This includes my own political schticks.

Though my own moral or political schticks may overlap behaviors I see on entertainment: cruelty to the innocent may drive me out of a film or show (I dropped 24 when it hit my limit by the end of the first season) for example.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
But what about stories where the implicit political assumptions ("Some people are above the law!") are front and center? Not preaching about what is and what should be, but simply presenting odious ideas as though they were a given.
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sartorias
Mar. 17th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
Ooop, got so busy blattering about me, I forgot to say that I do not see CoF as a vigilante story, but as an action story.
merriehaskell
Mar. 17th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
When we read about monarchies, are we really reading about monarchies, or are we really reading about families (with more money and more power)? I wonder how much of it is trying to resolve our familial issues on a broader-seeming landscape.

Of course, I don't believe it's *that* simple. But--maybe just a little?
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)
One of the thoughts I excised from the original post above was along the lines of "I'm not pro-monarchy! I'm just writing about the fight over who would inherit Dad's hardware store!" But time grew tight.

At least moving the setting to the throne room of Kinglandia reduces the danger of inter-family law suits. :)
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rosefox
Mar. 17th, 2010 07:17 pm (UTC)
Do you read/watch/consume entertainment because you want your real world and real life to be modeled after it?

*looks at the bookcases*

*sees porn, horror, dystopian SF, and gory military fantasy*

Uh, no. Really really no.

Do writers have an obligation to create stories that are true to their belief system?

Yes, but that's a very complicated question.

I'm in the middle of sorting out ideas for a story in which someone voluntarily undergoes genital reconstruction surgery of a very unorthodox and unpleasant sort, and I am simultaneously quite happy to punch the "aaaa it is CREEPY in my GONADS" button really hard and concerned about developing a backstory for the character that will not be offensive to real-world transpeople. My belief system is perfectly fine with me writing some things that many people would find appalling. My belief system is not at all fine with me writing other things that different people would find appalling. So in both cases my fiction conforms to my belief system about what I am okay with writing but has not very much to do with what I think the world should be like.
seawasp
Mar. 17th, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC)
This is interesting, as I'm uninterested in what OTHER people find appalling within a story I write, almost entirely so in the sense of whether that affects what I write. I'm interested in not writing what *I* find appalling, and in fact in writing things that I find leave me feeling better at the end than when I started. Hopefully, if other people read the stories, they feel better too, but I'm not, in general, writing (fiction) for other people.

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amberley
Mar. 17th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
SF as fantasy of political agency
I recommend Lois McMaster Bujold's Worldcon 66 Guest of Honor speech where she described SF as "fantasy of political agency", the way mysteries are fantasies of justice and romance novels fantasies of love.

Some readers may want to live in the worlds they read about, I'm not one of them.

And I don't think of Ray and Annalise as vigilantes. They're not enforcing human laws when the human justice system is inadequate. I see them more like white blood cells in humanity's immune system, helping to keep the world a place where humans can still exist. If a few humans get broken in the process of defending against existential threats, that's sad but acceptable.
burger_eater
Mar. 17th, 2010 08:34 pm (UTC)
Re: SF as fantasy of political agency
I read that the first time it was going around, and I liked it very much. Thank you. I hope the other commentaters give it a click if they haven't read it already.

But your "white blood cell" analogy squicks me a little. I imagine a number of vigilantes would justify themselves that way.
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nihilistic_kid
Mar. 22nd, 2010 10:40 pm (UTC)
Actually, I won't cheer for cops unless they're obviously crazy, like Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
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Comments

  • 14 Jan 2019, 21:47
    Oh, yeah, excellent point.
  • 14 Jan 2019, 21:46
    Oh yeah. Like the lawyers who get obvious really venal criminals off because it makes their success rate look good. But those are not the ones I am referring to in meaning well. These guys are mixed…
  • 14 Jan 2019, 20:37
    This reminds me of the time my wife was injured and the insurance guy handling her case did everything possible to deny and stall the payment. We had to put her surgery on a credit card because this…
  • 14 Jan 2019, 19:24
    The creepiest part is that some of them are actually well meaning.
  • 14 Jan 2019, 19:08
    Yeah. It's godawful what people will do when they have authority and no fear about using it.
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