Monday, April 2, 2007

Heroism and Writing

Very soon, I'm going to start posting on this blog excerpts and stories I've written. Most of them will have the protagonists doing fairly terrible things, and being really rotten people. Some people – mostly those that don't know me, but when I'm a successful novelist that'll include most of the people who have read my works – might assume that I'm this dark, brooding person that views the world as a dystopic horror, spiraling into nightmarish oblivion.

Well, no. I'm actually a philosophical optimist. It is fairly clear to me that people today are healthier, freer, saner, better educated and happier than they were at pretty much any point in history. This isn't the same as saying that everyone is healthy, free, sane, educated and happy – far too often that is not the case, and I'm not using optimist as a justification for political nihilism or saying that the way things are right now don't need to change. As a libertarian consensualist with a heavy dose of socialist leanings and a total technophile (believing that social change is dragged forward by technological advances), I'm nearly the most radical person I know. I think that society needs to change a lot to get better. However, I'm confident it will get better. You look back a thousand, or a hundred or even fifty years ago – well, we've got a lot of problems, but we've also made a lot of progress, and I don't think that we won't continue to make progress.

But why don't I write about the world I imagine – freer, fairer, saner, healthier – instead of dystopic visions?

First, books about free, fair, sane and healthy people are dreadfully boring. There's a fair bit of literary work going on – mostly by academics – to try to “free” us of traditional narrative structures. It is not taking. Most movies, TV shows and books have very traditional structures in the sense that there's a heroic protagonist that overcomes a variety of threats to accomplish something. Whether it be Michael Corleone in The Godfather or Ofelia in The Labyrinth of Pan, the heroic protagonist existing in a dystopic world is part and parcel of narratives. It is equally obvious to me that the reason for this is it is exciting. A narrative is helped a lot if it's exciting and interesting. It takes a very advanced aesthetic – perhaps a hopelessly decadent one – to maintain serious and consistent interest in non-narrative books, movies and TV shows. They are not, in essence, interesting to most people. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly since I'm talking about me, they're not very interesting to me. No matter how many times I tried, I just couldn't summon the energy to give a damn about Joyce.

Second, well, I have a problem with the concept of “hero”. This is separate from the concept of bravery. I'm very pro-bravery. In modern language we mix bravery and heroism up – we say that brave people are heroes, particularly if they're doing something society judges as “good” (such as firemen rushing into a burning building to save someone). However, those heroes tend to be very short lived (how many of the firemen who died on 911 can you remember, right now?). We say they're heroes but we don't really honor them as such, in the sense that we remember them. No, the people we remember tend to be historical, mythological, literary and political figures. Especially if they have perpetrated violence.

So, a lot of people will regard Alexander the Great as a hero. He's so heroic we call him “the Great” without any sense of shame. What did he do that was so great? He conquered Persia, briefly, creating untold misery and suffering in the process. He was a drunken barbarian who murdered his close friends in fits of alcohol-inspired dementia. He was an egotistical bastard who dragged the men of a whole nation ten thousand miles into the wilderness, killing most of them in the process, and effectively depopulating Greece for a generation. That's great?

The same is true of most literary heroes, too. They're generally terrible people who do awful things – but that's generally covered up. So in The Lord of the Rings, the Southrons and Easterners aren't really described. They're just generically corrupt pseudo-Slavs and pseudo-Arabs that can be slaughtered at will, to add color to the valiant white guys list of automatically despicable enemies. (Yes, I know that criticizing Tolkien is a quick way to get flamed. Hey! A guy's gotta have a hobby.)

However, where this really starts to go wrong for me – I can look at literary and historical heroes in light of catharsis and distance; our admiration of Alexander the Great rarely includes wanting to emulate him or in allowing anyone else to emulate him – is that we, as a society, are still terribly addicted to political heroes.

In my view, modern politicians are (as a group) one of the most venal and cowardly lots of people alive. George Bush epitomizes just about everything that is wrong with political hero worship, and will be a useful example for that reason – but make no doubt that all politicians share this to some extent. So, rather than fighting in Vietnam, Bush joins the cushy Texas Air Guard, never bothers to get qualified for a plane (thus removing any chance that even, once in a while, he might be near combat) and takes a year off to help with politics in Louisiana (whether or not this was actually desertion is for the reader to decide). Way to go, Bush. Brave guy, right?

I mean, what did he did on 911? Hopped a plane to a secret bunker. Man. What a gutless fucking coward. Then he talks all tough – when it's other people's lives on the line. Bring it on, indeed.

You see this time and again with politicians. While some of them did display tremendous physical bravery – for all that I think McCain is reprehensible as a politician, it would be a lie to doubt his physical bravery, though I do have serious questions about his moral and intellectual courage – most of them took great pains, if they were in the military, to avoid actual combat. Most of them, of course, were too busy being lawyers or accountants to serve in the military or other dangerous job in any capacity.

Worse, when something goes wrong, people seek to create a hero, even if they have to do it out of whole cloth. Again, Bush provides the ideal example. After 911, we “rallied around the flag”. We gave Bush carte blanche. Why? His flaws as a leader were already evident. On September 10th, his approval ratings were in the low 40 percentile range. He was dithering and stupid on September 10th, and he was the same ditheringly stupid man on September 12th, still lacking in administrative ability, honor, intelligence or loyalty. Obviously so! On September 10th, it was pretty clear to the American people that a terrible mistake had been made on letting this clown take office.

But on September 12th, his approval ratings were suddenly around 90%. Overnight – literally over night – forty percent of the American population changed their minds and created a hero out of Bush.

The things that were said about him . . . man, we must be trying to forget them. People were talking about his “gravitas” and “bravery” – the chickenshit ran to a hidden bunker for three days, people! – and spared nothing to attribute to him traits that, two days earlier, most Americans knew he did not possess. And it took years for Americans to remember that he's a corrupt and incompetent boob – it wasn't until a truly frightening counter-case of lies, corruption, downright stupidity and arrogance had been amassed that America turned the corner about Bush.

Bush isn't the only person this happens to. Almost constantly people attribute things to politicians that the politicians didn't do. So, for example, people will talk about how Lorenzo de Medici “built” a lot of Florentine Renaissance architecture. Uh-huh. The truth is, of course, that he didn't build anything, and all of that magnificent stuff was built by carpenters, masons and architects – but for some reason a politician gets the credit for what the workers did.

(To give a dose of militant atheism, too, I think this is what happens with messiahs. Much like Lorenzo the Magnificent is credited with doing things he had scant part in, messiahs are credited with equally magical powers. Most messiahs, like Bush, destroy their followings because of their ego, incompetence and cruelty – but if they die at the right time, their followers can immortalize their superhuman traits before the egotism destroys the movement.)

I shudder to imagine how many “heroes” have been created by these forces! That something traumatic happens and some mediocre person is elevated to the position of absolute power! Not because they have some superhuman power, but simply because they were in the right place at the right time. I suspect that most political heroes are like this. Most are vessels of the desires of others and can't live up to it in any capacity. Like Bush. History being what it is, we only remember the rare successful ones – and forget the failed ones (tho', thankfully, that is changing).

In short, I dislike how real “heroes” are made. That we forget the fireman who runs into a burning building, but lionize an incompetent moron like Bush.

This creates ambivalence in stories, for me. I want to write stories that have traditional narrative structures – protagonists duking it out with an antagonist – but I'm deeply suspicious of “heroism”, or at least how heroes are created and why.

I resolved this tension inside of myself by writing about my nightmares. Rather than write about the world I think ours will become, I write about what might happen if anarcho-capitalists ruled, or about religious messiahs. This also helps to make the protagonists horrible people, which means that I can view them as simply vicarious bastards doing terrible things, as catharsis, or maybe as a cautionary tale if one goes in for that sort of thing.

So, it isn't that I'm a depressed person living in a brutal fantasy, it's just that to write narratives the way I want to, I find it easier to write them about the figures that populate my nightmares.

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Krystalline Apostate said...

Chris - I'd advise you put a 'Creative Commons' license on here (like I did on my blog) just in case somebody decides to 'borrow' your material.
As to the 'dark, brooding person' - well, the writer is usually not what he/she writes. I recall reading an intro (who, I couldn't tell ya) - where this person went to a party of horror writers.
They were all loud, raucous joke tellers. In contrast, I think the story talked about how Art Buchwald is extremely funny in print, but a cantankerous cigar smoking mumbler in real life.
Have you read Stephen Donaldson's Covenant the unbeliever series? I think you might like it.

April 3, 2007 12:21 AM  
Krystalline Apostate said...

Psst - it's biblioBLOgraphy, not bibliography (in the links: no big whoop).

April 3, 2007 12:23 AM  
Chris Bradley said...


Ah, yes, a good idea about the license. And I fixed your blog name, hehe.

I've read Thomas Covenant books. As a youth, I was quite fond of them. Nowadays, I'm sorta "eh" about them.

To the meat of it -- sometimes I feel I *do* learn more about the writer than I feel I need to know, hehe. Or that the writer is projecting something, perhaps unaware that they're doing it. So in a lot of science-fiction, while often publicly apolitical, there's all this worship of military force and contempt for non-military, non-capitalist government types. So, in Heinlein, you have repeating themes of praise for military service and vicious capitalism. Or in the Honor Harrington books, the people who oppose the hierarchical system of government -- the socialists and such -- are portrayed not as merely wrong, but stupid and ignorant. Stuff like that.

And in Terry Goodkind's books, there is this strong undercurrent, not only of Objectivism (which would grate on my nerves enough, hehe) but this theme of rape and sexual dysfunction that creeps me out. Not because there is rape in his stories, but far beyond that. F'rex, he had a group of women that you can't touch of you'll become their slaves, that are all pure and such. On the other hand, he has a group of women who, literally, wear skin tight red leather and are naughty BDSM dominatrixes. Both fall in love with the hero. The hero gets to have hot nasty sex with the BDSM sexual slavery prostitute and then go home to his real love with the sweet, virginal, pure heroine.

I mean, ugh. Sorta wearing himself on his sleeve, there.

So, because I feel that occasionally a writer lets something slip into their writing than they might know, I just wanted to go on record as saying that I strongly disapprove of sexist, racist, vicious, murdering asshats, since I write about so many of them. ;)

April 3, 2007 9:21 AM  
Krystalline Apostate said...

Well, as to learning about the author: while there are things you learn about the author, fr'ex, in Zelazny's Princes of Amber, & others, he always seems to have this 1 character like Benedictine (in the series, not real life), a fellow who's neither pro- or an-tagonist, but nowhere near being a 'sidekick', that's dark, dangerous, sorta the lone wolf guy. I'm fairly sure he wasn't that guy.
Sometimes autobiographical details spill into a story/novel, true enough, but the mark of a great writer is the ability to translate the vision in the mind's eye to paper so convincingly that the reader is transported to the destination.

April 3, 2007 1:05 PM  
THE Michael said...

The whole definition of the concept of "heroe" has been so diluted and perverted as to become meaningless. A soldier is not a heroe simply for having been a soldier. If he takes out an enemy position, having lost a leg, while simultaneously saving the life of ten of his own men, simply by instinct, THEN maybe you have a heroe. I served in the Submarine Service during the cold war. I found myself in some rather dicey situations. I was not a heroe. I simply did my job, and not with a whole lot of enthusiasm at the time.

April 4, 2007 4:15 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


Oh, the term hero has some pretty ominous origins, if you ask me. Heroes were the protagonists of Greek epics -- specifically Achilles and Odysseus.

Achilles sacrificed thirteen Trojan children on a pyre for the death of Patrocles -- which was barbaric even by Greek standards of the time the story was told, and doubly so by the time of the golden age of Greece. Odysseus . . . there are few characters in literature that are as big of rat bastards as Odysseus. He cheerfully drove Ajax insane -- a friend and ally of his -- in a cruel way, and you could tell he was lying because his mouth was open. He was a dirty, tricky man.

The change of hero from someone in the mold of Achilles or Odysseus is a recently modern change. ;)

I, myself, wished more people would find heroism in building things, making a better world, stuff like that, rather than glorification of martial deeds.

April 4, 2007 9:26 PM  

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