Saturday 30 November 2013

A Celebration of Violence

I have a confession to make. I glorify violence. How do I do that? Well, I make it an essential part of the hero's journey.

I make it essential in that, without it, the hero cannot complete their mission. It must be done either by the hero, or on behalf of the hero. It is a situation whereby violence is the solution, or a vital part of the solution, to the problem.

For instance, a Mrs Marple or Poirot mystery would not count. The story may contain violence in it (like when the murder victim is killed), but the means by which the perpretator is caught owes nothing at all to violence. The detectives in question only use their powers of detecting, whatever they may be. A Sherlock Holmes story, on the other hand, may well glorify violence, since occasionally Holmes or his trusty armed sidekick, Watson, must resort to violence to move the case onwards or solve it.

Some authors try to shift the responsibility from their heroes so as to make them seem a little more moral, and less violent. You know, in order not to glorify violence. The Russian detective Arkady, in Martin Cruz Smith's novels, makes a point (after the first novel) of never carrying a gun. Other characters in the stories even question the wisdom of this, but he remains stubborn. He appears moral in this regard - the antithesis of the all-action hero who relies on his fists rather than his brain. Yet Arkady, in spite of being unarmed, continues to wade into dangerous situations, against all advice, and ends up confronting violent people anyway. And when he does, he nearly always relies on others to use violence on his behalf, thus allowing him to solve the case and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. His morality, therefore, is bogus, because he still needs violence to solve his problems. The author ensures that he benefits directly from violence done on his behalf (in one novel he even has to rely on a child shooting his enemy for him), even though his own attempts to fight almost always fail, because he's not a very good fighter. But he still keeps getting himself into situations where he needs a good fighter - or a good shot - to save the day. So he's not really the anti-hero that he appears to be, and the Arkady novels (which I thoroughly recommend, by the way) are also, in their way, a celebration of violence. Without it, he'd be dead and his cases would be unsolved.

The glorification of violence has many critics. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, got a lot of stick for it in his last movie, Django, and he got very exasperated during interviews because of his reputation of making violent movies. 'Why the constant violence?' his critics seem to be saying. How about giving us something that doesn't involve all that ugly, physical stuff?

There are a lot of stupid assumptions about what the glorification of violence really means. Josh Whedon, for example, that ever so nice man who empowers women in his movies, is never accused of glorifying violence. I mean, he's so kind and thoughtful, and so in touch with his feminine side. He doesn't do the gut wrenching bloody scenes that Tarantino prefers to let the camera linger over.

As Mal from Firefly would say, "He's my hewo."

But let's go back to my definition of what glorification of violence means: an essential part of the hero's journey... without it, the hero cannot complete their mission.

There doesn't have to be blood involved. Nor even a single sneering face. Buffy the Vampire slayer was a celebration of violence. So was Firefly (another one I recommend). And the Marvel movie he wrote and directed? You bet it was.

I peacefully require you to back the fuck up.

Any action story, no matter how sugar-coated or dialled down for a younger audience, will likely be a celebration of violence. And many of us enjoy this celebration for its own sake, which puts us on the wrong side of the barrier from campaigners who say that the depiction of violence in our fiction reinforces the violence that already exists in the world and actually makes it worse.

Are they right?

Saturday 23 November 2013

Where's science fiction going?

It's been said that science fiction has lost its vitality, that it's lost confidence in the future and is in danger of having nothing new to say. This is the view of old school 'hard' SF types. Their remedy is that science fiction should revitalise itself, find again its ground-breaking positivist roots and show what a post-capitalist, post-everything-white-and-western world would look like. With confidence and verve.

They're missing the point. They've certainly missed the boat. The Golden Age of science fiction coincided with the ascent of America to world power, closely contested by the USSR as it too stepped up to the podium. They were both Enlightenment regimes in their own way. And confidence about the future was high. It was just a matter of seeing which future would unfold.

Fast forward to now, and people claim that the 'genre of ideas' has run out of ideas. But the reason why is rather obvious.

The 20th Century ran through the gamut of Enlightenment ideas that had been laid out clearly the century before. They all crashed - Communism, Socialism, Positivism, National Socialism and Fascism. Social Democracy and Liberalism are also spent, and Neoliberalism's audacious promises about unfettered world markets has also hit the buffers.

Science fiction was an Enlightenment genre, with a great regard for its own self-importance. It may be recycling its ideas nowadays, but in that sense it mirrors Western society as a whole, and it's run out of 19th Century ideas to put forward. The onward march of progress was matched by the onward march of America. But the US has peaked now and people are starting to realise that great nations can go down as well as up. The old glib confidence in the future is looking a bit pale. There's a realisation that the inexorable march of progress may, in fact, be an illusion.

But still the stalwarts in SF announce that the only reason the future is uncertain is because it's being mishandled. If writers can only retune their minds to the future, then new ideas can emerge to get us out of this mess. And if Western SF writers can't come up with the goods, then there's always the up and coming developing world. Surely the (golden) flame of SF will be kept alive by Chinese and Indian writers?

But the idea that science fiction as we know it is internationalist and can survive to gloat over the prostrate ruins of the European Enlightenment that spawned it? Another delusion.

It doesn't matter who you are, or what idea you are, you can't stay at the top forever, and you can't stay relevant forever either. You grab a bit of sunshine, then you grow old. That's it.

The belief that science and ethics go hand in hand has been discredited by history. Enlightenment optimism has kicked the bucket and its leading edges are already being rolled back.

But people already know this. Consciously or unconsciously, they are aware that history goes in cycles. So instead of wanting to read about brave new futures, they thirst instead for zombie and post-apocalyptic stories.

And the SF old guard may grind their teeth and pull out what's left of their hair over this, but it could be that the untutored masses are a lot smarter than they give them credit for.

It may well be that the future we wanted isn't coming back at all.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Clean no longer

"How's the collar, princess?"

The writer Michael Lind once used an analogy of Star Trek versus Star Wars as a way of highlighting the modern exaltation of barbarism in America. In Lind's view, Star Trek represented scientific achievement and rationalism, while Star Wars represented degenerative regression and romantic medievalism.

American science fiction once saw the future with optimism and hope. A future of technological advances and inclusive government. A future where, perhaps, some planetary Federation (a multi-ethnic America enlarged, basically) might send starships out on five year missions of peaceful exploration, rather than for conquest or profit. An enlightened future. A nice future.

It wasn't just science fiction that saw it this way. It was America itself, freed from the shackles of the evil empire (Great Britain) and the corrupt manipulative ways of the Old World. America embraced the Enlightenment values of Liberty, Social Development and Individual Rights, and it emerged from WW2 as number one in the world. Not an empire, like those awful European colonialists and their despotic monarchies, but a Great Force For Good, championing rights, liberty and happiness - the very values still touted by the Humanist movement today, which is to the Enlightenment what the Knights Templar once were to Christendom.

America was an Enlightenment regime. And science fiction, with its emphasis on science and progressiveness, was an Enlightenment, Humanist genre. At its core, anyway. This is why the hardcore SF cadre bemoan the 'sci-fi' proclivity with exploding spaceships. It's not enlightened. Or literary - which is to say, not aligned with serious bourgeois, enlightened values. It's also why Michael Lind hated Star Wars.

But America was not the only Enlightenment regime. The other one was the Soviet Union, and they too wanted to use science and reason to better the affairs of Man. Indeed, it was explicit in their literature. They sought to rationally plan society and engineer better, more rational citizens. America sought to change the world through revolutionary democracy. The USSR sought to do the same through revolutionary socialism. Two different ways of arriving at the same Enlightenment goals.

There remain many who still pine for the Soviet version - or at least the idealised version - but the game was up for the Soviet dream after Stalin's death. The admission of his crimes soured hopes of a Utopia and, in spite of the ongoing Cold War, it was only a matter of time before the Enlightenment dream was seen as deeply naive.

America's moment of disillusionment came soon after, with the Vietnam war. The idea that a rational regime, created through revolution with the aim of transforming humanity, could end up committing the same crimes against humanity that the old European empires were guilty of, was a heavy blow to the hope of intellectuals. It was the beginning of a long decline that would eventually see the USSR collapse and the USA vilified as the evil empire it once sought to make obsolete.

Progressives used to laud America. Now they bemoan it.

To Michael Lind, Star Trek was the hope we should have stuck with, while Star Wars was a return to pre-enlightenment horrors like monarchy, slavery and elite knightly orders. Star Trek was clean. Star Wars was dirty.

But Star Wars was more popular by far. What did this say about cinema audiences, and the population at large? And what does this say about science fiction itself?