Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Age of the Post Hero

Before I go anywhere here, let me explain where I've been.

Near the end of last month, we had a scare with my dad. He hurt himself pretty badly (a TBI, or traumatic brain injury for those who don't speak medicine), and had to be rushed off to the hospital. He spent the rest of the month there, and after a few scares, made a recovery and now he's home. So there's that to be thankful for.

That said, I do plan to start blogging more - I've sort of let this place hang, and haven't been doing anything with it even before the injury. Part of this is because I'm working on not one but three separate novels right now.

- The Blue Pimpernel: Liquidity, the second Blue Pimpernel book. I've still got the release date set for sometime early next year, but I'm not going to release it before it's ready. I'm making pretty good progress, though; one of the hardest parts of writing a sequel is trying to keep with the feel of the original novel. The Blue Pimpernel had a very distinctive feel to it; the first part of the book was laced with a pervading sense helplessness and despair; the second half of the book was underscored by a very strong sense of hope. I'm trying to balance those two feelings, and it can be rather difficult at times and requires fine tuning. The third book, Entropy, has been outlined already and is just waiting for me to finish Liquidity. ~14,000 words in the most recent draft (the finished book is over 90,000 words). This novel calved off of Entropy; Entropy actually has a finished draft, but that draft was over 300,000 words, which was twice what the first novel was and unacceptably long. So I split the beginning off and Liquidity developed from that. The benefit of this is that Liquidity ... ahem... flows well into Entropy.

- Terra Firma, my first and thus far my only long going transhuman novel. And by transhuman, I mean "utterly and uncompromisingly embraces the future." I've taught myself French for this novel (granted, I taught myself French so Aya could speak it too. In fact, French appears a lot in most of my works: I grew up watching Sesame Street broadcasts in Quebecois, and I could speak conversational French Quebecois by the time I was entering Elementary School. American schools being what they are, I never spoke another foreign language again until High School, and by that time, my command of French had atrophied. Not helping was that the language I chose was German, a language unlike French in a lot of ways, so I didn't really come back to French with intention of using it until.. less than 4 years ago.)   Terra Firma is set on Voyageur, an aerostat in the Venusian atmosphere. Voyageur is a cross-section of the Francophone world, featuring a relatively large cast of Indians (the main character is a Tamil woman), Africans (one of the secondary characters is an Somali pseudo-male), Southeast Asians and some Polynesians, influenced strongly by French culture. I'll have more on Terra Firma as the novel progresses from its early stages, but I'll say this: the novel embodies every single philosophic point I count as a virtue - it's uncompromisingly pro-democracy, pro-post-scarcity, pro-transhumanism and technoprogressive, and the driving conflict of the story is whether or not to terraform Venus and make it into a new Earth, and the conflict it generates between the different factions, along with the underhanded political dealings. This novel was as heavily influenced by Orion's Arm and GURPS Transhuman Space as it was by Eclipse Phase (perhaps it was influenced more by the previous two than by the latter, since Eclipse Phase is very dark, and this novel can only be described as much preppy post-cyberpunk as it is preppy post-human). ~47,000 words as of the first pre-draft. Outlander eventually evolved into this book.

- White Rabbit, Black Swan, the bastard child of Enlightened satire and popular culture, this particular novel is where I go when I get really mad at something. It's plot is relatively simple and straight froward; this simple and strong plot allows be built a lot of satire around it, and cram it full of references to everything from Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels (to major influences) to Cosmos and even The Flintstones. Some topics that I satirize/mercilessly make fun of include the prosperity gospel, Rapture theology, Randian theology, the current "politics of popularity", and anti-vaccination and other air-head leftist anti-science ideologies. Think Alice in Wonderland + Gulliver's Travels + Rifts + political pop culture and you're getting close. ~29,000 words as of the rough draft. I don't have a clear source for where this book came from, but it's been relatively consistent in every draft since I first started it some 4 years ago.

So, now you know where I am and what I've been up too, what I've been up too, and what works I'm involved in at the moment. I plan to do more blogging in the future, though, so don't fear!

Now, onto my observations for the day.

I have a long standing feud with fantasy, because I view fantasy as regressive. Granted, I view a lot of modern science fiction as regressive, too, but because I'm involved in RPGs more often than not, and those tend to lead heavily fantasy, I've noticed a large number of tropes that seem to align with Romanticism and anti-Intellectualism in fantasy; I made a comment on the Book of Faces the other day about how, since Elves never seem to progress despite having a long life, they must be against progression. I have since taken to referring to them as the race of the TEA Party.

Really, though, quite a bit of modern Speculative Fiction seems to channel these regressive notions; the idea that what's happened in the past is somehow better than what's happening in the future, and as a result, we should somehow strive for the future. Frankly, this is bullshit. I don't find this fun at all. I don't find this engaging, and ultimately, I find it destructive socially. You might claim it's just a game. You might say it's just a television show, but our entertainment says a lot about who we are and it reflects our societal values, in addition to helping crystallize them. There's a reason one of the tenants of Dominionism is to gain control over the media. The media is a powerful force in influencing how people think and approach things. If you're innudated, constantly, with the fashionable cynicism that democracy doesn't work, and that all the solutions to our problems are in the past, then people will begin looking that way. I have an example for you: one of the more popular shows at the height of the Space Race, that got us to the moon, was Star Trek, a show that showed the future in space as something bright and promising; a show that displayed the future, while flawed, as something we should want to achieve. Escape from our world into a world better than ours, where everyone is equal, where rationality and science (or, rather, technobabble) will save the day.

What's the most popular show now?

Escapism through celebrities, who we build up and then tear down with relish. Reality TV. Video games that show a future embroiled in countless conflicts and wars, dignifying the American Fetishization of Conflict and the Military. The Government is Lying (never mind you are supposed to be the government, you damn fool), aliens exist and they're hostile and want to blow up our planet. There's no future worth having; the best selling books are dystopic hellholes worse than The Blue Pimpernel, or misogynistic garbage like Twilight and 50 Shades, which preach values from an era that we were better off leaving behind us. Movies portray superhero-style action heroes who run around shooting stuff up, mindless action; "the police can't be trusted here, so let's roll with this ourselves."

Okay, sure. It's laced with fashionable cynicism and repulsive romanticism. It's underscored by destructive post-modernism, which seeks to apply Deconstructivism to the fabric of reality (Hey, go deconstruct gravity and jump off a building, if you think objective reality is fake). You don't find shows like Star Trek anymore, which show what the glory the future holds, and the problems that we might face and how we might overcome them. No, we get shit like Star Wars, set in a galaxy "a long, long time ago", like a goddamn fairy tale, replete with fairy tale-esque morality that has no bearing at all on the complicated nature of the modern world. We get superheroes like Batman, who get pitted against Strawman anarchists like Bane and uphold the current status quo as it is; a transparent reactionary fantasy, like Bewitched. Who solve all of their problems by running around and beating up criminals, instead of attacking the real problems with society and engaging the real issues that our society faces.

The job of fiction is to engage the modern world, not run from it. But that's what's happening. Fiction is scared to engage the modern world. It's not "fun", or it's too "political." Everything is political, in the sense that everything can take on political hues. It's not necessarily fun, that's true, but different people have different definitions of  fun, and they're not necessarily the same thing. I've vented before about how "fun" to me involves engaging my mind and teaching me new things, because to do otherwise is to treat me like a moron.

This is why I refuse to take most video games seriously. There are some video games that make an noble attempt - BioShock springs to mind immediately, as how it takes a critical look at a philosophical and political movement and displays the problems of going to the extremes of anything, a message that the TEA Party would do well to learn from. Fiction should engage with society, it should highlight our problems, and it should engage in frank discuss with us - Fiction is in an unique position in our society to do just that, since Fiction is just removed enough from reality to explore these things, without actually having to sacrifice anyone other than pixels on a screen or ink on a page.

Fiction, above all else, needs to transgress.

Fiction hasn't been doing that. Fiction has been more interested in the past that never existed. It's been more interested in these worlds that are removed from our own, rather than engaging in our own. It's more interested in Empires and Kings, in great Heroes who save everyone at the end of the day rather than letting those peasants figure out how to solve their own problem.

What does that sound like to you? If you answered "the modern Republican Party," you get a cookie. And the reason why is because fiction has been contaminated by a virulent strain of romanticism. Theirs is a paradise of regret. A paradise formed of how the future scares them, so they turn back and revise what the past was like, to match what they want it to be to fit their narrative of what they feel the world should look like. That feel is important, since feeling something does not make it right, but the belief that feeling something makes it right is certainly Romanticism in action.

Even steampunk, a genre that I'm rather fond of for all it's promise and optimism and spirit of progress in technology, is still about a past that never existed, and is still infected with a strain of romanticism, albeit a more tamped down one. There doesn't need to be emperors. There doesn't need to be kings. The world is too complicated for them. The world is too complicated for any one person; leave your Randian fantasies at the door, since it's too complicated for John Galt to handle on his lonesome. I'd argue that our world is even too complicated for the concept of a God, since a God is little more than just another hero who's going to come along and save us all (providing science doesn't get there first) from our ultimate fate - death.

George W. Bush displayed a very Star Wars-like morality when he stood before the world and declared an "Axis of Evil." This Black and White view of the world was routinely mocked still is. We don't need that. Our world is more complicated than "This evil dictator of Ruritania is Pinochet Caligua Nero Pol Pot Hitler, he eats babies, sacrifices kittens, sodomizes puppies and requires his ass getting kicked, now go do it, grand Hero of Justice!" That Star Wars style of morality - the Empire is evil because they wear black, red, and white - has no place in our modern world. It's too complex. And because the job of fiction is to engage, that "morality" has no place outside of children's fiction. Even then you'd have to make a damn fine argument as to why it should be there, when clearly it's not what they're going to encounter later in life. This morality lays out unrealistic expectations, which, when they inevitably comes to pass, breeds a sort of fashionable cynicism and total rejection of the modern world. Then these people get into power and cynically manipulate those fools who haven't been hit with the reality stick, and we wonder why society is as fucked up as it is. Even the cynics who don't manipulate others feel a sort of self-righteous smugness: "Look at you. You honestly think you can change it? One of them is just as bad as the other and everyone is interested in only what helps themselves." Which, of course, is wrong. If given the opportunity, people will help one another, and they will work together - we're social animals. This is a given.

So here's a question: Why doesn't more fiction display this? Why doesn't more fiction show people working together, instead of reinforcing the detrimental notion that people (as a group) are stupid, panicky animals? It's easy to cherry-pick examples of the former. I point you to 9/11 as an example of how wrong that is. I point you to all of the people who work in homeless shelters, people who retain their cool during disasters and help work with communities to reestablish themselves. Not Persons. People. Where is this is modern fiction? Why is all we get is this cynical notion of people as stupid animals interested only in themselves, when clearly it's only true for a small population of people - those cynical enough to use the attitude manipulate other cynics?

Fiction should transgress.

So you know what it should be time for fiction to transgress from, and leave behind?

The entire concept of a Hero.

The Hero serves no place in our modern, democratic society. We are all responsible for our own fates, we are all responsible for our neighbors, just as we're responsible for ourselves. The Hero is responsible for this cynicism; it's responsible for this notion that people are dumb and panicky and stupid and need to be herded by great rulers and kings, since obviously we're so stupid we can't lead ourselves.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Our society is far too complicated for a single person to come in and remove all of the problems. It's time to leave the notion of the heroes in the past. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a hero if there ever was one, had a clear enemy he was facing. It was a clear problem in society; they wore white sheets, they galloped on horses, and they cynically manipulated people into believing that attacking blacks was in their best interest. They were in power in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi; they were the authority. They were unjust. They were a clear problem.

He did a great thing. But he left the job undone (not his fault; there was that assassination thing, you know), and as a result, the problem has become far more diffuse. Racism, while still very much an issue in society, exists on multiple layers and is too much for one hero to come along and try to fix. Poverty is too diffuse; there are too many problems for one person to try and fix it all. Our political situation is far too complicated for one person to attempt to correct it. To have a hero, you need to have a very clear villain. You need to have a very clear problem.

We've left behind the era of very clear villains and very clear problems. We've left behind the era where we could unambiguously say that someone was evil. I'd argue we never lived in that era to begin with. It's the regret and longing for this simpler time that drives the myth of the Hero. We don't want to have to be responsible. We would rather someone else come along and take control. That's what the Hero does. The Hero arrives, he saves the day, and then rides off for the next time. He slays the dragon. He attacks the evil empire, and then hands the keys over to the good king, providing he doesn't just become the king himself, where he can continue to save us from ourselves.

I don't want someone like that, and you shouldn't either. The very concept of an Epic Hero is anti-democratic and anti-American. America, the United States, is a country Of the people, By the people, For the people. Not Heroes. People. Us. the Hero as we recognize them - the Fantasy or Space Opera hero like Luke Skywalker - is fundamentally anti-Democratic. Introduce as many flaws as you want. Deconstruct the hero as much as you want. It does not change the fact that the very existence of a hero degrades morality to the point where it's black and white, it does not make the hero anymore friendly towards democracy, it does not make the hero anymore progressive or liberal. The very notion of a hero - especially an Epic Hero - is a regressive and conservative one. Liberalism and Progressivism has no room, since we're busy dealing with our own problems rather than waiting for someone to come and fix them for us. We are struggling to together.

For this purpose, I define hero as a distinctive entity from the protagonist. Simply being the center character to drama does not make you a hero. I don't define it as someone like Arthur Dent, either. No, Hero as I use it is someone like Luke Skywalker - an almost Greco-Roman like hero, like something from an Ancient Greek Drama, who makes sweeping decisions and arrives right at the nick of the time to save the day, and the people love them for it. They become worshiped. They become part of the Cult of the Hero.

These great heroes have simplistic moralities, their narratives often present them as utterly right, and their society loves them for it.

Our society does not need that simplistic morality. I've said it about eight times now, and I'll say it again: It's too complicated. There's too much else there; there too many conflicting viewpoints, and only a handful of them you can look at and say "yep, that's unambiguously harmful and wrong." There's no room for a white hate to come in and save us all from the others that might be wrong, but make some good points along the way. There's no need for a hero take their sword and cut through the Gordian Knot of Bureaucracy. That does far more harm than good.

But what about escapism?

You'll convince me escapism is a valuable thing when the entire society hasn't lost itself in it, and refuses to solve actual problems rather than running with their tails tucked between their legs back into their fantasy world. When people rejoin those of us who are willing to solve problems, see that Myth of the Hero as something that no longer belongs in the modern world, then, possibly, you can convince me that escapism is constructive. When fiction starts to pay attention to the fact that the hero is a myth no longer needed in the modern world, and isn't nothing but one stream of "escapist fantasy" after another, then I'll go back to seeing escapism as something valid. We abuse escapism like a goddamn drug. It's time to go off of it for a while, until we learn how to use it more productively. When it's not gotten to the point where it's threatening the stability of our democracy, because the entire society has lost itself in this toxic escapism, waiting for a hero to come and remove our collective heads from our asses so we can see it's just us, and us alone, to solve these problems.

I'm a student of literary criticism, which is what you're seeing here. One of the may schools I'm familiar with is Marxist criticisms, and when you apply the thought of Marxist criticism to the very idea of a hero, and blend in a little deconstruction, you can see what the hero truly is: a tool that the upper class has used to reinforce expected behavior.

1. Primitive Communism: Tribal communism, through cooperative primitive societies. At this age, the hero is a god or a demigod; a figure of myth that the village elders tell to their children, to instill morals that are worthwhile for their society to continue functioning, or pass on warnings. These are fable heroes and folk heroes; they are often times not even human, and are not concerned with power structure or are concerned with upsetting the power structure for their own gains (this often times leads to a warning about respecting existing structures put in place by the gods - see just about every trickster ever, but Prometheus especially).

2. Slave State: The tribe progresses to a more cosmopolitan setting and becomes the city-state. The aristocracy and upper classes are born at this time. At this age, the hero becomes the Homeric hero of myth; descendents of the gods and demigods, they still serve as a warning or example to the society, but they have absolute authority either way, except at those cases when they're at the mercy of their gods. The lower classes are reduced to Homeric spear carriers and pawns to be slaughtered at will given what the hero wishes; This is the morality of Star Wars. The only reason we don't see this is because it's clones and robots, rather than people; it's faceless black soldiers, dehumanized and associated with a singular entity universally considered evil by the narrative and ham-fistedly shown to be so.

3. Feudalism: The aristocracy becomes the ruling class, social order progresses and becomes more complex with a lot of interlocking wheels. There exists a class of merchants who will eventually evolve into the capitalists (why I maintain that modern capitalism is the bastard child of 17th century Mercantilism and 18th century Imperialism). The hero in this age is often an aristocrat, or a king, or some mix of the two. Rarely you end up with someone like Robin Hood, who is neither and is transgressive, but even Robin Hood acknowledges he only does it not because Monarchy is wrong, or because Feudalism is wrong, but because the current king and sheriff are evil for abusing their people. A good king does not abuse his people. Because they're not a good king or sheriff, they need to be replaced with a good king and sheriff. The heroes reinforce the notion that this is the natural order, with the aristocracy holding power and the lower people living for no greater purpose than to serve the aristocracies, who they are raised to view as heroes.

4. Capitalism: Capitalists rule this age. They create and employ the proletariat, which are often times treated as no better than the serfs in feudalism. The transition in this era is to the new money, and the new social order. The Hero of capitalism takes a couple of different forms, but regardless who it is, the hero is usually either a great capitalist who uses his capitalism for "the benefit of the people", someone who defends capitalism, or the embodiment the heroes of the earlier era, updated to match the new society. Important is that the hero of the capitalist era never question the good of capitalism; it might question how capitalism is being conducted and question whether or not business as usual is useful, but they will never question the utility of capitalism. As with feudalism before it, capitalism becomes the new social order that heroes uphold and respect.

5. Socialism: Worker consciousness expands, people and the proletariat begin to realize their own strength. The hero here is a hero who stands up against the social order. They are in the last stages of their life, and they take on a transgressive nature; questioning what the social order stands for. However, ultimately, the hero of this era ends up pining for a simpler time in the past, because the problems of the society where the proletariat begin to awaken and exert their own influence and power is one that a demigod with the strength of 400 mortals cannot solve. This marks the beginning of the end for the concept of the Hero, since the proletariat no longer need a hero. They begin to view themselves as responsible - as shown by their revolutions, and the eventual proletariat state that gets set up. Heroes begin to impede, rather than fix, and they begin to hurt rather than help. Their very existence begins to destroy that which they try to fix, in true deconstructionist fashion, since what they're trying to fix/uphold is too sensitive and too complicated for the simple morality at which a hero operates off of.

6. Communism: A classless, moneyless society that socialism will transition into in short order. Just as it's left behind the old shackles of class and money, so too has it left behind the concept of hero. Because everyone is working to make the world a better place, you have no need for a hero in society. Everyone becomes the hero, and when everyone is the hero, nobody is. A world without a hero means that all bear responsibility, and that nobody sits around waiting to be saved. There is no class, there is no existing social order to enforce. While I doubt a true classless society can be achieved, I do believe that it's possible to get really, really close, and when we reach that point, we'll have reached the point where we no longer need heroes.

While different countries differ, the United States is about a 4.5 or 5 on this scale. We're at the point now where heroes just get in the way of social justice, and serve no purpose due to the nature of the problems they're often pitted against. While 6 is likely impossible, I'm sure that by around 5.75, we'll have hit the point where it becomes apparent we no longer need a hero. Such a hero will just get in the way of social progress, since the whole purpose of the hero up to this point has been protecting social order, rather than upsetting it.

And when progress and improvement of the human condition rely upon upsetting the social order and undermining existing structures to spread knowledge and give people their own power, and heroes exist for no other purpose than to reinforce the notion of the aristocracy in power, you have to ask: who is really the hero here? Is there a hero? Can there ever be a hero?

Asking that question, in this light,  you see that only is time to abandon the hero but you also see the truth. You see that the aristocracy has used it as a device to control people since they were born. Before then, it was used as a device to stop social progress and to tell tales to threaten people about the dangers of violating social order. And what it ultimately boils down to is this:

That the hero has never existed to us non-aristocrats at all.


This is a post-script thought: There have been socially progressive heroes, but they're incredibly rare. the only hero I can think of is Golden Age Superman, who punished the upper class and stood up for the lower class. So the above statement about the hero having never existed for us isn't exactly true, but it's certainly true for most of fiction. But even then, in our society, Golden Age Superman could not solve all of the problems. So Superman is one of those heroes who appears at the beginning of Stage 5 and starts to question the existing social order - he was like that for a while, anyway. Then he hit the superpower lottery and like most people who got suddenly powerful, left us well behind.

I've applied this deconstruction to the Blue Pimpernel and it produces interesting results. Renee was never a classic hero to begin with, and while Renee's morality is black and white, the narrative's morality isn't (remember: Johnson is a member of the Party, too, and Johnson isn't a bad guy). The Party has good and bad to it, and while it's clear that the Party is an impediment and needs to be destroyed for society to progress, the Party is a solid problem. Its a clear problem, like horsemen in white sheets. The fact that the Party exists as a visible entity, rather than a diffuse one, is what allows her to exist as a "hero". Added to this the fact that she doesn't act on her own, is at the mercy of an FBI agent who only allows her too operate because her existence is useful for scaring, not arresting, the corrupt that have gamed the system (thereby forcing them into doing stupid stuff that they can get arrested for), and use manipulative cynicism to create a dystopic self-fulfilling prophecy, and you see Renee and her friends as atypical superheroes. Renee and her friends are what you get when you deconstruction to hero to the point that it has no choice but to loop back around into a reconstruction.

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