In my relatively recent reading of SciFi and Fantasy books, the good v.s. battle seems to have moved to a “more realistic” and less good hero and more depraved and perverse evil.
To illustrate this I’ll use examples from Hugh Howey’s Wool series, Madeline Ashby’s upcoming iD, Susan EE’s Angelfall and contrast the evil within them to Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles series and B. V. Larson’s Technomancer; I also throw in a Lord of the Rings reference. These examples will, perforce, include spoilers of the novels. If you haven’t read one of them, and they’re all worth reading, come back when you have and bring your own reflections on the evil they depict.
First, let’s get out right up front that SciFi and Fantasy have always depicted evil. Moreover, the evil couldn’t be wimpy. The evil would have to be portrayed as truly evil, powerful and somewhat pervasive (or on the road to making itself pervasive). Wimpy evil results in wimpy stories. We also need a good that can’t be too good or we would never identify with him. Sorry DC fans, but that’s why I could never really get into Superman. He’s too good and too powerful, Kryptonite and temptations for a real life aside. It’s also not like really bad things haven’t happen in the history of story. It goes back before Oedipus, the poster-child for unintended consequences.
No, really ugly evil has been with us throughout literature. So what’s different in this brave new world of evil embedded in narrative? I think it’s the gut-wrenching purposelessness of the intended evil. Either evil for its own sake or evil perpetrated when the ends could be accomplished by another means. Another form of evil that we see is one where there is a purpose but an utterly perverted one. Brutal thugs are evil but make a kind of sense in that they do the evil for some other end. They would prefer to have easier access to their goal but are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish it. Evil for evil sake is sad; evil for perverse evil’s sake is horrific.
So what are some of these examples:
- Sentient, bio-synthetic androids for sex is pretty whacked. These aren’t just blown up sex toys, these are sentient beings. Designing and ensuring that some remain looking child-like to cater to pedophiles is beyond the pale. (iD)
- Abducting live children, cutting them open, substituting different body parts, messing with their chemistry and psyche, to create ruthless
- Sucking live people (mostly women) of their bodily fluids while kept alive via oxygen but paralized via anesthesia is not lovely. Luring women in for this lovely treatment by promise of food to a starving world simple adds icing to this sick cake. (Angelfall)
- Preemptively wiping out the world then propagating a fiction so that you can control, for multiple generations, how people interact is so bad even the bad guys are hacked off about it while they continue to serve it (Wool)
According to the author of Frankenstein, we are all operate on enlightened or unenlightened self-interest: “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The evil in these books (and, all too often, in our world) doesn’t seem quite so rational. There is little any theological tome could do to argue more eloquently for the Christian doctrine of depravity than is depicted in these novels. Theologians remind us that the doctrine of depravity implies that all aspects of creation and man are fallen and marred by the fact of sin. It’s not that all people are as wicked as they can be; it’s that every aspect of a person is impacted by sin; or, as Yoda would warn us: The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen. These novels give us a picture of this depravity as effecting the whole world and about as wicked as you could imagine (I’m sure it can get worse).
There is a service being done here. Evil that is portrayed in it’s fully ugliness in an unreal context makes it easier to address the evil in our own world. There are men who treat women as sex objects here; showing this for what it is in creating synthetic but thinking sex objects brings out in stark relief just how wrong that is. Fantasy and especially SciFi have been a home for addressing social issues from racism and xenophobic behavior to an undue disparity between the rich and poor. By the way, for some good music for reading these gut-wrenching tales see more here: A Little Book Music
Let’s contrast that with some wanton evil from Tolkien. Saurman does all he can to destroy the ethos and ecology of the Shire. He does this simply out of spite; repayment for the destruction of Isengard (with the exception of the tower of Orthanc). While he is wrong in acknowledging the justice of said destruction and, thereby, the injustice of any retribution, in his warped mind it represents an instance of lex talionis or the retributive justice – “eye for eye and tooth for a tooth.”
If we take our dear friends the Chandrian, from Name of the Wind, they destroy an entire troop of Edema Ruh traveling players (including the protagonist’s parents). This was an incredibly ruthless and calculating move to keep all serious stories and song about them from being aired. It is akin to the paranoid power move by Herod to slaughter innocent children in hopes of killing off a future threat in Jesus.
Similarly, the Gray Men and the Community in Techromancer are factions jockeying for power. They use, abuse and kill people along the way; the “common” people do not matter.
While these represent evil, self-serving purpose on a colossal scale, it’s at least understandable. It’s the cutting up of live children to make them monsters or creating thinking beings to act as surrogate children for sex that I can’t quite wrap my head around. I guess I prefer my good guys to be just a little bit better and my bad guys to be just a little more rational than the direction current fiction is moving.
Do I have any brilliant suggestions out of this? No. Ask I indicated above, there is a benefit to hashing this out in novels and the change n evil may simply be our willingness to confront it more forcefully Will I still enjoy the fine work of Ashby, Ee and Howey. Oh yeah. I just might sprinkle some lighter fare in between so that the gut has time to return to its relaxed and over-large state to be wrenched again later. I’ll also recommend that some of these books not be read by teens; while they need to know about the evils of this world and the sick imaginings of our heart, I’m not sure it’s helpful to be as intimately engrossed in them as you might while reading a book. I’ll push them towards Name of the Wind and Techromancer and have them wait on Angelfall and iD.