The impact of evil is most potent when it’s personal, palpable and present. It strikes me that’s also true about good.
NOTE: Some light spoilers for Angelfall, iD, Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Wool and Lord of the Rings
In continuing my reflection on evil portrayed in SciFi and Fantasy (started here), I think that what I perceive as most evil are those visceral, personal evils perpetrated against the comparatively innocent or, at least, unwillingly participant. In retrospect, it stuns me that I find cutting up children to augment their physical capabilities and warp their thinking as gut retchingly bad while I’m much more cerebral about xenocide unknowingly committed by a kid and nearly wiping out a sentient species: mothers, daughters, fathers and sons. I think the wiping out of a species is just too big for me to take in. We mere mortals need to take in our evil (and good) in bit sizes. We wriggle in our seats when we see Ceti Eel (larva) go into ears of people to make them pliant, then kill them in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan or watch Jabba the Hutt lick his tongue out at Leia. Part of that reaction is that it’s just gross but much of it is because it is up close and person.
So what needs to be in place for use to truly hate evil done? We need to know it’s evil; bad directed at good or innocent. We may be intellectually saddened to see bad things happen to bad people, but we are not emotionally connected to it. We need to fully take it in and sense it. Sauron wanted to dominate all of Middle-Earth is evil; his methods are evil. However, we feel the virulent spite of Shelob and the palpable hatred of her to Frodo, as a free creature. Saurman is evil in his wonton destruction of trees in Fangorn and attack on Rohan. His spoiling of the Shire hits home.
We tend to allow physical evil to get to us. We can’t simply know that Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs’s new love interest is killed, we need to see her held down by chains as he tries to free her and kiss her goodbye (or William Wallace’s wife is killed by the English or Benjamin Martin’s son Thomas is shot by the evil Dragoon, Tavington. Hey wait, there seems to be a theme here). This works because we see clear evil, in front of us, coldly done and without remorse. It is physical and we feel the blows or the shot. The decimation of the vN is terrible; it is xenocide. Threatening failsafe to rape a man then trick him into killing his love is mind-blowingly horrendous.
We also need to have a personal connection to the victim. When the infamous red shirt in Star Trek dies, we get over it. We hardly knew ye. We it appears Gandalf dies at the hands (or whip) of the Balrog, we (OK, I) through the book across the room as I say unkind things about Tolkien’s character.
The best evil is intimate. The betrayal of a Silo-mate and head of IT against the Mayor or the loss of great mechanics who have kept the Silo running; that’s up close and personal. While we love the epic battle between Aragorn and the Captains of the West against Sauron, it is the battle between Sam & Frodo and Gollum, the Ring and inner demons that captivates.
So we can do all of the cool world building, clever story twists and rain down really bad stuff in books, but it is as a babbling sound of noise without that close, personal connection. Thankfully, so many writers provide it, although when I feel like I’m going to loose my guts at its personal, intimate description, it takes just a little bravery to pick up that next Susan Ee or Madeline Ashby book. Hey, maybe that’s why there are pre-orders; we can order while we think it’s safe.