Sunday, January 6, 2008
Lessons of Modern Mythology, Part 2
(Let's just assume spoilers, K? Today we're looking at Babylon 5, the fiction of Orson Scott Card, and I Am Legend.) It's a classical mythology structure. Some random creature menaces a people. It matters little whether it's Grendel assaulting the Hall of Hrothgar, the Sphinx killing all the travelers on the way to Thebes, or the hydra attacking the shipping lanes. Some great evil has befallen a people and the hero must make it all better. There is no nuance to the story. The creature must be destroyed and only the greatest hero can overcome it. Modern mythology is rarely so cut-and-dry. Evil now has motivation and reason for being. The Shadows in Babylon 5, for instance, do what they do for good and justifiable (in their world) reasons. Even Godzilla shows signs of this. At times the iconic rubbery menace shows up to destroy Tokyo for no good reasons, but at times the monster protects the city from greater threats. Is Godzilla good, evil, or a little of both? With Babylon 5, too, by the time the Vorlons are revealed, we learn that good is not necessarily an either/or option, either. It's not about labels, but about actions and motivations. Which leads to an interesting argument that I stumbled across last week (thanks to the folks at Slacktivist). Way back in '86, Orson Scott Card took the sci-fi world by storm with Ender's Game, a book about a young boy chosen and trained from birth to fight against an alien menace that had once tried to destroy the Earth (In this he shares much with Lyra of the His Dark Materials trilogy, but that's a story for another day. I think). Anyway, under the guise of playing a game, Ender ends up destroying an entire race. In the follow-up book, Speaker for the Dead, he starts a new religion after discovering that the alien menace really wasn't evil, it was just trying to do its thing. In the process of doing this, he stopped being Ender the Savior and started being Ender the Xenocide. Now, I read Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and book three, Xenocide way back in junior high. I've also read Ender's Shadow and possibly a fifth book, but I don't remember. Being as I was in junior high when I read the key books, I totally missed one of the biggest controversies for the book. It can apparently be read as an apologia for Hitler and, at the very least, a massive misunderstanding of the nature of humanity. The entire controversy fascinates me. Specifically because I wonder why we should worry about something that looks like an apologia for Hitler. Good science fiction, I believe, should cause us to question our fundamental assumptions about the universe. It's why I keep looking to Babylon 5 for this project. It's why, I suppose, George Lucas and Gene Rodenberry chose it for their masterworks. One of the great sociological questions of the 20th Centuries was the question of how people could have possibly given in to fascism. It's a question that haunts us now in the face of terrorism and the possiblity of a new Russian collapse in to dictatorial rule and possible Communism. It's a question that bleeds off of every page of a book like Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and Weschler's A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. The sociologist and historian ask the question, "How did Hitler seduce the Germans?" Orson Scott Card (theoretically could have) answered, "Here's how." Sadly, that doesn't seem to be how it actually happened or was intended. And subsequent writings from Card have shown that he's a little loopy and probably far more prone to actually want to apologize for Hitler. Which brings me around to I Am Legend. I walked out of that movie feeling completely non-plussed, mostly because I had a sense that there was a much, much better movie hidden somewhere beneath the movie that I'd just seen. See, we had a movie about zombies that appeared to have the ability to organize, recognize friends and enemies, set traps, and engage in both self-preservation and ignore said self-preservation in certain situations. They were almost human. But we had a massively unreliable narrator in Dr. Neville (Will Smith's character) and no spokesman at all for the other side. Neville seemed either unwilling or unable to recognize those characteristics, something that was completely understandable for his character. It could be said that Neville, in his attempts to cure the sickness of the zombies, was actually working towards genocide. I Am Legend, in this way, parallels Ender's Game. I Am Legend's ridiculous, tacked-on, Hollywood ending ruined any attempt to create the more interesting story while Ender's Game's tendency to confuse cluelessness with innocence pretty much killed that story's possibilities. What, then, is that story? Simply speaking, it's the story of the wholly alien "Other" and the classic tale of Us v. Them that is the core of the mythological struggle against evil. Grendel crawled up out of the dark swamp to menace Hrothgar's merry hall in the same way the Buggers came out of the darkness of space to destroy Ender's Earth. The biggest shift, though, between the old conception of the other and the newer one is the sense of willful ignorance. Ender thought he was just playing a game, but someone had to tell him that while sending real men to kill real aliens and die real deaths. The Vorlons kept the Minbari in the dark about their own true nature and that of the Shadows for a thousand years, then tried to do the same thing with the younger races. In both cases, the Other is eventually illuminated and we find out that the Other is not what we once thought. In the case of Babylon 5, this enlightenment led to freedom. The Other might not have really been evil, but both sides of the struggle were performing evil deeds justified by bad motivations. In Ender's world, however, the enlightenment led to nothing of value. Ender became the Xenocide with no introspective look at how and why it had happened. This concept is, quite possibly, one of the most important lessons we can possibly glean from modern mythology. We live in an increasingly small world where the Other has suddenly become the Neighbor and this makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It's an idea that's going to factor in to my Fascism Fundamentals project (which, I swear, I will get to. It's just a lot bigger than I thought it would be and is going to require a lot more research than I'd assumed). But, more than that, it's something that should factor in to our thinking as we look at the state of the world around us right now. I'm reminded of an afternoon that I spent sitting in the office of a fundamentalist pastor. We'd had a cordial relationship up until that point and I had held a certain degree of respect for him. But he'd suddenly become very vocal in his fear of the Other. At some point the conversation turned to the subject of Islam. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that Islam is an evil, violent religion and he knew it because he'd read the Qu'ran. Nothing I said could counter his arguments, but it's not because he knew better than I did about the heart of Islam. It's because he refused to allow the Other to present itself in a way that wasn't according to his preconceptions. In the process of decrying the evil and violence of Islam, he told me that the Muslims have to be destroyed, completely oblivious to the fact that he was calling for the same senseless violence and evil that he was accusing the Other of. Without knowing it, he was asking for an Ender. I haven't spoken to him since. The interesting thing is, though, that rather than hate or fear him and his ideas, I feel sorry for him. He lives in a tiny world where anyone who isn't like him must be destroyed before it can destroy him. The saddest thing of all, though, is that if he ever actually meets the Other, he'll probably find that he shares much more in common with his enemy than he could have believed. It might force him to confront the fact that evil isn't something that comes entirely from one group or another, but it's something that potentially comes from inside each and every one of us. That realization makes it impossible to be a part of the "good" group and simply destroy the "bad" in order to create a paradise with no real personal cost. Religion (and, I suppose, most belief systems) is generally neither good nor evil in and of itself. For the violent it is a club. For the peaceful it is an olive branch. It's something to think about the next time someone calls for the death of all members of any group based on the idea that the Other is evil.