I was watching CNN’s documentary on the 1960s last night (which is interesting viewing, incidentally, if you want a quick overview of the decade), and in this particular episode it discussed how television (to paraphrase) was an escape from the darkness, fear, and unease that permeated the society at large. It was an age of zany sitcoms and upbeat variety shows while, on the evening news, the lists of American’s injured or killed in Vietnam was top news, college campuses were rioting, and black people were getting shot, bombed, sprayed with hoses, and assaulted with attack dogs all because they wanted basic human rights.
Now, everything in the latter half there should sound awfully familiar in our current era – the dead soldiers, the riots and demonstrations among the youth, and the mistreatment of African Americans marching for basic equality. What doesn’t sound familiar (at least to me) is the characterization of television as “zany.” Sure, there’s a docket of late night variety shows (though how much “variety” is present is debatable), but few of them are “zany” (with the possible exception of Jimmy Fallon). We’ve got sitcoms, too, but they have a lot less in common with The Dick VanDyke Show and Gilligan’s Island – with their “wholesome” and harmless optimism – and rely, instead, on cynicism, sarcasm, and insult comedy (look at any Chuck Lorre sitcom and despair).
As for dramas…yeesh. You know, when Dexter is one of the more optimistic offerings out there, you’ve got to step back and wonder what on Earth is wrong with us. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Expanse, The Magicians, The Walking Dead, The Blacklist, Man in the High Castle – we’re looking at a veritable who’s-who of dark, depressing, morally ambiguous, and emotionally wrenching stories that catch our collective attention. How many millions of people tuned in to watch Negan swing a baseball bat into somebody’s head, anyway?
What exactly does this say about us?
Now, mind you, I enjoy a lot of these shows. I like moral ambiguity and complex stories without clear resolutions. I do wonder, however, if all this misery, pain, and negativity saturating our entertainment is good for us on an emotional level. As the world gets darker and more disturbing around us with each passing year, wouldn’t it be more natural for us to go all-in with shows like The Good Place, which aspire to a generally positive tone and outlook? It seems this is what Supergirl and The Flash are trying to do, anyway, but (at least personally) something about those shows leaves me flat. They just lack a certain…darkness that I’ve come to expect.
And that last there is what vaguely worries me. Granted, it isn’t like I’ve performed an in-depth survey here and my sense is only that – a sense – but one wonders if we’ve become inured to the horrors of the world. That we don’t have the heady optimism of the post-war boom to ride on to remind us that life doesn’t have to suck and that America can, indeed, be a good place again. When was the last great era of American optimism in our collective lives? The 1990s, right? That’s twenty years gone, folks. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a barely remembered dream. Now it’s all zombie apocalypses and post-modern deconstructions of old sitcom tropes. It’s beheadings and ritualized cruelty. Our “escape” isn ‘t so much an escape as it is a funhouse mirror reflection of our real lives.
Then again, you could make the argument that this is actually healthy. That we aren’t sticking our heads in the sand; that we’re going to face our problems head-on for once. It could go either way, I suppose: either we will face down the dangers of our era with greater passion than before, or instead we will merely shrug and say “that’s life” and let the machine grind us up.
OR maybe I’m just hand-wringing over nothing. I am sure of one thing though: nobody wants or needs a Suicide Squad sequel. Nobody.
This story’s been out there for a while, and I haven’t talked about it mostly because I’ve been waiting to see if we get anything more solid, but here it goes: NASA is working on an actual warp drive.
Of course, there’s something that particular article doesn’t mention: Arriving in-system from warp drive might blow up the whole neighborhood around you. Sort of a downside, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I am resolving not to be negative about this, though. This is a big deal. A HUGE deal, if it works. This opens up the stars to us. This lets us get off this rock (of which I’ve been an advocate for quite some time). This could save the Earth, the whole human race, or entire way of life. BIG news.
But let’s not get all misty and over-the-top idealistic, either. The Federation of Planets didn’t come into being thanks to warp drive alone, and we’re nowhere near the kind of post-scarcity utopia Star Trek describes. Space travel will be as ugly and messed-up as anything else humanity has done, but hopefully with enough wonder and humanity to make up for it.
The important thing to always remember is that new technology is always filtered through the lens of culture, and culture dictates how the new technology is developed. It’s harrowing to me, for instance, that it currently looks as if we could design a star-system destroying, interstellar missile. All it will take for us to do it, too, is an alien species we find scary enough. Hell, a colony of ourselves we find scary enough would probably do it, and don’t think that we won’t.
Still and although, the capacity to explore the stars, as preliminary and theoretical as it now is, could mark a huge change for the human race as a species. It will be a giant shift in the political and economic power structure of the world’s nations (assuming we find anything good out there, but that’s a reasonably safe assumption). I don’t know what form this change will take, but there’s one thing I do hope:
I hope I live to see it happen.
For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.
Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.
Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:
- Who are the real Klingons, here?
- Why the love affair with a violent death?
- What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?
Who are the Real Klingons, Here?
Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.
Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.
Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?
In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:
- You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
- You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
- You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)
Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.
(cue theme music to Fame)
What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?
Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.
But if you win…
There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.
One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay
of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously – the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the forests of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.
As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go – it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.
The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.
Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography – they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor – a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.
One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away – I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.
My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it and, furthermore, has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s one of the current ones to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the eastern edge – the Dragonspine – which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.
Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.