Have you ever seen the old sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet? If not, see it. It’s a pretty brilliant film, very Star Trek in its feel, though a good many years preceding Star Trek. It also has Leslie Nielsen, but he isn’t behaving like an idiot, which is novel in and of itself if you grew up watching Zucker Brothers films. It’s a kind of sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which should give you snooty folks an excuse to take a look.
Anyway, I’m going to be talking about the movie here and digging into it, so if you want to watch it you really should before I ruin the whole thing for you. So, off you go.
Seen it yet? I’ll wait.
Okay, here we go: the central foe facing Nielsen and the gang is, essentially, the subconscious thoughts and primitive urges of the Prospero character (Morbius), primarily since Nielsen falls in love with the Miranda character (Altaria), and things go downhill. You see, Dr. Morbius was working with the ancient artifacts of a long-gone civilization (natch) called the Krell who disappeared in a single night. How, you ask? Well, they created the technology to make anything they thought of into something real, but forgot a pretty key fact: their primitive subconscious. Creatures from the Id.
This idea touches on something truly elemental in literature, which is carried out through every story of love gone wrong or rage gone unchained from Oedipus all the way to the Hulk. The id – that little monster inside of us that wants to get out and raise hell, consequences be damned. Science Fiction and Fantasy lit, in particular, is fairly obsessed with the problematic existence of the id. Think about all the demons and aliens and monsters out there who are, ultimately, just distilled representations of our emotions running off the rails. The Warhammer universe (both fantasy and 40K) has the Warp, which is *exactly* that – the reflection of living things emotional and pent-up primitive urges made real.
We specfic folks are usually disturbed by the id. We see it as unhealthy, uncontrolled, and dangerous. It makes us stupid. It’s for that reason, after all, that the Bene Gesserit of Dune administer the gom jabbar. That’s why we love Vulcans. That’s why the elves are prettier than the dwarves and why Hudson gets killed in Aliens and Hicks doesn’t. We know (or think) that losing our cool, letting the beast off the chain, is a Bad Idea.
Simultaneously, and unavoidably, we have a deep-seeded love of the kind of pathos whipped up when Banner goes Hulk or the Punisher exacts vengeance. We like Klingons, too, you know, for all their id-laden passions and poor impulse control. They, though, aren’t the lead characters. We don’t want to be them, precisely, so much as revel in their release and quickly get things back under wraps. If Bruce Banner is the Hulk all the time, the character loses something that we miss (or maybe not – were the ‘all Hulk, all the time’ comics popular? I remember finding them lame).
The trick, though, seems to be getting those passions under control. I borrow from Nietzsche here when he says, in “Morality as Anti-Nature”:
All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag us down with the weight of their stupidity – and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they spiritualize themselves…destroying passions and cravings, merely as a preventative measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity – today this strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity. We no longer admire dentists who “pluck out” teeth so that they will not hurt any more.
What this means is that, ultimately, you can’t get rid of the id without destroying yourself, without killing that part of you that makes you alive and makes you human. The Vulcans, ultimately, are the tragic ones in a sense, or at least just as foolish and troubled as the Klingons. Yes, they have all the science and the knowledge and the logic, but what good is it to them? Science is a ‘how’, not a ‘why’. The passions (and, by extension, their disciplines, known as literature, art, music, and the like) are needed to give us purpose and drive and imagination. The Creatures from the Id can be demons and monsters, yes, but they can also be angles and muses, guiding us to that distant light that logic and ego, for all their clarity, cannot yet see.
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.