George S. Patton once said “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” He was, at the time, referring to how the advent of combined arms, mechanized infantry, and mobile warfare had, more or less, rendered fixed defenses worthless in modern warfare. History has proven him right over and over again; hiding behind your wall or huddling in your fort not only fails to win wars, it can actually lose them.
And yet, we still love them so. Fantasy is awash in invulnerable castle after invulnerable castle; science fiction provides us with a stunning array of ridiculous space fortresses. Our hearts sing at the image of unassailable battlements flying the snow-white pennants of our allies. We look up and Minas Tirith and say ‘ooooooo!’
There’s just something about a really cool fortress, isn’t there? It hearkens back to childhood, where the tree forts with the retractable ladders kept away our little sisters and the right sign posted on a bedroom door would ward away any unsavory individuals from infiltrating our inner sanctum. We revel in that kind of invulnerability, that capacity to protect ourselves from the potentially harmful outsider. It’s basic, infantile obsessions with stability and security writ large.
It’s also complete bunk.
Think about the number of super-castles and space-bastions you’ve encountered. Now, ask yourself a follow up question: how many of them have really proven themselves as safe as advertised? Let’s face it, guys – anytime somebody wants to sneak in or out of a castle, they’ve done it. Sam and Frodo simply walked into Mordor, right? Minas Tirith was toast if it weren’t for Rohan and Aragorn’s army of ghosts. Both Death Stars were blown to smithereens by guys in tiny fighters. Wildlings jump over the Wall like it’s a sport. Andy Dufresne swam through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. These impenetrable citadels are pretty much never unassailable. There is always a way in, and often all it takes is brute force. So, what does that say?
I think, perhaps, what’s going on here is the other side of that childish wish for security – the equally childish desire for power. For every kid that loves building sand castles, there’s another kid that loves to see the ocean wash them away. Often, they’re the same kid. Putting them together is great, but tearing them down is just as good. Why? Well, we gain the satisfaction of knowing we can protect ourselves (at least symbolically) and the added satisfaction that no one can be protected from us. Hell, isn’t that the basic ethos of the US Marine Corps?
When we see a fortress in science fiction or fantasy (or anywhere else, for that matter) we are observing humanity’s desire for order and stability. When we see one torn down, we witness humanity’s desire for chaos and change. This is a duality at the soul of what humanity struggles with all the time, everywhere. It’s in the news virtually ever single day. It controls our political spectrum, colors our dreams and fears, and determines where we build our homes and the kind of locks we put on our doors.
So, when Patton says those pretty castles and super-cool space fortresses are monuments to our own stupidity, he’s still 100% right. The thing is, though, that there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. We still expect ambassadors in Libya to be safe when they hide inside particularly strong rooms. We still put our trust in our walls and our guns and our barbed wire, even though there’s a guy out there outmaneuvering us before we’ve finished laying the foundation.
Now, does this mean we stop trying to protect ourselves? Of course not. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. What it does mean, though, is that we should remember the lessons of those ancient (and currently unoccupied) fortresses of old and the ruins of those imagined fortresses of the supposed future – Change is coming. You can’t fight the Change, man. Learn to adapt.
Violence is ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy. The number of specfic tales that don’t include some kind of violence are few and far between. Indeed, the most attention and interest surrounding tales of the future or alternate worlds circle around the methods by which the people of that time or place fight one another. I think it’s worth asking the question why.
In the first place, we have to consider the audience. The majority of the audience in scifi and fantasy is male; men are more violent than women (if crime statistics are any indication) and have been raised in an environment where violence is romanticized. To say, however, that this is all there is to it is naive and, dare I say it, a bit sexist. Women may not commit violent crime as often, but to take up the mantra of ‘if women ran the world there would be no war’ is disingenuous towards men. I can point you towards plenty of female rulers who waged as many wars as their male counterparts (Elizabeth I, for instance, supported institutionalized piracy against the Spanish culminating in a massive naval battle; Catherine the Great didn’t conquer most of what is now modern Russia with smiles and handshakes alone). Certainly, men have been socialized for centuries to be the primary purveyors and consumers of violence, but women, I feel, have aided and abetted the process, if passively. The male/female controversy isn’t, however, my primary point here.
Albert Camus once wrote:
“The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. “
There is truth in this statement. The world is full of people we disagree with, often violently. We think them fools, monsters, or, most charitably, misled simpletons who ‘just don’t understand’. In our heart of hearts–our deepest, most animal self–we wish we could MAKE THEM LISTEN. Herein lies war and violence. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could bash in that jerk’s face and make him obey than take the long route round? That route involves compromise, engagement, patience, and humility. Why bother? We’re right, aren’t we? When we have cast down our enemy and toppled their proud works into the dust, we are the victor; we are admired, we are the future author of history. “Americans,” said George Patton, “hate a loser.” I don’t think Americans are necessarily alone in this.
Even more simply than this is the fact that we have desires–physical, emotional, material, etc.–and resources to supply these desires are seldom so abundant that we can have them without conflict. Wars are been fought over money, food, land, and political influence. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships; any given episode of Jerry Springer has shown us two people fighting over affection, heredity, ownership–desire, all by other names. Lao Tzu, in the Tao te Ching, advises us to practice ‘not wanting’ as a path to both spiritual and political peace and enlightenment. Simple enough, but easier said than done.
To come back to science fiction and fantasy, we must consider that the human condition is one defined by conflict. If the speculative genres exist to explore the human condition in a kind of fictional laboratory separated or made distinct from our own society, then conflict–violence–is going to be part of that discussion. I tried writing a story in college once for a writing workshop wherein the main character simply wanders off into the woods and comes to a personal epiphany with some local wood sprites. The story was fantasy in a fantastic world; my professor (one of those specfic haters) asked me ‘why not put it in the real world? Why bother with fantasy?” I rankled at the question then, but I’ve come to look at it differently now. If all I was doing in that story was exploring a young man’s understanding of his educational opportunities, then fantasy was too blunt an instrument. I was tapping in a thumb tack with a sledgehammer–no, fantasy is a bigger, heavier genre than simple literary fiction. It is for exploring those massive issues which litfic need not or does not. These large issues are things that lead us to the mighty cataclysms of our species–war, violence, murder, chaos, anarchy, deep evil, and gleaming good. If specfic errs on the side of violence, it is merely because it is doing what it should and can do better than other genres.
Of course, spaceships exploding and armies of goblins also sell books. Mustn’t forget that, either.