I just read a piece by Aliette de Bodard on Tor.com about how oppressive systems perpetuate themselves. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (good read, by the way – nice, fast paced, and very Star Wars-ish). Also somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been working on another book in The Saga of the Redeemed that, in fact, deals with popular revolution against an oppressive regime.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that revolution is very much on my mind.
(please pause as the NSA zeroes in its internet snoopers…)
De Bodard’s article has it exactly right – oppressive systems do not persist in spite of the people but with their approval (tacit or begrudging as it may be). One of the things I liked about Wendig’s novel is that he goes out of his way to mention and show how people put up with the Galactic Empire for so long because that was basically how it was done. That was just how the world was. Yeah, they sucked, but if you kept your head down and didn’t cause trouble and just went along to get along, you’d be more-or-less fine. Luke Skywalker, remember, was going to apply to the Imperial Naval Academy in Episode IV. Not the rebels. The rebels, I’m betting, didn’t offer much in the way of career options or recruiting centers. Yeah, young Luke wanted off the farm, but he didn’t want off it that badly that he was going to throw in his lot with a bunch of crazy terrorists.
Wendig also tries to demonstrate how messy the transition from Galactic Empire to New Republic is going to be, too. For one thing, as the tagline says, the war isn’t over. There’s a lot of Galactic Empire out there, folks, and it isn’t about to roll over and die. Well, not all of it. Some of it will, some of it will go rogue, other parts will keep fighting. Criminal syndicates will take over backwater systems. Vigilantes will run amok. Basic systems and services will break down. Lots and lots and lots of people will die. That’s just for starters, too, and during that time you are going to have a lot of people asking one question:
“Was the Galactic Empire really all that bad? Was it worse than this?”
In Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, he talks about something called the Thermidorian Reaction – the period of calm that follows the furor of revolution. Most interestingly, this reaction sees the relaxation of some revolutionary policies and, in the end, results in the new order sharing a number of potent similarities with the old order. In other words, the revolution, in the end, doesn’t change society half as much as it thinks it will. The Russian people weren’t a hell of a lot better off under the Soviets than they were under the Czars; the new system of the United States wasn’t all that much different than Britain; the current rulers of Egypt are scarcely any different than Mubarak. Heck, it’s basically the same people in charge. Again.
In the Saga of the Redeemed, particularly in the next book or three, I want to deal with the awkwardness and horrible mess that is involved in “fixing society.” Tyvian, bound by the ring’s influence, has to act to do what is “right,” but what is “right” doesn’t always translate to what is “best” (as he points out strenuously and at length). Indeed, there seems to be some doubt on his part that any improvement at all is possible, especially given that, in the end, all new world orders are made up of the same things: human beings.
While I am perhaps not as cynical as my protagonist (heaven forfend!), I do wonder if people understand what they’re advocating for when they propose to tear down an oppressive system. We make it sound so easy sometimes – the American Revolution was won at the Battle of Yorktown, and that was it (and yet, in 1812, we were basically still fighting it). One battle – one war – does not a revolution make. Society changes slowly, very slowly; it’s like the melting of a glacier. Sometimes a big hunk falls off all at once and there’s a huge crash, but that was made possible by a long, long process of the supporting ice melting out from underneath. Even then – even after it falls – it will just freeze back again come winter unless we are vigilant (or we raise the ambient temperature of the globe sufficient to…actually, you know what? Different discussion for a different time.).
The revolutions of the world are not just the stories of Luke Skywalker or George Washington. They are also the story of the pain, suffering, and deaths of thousands or even millions of souls trapped beneath the wheels of history. If you need a reminder of just how ugly a thing that can be, you need look no further than the barbed wire fences surrounding the nation of Hungary and the poor, starving people huddled on the other side.
I’ve discovered an odd trend in myself these days: I’ve been yelling at the TV a lot. Even more oddly, the things that make me yell at the TV the most (besides Scott Brown political ads…ugh) is the show Revolution. Now, I’ve already ranted a bit about how I find the basic premise ridiculous, but there’s more to it than that. There is a cynicism hidden within and behind the show that makes me pretty frustrated with what is, apparently, the writers (or perhaps modern society’s) attitude towards human endeavor. It isn’t just Revolution, either. I find this frustration present in most zombie franchises, too (another premise I find ridiculous) and, indeed, with much of the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic sub-genre. Again, it all has to do with what these folks think of human nature and human’s capacity to survive.
In my most recent yell-at-Revolution escapade, I caught an episode where Maggie describes how she tried to get home to her family in Britain after the blackout. There was lightning in the episode, too, which prompted me to yell “DO LIGHTNING RODS STILL WORK?”, but that’s besides the point. The point is that Maggie explains, tearfully, how she couldn’t find anybody to take her across the Atlantic. She meets a fisherman in a flashback who exclaims ‘there are no steam engines, no tall ships anymore, and those we had were broken down for firewood’ and basically explains that no one can sail across the ocean anymore. Even presuming the non-existence of tall ships (false) or assuming we broke them all down for firewood (though you would think having the only ocean-going vessel would be put to better use), I have this to say:
Do you know what you need to cross the Atlantic?
- A Compass
- A Sailboat that doesn’t leak
Given the number of fiberglass and aluminum sailing vessels in the US (in the millions), if even 10% of those are large enough to safely cross an ocean, that’s hundreds of thousands of potential boats. There are a lot of sailors, too, and it isn’t all that hard to learn, and you’d imagine if the power went out, sailing would become massively lucrative and important almost immediately.
These facts, though, aren’t what the purveyors of apocalyptic literature are interested in, though. That isn’t what the writers mean, precisely, when they tell us Maggie can’t cross the ocean. They’re trying to sell us on the idea that humanity is helpless without modern civilization and that only the very strongest of us can achieve anything without it. They’re trying to say that element #5 – guts – is a rare and unusual diamond among the detritus of humanity. This, right here, is what makes me start yelling at people.
Look at this guy:
If you think Felix Baumgartner is unique and alone, you’re wrong. For every person watching his jump on Youtube saying ‘I could never do that’, there were others who were saying ‘that is totally awesome’. Hell, many of the team that put him up there are probably cut from similar cloth, in that they invested time, blood, and treasure into this ‘ridiculous’ scheme – you don’t do that unless you admire it. Maybe they’re not likely to jump out of weather balloons, but they’ve got the desire to make their mark on the world. In Felix Baumgartner, we see the thing that the apocalyptics don’t seem to like acknowledging: humans do some pretty amazing stuff, no matter the circumstances. Ever heard of Shackleton? Hillary? Magellan? The Wrights? Eriksson? The Venerable–fucking-Bede? The Felix Baumgartners of the world would look at Maggie the English Doctor, crying for her children, and say “Sure lady, I’ll get you across the Atlantic. Might take me a little bit, but I’ve got a plan.”
Humanity is nothing if not adaptable. Even in our darkest times, we accomplished wonderful things. We, as a species, do not crumble in the face adversity; if anything, it makes us better. When I look at scifi stories that refuse to acknowledge the beauty and wonder of humanity’s potential, it saddens me. It reminds me of what Michael Dorn had to say about these days in which we live. To summarize, he thinks we need more Star Trek. We need more optimism. We need people like Dorn and Baumgartner and to remind us that, no matter how bad it gets, so long as there are people, we’ll make a comeback. And the odds are pretty good that we won’t run out of people.
There are those who think that writing science fiction or coming up with fantasy settings is easy since you can ‘do whatever you want.’ The thing is, though, that this isn’t really true at all. You can do whatever you want in the same sense that you can do whatever you want in any genre, from upscale/literary fiction all the way through bodice rippers. Yeah, you can write your entire novel without proper nouns. Certainly you can exclusively write in present tense using a second person POV. Yes, you can stop your novel halfway through, leave an ellipsis, and call it a cliffhanger. You can do all of those things.
That doesn’t mean doing those things is a good idea.
The trick with science fiction and fantasy is this: you suddenly have to care much, much more about realism than you would in a different genre. You have to care about it more because you are willfully and knowingly violating it on a regular basis, but must do so in such a way that the audience accepts such a violation as reasonable.
Now, fantasy and science fiction do this in different ways. Specifically, fantasy is involved in making the impossible seem possible (Magic? Goblins? Fairies? Sure, I’ll buy that!). The whole world needs to be constructed so that nobody looks sideways at the surreal and/or if they do, there is documented reasons why. You, essentially, create your own history, science, mathematics, and physics to go along with everything. In scifi, however, you are involved in making the possible seem plausible. In other words, science fiction is obligated to extrapolate upon known scientific concepts whenever possible. It doesn’t create its own laws of physics; it takes the existing ones and imagines their theoretical applications beyond what we can currently achieve. You can’t break the rules without spending a good amount of time explaining how.
You are, furthermore, in both genres, obligated to explain how, no matter how obliquely. Fantasy can often get away with the whole ‘it’s a different, alien world’ angle (though not always), but science fiction is held to a higher standard, since it’s operating in the ‘real’ world. Works of speculative fiction that don’t do their due diligence in justifying their concepts suffer for it, since the audience has to work pretty hard at suspending their disbelief all the time. If you want to say, I don’t know, that all electricity has ceased to function (a la Revolution), you need to make sure things are internally consistent.
I’m reminded of a pitch workshop/session I attended wherein the group was going to have the opportunity to do a group pitch to an editor from Del Rey books, one of the big SF/F publishing houses. The editor was not sparing in her critique of each author’s pitch, but one guy got raked over the coals so hard it made the rest of the room blush to hear it. He was a kid (still in college) pitching an Arthuriana scifi epic in which the descendants of Mordred took over the world and rule the earth from what would have been modern day New York City, save for the altered timeline. The editor proceeded to ask him a couple mundane questions:
Why did they move to New York? Why not London?
What happened to the Native Americans in this timeline?
Were there ever Nazis in this world? Did World War 2 ever happen?
So, it’s been a thousand years, right? Why do they still use swords?
The guy could supply no satisfactory answers to any of these questions. His world crumbled around his ears when placed under mild scrutiny. At the end, the editor said “I don’t think you have any real idea what’s happening in your own novel,” and left it at that. Harsh? Perhaps. But I think she was right.
This, of course, brings me to Revolution. I watched the pilot last night; the characters are good, the acting is okay, the action is fun, and the conflict seems engaging. The premise, though, makes no damned sense in the least. It would be one thing if somebody destroyed the grid (somehow), or if the earth were bombarded by EM so intense that it consistently scrambled all electronics. That, though, isn’t what is shown as happening. Electricity is just gone, as though by a David Copperfield illusion. One character remarks ‘physics went haywire’. This elicited a grunt from me – yes, it would have to. However, you aren’t allowed to do that. This story takes place in the really-real world, man; physics just doesn’t ‘go haywire’. I’m not a physicist, but I have a serviceable grasp of the basic concepts, and nothing they portray in that show pass basic muster. No electricity doesn’t mean no cars, it just means cars that need to be cranked in order to start. No electricity doesn’t mean the permanent collapse of infrastructure, it means a reversion to steam power. Guns still work; there is no godly reason you’d revert to muzzle-loading muskets and crossbows. Colt invented his revolver and Maxim perfected the machine gun in pre-electrical times, folks. In short, the world portrayed isn’t the one that seems likely to develop fifteen years post-blackout, even if we do accept the nonsense idea that electricity ceased to function (as though the movement of electrons were some kind of ‘technology’ and not a basic physical property of existence).
Nevertheless, I might still watch the show. That was a reasonably cool swordfight, after all.