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Good essay, great closing lines:
Narrative is not the power to choose outcomes, but it is often the power to tip the scales when someone is hovering between action and despair. You can find hundreds of images of protest signs with lines from Orwell, but a few years ago when Japan hosted a world peace summit, the organizers hung a very different sign in the main hall: “We Must Make a Future That Would Not Make Astro Boy Cry.” So many tools that galvanize resistance come from fantasy and science fiction. We who, with Tezuka and with Le Guin, explore imagined worlds, alternatives, and other ways of being must not narrow that larger reality, not when it has so much power to shape action, hope, or surrender. So let’s keep broadening our broader reality, so we can also broaden the possibilities of this one.
Emphasis mine. I also chewed a great deal on this graf:
We need to tell more stories where governments don’t cover up, where civilians do, where well-meaning censorship has bad consequences, where bad guys expose truth, where plucky rebels debate the ethics of using misinformation even against the evil empire, where the ancient secret society goes public for good or ill, where the vampire hunters try approaching the W.H.O., or where the genius who says the people can’t handle the truth is challenged on that assumption.
In other words, we need stories that intelligently confront moral complexity of the 21st century variety. Our current mess may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility, and we need more stories to show how the door of that responsibility swings both ways, how the old narratives are less and less capable of bearing the load of the New Weird Normal.
What we don't want, though, are stories where those kinds of complexities become excuses for the inevitability of evil — that become handmaiden's tales to the notion that it was ever thus so, so why should it change? We want to see these complexities, but we also want them to play out in such a way that they affirm the need for hope and wisdom.
I do think, though, that the local incarnations of these ideas might look drastically unlike what we expect, and that would be for the best. A story about a bad guy who exposes something worse than him is actually not the newest idea: many thrillers have been written about a criminal who exacts revenge on the authorities by blackmailing them with evidence of their misdeeds. What's novel, I think, is how to integrate that into the feeling of the moment. We now live in a world where where leaning into shamelessness makes you unblackmailable, as we have so tragically seen happen at the highest levels of power. So imagine a Bad Person who imagines his exposing of corruption will get him out of trouble, only to find the only thing greater than the need to make him into an enemy is the indifference of the whole. In other words, he's the naïve one for thinking anyone would care. And so maybe his mission shifts when he realizes the choice isn't between good and evil, but the way righteousness and indifference can both be weaponized. His own understanding of the world has expanded in a way that his adversaries do not have access to. He now has a greater range of actions open to him. He is all the more deserving of being a protagonist. He may not be a Good Guy, but now more than ever we want to see what he does, because his struggle is now very much our struggle, and not just in this moment but in all moments where corruption has become the order of the day.
I've attempted some of these complexities myself. I leave it to you to see if they worked. In my most recent book, there is a meditation on power, where the protagonists realize the best way to destroy the suzerains of their world is not to simply usurp them and thus become them. Rather, it's to arrange things such that everyone has a little of what they have — the protagonists themselves included. (They do not believe the "little people" can't handle the truth; it's the little people who collectively constitute the truth of our world anyway.) My impulse here was, in a way, reactionary: I didn't want to tell yet another story where the new boss is, in fact, the same as the old boss. I hope I passed the audition.
The democratization of power isn't the perfect solution to the problem of power, but it's one of the few that has worked at all, and so I made that the point: no more masters, but rather teachers, and students who in time come to replace them. Utopian, to be sure. But like they said, maybe broadening our broader reality will also broaden the possibilities of this one. And any future that would make Tetsuwan Atomu cry isn't my idea of fun, either.
Previous: I Liked The Movie Better. No, Really.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind