Category Archives: morality

Books that discuss morality.

Review 123: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell

Gods, where do I even start with this?

As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I read this during Banned Books Week for two reasons. First, it’s on the ALA’s list of top banned or challenged books, and second because it’s really, really good.

As with all the books I read, there’s always a little part of me thinking about what I’m going to say about the book once I finally decide to write about it. Sometimes I start composing in my mind, coming up with the pithy words and phrases that have made me into the international book reviewing superstar that I am.

This time, however, I could barely concentrate for the cacophony in my head. There’s just so much going on in this novel that doing it any sort of justice would probably require writing a book that was longer than the book that it was analyzing. And as much as I love you guys, I’m not about to write a whole book about this. Probably because I reckon better minds than mine already have.

Art by Party9999999 on DeviantArt

Regardless, it’s hard to choose where exactly to go on this one. There are so many political, sociological, psychological and philosophical threads to pick up here that no matter what I write about, I’m pretty sure I’ll get responses about how I didn’t mention the solipistic nature of Ingsoc and its relationship to the philosophy behind modern cable news network reporting strategies. Don’t worry, guys – I got that one.

I suppose two big things came to mind while I was reading it this time, and the first of them was inspired by the previous book I read, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that book, Atticus Finch talks a lot about bravery. To teach his son about what it truly means to be brave, he gets him to take part in an old woman’s struggle to free herself of a morphine addiction before she dies – an excruciating process that is more likely to fail than to succeed. But she does it anyway. Atticus says to his son about bravery, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

The question in my mind, then, was “Is Winston Smith brave?”

I really want to put this on a t-shirt....

It’s a hard question to answer, really. By Atticus’ definition, you could say that he is. A member of the Outer Party that rules the superstate of Oceania, Winston Smith is a part of a greater machine. He works in the records department of the Ministry of Truth, diligently altering and “rectifying” the data of the past to bring it into alignment with what the Party wants to be true. His is a world where there is no such thing as objective truth – the truth is what the Party says it is.

A good member of the Party sublimates his will to that of the Party. What Big Brother wants, she wants. She has no love but love for the Party and no dreams but to do what the Party wants of her. A good Party member doesn’t have plans or hopes or dreams. He doesn’t ask questions or idly wonder if things could be different from what they are. A good Party member doesn’t think. He is born, lives, consumes, and dies.

Winston, however, cannot be a good Party member. He wonders why the world is the way it is, and begins down a road to assert his own identity as a human being. He knows full well that he will fail, that in the end he and the woman he loves will be delivered into the hands of the Thought Police, and he is appropriately terrified. But he goes through with it anyway. He keeps a diary of his thoughts and actively tries to join an underground movement that is determined to overthrow the Party and Big Brother. He declares himself willing to undertake acts of heinous treason, all in the name of resistance against the Party.

The new faces of the Party. DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!!

And in the end, he fails, just as he knew he would. So does this make Winston, a man who is so far in character from Atticus Finch, a brave person? Well, yes and no.

He does meet Atticus’ definition of bravery – persisting in what you believe to be right, even in the knowledge that you will probably fail. Winston puts his own life on the line multiple times, committing Thoughtcrime of the highest order. But is he doing it for some higher ideal, or is he doing it for more selfish reasons? Flashbacks to his younger days suggest that Winston Smith was an unrepentantly selfish child, who was willing to disregard the dire straits of his own mother and baby sister in order to get what he wanted. Could we not say that the adult Winston does the same? That he is more interested in freedom for himself than for others? Is his rebellion against Big Brother political or personal? He claims that he wants to see the world changed and freedom brought to all people, but how far can we trust a mind that’s been well-trained in Doublethink?

This, of course, gets right back to the Big Question of why people do the right thing, when it might be so much easier and profitable to do otherwise. Atticus Finch could have let Tom Robinson swing, thus saving himself and his family a whole lot of trouble, just as Winston could have just given up and emulated his neighbor, Parsons, becoming as good a Party member as possible. Neither man could do that, though, because is was not in their nature to do so. It was impossible for Winston to continue to live the way the Party wanted to and, given time, he may have been able to reach beyond meeting his own personal needs and seen to the needs of his greater community.

Unfortunately, we never get the chance to find out, as the Thought Police eventually get tired of watching him and take him in. To his credit, he does hold out to the last extreme before he betrays Julia in his heart, so perhaps he is brave after all.

How adorable....

The other thing that came to mind while I read was the modern use of the word “Orwellian,” and how it falls vastly short of what is depicted in this book. It gets thrown about any time a city puts up a few CCTV cameras downtown, or a business decides to put surveillance cameras in their store. It comes up when we put RFID chips in passports and credit cards, or when we think about how much data Google can hold about us. The word brings to mind a sense of constant surveillance, never being able to move or act without some government or corporation knowing what we’re doing.

While the concept of the two-way telescreens in this book certainly are a logical extension of surveillance culture, to call a customer database or red light cameras “Orwellian” is like calling a Bronze-age chariot a Ferrari. It betrays an incredible lack of understanding of what exactly is going on in the world that Orwell has built. We may be watched by these people, but in comparison to the average citizen of Oceanea – prole or Party member – we are still remarkably free.

Freedoms available to us. Not these people.

There are still freedoms available to us that people like Winston never had, and couldn’t understand even if they were offered. We can protest, we can voice our disagreements, we can channel our energies into whatever pursuit we choose, or not channel them at all. We have the freedom to decide who we want to be and how we want to live, at least within the limits of a well-ordered society. We do not live in daily terror that we might be abducted from our beds, our lives ended and our very existence erased from record and memory. Honestly, I think a few security cameras pale in comparison to the horror that is Oceanea and the world of Big Brother.

There is so much more to talk about with this book. I find Newspeak fascinating, and its foundations both amazing and terrifying. The idea that a concept can only truly exist if there’s a word for it brings to mind those “untranslatable” words you find in every language. For example, there’s no equivalent to the English “miss” in Japanese, as in “I miss my mother.” Does that mean that people in Japan are incapable of missing people? Of course not, but the underlying theory of Newspeak suggests otherwise. Once the party reduces the English language to a series of simple words with no nuance or subtlety of meaning, the idea goes, Thoughtcrime will be literally impossible. After all, how can one wish for freedom if the concept itself is impossible to articulate?

Then there’s the idea of the mutability of the past. The way the Party exerts its unbreakable control over the population is by virtue of the fact that they control all media – newspapers, radio, television, publishing of all sorts. If the Party wants to, say, claim that Big Brother invented the airplane, all they have to do is revise all relevant media to reflect their desired past, and then replace and destroy anything that disagrees with them. With no evidence that Big Brother didn’t invent the airplane, all that’s left is fallible human memory, and those who do think they remember the “right” version of the past will eventually die anyway. Whoever controls the present, the Party says, controls the future. And whoever controls the past controls the present. By remaking the past, the Party guarantees that they can never be gainsaid or proven to have erred in any way.

Even Big Brother would crumble before 4chan....

Fortunately for us, Big Brother never had the internet to contend with. As anyone who’s been online for a while knows, nothing on the internet ever goes away. Ever. The words of any leader or influential person are all there, in multiple copies, all of which can themselves be copied and distributed in mere seconds. While it is possible to fake a photograph, the awareness of that possibility, as well as the technology to suss out the fakes, are just as available to anyone who wants them. Even in cases where there are disputes about the past, or re-interpretations of past events, it is impossible for one version to systematically replace all others. While this sometimes results in competing versions of the past, the one with the most evidence tends to prevail.

Continuing in that vein, the understanding that the Party controls all information about itself leads to a very interesting question that’s not addressed in the book – is anything that is not directly witnessed by Winston Smith true? We are led to believe, for example, that there are three world powers – Oceanea, Eastasia and Eurasia – which are locked in a state of perpetual war. The nature of this war and how it serves the interests of these three nations is laid out in Goldstein’s Book, which is the text of the Revolution that Winston and Julia want to join. But here’s the thing – Goldstein’s Book is an admitted fiction, written by the Party as a kind of honeypot to bring suspects through the last stages of their Thoughtcrime. So we have no proof that the world of Nineteen Eighty-four actually is laid out the way it appears.

Is this the real world? GO TO ROOM 101, CITIZEN!

The Party could in fact dominate the world, using the pretext of war to keep the world’s citizens terrified, needy and compliant. On the other extreme, Oceanea could just be Britain, turned in on itself like some super-accelerated North Korea, its borders sealed and its citizens kept in utter ignorance of the world outside. We don’t know. We have no way of knowing, and neither do any of the characters in the book. Even the Inner Party members might not know the truth of their world, and wouldn’t care if they did.

One more thing, and I’ll keep this one short – Doublethink. The ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind, believing in both of them simultaneously and yet being unaware that there’s any conflict at all. Knowing, for example, that last week chocolate rations were at thirty grams, and at the same time knowing that this week they had been raised to twenty. All I can say here is to look at the health care debate in the United States. Here’s a fun game: see how often someone says, “We have the best health care in the world,” and then see how long it takes before they tell us that health care in the United States is irrevocably broken. Your average politician and pundit does this kind of thing all the time and, in accordance with the basic principles of Doublethink (also known as Reality Control), they immediately forget that they had done it.

No! Not Obamacare! Do it to Julia! DO IT TO JULIA!!! (Art by Scott Sullivan on Flickr)

This game is much easier if you watch Glenn Beck for half an hour. You’ll be missed, Glenn.

There is just so much to be gleaned from this book. Probably the most important is this – the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four is certainly not an impossible one, but it is unlikely. The people of that world allowed the Party to take over for them in a time of crisis, and in that sense this book is a warning to us all. It is a warning to keep the power that we have, and to resist the temptation to let a government decide who we should be.

——————————————-
“I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-four

George Orwell on Wikipedia
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Wikipedia
Online comic adaptation
Nineteen Eighty-Four on Amazon.com

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Filed under classics, dystopia, ethics, existentialism, fiction, futurism, George Orwell, language, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, psychology, totalitarianism, truth

Lost in the Stacks 4: Writers and Readers

With the debut of HBO’s “A Game of Thrones” miniseries and a new article in The New Yorker, the strange story of George R. R. Martin and his fans has been on my mind. So, in this episode of Lost in the Stacks, we examine the weird, often dangerously codependent relationship between the Writer and the Readers.

What does the writer owe to his or her readers, if anything? What can the readers honestly expect of their writer? What promises, implicit or explicit, have been made, and what happens when they’re broken?

Join me for an interesting conversation, and let me know what you think!

George R. R. Martin’s homepage
Finish the Book, George
Is Winter Coming?

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Filed under analysis, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, George R. R. Martin, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading, writing

Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

———————————————-
“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades on Wikipedia
John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Ghost Brigades on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

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Filed under adventure, aliens, ethics, existentialism, fiction, friendship, identity, John Scalzi, military, morality, philosophy, science fiction, technology, transhumanism, truth, war

Review 113: The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

I really enjoy Richard Adams. Part of it is his writing – he has an excellent style and a definite gift for description. When he talks about a place, it is immediately obvious that he’s actually been there. He uses multiple senses to tell you what a place looks, sounds and smells like, the feeling of the damp earth and the rolling mists, the tastes that seep through the air…. Not surprising when one is writing a book where a pair of dogs are the primary characters.

And that’s another reason I like Adams. Lots of people write books about animals, personifying them and making them into almost-humans. But most of these writers tend to idealize the animals, put them into the sort of “noble savage” category which places humanity immediately in the wrong.

The fox is almost unintelligible. Enjoy that.

Not Adams. His animals are animals. In Watership Down, which was ostensibly a book for children, the animals live through fear, terror, despair and war. There is blood and death and pain, mostly because there is blood and death and pain in the natural world. He does acknowledge that he over-humanizes his characters, but without that, there would be no story.

This book is about the intersection of animals and man, and asks a very important question: what is humanity’s responsibility towards the animals? While he may not know what the true answer is, Adams definitely knows which answers are wrong. The book begins in a scientific research lab, in the quiet hills of northern England, where any number of experiments are performed on any number of animals. Some of them are paid for by outside interests – cosmetics corporations, for example – while others are performed to, in the mind of the lab’s directors, further the scope of scientific knowledge. Adams’ utter contempt for this kind of activity is immediately evident when you read it, and he spares no detail in describing what happens in these experiments. Animals mutilated, burned, shocked, frozen, exposed to poisons in their air, water and food. Kept awake, asleep, isolated…. all just to see what would happen. And when they die, they are disposed of with no more thought than one might dispose of a burned-out light bulb.

Like this, only worse.

One of the subjects is a large black mongrel dog which is being used to answer the great burning scientific question of, “What would happen if we kept trying to drown a dog but never actually let it die?” Rowf (having never had a master, his name is just the sound he makes) has a single companion in the lab, in the cage next to him – a small terrier who, having had a master before, has a name – Snitter. Snitter has been the subject of a far stranger experiment, and the brain surgery has left a deep scar across his skull and a deeper rift in his mind.

The two dogs manage to escape from the lab into the outside world, where they manage to survive, if only barely.

Poor, crazy Snitter....

And normally, that would be the end of the story. But then Adams reveals his antipathy for bureaucracy and the modern media, for where both of these intersect, terrible phantoms and ghouls can arise. Worried farmers, whose sheep are targets of the two hungry dogs, call their representatives to get answers from the recalcitrant lab. The ministers talk and talk about it, and when word leaks out to a well-known London tabloid, the story explodes.

WAS the lab not working with many kinds of animals the night the dogs escaped, it asked. Among those animals, were there not RATS? And were those rats not the subjects of tests involving the horrible BLACK PLAGUE? CAN the laboratory ASSURE the taxpaying public that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE, none at all that the dogs are not infected with the virulent PLAGUE?

The newspaper’s answer, the one that will sell more copies, of course, is NO. And so, the two dogs, who were lucky enough to escape and canny enough to survive, become known nationwide as the Plague Dogs, subjects of a hunt which escalates beyond reasonable proportions.

Poor, miserable Rowf....

As much as this is an animal adventure story, a kind of twisted version of Homeward Bound, it is also commentary. There’s a lot of dog philosophy in here, for one of Adams’ gifts is being to get into the heads of the animals he’s writing. The two dogs agree on one thing – it is a dog’s place in the world to serve humanity. But how? Snitter, who’d had a good master once, believes that they are there to make humans happy, to bring love to a home. Rowf, however, having known nothing other than the laboratory, believes that dogs are there to be abused by humans for their unknowable purposes, and that by running away from the lab and the water tank, he has become a Bad Dog.

Also, looking at the world from a dog’s perspective is interesting. Snitter, for example, believes that the newspaper-boy delivers a paper to the Master’s house solely so the Master and Snitter can play a fun game. Isn’t that boy nice? And having known only suburbia, he is shocked that humans have ripped up the world and replaced it with all these green things and mountains and deep holes filled with water – which, of course, Rowf believes are used to drown unthinkably huge animals much as he was drowned. Adams asked himself the question, “How would a dog interpret the world?” and got a lot of great ideas from it.

And, as I mentioned before, there’s a lot of talk about humanity’s responsibility towards the animals. Should we use them for whatever purposes we wish? Of course not. Are we necessarily “better” than the other animals? More skilled, yes, more clever, certainly, but better? No. We are animals, and as such we cannot allow ourselves to place ourselves above the great interconnected web of life. We may never know what our purpose in Nature is, but we can know what our purpose is not.

Not quite the end....

One really interesting part of the book is a wonderful section near the end where the Writer and the Reader argue about the fate of the dogs. It’s a little meta-fictional, but it’s an acknowledgment by Adams that he knows how the story should end, and he knows how his readers want it to end. Reading it, it appears that Adams clearly thinks the dogs should die – not because they were Bad Dogs or anything like that, but because the vision of humanity that he constructed for the book demanded their deaths. Most of the humans in the story want the dogs dead, and letting that inevitable ending take place would be his way of saying, “See? I told you so.”

If I had to guess, though, he showed the original, “Dead Dogs” version to someone – his wife, his editor, his agent – and that person said, “No. Uh-uh, no. No no no. No.” And so Adams grudgingly breaks the fourth wall with a short narrative poem which is essentially him saying, “Fine, have your happy ending….” It’s a wonderful part, and I admit to getting a little choked up every time I read it.

Just a little, mind you.

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“It’s a bad world for the helpless.”
Mr. Ephraim, The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs on Wikipedia
Richard Adams on Wikipedia
The Plague Dogs on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, animals, dogs, England, ethics, fantasy, friendship, media, morality, Richard Adams, society

Review 112: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I’d like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did last year – Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories – are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Child soldiers in science fiction are so cute....

Just about everyone mentioned Ender’s Game, and with good reason. It’s a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students’ lives – slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It’s about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

In real life... not so much.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already – their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has named the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers”), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can’t fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they’re looking for.

Almost makes me want to have my childhood stolen from me....

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he’s been chosen, he doesn’t know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal – one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It’s a fun book, and a very quick read, and it’s one of those “I should have read this when I was a teenager” books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I – like every other teenager ever – had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn’t want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender’s problems are much bigger than that of the average young person’s, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender’s Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, “Yes – life is like this.” Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that “honesty is the best policy,” but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we – adults, and especially teachers – lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

Even Peter would be helpless against the LOLCats.

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender’s attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card’s prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender’s Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don’t seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card’s public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort.

FINE. I didn't want to marry you anyway....

What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you’re really lucky, it’ll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
- Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Game on Amazon.com

I couldn't NOT put it in....

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Filed under brothers, childhood, children, coming of age, ethics, family, friendship, military, morality, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sisters, teenagers, truth, war, young adult

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
- Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
- Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
Rags Morales on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman

Review 69: Skipping Towards Gomorrah


Skipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage

America. Here and now, in the first decade of the 21st century, there are those who say that America is on the decline. It’s a nation awash in sin and degradation, vice and immorality. Pot smokers, gamblers, homosexuals, feminists, Liberals – oh, those damned Liberals – they’re all conspiring to destroy everything that is good and moral about the United States of America, and you – yes, you are letting them do it! Soon this nation that we all love and cherish will be nothing but an opium orgy den for a bunch of homosexual atheist abortion doctors.

This is what they believe, those whom Dan Savage refers to as the Scolds, the Virtuecrats and the Naysayers. We know who they are – usually Republican conservatives, often of the evangelical Christian variety. They are men (and occasionally women) such as Robert Bork, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, and of all the things they have in common, the most glaring is that they believe that The United States is in a state of utter moral decay. Americans who choose sex for any function other than making babies, who choose to put drugs into their bodies, who allow themselves to be fat and indolent – SHAME on you! It is your sinning that is destroying America! Jerry Falwell himself said as much after the attacks on 9/11:

I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.” 

And, it would seem – given the naysayers’ ubiquity and volume – they are right.

Or maybe not.

Dan Savage is an acclaimed advice columnist, specializing in relationship and sex advice. He started with a newspaper column nearly twenty years ago, and he’s gained international attention, mainly by being very good at his job. He doesn’t sugar-coat his advice, often telling people instead to DTMFA (Dump the mother-f*cker already!) if it’s clear they’re in a bad relationship. He helped coin a new meaning for the word santorum as well as pegging (Google them – I’m trying to keep this clean). He’s abrasive, contrarian, direct – and an outspoken advocate of the pursuit of happiness. Most of his advice can be boiled down to a simple question: Are you happy?

What Savage is exploring in this book is all the ways people try to make themselves happy, and why those are all the things that the Virtuecrats believe are sinful, immoral and conducive to America’s decline in the world. In order to understand the sins, he has to meet the sinners and, as much as possible, indulge.

The book is set up around the classic Seven Deadly Sins – greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, pride and anger. In each chapter, Savage tries to understand what it is about these sins that make them so irresistible, and if they’re actually deadly at all. For Greed, he indulges in gambling, learning how to play blackjack and win – except when he loses. For Gluttony he visits a convention for the NAAFA (National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance) to find out how fat people feel about being fat. He learns to channel his Anger in a shooting range in Texas, studies Lust in swingers’ clubs in Las Vegas, and realizes that maybe we all need a little more Sloth in our lives. He takes great pains to Envy the rich and to determine whether gays really need to bother with Pride anymore. And then he tops it all off with a great attempt to commit all seven deadly sins within a forty-eight hour period in New York City.

As provocative as it all sounds, the book isn’t really about sinning. It’s about human nature and freedom, and how those two things clash and merge. It’s about how some humans want to enjoy themselves, while other humans would rather they didn’t. They tell us about the horrors of drugs, the terrors of infidelity and the inherent corrosive nature of the very existence of gay people, much less married ones. They tell us that by pursuing our happiness, we are destroying the country.

Dan Savage says otherwise, mainly by pointing out what the conservative naysayers don’t want to hear: human beings are complex, irreducible characters who are not very good at not doing what they’re not supposed to do. We all want to enjoy ourselves. We want to feel pleasure, one way or the other, and we will do everything in our power to make this happen. Whether it’s sex or reading, drugs or travel, food or art, going to the gym or gambling, we want to feel good. And for some reason, there are people who have a problem with this.

Savage believes that the first principle we should follow is that of freedom: if one isn’t harming others, then one should be free to do whatever one wants. In this book, he makes an excellent case for the legalization of marijuana, talks to productive, religious, moral swingers, and meets with sex workers in New York City. He examines the hypocrisy of the moralist movement and the general weakness of their arguments.

For example, with gambling long having been one of the most deadly of sins in the Christian catalog, why don’t modern conservatives rail against it? Is it because it’s an economic boon to so many places? Is it because it makes money for the country? On gambling the conservatives are quiet, though surely cards and dice have broken far more families than gays and lesbians?

And if the concept of “personal responsibility” is so sacred that any mention of gun control is considered an immediate attack on our freedoms, why can’t that same love of responsibility extend to marijuana use – an activity far, far less deadly than gunplay.

Savage’s understanding of human nature tells him that while we all want happiness, the happiness of one person is the immorality of another. In America, however, there is room to disagree, room to argue and to grow. American culture evolves and changes whether you like it or not, and it is better to learn to live in that culture than to try and bend it to your will. While you may disagree with how your fellow American leads his or her life, it is not your job to try and change it, just as they have no business trying to change yours.

So take heart, sinners! Dan Savage is on your side.

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Take me to the driest county in the most conservative state, and in two hours this determined hedonist will find you all the drugs, whores, and booze you’ll need to pass an eventful weekend.
- Dan Savage, Skipping Towards Gomorrah
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Dan Savage on Wikipedia
Skipping Towards Gomorrah on Wikipedia
Skipping Towards Gomorrah on Amazon.com
Savage Love column
Savage Love podcast

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Review 54: Superheroes and Philosophy


Superheroes and Philosophy by Tom Morris and Matt Morris

So there you are. You’ve been bitten by a radioactive, alien wolverine that’s been cursed by a gypsy and struck by lightning and you have finally, after years and years of waiting, been blessed with super powers. You can do things no one else can do, and you can do them faster, stronger, better and in more spandex than you ever dreamed possible. Now there’s only one thing to do: pick a name, put together a costume and go fight crime!

But… why?

Ever stop and think about it? I mean, I know I would want to go out there and fight the good fight, emulating my four-color heroes, but… why? What is it about getting super-powers that makes so many men and women do what they normally wouldn’t do – fight crime? Why risk their lives (or the lives of those they love) in the never-ending battle against the forces of human (and super-human) wickedness?

For that matter, why should anyone, super-powered or not, bother to do good? It’s hard, thankless work, after all, and despite the old cliche, crime can sometimes pay very, very well indeed.

The fundamental question about why super-heroes do what they do is a reflection of one of the oldest questions in human philosophy: why be good? And the fact that it’s the most popular theme in this book of essays suggests that there really is no single, simple answer to that.

Mark Waid, in “The Real Truth About Superman,” looks at the greatest do-gooder of them all, the Big Blue Boy Scout, Superman, and talks about the philosophical journey he took when he re-invented the character’s history in Superman: Birthright. To sum up, he believes that the primary drive that puts Kal-El out in the skies is not so much a desire to help the world, but to help himself, for only by being a hero can he embrace his true nature. The use of his powers to his fullest is a demonstration of his Kryptonian legacy. To hide that under the bushel that is Clark Kent would be to completely deny that part of who he is.

And what of Batman, the poor, paranoid loner? When you think of the Bat, do you think of his friends? Probably not, but of all the best-known heroes, he’s probably got the biggest cast of confidantes – from his ever-present assistant, Alfred, to the unstable love of his rival, Catwoman, Batman has a tangle of friendships that normal people could not sustain – but that’s Batman for you. Always has to be better than the rest of us. In Matt Morris’ essay, “Batman and Friends: Aristotle and The Dark Knight’s Inner Circle,” we get a look at the traditional Aristotelian levels of friendship (those of utility, pleasure, and virtue”) and how the people with whom Batman surrounds himself fit into these categories.

The First Family of Marvel get their due as well, when Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton look at “The Fantastic Four as a Family.” In this essay, they look at the bonds of family, and what exactly that means. What is it to be “family,” and how is that bond so different from others? They see the Fantastic Four as an excellent example of how the bond of family (by blood, marriage, or other means) can transcend nearly any difficulty. But in the case of the FF, what is it that’s held them together for so long, despite numerous break-ups and substitutions? Is it Reed’s guilt over how he nearly killed the people he loved, disfiguring one of them horribly? Is it Ben’s loyalty to his friends that keeps the whole thing together, acting as a reminder of the price of failure? Or is it something else?

The book, much like the science books I’ve read, aims to accomplish something very important – to show that there are lessons to be learned from comic books, that they aren’t just mindless entertainment for empty-headed children. Questions of good versus evil aside, I enjoyed some of the more unexpected philosophical questions – what is identity, and how can we morally hold Bruce Banner responsible for the crimes of The Hulk? How does Barbara Gordon exemplify moral perfectionism, and of the female X-Men, what do they tell us about women and heroics? And is it ethically permissible for a hero to have a secret identity, the maintenance of which requires lying to the people she loves the most?

These aren’t questions that occur to the average comic book reader, I’m sure, but the average comic book reader should be able to instantly understand them. More importantly, he (statistically speaking) should be able to understand why they need to be asked. Super-heroes are us, writ larger. Their problems are our problems, only bigger, faster, and looking much better in form-fitting clothes. We must all struggle with the questions of doing good in this world, and how far our responsibility to the world extends. We all try to balance different parts of our lives, our “secret identities” that divide the different people we are from day to day. We ask ourselves about who we are, and what it is about ourselves today that makes us different from who we were yesterday, or ten years ago.

Classical philosophy suggests that humans all tend towards wanting to do the right thing, and I agree (with some reservations). The thing is, doing the right thing is often hard, and doing the wrong thing often is so much easier. In order to be good humans, we must ask ourselves these questions about right and wrong, good and evil, responsibility and plain old selfishness. And if Daredevil or Spider-Man, Wonder Woman or Barbara Gordon are able to serve as models for the best decisions we can make, then I see no reason why we should not follow their examples.

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“The more power we get, the more avidly we tend to serve ourselves, and our own interests. But this is where the superheroes stand apart. They realize that there is no real self-fulfillment without self-giving. They understand that we have our talents and our powers in order to use them, and that to use them for the good of others as well as ourselves is the highest use we can make of them.”
- Jeph Loeb and Tom Morris, “Heroes and Superheroes”
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Thomas Morris on Wikipedia
Superheroes and Philosophy on Amazon.com
The Morris Institute homepage

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Filed under ethics, Matt Morris, morality, philosophy, super-heroes, Tom Morris

Review 22: House of Stairs


House of Stairs by William Sleator

Young adult fiction must be a really tough genre to wrap your head around, for a writer. You have a story that you want to tell, and you have to tell it in such a way that it is simple enough for your target audience to read, yet engaging enough to keep them reading. The themes have to be familiar enough for them to understand and relate to, yet unusual enough to be interesting for them. Go too far in the wrong direction and you have a failure. So how does a YA writer do it, balancing all those issues, while still writing a good book?

Damned if I know. I’ve never managed to write a decent book for adults, much less young ones.

Fortunately, there are plenty of talented writers who can write for young people, and one of those is William Sleator.

A YA writer who specializes in science fiction, Sleator has written his fair share of strange, fantastic and sometimes disturbing books. Of all the ones I’ve read, this book is probably the one that creeped me out the most.

The setup for this story is simple. Five sixteen year-old orphans – two boys, three girls – are put into a giant room, with no visible walls, ceiling or floor. The only structures in this room are stairs and landings. Nothing else except for a small machine with flashing lights and odd sounds that dispenses food.

That’s it.

The five characters are very different and very interesting. First we have Peter, a scared boy, uncertain of his surroundings in the best of times, and utterly overwhelmed by being dropped into this bizarre place. He’s afraid of everything and everybody, and finds solace only his the strange trances he drops into, in which he is with an old orphanage roommate, Jasper, feeling safe and protected. As an interesting aside, it wasn’t until I was much older that I figured out Peter’s sexuality. It wasn’t that thinly veiled, either. I really don’t handle subtlety well, I think….

Lola is not a showgirl. Sorry, had to put that in. Lola is a tough, street-smart girl who has no tolerance for stupidity or cruelty. She’s had to learn a lot in her time, and doesn’t look to others to decide what she should or should not do.

Blossom is a fat little girl who is the first to figure out how to use the food dispenser (in a rage at it, she sticks out her tongue, and out pops a food pellet – but more on this later). She is cunning and devious, much sharper than people would give her credit for being. If anyone is truly dangerous in this crowd, it is her.

Abagail is a mousy girl, pretty in her own way, but with very little in the way of self-confidence. She tends to latch on to other people and question her own thoughts and actions. She does have compassion, however, though not the means to make her compassion a reality.

Finally, Oliver is the other boy of the group, and he is all that Peter is not. He is strong and confident and good-looking. For a while, Peter thinks that Oliver is his old friend, Jasper, and subsequently Peter is devoted to Oliver. A certain power structure evolves when it is discovered that of all the people, only Oliver can bring Peter out of his trances. Oliver has power, and he is not afraid to use it.

These five kids are trapped in this house of stairs. None of them know why they’re there, they only know that they are. They soon discover that the food-dispensing machine will only give them food under certain conditions. In the beginning , they are forced to repeat a series of actions and movements, that evolve into a kind of dance, hoping to get food from the machine.

From there it gets only worse. They soon discover that the dance isn’t enough. The infighting that comes naturally becomes essential to their survival, for only when they are cruel or greedy will the machine start flashing its lights and entice them to dance. The question then becomes whether or not the kids will do as the machine wishes, and how long they can hold out against it. Or if they will.

This book is disturbing to say the least. It levels some pretty harsh accusations about human nature, not just regarding the kids in the house of stairs, but also regarding the people who put them there. The kids are there for a reason, and not a good one. The whole setup (which is thoroughly, if somewhat clunkily, explained at the end) is about conditioning, and changing people’s personality through stimuli and reinforcement to make them behave as desired. Because it demonstrates people, young people in particular, behaving in a manner that displays the truth of their nature, this book has often been compared to Lord of the Flies, and rightly so.

In its way, it’s even more disturbing than Lord of the Flies – at least the kids in that book had been left to their own devices, as terrible as they were. In this book, the horrors that these five teens go through are part of a deliberate state-sanctioned experiment in human conditioning – a kind of horrible, Pavlovian Breakfast Club. Such is the nature of that experiment that the two children who resisted the conditioning were actually regarded as failures. Upon reflection, the people pulling the strings are far more frightening and disturbing than these poor, manipulated children.

If nothing else, the lesson to be learned from this story is simple – be a human being. There are some things that are too important to sacrifice for something as simple and petty as food and acceptance. We must never allow ourselves to be beasts. We have to be human. This has relevance today, when we are debating the ethics of torture – is it a necessary evil that we must tolerate if our society is to survive, or is it an offense against our humanity? If we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that an evil act is somehow the right thing to do, then we have lost a very important part of ourselves.

Of course, it’s also about science, but the message here is less dire – we must not allow science to lose its humanity. In this book, a strange future with a monolithic state government, science is entirely utilitarian, with no moral qualms about putting minors through psychological torture. The good news is that, at least as of this writing, science errs on the side of ethics. Modern science certainly has its moral gray areas, but the majority of scientists out there would never consent to run an experiment such as this. I hope.

The last line in the book is one of the more frightening ones in literature, right up there with the last line in 1984. It’s a blunt reminder of everything that has happened in the book, and a pointed summation of everything that Sleator has been trying to say – that humans have a base nature, that we can be manipulated, and we will, given the right circumstances, allow others to shape who we are. His message to his readers – teenagers like the ones in this book – is to refuse to submit to such control. Good advice for them, and for us.

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“You… you’re not going to… to go along with it, are you?”
- Peter, House of Stairs
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William Sleator at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Wikipedia
House of Stairs at Amazon.com
Operant conditioning at Wikipedia

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Filed under behavioral conditioning, children, morality, science fiction, survival, teenagers, William Sleator, young adult