Tag Archives: morality

Lost in the Stacks 5: Art versus Artist

Scott Adams says some really dickish things, but the Pointy-Haired Boss is still funny to laugh at.

Mel Gibson shows his anti-Semitic side, but Lethal Weapon is still one of the best buddy cop movies of all time.

Dave Sim writes a compelling political drama in his comic book series Cerebus, but then shows himself to be a homophobic misogynist of the highest order.

Once you’ve learned something about your favorite writer or artist, it may poison your view of the art you used to love. How can you reconcile these feelings and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror? The answer [1] is in this month’s edition of Lost in the Stacks: Art versus the Artist! We look at whether art can be considered separately from the person who made it, and what it means to deal with a moral problem that has plagued us since art began. Take a listen and join in the conversation in the comments!

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[1] Disclaimer: answer may not actually be an “answer”

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Filed under art, criticism, ethics, fans, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, morality, reading

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 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

Review 15: Confessions of a Mask


Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

From what I can tell, Yukio Mishima was not a very happy man.

Granted, the only works that I have read of this very prolific author are this and Kinkakuji, but I’m seeing a pattern already, and it doesn’t point towards Mishima being a cheerful, laid-back guy. Of course, his suicide by seppuku is also a good indicator that he took things way too seriously.

Published in 1948, Confessions of a Mask addresses a subject that would have been taboo anywhere, not just Japan. The main character, whose name is only given as Kochan, is a young man dealing with the fact that he is homosexual. He begins with one of his earliest memories, seeing a night-soil man and finding him beautiful, which he believes is what set his preferences for life. As he gets older, he doesn’t yet realize that he’s different from other boys, except in that he’s small and thin and gets sick a lot more often. He finds himself entranced by men, especially laborers, and not knowing if this is what he’s supposed to be feeling.

His sexual maturity is a sad and stunted thing. The pleasure and rapture that he sees in paintings of St. Sebastian hide dark urges of violence and despair. His boyhood love of a classmate is a secret that gnaws at him until he finally convinces himself that he was never actually in love at all. And his attempts to become “normal” end with nothing by emptiness and sorrow. Kochan has no friends to talk to, no family to lean on, and no way to know if what he’s feeling is good or bad. All he knows is that the other boys are fascinated by women, and he’s fascinated by other boys. In darkness and isolation, Kochan grows. What he grows into, however, is a pale, lonely and barren man.

Like many gay kids, especially in the pre-internet era, Kochan believes that he is unique. An aberration, a deviation from the norm. As far as he knows, no other boy has felt the way he did, and the only other one he hears of – Oscar Wilde – is long dead. His desire to fit in with the rest of the world leads him to play an elaborate game, to wear a mask so convincing that it nearly convinces himself. Being able to hide who he really is and what he really wants becomes a matter of hiding from himself. And as anyone who’s tried that will know, hiding from yourself only works for so long….

Such is the life of a young gay man in wartime Japan. While I’m sure what Mishima has presented here is not the average, it is a depressing picture of what it’s like to live in a society where such a deviation from the norm is punishable by societal exile. While I can’t claim to know what would have happened to a young man in that era who came out of the closet, the narrator doesn’t even seem to consider that as an option, good or bad. Thus I can only assume that the consequences would be dire.

There’s no doubt that this book is at least semi-autobiographical. A look at Mishima’s life shows a number of parallels, especially in the early days. Both he and Kochan were raised by grandparents and separated from their families. Mishima stared writing as a boy, an activity that his father deplored and which earned him beatings by other students in school. He knew what it was like to be different, and that probably fed into this novel.

Whether or not Mishima was actually gay is, it seems, debatable. He did marry, and had two children, which would seem to indicate against it, but if, like the character in this book, he fought against his own nature, such an arrangement could be understandable.

One of the things that I found difficult about this book – and Kinkakuji – was how very introspective it was. The narrator tells the story of his life from his older point of view, and dissects every thought and every memory in exacting detail. It creates a picture of a person who lives entirely in his own head, and attributes modes of thinking that one wouldn’t normally associate with, say, a twelve-year old. He appears to be very analytical, even from his earliest days. Though he tells us that he is not letting his adult mind get in the way of his memories of childhood, this great attention to detail proves him wrong.

The depiction of Kochan’s attempts to hide himself is yet another mask – the mask of purposefulness. The narrator would like us to believe that he made every decision with purpose, as part of a plan. That he really did choose this life of self-deception. Perhaps because the idea that all of this was beyond his control is just too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps because it is better to own a bad decision than to admit that it was an accident. The narrator shows us quite clearly how adept he is at hiding from himself, and so he cannot be trusted to tell us truthfully about how he thought when he was a young man.

This makes reading the book a challenge – the reader must evaluate every statement and judge every event for its possible veracity. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much is true and how much is falsehood. In the end, we just have to take Kochan at his word, all the while accepting that he’s probably lying – and doing it without being aware of what he’s doing.

Reading Confessions of a Mask today, sixty years after it was first published, is illuminating. In the US, we’re involved in a great societal discussion over whether or not gays should get married, and while being homosexual certainly isn’t something that is universally accepted, the prospects for young gays and lesbians in the modern age are much better than they would have been for someone coming of age in the 1940s. Even in Japan, where coming out to one’s family is still as hard as it ever was, there are gays and lesbians on television and the matter is open to discussion. A homosexual in Japan may not be as willing to kick down the closet door as his or her American counterparts, but the abject horror of being utterly rejected by society is probably much less than it was.

When you consider what happens in this book, the horrible mental contortions that the main character must make in order to hide his true nature from the world – and himself – you can appreciate how far we’ve come.

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“I had long since insisted upon interpreting the things that Fate forced me to do as victories of my own will and intelligence, and now this bad habit had grown into a sort of frenzied arrogance. In the nature of what I was calling my intelligence there was a touch of something illegitimate, a touch of the sham pretender who has been placed on the throne by some freak chance. This dolt of a usurper could not foresee the revenge that would inevitably be wreaked upon his stupid despotism.”
-Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
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Yukio Mishima at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Amazon.com
Homosexuality in Japan at Wikipedia

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Filed under coming of age, homosexuality, Japan, memoir, morality, sexuality, Yukio Mishima