The punchline is that I was suddenly struck by how modern fiction seems to have conditioned me to expect an apparent White Hat to secretly be a Black Hat. The question I find myself asking now is whether fiction has actually changed (and if so why) or is it just me? The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think modern fiction has changed.
If so, does that reflect a modern sensibility about people today? Does the rise of the modern anti-hero bring with it the idea of the betrayer? Do we expect so little of people anymore that our heroes need to be dirty and double-agents seem matter of course?
This all started with Diane Duane…
I’ve been going through my library and doing what is in many cases one last re-read of books I’ve carted from place to place for decades. Many of my older books have lived with me in six different domiciles. (One of the big pains of moving is boxing up all those books. Some never make it out of the boxes before I’ve moved again.)
I’ve learned that saving interesting web links for later often means I never get back to them because new interesting links come along every day. The availability of content these days is overwhelming!
So I’ve been asking myself: Self, why do we have such a large library of books, CDs, DVDs? Is this sheer collectorism and acquisitiveness? Clothes, shoes, jewelry, these things have never caught my eye (I haven’t even worn a watch in several decades).
But books and comics, yes! And then CDs came along — another thing to collect! (We were fairly poor growing up, so I never had the scratch to collect vinyl albums, eight-tracks, or cassettes.)
It got worse when you could buy movies — it wasn’t too bad through the VHS era, but I probably have well over 2,000 DVDs. (Those $4.99 bins are a never-ending source of, “Oh, this! Well, for five bucks, yeah, sure!”)
The point is, that while I have no plans to move, I have been thinking of reducing all that freight. For example, why do I still own books about programming in C and C++? I’ll never use those languages again; I’m not even a “working programmer” anymore (and any hobby programming I do absolutely won’t include those increasing ancient languages).
Or had. To come back from the above tangent, I’m going through my book and video library and culling the herd for donations to my local library. Last year I brought them five boxes of books along with a selection of “why do I even own this?” DVDs.
And I’m just getting started. Most of what I’ve given them so far is the obviously worthless-to-me-but-maybe-valuable-to-someone-else stuff, a lot of it related to computer technology. What a bibliophile most wants for their discards is that they find love elsewhere. Trashing (let alone burning) books is a heart-breaking thing for us.
[If I could change one event in history, I believe it would be to prevent the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Or at least sneak in with a digital scanner and preserve those works.]
I’d considered giving stuff away to people I knew would appreciate them (which I have done some of), but then it occurred to me that, as library books, perhaps many might benefit from them. And libraries do share their catalogs, so maybe somewhere out there is someone who really needs a book about the 6502 or the pitfalls of C programming.
I’d like to believe that, and library donations at least allow that belief.
And while I’m not at all interested in re-reading old programming books, I just have to re-read the science fiction stories one more time before I send them out into the world to fare for themselves (and hopefully find love).
At the moment I’m going through boxes of books not unpacked since I moved into this condo in 2003. Which means I haven’t read any of them in at least 12 years (in some cases longer — some haven’t been unboxed in maybe twice that long).So, to bring this jam home, I was re-reading the first three of Diane Duane’s Young Wizards novels.
[Fan fiction, to my eye, varies from “script-worthy” to “embarrassing” with the worthy being scant wheat amid a whole lotta chaff — Sturgeon’s Revelation was never more appropriate or accurate. I have the first 100 TOS novels, and I’m not sure I’m up to re-reading them all — some of them make me feel like I’m in someone’s semi-sexual fantasies about Spock or Kirk.]
For all her Star Trek work, Diane Duane also works in the fantasy genre, and she’s done a lot of young adult science fiction. Her Young Wizards series is both fantasy (hello: wizards!) and young adult.
And as young adult fiction, the three I read were pretty good. Well, the first two were, anyway. She lost me on the third one (High Wizardry) so badly it became one of those let’s-just-get-through-this reads. Not bad enough to stop reading, but not engaging at all.
Which surprised me considering the second one (Deep Wizardry) touched me… well, I just have to say “deeply.” The first one (So You Want to Be a Wizard) was a good read (for a young adult novel) that I thoroughly enjoyed.
I won’t describe the books; you can read the linked Wikipedia pages for that. I will say this: the second book involves whales. Wizard whales. The two protagonists spend much of the book transformed into whales (for important reasons). And all that whale stuff really sang to me and really moved me.
And it’s not just that I like whales. I like computers, too, and the third book centers on computers just as the second centers on whales. But the third one left me stone cold and waiting for the end. I think part of the problem was that Duane seemed to break her own rules.
Wizards are picked “by the universe” and are fairly rare. And while you can “copy” a person, that copy lacks an essential spark (call it a soul). That latter rule is in the third book, and yet Duane breaks both rules in a big way in service of the third book’s plot.
I think another problem is that the scope of the story just got out of hand. My canonical reference there is a novel Isaac Asimov‘s wife penned as J.O. Jepperson (her maiden name). By the end of the novel we have intelligent galaxies talking to each other. That’s just too big (and silly) for me. High Wizardry, likewise, expands so far beyond Duane’s original scope that it doesn’t work for me.
And, finally, I think maybe — in centering on computers — Duane was outside her comfort zone. I’ve worked with computers all my adult life, and her writing regarding them felt clumsy and inorganic. (That could obviously just be me.)
To top it all off, I didn’t really like — or more importantly, respect — the main character (the younger sister of the main character in the first two books). It was weird being so moved by the second book and so WTF? by the third.
Which at long last brings me to my point.
During all three novels (as well as in the Poul Anderson Time Patrol stories I’m reading now), several times a secondary character is presented that set my “antenna” a-twitching. “Ah, ha!” I said to myself, “This character seems good and yet a bit off. I bet that’s a false front!”
Nope. The characters were, in fact, good. There never came the expected betrayal. I suddenly realized I’d lost my trust in characters. I seem to be expecting the double-agent, the Judas, the betrayer. Part of modern storytelling seems to involve the game of trying to guess who that hidden enemy is.
It got me thinking about how common that meme has gotten in stories today, especially in episodic TV. It’s obviously not a new meme — I mentioned Judas. But has it gotten more prevalent? Has it become an expected part of stories?
My reaction to Duane’s and Anderson’s stories suggest maybe so. (Or have I just gotten paranoid in my dotage?) Some of those Time Patrol stories go back to the 1950s. The first two Duane books are from the 1980s (the third from 1990 — which is 25 years ago).
And what connection might this have with the rise of the modern anti-hero, the besmirched and dirty, get-it-done-by-any-means operator who skates outside the law in the name of justice (hence making mockery of the rule of law and erasing the line between good and bad).
We now have as heroes outright criminals! Consider Dexter (a “good” serial killer), Weeds (marijuana-dealing single mom), or the almost canonical Breaking Bad (meth maker and dealer). The TV series Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder offer morally reprehensible people in almost all the character slots.
We’ve come a long way from the “Crime does not pay!” days.
Of course, those days were also characterized by a serious lack of reality in our stories. We seemed to depict life more as we idealized it than it really was. Perhaps this is all a reaction to that lack of realism. Perhaps the pendulum can’t help but swing past the center mark.
[Does this mean that someday in the future, when someone is shot on TV they will merely clutch their stomach, groan, and fall down? You know, someone ought to do a story like that just for fun.]
The bottom of the page approaches, and it’s time for some lunch and to return to the last of my Time Patrol stories.
Where I left off, non-anti-hero (that is: hero) Manse Everard has completed a mission and is about to return to one of those characters that set my antenna twitching. Even Manse thinks he’s a bit weird.
Odds on whether he’s a secret villain or just odd because he comes from a distant time? I’ll answer that in the comments once I finish the book (and send it off the the Library).