Moral Escapism: Speculative Fiction’s Evil Twin

Primum non nocere–First, do no harm.

Last week I talked about some of the unique opportunities that speculative fiction offers us as a broad genre.  About the time I published it, I got some good, strong, fair criticism about my own attempt at speculative fiction.  So, while I finish digesting that and decide how best to address it, I thought I might take a post and talk about what I’ve jokingly called “speculative fiction’s evil twin”:  moral escapist fiction.

Moral escapism is, to be accurate, more of a rebellious child than it is an evil twin (“Evil twin” just sounds better in the title).  It’s a particular brand of speculation where the normal rules of morality are suspended to a lesser or greater extent and characters–not to mention the reader–are set free from the need to obey regular conventions of right and wrong.  Therefore, it allows people to escape from the constrictions and pressures of having to decide between the two; he or she is able to indulge some secret fantasy.  Note that very few speculative works are specifically written for this purpose, but many indulge in it.

I'd say there is a 50-50 chance you really don't want to see the next image in the series....

There are plenty of examples of this sort of fiction out there, and they range from the vaguely innocuous to the downright disturbing.  On the one extreme, some of the various scenes in Harry Potter come to mind, where Harry and his friends purposely lie to adults and not only get away with it, but it turns out to be the right decision.  On the other extreme, we have everything from well-written high fantasy and science fiction to cheap romance novels–which make adultery and unfaithfulness look harmless–to various kinds of anime/manga where people can legally depict things under the protection of “freedom of speech” that, if they tried to commit such an act on real people in the real world, would result in a life sentence or even execution.

The problem is, of course, that real life and human culture simply doesn’t operate in a moral vacuum.  We all live, every day, with a set of moral laws.  I call them “laws” intentionally, because though there are various culturally relative, non-binding standards* that we sometimes confuse with moral laws, there are lines that simply cannot be crossed without consequence–even if that consequence isn’t legal in nature.  Violating them, for whatever reason, will lead to disaster as surely as attempting to ignore gravity by stepping off a high-rise on the premise that you just don’t feel like paying attention to physics that day.

I know that’s a “backward” thing to say in this upside down culture heading for Hell in a handbasket and desperately looking forward to the trip, but I think the reality is undeniable.  Some obvious examples that few even in this postmodern age would argue with would be rape and premeditated, cold-blooded murder.  Both are wrong, no matter what the extenuating circumstance, if we are talking about the events that those terms imply.  Another more controversial example would be adultery, which some circles now actively promote as positive.  People who, in all good faith, have made the vows necessary to enter into a marriage cannot violate those vows without significant and direct effects.  Hollywood and pop-psychology can romanticize and legitimatize affairs as much as they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that engaging in one will have serious, painful consequences not only for your wife/husband and children, but for yourself as well.   (Kenny Rogers has a great song that really sums up the moral angst of one of those poignant moments called, “She’ll Believe You.”)

What does all of this have to do with writing speculative fiction?  There comes a point where our imaginations can do far more harm than good.  Fiction that is specifically designed to allow the moral compass to spin freely can be dangerous, and it can cause specific harm to specific individuals by encouraging them to repeatedly test their moral boundaries in their minds–the author first and foremost.  That by itself may not sound like much, but regularly transgressing these moral boundaries intellectually and emotionally encourages us to do it in real life too.  This is especially true with younger readers, who are often just forming their strong moral guidelines for the future.  “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  Or woman.  Or child.

Am I saying that if you have an evil character in your stories who glories in murder and mayhem, that you are influencing generations of children to become serial killers who torture furry animals in their spare time?  Certainly not, and I get tired of people tossing that strawman argument up in discussions like this.  As I’ve argued before, your readers should see real evil.  I have no problem with your villains quite literally causing people nightmares.  I have no problem with realistic shades of moral belief (i.e. the pathological liar or serial murderer who literally believes that what he’s doing is “right” and can make a tempting argument in his defense).  I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t have “good” characters making “wrong” choices; that’s just reality.   The key is how you portray them in the end.  Readers should leave knowing right from wrong.  As C. S. Lewis noted,

Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.

If evil in your book or story is depicted in such a way as to make it good, make it something that otherwise reasonable people would want to admire, then there is a problem.

As you’ve noticed, then, I’m not one of those authors who believes that we can write whatever we feel like writing and forget the consequences.  I’ve heard multiple arguments from a number of different people that say that the author is his or her own entity, and that we must be true only to our characters and our story–what readers choose to do as a result of reading us is their business, not ours.  I’ll more than happily grant that there comes a point where we just have to loose our stories on an unsuspecting public and trust that we’ve done the right thing.  Our readers are indeed morally responsible for their own actions.  Still, there is a certain callous disregard for people around us in the harder forms of that argument.  In some cases, it might not be too far from giving a suicidal person a loaded shotgun and saying, “I hope you won’t pull the trigger, but it’s your fault if you do.”  It’s technically true, but somehow I can’t get away from assigning blame in more than one place.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.  I’m not really sure I’ve fully succeeded in communicating the nuance that needs to come across.  In the end, I believe that being an author of speculative fiction isn’t just a privilege–it’s a responsibility.  We need to keep that in mind.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to go wrong–some of which I’ve fallen into myself.  Come back next week and we’ll start discussing some of the positive points of speculative fiction in detail, and, by implication, hopefully learn how to avoid its downfalls.

__________

*An example of this sort of thing might be clothing styles, hair styles, etc.

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About Brian Melton

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on January 19, 2012, in Harry Potter, Literary Criticism, Villains and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Being an author of speculative fiction (or anything else) is a responsibility. ‘Bout time somebody said that!

  2. Prof. Melton,
    It has been a while since TFC.
    “If evil in your book or story is depicted in such a way as to make it good, make it something that otherwise reasonable people would want to admire, then there is a problem.”
    It seems that this could be the lack of Dr. Kay Ludwigson’s eucatastrophe.

    • Wow! I haven’t thought about Dr. Kay in quite some time. I wonder how much of this was unknowingly absorbed from her…. :)

  3. An excellent post with some excellent posts. Modern American culture is too wrapped up in the idea that what you imagine and what you do in real life are two completely unrelated things. Psychology clearly tells us, though, that this is all bollix. As does our regular experiences with life. As far as our minds go, what we really experience and what we imagine inside our minds are the same things. The only difference is what category we put things in: imagination or reality. The mind learns from both equally. This is quite clear in small children, who quite literally haven’t learned to tell the difference yet, but also in ‘relax therapy’ kind of things, where simply imagining yourself in a relaxing setting is enough to calm the body and mind. This is because, as far as all the autonomic body responses, you really ARE in that calm, relaxing setting.
    Likewise, our imaginations impact our moral compass as much as our rationalizations and almost as much as our actions.

  4. Wonderful post, Brian! This is such an important topic. Moral escapism is a sly, subtle underpinning in much of today’s spec fic, and I think it’s gaining prevalence. If anything, the responsibility of the fiction writer is to do the exact opposite of what you’re describing–we should make it our business to PRESERVE moral law within fiction, to demonstrate that no matter where we find ourselves, no matter our circumstances, no matter what geographic or imaginary lines we cross–there are some rules which Just. Don’t. Change. With so many new voices clamoring for attention on today’s bookshelves, I think that people feel the need to twist and taint moral codes simply because they want to stand out. I think of the novelists who shaped my childhood–Tolkien and Lewis, of course, and also Lloyd Alexander, Brian Jacques, Ursula K. LeGuin–I see a set of writers who wrote good, true, and beautiful stories, stories that ultimately centered on strong moral cores. I can honestly say they shaped my view of morality, and they sill influence me today. It saddens me to think of a generation who grows up on stories crafted on pure indulgence and self-gratification (ahem-so much of YA romance-ahem). Anyway, I could go on and on, so I better stop myself here. Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hi Brian,

    This is the first post I’ve seen on speculative fiction and moral responsibility as a writer. This reminds me of one of my stories. I posted a comedy on Authonomy which revolved around young adults (post college) and sex. Two women commented that I was acting irresponsible to not provide my characters with condoms. As a person I am all for protection, but my characters were acting reckless in that moment. So I weighed my moral obligation and serving the story that involved immature characters. I added the condoms to the scene.

    The women who left those comments brought up a good point about acting responsible towards my readers. But I don’t believe for a minute that my characters’ safe sex example will influence young people who have unprotected sex. (My target market is over 35 years of age), There’s only so much a writer can do and I certainly don’t wish to take on the responsibility of the world. In addition, each of us has a different set of morals or perhaps no morals. In either case, it’s not my job to inform writers of their responsibilities. I do however, keep my own in check. I try to do the right thing while also serving the arc of my story.

    • Hi Patricia,

      Sheesh, I don’t know if I can pack all my thoughts into a comment short enough to read… Maybe this will give me a few more full fledged posts to consider. In fact, I’ve already removed several paragraphs of content into a txt file for future reference!

      Those are good points. Much of what I was saying was intended to cause introspection rather than sound preachy–which I hope it didn’t. I wanted to bring the issue up and bring out a point for beginning the discussion. The very fact that you had never encountered it before would perhaps imply that its somewhat necessary or at least useful.

      In the abstract, I don’t think that we can maintain the mythology of the amoral author who exists in his or her own little world of unique standards indefinitely. The world–life–doesn’t work that way. We can pretend that all morals are relative to the ones who hold them until someone violates one that we hold dear. At that point, things suddenly become clear and the idea of some form of universal morality makes more sense, on a practical level at least. As authors, I hope that we’re a bit ahead of the curve in taking that into account.

      That said, I’m definitely not from the school of thought that says that we have to keep everything immoral out of our writing, nor do I consider myself or most other people qualified to serve on the morality police in specific instances. I know that one side of the aisle on this discussion have obviously gone waaaay overboard with the censorship much to everyone’s detriment. I’m afraid though that people have reacted so harshly against it that it’s gone too far the other way.

      I don’t know what I would have done in your shoes there. It sounds like you handled it well, though. I can only hope that one day some of my stories get enough attention to warrant someone griping about them. :)

      Have a good evening!

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