Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Reality Skimming continues 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo

Q. You wrote ‘character stories’ for the survivor characters in the zombie-verse game. Is it important for such characters to engage sympathy? Or can it be more interesting to make them ‘bad’ people?

I could make a case for both premises. Engaging and sympathetic characters give the audience some investment in the victims of a tragedy and make them care what happens to those characters. On the other hand, ‘bad’ people create conflict, and conflict is the soul of all good fiction. Humans are hard-wired to sit up and take notice when other humans aren’t getting along.

So far as Fort Zombie goes…there are no ‘bad’ people per se among the survivors. Some of the humans you run into will be more likable than others, but the real enemy isn’t your fellow apes—it’s the Rot, the force that animates the dead. Since the Rot has its own malevolent personality, and uses the dead and the dying as a medium for expression, players could work up some serious hate without ever really directing it at another human being. People who stuck with the game through a few updates reported an experience of slowly mounting rage: they really wanted a chance to deliver some payback to an enemy who piled up corpses like cordwood and used blood as spray paint. They wanted to track down the heart of that infection and destroy it. (And if there’s a sequel, they might get a chance to do just that.)

Q. The new millennium has seen increasing interest in ‘bad’ characters as protagonist – villains or anti-heros, vampires and murderers. Would you agree? Any insights into ‘bad guy’ fascination, from an anthropological viewpoint?

I would certainly agree that authors and audiences have fallen in love with a villain, more than once. Hannibal Lector and his nephew Dexter are probably the most dramatic cases that come to mind. From the anthropological standpoint, I would say that the fascination with serial killer anti-heroes stems from a subconscious desire to impose control and meaning on homicidal madness which is otherwise senseless…and thus, more terrifying.

People want to believe that a man who hunts his fellow human beings can be controlled, channeled, even made to serve a greater good. The fantasy of a serial killer who only hunts the annoying, or who can be targeted and trained to hunt and destroy other killers, is quite appealing. It is certainly easier to cope with this fantasy than the reality, which is that serial murderers hunt like any other animal: they prey on the weak, small and most marginalized or isolated members of the available herd. Modern genre fiction is not all about taming real monsters, though. Vampires, werewolves, fey creatures and fairy tale monsters can have another meaning, especially in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre. The “bad guy” mystique is certainly there, but there is a deeper thread running through a lot of this fiction. Once you get past the front cover, you generally find that the vampires and the werewolves in these books are not particularly bad people, or at least not always bad people. Often these characters come across more as symbols of alternate sexuality and lifestyles. They appear frightening and monstrous to “normal” people and outsiders. They tend to be stereotyped by tabloid headlines generated by the worst of their kind. Once you get to know them, however, you find that they are just people. They want love and acceptance, they need kinship and support like any other human being. In this sense I think that the “monster community” in paranormal romance novels is probably a pretty effective metaphor for the social, political and personal issues that might come with homosexuality, transgendered identity, sadomasochism, polyamory or any other alternative lifestyle which makes you “monstrous” in the eyes of the outside world. Some of these stories are about the search for love, friendship, and family (and the limits of tolerance) when you live outside the canopy of the norm.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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I actually like the idea of ‘bad’ characters as protagonist. Your statement reflects my feelings on it.

It's not so new anymore with so many books making the bad characters just misunderstood. There was a lot to explore there, and now the books just keep it fresh with new sceneros. When you think every bad guy had his turn having a story written about him, new things pop up like zombie romance novels.
You can add my vote for murky characters --with the caveat that they are not simply stereotypical "bad" characters-- as prominent figures in writing. No one of us is entirely any one thing, or even overwhelmingly one characteristic.

The larger problem I face is properly associating characteristics with settings. For instance: A story with government figures performing eugenics programs would horrify us, except in Alberta where it went on well into the 1970s.

Child molesters? Horrible people. Except that we are less than 100 years from 16 year old girls being considered too old for marriage.

How do you fit the characteristics convincingly?


- John
The whole question of what makes a character "bad" is one I should tackle in a future feature. IMHO there are regular people who do bad things, and can be very interesting POV characters; and there are people with mental disorders whose behaviors lie outside the human norm. Personally, I'm more interested in the first kind because they're the ones who ultimately do the greatest damage ... just because there are "us". Not abberations. I recommend a book called the Moral Animal by Robert Wright which focuses on the circle of moral concern and how humans decide who's in and who's out.
@Christina: Many thanks for logging in to comment. I certainly agree with you that in a love story, a "Bad" character has many potential uses. I'm not sure I have the stones to write a zombie love story, myself. I'd have a hard time thinking up a happy ending. ;)
@John -- Only the worst sort of people have ever considered a 16-year-old girl "too old" for marriage, I'm afraid. Even Shakespeare observed that girls below that age were harmed when they were married and sexually initiated too young. But it is quite true that pedophilia is not a new fetish, and equally true that it has been socially sanctioned by the oppressive elite in many civilizations. Please remember that the same people often regarded adult women and people of the "wrong" race as chattel, as well, or practiced slavery quite enthusiastically, and committed many other offenses that we consider gross violations of human rights today.

In general, I am not shy about creating evil characters OR societies which are prey to great evils, whether those evils are in the past, present or future. But I wouldn't soft-pedal the pain that these evils cause in any era.

There are many biographies of people from a hundred years ago who suffered physical and mental abuse as children--Annie Oakley comes to mind, just as an example. The fact that cruelty and sexual abuse was "a-OK" in the eyes of John Q. Public didn't make the experience one white less traumatizing or horrible to the victim. That's the point to keep in view, in my opinion. There are a lot of social evils that are sanctioned by the public and the state, but it doesn't make the harms they cause any less real. It just makes the victim's experience more horrifying, and the heroism of those who stood up to combat those evils more starkly defined.
@Lynda Just wanted to thank you again for the interesting chat! I look forward to the next guest and the new questions.

As a side note on "The Moral Animal"--a book which, though popular and full of good points, is also considered problematic by many anthropologists--I would simply point out that there is also a sub-discipline of cultural anthropology which focuses on great social evils, in particular genocide. I think the classic book on the topic is "Why Did They Kill: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide" by Alexander Hinton. Again, Hinton is not always right, but his scholarship is excellent and the book is well worth a read.
@Arinn Do you know of book or article critiquing "The Moral Animal"? I'd be interested. Also, any opinion on "The Culture of Defeat" - a book that argues losers seek the moral high ground. An interesting parter to the maxim that winners write the history.
@Lynda Regarding "The Moral Animal":

David Sloan Wilson's review, which originally appeared in The Quarterly Review of Biology, has a few important critical points from the biologist's perspective, which is shared by the biological anthropologist.

Howard Kaye, a professor of sociology at Franklin and Marshall College, hit the book from the sociologist's perspective when he reviewed it for The Wilson Quarterly--this perspective is largely shared by cultural anthropologists, but goes further of course.

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Patricia Adair Gowaty and Marlene Zuk tore the book a richly deserved new orifice in Feminist Studies. From the feminist perspective the book is the worst, most pernicious garbage imaginable.

So far as books that refute the worldview hardest--probably Robert Sussman's "The Biological Basis of Human Behavior" is the most direct, in that it proposes in at least part of its text to offer an antidote to The Moral Animal and other books written by modern sociobiologists.

Haven't The Culture of Defeat, but judging by the Amazon summary it appears that the author recognizes that it isn't only the winners who write history--losers have their version too, if you let them live. ;)
Thanks for the references. I'm thinking the nature/nurture aspects of morality might be worth a look here someday. I found some evolutionary psych stuff offensive from a feminist perspective, myself, but couldn't convince myself it might not be true despite that.
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