Paper worlds, the heroes who inhabit them

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 :: Tagged under: essay culture. ⏰ 3 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! πŸ˜„

The Truman Show. Click for full size.

From The Truman Show

🎡 The song for this post is Brodyquest Mashup Megamix, by Neil Cicierega and community 🎡

[Spoilers for Ender's Game, The Shape of Things, Breaking Bad, and maybe Atlas Shrugged, I guess? I love approaching things fresh, so if you're hoping to consume any of πŸ‘†πŸΌ I recommend you don't read this. Also, it might just be boring if you've read none of them]

One of my favorite examples of the blog post as a form is What I think about Atlas Shrugged, by John Scalzi. It's also one of my favorite critiques of the novel and most things Objectivists say in general. Read it, it'll take you 5 or 10 minutes.

The central conceit is that Atlas Shrugged is fine and fun pulpy fiction, but it's critical to remember that the world those characters inhabit has no bearing to this one. In that world, Good People are attractive, have strong features, and are brilliant; Bad People are obnoxious, mealy, lazy shitheels. When John Galt condemns a society to collapse (presumably leaving millions to suffer and die), he's a hero! But in any possible world, someone who allows millions to die to make a belabored political point isn't someone you should celebrate.

Scalzi points out:

The fact that apparently a very large number of people don’t recognize Galt as the genocidal prick he is suggests [...] Rand’s skill at stacking the story-telling deck is not to be discounted

It's pretty critical, when you consider fictional heroes or their heroism, to ask how carefully and thoroughly the world was constructed to allow you to feel this way despite the outcome and their actions instead of because of them.

With that in mind, "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality" is suddenly one of my favorite critiques of the novel. I read Ender's Game for the first time last summer and had a largely positive reaction to it, but came away feeling that I was way less sympathetic to its characters than many of the book's fans, and this essay articulates why pretty well.1

Another example is Breaking Bad. I had a friend who watched it late, knowing its strong reputation but also sensitive to its legions of toxic, sexist fans. Even in Season 1, she was immediately put off by Walt: how damaging his lies were, and how emotionally abusive he was. Earlier adopters of the show didn't feel this en masse in part because the show's writers deliberately engineer the dialogue and cinematography of early seasons to make him sympathetic. Unless you're critical from the very start, all his lies and manipulation are understandable, you see.

My final, maybe favorite example of this is The Shape of Things. For most of the play, you really don't know what you're watching. There's conflict in the scenes, so they move like scenes in a play should, but most people go to Intermission mildly uncomfortable without knowing why. By the end of the play its purpose becomes clear, and if you're an actor looking to practice text analysis, it's a fabulous script: every detail of every scene is adding another domino to an extremely impressive domino tipping, while not looking like setting dominos.

I get a lot of joy in thinking about writing prompts, so here's one: pick an absolutely unforgiveable action, make that the climax, and spent a whole book trying to make it seem possible, even defensible.

Further reading

The real further reading is any of the links in the previous section. But here's some miscellanea:

1. ^ I found the essay in this Twitter nerd fight between Noah Berlatsky (who started it by plugging his essay on it, which is a bit stronger on Card than where I end up) and Akiva Cohen, where the two fight over whether the book celebrates the xenocide. Arthur Chu has a ton of other thoughts going farther into where Card took the series after the first book.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to join my mailing list, drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you πŸ˜„