Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saving the Universe, one novel at a time

Late last year I read my son most of Diane Duane’s So You Want to be a Wizard. I was reminded again of what struck me the first time I read the book (and its sequels): for a young-adult fantasy novel, it brings into unusually clear focus how doing good means setting aside your own needs (and maybe your life) in service of something bigger. Self-sacrifice is one of the central common themes in hero-stories, which make up a lot of fantasy fiction (self-discovery being the other big theme). But there's usually a narrative-distance gap that dulls its emotional impact: either the novel is set far enough away in time and/or space that the behavior seems exceptional to our life and times, or else it's not the character that you as reader really identify with that does the self-sacrificing; your stand-in character is witness, not willing victim.

Meanwhile, I am getting tired of the idea of actually saving the Universe, or the Earth, or Life. I am getting tired of people who overstep their truth. I just get tired of feeling like I need to clean up after radical theoreticians when I read them, like I have to measure every sentence to see if they are still speaking from experience or generalizing out into an barely-tenable conclusion. And I think it's like the idea of our "saving the Earth" or "saving life on Earth": Folks, we'd have to work pretty damned hard to actually wipe out microbial life, or even vertebrate life, or even mammalia, let alone primates, let alone Homo Sapiens. "Western civilization" I can see getting wiped out over some lengthy period of time, though it will take some doing to wipe away so much printed and absorbed knowledge. And what hubris to think we can "save the Earth." It is large, and contains unbelievable multitudes. (see this post by Keith Humphreys that pretty much sums it up for me)

I've noticed for a long time in movies and comic books and fantasy novels, that when there's a battle for the Universe, it usually takes place in the author's backyard. Wherever the author lives, that's where the Ultimate Conflict will be. So Tom Clancy has a showdown in Washington, Harry Potter and Doctor Who in England, Godzilla in Tokyo... somewhere there's a Malaysian hero-movie with the Ultimate Battle in Kuala Lumpur, and a telenovela with the world-saving hero's sword is locked in combat somewhere near Buenos Aires. Probably the dolphins have a long-running series on the Ultimate Battle With the Orcas of Puget Sound.

There is something wonderful about your own backyard becoming the center of the universe. English fantasies do this well: old battles that were, for their participants, the center of creation—the invasions of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans; the endless wars since—are placed against the determinedly bucolic and ordinary lives of our lead characters, living in undramatic late-twentieth-century England.

American fantasy writers struggle to do this as effectively. I have often wondered why this is. For a long time I wondered if it's because, with the exception of Native American religions and the Mormons, we do not have the Center of the Universe posited here by our religions. But I'm coming to wonder if it has more to do with the fact of fighting over land. The English are just as uncentered religiously: yes there's Canterbury, but the Holy Land is as religio-centric as it is here in North America.

No, I think the depth of people physically battling over land may be the key. There are few battlefields here in North America, and what there are are mostly framed as battles over principle rather than invasions. Really only Euro vs Native wars qualify in the same way as those repeated invasions of England, and those are a still a little crisply engraved in our cultural memory to work as the resonant underpinning to fiction, and the descendants of Europeans remain on the side of the Normans and the Vikings... the bad guy invader side. I wonder what it will take, in terms of action and the erosive quality of time, for us to get past the American equivalent of Ivanhoe-ish divisions.

1 comment:

Dean said...

I find it interesting that Neil Gaimon, an Englishman, has written one of the best American "save the universe" novels: "American Gods." And he did it by expanding the American pantheon to include all possible immigrant gods. A clever fellow that Neil, as well as being a very adept stylist.