Apparently, years ago, without meaning to, I repeated an argument for limited government first made by James Madison (I’d originally put Thomas Jefferson, since I read both of them back to back. Thanks to Paul Howard for the correction.) It went something like this: “If we could get angels to govern us, then it would make sense to let them rule our every action. But since the people who govern us are still human and prey to the same desires, flaws and foibles as the rest of us, it is best to keep their power as small as possible.”
I’m reassured that my mind, in my early thirties, was running on the same track as James Madison. I’m also afraid that I’ve changed my mind on that. Oh, not on keeping government small and as powerless as possible. I don’t like authority – I think I’ve mentioned that – and I have no interest in making my friends and neighbors “do the right thing.” (Exceptions are made for when people wake me up at three in the morning because they’re having some awful crisis and/or for people who are my kids. Then I will make them do the right thing, so that they leave me the heck alone, which is the ultimate goal of my existence: to be left in peace, so I can write.)
However, having written Darkship Renegade, I’ve changed my mind about it being better for angels – or saints, or supermen – governing us.
Yeah, it is one of my peculiarities that I only reason by writing fiction. What I write in non-fiction has usually been worked out in fiction first. No, I have no idea why. It’s like when I’m writing a novel, I’m putting all my chess pieces in place, then playing the game to figure out which is strongest.
Anyway, having written Darkship Renegade, I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than having someone who thinks it is his duty and who was created to do the best for the mass of humanity no matter what. Because what such a creature imagines is better for everyone, might be. But he’ll know precious little about what is better for each person. (No one can.) And that’s because humans are not, nor should they be perfect. And trying to make humans perfect – or perfect anything, like perfectly happy or perfectly good – has resulted in some of the most evil regimes in history.
And before I veer off into theology, which is always a danger this early in the morning and without my coffee, let me cut that short and say this is not a post about politics. It is not even a post about humans. Though it is about both of those, tangentially, because it is about fiction and the purposes and functions of fiction. Which of course, ideally involves both humans and politics, and a lot of other things.
As most of you know – because I keep talking about it – I’ve undertaken for the last year or so, a rigorous regime of walking about an hour a day. The problem I have with exercising (or house cleaning, or most things – except weirdly furniture refinishing – that don’t involve putting words on paper – or screen) is that it’s boring. My body is doing stuff, but the mind is free. Sometimes, depending on the mood, I can write in my head while I’m walking. Unfortunately that usually results in my wanting to come home early so I can write it down, and I find my walks get progressively smaller, as I train myself to think of writing while walking. (This can be solved by having a walking buddy with fascinating repartee, but mine is not available all the time.)
So, to keep myself walking (well, down from a size 24 to a size 16, thank you so much. Four more sizes to go. Sigh.) I started listening to audio books. This led me to make several fascinating discoveries, such as that while I love reading Repairman Jack (by F. Paul Wilson) I can’t LISTEN to the books, or I’ll have nightmares all night. Also that some books that are too ‘clangy’ language wise for me to read, are perfect as audio books.
But, most of all, I’ve found myself making observations on literary theory and “why this book works” while walking and listening to the book – particularly when it’s one I’ve heard before. In this particular case, it was while binging on Pratchett, after a binge on Heinlein.
It suddenly hit me, with sudden, scouring certainty that the reason both of them appeal to me – and are immensely successful in appealing to most people. Or “were” in Heinlein’s case – is that they both write characters that are profoundly flawed.
Now, there’s a danger in this. Characters are not, nor should they be, real people. Real people are too mixed to come across clearly on the page. No, I’m not even talking about moral definition here. I’m talking about getting an entire complex personality on the page.
Coming from a literary (I’m so sorry) background, I used to think this was the goal of writing. Writing “real people.” Until, that is I – fortunately – got exposed to Marlowe (I know, and he four hundred years dead. Zombie Marlowe. Yep, yep, THAT was the flasher haunting my university gardens for about a year) and realized that he came as close to writing real people as he could. And that was what made his plays infinitely worse than Shakespeare’s who dealt in “flawed archetypes.” To put it in blunt and simplistic terms, Marlowe left us with no one to root for and no one we want to see dead.
So which one is it? The archetype or the real human? Both, of course. Most people have the defects of their virtues. The brave man is often foolhardy and the strong woman prone to flashes of anger (not that I would have dealt with this in Darkship Thieves.) The man who is controlled and careful in his life, might think everyone should be so and nip in the bud the exuberance of a younger person under his control. Etc.
But there is more than that to being human. More than virtues and faults, balanced and presented so that we see the good character struggling with his evil tendencies, or an occasional flash of mercy in the villain, for which he feels he must atone.
To be human is to be in pain. To be ground between two states. Again, Pratchett’s metaphor serves here: falling angel meets rising ape. But it’s more than that. We’re creatures who live in the world, but who can imagine a perfect life of spirit only. Who can imagine a life without want or fear or pain, but at the same time must deal everyday with that corporeal reality that on this side even the most pampered little princess can get her finger stabbed on a rose torn.
Worse than that, it’s the … patterns that come with that corporeality and how the body influences us. I can imagine a perfect day of writing, with a break for lunch, then taking of at six pm to spend time with my family. But half the time the words won’t come till five pm and I end up writing through the evening and not spending time with the guys. And being cranky and feeling I failed them and myself, to boot.
It is that aching for perfection while enduring the slings and arrows of what, for most of us, in our time, is the piddling calls of every day corporeality, that makes us human. Being human means dealing with that, every day. It’s amazing as a species we’re not crazier than a squirrel on speed. Or maybe we are. There is such a gulf between the perfection we imagine and what we can attain, both in terms of fighting the body and fighting our own inclinations that probably come from the fact we have a body (pesky bodies) that the two can barely meet in the middle somewhere.
That is the unacknowledged ache at the heart of every human who ever lived. Unacknowledged because, well, we know it’s normal and we feel like whiners complaining about it. And that’s if we’re even aware of it, since it’s been there always and we know it always will be.
The writer who touches that, no matter how he or she does it, will be popular, because it will give us the sense we’re not alone, and it will make us, for the moment, more at peace with the odd mass of contradictions we are.
And that is (at least one of) the functions of fiction.