Saturday, December 22, 2012

International Triage: The Morality of Charity

Bouguereau's Charity
Charity is big business, but not all charities are created equal, and not all charities, despite the best intentions, actually end up doing good. Yet most people want to help out in some way: we empathize with the pain of others, we sympathize with the unfortunate positions they have been put in, but very few actually do anything about it.

Sure we might feel bad, but rarely does that translate into action, and even when it does, the actions we take are rarely the most effective. But then, the real motivation for many people is to make that feeling go away, to feel as if they have done something, but not to look too closely into what has actually been achieved, because trying to confront such a terrible, insurmountable problem is quite a task to set before yourself.

So we do the little things: we recycle, we turn off lights, we send some money to an organization. It lets us think of ourselves good people, it alleviates the guilt we feel when we see the late night commercial with the starving African children, but these techniques are often marketed to do just that: to make us feel complacent, as if we have already done something good.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Worldbuilding -- Part III: What Fiction Does Well

Last time, we talked about the unfortunate habits of some authors, when it comes to worldbuilding. Now let's talk about why such perfectionism can make it very difficult to write good fiction.

While reading Bernard Knox's fascinating introduction to the Fagles translation of the Oedipus plays, I came across the following quote:

“If through no fault of his own the hero is crushed by a bulldozer in Act II, we are not impressed. Even though life is often like this—the absconding cashier on his way to Nicaragua is killed in a collision at the airport, the prominent statesman dies of a stroke in the midst of the negotiations he has spent years to bring about, the young lovers are drowned in a boating accident the day before their marriage—such events, the warp and woof of everyday life, seem irrelevant, meaningless . . . it is the function of great art to purge and give meaning to human suffering, and so we expect that if the hero is indeed crushed by a bulldozer in Act II there will be some reason for it, and not just some reason but a good one, one which makes sense in terms of the hero’s personality and action. In fact, we expect to be shown that he is in some way responsible for what happens to him.”

A quote which quite aptly sums up much of what I think is wrong with the modern realism movement, and particularly, the motivations behind 'gritty' fantasy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

On Escapism

Part of a series on defining terms.

I occasionally enjoy the offerings on Longform, a site that collects longer pieces of journalism which the editors find particularly interesting, and for the most part, I agree. But recently, they featured a piece by Joe Queenan about being an avid reader which opened with this statement:
“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.”
As an assertion, I find it both absurd and insulting. Yet it's something I have heard before, particularly in reference to genre works like sci fi or fantasy, where the term 'escapism' is likely to rear its head. It's a loaded word, to be certain--which makes it important to define precisely what we mean by it, and why it has nothing to do with why I read.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Worldbuilding and the Origin of Fandom -- Part II: The Authors

In Part I on worldbuilding, we talked about the fans, now here's my take on the author's end of things.

Tolkien is often cited as the father of worldbuilding, and though he was hardly the first to develop an invented world in which to set fantastical stories, he did take the practice to new heights of complexity. Since then, many authors have followed in his footsteps, copying his length and complexity despite the fact that neither length nor complexity are desirable traits, in and of themselves. A good short story is not improved simply by the addition of more pages, nor, when we discover a scientific principle, do we tend to represent it in its most complex form--quite the opposite: art and science both benefit from elegance and focus. As Einstein said, a scientist begins to expect the world to be beautifully elegant, such that it is often considered a good sign for a theory if it is able to represent an idea fully with the interaction of a few simple variables.