Crossing the Equator 6: Villains in Fantasy Versus Real Life

I open Farisa’s Courage with the heroine running for her life. Her memory is breaking down (a consequence of her magic, when used too far) and she’s confused, desperate, exhausted. In an unknown city, feet and legs caked in miles of trail mud, she bangs on a stranger’s door. She’s forgotten several years of her life. By the time she reaches (transient) safety, she doesn’t know where (or even who) she is. (She recovers, of course.) Meanwhile, the antagonist doesn’t get much stage time in the early chapters. That’s intentional. It’s also unusual, per fantasy genre conventions.

Many fantasy novels open with the Big Bad Antagonist doing something terrible. He destroys a village, or he tortures a child. Often, no reason is given; of course the bad guy would do something bad. The dragon just likes gold, though she never spends it. The sixteen-eyed beholder has to slurk out of its dungeon, eat a peasant child, and then slurk back because, if the heroes sought and killed it for treasure or “experience points”, then they’d be the villains.

In Farisa’s Courage, the first book of the Antipodes series, the main antagonist is a corporation, the Global Company. They’re bad, but like business organizations in the real world, they’re reactive and effete. They do more damage (early in the story arc, that is) through incompetence than by intention. I open Courage with asymmetry. The heroine is in danger, but the antagonist is comfortable (and unaware that it is anyone’s antagonist). That’s how good and evil work in the real world.

Fifty years before, the “Globbies” were a corporate police firm. That exists in the real world; they’re the infamous Pinkertons, who are still around. The Globbies also had a flair for witch hunting (which also still exists, even if witches don’t). When Farisa’s story opens, they control 70 percent of the known world’s economy. (It’s a steampunk dystopia where the Pinkertons won, and evolved into something worse. Something similar almost happened here.) They don’t take much of an interest in Farisa. They know that she exists, and that she’s a mage, but they also know that magic is unreliable and dangerous. They have been through forty years’ worth of failed attempts to harness it. So, they don’t think much of her. They’re only interested in her because she’s been accused of a crime that she didn’t commit (and, in fact, they know that she’s innocent of it).

Farisa doesn’t see world-fucking evil from them in the first 200 pages. The reader sees the Company’s low-level, self-protective evil, but nothing threatening the end of the world. That’s intentional. You didn’t see world-fucking evil from the Nazis until Kristallnacht, either. They’d been around for almost twenty years by then.

Epic fantasy is often Manichaeist. Good and evil exist as diametrical opposites. In the first or second chapter, the reader often sees the Big Bad doing some horrible thing. It has to be shown early who the Big Bad is. In my experience, though, evil doesn’t reveal itself until it needs to do so. There’s a potent asymmetry between good and evil. Good must act, and evil can wait. Good is desperate to survive, like a candle in a hurricane. It will rescue a child from a house fire (and fire, though dangerous, is not even evil). Evil can use slow corruption, hiding and waiting. It’s usually done in by its own complacency and arrogance, but that takes time.

Epic fantasy often wants symmetry. It wants evil that is as desperate to do harm (and to kill the heroes) as the heroes are desperate to survive. It wants evil that can’t plop down on its haunches and wait. It must burn that village! It must abduct that princess! In my experience, that’s a rare kind of evil, and evil itself is not all that rare.

This might explain why our culture is fascinated by serial killers. They’re very rare, but they show us a refreshingly different kind of evil from what lurks in corporate boardrooms. The serial killer is intense and desperate. Why does Vic the Biter eat the faces of human children? Because he’s an insane fucker, that’s why. His desperation mirrors that of the good. He’s fighting for survival, because his mind is broken, and eating children’s faces is the only thing that gives him respite from his own demons. His vampire-like hunger drives him to make mistakes that render him easy enough to capture that the story can be told in a two-hour movie or a 90,000-word novel. If there must be evil in our world, that’s the kind we want: a kind that is as desperate for its own survival as is good.

The desperate, belligerent kind of evil exists, but it’s not the kind that’s running the world. The Davos elites view the rest of us with phlegmatic contempt– they prefer not to think of us at all– but not burning hatred. Yes, the Davos Man would rape a child if there were a billion dollars in it; but, outside of that laughable, contrived scenario, he’d rather go back to his hotel room and sleep off his drunk.

Not to take the metaphor too far, but this mirrors the asymmetry between capital and labor; the former can wait, the latter must eat. Now, I don’t wish to say that capital is evil or that labor is good. Neither’s true. The parallels of their struggles, though, I find to be worth note.

Labor and capital both perceive themselves as at war with entropy, but one conflict has higher stakes.  Labor must consume two thousand kilocalories per capita of chemical energy or burn itself to death. Capital issues weak complaints about meager stock market returns, and the declining quality of private boarding schools, and too many brown people at the country clubs. Labor is a stroke of bad luck from dying on the streets. Capital is slightly perturbed by the notion that things aren’t as good as they used to be, or could be, or are for someone else. It’s the same with good and evil. Good lives in constant warfare with selfishness, stupidity, disengagement, petty and grand malevolence, and myriad other entropic forces. Evil? Well, it rarely recognizes itself as evil, to start. When it’s losing, it’s a chaotic force. When it’s winning, it thinks as little as possible. It too has its slight unsettlements, but rarely feels a need to fight against the world for its own survival.

It’s unfashionable, in the postmodern world, to believe that good and evil exist. Some view them as relics, like ethnic gods, that simpletons cling to. We’re not enlightened enough to see the complexities of human power struggles from all angles. I don’t know whether gods exist, but good and evil do. An issue is that they’re viewed as compact entities or forces rather than patterns of behavior. As “alignments”, they don’t exist. There’s no unifying banner of “Good”, nor one of “Evil”. Yet, we experience good and evil in daily life, from the small to the large. Is a convicted murderer an evil person? Not necessarily. Prima facie, there’s a lot of context that we don’t know. He could be mentally ill. He could be innocent, or have killed in self defense. We can agree, though, that murder is usually an evil act.

Good people value what is good, though we’re slow to find perfect agreement. There are good people with bad ideas. There are good people who’ve been infected with evil ideas. Most of our so-called “founding fathers” were racist, and racism is without a doubt one of the most evil ideas that humans have ever concocted. That aside, some of those men were arguably good, even heroic.

Evil does not, in general, value evil. German and Japanese authoritarians fought together, but regarded the other as racial inferiors. (Stalin was pretty vicious as well, but fought on our side.) Corporate executives and child molesters despise each other; you don’t see them seated together at Evil Conventions, because those don’t exist. Good values good, but evil doesn’t value evil. Evil values and seeks strength, and a position of strength is one from which one can wait.

I have actually battled evil, and suffered for it. I wrote hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of words on how to survive corporate fascism. I have exposed union-busting, labor law violations, and shady practices of all kinds in Silicon Valley. It has been an edifying (if expensive) ride. I’ve probably mentioned that Evil has won some of its battles. It may yet win the war.

In this light, we have to understand it. We have to know how it works, what it values and what it doesn’t, and why it wins. It wins because it can. It wins because often it wins if nothing happens.

Does the hungry evil of the vampire or serial killer exist? It does, but it’s rare. The more prosaic boardroom variety of evil is far more common. Often, the most dangerous thing about it is its most boring advantage. If it wants to do so, it can sit in its castle, and wait, and hope that we fuck up before it dies of its own ennui.

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3 thoughts on “Crossing the Equator 6: Villains in Fantasy Versus Real Life

  1. If you create an ultra-rich character on the good side that can wait, you get batman, a rich guy with a good heart.

    I’d like to think of evil as lazy predators that do not care or value justice and social harmony. There are hyenas, lions, and wolves hiding among social people. All humans have reptilian brain at the core. Evolution plays only averages, and humans haven’t bred out reptilian predators because they have been winning as a species on the average. Our reptilian part seems to be responsible for impulsive behaviors. However, intelligence can, in theory, soon beat billions of years of evolution and engineer humans without vicious predator instincts.

  2. Hate to quibble, but wouldn’t you think that the “banal evil” you are speaking of is more amoral than evil? If a TV billionaire had to rape a child to triple his fortune, he would, but if he had to save a puppy to triple his fortune, he would also. A truly evil person would delight in the rape, but cringe at the puppy-saving.

    Many (maybe most) power systems select for amoral people, which means that they are always in danger of being taken over by evil people – people with the political intelligence to seize power, but with the desperate need to hurt and destroy others. And so the great evils of history had evil people at their center, and amoral people surrounding them. And there’s always the possibility that an evil system can revert to being amoral – after the terror of Stalin, the Soviet Union went back to being a society with amoral people at the center (Krushchev, Brezhnev), and even one good person (Gorbachev). After the Cultural Revolution, China became an amoral society that fit seamlessly into global Capitalism. It was a society that did do evil (Tiananmen square), but also good – you’d be hard-pressed to find famine in China.

    Evil is often stupid and counterproductive. If the Nazis were amoral, they’d have used all the resources they threw into building and organizing death camps to build their military. If Mao were amoral, all of those doctors and teachers and engineers who were reeducated could have been allowed to do their jobs and China would not have lost several decades of economic development. It’s no coincidence that today, the Chinese venerate educated professionals.

    So where does that leave Corporate fascism? I’d say it’s more amoral than evil. Corporations need to raise short-term profits – which means that they might get involved in some shady stuff.
    They need to keep their companies stable and their own positions safe from competition – which means they squash innovation and initiative among their employees. And I’m sure that, in private, some CEO’s engage in all kinds of sexual perversions – some of which may be evil. But do CEO’s have a need to hurt others, in the same way that Hitler went out of his way to exterminate entire ethnicities? Some do, maybe, but most I’d think value their own status over anything else.

    And let’s face it – Capitalism has done an incredible amount of good. In the past 30 years, the global middle class has exploded, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from poverty and starvation, and the world in general is a much more pleasant and convenient place to live. A truly evil system would not allow this, but an amoral system would.

    • Evil has many forms. So does good. Not all evil people are sadistic.

      In general, I think there are 3 categories of evil. Maybe more.

      Corrupt is the basic evil of the CEO. It goes beyond amorality insofar as he’ll actively seek out opportunities for profit that are morally negative. After all, most things that there is money in are things that few people do, either because (a) most people cannot for lack of talent, or (b) more commonly, because they don’t want to do it. And what do people not want to do? Well, one category of that is the morally reprehensible.

      Sadistic is the evil that delights in power and others’ misery. It’s rarer. Even most psychopaths are not sadists. Most psychopaths are merely in the first, Corrupt, category.

      The third category is Hitler’s: Calamitous Evil. Corrupt people will do evil for profit and may seek out evil opportunities if there is profit. Sadistic people enjoy harm to others even at neutral or negative profit. Calamitous evil goes even further, because it wants evil and misery to spread. It may not consider itself evil (Hitler didn’t). It may not indulge in sadism (Hitler never visited the concentration camps and while he was dangerous, it’s not clear whether he was a sadist per se).

      I think the difference between the CEO’s amorality versus the garden-variety amorality of the moral middle classes is that the CEO is motivated and the average person is just morally lazy. The CEO, like me, enjoys coming up with ways to beat the system at someone else’s cost and get away with it. (There are plenty of sleazy ways to make money that I’ve come up with and never used nor told anyone about.) The difference is that I don’t act on those ideas, while the CEO or the white-collar criminal would.

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