Sunday, February 19, 2017

Devious Brains, Honest Brawn

The Castalia House blog is on fire these days.  The new writers line-up, of which my Wargame Wednesday offerings are the least, is brilliant, and the comments section has been blowing up, too.  Not just in terms of quantity, but quality as well. My own contribution to a recent conversation requires a little more space than a comment section or 140 character tweet.  The conversation in question exists below Morgan's most recent offering, a brief digression into the mind of that old fraud, Isaac Asimov, which includes the following ill-conceived bon-mot:
This double standard is very evident in sword-and-sorcery, in which the sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time. The convention is, furthermore, that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness (a proposition which, in real life, is very dubious…
Asimov was the sort of guy who never let slip an opportunity to remind the world how much smarter he was than everyone on it.  He was also the sort of guy who mistook his own low cunning for actual analytical ability.

First of all, Asimov wrote that line in 1985, decades after the appearance of such wildly popular characters as Vance's Cugel the Clever, Lieber's Grey Mouser, and Moorcock's Elric.  The list of cunning fantasy heroes is endless.  Then look at how many villains or monsters are composed of nothing but brawn.  Massive and stupid trolls and ogres and thugs are a staple of sword and sorcery.  To suggest that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness betrays a degree of ignorance about the subject matter that would send less intelligent men running away from broad, sweeping generalizations.  Not Asimov, though - he was too smart to let his ignorance get in the way of his opining.

That beef is low hanging fruit, though.  Exposing Asimov's ignorance and pretentiousness is no real accomplishment.  Instead, let's take a few moments to actually analyze how and why the  sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time survived for so long as a staple of sword and sorcery.  Instead of playing the role of Secret King who knows what's good for everyone, and why what they like is bad for them, let's stop think about why that idea resonates with readers.

We'll start with an easy exercise:

You know who likes to get stabbed in the back by a friend?

No one.

You know who likes to know where they stand with people?

Every one.

Now take two heroes, one selfish and dishonest, the other loyal and trustworthy.  Guess which one most readers would rather spend time with?  If you guessed the loyal and trustworthy one, congratulations on being a decent human being.

(Don't sperg out on me here.  Yes, sometimes a venal hero who engages in trickery can make for a find change of pace...if done well, and if he pits his talents against foes even more vile than he.  We're talking rules, not exceptions.)

The bigger point here is that normal people like good guys.  They like to see the good guys win.  They like to see themselves in the place of the good guy.  They like to be reminded that good guys don't finish last.  That good guys do come out ahead in the end.

Normal people live in a very complicated world where that doesn't always happen.  It seems that the good guys, honest and forthright, constantly get shafted by the lying duplicitous bastards of the world.  They see that punk in the low-slung ratrod zipping in and out of traffic and almost causing six wrecks two minutes before they get dinged by a speeding ticket for going 37 in a 30MPH zone.  They watch that conniving bitch in Marketing get promoted over the diligent gal who stays late and pulls her own weight.  They stand by helpless as petty bureaucrats sell their nation out for a few "feel good" photo-ops with third world invaders and preach tolerance and love even as their daughters are assaulted in the street on the regular by said immigrants.

They chafe at such indignities.  They yearn for truth in a world of lies.  They burn for justice delivered immediately and without prejudice.

When people like that crack open a book, they don't want to read about that cunning wizard who finally gave that big bully with the sword what for.  They don't want to vicariously experience a bureaucrat saving the day by "forgetting" to file important paperwork.  While they might appreciate the brainy programmer stopping the alien invasion with a virus, but they love the redneck pilot who kamikazes his jet straight up the exhaust port of the city-sized mothership.

Liked and respected versus loved and admired.
Guess which one sells more books?
And that, my friends, is the critical point that Asimov misses.  He can't see past his own ego.  He thinks that readers burn for vengeance on the grade school bully, and that what readers really want is a smart hero who uses complicated plans built on layers of deceit and obfuscation to thwart the plans of simpler and more forthright villains.

Normal people don't think that way.  Normal people just want to grab the lady behind the counter at the DMV who smugly announces that they don't have the right safety check form and that they'll have to take the Form 88A-Pre-Owned back to the car dealership and get the Form 88A-Used and shake that helmet haired old prune until their registration falls out.  They want to grab their kid's vice-principal and explain to him WITH THEIR FISTS that biting a Pop-Tart into a pistol shape in no way violates a Zero Tolerance policy.  They want simple and honest solutions to the complex and inscrutable rules and regulations of modern life.

They want the simple virtue of a steel blade well wielded to triumph over decades of deceit and cunning.  They want a lifetime of hard training and sweat to vanquish decades of conniving chicanery.  They want simple solutions presented by the good guys - guys like them - to win out over petty and vainglorious plots.

They want justice.  They want honesty.  They want loyalty.  They want all the things that they don't get in the real world.

Most of what I've laid out here is obvious.  Normal people can go their whole lives without thinking about these things, because they don't have to - they feel them deep within their bones.  A longing for honesty and justice is part and parcel of the western civilization psyche.  It's so natural as to go without saying.

But a guy like Asimov - so desperate to be the smartest man in the room - has to announce that the vague longing people have for simplicity and virtue is actually a very bad thing, and if you'll just hear him out, he can explain why honesty is stupid.  That Asimov sees himself as allied with the schemers and deceivers tells you everything you need to know about him.  How much trust to put into the words of a man who sympathizes with the liars and connivers is up to you.

1 comment:

  1. I cringed when I read that bit from Asimov too; I find that the love of heroic stories in general stems from what you talk about. I discuss it at length here on my blog: