Monday, January 15, 2007


One of the strengths of fantasy, including that form of fantasy known as science fiction, but also all the old pulp forms like westerns and pirate tales, is that it allows a distillation of ideas into basic forms, which are then mixed and baked together to form a proper narrative pie. Jung liked the word “archetype” which is good for those ideas that can be individuated, but sometimes you have process forms and things like “motif” and “theme” appear.

Our own corner has a nice collection of monsters; my first impulse is to say “good” and “bad” monsters, but part of the point of monstrosity is that such words don’t apply. A monster may be helpful or hurtful, but monsters are not connected to ethics and morality as such. That is why they are monsters.

In the first two Terminator movies, it’s important to realize that the Terminators played by Schwartznegger are the same machine. The only difference is their “programming” and their experience. But in neither case are they part of human society, although in T2, the moviegoer is led to the notion that the creature has begun to learn an ethical sense, i.e. become less of a monster because of the love of the boy. That’s one narrative, one of the pleasant, comforting ones. But most factual monster narratives are darker.

I once did a lot of research on Bat Masterson, for a novel that I’ve yet to write, though I have maybe 20,000 words of it, which I’d have to almost completely rewrite now, because my own sensibilities have changed since its origins. However, I do retain a degree of scholarship about one small sliver of the Old West that is probably unmatched outside of academia and real Old West fanatics. Since my pinpoint interest was Masterson’s later years in New York, that even leaves out most Old West fanatics. But there is substantial overlap, because, in his later years, Masterson wrote extensively about his Dodge City days. And one of the most fascinating things about them was the relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

There’s been enormous ink and celluloid spilled about the two, especially the Tombstone era (in which Masterson was largely absent). But as nearly as I can tell from what little real historical information exists, no one has ever captured the Earp/Masterson relationship, primarily because, in reality, Holliday wasn’t even close to being a sympathetic character. He was, in fact, a monster, a murderous sociopath with a short temper made even shorter by the fact that, as a victim of tuberculosis, he was always just on the verge of gasping for breath, something that does not improve the disposition.

But Holliday had one saving grace, if you can call it that. He virtually worshiped Wyatt Earp. So Earp had a monster on a leash, as it were, and that was a useful thing. I have little doubt for example, that Holliday fired the first shots at the famous O.K. Corral, and, given that it was a battle in a war, it was the tactically correct thing to do. Monsters are good for that. They will do the correct thing without hesitation, unhindered by whether it is good or bad.

War itself is a monster, as are all weapons or war and violence. The idea of a “good war” is preposterous; the only real question is whether or not a war serves its purpose. One can then argue about the morality of purposes, but that is an entirely different argument. Wars build, protect, or destroy nations. A war that serves the purposes of men and not the purpose of the nation is inevitably evil, and no good can come of it.

We like to say that science and technology are morally neutral, that it’s the uses to which they are put that determine the morality and ethics. But some monsters are more treacherous than others. You don’t deal with the devil, or make a wish on the monkey’s paw, and there are some technologies that are as treacherous as any of those. You can try to pretend that a nuclear weapon’s morality depends upon its target, but by the time you get to putting one into a parking orbit, you’re just trying to read the finest of the small print before you sign in blood. You can pretend that your bioweapon research is for “deterrence,” but every reader knows that the deal isn’t going to turn out well.

So sure, give the vampire a soul, chalk the mark on the golem’s forehead to save the ghetto of Prague, summon Gamera to protect the children, and all the rest. But always remember that monsters play by their own set of rules, and those rules are not yours. It is possible to tame a monster, but the monster is a monster still, and cannot change its ways for so small a thing as humanity.

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