Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Jack Bauer Moment

I don't watch 24. In fact, I cannot watch 24; I find it offensive beyond measure. It feeds into the idea of finding terrorists under every bed, and into the idea that just a little torture from the right man can make it all turn out okay.

As I note in the Author's Introduction, I wrote Dark Underbelly well before 9/11. It contained some of my notions about authoritarian states and what it can do to people, especially the best people. And, deep in the background, is a vision of an authoritarian state that is necessary, as necessary as the authority of a captain at sea, in vessel that has taken on water, and which only harsh and decisive leadership has a hope of saving the ship and those aboard her.

All this is through the opposite end of the telescope, of course. All you get to really see at first is the wreckage of one human life, someone permanently damaged and trying to act as if his every moment, waking or sleeping, is something other than a fight with himself and his own desire to end it all.

I'm pimping a little for the story at this point because there is now enough of it to grasp, and because the protagonist, Ed Honlin, has just maimed three men (who, at least, did not fail to deserve what was done to them), and has interrogated someone using methods that are, by any reasonable meaning, torture. He has threatened a man's life in order to obtain information.

Is this a paradox? Is this a "Jack Bauer Moment" and have I created just an SF version of 24?"

I do not think so, and I do not think that my reasons are rationalizations, but I recognize that this sort of scene might appeal to those who also find 24 appealing. Still, I know where my own inspiration came from, and a lot of it was Mickey Spillane, whom I have lauded before, and who was more sophisticated than usually given credit for.

Part of the distinction is pretty obvious: Mike Hammer and Ed Honlin (and Dave Robichaux and Matthew Scudder, to name others) are both in the "fallen knight" tradition. They are not government operatives—although Hammer gets what is basically a CIA ticket at one point, and Honlin is operating as a "special consultant" to the police. But no one is really fooled here. They are rogues.

But so was Dirty Harry, and you can still make that case for Jack Bauer. Sure. So the distance isn't that large, still, is it?

However, I will point to the important thing about Chapter 13 in Dark Underbelly, and that is this: very little information is gained in the interrogation. Honlin, the protagonist, is primarily verifying information that he already knew was there, and getting answers to questions that could have been answered by more conventional means. In short, he is terrorizing someone because he wants to, in fact, because he needs to, just as he needed to go out and find a fight in the previous chapter, entitled I'm from the Goddam Planet Krypton.

As I note in the Introduction, Something Very Bad happened to the protagonist before the book begins. It takes rather a long time to find out what happened, and for very good reasons. But there are other questions and other mysteries and other things to discover along the way. And because this is science fiction, rather retro science fiction at that, the protagonist is a wish fulfillment fantasy of a sort, but it is not a "happily ever after" fantasy, because that is not the kind I write. And anyone who thinks that Ed Honlin (or Mike Hammer, or—especially—Jack Bauer), is someone they'd like to be, or even emulate, is mistaking fantasy for reality, and I write the kind of fantasy that tries to make its position very clear, even when it is morally ambiguous.


black dog barking said...

Effective tease in the author's note. I'm interested.

In re: torture, the human impulse to subject others to -- this seems a fairly compelling and universal urge. The "24" rationale is just an excuse, a thin excuse to indulge bad behavior.

Alan Furst's collection of espionage novels set in period before and during WWII treat torture as a casual fact of European life. What struck me was not the obvious Nazi and Stalinist embrace of institutional torture but the offhand mentions of basements in Bulgarian hamlet police stations or the treatment of captured stragglers by patrols in the Spanish Civil War -- capture, an hour or so of "interrogation", summary execution. All presented as completely unremarkable events.

The years since 1945 tell us that Europe has learned something from its experiences of modern war; that we Americans have not.

James Killus said...

Indeed. Torture is not an interrogation technique; it is punishment. We supposedly ban it as "cruel and unusual," but the tragedy is that, while it is cruel, it's not that unusual.

TStockmann said...

In short, he is terrorizing someone because he wants to, in fact, because he needs to, just as he needed to go out and find a fight in the previous chapter, entitled I'm from the Goddam Planet Krypton.

My emphasis, of course. I am fascinated by the word "need", which always seems naked without and object, viz. "need for" or "need in order to." The elision of to what necessity the precedent is oriented is telling. In life "need" is chiefly used a a raised-voice-and-no-compromise move, and the difference between "need immediately in order to live" and "need in order to feel the belle of the ball" get equal footing.

Now, as an attribute of a fictional character, it is again interesting. Umm, to me, I mean. "Need" meaning "having no choice in order to maintain character integrity, either to generic tropes or to the rhetoric of the narrative, or, less defensibly, by some fondly imagined connection to flesh-and-blood people of a peculiarly predestined design, although that would be a novel claim for an sf Spillane-homage. The latter option also seems to suggest an unphilosophical approach, wherein some apparently volitional activities (say, torturing someone) are in fact voluntary, while others (say, torturing someone) are not. But of course "need" in order for Mr. Killus to say what he wants to say is wonderfully transparent, and in keeping with the great Nabokov, who remarked cheerfully that his characters were galley slaves.

James Killus said...

At the risk of showing my hand and making the implicit explicit, it's pretty clear from the events as written that "need" in the case of my severely damaged protagonist is as real as, and in a measure congruent to, the need for a good night's sleep.

I also find that I need to emphasize that I wrote this well before the creation of the TV series, Dexter, or the book upon which it was based. I imagine that the artistic impulses are the same however; it's probably something that's just in the wind, and was so even before "everything changed."

As a matter of practicality, I have a great advantage in that I'm writing SF, so otherwise implausible things can be finessed with SF tropes. Things happened to our boy Ed, and some of them were done to him--for the best of motives, of course.