I apparently have a new pet peeve in fantasy novels. I’m currently reading a fantasy novel that shall remain nameless so that – as with a t.v. show that shall also remain nameless – I don’t have to learn how to space posts to avoid spoiler alerts. The novel itself falls somewhere above “completely generic YA junk food that I read because reading bad books is actually good for you” but below “genuinely good.” It doesn’t quite reach full-on good status because it leans in a bit too heavily into that most default of all default fantasy tropes: undermining its own high stakes and tense character development over several books by letting its main characters dive ever deeper into wells of continent-leveling magic whenever the stakes get high enough they (and/or the author) can no longer clever themselves out of it.
Unending power heightening is enough of a pet peeve of mine in fantasy novels that I managed to find a way to rant about it here, but not one that by itself would make me give up on a series. Especially not when we have had a foot of snow dumped on us over the past couple of days, and the weekend before that we had high enough winds with our freezing rain to snap my umbrella pole in two and slice my thumb down the middle as it whipped out of my hands and became an unintended aerial projectile. Fantasy cataclysms are much safer than either our current weather or most of the rest of the real world.
What is currently annoying me most about the current book in this series is an entirely different pet peeve that I only just now realized, after being diagnosed with a chronic illness (aka learning that that pain I’ve constantly been in all my life is only “normal” because it’s genetic and common among those who were my only frame of reference.) One of the Protagonists was rendered unable to walk because of the Villain and is now off on a special Quest to obtain super-secret magical healing so he can be “fixed” and useful to Save the World again. Because no one could ever Save the World from a wheelchair – and/or it would be less satisfying for the Love Interest when the two finally consummate if they had to work around spooniedom in the sack? Am I alone in wanting to see a character have to save the world from his wheelchair not only to provide more representation for chronic illness/disability but also because it is a pretty effective check on that whole continent-leveling power creep issue?
I don’t know for certain that said Protagonist will obtain the magical healing he seeks, as I only just started the relevant book. But, I have a pretty strong suspicion that he will both because tropes are a thing and because fantasy novels – and just about every other form of entertainment – are full of the implict assumption that Good Characters have Good Things happen to them at the end. Unless, of course, they are being deliberately “edgy.” This book is not being deliberately edgy. Thus, the main character’s disability will be a convenient brood-piece until he finally come to terms with it – at which point he will likely earn the respect of the healers and reap the reward of never having to think about it again.
And that reminds me that I previously wrote a brood-piece of my own about the implicit morality of punishment in disaster movies when Hurricane Dorian affilicted the Good People of
Alabama The Bahamas, and my Partner and I decided to toast the ridiculousness of Sharpiegate with a rewatch of “classic” 1990s disaster movies.
Have another installment of Meteorological Misanthropy from August that is, once again, not a story of how I unmasked at work. Because, like climate change, my ability to sustain interest in any given topic promised for my blog lately has been predictably unpredictable. (Also, bonus YA fiction geek points to anyone who can determine from my vague description of the plot of one particular book + the fact that something about that series made me think of Hurricane Dorian which series I have been describing!)
Warning – spoilers for twenty-year-old disaster movies that aren’t actually spoilers at all if you’ve ever heard of TV Tropes ahead!
If you’ve ever gone down a TV Tropes rabbit hole – or just taken an improv class – you probably have acquired the ability to compensate for any processing issues with movies and tv by simply filling in what you missed from the massive stock of archetypical characters and roughly twenty master plot types clamoring for your brain space amid more useful information (like where you left your keys.)
Disaster movies – which are another form of escapist mental junk food for me – especially have to rely on universal tropes to fit in any pretense at character building alongside their special effects. They are emininently predictable as a result. My Partner and I re-watched some old-school disaster movies like Dante’s Peak and Twister this weekend in honor of Sharpiegate. I will admit that I also watched 2012 amid those other two, but I will also admit I wanted to throw things at the TV the whole time. Disaster movies in the modern age of Roland Emmerich are significantly less appealing than the “classics” to someone who knows that simply calling something a “Category” 6 hurricane doesn’t really imply anything unless you also give me the barometric pressure readings and sustained wind speeds. There are “Category 5” hurricanes that still stand up in history that hit before the categories themselves were created. And, even if global warming is going to make Cat 5s the norm, they still shouldn’t be something we simply shrug our shoulders at and inflate the scale. The abnormal should never be allowed to become normal just because it’s predictably abnormal.
Spoiler alert: the plot constructs of all of my comfort-watch classic disaster movies (and probably 2012, too, though I kind of lost track of who any of those characters were midway through to confirm!) dicate that the villains always have to die in the end. Narrative causality dictates that society must punish bad guys for their wrongs and reward good guys for their “goods” in popular entertainment. In a disaster movie, that punishment comes via the most visually impressive plot device possible: murder nature.
At the age I was when I first saw those movies, I’ll admit there was a bit of vicarious glee in the idea of atmospheric accountability. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a fair bit of the 9th Circle of Hell raised by tornado. Because that place was bad to me, and it deserved it. Being “bad” makes you “deserve it,” right? Unfortunately, once you grow up to become aware of economics, you can no longer innocently be okay with cyclonic social mores because you become all too aware that all humans are prone to scope errors, and the “justice” in disaster movies is a cognitive scope error of societal proportion. The justice in much of the world right now is a scope error of societal proportion, too. That is why in the end I’ll always argue that a hundred people who “deserve” it should walk free rather than convict one innocent – and why my definition of what “deserves it” means will fall first and foremost upon those corrupt and inequitable systems that create conditions of desperation more than on the poor choices those trapped within it are forced to make.
Scope matters in economics. There is a reason why macroeconomics and microeconomics are robustly different areas of specialty at even the undergraduate economics level. It sounds great in theory to say that a government should be run like a household budget – except for that pesky bit where they are entirely different classes of economic entities with different scopes of power. Households can’t print money – or cease printing it – to control global inflation or enter into trade agreements. Governments can, and they have a responsibility to do so soundly for the sake of all of those household budgets impacted by it. Every time I hear a politician on either side of the aisle argue for this most fundamental of economic scope errors, I inwardly groan at the number of households that will be negatively affected by it.** Managing a household budget is not at all the same as managing the global economy exactly for the same reason those “micro” and “macro” prefixes were affixed before “economics” in the first place.
Scope also matters in social justice.
Don’t believe me? Think about the “crimes” that disaster-movie justice determined warranted plot extinction in just the movies I mentioned above. In Twister, the villain’s crime was to steal credit for the protagonists’ intellectual property. Is that a douche thing to do? Absolutely. I recently left an office wherein playing musical accomplishments to claim credit for the good news – anyone’s good news – and shuffle off the bad onto the last person standing was a survival sport. Do those backstabbing coworkers who cost the jobs of others during the Purge last year while I was on not-FMLA deserve “justice?” Yes. Do I think that “justice” should be debris through the skull? No, I can’t quite say I concur with that. (Not to mention the fact that – even if somehow Twister had had a villain worthy of that kind of retribution – there was an innocent cameraman in that same car! Collateral damage is never justice!)
Dante’s Peak is even less clear-cut. The “villain” is a USGS supervisor who waits longer than he “should” to evacuate a town. But, it’s not because he wants to curry favor or advance his career or anything as venial as even the villain in Twister. He waits too long because – once upon a time – he didn’t wait long enough. He called for a massive evacuation under similar circumstances and the volcano promptly quieted without any eruption after the resulting bad press had ruined tourism in the area for a decade and killed the town’s livelihood. Effectively, the “villain” of the entire movie (other than the volcano, itself, of course!) was a generic human falling for yet another generic human cognitive fallacy called the Salience Effect. He overweighted a previous mistake so heavily that he made an entirely new one. Who hasn’t done that? Does that really deserve punishment by pyroclastic flow? (Some might argue he was less “narratively punished” than “narratively sacrificed,” but I would argue that the narrative construct that dictated that he and one other character had to “sacrifice themselves” to save the “true” protagonists because the weight of their “mistakes” made them unworthy is just another side of the same simplistic narrative causality.)
I’ll admit that I’ve probably seen both movies a half a dozen times and never thought anything of the narrative trope that the villain dies in the end before now. But once you see, you can’t unsee. Have I met objectively horrible human beings who do deserve disaster movie justice for what they’ve done – or allowed to be done – to those who couldn’t speak for themselves? Yes. And, I’d gladly cheer if one of those villains received it either in movie form or in real life. At the local scale I know for a fact some folks who “deserve it.” But, in the end, if I ever got to speak to the system about what should be done to them, I would do so being all too aware of the slippery slope that handing the system the reins to dispense what in my local case is definitely “deserved” also leads to that same system having that same power to wield in other circumstances of both wider (in the sense of systemic abuse itself) and lesser (“where does it end and who determines who “deserves it” anyway?”) scope.
Given what I know of systems, they tend to wield any power given to them too rarely against those who “deserve it” and too often against those who simply were desperate or were born without privilege. Given what I know of systems, they tend to be the ones who “deserve it” most of all, and thus are least to be trusted to determine who else does. (Especially given that my whole example about “speaking to the system” is purely hypothetical – anything I’ve argued towards “justice” has always been met with a blind ear in Hell anyway.)
Re-watching disaster movie “justice” only reinforced to me why I’m ultimately always going to land on the side of restorative – not retributive – justice. There is always going to be an issue of scope in justice, and I’d like to hope that I have had enough economic training by now to apply scope awareness in the same way I have learned why I shouldn’t want my government run like my household. Would I want to see the law thrown at those who hurt my family? Yes. Do I joke about “little lists” when that same law fails them? Absolutely. But, would I actually ever trust that same law to be fairly and equitably applied anymore? Hell no. I was raised in the 9th Circle of Hell, after all. I have more faith in tornadoes to be fair and equitable than I do in its “justice” system.
I’ve learned to be most terrified of all of any “system” that thinks it can determine who “deserves it.” The more any system has thought itself incorruptible, the more corrupt it has usually been. And, the more any system is fundamentally underpinned by the same sorts of societal snap moral judgments that have made “any villain deserves to die in a disaster movie” into tropes in the first place, the less the restraint I expect from it.
Would Twister really have been less “morally” satisfying if the douche was just exposed as a fraud on live tv at the end? I have to assume “yes” for the majority of the viewers, because the formula it chose instead hasn’t changed in over twenty years. We get new and ever more eye-rolling disaster movies annually, but the cognitive shortcuts never change. Because, it seems society not only makes scope errors on an economic scale.
While there might be clear-cut cases on the individual level (aka there are absolutely people I’ve met who deserve whatever “justice” nature throws at them), societal justice administered isn’t justice when it’s administered via scope insensitivity. The systems that enable the conditions for so much trauma are at such an entirely different scope than any simple local test case that we need to recognize this to address societal injustice at scale. And, frankly, the scope of the problems inherent within our current systems are such that I might have to take back my prior claim about the absurdity of invoking category inflation to describe creeping injustice. It might just take something on the scope of being razed to the ground and rebuilt via one of those truly Roland Emmerich style “roll of the eye” apocalypses before I’d ever feel comfortable believing our current systems – given those who currently control them – “deserve” to determine who “deserves it” or ever felt comfortable arguing that a system based fundamentally on retributive justice could be equitable or “just.” True justice would be creating a society in which basic rights truly were universal and there was never any reason that someone might ever feel forced to do something they later regret.
**Note from the
future present: The fact that politicians so regularly make this scope error – and then appoint federal officials with no training in the departments they manage to sustain them – is a big part of why I will only ever score 90 out of a possible 100 on Ashley of Mental Health @ Home’s online Imposter Syndrome Test. As long as there are politicians and their followers who ignore all evidence that hasn’t passed Confirmation Bias, I guess the bully-in-my-brain will continue to simultaneously think I’m unworthy and that I would do a better job as Cabinet than anyone currently there.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms