Wednesday, January 31, 2018

ConFusion Recap: Pacifism

Annalee Flower Horne
Max Gladstone
Dave Baker
Marissa Lingen
Mathew Bin

Examples of nonviolent resistance in SF?
  • Gladstone: Asimov's Foundation books, with their famous quote "violence is the last resort of the incompetent"; but also notes there's some real hypocrisy here, since that quote follows an action that really is a form of violence (even if it avoids traditional military conflict).
  • Lingen: Gerald Vizenor's Treaty Shirts. Brings up idea of trickster characters, "art acts" as protest, and satire. Not "I'm going to kick your ass", but "I'm going to pull your pants down and show your ass".
  • Bin: Pacifism is not "passive", it's an active stance.
  • Lingen: The terrible trope of the planet of the pacifists who are there specifically to show you that that attitude is "doomed when the space pirates show up".
  • Horne: "We make all this up", important to remember here that authors create the entire situation. These "untenable pacifism" tropes are straw men.

  • Lingen: Anti-war books like Haldeman's Forever War, they're good but kind of problematic because they're still war stories at their core.
  • Horne: Johnson's The Summer Prince as good example of conflict being won not through violence, but art and other means.
  • Gladstone: Some of these play with reader expectations, the "fictional skin" that makes horrifying things awesome. Talks about setting up Naked Lunch moments where you really see what's on the end of your fork—The Forever War, Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (also an excuse to listen to Metallica). Setting up exactly what the reader wants (war violence) and then shoving their face into it.
  • Lingen: Problem is this approach is it can scare off people who don't want that in the first place, and/or not work on the intended audience.
  • Gladstone: Some people not into the punching people in the face for justice story, just naturally (or nurturally); when this technique works though, it's only coercive/violent in the way aikido is. If you can make a Batman punches people in the hope that that will help stop crime story where the absurdity of that becomes apparent on page 201, you may get the reader to think about why they wanted that story in the first place.
  • Bin: But it's important to remember the way our society fetishizes military and violence. Their 200 pages of war-erection may not be turned on page 201.
  • Lingen: Thing with aikido metaphor is that most aikido takes place consensually, not in bar fights; if readers don't enter these sneaky anti-war stories consensually it may not work.
  • Baker: Idea of consensual engagement as maybe a separate thread of violent stories; war being replaced with some kind of sport or competition maybe belongs in a different category.
  • Lingen: Wants more stories that show the greater range of tactics and limits of nonviolence. Stories that fundamentally undermine the value of violence, like Ursula Vernon's Digger stories, or Jo Walton's Lifelode. Deliberately structured to not center violence in the first place. Acknowledgment of other life-paths is itself subversive.

  • Bin: Western stories tend to be about conflict, so putting pacificism in those stories puts pacificism against that, which is itself conflict, instead of standing on its own.
  • Gladstone: Agreeing that Vernon's Digger books, about a wombat engineer, make fighting aggressively not the point. Also brings up Pratchett's Only You Can Save Mankind, with its video-game finale where the alien space invaders surrender. There's no "don't fire" button on a joystick. So much of that line is the failure mode of science fiction and the adventure story generally when it's connecting to issues of pacifism. We have narrative tools that suggest a use, it's tricky to either build other tools or use the tools for their non-suggested purpose.
  • Lingen: Our very metaphor for narrative tools is a gun on  a mantle (Chekhov's, that is). No one is expecting target shooting in act 5.
  • Horne: Reminded of the original pitch for The Iron Giant, what if a gun wants to stop being a gun? What are our "don't fire buttons" in genre fiction? How can we hel people build that toolchest?
  • Lingen: Pamela Dean's The Dubious Hills, about thinking about how to stop or allow a violent act when the act will hurt the actor. Incredibly domestic version of "how do you stop the gun" when the gun is a person trained on violence.
  • Bin: It's a gun-focused world, we tend to focus on violent possibilities. River Tam & Shepherd Book in Firefly/Serenity, we're supposed to be rooting for their continued nonviolence, but as audience we're really waiting for that axe dripping with Reaver blood. Our society is kind of built around enjoying those breaks into violence; maybe we need to think more about safeties on guns and how to make a satisfying narrative point of keeping them on.
  • Gladstone: A propos Detroit, references the guy with a gun in his pants in 8 Mile who winds up shooting himself in the leg. Firefly/Serenity examples of not sticking with the courage of their convictions. Talks a bit about the tension between violence and nonviolence in fiction, which also gets into issues of toxic masculinity; specifically referencing some works built around the bakumatsu period in Japan, the tension between the "old romantic bloodthirsty tradition" and the new "peaceful calm domestic bureaucracy" in Rurouni Kenshin. Every time they can't find a nonviolent solution, it's coded as a loss, even though (maybe especially because) the protagonists win all their violent confrontations.

  • Horne: I could spend like an hour complaining about Shepherd Book. Other examples of pacifist characters? Ang from The Last Airbender, for instance.
  • Bin: Luke & Finn in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Narratives of withdrawal, instead of violent engagement.
  • Gladstone: The Last Jedi as evasion, storytelling, trickery. It's never been clear what the light side is good for; the big moral turn in Return of the Jedi is when Luke throws down his laser sword. Luke as a character always working with the language of nonviolence even if not always effectively.
  • Horne: Entire final duel in Jedi is Luke committing to his principle of not killing, tested against his desire to protect those he loves.
  • Lingen: Lord of the Rings does not have actually violent solutions/climaxes, the knock-offs and imitators tend to make the stories about sticking a sword in someone. Tolkien's finishes with Gollum and Frodo both being defeated by their internal bad guys, which turns out to be self-defeating. Tolkien was not a pacifist, nor was Lewis (maybe in Til We Have Faces). Aside on sexism of Lucy fighting/not fighting. But, the core resolution in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is an act of sacrifice, not heroic violence.
  • Horne: See this a lot in Bioware games, where the best/hardest endings involve not killing the villain.
  • Gladstone: Violence/War in Lord of the Rings totally secondary to Sam & Frodo's walking tour. Tolkien had this experience of the first World War that brings home to him the nonsense of enormous conflict narratives, but he's still sucked into those narratives by the form and by his love of epic/mythic tales. The whole trilogy is wrestling with that ambivalence.
  • Lingen: The Ents are an interesting point, the way they're more of a natural event than a human conflict; the way they bring down Isengard is more like a tornado. We need other, non-enemy ways to think about challenges from nature. You can't think of a tiger or a bear as an enemy, because that's not how they're thinking of you—it frames the problem wrong. This is especially important given the weirding of nature in the age of global warming.
  • Gladstone: Tragedy of Moby Dick is kind of this, Ahab's central nonsense.

Audience questions/comments:
  • Snyder's Man of Steel, making Superman less pacifist, does that reflect something real about modern life?
  • Gladstone: Snyder fails to understand why people like Superman. Also, brings up the idea (and current popularity) of trolley problems; when high-schoolers or college freshmen are introduced to these ideas, everyone calls out ways to think around the problem. They only work if you have heavy blinkers and buy the setup uncritically. "Since the middle 19th century we've decided it's very good that everyone who has a formal education have a firm opinion about the situations in which you absolutely must kill someone."
  • Horne: Absurd hypothetical setups requiring violence, treated as "gritty" or "realistic" when we could probably find other solutions. Misses the point in Superman, misses the point in Batman too—of course it's like this, because you wrote it this way!
  • Gladsone: Cites Google studies on actual driving data for self-driving cars, found that there were no actual trolley problems arising.
  • Lingen: We've been attached for over a century that modern living makes things different, where we don't have the luxury of kindness, but that's b.s. and it's being sold to us deliberately. Hold to the big blue boy scout!
  • Bin: We don't have to be constrained as writers.
  • Horne: Check out the Hope Punk panel!

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