Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Full Dark, No Stars": Stephen King's Worlds of Night

 As a writer with a clear eye for good and evil, Stephen King captures the depravity of the human condition remarkably well.  He writes in the afterward to Full Dark, No Stars“If you’re going into a very dark place…you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything… Bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do.”  

If there were ever a question about whether or not we the people have within us a hidden self capable of doing remarkably foul deeds (as several characters in this collection of short stories do), King resolves it with a resounding, “Yes, there is.”  That light he shines is a revealing one.
The title captures the feel of the stories very well.  This is meant to be a book full of darkness, with no light shining down. One story belies the title – there are glimpses of stars – but by this point the light is small and distant, perhaps seen only because the stars have gone nova.  The bonus story puts out what light remains pretty effectively.
He also writes in the afterward that "people in these stories are not without hope.”  He follows this with the caveat that “our fondest hopes…may sometimes be in vain. Often, even.”  In spite of the evil in most of his characters, he believes “most people are essentially good. I know that I am.”  This seems promising, as he also writes that “the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart.”  If King is essentially good, and his stories come from the truth inside his heart, literary magic should follow.
And in some ways it does.  I suspect he writes so bleakly about evil because the goodness within him is appalled by the badness around him. It does seem incongruous, however, that while most of us are apparently essentially good, King’s literary worlds in this book are inhabited by people who are essentially not good at all.  This review of Full Dark will contrast King’s claims of hope, goodness and truth with the focus of his fiction.  I will try not to give away the plots as I offer some comments.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Incarceron: Escape Is Not Enough

“I spent centuries longing to escape, but who can escape themselves?”

For those wanting to better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a Young Adult audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as to analyze how the story reflects and shapes the readers' worldview. There will be spoilers.
After the Years of Rage, all the criminals, undesirables, extremists, degenerates, and lunatics of the Realm were banished to Incarceron, a prison the size of a world.  Seventy of the Sapient, the wisest of the wise, entered the prison with them. Incarceron was programmed to provide education, diet, spiritual direction, and work. It would be a Paradise.
When Catherine Fisher's Incarceron begins (and continues in Sapphique), one hundred and fifty years have passed since the banishment. The Prison is a hell. It is is alive and cruel, without mercy or compassion.  Their histories note:
“In ancient statues Justice was always blind. But what if it sees, sees everything, and its Eye is cold and without Mercy? Who would be safe from such a gaze? Year by year Incarceron tightened its grip. It made a hell of what should have been a heaven.”
The Prison turns humans into beasts, then does not forgive them for what it has made of them. Meanwhile, the Realm has found its own dystopia. The appalling destruction of the Years of Rage demand a draconian solution:
We must find a simpler way of life. We must retreat into the past, everyone and everything, in its place, in order. Freedom is a small price to pay for survival… We forbid growth and therefore decay. Ambition, and therefore despair. Above all, Time of forbidden. From now on nothing will change.”
  They called it Era, and it sustained a lie. Lord Evian describes the situation well:
“We are rich…but we are not free. We are chained hand and foot by Protocol, enslaved to a static, empty world…New does not exist. Nothing changes, nothing grows, evolves, develops. Progress is forbidden. We are dying, Claudia. We must break open this cell we have bricked ourselves into, escape from this endless wheel we tread like rats…even death will be a sort of freedom.”
    Two world, two prisons.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Absurd Heroism: Camus and the real Walking Dead

I have been blogging my way through The Walking Dead and Philosophy, a fascinating book that has so far addressed issues of logic (zombies like the Walkers are not possible),  the nature of humanity (but philosophical zombies are, apparently), and issues like justice, rights, and social contracts.  

Ms. Robinson-Greene ("Better Off Undead") raises the next big problem: the existential dilemma of soulless people. A gloomy fact about self-reflective creatures is that they are capable of recognizing what Albert Camus called absurdity, "the confrontation between the longings of humans and an indifferent universe.”
The Walkers in The Walking Dead provide a great example. Not only are they dead and zombified, rotting while cannibalizing the world, but virtually no one exists to grieve who they are or celebrate who they were. There is only blind, pitiless indifference.  Stephen Crane, your universe has arrived.
Camus’ existentialism would claim that our ordinary life is not philosophically that much different from the world after a zombie apocalypse. “We make demands on the universe that it simply doesn’t (and can’t) care about. We want justice out of the world. We want the guilty punished. We want the innocent to be spared suffering. But that isn’t the way the world works.”
 Camus said there are three options for those who see this relentless gloom pressing in from all around: Commit suicide, pretend life is not absurd, or turn to religion. In the face of these absurd choices, Camus recommended we become “absurd heroes.” If nothing else we can shake our fists at gods and men, even while knowing the gesture is meaningless. What is more heroic than fighting in the face of inevitable failure? 
And inevitable failure is what awaits the survivors in The Walking Dead. We found out at the end of Season Two that everyone is infected.  Is there anything meaningful left to do? They can rage at the sky, but who cares?  Despite all their rage they are still just rats in a zombie-filled cage. The hero in this Camus-haunted world is anyone who keeps fighting (and if the premier of Season Three is setting the tone, that's going to be everybody all the time).  If there is a silver lining behind the zombie cloud, it is the solidarity that comes with a shared sense of doom.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Fabrications and Forgiveness

In Father of Invention, Kevin Spacey plays a businessman/inventor who spends more time with his career than his family, and ultimately loses them both when one of his criminally negligent “fabrications” results in a 10 year jail sentence.  When he gets out of jail, he moves in with his daughter as he tries to get his life back together.

Other than the fact that both the characters and situations were shallow and false, I was bothered by the way he constantly asked his adult daughter to forgive him. This doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but the movie presented it as, “You need to get over all the years and years of neglect and emotional abuse and just move on now as if nothing happened.”  When his daughter’s roommate needed some advice about the emotional turmoil she was experiencing because of her parent’s impending divorcing, Spacey’s character told her basically to get over it immediately.

I think that’s bad advice. That’s not forgiveness or compassion; that’s denial - about what happened, about the emotional tumult that comes with the dissolution of relationships, about what the ripple effect has been and will be in their lives.  It's an attempt to craft a world in which people sow what they want - and then reap what they want too!  Life without consequences! It's a win/win for the perpetrators of thoughtless and destructive deeds; meanwhile, everyone who has been victimized must bravely endure the fallout as if nothing at all went wrong.  The ones who can't get over it that quickly are portrayed as immature, hardened, and just a bit mean.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Christians and Halloween

As a child, I was raised in a Mennonite community that did not observe Halloween. From its roots to its current form, we saw nothing compelling or good about it. We gave treats to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and did our best not to support the holiday financially or emotionally. I didn't really care; my mom didn't let us kids eat much candy anyway.

As a young adult, I learned more about the holiday from people who had done more than dabble in the occult. Whatever you might think of the legitimacy of their attempts to connect with the dark side, they were pretty serious about what they hoped to accomplish. Halloween was their Christmas and Easter rolled into one. They approached it with a sense of mission and purpose.

I later moved out of that community and for the first time came in contact with a lot of sincere Christians who viewed Halloween as just another holiday. They experienced it as an exercise of imagination, a sort of exorcism of the spirits of fear from which we Christians have been freed. God had not redeemed us so that we would cringe in the face of evil, so they boldly subverted Halloween with a freedom foreign to my upbringing.

These very different experiences have given me plenty to ponder over the years. Though I have more to understand, I have several observations that I hope contain wisdom.