I’ve long since stopped trying to second-guess where to look for insights into the crisis of our time and the first stirrings of the future ahead. I read a lot of news and a lot of blogs, covering a non-Euclidean landscape in which the conventional categories of Right and Left are temporary agglomerations at most, but as often as not it’s a data point from some other source that gets me thinking and sets one of these weekly essays in motion. In this case, it was a review of one of my novels, and the response I got when I talked about that review on my Dreamwidth journal.
I think most of my readers are aware that my writing includes a certain amount of fiction, and that the most recent product of that end of my work is a series of fantasy novels that stand H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos on its head and play merry hob among the cyclopean ruins and tentacular horrors thereof. Those novels have fielded a modest number of reviews, mostly quite favorable. I was startled, though, by a detail in one recent review of the fourth book in the series: the reviewer was flabbergasted that the main character of that book was just an ordinary person.
The reviewer was quite correct, of course. The protagonist of The Weird of Hali: Dreamlands is an elderly professor at a small Massachusetts college who’s coping with terminal cancer. She has no superhuman powers, no mythic identity, no grandiose destiny, not even a spandex suit and a cape, just a fair amount of curiosity and a stubborn streak. These and a good helping of sheer dumb luck send her tumbling head over heels into an adventure in that strange dimension of being Lovecraft called the lands of dream, as a result of which—well, I hate spoilers as much as anyone else, so let’s leave it there, shall we?
She’s not alone in that state of ordinariness. Nearly all the protagonists of my novels and short stories are ordinary people who end up in extraordinary situations. The one lead character who’s got abilities that stray a little past the human—Jenny Parrish, the protagonist of The Weird of Hali: Kingsport—is otherwise a very ordinary young woman, notably mostly for a bookish streak and an unusually plain physical appearance. The others? Some of them are odd in one way or another, as indeed many of us are; none of them are paragons in any imaginable sense. They’re people like you and me, and their struggles to deal with the wildly unexpected events of a fantasy adventure provide much of the entertainment value of the tale.
So it didn’t surprise me that the reviewer noticed that Miriam Akeley is an ordinary person. What startled me was that he found this astounding. I pondered that, considered some of the recent fantasy fiction I’ve read (or, rather more often these days, started to read, got bored, and set aside), and took that to my Dreamwidth journal, where among other things I post musings about subjects not yet ready for this blog—and I got an earful.
Apparently for decades now—since about the time I got bored, for entirely different reasons, with most of the latest offerings of fantasy and science fiction—those genres have been packed to the point of nausea with endless retellings of the same basic story. You know that story already, dear reader, even if you’ve never opened the cover of a single fantasy or science fiction novel. It’s the story of the Chosen One: the spunky, unfairly treated kid or young adult who’s far more talented than anybody else and who’s been marked out for a big shiny destiny. Maybe he has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead, maybe she’s got unparalleled numbers of macro-handwavians in her blood, maybe—well you can fill in the blanks for yourself.
The character in question doesn’t have to do anything or learn anything to get assigned the status we’re discussing, by the way. No, the Chosen One is the Chosen One because he or she or fill-in-the-pronoun is the Chosen One, that’s why, and that’s also why the entire plot and, in too many cases, the entire cosmos revolves around that particular character. What’s more, the Chosen One is always special. He or she or what have you is always set apart from the rest of humanity by being specially special in some excruciatingly special way that alone can solve whatever problem is central to the plot, and vaporize whatever Evilly Evil Lord of Evilness is causing the problem out of pure pointless malice. (That’s another neurotic twitch central to too much modern fantasy, but it’s also a subject for a different conversation.)
Not every such story is quite as dreary as this summary sounds. I’m not a fan of the Harry Potter books—the boy wizard and his chums barely held my interest through the first few books and lost it completely in the fourth—but I’ll grant that as Chosen Ones go, the Harry of the early books is a little more interesting than most, largely because he retains an entertaining capacity for doing the kind of dumb stunts that kids his age generally do. There are many other stories about Chosen Ones that are far, far duller. The extreme form is the sort of story that consists, in effect, of placing the Chosen One on a rotating pedestal so that every admirable quality can be displayed at a variety of choice angles—and those are quite common these days.
I should clear away one potential misunderstanding at once. There have been stories like this since people first started telling tales. Sir Galahad, from the overripe latter days of the Arthurian legend, is a great example. Christian mystics love him and nobody else can stand him, because he’s the Chosen One and he can do no wrong; he sets out to find the Grail, goes through a predestined set of adventures, finds the Grail, and promptly dies in a vast billowing stench of sanctity and is wafted away to heaven. It’s because the rest of Arthur’s knights and ladies are far more ordinary, and thus far more interesting, that anyone bothers with the Arthurian legends at all.
For that matter, the guy who invented the English novel—Samuel Richardson—had a clunker of the same variety. His first two tales, Pamela and Clarissa, were romance novels featuring lusty villains in hot pursuit of reluctant heroines. (Yes, you read that correctly. The very first English novels were bodice-rippers.) His third, Sir Charles Grandison, also had a reluctant heroine and a lusty villain, but then there was the main character, the aforementioned Sir Charles, who was a moral paragon of the dreariest sort. For example, when he and the villain are about to duel over the heroine, what happens? Why, Sir Charles lectures the villain on the evils of dueling, and sure enough, the villain is so overwhelmed by this display of pompous priggishness that he renounces dueling on the spot. It gets worse, but some of my readers may have eaten recently so I’ll leave further examples unmentioned here.
The thing to keep in mind is that back then, Richardson wasn’t the only game in town. His novels inspired the first actually good English novelist, Henry Fielding, to pick up his pen and unleash a series of counterblasts: first, Shamela, a good hearty parody of Pamela; then, Joseph Andrews, which does Shamela one better by taking the basic plot of Richardson’s first two novels and swapping the genders, so that innocent young Joseph is pursued by a lustful noblewoman, resulting in one hilarious escapade after another; and then Tom Jones, generally considered the first great English novel, a thumping tale (in any number of senses) about a young, good-natured, and not exactly chaste young man who stumbles from adventure to adventure and bed to bed until happiness and true love finally catch up with him.
The history of English-language literature from then on features a small number of Sir Charles Grandisons and a great many Tom Joneses—that is to say, a small number of characters who are paragons of perfection and thus stunningly dull, and a much vaster number of more ordinary characters who lead more interesting lives. When William Morris up and invented fantasy fiction in 1895 with The Wood Beyond The World, the same basic division applied. Morris was a genius at making ordinary, believable, vulnerable characters the center of his imaginative worlds. The hero of The Wood Beyond the World, for example, is a young merchant named Walter, who gets away from a catastrophically failed marriage by taking the next ship to anywhere; adventures follow. He’s an ordinary guy in an ordinary situation who ends up in an extraordinary tale.
In Morris’ next novel, The Well at the World’s End—the greatest work of fantasy until Tolkien’s day, and still one of the best works in the genre—the protagonist is named Ralph, and he’s about as special as that sounds; he’s young and rather silly, in fact, and among the many themes of that very complex novel is the process by which this clueless young man achieves greatness. In case you’re wondering, yes, Morris has female characters, and they’re not merely ornamental, the way most of Tolkien’s are. Ursula, the female lead in The Well at the World’s End, has a long journey of her own and takes charge of the quest for more than half the way; Birdalone, the heroine of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, comes out of a ghastly childhood and becomes strong and capable to a degree that puts many of the heroines of today’s woke fantasy to shame—and somehow Morris does all this without assigning any of his characters a birthright of special powers or a bright shiny destiny.
Do I need to go on to Tolkien, and Bilbo Baggins, who (hairy feet and all) probably counts as the most embarrassingly ordinary character in all of fantasy fiction, if not all of literature? No, let’s skip over Bilbo and the countless other perfectly ordinary characters who encounter perfectly amazing adventures in fantasy fiction, and take things right up to the brink of the transformation I want to discuss. Yes, that would be 1977, when Luke Skywalker suddenly became a household name. In the original Star Wars movie, later retcons aside, he was a callow, clueless farm kid who happened to have an interesting father, and because he was in the right place at the right time when the right two droids came tumbling out of space onto the isolated desert planet Tatooine, he got swept up in a grand adventure. Luke isn’t special—in fact, for most of the movie he’s hopelessly out of his depth—and it takes him a long journey through danger, love, grief, and encounters with an ancient wisdom, to get to the point where he can do exactly the right thing at the right moment, and save the people and the cause he cares about.
In 1977, Luke Skywalker was Everykid. (That’s why I went to see the movie seven times in its original theatrical run, at the UA 150 cinema in downtown Seattle; if you sat in the front row, the opening scene with the Imperial ship thundering overhead was almost hallucinatory in its intensity.) So was Bilbo Baggins, and his nephew Frodo as well. So were hundreds of other heroes and heroines in the fantasy and science fiction I devoured by the ream in those days: the eponymous protagonist of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy, who was clearly a distant descendant of Tom Jones; Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the best of Michael Moorcock’s many iterations of his Eternal Champion mythos; Menolly of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong, the entire cast of Andre Norton’s scores of novels, and many, many others. So, to jump genres, were Kwai Chang Caine, the hero of Kung Fu, the last TV show I ever watched regularly, and Emil Sinclair, the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s visionary masterpiece Demian. Even the characters who were special in some way—Paul Atreides of Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good example—were far from flawless and had to rise, struggling all the way, to meet the challenge of their destiny.
Then there’s Rey, the protagonist of 2017’s The Last Jedi. Rey’s the antithesis of Everykid. She’s so specially special, she’s literally unable to make a mistake or to fail at anything she attempts. That is to say, she’s Sir Charles Grandison with a sex change and a light saber, and she’s every bit as stunningly dull as her 18th-century equivalent. There were plenty of other reasons why The Last Jedi got a frigid reaction from a great many former fans of the franchise—you can read a good thorough critique of its stupidities in this review by SF author John C. Wright—but the sheer boredom that comes from watching an invincible character go through the motions of being in danger made a good hefty contribution to that.
Rey is an extreme case, but she’s not alone. Consider the endless rehashing of old comic books that’s become a nervous tic of Hollywood studios now that they’ve given up on being creative. Partly, of course, the Baby Boom generation is well on its way to senility, and recalling the passions of childhood is something the old often do. Partly, too, like every other art form, movies had a certain notional space to explore and consume, and that space was used up by the end of the twentieth century. Within a half century or so, as cinema follows the usual cycle, new movies will be no more common than new grand operas are at present, and film will survive the way classical music does today, by replaying and appreciating the classics. In the meantime, cultural necrophilia is the usual last stand of an art form approaching death.
But the endless dreary parade of superheroes and superduperheroes also fills the same soporific niche as For The Love Of God I Hope It’s The Last Jedi. Superheroes are special; that’s their sole excuse for existence. Some few of them—Batman and Green Arrow are among these—are relatively ordinary human beings who become extraordinary through harrowing experiences and fanatical self-discipline. (It will probably not surprise my readers to find out that these two were the ones featured in the comic books I read most passionately as a kid.) Most of them, though, are special because they’re special, and their adventures have to feature a constant parade of gimmickry of the Kryptonite variety in order to meet the first requirement of good storytelling and give the audience some reason to care about what happens to them.
I could go on at considerably more length, but I trust the point has been made. Where ordinary characters thrown into extraordinary situations used to be the bread and butter of imaginative literature and its equivalents in other media, an enormous amount of storytelling for the last couple of decades has fixated obsessively on people who are special, not because they’ve done anything to achieve that status, but simply because of who they are. They’re better than other people, and because they’re better than other people, they’re set apart for some grand and glittering destiny, which usually means that they alone get to decide what happens to the world.
Now take a few moments to think through the political implications of that obsession.
It was precisely because he was Everykid that Luke Skywalker inspired a generation. I know that I was far from the only teenager who treasured that first Star Wars movie, because what it said to us was that we weren’t stuck forever in our equivalents of Tatooine. It didn’t matter that we were nothing special, because neither was he. He taught us that we could rise to face the challenges that confronted us, learn some metaphorical equivalent of the ways of the Force, and aspire to be in the right place at the right time to do something that mattered.
That’s not what Rey and her endlessly regurgitated equivalents have to teach, though. What they teach is that there are certain people who are special, important, destined to greatness, not because of what they’ve done or learned or overcome, but purely because of who they are. Those are the people who matter, and if you’re not one of the special people, you don’t matter and can’t expect to have any kind of role in determining what happens. You can’t learn the ways of the Force or do anything of any importance—that’s for the special people, not for you. All you can do is choose between two rigidly defined alternatives. You can stand passively by, admiring the special people, applauding them for being so special, and doing what they tell you as they go through motions they claim will save the world. Alternatively, you can get in their way, in which case you must be evil and will be annihilated.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that this is deliberate propaganda—it’s too crassly blatant for that, and it’s also a money sink on the grand scale. It’s not just Hollywood that’s flushing billions down an assortment of heavily marketed ratholes, after all. The big corporate publishers in New York City have had to rent warehouse after warehouse in industrial districts of New Jersey to hold millions of unsold copies of novels that were supposed to be bestsellers, that were marketed with every trick known to Madison Avenue, and that made prodigious bellyflops because people turned a few pages in a bookstore or clicked on a sample online, rolled their eyes, and bought something less stunningly dull instead. If you’re running a deliberate propaganda campaign and people aren’t buying it, you change your approach; you don’t double down and make sure your next project has more of every feature that drove readers and viewers away from the last one.
No, I think what we’re seeing is the product of the ideology of the industrial world’s managerial caste, the people who earn absurdly large salaries deciding which novels are going to get picked up by the big corporate publishers, which scripts are going to be turned into Hollywood films and publicized from here to Tatooine, and so on. More precisely, I think we’re seeing that ideology in its extreme form, the kind of thing you see when the defenders of an belief system have been driven to the last ditch. The producers of The Last Feeble Excuse For A Jedi didn’t have to go out of their way to vilify the character of the insufficiently special Luke Skywalker, nor did they have to go quite so far in presenting Rey as a plaster saint for public adoration; the fact that they did both these things suggests that they know they have nothing left to lose.
I think we all know who was supposed to be the Chosen One in the 2016 election, and she lost. Too many of those ordinary people who were supposed to stand by admiringly, applaud on cue, and do what they were told, while their soi-disant betters decided the future of the world, noticed that the Chosen One was chosen by a corrupt and arrogant clique of career politicians in the teeth of widespread popular distaste, and either stayed home on election day or cast their vote for the most embarrassingly ordinary presidential candidate of modern times. The frantic attempts to find a new Chosen One since then have had very mixed results at best—I suspect one of the reasons behind the wild adulation being poured out on current media darling Greta Thunberg is that her story, at least as massaged by the managers of her glossy and well-funded publicity campaign, so closely echoes the stereotyped origin story of the special characters we’ve been talking about.
Exactly how all this will play out will have to be seen over the years immediately ahead; I have my guesses, but guesses is all they are. One way or another, though, I think it’s pretty clear that the time of the self-proclaimed Chosen Ones is running out, and a rather more Skywalkeresque era may dawn thereafter. One way or another, dear readers, if you find yourself thinking that you have to wait for some special person to fix the world for you, it might be a good idea to ask yourself where you got that idea—and you might also consider going out of your way to find things to read or watch that will remind you that people as ordinary as you and me really can rise to challenges, take action, and change things.