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Monday, July 20, 2015

Guest Post: So Grim It's Cute Again (or: the Fallacy of the Turtle) by Max Gladstone

Nihilism feels charmingly lighthearted to me these days.

Maybe that feeling springs from my memories of high school. Young Max never went full Goth, but he hung out with folks who did, or who went what passed for goth in rural Tennessee—the Marilyn Manson and Aleister Crowley contingent, dyed-black hair and spiked collars and long gloves, teenagers born with a gift of laughter and a feeling the world was mad. Artful sneers as far as the eye could see.

Kind of makes you want to build a time machine just to go back and ruffle folks’ hair, doesn’t it? “Of course! Life is meaningless! Morality is a lie! Joy a cruel joke we keep playing on ourselves! Staaaaare into the abyss where once there was your sooooooooul.” Aw, sweetie! It’s cute! And to this day it’s a fun sort of ideological vacation, you know, a retreat to a simpler time when we thought Quentin Tarantino movies should be read at face value, that Alex in A Clockwork Orange responds reasonably to a world of hypocrites, that everyone who doesn’t understand that love and hope are disgusting jokes, that human life is just vipers eating vipers all the way down, is fooling himself. Look at us, for we are the moral hard men-or-women!

I suspect that "cute-grim" feeling is part of the plan in some fantasy universes—especially dear Warhammer 40,000, land of Space Marines and Shoulder Pads and Everything Wot With Guns On, a setting so maximalist and self-consciously grim that it might as well be wearing a NIN t-shirt smoking clove cigarettes out back of the dining hall in 1995. And, like that kid in the NIN t-shirt, part of the fun comes from the fact that the arch-cynic's ideological position is absolutely safe.

You’ve been in a fight, probably, or failing that a sparring match of some kind. If not, here’s how it works, in my experience: someone’s trying to hit you. You want to hit them back. If you’re fighting with any kind of rules, though, it’s not that difficult to turtle: to put up your dukes, practice your guard, and lock yourself behind a defensive wall. The problem is, you never hit this way. You can dance around the ring, you can block every strike, but if you ever want to do more, you have to break your perfect defense. To win, you have to strike.

The trick, of course, is that striking opens you up. If your punch gets blocked, you're open for a knee to the ribs, an elbow to the face. There’s no sound in fencing quite so soul-crushing as the whisper of your blade across your opponent’s forte, because she caught your lunge in a parry and her riposte won’t miss. If you’re not in a striking contest, then each grab becomes an opportunity for a lock, a bar, a shoot.

(Oh, and before someone brings up Ali: Rope-a-Dope only works if you really are biding your time. If you never once hit back in all your thirteen rounds, St. Peter won’t pat you on the back and hand you the victory in a decision.)

A bit of turtling makes sense. Life’s hard for a kid, no matter how many advantages you’ve stumbled or been born into. You live in a world you didn’t make, and one you don’t have much power to change. Trying to use the little power you do have, opens you up to enormous reprisals from people with power, and when you look to your comrades for support you’re like as not to find a raised eyebrow and an aloof expression. Your mistake was caring, in the first place. It’s scary shit.

So people, especially dudes who get taught fear isn’t something they should feel, and as a result never learn how handle it—they turtle. Get those dukes up, but never, god, hit anything that might hit back. Dance around the outside. Scorn commitment and hope because they’re exposure. Don’t, god, make common cause with anyone who seems worse off than you—they can’t help. And when someone tells you the world’s shit and nothing changes and nothing makes the pain stop, you listen, because it means you’re right to keep those damn dukes up. Raise shields. Do not engage. If you must engage something because you’re drowning in isolation, then hit the easiest target you can find, in a moment of weakness if you can.

Life can seem pretty grim, for a kid. But there’s a kind of comfort to the grim. In that world, you’re right not to work, not to change, not to stretch out your hand. I was about to write here, “we all have to grow up sometime,” but we don’t, really. We can stay locked behind those walls. We can resign ourselves to a world we can’t change, and tell ourselves that’s what realism looks like—even though in fact we’ve never felt the real, we've never felt the pain of trying, because we’ve convinced ourselves it’s not worth the effort. Not caring is a pretty good defense strategy. But if we don’t take a chance, we waste our brief opportunity to build a better world. Better to try something scary, I think, than to live in fear.

So when I sat down to write a story about a protest—a story about people rising up against a powerful, vicious system, ordinary men and women against god-shattering magic, I tried to start not from cynicism, but from hope. The central characters of my book Last First Snow stand against enormous odds—because they're fighting for something they believe in. They want to protect their homes against magical gentrification, against a system that's come to break them. In fact, both sides of the movement are full of people who care. Protesters care about their homes and families and livelihoods; Temoc, their leader (sort of) cares about his gods and his family; the King in Red, revolutionary lich-turned-utility magnate, cares about protecting his city, and keeping it free of the gods who almost destroyed him; Elayne Kevarian, tasked to negotiate a settlement, cares about peace and her friends and the future. They all strive. They all reach out. And because of that, they're all vulnerable.

That’s real danger, real darkness, I think: once you care, once you fight, you can lose. The odds are against you, the climb’s uphill, it’s dark, and you’re wearing sunglasses.

Sounds a bit like heroism, doesn't it?


Official Author Website
Order Last First Snow HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Three Parts Dead
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Two Serpents Rise
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Full Fathom Five
Read The Mahabharata: A Recollection and Q&A with Max Gladstone
Read "Gods, Monsters, Magic & Metaphor" by Max Gladstone (guest post)
Read Max Gladstone's review of Adi Parva by Amruta Patil

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Max Gladstone has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese and was nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. He is the author of The Craft Sequence which consists of Three Parts DeadTwo Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, and Last First Snow.


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