Violence in fiction and real life…

Just before hurricane Sandy came roaring into NJ like a banshee on the loose, we went to see Ben Affleck’s Argo.  As usual, we arrived early to get good seats.  Another early arrival commented that a friend (or was it a relative?) refused to see the movie—she never watched violent movies, he said.  That started me thinking.

To paraphrase Tom Clancy, the problem with fiction is it has to seem real.  He’s talking about military thrillers, of course, but that statement is true about many fiction genres (probably not fantasy or paranormal).  It’s interesting that Argo is a movie based on true events surrounding the daring escape of six Americans from Iran during the hostage crisis.  A CIA agent, Tony Mendes, engineered the escape from the Canadian embassy.

I won’t go into details (see the movie).  My point is that the violence in this movie is real.  People were being killed and tortured in Tehran (it’s still happening today, of course).  I’ve also had colleagues who don’t watch TV news or read newspapers or even follow world and national events on the internet—they don’t want to read about bad deeds in the world.  Some people just can’t face real world violence.  There are multiple ways to bury your head in the sand.

Such squeamishness is natural, I suppose, up to a certain point.  While I’m mildly fascinated when they draw blood for lab tests and I’ve survived some intrusive and gruesome biolab experiments on my own body, I could never have been a doctor—or a professional assassin or terrorist.  Yet violence is part of human nature.  Human beings do violent things to other human beings.  Should fiction then mirror reality, as Clancy says?

Sci-fi doesn’t always have violent scenes—it can be more intrigue and suspense or gee-whiz-stuff gone wrong.  In space opera, killing a few alien invaders is part of the fun.  People are less squeamish about violence, I guess, when it’s applied to ETs.  Nevertheless, I felt sorry for the bugs by the end of Starship Troopers, the movie, a lot more violent than in Heinlein’s militaristic sci-fi novel by the same name.

My genre of sci-fi thriller is a bit different, though.  I can’t imagine a thriller without some violence.  Even novels where intrigue and suspense plays more of a role than thrilling action (John Le Carré comes to mind), violence is present.  As I said, human nature is violent, and if fiction mirrors real life, violence must be present.

Most violence is a statistical outlier in the Western world.  That’s why terrorism works.  The more civilized we are, the less comfortable we are with violence in our daily lives, although most people are realists and know it’s there.  Many stories exploit this fact: dig too deeply into a person’s soul and you might see a raging savage.  Mobs are created when violent mass hysteria digs into many people’s souls at the same time.

Thriller readers are satisfied when the bad guy loses to the protagonist(s), although the latter might also be violent individual(s) (Jack Reacher anyone?) and the bad guy might practice his or her own brand of violence on the protagonist(s).  Thriller writers have to put their protagonist(s) to innumerable tests, often violent beyond normal human experience, and let them wiggle out of these challenges the best way they can, often noble and bruised but ready for more.

Boxing matches, in their purist form, American football, European rugby, and other gladiator-style events are based on these concepts where both sides are both villains and protagonists.  Your fighter or team is your protagonist, your opposing fighter or team is your villain, and you can tolerate losing if you know your guy(s) will be back to battle again another day.  In my favorite sci-fi movie Blade Runner, Dekker gets the crap beat out of him but manages to prevail.  In space operas, human beings lose for a while, but the human race always wins.

No, I can’t abide fiction that ignores the dark side of human nature, that Star Wars’ dark side of the force.  Some theologians have even observed that you can’t have Christ without the Devil.  Violence tends to be associated with old Lucifer a lot, in fact, but I sometimes think he gets a bum rap.  Human beings seem to be very creative about doing wicked and violent things without any supernatural help, whether in fiction or reality.  They probably always will, as long as the human race survives.  And our fiction should always reflect that side of human nature.

In libris libertas….

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2 Responses to “Violence in fiction and real life…”

  1. Scott Says:

    I’m currently reading a SF ebook recommended by a scientist/friend, titled THE SHROUD, which is so far concerned with genetic testing being done on the Shroud of Turin. It explores some of the issues you’re discussing in this post.

    With respect to your comments about not being able to be a physician, I was thinking about my own experience in dental school, when we had to learn how to give injections. I kept myself awake the night before worrying about it, and because someone in my group left early, I somehow got to get one, but not give one. When I finally was forced to do it, I was actually in oral surgery clinic and it was a real patient in the chair. A senior student talked me through it, and it went really well. (I realized that giving injections to patients didn’t hurt ME a bit! ;-) ) I have given thousands of injections by now, and have been told by many patients that it’s the least painful shot they’ve ever gotten. I think some of that is that fear I had of hurting someone else…it’s an aversion I still have…

  2. steve Says:

    Hi Scott,
    Something in the air? During my Sandy downtime, I read Mary Higgins Clark’s The Lost Years about a fictitious biblical relic–a letter that Christ had written thanking him for the tomb he was lending. The Shroud was mentioned as another relic. Clark’s book is a mystery, not SF, though, so she didn’t spend too many words on the authentication. I reviewed a thriller for Bookpleasures, The Shekinah Legacy, that sounds a bit more like the book you’re reading (the reveiw was re-posted here).
    Your other comments remind me of my biolab’s instructor saying that the frog feels no pain because you’ve stuck a needle into it’s brain and made it brain dead. I always wondered what the frog felt about that first needle in the brain. :-(
    And here I am, ye olde thriller writer….
    Take care,
    Steve