Death and Domes, And What Happens When We’re All Batman (And Contest Winner)
March 4, 2012 § 4 Comments
Week 9: Under The Dome, Stephen King. A spoiler warning: the topics I want to talk about today will require me to spoil some of the story. I’ll try and avoid spoiling specific details, but there will be…leakage. You have been warned.
The basis of this book is simple: what happens when you take a small town in Maine (according to Stephen King, there’s a Hell Mouth or something right smack in rural New England) and drop an invisible, impenetrable force field over it? Nothing in, nothing out, except for a little air and wireless transmissions. How would people react to being so completely limited, from resources to geographical area? How would they function in a society defined by the borders that surround it? How would, how could, life go on?
According to King, it doesn’t. The fall of the Dome (on the appropriately and ominously named “Dome Day”) gives rise to petty dictators, mass hysteria, and the general breakdown of lawful, democratic society. This is important, here. It does not break down humanity entirely (although some of them become monsters), but democratic society is dead practically the moment that the Dome drops. Without the reassuring acknowledgement of law, order, and the promise of the return to normalcy, all the worst instincts of humanity are allowed to flourish.
For the record, I am an human apologist. I believe that humans are able to overcome anything, from their baser instincts to their capacity for inhuman, evil behavior. However, and this is a BIG however, I’m also an historian and well aware that humans don’t always do so. We can behave with respect and dignity in times of crisis, but, of course, we don’t always do so, and that is the great challenge of humanity, isn’t it? Even in a materialistic world, isn’t the great personal challenge not “what will you do to survive”, but “what won’t you do in order to survive?” When the chips are down, what rules do you say are worth following, even if, or especially because, they’re arbitrary?
It’s the Batman limit. No matter what happens to Gotham, or himself, Batman cannot kill. No matter what the Dome means (life is arbitrary and can be taken away at a whim/God hates you personally/space aliens are toying with us), the rules matter. I just read this fascinating article by Kyle Munkittrick aboutMass Effectand the bioethics thereof, and although I don’t agree with everything he says, he ends with a line that I just find so perfect:
The game is about justifying survival, not of mere intelligent life in the universe, the Reapers are that, but of a kind of intelligence. Therein the triple layered question – What value does galactic civilization bring to the universe; What value does humanity bring to galactic civilization, and What value do I bring to humanity – forces the player to recontextualize his or her participation in the experiment of existence.
That’s the wonderful thing about Under the Dome. It’s not about justifying the survival of humanity (the Dome only goes so far), it’s about justifying a certain type of survival. The people inside the Dome who are the good people and the heroes of the story (forgive me, Stephen, but every book I’ve read of yours the bad guys are punished at the end) are the ones we want to survive because they didn’t give up on the rules that we agree upon. In fact, they go above and beyond those rules, sacrificing certain things to uphold the existence of those rules. They have become Bat-men and women, who have contextualized their participation in existence by saying “Yes, there are rules that ought never be broken, and it will not be us who will break them.”
In a sense, supporting those characters makes us all Batman, because we all have the independent capacity, as human agents, to make our own decisions. They might not be correct (and the world might still remain out of our control), but we can make them.
Of course, the author might just decide to eliminate 99% of the characters in one chapter, so…yeah. There could be that too.
I also want to talk about character death in stories, and King gave me much to talk about. First, if you really want to avoid a major spoiler, ignore the italicized sentence that follows this: in one chapter, an explosion and resulting fire kills 99% of the people under the Dome. I took issue with this both as a writer and a reader, and I’m going to dissect it a bit.
N.B.: Authors can do whatever they want, they are not our bitches, and if I don’t like something, then I can just go cry about it on my corner of the internet. King will return to rolling his pile of money.
But here’s the thing about death. Remember on Thursday, when I talked about how I was getting jaded that I could foresee the endings of things before they happened? Character death makes that even more difficult.
There’s a common problem in fiction: the characters we write about are interesting (or else you can ask why you’re reading at all), and therefore you will want to read more about them. Double Therefore, I’m hesitant to kill them because then I lose someone that you find interesting. This can unintentionally make characters supermen, because we can’t realistically threaten them with death (sure, we can and do threaten them with things worse than death, but that’s another story). James Bond is going to survive the gunfight, because without him the story ends, so the only question is how. Or, you can kill your characters left and right, but you risk killing characters that are interesting and losing audience interest that way.
King plays it sideways. Dome is third-person omniscient, and he follows around a boatload of characters. Each character he follows has a past that’s filled-out and is given some importance to the plot, so when some of them die and die suddenly, it’s a little more surprising. There’s a bit of an air of “everyone can die”, but that only works because we’re following everyone. This, to me, is a bit of a cheat. It means we follow a bunch of characters, some of who are boring, not as well sketched out, or only there to blatantly tug our emotions, and it drags down the story. The price of having the aura (but still illusion) of “everyone can die” is that we must follow characters that don’t matter, or worse, aren’t interesting.
That’s something that makes it hard for me, and I suspect all writers. The thing that I spoiled above from the Dome that kills so many people had very little power for me. Sure, it was horrid, and sure, it was in keeping with some of the themes of the book…but I didn’t care. I could only spare so much emotional energy in caring about X amount of characters, and the majority of those didn’t die there.
Death is tough and I know I’m going to talk about it again, but it’s always interesting to think about from the writer’s perspective.
A quick apology: a supporter of the site asked me, as a favour, to write something for her while she was away on a plane. I have no problem doing it…except I forgot. I might be super-busy and distracted by some things, but I still said I would and I didn’t. Sorry, Hannah, but you’ll get something soon (and shut up Jon. It’s coming)!
Now that the heavy stuff is out of the way, let’s play a game! It’s called ‘John picks who wins the contest!” Here is how I do it:
- Check the contestants. Currently, there are 5.
- Grab my trusty and super patented device to make a decision between five choices (a d10, and only my best).
- Roll it. If I roll above 5, then I’ll count up from the beginning again (so 6 is 1 again, and so on).
- Get a 9, which in this case, is Nova!
- Bask comfortably in the glow of a well-done roll. That’ll do, die. That’ll do.
This means that for this week, I’ll be reading Deathstalker, by Simon Green. Exciting? Maybe! But I’m certainly glad it’s not a 1,000 page book.