The Nature of Questionable Decisions

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I love reading Modesitt’s blog because sometimes there is something really profound written there. One such subject was this idea of characters making questionable decisions. In the case of what Modesitt is talking about it’s a rather serious decision which results in something that might be perceived as evil:

I came across a comment by a reviewer that condemned [yet again] one of my characters [not Van Albert, surprisingly enough, who has taken much abuse over the years since The Ethos Effect was published] for killing “innocents” when she destroyed a city ruled by those who had inflicted great evil on others for generations. The evil wasn’t questioned, but the extent of the “collateral damage” was, and it was questioned on the grounds that it was akin to condemning all Germans in WWII because Hitler was the German head of state.

What is really interesting about this is that the reviewer didn’t just say “oh, I didn’t like it”, he or she, according to Modesitt, “condemned” it. No, setting aside the fact that I haven’t read The Ethos Effect I think there is plenty to discuss here about the nature of questionable decisions, not necessarily in a science fictional or fantastical context, but in a realistic context.
From a realistic perspective I wonder what exactly this reviewer wants to achieve. Does he or she want to force writers to stop writing about controversial issues? Should we stop writing about the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki just because it comes off as a questionable act and bothers someone? I’m not saying that those acts were right (certainly you could argue that the bombings in Japan were for a necessary good, but the ambiguity of such destruction leaves room for open debate in any forum, but I do acknowledge that sometimes human beings make decisions that are, in and of themselves, for the good of someone else. This isn’t just some rare event, but rather popular in the world. We can look at any insurgent group who is fighting off an invader. Sometimes actions are taken that involve the death of innocents not only by the insurgent group, but by the invaders as well. The fire-bombing of Dresden, while certainly a seemingly pointless act, did serve to show the might of the Allied forces–this acted on the level of demoralization, which is a psychological way of ending a war quickly. The insurgents who exist in Iraq, for a more current example, are bombing locations filled with students and otherwise innocent people who are just trying to move on with their lives. I don’t know the intentions of the insurgents and whether or not they are intentionally blowing up innocent people (as in that being a primary goal), but it would seem from a non-terroristic perspective to be the act of violence against the innocent to serve a purpose: they want us out.
Now, certainly these are events we don’t like remembering. Nobody likes dreaming about the deaths of tens of thousands of, for the most part, innocent Japanese citizens at the tail-end of WW2. We think about them because they are real and part of being human–we make decisions that are ambiguous. Why is it so hard to accept that this sort of ambiguity belongs in literature, in any form? Literature predominately deals with issues of humanity, even science fiction and fantasy (especially science fiction by the way, since the concepts of cloning, robotics, cybernetics, etc. are inherently centered on the idea of humanness). While the decisions characters make might be vile and horrible, isn’t that sort of addressing what is real about humans anyway? We aren’t a perfect little species who goes around loving one another as if we were permanently stuck in a 1960s Love movement. In fact, we’re rather brutal to one another and even the good guys make bad choices. The U.S. might not make a lot of great decisions–particularly in recent years–but we and many of our allies consider us to be the good guys. We look at the U.K. in much the same light, despite the many ambiguous and often wrong-seeming acts that nation has committed. Literature certainly takes this and puts it into context. What exactly is the problem with the good guys making bad decisions in a story?
Let’s take what I think is an especially good example of personal ambiguity. In Tobias S. Buckell’s Crystal Rain one of the characters, towards the end of the book, has to make a particularly horrible decision which I found to be horrible, yet entirely powerful to the story at large. This character has to make the decision between ending the war and giving up several thousand innocent people who were captured by the enemy (who are like Aztecs) to be sacrificed to the enemy gods, or prolong the war and likely kill everyone. She makes the first decision, taking with her this horrible sense of defeat and that lingering emotion and memory of what she had done. Innocents are going to die here, thousands of them, and yet the decision has to be made. While this is certainly not the same sort of situation that Modesitt is talking about, it is an example of a decision that brings a variety of different responses. Some people are going to accept this, despite the horror of it, and others are going to reject it and might even become violent, especially if they are the ones who have lost their loved ones to sacrifice. It seems like the “RIGHT” decision, but a “BAD” one nonetheless. It’s a decision that hints at the opposite end of the examples already given, which do fit within Modesitt’s example: committing to something for the better of everyone that will hurt the few.

There’s something about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

Questionable decisions have to exist. There’s no way you can simply say that characters can’t make bad decisions with the intention to do good. Literature does not commonly involve alien characters as the creatures we follow (POV), rather, we see literature dealing with people as humans, and since that is the case we have to assume that characters who are human will make human decisions. Humans are fallible; we are not the gods that some of us might think we are. We make mistakes and fail all the time. That’s part of life. What matters when looking at what Modesitt is talking about is that the issues are human in relation to the human characters that are dealing with them. I wonder if this reviewer would find the action of an alien blowing up a city on the same level. Would that reviewer accept the differences in being human and being alien? Could one accept that evil actions of an alien even though, by individual nature, such actions go against the grain of what it is to want to be a good human? It seems to me that to criticize and author for writing about the human condition is like criticizing literature for being imaginative and real. This is part of what writing is about.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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