The Big Idea: C.L. Anderson
“All we are saying is give peace a chance,” John Lennon once sang, from his bed. The question is: What does it take to give peace a chance — and is it an equitable price for what you get? This is a question that C.L. Anderson has thought more than a little bit about, and in no coincidence whatsoever, it’s one of the questions at the heart of Anderson’s debut novel Bitter Angels, in which peace is challenged and the cost of keeping it is very high indeed. Here’s Anderson with more thoughts on war and peace, and how they interact with the telling of a good science fictional tale.
There’s a lot of war in science fiction.
I mean a lot, and not just in the sub-division of Military Science Fiction. It is all over the place. Science Fiction has re-fought the Revolutionary War, the various Indian Territory wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and now the War on Terror, in more environments and under more circumstances than I can count. Plus, of course, it invents its own wars, large and small, against an endless array of alien species, as well as, both alien and human political concepts.
Part of the reason for this is that war, frankly, can make life easy for an author. In a story you need conflict and when you’ve got a war, conflict is instant, immediate and highly apparent. It’s also directly and immediately dramatic and the stakes do not get any higher.
Also, writing about war is a heck of a way to discuss a wide variety social and political issues. You can use a war to demonstrate the inherent evil of somebody else’s political or social point of view. You can use war to demonstrate the necessary evil of being ready to defend against Bad Guys. You can use war to demonstrate that war is God-awful and filled with God-awful things and we really shouldn’t be doing this. War shows the scariness of strangers. War shows the personhood of strangers. War shows the bravery of people. War shows the cowardice of people. War shows the contradictions in people that never go away no matter what their shape or origin.
As a bonus for the science or speculative fiction author, when you’ve got a war as a frame for your story you have an easy way to show-off high-tech, hard-tech, bio-tech and med-tech developments and what they might mean.
Added to this is a thread running through the science fiction culture that suggests long-lasting peace is actually impossible, and creates stories to back up this view. The worst of these are the ones that say that war is not only inevitable, it’s laudable. In such stories, people who eschew violence just get killed. They aren’t strong. They aren’t realistic. They’re fools because they don’t know that war will always come and get them.
Me, I think the counter-culture movement of the sixties really torqued some people off and they are still writing about it.
But if SF does show a peaceful world, frequently there is something wrong with the peace. Everybody’s drugged or brainwashed or has to die before they turn twenty-one, or are under the psychic influence of a gigantic alien brain and forced into conformity (okay, maybe that example’s not fair. I love A Wrinkle in Time, but you get my point). Or a terrible dictatorial (and odds-on quasi-socialist) political system has risen up to repress all dissent.
Then there are the SF stories that convey the notion that to actually have peace you’re going to have to fundamentally change human beings on a genetic level. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this bugs the crap out of me. It’s just another way of saying war is inevitable. We can’t help it. We’re genetically programmed to rise up en masse and kill each other a lot.
Ummm…no. In fact, we’re not. It’s actually really, REALLY hard to get most people to kill a stranger. Most people most of the time just want to be left alone to live their lives.
But the most difficult idea of all to overcome, over and beyond the thoughts that war might be inevitable, unavoidable or laudable, was the idea that that from a storytelling perspective, peace is boring; that it is an inherently static situation. It must be. It’s peace. Even in Star Trek, where we have the peaceful Federation in which money has been eliminated along with poverty and all kinds of other bad stuff, the creators were constantly having to invent Bad Guys who start wars that have to be fought by the Good Guys.
So I had a real problem when I decided I wanted to write a story around the idea of a peaceful future. First of all, I wanted a peace that felt achievable by human beings. Furthermore, I wanted to set that peace up in such a way that wouldn’t make people go “oh, BLEEP! If that’s peace gimme my war back.”
For starters, I realized I had to make a peace where people were not completely peaceful. Nobody is or wants to be completely peaceful all the time (unless you are a religious contemplative, in which case you have all my respect, but I hope you’ll concede, this is not the life for everybody. For one thing, it is really tough to be a contemplative when you’ve got a 7-year-old tearing around the house).
Second, I realized that I couldn’t have most people going around talking about the bad old days and how great everything is now. That’s not storytelling, that’s polemic and we’ve got plenty of that in SF too. The background would be the long-term peace. The underlying driver of the characters could be the long-term peace, but the main purpose of the story could not be a history of, or tour through the peace.
But I still had to decide, what actually makes for peace? Beyond wealth, beyond everybody deciding not to be jackasses, what makes for peace?
Weirdly, I started with freedom of movement. Real, genuine, human peace would have to provide for the means to get people away from other people who are bound and determined to be jerks to them because of how they look, what they were born as or what they believe. After that, real peace would have to provide for the fact that people are going to say things that get other people mad at them. Real peace would have to allow that people want different, sometimes conflicting things, and that even in abundance there’s going to be things that more than one person wants at the same time.
True peace, real, genuine human peace, would have to accept that at some point somebody is going to lose it and sock somebody else in the nose and peace cannot overreact to the fact (no all-rule-breaking-is-punished-by-death. That’s not peace, that’s totalitarianism and it’s never actually worked with a human population). It would also have to deal with the fact that people are going to lie, cheat, steal, assault and otherwise be anti-social. That is not going away without the kind of genetic manipulation that most people do not wish to contemplate let alone live under.
In short, a real, genuine, long-term peace would be a complex, dynamic situation that would have to be constantly maintained. Real peace would require law enforcement, diplomacy, and intelligence services. Real peace might get mistaken for weakness by people who look at places like say, Switzerland and see the cuckoo clocks and the chocolate and don’t see the universal required militia service, and it would have to have plans and training in place to deal with people who might make the mistake of trying to muscle in on its territory.
And that’s just for starters. Then you get to how could you maintain a genuine peace without killing people, without repressing anybody or disappearing people or ideas? Now, that would be tough. That would be dangerous. That would tear an average person apart from the compromises and bleak ideas they’d have to live with and the contact with vile people that you’d just really want to murder but you can’t. Because if you start killing them, their friends and relations might start retaliatory killings and then you’d have to kill more of them, and they’d kill more of you and before you know it you’re right back where you started from.
Real peace would require new technology and new weapons that would allow for self-defense without killing the people launching the attack.
Real peace would definitely need spies. Real peace might need saboteurs to keep the bad guys from getting away with their bad moves while the diplomats sit in the embassies and say “What? Who? Us? Now why would we do something like that?” And they’d have to be very, VERY good at what they did, because if they got caught, the blowback might actually bring on the war.
Real peace would get people killed trying to maintain it. Real peace would have agents willing to stand up to torture and endless confinement if they got caught. Keeping peace would damage some people. Some people it would damage beyond repair.
By the time I had lined up all the elements that would be necessary to the in-story creation of an even semi-plausible long-term human peace, the novelist portion of my brain had only one thing to say:
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