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More thoughts on asymmetric conflicts and the stories. There's a slice out of the film Ghandi that portrays one of these responses. It's good, powerful message-carrying tactics, and it manages, in a nutshell (once you get past the 1980s production values and the obviously set-up situation bordering on maudlin political pornography and noticing that good old Richard Griffiths is there, and, gosh, I forgot he was in that film, too, as well as The Naked Gun) to show the reason nonviolence was an effective tool in India as in the Southern U.S.

But there's a problem here. It's the presence, the man-to-man and face-to-face of it all. More importantly, it's a history lesson or a piece of propaganda. It is NOT a story.

In the Aliens versus farmers attack, there is no witness to your sacrifice. When the drone fires its missiles, the only in-your-face you can offer the oppressor is a shaky munitions-guidance video, like a bad video game on the fritz. This is the feeling from the other side:

It is an important part of warfare on the current scale that the enemy is dehumanized as much as possible, that the decision to kill is reduced to the level of a video game. It's the only way to maintain a casualty ratio as high as was seen in the Gulf Wars, or the 2006 attack on Lebanon. In fact, separation of the enemy from the combatant can be seen as an escalation of violence in itself, since it is shown that when police officers patrol from cars, when soldiers roll through town with their humvee-mounted machine-guns, when assassinations take place from apache helicopters or drones, when a separation barrier keeps one side from ever coming into contact with the other, that both collateral damage and the kill to injure ratios rise. The ultimate examples are the Zalkon-B tin, the anthrax dust, the microwave crowd-control, and the atom bomb.

The point being is that oppression on the completely asymmetrical scale is devoid of humanity.

That makes it a boring story. It's a statistic.

So what is the important part? What could make a story of this type interesting? Clearly, battles are dull or they are unrealistic. I present Battlefield Earth and The Matrix Reloaded examples of how the director, unwilling to remove the pointless fight scenes, completely missed the point of the assymetrical combat story. Perhaps fine special effects, but these do not a story make.

Time and time again, the story that begins on the grand scale degenerates down to the person-to-person level, with the ultimate battle occurring between the plucky heroes we have spent 400 pages learning to love and the ultimate evil cowering by the end in a generally room-sized place of battle.

But can we get away from that? Can we get away from the Hollywood finish, where even Stardust (the film version), Mistborn, Dune, and The Prince of Nothing (to name a few that I thoroughly enjoyed) ended on a set-piece video-game slugout, like any old Bond film from the sixties through nineties? Can we get rid of the damn car chase that brings it all back down to the mano-a-mano level?

Or am I just asking SFF to put down its jet-pack and start taking the future seriously?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 3rd, 2013 11:44 pm (UTC)
What *are* you asking, exactly? I understand the complaint that asymmetric conflict is pernicious precisely because it dehumanizes, and that dehumanizing is the opposite of a single-combat, plucky-hero versus villain situation, but I'm not sure what you're looking for in stories.

Apr. 3rd, 2013 11:57 pm (UTC)
Well, something occurred to me today. It has to do with the individual versus the people and its role in prejudice, war, and racism. There's that slide from the person to the abstract in the mind where an individual becomes representative of their race.

But it also works in reverse. The radical is generally the person who takes their own personal vision as representative of the abstract/people to whom they belong. Five hundred pentecostal churches, and every one of them is a "real christian".

But stories are about people, or at least the interesting ones to me are, and there is no room for that abstract, that mass in them. But an important element of the asymmetric story is the very facelessness of the Alien fleet, the impersonality of the B-52 bomber.

What I liked about the story of Peterson and the two Nguyens was how the war was in itself an impersonal force that deeply affected both their lives. I think that's where I'm tending to. But that kind of story isn't genre. It's more Atwood and Hoban than Azimov and Herbert or Abercrombie and Hobb.
Apr. 4th, 2013 12:09 am (UTC)
Nodding here. I've come to the conclusion--well, I haven't gotten there yet, but I'm getting there--that the really meaningful, hardest, dearest (in both senses of the word), painfulest, truest stuff is kind of hard to say in genre fiction. It's not that it *can't* be told in genre--anything can be told in anything--it's just that what genre offers isn't really necessary to the story . . . and sometimes (but not always, and not necessarily) the presence of unnecessary elements is a distraction.
Apr. 4th, 2013 07:55 am (UTC)
Not sure I agree with the word, but the spirit. There is a certain shackling of the genre names to certain conventions, and I think it's entirely due to marketing.

It's a bit like electron energy levels in the atom. Some books will have enough impetus generated by the interest in them that they can jump out of the marketing shell the publisher would have them put in (for the very good logistical reasons they have, mind).

The economic difference between genre and non-genre is definitely there, and the dressing of the writer in the mantle of author by the publisher is, for example, why Ian Banks drawas a distinction by putting an "M." in between.

It's a bit like that payment interface between donor and NGO I mentioned earlier. The genre boat fits certain berths on the harbour of film and TV.

But it seems to me that there needs to be another segment of genre. A sort of DMZ between Literary fiction and genre fiction where The Handmaid's Tale is shelved alongside Among Others.
Apr. 4th, 2013 08:09 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm not sure I agree with every word either--for one thing, after I posted the comment, I got all copy editor on myself and was like, "Why did I say 'but not always, and not necessarily'; that's redundant--clearly if it's not always, it's not necessarily."

I'm always surprised by just how genre, if you will, supposedly nongenre things are--they have vision or magic, and that's called either mystical experience or magical realism, if it's lit fic, or they have swords, only it's called historical fiction (which I guess is a genre, right? But it's somehow looked at more approvingly by the lit fic crowd--it's treated as lit fic) Even with science fiction, you have these literary things, like--I haven't read them, but didn't Doris Lessing write some science fiction? And as you say, The Handmaid's Tale (though I really disliked that book, but that's neither here nor there in terms of the argument, and even though I disliked it, I found it very, very readable). And by the same token, yeah, lots of things that are written as straight-up genre are plenty "literary."

I think you're right that it has a lot to do with packaging, marketing, and tie-ins/film rights, etc.
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