Chernobyl, Episode 3: Now you look like the Minister of Coal

Last week’s continuation of my series on the epic disaster drama Chernobyl spent a lot of time focusing on the power structure of the former Soviet Union, and how this power structure rippled destructively down into the lives of the men who not only caused the reactor catastrophe in the first place, but then also busied themselves trying to pretend (and make their bosses believe) that no such catastrophe had taken place. That such a catastrophe was impossible.

This week I want to focus on the men and women who went forward with the emergency containment and abatement. Many of whom were given little or no choice whether or not they were to perform the work. By the time we get to the scene at the Tula mine, it’s no longer a question what has happened. Party men who once protested their innocence, have been taken into custody, and now an expanding army of conscripts mingles with professionals all trying to stay half a step ahead of the shattered reactor core’s imminent meltdown.

Whether it’s a trio of reactor plant workers wading through a radioactive maze in the basement of the building, or a battalion of miners drafted to tunnel down under the core — to ensure that the core be cooled enough from below, so it won’t penetrate the floor of the structure and hopelessly poison the water table, which in turn would poison the river — these are individuals for whom the State has little regard. And many of them know it. Their cynicism for the collective is displayed brazenly. But, like men and women have done throughout history, they push forward and commit to the fight anyway.

Because if they don’t do it, who will?

Think about that question, when you’re forming your protagonists’ motivations. If you’re telling a sufficiently dramatic and compelling story it’s probable your characters are being plunged into a predicament not of their choosing, but for which a certain duty is obvious. We in the Western tradition have historically placed such stories of sacrifice and bravery on pedestals, because we admire and appreciate the courage and stoicism of men and women who have stepped forward and done the work which needed doing, even at terrible personal cost. Not for glory nor fame nor notoriety, but because somebody had to accomplish the mission. The quest. The job. Whatever needed doing, men and women did it. To include losing their lives. As was done (for example) on September 11, 2001, in the sky over Pennsylvania, and in the Towers in New York City — the 20th anniversary of which is rapidly approaching as I write this.

We valorize this selfless service because we know our world is in large part built upon it, and that each of us is indebted to the individuals who gave much or even gave all, so that we (in our time) wouldn’t necessarily have to.

If you can stir these feelings in your characters, and project those emotions onto the minds of your readers, you will go a long way toward impressing upon your readers that your characters are people worth knowing, and worth caring about. That they have a story worth knowing, because there is a testament to human dignity at its heart. Not a story which views sacrifice through the cynical eyes of modernism, but which honors sacrifice despite the cynicism of modern morals and modern sentiments.

It therefore doesn’t matter that the firefighters first dispatched to the reactor disaster were dispatched largely in vain. Just as the many thousands upon thousands of men and women deployed to Afghanistan these past 20 years, may have also been deployed in vain. The fault is not theirs. Poor, blind, or inept leadership cannot take away the valor of men and women who go and sweat and bleed. Taking their suffering back to their spouses and children. All of whom must bear some part of the eventual burden — especially as they watch helplessly while their loved ones linger and die. When Lyudmilla Ignatenko watches the remains of her husband — sealed forever in a zinc coffin, which is then drowned in concrete — consigned to the Earth, we know instinctively the price which has been paid. And there is an unimpeachable quality to that suffering.

What circumstances in your world(s) will require your characters to pay this kind of toll? What are the stakes? And who will ultimately rise to the challenge, when others fail? Or refuse? This is where literal heroes are made. Not because the system they serve is heroic — Lord knows the Soviet system was monstrous from its inception, and the 40 to 60 million lives purged by that system now form an eternal spiritual monument to the ghastly and murderous futility of collectivist idealism — but because men and women serving and dying in the desperate defense of their homes, their loved ones, even their existence, all possesses an inherent nobility which transcends the petty politics of institutions.

So take a hard look at your societies you make, be they past, present, future, or alternative. How will the people in your story respond to an existential threat, and to what lengths are the individuals who get their hands dirty willing to go to ensure their society’s continuation — even if they themselves are cynical about the powers of that society, or the underpinnings of the culture? Storytelling since the 1960s has tended to worship the antihero, which I have often thought is a misnamed form of protagonist because the only thing about an antihero is he has no illusions about the goodness nor the righteousness of the people in charge. He simply does what must be done anyway, flipping his middle finger at the bosses and The System™ while putting a helping hand out to those desperately in need.

Again, there is inherent nobility in such actions. Even seemingly irredeemable people can salvage themselves through one great act of selfless service. To borrow Shakespeare, “be he ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.” That’s the trick of it. What circumstances can and will propel your conceivably least worthwhile character, to act valiantly and with outstanding mettle on the field of battle, or in the teeth of a dreadful disaster? Because those are the kinds of moments which will stick in your readers’ minds long, long after they’ve closed the book, or turned off their Kindle. We as human beings know in our bones what these moments mean. We know these are the crucibles where mere men and women become much more than mortal.

6 comments

  1. The ’60s antihero, in his best form, was a linear derivative of the classic detective from the 1920’s to 1940’s. He wasn’t going to change the world, he wasn’t going to tear down and destroy the monsters of power that existed…but, what he could do, he did. And, who he could save, he would. His cynicism, often enough, was the loathing of a man that wished he could do more, but there was no real way for him to do it.

    Often, his story also had a personal stake that mirrored the stakes that were being shown on the screen as well.

    Far too often, people claiming “antihero” status are just claiming a “villain protagonist.”

    1. Agreed, on both counts. And I’m a little shopworn on villain protagonists at the moment. For me to cheer a hero (s)he must heed the better angels of his/her nature in the clutch. Any hero who ignores those better angels, and does it consistently . . . is not a hero.

      1. I came to the decision point on one character who was dancing on that line when the choice was between letting a rape go on and keeping his cover intact or doing something. A cover he needed to maintain because letting his enemies know he was alive would make it almost impossible for him to stop them (rather than “merely” impossible).

        A villain protagonist would have kept walking and loathed himself for it. But he wouldn’t have stopped. He would have justified it…but he wouldn’t have stopped.

        He stopped, said, “That’s fucking enough” to himself, and implying what happened next was a mook horror show would have implied that his enemies had a chance against him. He turned them into a fine red mist in an instant-knowing what he did made things worse. But, there were some things he couldn’t allow himself to continue, even here and now.

        There we are, there’s that line.

      2. I think a “villain protagonist” story or more precisely a doomed protagonist who is destroying the current system can be “saved” if there is someone else the protagonist is trying to protect, a person or community who will thrive once the threat is removed.

      3. The only story arc I’ve seen where the Villain protagonist works is the redemption story. And even there you have to show the potential.

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