Chernobyl, Episode 4: Don’t let them suffer

It’s a proven fact that a percentage of soldiers, even though they’ve trained and drilled for days or weeks or months, cannot pull the trigger when ordered. Some entirely human part of their minds and their emotions refuses to do it. To take a life. All the reflexes are there. They’ve got no problem on the range. But when it comes time to put a man in their sights, they cannot will themselves to squeeze that trigger.

It’s also been proven that people respond with greater anger and horror at the killing and maiming of animals, versus human beings. Photography of the U.S. Civil War and World War One shocked the American public not because of dead men, but because of dead horses. Most of us empathize with these creatures much more readily and cleanly, compared to people. Because animals retain something of a noble innocence. It’s not their war. Yet there they are, getting slaughtered right along with the men. And while a man might have sins enough to account for his untimely passing, of what sin might a dog or a cat be guilty?

And how often does it take — killing such helpless creatures — before you’re hardened to it?

Episode 4 of HBO’s landmark disaster drama Chernobyl takes us into the world of the troops tasked with clearing the no-mans-land surrounding the ruined reactor, as well as the mission of the liquidators who have to go where not even machines can survive. In each instance we see men — boys, really — thrown against their instincts, and forced to do some of the most terrible and dangerous work imaginable. In the case of the former, it’s gut-wrenching block-by-block murder of former pets and livestock, all declared contaminated since the reactor released untold amounts of radioactive material onto the nearby city, as well as the countryside. In the case of the latter its a raw, frenetic 90-second adventure on the scorched roof of the reactor proper, hoping to heave just a few more kilograms of obliterated reactor core material back into the pit of the core.

The worlds of your stories — past, present, future, alternate — may also have need of such men and women. People who can make themselves go do what must be done, no matter how hazardous nor stomach-churning that work may be. What kinds of climactic events could precipitate the need? What calamities both natural and artificial may conspire to force ordinary people to put themselves through hell? Can they be compelled to it by force? Threats? What about appealing to their sense of patriotism and duty? Their cultural sense that the whole really is more important than the parts? In Episode 3 of Chernobyl we see Stellan Skarsgard’s characters deliver a rather impassioned speech to the Chernobyl plant workers, appealing for volunteers on the basis that Russians have suffered for a thousand years, each generation having its portion of woe and punishment. A man can do almost anything if he believes he must do it to live up to the example of his fathers before him, and his grandfathers, and great-grandfathers.

But what’s the cost? To the ordinary people living in the midst of the battle? People who never had any quarrel with the powers of the land, but who find themselves ordered at the tip of a sword or the point of a bayonet or the muzzle of a gun to pick up and leave? A lot of stories — especially science fiction and fantasy stories — focus on great wars and great conflicts raging across continents or planets or whole solar systems and galaxies. There will be folks caught in the middle of that madness. Who aren’t necessarily for one side any more than they’re against the other. But they’re caught in the teeth of it, now. Your storytelling can intensify its emotional reach by ensuring these souls are not forgotten. Because these poor individuals are the ones most like you and me, and also your readers. Ordinary people stuck on the horns of a seemingly impossible predicament.

Can magic or technology save them? Magic and technology without limits will diminish or destroy the suspense. Magic and technology with limits, enriches your story dramatically. Because the blood and sweat of people — human, or alien — will have to fill in the gaps. And even then, there may not be a truly clean and proper final resolution. Some wars leave wounds which can never heal. How will your imagined culture(s) react to seeing whole cities, counties, nations, or even worlds, made uninhabitable? Is the fuel from a starship disintegrating upon reentry going to poison the ocean over which the wreckage plummets? Does a supreme incantation designed to strike down whole armies also render formerly forested and farmed lands into barren, lifeless wastes?

Every decision your generals or admirals, your kings and princes, make, is going to have a cost. And the people paying the price might be down at the bottom of society. They might not know about nor care for the so-called Big Picture. All they understand is they’re being exposed to danger, being asked to fight or die, because somebody with a crown on his head or medals on his chest is telling them to do it. The man on the ground might feel like it’s futile. He might not give a f**k about the higher concerns of important people who will themselves never have to get dirt beneath their trimmed fingernails.

Tension between levels of society and authority will enrich your stories just like placing limits on science and sorcery. All societies have these levels. How do yours shake out? Are they relatable to the castes and classes of current and past cultures we know from history? Or are there other things — unique to your worlds — which differentiate one person (or one being) from another? How willing are the folks at your bottom going to be, to pay the costs incurred by decisions made at your top? Does your leadership ever have to suffer for being wrong? (cough, currently staring at our State Department, our White House, and our Joint Chiefs as I write this, cough.)

Answers to all of these questions — and the implications of same — are going to define the central struggle(s) with which your character(s) must grapple.

9 comments

  1. “Every decision your generals or admirals, your kings and princes, make, is going to have a cost. And the people paying the price might be down at the bottom of society.”

    When you have all the power and all the knowledge… you can’t do anything. Because you know that if you do, there will be consequences. There’s a verse in the Tao Te Ching that says: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists…when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say: We did it ourselves.” – Lao-Tzu.

    Lao Tzu was a pretty smart guy. He had it figured out. The more you look at what he said, the more obvious it gets.

    Socialists of course do this backward. The people serve the Leader. That’s why socialism sucks, and socialist nations collapse so regularly. Something that should be explored a lot more in science fiction, in my oh-so humble opinion. All we ever see is “there oughta be a law!” being delivered to the steaming masses of asses by the benevolent super aliens, the eeeevile corporations brought to heel by the Noble Forces of World Government Socialism, and et cetera, ad nauseam.

    L. Neil Smith can’t be the only guy in America to ever say “get off my lawn.” Where are those stories? We’re in a political environment where “get off my lawn!” is a radical notion. It’s about the most subversive thing you can say these days.

    This is my lawn, and I’ll thank you visiting aliens to keep your slimy pseudopods the hell off my grass.

  2. The king in the WIP suffers nothing except what reality can not be prevented from doing. Since no one will protect his niece from his verbal abuse, she just gets to suffer.

  3. “Woe be to the bloody wars of High Germany/ That took my love and left behind a broken-hearted me.” So many folk songs are about the people left behind, the people who have to pick up the pieces after the “great victories” and Glorious Revolutions. A few diaries and parish records from parts of what is now Germany survived the Thirty Years War, and it’s amazing to read about the people fleeing for the forests when yet another army marches through, and how they return to find less and less each time the war shifts regions. And they gather what they can, take a deep breath, and keep going. You read those and suddenly understand exactly why that conflict is such a huge break-point in German culture and literature and society. (And music – no people for big choirs or orchestras, so chamber music and compositions for small groups becomes very important.)

    1. I went to a Protestant church, still do, and listened to lessons on our history from them. You would not believe how they went on and on about the Thirty Years War. Like it had ended yesterday, with all the wicked tyranny we were forced to endure from the murderous Papists and that’s why you shouldn’t trust anyone who takes their marching orders from Rome, et cetera. It didn’t get quite as far as Hislop’s ‘Two Babylons’ but it was close.

      Years later when I learned about some of the things that Protestants had done back then and asked if they didn’t make us just as bad, I was strongly urged to shut my trap.

        1. Yes. The few who did survive.

          The non-pacifist Anabaptists, on the other hand, got wiped out fast. Go and read Norman Cohn’s ‘The Pursuit of the Millenium’ to see how bad THAT mess got.

          1. I think I’ve read two books (one German) about the Münster Anabaptists, and several on Millennial movements in general. The cages still hang on the cathedral in Münster. It’s an . . . interesting . . . sight.

  4. The Battle of Blenheim
    BY ROBERT SOUTHEY

    It was a summer evening,
    Old Kaspar’s work was done,
    And he before his cottage door
    Was sitting in the sun,
    And by him sported on the green
    His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

    She saw her brother Peterkin
    Roll something large and round,
    Which he beside the rivulet
    In playing there had found;
    He came to ask what he had found,
    That was so large, and smooth, and round.

    Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
    Who stood expectant by;
    And then the old man shook his head,
    And, with a natural sigh,
    “‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
    “Who fell in the great victory.

    “I find them in the garden,
    For there’s many here about;
    And often when I go to plough,
    The ploughshare turns them out!
    For many thousand men,” said he,
    “Were slain in that great victory.”

    “Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
    Young Peterkin, he cries;
    And little Wilhelmine looks up
    With wonder-waiting eyes;
    “Now tell us all about the war,
    And what they fought each other for.”

    “It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
    “Who put the French to rout;
    But what they fought each other for,
    I could not well make out;
    But everybody said,” quoth he,
    “That ’twas a famous victory.

    “My father lived at Blenheim then,
    Yon little stream hard by;
    They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
    And he was forced to fly;
    So with his wife and child he fled,
    Nor had he where to rest his head.

    “With fire and sword the country round
    Was wasted far and wide,
    And many a childing mother then,
    And new-born baby died;
    But things like that, you know, must be
    At every famous victory.

    “They say it was a shocking sight
    After the field was won;
    For many thousand bodies here
    Lay rotting in the sun;
    But things like that, you know, must be
    After a famous victory.

    “Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
    And our good Prince Eugene.”
    “Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
    Said little Wilhelmine.
    “Nay… nay… my little girl,” quoth he,
    “It was a famous victory.

    “And everybody praised the Duke
    Who this great fight did win.”
    “But what good came of it at last?”
    Quoth little Peterkin.
    “Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
    “But ’twas a famous victory.”

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