I don’t know, open a news-site these days and my blood pressure goes up by thirty points. And that’s just reading the headlines. By the time I read further the top of my skull is bulging. From fake ‘fact checkers’ who lie to deceive, to incompetent generals who it seems couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery let alone find their own butt with both hands and a detailed map, to politicians who mandate masks and isolation on the populace – but travel and socialize and party maskless themselves…
It’s not the dishonesty, incompetence, the cynical abuse of position and power that get to me. The truth is that by now I sort of expect it from anyone in government or the establishment powers that be. Power corrupts and the kind of people who seek this sort of power usually want that. Just as child abusers seek out jobs that give them access to children, these people are attracted to positions which give them access to power. Yes, I am angry to see evidence of it – no matter how they pretend otherwise, that really they did it for your own good etc.
But I think the part that really gets me is the overwhelming ‘rules for thee, but not for me’ lack of consequences. Being social animals we humans have a lubricant that allows us to interact. Besides alcohol… no I mean, concepts like ‘fair play’. Look, we all know that the universe isn’t fair. Lightning doesn’t strike the guy who really, really deserves to get deep-fried internally. It may. It may also strike the guy who spent his whole life rescuing abused donkeys. But one of the main reasons we create and maintain civilizations, codes of laws, judges, even religions, is we think humans at least can have ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ between each other.
We’re actually eternally optimistic about this. It’s been a long time since the ancient Egyptians believed Anubis would weigh your heart against the the feather of Ma’at (the goddess of truth and justice). It probably wasn’t a new idea when that story was new. Sadly, it’s not an optimism that is much reflected by reality – at least in this world.
Just because it isn’t, doesn’t mean that men do not yearn after it. As I said: maybe this is one reason humans find religion so attractive. At least within them one can believe the evil SOB that made your – or others – life a misery with no consequence to themselves finally gets what they deserve. If it’s re-incarnation, maybe a cockroach in a sewer is too high to hope for, for some. That’s a pleasant and comforting idea, which, when I think of some of the nastier bits of un-punished grief caused, makes me feel more cheerful.
And that is sort of the point of this piece. Books are not reality. The author gets to play deity with his character’s lives. Part of the role we expect from a deity – at least a benign one (and we tend to avoid the less benign. Being avoided is not what an author needs.) is that they WILL balance up the reckoning. In crappy times – whether the world in general or just in the reader’s own life, that is balm of Gilead to the reader. Of course, the downside of this is the reader has to actually agree with the book’s deity (the author) about what is a good or at least fair outcome. For example having tried to read some of her work, I think Nora Jemison’s ideas of a just outcome, and mine, would differ. Our respective readers – or at least the ones who liked and found comfort and relief in the books – would have vastly different points of view about many issues.
The relative success and popularity of a book (assuming that other factors like distribution, access and publicity equal (which they mostly aren’t, in reality – but it has got better with e-books and Indy)) rests not just in how good a story it is, but in the reader being satisfied that some sort of fairness has been achieved, that justice has been done, and that the bad guys got their come-uppance and the good guys some form of just reward.
Books can be more than just escapism. They can refresh our hope of that situation where there are consequences – for petty bureaucrats or powerful rulers as much as for the ordinary bloke whose lives they make a misery. In my ongoing saga with our petty local government panjandrums… where power is entirely one-sided, I don’t know how I would have coped without escaping into those books. I owe Louis L’Amour and Poul Anderson a great deal. And there will be appropriate payback… at least in my books.