Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.

Summary

This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.

 

  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.

 

Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.

The Ignorant Interlocutor

The Convenient Newbie

It helps to have someone to explain things to—especially if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction.

How do we introduce our audience to the world where our story takes place?  It’s something we have to think about even in a normal, contemporary setting.  We have to give a sense of where our characters are and what they’re doing there, even if the answers are as mundane as “middle America” and “going to work on a Monday.”  But this task is much more challenging if the setting is in the far future, or the distant past, or some entirely separate reality as in Game of Thrones.  The same problem applies in some degree in a historical novel, or a tale set in a very different culture.  How can we get readers or viewers acquainted with the milieu if much of it is unfamiliar?

Of course we can simply tell them about a setting directly:  “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .”  But the audience won’t sit still for indefinite amounts of backstory before the main story gets going.  On the other hand, another time-honored F&SF approach is just to throw the reader into the deep end and let them swim.  But that makes for a steep learning curve, trying to absorb a lot of strange peoples and places and customs all at once.  The throw-them-in approach may discourage readers or viewers not by boring them, but by making them scramble to keep up.  Some will enjoy that challenge; but others may be daunted and close the book (or video).

One way to inform the audience is to make one of the lead characters an inexperienced person who doesn’t know much about their own world.  Other characters will have to explain to this person things that they know perfectly well, but that this character is unfamiliar with.  The “ignorant interlocutor” is a convenient stand-in for the reader, making the necessary exposition seem natural.

Some Convenient Examples

Frodo and Gandalf at Bag EndHobbits might have been designed specifically for this role.  The hobbits of the Shire are back-country unsophisticates, living quietly in a little country without much contact with the rest of the world.  Once they’re taken out of their homely environment into the wider world, Gandalf or Aragorn or someone frequently has to explain things to them, helping the audience get acquainted with Tolkien’s vast world and history—or, at least, with those parts that are important to the story.  (At the same time, we should note that Tolkien also uses other forms of exposition that no new writer could get away with nowadays.  The Lord of the Rings actually opens with a sixteen-page Prologue providing background on such essential matters as pipe-weed—followed shortly in Chapter Two by fifteen pages of explanation in which Gandalf instructs Frodo on the challenge they face.)

Luke and Obi-WanThe most well-known SF parallel is Luke Skywalker, the unsophisticated farm boy who is catapulted into galactic affairs by the death of his foster parents and the charismatic advice of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  When Obi-Wan tells Luke “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world,” he isn’t merely refering to the Force, but implicitly to Luke’s need to learn many things as he emerges from the backwater planet Tatooine.

We don’t see quite such an inexperienced protagonist in the other trilogies, with Anakin or with Rey.  By the time we see the prequel or the sequel trilogy, we’re already familiar with the Star Wars background, and not as much needs to be explained.  Interestingly, Lucas too adds a more artificial form of exposition, the screen crawl at the opening of each film, perhaps primarily for its nostalgia value.

An Earthly culture of another time period can be just as unfamiliar as an extraterrestrial.  Friday’s Child was the first Regency romance I read, and I found it a particularly good place to start.  The naïve heroine, Hero Wantage, marries the kind-hearted but rakish Viscount of Sheringham and is carried off into the whirl of London society, whose manners and mores are often peculiar to modern eyes.  We are introduced along with Hero to these rather arbitrary rules—if a carriage-race between females is high entertainment at a private country gathering, why is it a terrible social gaffe in public?—where her lack of understanding frequently lands her in a “scrape.”  Similar inexperienced heroines also appear in other Heyer stories, such as Arabella and Cotillion (in descending order of ignorance or naïveté).

Citizen of the Galaxy coverA science-fiction example of the socially inexperienced character can be found in Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy.  Thorby, the main character, must learn to copy with several unfamiliar environments in succession over the course of the story, but especially with the strict customs followed by the Free Traders, nomadic interstellar merchants.  An anthropologist traveling with the Traders to study their culture is invaluable in explaining these customs to Thorby—and the reader.

The ignorant interlocutor in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, by contrast, is a minor character, “the Man from the Past,” who has been preserved from the present into the story’s centuries-later future by a time stasis field.  He comes into the story only briefly, but long enough for Heinlein to get in some exposition about facets of the future society that are well-known to the other characters, but need to be explained to the archaic survivor.

A more well-known Heinlein story, Stranger in a Strange Land, uses space—and species—rather than time as the cultural differentiator.  Michael Valentine Smith, the “Man from Mars,” is a human being raised from infancy by Martians.  Many of the most interesting parts of the story show Mike trying to grapple with human customs when he arrives back on Earth as a young man—which also allows Heinlein to make satirical commentary on these peculiar creatures, the humans.

Some Storytelling Advantages

Having someone to explain things to is helpful because dialogue is often a better way to present information than authorial lecturing.  A scene in which our puzzled naïf asks questions and gets answers—or makes mistakes and is corrected—is easier to make interesting.  These interactions can accomplish other things at the same time.  The way a conversation goes can reveal character and show relationships developing.  It can be mixed with action—characters talk while they’re hiking, exploring a wrecked spaceship, dancing.

Making one character’s knowledge limited similarly allows us to avoid the dreaded “As you know, Bob” problem, in which characters tell each other things of which they are already well aware, to educate the reader at the expense of in-story plausibility.  (The term comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, a guide to F&SF tropes for use in writing workshops.)  TV Tropes has a particularly good discussion of this whole issue.

Where to Find Them

If we want to include an ignorant interlocutor in a story, what kinds of situations might naturally produce this sort of character?

North by Northwest, Mt. Rushmore fightYouth and inexperience tend to go together; and a curious child can serve the purpose (perhaps a precocious child, who is uninformed but capable of grasping the explanation once offered).  TV Tropes’ term is “Little Jimmy.”  But the explainee may also be a competent enough adult who has simply been thrust into a situation or milieu they’re not ready for.  Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is a good example:  he may be a fine advertising executive, but the world of international espionage is new to him.  Captain Pausert of James Schmitz’s classic SF novel The Witches of Karres is an expert ship-handler and a pretty effective trader, but the young witches need to bring him up to speed quickly when he gets involved in Karres business.

The innocent naïf who needs to be told how the world works is another category, particularly if the story is going to deal with gritty realities.  Several of our examples above count, and we might also mention yet another Heinlein character (he was fond of the trope), Max in Starman Jones, who’s described by Wikipedia as “a farm boy who wants to go to the stars” and learns the ropes from the cynical rogue Sam Anderson.

The uninformed party may also be the student of a new art—the beginner or newbie.  Harry Potter is new to the wizarding world and has to have all kinds of things explained to him, including his own backstory.  In Anne McCaffrey’s YA novel Dragonsong—one of the best of the Dragonriders of Pern books, in my opinion—it’s musicianship that young Menolly is learning as she’s suddenly brought into the Harper Hall’s training program.  Captain Pausert’s induction into Karres witchery reflects some similar elements, in a very different situation—learning on the fly rather than in a structured environment.  The character’s new situation may involve learning the art itself, or the folkways of the school, or both.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor WatsonFinally, one of the functions of the sidekick can be as a foil to whom the principal character can explain things.  Robin has played this role for Batman—at least in the wacky 1960s TV series.  A classic case, of course, is Holmes and Watson; TV Tropes even dubs such an character The Watson (“the character whose job it is to ask the same questions the audience must be asking and let other characters explain what’s going on”).  Master detectives, who are supposed to be smarter than the audience, form fertile ground for such relationships:  Archie Goodwin, who is no dummy, regularly receives nuggets of wisdom from his immobile employer Nero Wolfe.

Finally, the person who graciously explains things is often a mentor figure—the wise or knowledgeable one, a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan, the polar opposite of the uninformed interlocutor.  When the mentor’s job is primarily to educate the main character, this may explain why the mentor is around early in the story, but may disappear or become unavailable when the action starts to heat up.

Theological Slapstick: The Good Place

I can’t recall who suggested I start watching The Good Place, which recently released its finale after four seasons.  I do remember being warned not to look up the show on Wikipedia or anything first; and that was good advice.  The series’ twists and turns are entirely unexpected and it would ruin the effect to know they were coming.  So, at the top of this post, I need to point out—

Here Be Spoilers!

The Slapstick Element

The Good Place opening sceneA TV series about the afterlife is, to the best of my recollection, a novel idea.  There’ve been shows that featured regular visitations from the afterlife, such as Topper or My Mother the Car.  But these were’t about the afterlife, any more than My Favorite Martian was about life on Mars.  They were about events here on earth when visitors from the afterlife intruded.  Those who know more than I about the history of TV may be able to provide other examples; but The Good Place’s approach is at least fairly rare.

The second unexpected thing about The Good Place is the transcendent silliness with which Michael Schur and the show’s other writers imbue the series.  Almost invariably, if something seems profound or weighty, there’s a pratfall (verbal or otherwise) waiting just around the corner.  Even when typical afterlife tropes are invoked, such as torture in hell, they are so exaggerated or understated that one can’t take them seriously.  The characters are also drawn very broadly, to the point of caricature—no one could be quite as perfectly airheaded as Jason, as status-conscious as Tahani, as indecisive as Chidi—except for Eleanor, who serves as our Everywoman hero.

The Good Place yogurt shopThis perpetual wackiness makes the show entertaining, but it also accomplishes some other things.  The silliness of the events and characters prevents us from taking the theology seriously.  It would be hard to present a serious visualization of heaven or hell in an era when there is no general consensus about such things.  But we can all laugh along with the notion that a heaven featuring a really, really great yogurt shop is a bit of a letdown—even if you like yogurt.  It’s hard to be offended or galvanized to argument when the theological features are clearly not meant seriously.

In the moments when the show actually does get serious, the surrounding wackiness also keeps it from getting preachy.  The levity of the overall atmosphere lends the genuinely moving moments a sort of innocent sincerity.  (A fan of G.K. Chesterton, of course, will find that sort of atmosphere immediately congenial.)

The Ending

I’ve seen some lively comments online on how the show ended.  Several people have said they hated to see it end.  It’s true that one is always reluctant to say goodbye to favorite characters and situations.  On the other hand, it’s better for a TV series to close before it’s worn out its original premise and goes into that long slow decline.  Exhaustion of the premises is especially likely to occur when the premise is as bizarre as that of The Good Place.  So I was kind of pleased to see the writers were bringing the show to an end after four good seasons.

Is it a good ending?  Dramatically, yes.  I’m content.  That’s the essential criterion for the show’s creator:  “there’s really only one goal ever for a show finale, in my mind, and that’s to make people who have been watching the show and invested time and energy and emotion in the show feel like it’s a good ending.”

However, the completed work does leave some questions hanging.  Appropriately enough, the leftover puzzles are big issues about the fundamental things.  I don’t mean that the show should have tried to deal with them:  it can best to leave some mystery.  However, it’s entertaining to look at what some of these holes were.  I present them, of course, from my point of view; those who approach the fundamental questions differently may see the gaps in somewhat different ways.

(Since I flew the spoiler alert above, I’m going to assume that anyone who makes it this far has a pretty good acquaintance with the series.)

First Cause

The more we find out about The Good Place’s underlying machinery of the afterlife, the more we may wonder:  Who put this madhouse in place to begin with?

Judge Gen

Nobody seems to be in charge of the whole shebang.  The demons who run the Bad Place don’t have complete power, or they’d have simply gone on happily torturing humans indefinitely.  The Good Place, apparently, is run by a committee of nonentities, who show up only once or twice, make some entirely ineffectual remarks, and flee at the first opportunity to abdicate their responsibilities.  Disputes between the two are resolved by Judge Gen, an irritable, easily distracted entity who seems annoyed by the whole business.

We never do find out who dreamed up the point system that’s used to evaluate human actions.  As Sam Adams’ article on Slate puts it, “Introducing a painless exit from the afterlife allowed The Good Place to punt on some of its biggest questions, like who created the universe (the highest-ranking figure we ever meet, the nearly omnipotent Judge Gen, still feels like she’s enforcing someone else’s rules) . . .”

As the setup comes to seem more and more arbitrary, an inquiring viewer is likely to become more and more perplexed about why this particular cockamamie system should exist, rather than any other.  (Much less “why there is anything at all,” the fundamental question of metaphysics.)

These are the kinds of questions addressed by the traditional “First Causearguments for the existence of God.  Why is there this universe rather than some other?  Why is there this universe rather than nothing?  Ordinarily we sail along day to day without bothering much about the matter.  But because The Good Place is showing us (in its own wacky way) the entities that ought to have the answers, the questions become hard to avoid.  Once the main characters get backstage, you might say, the God-shaped hole in the overall system becomes more and more evident.

A related issue appears when at one point the judge proposes to wipe the slate clean and start over—annihilate all humans who have ever lived and start the new system from scratch.  I found myself wondering, what is the judge trying to accomplish?  What are her motives?  If the idea is to find a better way to deal with the ongoing human population, that’s fairly clear.  But if she’s going to eliminate the humans and start something different, why go to the trouble?  Is there some sort of cosmological imperative that there be a human race, or a life-and-afterlife system?  We don’t have any idea what her motives might be, because we have no earthly (or unearthly) idea why the existing framework is there in the first place.

Unintended Consequences

Carbon footprint graphicOne of the most interesting moral speculations in the show turns up when the main characters are trying to figure out why no humans for centuries have succeeded in qualifying for the Good Place.  The reason, it’s suggested, is that the modern world is so complex that an ordinary human can’t know all the consequences of an action.  If I buy a Coke, I have to consider not only the effect on my budget and my waistline, but also the bottle’s carbon footprint, whether it was produced using child labor or unfair business practices, and so forth.  Every choice is laden with unknowable results—and apparently these are mostly bad, bringing people’s point scores down.

It’s an interesting idea, with at least superficial plausibility.  The modern world is more complex than our pre-technological world, and maybe it’s just grown beyond our ability to manage.  Today we are constantly being told that it’s our obligation to take into account all sorts of remote consequences, becoming so scrupulous that the slightest decision is weighted with ponderous political and moral consequences.

This argument itself is based on some significant moral assumptions.  For instance, it takes for granted that actions are to be evaluated on their results—“consequentialism,” of which the most popular form is utilitarianism.  That’s not the only possibility.  Chidi, for instance, apparently embraces a “deontological” or rule-based ethics.  And then there’s the Aristotelian virtue-based ethics.  What actually drives the main characters’ decisions in the end seems to be the worth or importance of persons, which has something in common with Kant’s deontological ethics (every person must be treated as an end in itself) or, more directly, personalism.

One might also wonder whether the problem of unforeseen consequences is really unique to modernity.  Life has always been complex, and actions have always had ramifications stretching out far beyond what we can anticipate.  It does seem plausible, though, that in a highly interconnected world (“the world is getting smaller”), the effects of a given cause propagate faster and further.

Good Place cast, inquiringThere’s an additional complexity in the The Good Place’s point system insofar as it uses these remote results to judge the person who is acting.  There’s a difference between judging the results and judging the agent.  Traditional axiological (good-based) or consequentialist theories of ethics would not normally hold us responsible for consequences we can’t reasonably foresee.  If someone does something terrible (or, for that matter, something heroic) we take into account the pressures that person was under, which may include their history and experiences; the limits of their knowledge; the effects of outside conditions like drugs or alcohol; and many other factors that might diminish (or enhance) responsibility.

None of this seems to be considered in the point system with which The Good Place begins.  And no wonder:  the point system is presented from the beginning as a caricature of real moral judgment, an oversimplified and somewhat unfair scheme.  But the “new system” we’re given at the end doesn’t really solve that problem either.  Giving the poor humans many lifetimes to become better people is kind, perhaps, but how does it take degrees of responsibility into account (much less resolve the issue of unpredictable consequences)?

Eternity and the Good Life

The driving force of the series’ last episodes is the notion that an eternity of pleasure is itself intolerable.  We get bored, and, we’re told, the tedium gradually degrades our faculties, so that the esteemed philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria shows up as a shallow airhead (“Patty”), to the main characters’ dismay.  The series’ answer is that the system must provide the opportunity to end this eternal lassitude at a chosen time—“die the real death,” as Zelazny might have put it.  The option of ending it all somehow removes the tedium of eternal pleasure and allows us to enjoy the Good Place until we walk through the final door.

The idea of eternity as a bore presents a valid question.  It isn’t a question restricted to the afterlife, either; it points back to the classic philosophical issue of what is a good life for human beings.  The good life, in the classical ancient or medieval sense, isn’t just the absence of wrongdoing or the ability to score arbitrary points; it embodies the idea of a life that is worth living.

For this reason, it’s worth taking a closer look at what The Good Place has to say about the good life.  From the perspective of that question, the show’s final solution looks a bit superficial.  Sam Adams, again, says:  “The idea that going through the door would simply allow a person’s energy to rejoin the universe—as Eleanor took the fateful step, she dissolved into otherworldly fireflies that wafted down to Earth—felt more like New Age goop than moral philosophy, or maybe just a midway point between Immanuel Kant and Dan Brown.”

It’s true that “[t]he way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost,” as Chesterton says (Tremendous Trifles (1909), ch. 7).  But the idea of loving something is curiously muted in The Good Place.  The Good Place as we see it in the show does look boring, but that may be because the writers built it that way.  The focus on simple pleasures like milkshakes lends itself to this—an eternity of sitting placidly and drinking even the best milkshake would be a bore.  With admirable consistency, the screenwriters do apply the same argument to other goods like learning and reading.  But it’s not quite as clear that something like learning is as inherently limited as ordinary (and genuinely good) gustatory pleasures.

Baby kicking its legsEven with respect to the simpler pleasures, The Good Place doesn’t take into account the possibility that becoming bored is a a human weakness—a physiological or psychological failure to continue appreciating something that remains worthwhile in itself.  That weakness isn’t necessarily incurable.  Chesterton remarks:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. . . .  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image 1959), ch. IV, p. 60)

The one factor in the depiction of the Good Place that seems to be understated, oddly enough, is love and friendship—relationships.  The show does make something of personal interactions, mainly in the two romantic relationships, Eleanor and Chidi and Jason and Janet.  But none of the four main characters becomes involved with any other interesting people—despite the plethora of historical figures that might be called on.  (As we noted above, the interesting Hypatia has been deliberately dumbed down for the episode to make a point.)

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music videoOutside the central four, together with Michael and Janet, there’s no sense of camaraderie or community.  We do not see the potentially unlimited constellations of True Companions—just the one cluster of main characters.  And of course the one big relationship is missing:  that God-shaped hole.  In traditional Christian thinking, at least, God is infinite, and our relationship with God is one time can never exhaust.  Because The Good Place adroitly sidesteps the whole question of divinity, that line of solution to the problem of eternity can’t be explored.

Moreover, the show cheats a little when it suggests that a final dissolution is the real end.  At least one character uses the conventional phrase “moving on”—which undermines that notion of finality.  And what one commentator refers to as “a complete and unknowable end” isn’t quite what we actually get.

For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. . . . . What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind . . .  (Rolling Stone)

Even the series’ best attempt at agnosticism about the good life seems to recede before a sense of good action as in some sense eternal.

The Good Place cast portraitConclusion

The Good Place has been a great show, and I’ve enjoyed it throughout.  Simply giving us an opportunity to think about such matters as these is way beyond what most TV series achieve.  And to do it in a way that’s consistently entertaining is the cherry on the top of the frozen yogurt.

A Pride of Brothers

This week we have a guest post from Peggy Jaeger, a fellow author at the Wild Rose Press.  She’s got a new romance series going, “A Pride of Brothers.”  Since the name of the first book’s hero is Rick, she’s obviously setting off on the right foot.

In today’s post, she talks about moving into writing for a new subgenre.  Over to you, Peggy!

A Pride of Brothers:  Rick

For most of my fiction writing career (all 5 years if it!) I’ve written contemporary romance novels and RomComs, or romantic comedies.  Since these are my favorite romance books to read, it stands to reason they’d be my favorite to write.

A Pride of Brothers: Rick, coverThe publication of my newest book, though, A Pride of Brothers:  Rick, is a bit of a departure for me, writing-structure-wise.  With this book and the two others planned for the series, I’m delving into the romantic suspense lite genre. I’ll explain the “lite” portion in a bit, but first . . .

Writing romance isn’t easy, but there are some tried and true rules you must follow to have a book classified as a romance in any of the subgenres.

  1. You must have a central love interest in the story. It can be between a man and a woman, two men, a woman and a shape-shifting dragon . . . you get the idea.  As long as there is a central love story within the book, you have a qualified romance.
  2. You must have a happily ever after (HEA) ending, or at least a final happy for now (HFN) one. The obvious definition of the first is the classic, And they lived happily ever after, where a marriage and an emotional commitment is solidified at the end of the book.  This used to mean marriage and only marriage.  Nowadays, a romance can have a happy for now ending and still be qualified as a romantic read as long as the people involved in the central love story are committed to one another.  The hope of a lifetime commitment is there, written as a promise, but not explicitly divulged on the page.  Get the difference?
  3. Taboo subjects you must never include as the central theme in a romance are rape, incest, child abuse, sexual abuse—really, abuse of any kind—cruelty, and bestiality.

If you follow these rules you can write a romance.

Pride of Brothers, graphic with quote

The structure of writing a romantic suspense is a bit different.

Yes, you must still have a love interest within the plot, and yes, it still needs to have an HEA or a HFN ending.  Rule number 3 applies to every book, so I don’t need to reiterate it here.

The difference in this subgenre that is apparent, though, is in the name: romantic suspense.

The definition of this subgenre varies a bit, but basically it is any romance novel in which suspense, mystery or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot, or one that features a prominent mystery, suspense or thriller story line.

When I was a teenager in the ‘80s this type of book was called a WOMAN IN JEOPARDY story because the plot centered around a woman who had some kind of danger in her life like an abusive ex-beau, or a stalker.  The implication of the tag line was that a woman needed a man to help her out of the bad situation (the “jeopardy”), and in so doing, they’d fall in love.

Nowadays, that sexist and archaic description is gone, replaced with “Romantic Suspense,” and it’s not only the gals who need help with a problem any longer.  There are plenty of bad-ass female bounty hunters, cops, etc., out there who help the hero with an issue.

Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

So, I promised an explanation of the term romantic suspense lite with regards to my writing.

I didn’t set out to write a romantic suspense when I came up with the story line for the first Pride of Brothers book.  I wanted to tell a frenemies-to-lovers story about two strong and opposite personalities who wound up falling in love.  That’s the romance aspect of the tale.  I had to make them foils, and the plot needed to revolve around something where one of them would need to help the other out of a situation.

What I came up with was a story about a lawyer who fights for disenfranchised women and their children, and a man who was the definition of disenfranchised as a child.  When the husband of a client threatens the lawyer and then subsequently tries to murder his wife and kidnap his son, the hero vows to protect the heroine from danger.  She isn’t convinced she is in danger, but a series of events unfolds that proves she is.  That’s the suspense part.  It’s the hero’s job to keep her safe, even though she can do that on her own.

The reason I dub it a lite romantic suspense is that more than 60% of the tale is the evolving romance between the two protagonists, with about 40% steeped in the actual thriller/suspense part of it.  There is a forced proximity aspect to the storyline, which is a classic romsusp factor, along with knife fights, guns, and kidnapping—all elements you don’t find in your everyday regular small town romance novel.

I am hopeful I’ve done the subgenre proud with the release of this book. It was an absolute blast to write and I can only hope it is enjoyable to readers as well.

Look for book two, A PRIDE OF BROTHERS: DYLAN early in 2021.

Until next time ~ Peg

A Pride of Brothers:  Rick at
Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Apple Books ~Books-A-Million

 

Hallmark and the Small Business

Running a bit behind here.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  But at least I’m getting this out in time for Christmas . . .

Countless Christmases

Countdown to Christmas logoI believe this is my fourth year of following the Hallmark channels’ gallery of Christmas romance movies (“Countdown to Christmas”).  Not that it’s humanly possible to see them all.  I believe Hallmark is introducing twenty-three new films this year; and that doesn’t take into account the similar plenitude of programs from the nine previous years of “Countdown.”  In this torrent of trysts, it would be easy for the more traditional fare to get lost entirely, from White Christmas to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (the truly canonical video version of that story, I’m convinced).

And Hallmark is only the bellwether of an entire subgenre.  Netflix has its own array of seasonal video, so similar to the Hallmarks that you’d mistake one for the other if the branding were absent.  Subscribe to Amazon Prime instead of Netflix?  You can still find plenty of holiday fare, whether traditional flicks or newer Amazon productions.

The trend may be reaching some kind of limit.  The plots are starting to recur faster and faster.  Of course, that repetition makes these movies ripe for satire.  My children pointed me to a Christmas movie script allegedly written by a computer (“Someone Made a Bot Watch 1,000 Hours of Hallmark Christmas Movies and Write a Script”; here’s the original tweet from Keaton Patti).  I doubt this was really a bot at work; it’s too funny.

In any case, it turns out these plot generators are spawning as fast as the movies themselves.  For example, just at the top of my search results I found samples from WrongHands, E! Online, and The Odyssey Online.  Lots of articles remark on the phenomenon.  For example, here’s NPR’s snark-fest on the 2019 Christmas romance crop, Hallmark and otherwise.

Among other things, this mass of Christmas cheer does make the field a useful laboratory for looking at some tropes and storytelling points.  One could probably do a statistically valid survey with this large a universe of data.  Here, I’m just going to focus on one favorite trope:  the small business (or, as NPR labels it, the “adorable small business”).

Small Businesses Are Adorable

The Christmas Ornament coverSmall businesses, especially family businesses, frequently play a role in genre romance movies.  For example, in A Christmas Melody (2015), the heroine has just lost her clothing boutique and spends time in a cozy local coffee shop.  We also go from one small business to another in The Christmas Ornament (2013), where the heroine has been trying to keep her late husband’s bike shop open, but discovers her real passion is baking cookies (courtesy of a new romantic interest who has a Christmas tree shop).  The female lead in The Christmas Secret  (2014) has just been fired from her job, but gets a new one in a local bakery.  (There are a lot of bakers in these tales.  Christmas is cookie season.)

Sometimes the issue is the temptation to “sell out.”  For example, in Let It Snow (2013), the female lead is an executive assigned to overhaul a newly acquired family business, Snow Valley Lodge, into a modernized hipster paradise.  She sees the error of her ways, of course.

The trope isn’t confined to Christmas, or to Hallmark.  For instance, Coffee Shop (2014) gives us a shop that’s an important gathering place in the community, but financially troubled; her former boyfriend wants to bail her out by selling the property to a mall developer.

The sellout motif reaches a sort of reductio ad absurdum in this year’s Hallmark feature Merry and Bright.  Our heroine Cate is doing a good job of running her grandmother’s candy cane company, but candy canes aren’t as big a deal as they used to be.  The romantic interest, a “corporate recovery consultant,” proposes gaining a venture capitalist’s support by expanding the business into other Christmasy candy—chocolates and such.  That’s such a logical idea that it seemed this story would avoid the trope.  But no:  as she’s poised to sign the contract, Cate stops and declares that her grandmother founded a candy cane business, nothing else, and Cate’s determined to stick with it.

I sat there open-mouthed (since I had no chocolates to eat, alas) at the notion that manufacturing candy canes was virtuous, but expanding into chocolates was some kind of betrayal.  The resolution, in which Cate succeeds by interesting an investor in candy canes with new and innovative flavors, failed to convince me that her scruples made any kind of sense.

A Houston Press article from last year snarks up the trope:  “Oh, and every little book store or bakery or community theater can be turned into a resounding success with a little love.”

Variations

On the other hand, we do see some aversions of the trope.  A couple of examples from this year’s batch:

In Picture a Perfect Christmas, our heroine is a photographer who travels all around the world for her work.  She arrives in a small town for the holidays to look after her aging grandmother, and falls for a local guy.  But it’s kind of a relief to find that neither of them has to give up their careers, or found a small business.  It appears she can go right on globe-trotting and picture-taking; she’s just going to come home periodically to a new base of operations.  In fact, the guy and his semi-adopted nephew are going to join her on her next shoot, in Switzerland, a very sensible plan.  It’s kind of refreshing.

Tree bagging from Christmas Under the Stars

Christmas Under the Stars

The male main character in Christmas Under the Stars is fired abruptly (at Christmas!) from his soulless investment banking job, and ends up working in a little local Christmas tree lot that’s going to be razed for development.  He and the female main character save the lot from the bulldozer, as well as solving everyone’s other problems.  But the hero doesn’t become a career Christmas tree salesman; he goes back into finance—only this time it’s in a non-soulless company that specializes in ethical investing.  So an endearing and Christmasy local business is involved, but it isn’t the ultimate destination of either of the main characters.

The Purpose of a Business

What is it that these cute home-town businesses are supposed to have that makes them so adorable?

We have a widespread sense that a small operation is more likely to have integrity than a larger enterprise:  less likely to sell out, more dedicated to its original mission.  We tend to feel that a small business will have less discontinuity between its ostensible purposes—making coffee, selling books, offering Christmas trees—and the way it treats people in practice, along with the necessary purpose of making money.

The Incredibles (2004) shows a comically exaggerated version of this divide.  Bob Parr works for an insurance company, which is theoretically established to help its customers in times of difficulty.  Instead, the institution is so dedicated to denying customer claims that Bob practically has to use guerilla tactics to get a claim honored.  For someone with the heart of a superhero—a “helping profession” if there ever was one—this stultifying job is a pecular kind of hell.

To be sure, a business aims to make money, or it won’t last long.  But those who begin it, or join it, generally do so because they aspire to make an excellent product, or provide a useful service.  Not many lines of business are pure scams.  The trouble is that as the operation gets bigger and older, it seems often to develop a single-minded devotion to making more and more money, even at the expense of the excellence of the product or service.  A small enterprise, by contrast, where the owner may come into daily contact with the persons being served, is less likely to be seduced by that particular temptation.  It’s easier to keep focus on a product that pleases and benefits people—like cookies.

It's A Wonderful Life housewarming sceneAn older Christmas movie, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), lives on that contrast.  The quirky and adorable Bailey Building and Loan helps people acquire their own homes, though it’s not as profitable as Mr. Potter’s cruel cost-cutting firm.

This idealization of small firms is easy for the cynic to sneer at.  Big business is the way of the world, sloppy sentiment aside.  But storytellers are tapping into a genuine issue here.

The Stumbling-Blocks of Largeness

We’re generally told that bigness allows for economies of scale that reduce prices and improve services.  To take an example at random, this article by Ken Doctor (12/6/19) states as obvious (even in a critique of mergers) that “McDonald’s can make burgers a lot more efficiently than mom-and-pop joints in every town can.”  But this truism needs closer examination.

First, not enough attention is paid to diseconomies of scale.  For example, mergers can result in ill-assorted pieces that don’t really work together, offsetting gains that might be achieved by volume discounts.  I’m acquainted with one large company, for example, that is still producing separate reports and maintaining separate books for a subsidiary it absorbed at least ten years ago.

A more direct issue with largeness is that as an organization grows, it seem to require more and more generalized policies and inflexible rules.  A firm of twenty-five people can make room for individualized exceptions; an organization of ten thousand, not so much.  The principle seems to hold true in any kind or organization, whether it’s a private business, a nonprofit, a government, or even a church.  Universal rules aren’t all bad; they can be a necessary bulwark against personal discrimination.  But as the system grows, we have more and more the sense of dealing with mindless machinery, rather than on a person-to-person basis.

Google Dragonfly graphicIt seems a company often starts with enthusiasm about a cool product; but as it grows, the bean-counters take over, and that original spark recedes in favor of merely finding ways to pump up the quarterly reports.  Google, for example, may (sadly) be in the process of making this transition.  The company started out with the innocent motto “Don’t be evil”; it’s now  in trouble for helping China with its totalitarian surveillance state via “Project Dragonfly” (though it seems to have backed away from that project as of July).  It may be significant that Google’s founders have just departed—perhaps signaling the end of that original enthusiasm for making things better.

Mergers and Their Discontents

In addition, as a business gets bigger, it tends to crowd out competitors; and an exclusive concentration on increased profits without a corresponding attention to fairness and decency gives rise to a deliberate drive for monopoly, or oligopoly (market power exercised by a few firms rather than only one).

As fewer and larger firms amass market power, the lack of competition results in higher prices, as well as worse customer service.  If the combination actually reduces costs, none of the benefits actually flow through to the customer.  In my field (telecommunications), I can think of no examples where a merger actually resulted in lower prices for consumers.  And it’s hard to think of any where customer service improved as a result; normally, customer service gets worse.  For an example from another field, the airlines, consider this aggrieved customer’s horror story.

A less obvious disadvantage is that mergers can result in a loss of institutional memory.  A merger frequently seeks to cut costs by dropping redundant staff.  Aside from the minor difficulty of people’s losing their jobs (which seems a common anxiety at Christmastime, right back to Scrooge’s threat to Cratchit about “losing your situation”), this means the people who knew the history may be gone.  More than once I’ve run into a company that can’t find records of what its own pre-merger components did in the past.

You might say that the legal version of the Hallmark preference for smallness is antitrust law, which is designed to keep large entities from abusing their market power in some of the ways mentioned above.  Some contemporary examples of how the antitrust laws are not currently being enforced can be found in a recent article (12/19/19) by Steven Pearlstein.

Bigness is not necessarily bad.  But problems such as these are the characteristic flaws of the large organization, against which one must constantly be on guard.  In the way that a particular profession may have its “occupational hazards”—say, the temptation of lawyers to fall into a barren legalism—an entity may, simply by its scale, be vulnerable to typical failure modes.  The sentimental attachment to small entities is not simply nostalgia; there’s something to it.

The Appeal of the Small Business

We know some of the disadvantages of the small business:  for instance, the local shops in the Hallmark romances are frequently on the verge of failing—reflecting, along with the narrative demand of drama, their more limited resources and hence vulnerability to problems, such as a business downturn.  But what are the advantages such stories play on?

The Christmas List posterFamiliarity.  The direct contact between businesspeople and customers allows for personal relationships.  We see it with George Bailey, making kind-hearted adjustments in payment schedules to help individual customers (a practice for which the hard-charging Potter rakes him over the coals).  An older Christmas romance, The Christmas List (1997), apparently not from Hallmark but fitting the mold, features a perfume saleswoman who know how to figure out the perfect scent for a customer—an unusual sort of personal connection, but a helpful one for the buyer.  If I recall correctly, the proprietor in Coffee Shop had a similar talent for determining the perfect drink for someone.  You can’t give that kind of personal attention when you’re a faceless cog in a call center working from a fixed script.

To be sure, it’s possible to have this sort of personal relationship in a large organization.  A number of the pharmacists at my local CVS, where I show up every couple of weeks for prescriptions, actually know my name.  But on the whole, the further away management is from the actual customers, the easier it is for them to regard customers solely in terms of ARPU—“average revenue per unit.”

Community.  Thus, there’s a certain warmth and welcome—classic Christmas themes—to the bar “where everybody knows your name.”  The local shop can actually engender a close-knit community (the current term seems to be “found family”) capable of mutual support and reassurance.  That was a theme in Coffee Shop; it was also at work in another recent non-Christmas romantic comedy, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill (Abbi Waxman, 2019).

Tales of the Long Bow coverConcreteness.  While the intellect has its joys, there’s a particular satisfaction in making something with our hands:  a tangible product whose excellence can seen and felt by anyone.  The types of small businesses featured in the Christmas romances—bakeries, bookshops, farms—do this a lot.  By contrast, a large business often seems to end up dealing in abstractions.  Chapter Five of G.K. Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow (1924) contrasts the small farmer who actually raises pigs with the wheeler-dealer who merely trades in them.  You can read the passage here, though you really need the whole book to fully appreciate the force of Chesterton’s point.

One of the key developments in Pretty Woman (1990) is Edward’s transformation from a soulless transactional businessman to someone who can put his assets and expertise behind what is, in effect, a family business.  Initially, his method is to swoop in, acquire a company, split it up and sell off the pieces at a profit—like a stolen car at a “chop shop,” as Vivian pungently observes (see under “Not So Different” at the TV Tropes entry).  But he gets to know the father-and-son owners of the current target and their pride in building ships for the Navy.  And as Vivian softens his heart, Edward changes his mind:  he’s going to support them in building ships for a good cause.  He’s going to make something, not just move money around.

Putting ourselves into our work.  Along with the pride in building something concrete goes the sense that we’re contributing to the good in the world.  The work both expresses oneself and leaves something tangible behind.  Small-town construction company owner Jamie Houghton, in Christmas List (Hallmark 2016, not to be confused with “The Christmas List” above), at 1:47, speaks of “…creating something that means something to you—leaving a bit of yourself in the world.”  The satisfaction of this kind of work is something the Hallmarks are trying to bring back to our attention.  You can put yourself into work for a large organization, too, if the organization allows that much individuality; but it’s harder, for the reasons noted above.

These virtues are so out of fashion that they have an antique feel to us today.  That in itself makes them especially useful for a Christmas story.  As Hallmark incessantly tells us, Christmas looks backward—to traditions, to memories, to childhood.  Ultimately, of course, it looks back two thousand years to the original Christmas.

Small Businesses Help the Plot Thicken

Because of the features we’ve discussed above, the heroine’s bakery or bookshop can serve as a linchpin for the plot.  A financial crisis or other threat to the business, or a decision about how what road it’ll take in the future, gives the characters something to be concerned about.  How each person responds shows their real character.  The heroine’s unsatisfactory current or ex-boyfriend, for example, shows his true colors by endorsing the sellout   He has completely failed to understand the heroine, and thus disqualified himself.  Or the true romantic interest may take off in a similar big-business direction, leading to tension or a temporary rupture between the main characters; but he can change his mind and thus prove he’s really on her wavelength after all.

You've Got Mail, bookshop scene

You’ve Got Mail

There’s an interesting semi-aversion (outside the Hallmark orbit) in You’ve Got Mail (1998).  It’s Tom Hanks’ large bookstore that threatens Meg Ryan’s lovable community bookshop, “The Shop Around the Corner.”  In the end she loses the bookshop; the economic forces at hand are too great.  But as she wanders through Hanks’ larger establishment, she seems to come to terms with it, in a way.  The big-box store can also be a place where children encounter beloved books and people can congregate.  Maybe if the story had taken place at Christmastime, the ending would have been different . . .

Smallness and Christmas

It’s not exactly a new departure, even in economic circles, to observe that “small is beautiful.”  And, as we’ve seen, there are some significant reasons to value smallness and be careful about unlimited growth, even in economic circles.  But it makes sense that this motif keeps turning up in stories that appeal to our homelier sentiments too.

It’s also fitting that the trope comes up so frequently in Christmas stories.  Christmas, in itself, represents the triumph of the small over the large.  One poor couple, without even a home or an inn to have their baby, are ranged against Herod and all his soldiers, and behind them, the Roman Empire.  Yet the child has outlasted them all.  In the Christmas story we see the divine and universal focused down to an intensely personal scene.  Every other small personal triumph can find a home there—even a romance.

At Christmastime, prizing the small may be a cliché – but it’s no accident.