A Place for Horror

The Question of Horror

I’ve never been fond of the horror genre.  I just don’t see the point of being scared or (more often) disgusted or repelled by a story.  As Randall Munroe of xkcd puts it:  “I know everyone’s into what they’re into, but I have never understood horror movies.”

Approaching the genre as an outsider, then, my question is:  why is there such a genre at all?  Is it just the desire for a thrill?  Or is the whole interest in horror merely morbid?

An interesting remark in a Diane Duane story recently gave me an inkling of what the function of horror stories might be.  As we’re coming up to Hallowe’en, I thought the point might be worth examining this week.

Horror, and Genre Horror

Alien - movie posterTo be sure, one sometimes bumps up against horror elements incidentally in the course of pursuing other types of stories.  I did watch the movie Alien when it came out in 1979—but that was because it was science fiction, not because it was horror.  It’s both—I recall coming out of the theatre literally shaking.  But I don’t think I’ve watched it a second time.

In a similar way, there’s a good admixture of horror in Jurassic Park (I’m thinking mainly of the 1993 movie).  Plenty of “jump scene” shock moments, and gore; and I have rewatched that one, but it’s for the other elements, most notably the sheer wonder of seeing the paleontologists encounter actual living dinosaurs.  As the xkcd comic mouseover observes, I enjoy it because dinosaurs are cool.  I’m willing to go through a good deal of bad stuff in a story if the good stuff makes it worthwhile.

Even a nice song can turn up unexpected horror elements.  The title song from Carole King’s Tapestry album is a lovely meditative piece that begins “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue . . .”  Pleasant, yes?  But the lyric gradually drifts into a dream, or maybe a nightmare:  the end of the song gives us “. . . A figure, gray and ghostly, beneath a flowing beard / In times of deepest darkness, I’ve seen him dressed in black / Now my tapestry’s unraveling, he’s come to take me back . . .”  That’s rather disturbing, though the song is so pretty that one hardly notices the rather dreadful image.

The Stand - book coverBut what little I have seen of genre horror makes clear that it has its own conventions, its own tendencies and interests, that go beyond these occasional elements.  I recognized this when I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand (1978).  While the story is essentially a fantasy, it has a science-fictionish premise:  an apocalyptic pandemic that wipes out most of humanity.  So I approached it as an SF novel.

Some characters are escaping from New York City (if I recall correctly) through a tunnel jammed with stopped vehicles, which are occupied by the decomposing bodies of plague victims struck down at the wheel.  Not a pleasant place for a trek.  So they enter the tunnel, are appropriately horrified by this commuter charnel house.  They continue on.  And on.  And on.  And at some point I found myself wondering, why are we still in this tunnel?  I get the point.  Why aren’t we moving forward with the plot?  And it dawned on me:  that’s the SF reader’s reaction.  But this is horror.  The dreadful experience of going through the tunnel is the whole point for a horror reader.

Similarly, in Weird Tales-type stories like ”Shambleau” and others of C.L. Moore’s early work, it seems clear that the horror elements are the purpose of the story.  And it’s a durable purpose.  There’s still a thriving cottage industry of pastiches, games, and academic interest in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, though Lovecraft has been dead since 1937.  (At least, we think he’s dead . . .)

Science Fiction Monsters

The Demon Breed coverOn the other hand, compare this with an SF story that merely has horror elements.  There’s a sizable subgenre of science fiction monster stories, even if we throw out the B-movies and Godzilla remakes.  James H. Schmitz was particularly good at these.  Take a look at his collection A Pride of Monsters:  short stories like “The Winds of Time” (1962) and “Greenface” (1943) have structures very like traditional horror tales.  And the excellent short novel The Demon Breed (1968) makes use of horror tropes in telling an intense adventure story.

But while “Greenface” may read as a horror story, Schmitz’s other monster tales don’t come across that way.  There’s a difference in tone and mood.  Even though there are fairly horrid suggestions in “The Winds of Time”—the (extremely intelligent) monster in that story “preferred . . . to have its snacks still wriggling-fresh as it started them down its gullet”—we don’t dwell on them.  It reads to me more like an SF problem-story, where the characters must come up with inventive means to extricate themselves from a difficult situation.

Similar observations apply to, say, A.E. van Vogt’s assembly of monster-stories The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1938-1950)—or even van Vogt’s “Asylum” (1942), an early envisioning of science-fictional (as opposed to fantasy or religious) vampires.  The tone and mood are different from those of a true horror tale; they’re appealing to a different audience.

The Appeal of Horror

Why do we include horror elements in a story?

The most obvious answer, from an F&SF perspective, is conflict.  If we’re dealing with an epic or an adventure, we need to see that the evil our heroes are fighting against is, in fact, evil.  And one easy way to do that is to show the bad guys doing horrible things.  Maybe the threat is not merely death, but any of several Fates Worse Than Death.  Not only bodily death, but the soul itself (the theology is a little murky here) is at stake.  Not merely enslavement, but cannibalism.  We accentuate the menace against which the main characters are striving by making it a “parade of horribles.”

More broadly, horror aids contrast.  The good stands out better against a background of evil:  we can more readily appreciate the good when it’s juxtaposed with the bad.  When we return to the Shire, we appreciate it more than in the initial chapters, because we’ve seen far worse places.  (Of course, Tolkien’s actual treatment of “The Scouring of the Shire” is more nuanced and complex than that simple contrast suggests—but the simple contrast still underlies the conclusion of the story.)

Ringwraith looms over hobbitsIn this connection, Darrell Schweitzer notes that Tolkien has an unexpected knack for horror writing (The Fantastic Horizon, ch. 2).  The central concept of the Ring itself is pretty darn creepy:  an innocent-looking but almost-sentient magic item that gradually subverts the wearer’s will.  The Black Riders pursuing the hobbits through a seemingly-idyllic Shire—the night attack on Weathertop—the attack of Shelob at Cirith Ungol—Tolkien knows how to invoke the awful as well as the awesome.

But while these uses explain some horror elements in other kinds of stories, they don’t fully account for the horror genre.  If the horrible is not set up as opposition or contrast, but rather as the main preoccupation of the story, it must be there for some other reason.

Immunization

Interim Errantry coverDiane Duane’s collection of three Young Wizards stories, Interim Errantry (2015) includes a 2011 Hallowe’en story, “Not In My Patch.”  Early in the story, senior wizard Carl Romeo is talking to Nita, the main character, about the reason for elaborate Hallowe’en displays:

“But who doesn’t like being safely scared, occasionally?  Pleasantly scared, by something that can’t really hurt you?  . . . It starts getting you used to fear . . . so when you come up against something really scary, you can cope a little better.”

“Like being vaccinated,” Nita said.  “The weakened bugs make you immune . . .”

This idea suggests a wholesome purpose even for stories that focus primarily on the horrible.  The stories may not be quite as frivolous as the jack-o-lanterns and orange-and-black bunting that we see at this season.  But we can still say to ourselves, “it’s just a story.”  We expose ourselves to the scary or appalling in some degree without having to go through those experiences in real life.  Because there are scary and appalling things in the world; and we don’t want to lead so sheltered a life that we’re wholly incapacitated or unmoored if we should meet them.  As Nita says, it helps us develop an immunity.

Redheaded cartoon witch on broomstickWe can go even further.  If we learn to laugh at horror, we can to some degree deprive it of its self-importance, place ourselves beyond it.  (In the passage excerpted above, Carl notes that the Lone Power “really, really hates not being taken seriously”—a sentiment echoed to good effect at the end of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos.)  Call it whistling in the dark—but this attitude may help prepare us, in some small way, for those times when we do encounter horror in real life.  It may explain why our Hallowe’en decorations tend toward the ridiculous and cartoonish.  “Here’s a witch no one could be afraid of.”  (In this connection, I can’t resist citing to one of my favorite treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos.)

May you all have a happy Hallowe’en, then, and may all your fears be as abstract and hypothetical as the Great Pumpkin.  “Forth now, and fear no darkness.”

White moon with crow and bats (Pixabay)

Advertisements

Witty Banter

Clever Conversation

Billy Joel famously remarked, “I don’t want clever conversation; never want to work that hard” (“Just the Way You Are” (1977) at 1:30).  For my part, though, I find I do want clever conversation.  (And I’m willing to work at it.)  Witty wordplay is one of my favorite things to find in a story.

Conversational sparring comes in a number of varieties—and especially in exchanges between romantic interests.  This post may run a little long, because in order to get my point across I’ve got to quote some dialogue at length.

The Well-Chosen Word

Verbal comedy can arise spontaneously in comedies of errors—misunderstood conversations, double meanings and double entendres, the confusions to which language is ever prone.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster

It helps if one character is an airhead.  Bertie Wooster, the amiable narrator of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, has been described (by Jeeves) as “mentally negligible.”  As the Wikipedia article observes, Bertie’s use of language is actually rather remarkable—but it lacks control.  His frequently-mangled allusions may throw his hearers for a loop, and he’s just as likely to misunderstand what they’re getting at.  This pattern is common in Wodehouse, where at least one person, often the main character, is a little muddled.

Sprig Muslin book coverBut even competent characters can be at a loss if the situation is itself muddled.  For example, in the delightful closing sequence to Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin (ch. 17-18), the normally self-possessed Captain Kendal arrives on the scene thinking he’s rescuing his madcap lady-love Amanda, not realizing that he has entirely misinterpreted the situation.  Thus:

“Why,” the Captain shot at him, “did the chambermaid find your ward’s door locked?  Why did your ward think it necessary to lock her door?”

“She didn’t.  I locked the door, so that she shouldn’t escape a second time.  Yes, come over here, Hildebrand!  Our visitor wants to shake you by the hand. . . . This, Hildebrand, unless I much mistake the matter is the Brigade-Major.”

“What, Amanda’s Brigade-Major?” exclaimed Hildebrand.  “Well, of all things!  However did you find us out, sir?”

“For God’s sake, have I strayed into a madhouse?” thundered the Captain.  “Where is Amanda?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Hildebrand, looking startled.  “I daresay she has gone down the road to the farm, though. . . . Oh, I say, sir, I wish you will tell me!—will she be obliged to wring chickens’ necks if she goes to Spain?”

“Wring—No!” said the Captain, thrown by this time quite off his balance.

“I knew it was all nonsense!” said Hildebrand triumphantly.  “I told her it was, but she always thinks she knows everything!”

Heyer is a past master at this; I’ve often thought of her as a kind of combination of Wodehouse and Jane Austen (herself a master of elegant verbal skirmishing).  Indeed, I once looked in at the annual Boston-based science fiction convention Boskone and read the program’s tongue-in-cheek explanation of why a SF convention includes a Regency ball:  Heyer’s characters were so superb at clever badinage that they must represent some kind of alternate reality—no mere humans could come up with such adroit dialogue on the spur of the moment.

False Colours cover When the wit is one-sided— a clever interlocutor and an airheaded one—there’s some danger that the exchange may come across as a bit mean, with one character taking advantage of the other.  (“Persiflage,” another term for witty banter, is sometimes glossed as “quizzing mockery” or “scoffing.”)  But the smart character and the less-than-brilliant character can also be on good terms with each other, as in Kit Fancot’s fond teasing of his lovable but flighty mother in Heyer’s False Colours.

Flirtatious Banter

The combination of verbal sparring and affection reaches its apex when the two participants are in love with each other—whether or not they know it yet.

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1993 movie)The locus classicus for such a relationship is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy built largely around the contentious romance of Beatrice and Benedick.  Beatrice’s uncle explains the relationship to a newcomer explicitly at the outset:  “You must not, sir, mistake my niece:  there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (lines 50-52).  We then see them in action:

Beatrice:  I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

Benedick:  What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Beatrice:  Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?  Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Benedick:  Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted:  and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice:  A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that:  I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick:  God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice:  Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.  (lines 99-116)

The verbal sparring can shade from hostile to flirtatious; here we see it at the hostile end.  While this “merry war” has no obvious reason—except perhaps “belligerent sexual tension” itself—the conflict is often sparked by some specific friction; hence this trope’s kinship with The Big Lie.

Romantic comedy is the natural home for this kind of dialogue—especially on stage or screen.  We can go back to one of the classic screwball comedies, Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night, for examples.

[As Peter hangs a blanket between the beds in the room the main characters have to share:]

Ellie:  That, I suppose, makes everything quite all right.

Peter:  This?  Well, I like privacy when I retire.  Yes, I’m very delicate in that respect.  Prying eyes annoy me.  Behold the walls of Jericho.  Maybe not as thick as the ones Joshua blew down with his trumpet.  But a lot safer.  You see, I have no trumpet.

It Happened One Night, hitchhiking, on fenceThey both get in some good lines in the famous hitchhiking scene:

Peter:  They’ll stop, all right.  It’s all a matter of knowing how to handle them.

Ellie:  Oh, and you’re an expert, I suppose.

Peter:  Expert.  And I’m gonna write a book about it.  Call it The Hitchhiker’s Hail.

Ellie:  There’s no end to your accomplishments, is there?

[Peter tries his first method, fails]

Ellie:  I’ve still got my eye on the thumb.

Peter:  Something must have gone wrong.  I’ll try No. 2.

Ellie:  When you get to 100, wake me up.

[After several more fails]

Peter:  I don’t think I’ll write that book after all.

Ellie:  Think of all the fun you had, though.

[Ellie takes over and brings a car to a dead stop by lifting her skirt to show her leg.  In the car:]

Ellie:  Aren’t you going to give me a little credit?

Peter:  What for?

Ellie:  Well, I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb.

Peter:  Why didn’t you take off all your clothes?  You could have stopped forty cars.

Ellie:  Ooo, I’ll remember that when we need forty cars.

Rodgers & Hammerstein gave us musical versions:  listen to the lighthearted play between not-quite-admitted lovers in “People Will Say We’re In Love” or “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.”  Clever duet lyrics abound in other old-time musicals as well:  Singin’ in the Rain, say, or White Christmas.

Music and Lyrics, Alex and Sophie with notebookFor a more recent example, I’m fond of the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore vehicle Music and Lyrics (2007).  Sophie (Barrymore) arrives at the apartment of Alex Fletcher (Grant), a washed-up rock star, to water his plants.  She pricks her finger on a cactus, Alex responds (with Grant’s trademark cultured deadpan delivery).

Alex:  You all right?

Sophie:  Do you have a Band-Aid and antibiotic cream?

Alex:  No, no.  And, sadly, I think I’ve lent out my iron lung.

Sophie:  . . . I’m gonna go, because, you know, this could get infected.

[She comes back the next day, with a bandage on her finger, and they pick up right where they left off.]

Alex:  They were able to save the whole hand.

Sophie:  I know; I made too big a deal out of it.  It’s just that I hate infections.  But then again, who likes them?  Maybe the people who make penicillin.

Alex:  Ah, yes, well, there’s two sides to every story.

Sophie:  That’s true.  Except for the Nazis.  I can’t really see the other side of that argument.

Sophie ends up writing lyrics to Alex’s music for a song that has to be completed within about forty-eight hours.  He’s reading her scribbled page:

Alex: [singing] Sleeping with a clown above my bed…

[spoken] “Clown” is not right.  What is that word?

Sophie:  It’s “cloud.”

Alex:  Well, write more clearly!  How can I possibly read—

Sophie:  Why would you have a clown in your bed?

Alex:  Let me tell you, it would not be the first time.

Sophie:  Yeah, I’m not surprised.

Wit in Writing

Of course we also get witty exchanges on the printed page.

For the rare Wodehouse where both the characters are clever, check out Leave It to Psmith (1923).  The dapper but absurd Psmith (“The p is silent, as in shrimp”) finally reaches an understanding with the intrepid Eve Halliday:

“Cynthia advised me,” proceeded Eve, “if ever I married, to marry some one eccentric.  She said it was such fun . . . Well, I don’t suppose I am ever likely to meet any one more eccentric than you, am I?”

“I think you would be unwise to wait on the chance.”

“The only thing is . . .,” said Eve reflectively.  “’Mrs. Smith’ . . . It doesn’t sound much, does it?”

Psmith beamed encouragingly.

“We must look into the future,” he said.  “We must remember that I am only at the beginning of what I am convinced is to be a singularly illustrious career.  ‘Lady Psmith’ is better . . . ‘Baroness Psmith’ better still . . . And—who knows?—‘The Duchess of Psmith’ . . .”

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe detective stories, narrated by Wolfe’s irrepressible assistant Archie Goodwin, contain some of the most entertaining dialogue I’ve encountered; I’m content just listening to Archie talk.  A lot of the banter here is nonromantic:  Nero and Archie’s genuine friendship is masked by constant verbal sparring.  Archie is a past master at getting under people’s skin with brash remarks, and the normally unflappable Wolfe seems particularly sensitive to Archie’s brand of needling.

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

Archie Goodwin and Lily Rowan

But there’s also Archie’s long-running perpetual flirtation with Lily Rowan, who is easily his match in wit, beginning when they meet in Some Buried Caesar (1938).  Archie is drowsing off at a rural exposition when Lily (who’s nicknamed him “Escamillo”) tugs at his sleeve:

“Wake up, Escamillo, and show me the flowers.”

I let the lids up.  “How do you do, Miss Rowan.  Go away.  I’m in seclusion.”

“Kiss me.”

I bent and deposited a peck on her brow.  “There.  Thank you for calling.  Nice to see you.”

“You’re a lout.”

“I have at no time asked you to submit bids.”

The corner of her mouth went up.  “This is a public exposition.  I paid my way in.  You’re an exhibitor.  Go ahead and exhibit.  Show me.”

“Not exhibitionist.  Exhibitor.”  (ch. 14)

Even science fiction has its moments for banter between lovers.  In the venerable Skylark of Space (1928 &1946), Dick Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy Vaneman, an accomplished violinist, sets out to lull the overworked Seaton to sleep after dinner.

Dorothy said, “I skipped practice today, Dick, on account of traipsing out there after you two geniuses.  Could you stand it to have me play at you for half an hour?”

“Don’t fish, Dottie Dimple.  You know there’s nothing I’d like better.  But if you want me to beg you I’ll be glad to.  Please—PUH-LEEZE—oh fair and musicianly damsel, fill ye circumambient atmosphere with thy tuneful notes.”

“Wilco.  Roger,” she snickered.  “Over and out.”  (ch. 6)

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, coverThe subject matter doesn’t have to be especially romantic; it can be equally cute to watch a well-matched pair go off on an entirely silly subject.  In Connie Willis’s aptly-named Crosstalk (2016), Briddey Flannigan and her not-quite-boyfriend C.B. Schwartz have been trying, for involved plot reasons, to remember what the marshmallow shapes are in Lucky Charms cereal.  They finally find a box.

“. . . So we can confirm my findings.”

“Or not,” Briddey said, looking down at the multicolored blobs.  She picked up a pale green one with a lump of bright green in the middle.  “This does not look like a shamrock.”

“Clover,” he corrected her.

“It doesn’t look like a clover either.  It looks like a hat with a bow on it.”

“What kind of Irishman would have a bow on his hat?” C.B. said, taking it from her, turning it upside down, and squinting at it.  “Maybe it’s a pot of gold.”

“Then why is it green?  And look at this one,” she said, picking up a purple U-shaped marshmallow.  “What’s this?  The rainbow?”

“No, this is the rainbow.”  He showed her a multicolored half circle.

“Or a slice of watermelon.”

“They’re all supposed to be Irish.  What’s Irish about a slice of watermelon?”

. . . . .

“But what on earth is this?” she said, fishing a white marshmallow out of the pile.  It was oblong and had an orange line down its middle and an irregular splotch at one end.

“I have no idea,” C.B. said, taking it from her and turning it one way and another.  “An albino eggplant?”

“An albino eggplant?” she said, laughing.  “Why would they put an albino eggplant in a children’s cereal?”

“Beats me,” he said, popping it into his mouth.  He made a face.  “The real question is, why would they put pieces of chalk in a children’s cereal and call them marshmallows?”  (ch. 20)

Why it Matters

Witty banter may be entertaining in itself, but what does it do for the story?  What difference does it make in the way a reader appreciates a book or a movie?

An essentially friendly verbal duel—even if it has a bit of an edge—communicates a certain lightness and grace.  We appreciate the participants’ minds—all the more when the conversation is not about rigorous chains of reasoning, but is a kind of dancing with circumstances, responding to a situation or conversation as it develops.  (The best puns are situational.)  We admire the free play of intellect, especially when it’s used frivolously.  And in a romance, where the sensual component may contribute a certain heaviness or earthiness, the grace of wit provides a welcome counterpoint.

And then, I take the lightheartedness of banter itself to be a virtue.  With all the serious concerns we find in daily events, we need to be reminded how to take things lightly.  Susan Ashton’s “You Move Me” (also recorded by Garth Brooks) has a neat turn of phrase:

You go whistling in the dark,
making light of it,
making light of it,
And I follow with my heart, laughing all the way.

When the traditional phrase “whistling in the dark” is followed by “making light of it,” the first thought, perhaps, is of bringing light to the darkness:  making it brighter.  But “making light of it” also means treating something lightly, with levity, almost making fun of it.  The repetition of the line suggests that both meanings are present.  This is the kind of undaunted attitude that’s evoked by the frivolity of wordplay.  In other words, lighthearted wit is serious business.

There’s more.  When the participants are friends, and especially when they’re lovers, the banter is a unique way of engaging with each other.

The World Around the Corner coverThe exchange can be both a dance and a duel.  On the one hand, there’s a certain competitiveness—one-upmanship.  But the couple are also collaborating in creating a kind of manic beauty, a sort of performance art.  The best example, perhaps, is when they join in piling one absurdity on another, getting more extravagantly silly as they go.  For example, Jeff and Dana, the nascent lovers in my romantic comedy The World Around the Corner, are talking to their young friend Renée about why she likes ice-skating (and all three are avid video-gamers):

[Jeff says to Renée:]  “I remember you like ice skating, right? Why do you do it?”

“I feel graceful? It shines when you can do a trick or a turn without skidding out?”

“It feels good to do it well.” Jeff nodded. “Even if no loot drops.” Renee giggled.

“Unless maybe you knock somebody down, accidentally on purpose…” Dana said.

“…and they lose their wallet. Or a purse goes flying,” Jeff continued. “The bosses drop more loot, of course.”

“A rogue wouldn’t need to ram ’em,” Dana countered. “You glide by, doing a double spin or whatever…when they stop admiring your skill, the wallet’s gone.”

“But of course you don’t get the experience points from taking them down,” Jeff said.

When I have the chance to take part in such exchanges in real life, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences I know of.  Finding them in a story lets us all take part in the fun.

Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.

Arthur’s Eternal Triangle

Assessing the Problem

The “Eternal Triangle” gets its name from its reliable omnipresence as a romantic trope.  Two men love the same woman, or two women love the same man; and the two may themselves be friends.

Triangle illustration (Pixabay)There’s endless fuel for drama here.  As Wikipedia observes, “The term ‘love triangle’ generally connotes an arrangement unsuitable to one or more of the people involved.”  As a result, some kind of resolution seems to be needed.  (In the Western tradition, at least, simply setting up a menage à trois isn’t generally regarded as an option.)

Typically, a storyteller resolves the situation by having one “leg” of the triangle win out.  It’s easier to do this if the third party, the one left out, is painted as undesirable or disreputable—they deserve to lose.  But, on the other hand, the dramatic effect is heightened when the competing persons are each worthy of respect.  Thus Aragorn says of Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings:  “Few other griefs among the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.”  (Return of the King, V.8, “The Houses of Healing)

We’ve touched lightly before on the central role of the Eternal Triangle in the Arthurian tales.  One of the reasons we continue to be fascinated with the Arthuriad is the unresolvable romance at its center.  Typically we like and admire all three characters—Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot.  But there seems to be no way to bring about a happy ending for everybody.  This part of the tragedy tends to preoccupy modern audiences more than the political or social tragedy of the fall of Camelot; it’s more personal.

The ways in which various authors have tried to manage the matter thus provides a useful survey of ways to address a romantic triangle generally.

Tragedy

Camelot movie posterOne perfectly viable option is to give up the idea of a happy ending and treat the story as an unresolvable tragedy.  This is how the basic Arthurian story works in Malory.  T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) follows the same path.  White’s sympathy for all three characters is evident.  But he doesn’t allow them an easy out.  The story concludes as a tragedy—and a very good one.  I believe the musical Camelot (1960), based on White, follows a similar course:  no romance survives the ending.

The thoroughly weird movie Excalibur (1981) also follows Malory in this respect and accepts the tragic ending.  Lancelot dies.  Arthur, of course, dies too—or at least sails off to Avalon; as usual, whether Arthur will actually return in some fashion remains a mystery.  (In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), Arthur is mentioned as residing with other luminaries on the paradisiacal planet Venus, awaiting his return at the Second Coming.)  Guinevere joins a nunnery, as per the basic legend.  The characters are disposed of, but no romance remains.

There is, however, a curious scene toward the end of Excalibur, at about 1:59, in which Arthur visits Guinevere in her nunnery, just before the final battle.  She says she loved him as a king, sometimes as a husband.  He says that someday, when he has finished his kingly duty of making a myth that will inspire later generations, he likes to think that he could come back to her, to meet her merely as a man.  She nods.  The scene hints that the romance might somehow be resolved after their deaths.  We’ll consider that idea further below.

Taliessin Through Logres coverBut the distinction between Arthur’s roles as king and as husband also illustrates a different approach:  one can write the story in such a way that Arthur transcends romance.  This seems to have been Charles Williams’ view in his uncompleted essay The Figure of Arthur (published in 1974 in the combined volume Taliessin through Logres; The Region of the Summer Stars; Arthurian Torso).  In Williams’ view of the myth, Arthur “was not to love, in that kind, at all” (p. 230).  Arthur may be destined purely to serve as a model of the Good King, not to fall in love.

Yet the romancers continue to treat Arthur’s and Guinevere’s marriage as a love story.  The triangle is not so easily disposed of.

Saving a Romance

First Knight (movie) - Arthur, Guinevere, LancelotIf we do want a genuine romance, one way is to give Lancelot and Guinevere a happy ending, and essentially write off Arthur.  We see this in First Knight (1995).  Arthur, played by the redoubtable Sean Connery, seems genuinely fond of Guinevere (Julia Ormond).  But he’s much older than she is (Connery was 65 at the time, Ormond 30).  Lancelot (Richard Gere), much nearer her age, plays his usual role in rescuing Guinevere from various distresses.  When Arthur dies, he commends Guinevere to Lancelot’s care.  At the conclusion, contrary to the usual storyline, those two seem free to pair off, giving the audience the qualified satisfaction of a fulfilled romance.  (Exactly what would have happened to the polity of Camelot in this alternate Arthurian history isn’t discussed.)

Another way is to dodge the issue entirely by simply leaving Lancelot out of the triangle.  King Arthur (2004) depicts Arthur and Guinevere as true lovers, what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”  After adventures, heroic last stands, and the arrival of The Cavalry, the movie ends with the wedding of Arthur and Guinevere.  Lancelot is in the band of knights, but he doesn’t yet have a crush on Guinevere, or vice versa; so we have the rare case where the Arthur-Guinevere relationship is preserved.  It’s a conventional happy ending, but it requires a considerable departure from the basic Arthurian story.

Arthur’s Alternative

A different way to resolve the triangle is to add a fourth party, who can take over the member of the triangle who’s left behind.  I’ve seen a couple of cases where the author gives Arthur an alternative love, letting Lancelot and Guinevere fall where they may.  Ideally, the alternative is really Arthur’s first love, predating the whole Guinevere-Lancelot thing.  Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon (1988) has Arthur growing up with a strong and admirable girl named Morgan—a complete rewrite of Morgan le Fay, who usually serves as a villain.  Arthur falls in love with this Morgan, and she with him.  Things look bright until, just after pledging their troth, they discover that Morgan is actually his half-aunt, too closely related for marriage.  Oops.

Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere is a political necessity; it’s not a betrayal, because he cannot marry Morgan.  In this version, Guinevere (Gwenhwyfar) is a not-especially-likable nonentity, who finds her love with Bedwyr (or Bedivere), a historically earlier version of Lancelot.  While the story cleaves close enough to the myth to prohibit a really happy ending, Arthur does at least find his true love, of sorts, with Morgan.

Mary Jo Putney takes a more romantic tack with her short story Avalon (1998).  This time “Morgana” is identified with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious personage frequently depicted as giving Arthur Excalibur.  She dwells in Avalon, a faerie realm set apart from the mundane world.  In this story, Arthur sleeps with Morgana at the beginning, long before his political marriage to Guinevere, and returns to her at the end, at his “death.”  But he can be healed in Avalon, as some of the older tales suggest, and thus survives to a genuine “happy ever after” with Morgana.

The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve saved for last this powerful and daunting trilogy (1984-86) by Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication.  Kay’s approach is unique:  he takes up the tragedy head-on, but offers a strange kind of hope at the end.

Fionavar Trilogy covers (Tor)

Five college students from our world are transported to another universe, Fionavar, which is said to be the first or most fundamental of all worlds—a little like Roger Zelazny’s Amber.  To win the battle against evil in Fionavar, they must summon “The Warrior.  Who always dies, and is not allowed to rest” (Summer Tree, p. 123).  He fights in many worlds, because of “a great wrong done at the very beginning of his days,” but can only be called at darkest need, by magic, by his secret name.  This Warrior is Arthur, and his secret name (rather unexpectedly) is “Childslayer”—based on an episode from Malory (Chapter I.XXVII) that is usually omitted from an Arthurian tale, in which the young Arthur, panicked at discovering that Mordred has been born, orders a whole set of newborns sent off in a ship to their deaths, rather like Herod.

It’s revealed in the second volume, The Wandering Fire, that one of the five students, Jennifer Lowell, is actually a reincarnation of Guinevere.  Moreover, it becomes necessary to summon Lancelot, as well, awakened from an enchanted sleep.  These three have met and fought the Dark heroically in many worlds, but always suffering in their doomed triangular relationship, as a punishment for their several sins (Arthur here is guilty of an even worse crime than his betrayal by the other two).  All three love each other; “making all the angles equal, shaped most perfectly for grief” (Wandering Fire, p. 122).  Indeed, theirs is the “[s]addest story of all the long tales told” (Wandering Fire, p. 187).

Kay doesn’t blink the tragedy.  It would be an understatement to say that there’s enormous suffering and sorrow in this story.  But there is astonishing moral and physical courage and heroism as well—as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.  And Kay stresses (in his idiosyncratic way) the factor of free will in the “weaving” of the universe.  Even the fate of Arthur and his companions is not forever foredoomed.

Once the threat to Fionavar has been vanquished, a new way opens.  All three of them can leave the worlds forever, together, and fight no more.  In the most Tolkien-like moment of the story, the three sail off into eternity, rising along what Tolkien called the Straight Road into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 332).

The scene is so moving that one hardly notices Kay has not actually resolved the romantic triangle at all.  Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are surely worthy of Paradise—but we have no clue as to who ends up with whom.  Is the only way to resolve this triangle to transcend it to some conclusion beyond mortal comprehension?

Lancelot’s Alternative?

I want to mention one possibility that I haven’t seen tried in a modern story (although, in the innumerable variations on the Arthuriad, it’s quite possible that there’s an instance out there).  Instead of coming up with an alternative for Arthur, one might try presenting an alternative for Lancelot, allowing Arthur and Guinevere to come back together as true lovers—perhaps sadder and wiser after what, in such a plot, would be a temporary breach of faith among the three of them.

The concept can in fact be found in a very old source:  Williams mentions a French lay called Lanval (ca. 1170-1215), in which a Lancelot-equivalent, desired by the queen, ends up himself riding off to Avalon with a fairy mistress.  But this is a quite different version of the Arthurian story.  Is there an opening for a Lancelot-mate in the more canonical range of variations?

Lancelot and ElaineThere’s Elaine.  In Malory, Elaine falls in love with Lancelot and tricks him into sleeping with her thinking she’s Guinevere.  Their son is Galahad, and in Malory they actually live together for some time as man and wife.  Could something be made of this?

White’s Once and Future King treats Elaine as a weak and helpless character, hardly worthy of Lancelot.  But she could easily be amped up to modern standards as a stronger individual.  If Guinevere can be a Celtic warrior maid or a Canadian college student, Elaine could certainly be revised to an inventive author’s taste.  Her relationship with Lancelot need not be the failed, one-sided romance depicted by White; she could become Lancelot’s real love.

Actually, there’s an interesting hint in The Fionavar Tapestry.  A seemingly pointless side story concerns a kind of Luthien-figure, the supernally beautiful elf Leyse of the Swan Mark.  She meets Lancelot briefly in the woods and falls in love with him—but of course he’s otherwise occupied.  Leyse then herself sails off into the West (The Darkest Road, p. 233).  It occurred to me that the name “Leyse” faintly resembles “Elaine”; and in preparing this post, I noticed her description on Wikipedia specifically refers to Elaine—although not necessarily the same Elaine (there are several characters by that name in the Arthuriad).  If she too ends up in the West, the Isles of the Blest, or whatever unearthly paradise Kay’s world accommodates—is it conceivable that she provides a quadrilateral solution to the Eternal Triangle?

There always seem to be more possibilities to be explored—which is what makes this myth so fruitful.

The Boot Camp Planet

Training Worlds

Science fiction postulates lots of types of planets—although, for the convenience of humanoid characters, most of the ones shown end up being pretty Earthlike.  (It sometimes seemed that original-series Star Trek planets could be divided into “piles of rocks” and “places exactly like Earth.”  Much easier on the special-effects budget.)  Here I’d like to look at one particular variety—the worlds that serve as training locales for tough guys.

If you want to develop an inhumanly formidable army, you can do it by administering a “super soldier serum,” as in the Marvel comics.  You can do it by postulating a lifetime of intense training, as with Batman.  Or you can do it by throwing your candidates into an environment so fierce that those who survive have to become impossibly “badass” just to live through it.

Dune

Dune, coverWhat TV Tropes calls the “Death World” plays a key role in the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).  One of the things that allows the galactic Emperor in Dune to stay on top in the civilization’s complex politics is his legion of crack troops.  The “Sardaukar” are so formidable that even the highly-trained private armies of the feudal Houses are reluctant to face them.

It turns out that the Sardaukar are recruited from the Emperor’s prison planet, Salusa Secundus—a planet so hostile that only the strongest can live.  “A man who survives Salusa Secundus starts out being tougher than most others.  When you add the very best of military training—”  (Thufir Hawat, p. 370).

But Arrakis, the planet called Dune, is harsher still.  The “Fremen,” the Dune population, appear to be simple barbarian nomads.  But the exigencies of survival in the Dune environment are so demanding that, as one character realizes, the Fremen are actually “an entire culture trained to military order” (283)—an invaluable resource for the main character, Paul Atreides, who needs such a cadre to recapture the holdings and status that the Emperor and Paul’s Harkonnen enemies have illegally taken away.  The Fremen are so tough that even their civilians, “women and children and old men,” can beat full-fledged Sardaukar (454).

It’s suggested at one point that the Fremen come from the same stock as the original inhabitants of Salusa Secundus—transported there at a time when they had “grown soft with an easy planet” elsewhere (352).  That stock may have been hardy to begin with, but it’s clear that the harsh environment is what made the difference.  Part of Paul’s eventual plan to take over the Imperium himself is to neutralize the Emperor’s forces by making Salusa Secundus “a garden world, full of gentle things” (481)—a much pleasanter place for the former Emperor to retire in peace, but no longer a source of formidable warriors.

Arrakis, like Salusa Secundus, tests its people rigorously, winnowing out the weak, toughening up the strong.

Prison Planets and More

We wouldn’t choose to live in so taxing an environment—which is why the population is generally conceived as being there not entirely by their own choice.

Jerry Pournelle’s “CoDominium” future history postulates a future in which a number of worlds are settled by political prisoners and other riffraff who are sent there by the combined U.S.-Russian world government.  Some of the toughest fighters come from Tanith, a demanding jungle planet that is, as Wikipedia puts it, an “infamous dumping ground for transportees.”

Tom Godwin, The Survivors, coverAs a kid, I was fascinated by a Tom Godwin SF novel called The Survivors (1958; also known by the cheesier title Space Prison; reprinted in the 2003 collection The Cold Equations & Other Stories).  A Terran colony ship is waylaid by the Nazi-like Gerns; the useful emigrants are taken as slaves, while the remainder (“Rejects”) are marooned on what the Gerns mockingly describe as an “Earth-type” planet—Ragnarok, with extreme climates, 1.5 times Earth’s gravity, and fantastically dangerous wildlife.  Driven by the goal of avenging themselves and their people, the abandoned colony of “rejects” survives across the generations despite its hardships.  When they finally encounter their nemeses again, the colonists’ descendants have become so formidable that they succeed in overrunning and capturing a Gern battleship.

In a smaller way, the colony planet of Grayson in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series reflects a similar situation.  Grayson started out as a group of settlers seeking a far-off home for religious reasons.  But their ideal planet turned out to have so high a concentration of heavy metals in the environment that indigenous life was poisonous and it was impossible even to live in the open air.  The realities of interstellar travel in that period made it impractical for the settlers to simply abandon the colony; in effect they were stranded by their own incautious choice.  While the Grayson people start out in the second Honor book as a cliché of religious intolerance, Weber’s perspective gradually shifts until they are regarded as tough, honest allies.

James H. Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub future history hints at the notion of an entire approach to human civilization based on a similar principle—especially in the 1968 novel The Demon Breed.  But that’s a more involved topic for another day.

Herbert’s and Pournelle’s notion of “transportation” to inhospitable climes as a punishment, archaic as it may seem, harks back to actual British practices in the 17th through 19th centuries.  The British colony of Australia, the destination of many a transportee, still retains (at least in American mythology) the air of a land where hardship breeds self-reliance & sturdy independence (“Where women glow and men plunder”), as both expressed and satirized in Crocodile Dundee.  TV Tropes’ Death World page actually has a separate section for “Real Life:  Australia.”

Real-Life Analogues

In the real world, we intentionally create harsh environments to toughen up specific groups.

Military “boot camp” is the most obvious example.  I’ve never gone through armed forces training myself, so I can’t speak from personal experience.  But it seems clear that basic training is made intentionally demanding so that the recruit becomes accustomed to hardship and hostility, able to function despite adverse conditions.  We may not have a separate planet to host those conditions, but we can create a closed, artificial environment for the purpose.

Harvard Law School classroomLaw school provides a much less intense case.  The first-year “acclimatization” to law school involves legendary stresses and challenges.  Of course first-year law students are far better off than military recruits, and even the famous pressures of old-time curricula (as described in the 1971 novel and 1973 film The Paper Chase, or Scott Turow’s 1977 One L) had probably diminished by the mid-1980s, when I attended.  But classroom interrogation by the “Socratic method” certainly seems to be designed, in some respects, to intimidate and unsettle the student.

There’s a reason for this.  Most lawyers will find themselves in practices where they face strenuous and unfriendly opposition, whether in court or at the negotiating table.  If you’re not used to that kind of situation, you’ll have a hard time holding your own.  A lawyer has to learn to perform in the give and take of argument, without losing his cool.  The classroom experience is simply the first step in learning how to do this:  beginning to build up the calluses, so to speak, so we don’t crumple at the first sign of opposition.

I have a notion (again, without personal experience) that a doctor’s residency period may serve a somewhat similar purpose.  Doctors in this stage of practice work traditionally long and stressful hours.  It’s possible that this experience is itself a form of training for the emergency situations in which a physician may find herself, taking life-or-death steps under pressure.

Conclusion

In a much broader theological context, it’s sometimes been suggested—in what might be called a “forge of souls” theodicy—that evil in the world has the function of building character in a way that could not be otherwise achieved.  In some sense, the universe as a whole may be a training camp of sorts.

While the “boot camp world” idea isn’t likely to deal with the problem of evil all by itself, it does provide science fiction writers with a way to push human beings to their maximum potential—creating the larger-than-life characters and institutions that make our fantastic stories so striking, even more than gee-whiz technology and exotic settings.