April 23, 2007

Desmond's Teleological Suspension of The Ethical-- Or My Novel?

A few weeks ago I had used a Lost storyline to explain  my own view that we pick our own identities, rather than have them given to us through either genetics or the environment.  I made Desmond the Abraham in Kierkegaard's Fear And Trembling.

The crux of the episode and the analogy is that Desmond thinks he can see the future, and see that Charlie will die.    But Desmond then makes a vital moral step: he decides that it is also his responsibility to keep this character alive. (Quoting myself:)

The real question is why Desmond actually believes such a choice exists.  How does he think he knows the future?   Anyone else in his shoes would have come to a very different, more logical, conclusion: this is insane.  What, he can predict the future?  Worse: what, he's the only reason Charlie is alive?  He's so-- necessary?  Isn't that narcissism?

If Desmond knew he could predict the future-- if it was a fact that he could predict the future-- then saving Charlie would have little moral heroism.  Any fool a step up from absolute evil would have tried to prevent a horrible outcome if he knew for certain what was going to happen.

What made Desmond worthy of admiration was, exactly, that he did not know for sure he could predict the future. He took it on faith that he could, and then proceeded to live his entire life based on this single, faith based, assumption.


That was Feb. 15.  Strangely, I just saw last week's episode, in which Desmond turns out to have once been a a monk, and he has a discussion about Abraham and Isaac with another monk; the wine they make is named Moriah; and later Desmond explicitly references the test of faith-- straight out of Fear And Trembling. 

I suppose this could be a coincidence. 

Another possibility is the writers read and and love this blog and have gone and reshot future episodes based on my ideas.  HA!

Another possibility is I write for Lost.  HA HA! 

But the final possibility is the most likely, and it has less to do with Lost and more to do with the direction of our fiction.

Pre 9-11, fiction, and especially sci-fi, had a distinctly post-modern flavor.  The main character wasn't really a person, but reality-- that it was wrong, or hidden.  This culminated in the Matrix.  The important concept wasn't altering reality for some purpose; it was that reality itself was a fabrication, the Demiurge hiding real reality behind a fake one.

The story goes that Darren Aranofsky (director of Pi) and Jared Leto walked out of the Matrix and asked, "What kind of science fiction movie can people make now?"  The point was that the  postmodern slant, cyber-realities, etc, were done as well as they could be. So, too, CGI.  From now on anything else would be coattail riding. (Think how Pulp Fiction degenerated into Go and 2 Days In The Valley.)  The genre was finished.

So what's next?  Well, for Aranofsky the answer was the mind (see The Fountain), but I'd suggest an even broader answer: ideas.  The next genre of sci-fi, or fiction- has to be about the conflict of  ideas, identities.  

If I was going to write a novel-- and who says I'm not?-- I'd take advantage of our societal narcissism, our search for identity-- and, more importantly, for excuses why we have certain identities; our fear of death manifesting as age-postponement; and the decline of truly meaningful relationships to write a sci-fi novel about what really keeps us linked to each other.

The operative question would be: if you could be anyone, had unlimited power, what would be the ethical system you use to make choices?  Who lives, who dies, who suffers, who doesn't?  How do you decide?

The first element would be Faith.  So, with a parting wave to postmodernism, the protagonist can see the future or alter reality, except that he's not sure he can do this.  Worse, every time he alters reality by avoiding a future he has supposedly seen, he creates a new future he didn't predict-- but this is, of course, no different than normal life.  In other words, by avoiding the future he predicted, he negates the proof that he saw the future.  So he has to have Faith that he has this power, in the absence of any evidence. The protagonist of my book won't have any objective evidence that he is right or doing the right thing, he simply will have to believe, to decide, that he's right.  It has to be identical to, say, psychosis.

In Lost, Desmond still has objective evidence that he predicted the future, even though it gets altered; he sees an arrow; they did talk about Superman; the parachutist looked the way he foresaw it.  So this isn't exactly a leap of faith.  Similarly, if Abraham really knows God exists, then sacrificing Isaac isn't wrong or even strange-- God wants, God gets.   

Unlike Desmond, who has to decide only if he should save Charlie, my character would have to both decide he can see the future, and also that it is his responsibility to act on it.  This brings us to:

The second element, Duty. In making these decisions and accepting these beliefs-- altering reality along the way-- he'll have to establish a hierarchy of good and bad.  What is he supposed to do?  Does he have any duty towards anything?  For the plot, this will require some symbol, metaphor.  A good one might be a piece of jewelry-- some object which changes depending on the chosen duty. It's a ring, it's a sword, it's a bandage, etc-- it's the same "object" that he carries, but it changes.

The third element is Rage. When you believe something that no one else believes-- especially if you believe you are somehow better, or even different, than others; and if others directly oppose you in this belief, the inevitable consequence is rage.  How to depict this?

The fourth element is Love. The negating force for Rage.  This character will need to identify what he loves, and how-- platonic, romantic, etc; a plot-trick might involve altering reality and therefore altering the character of his love (for example, a woman he loves may later become his sister, etc.)

To make the reader share the magnitude of the protagonist's Faith dilemma-- in order to ensure that the reader does not "suspend disbelief" and automatically buy into the protagonist's powers (the way we have with Desmond,) you'd have to write the book from the perspective of a second character, who describes the story of the protagonist.  You should never actually get to interact directly with the protagonist, you should never actually hear him speak, only this second character.   This way, you're never sure what to make of the protagonist or his adventures. 

Preliminary thoughts, anyway.  Looking forward to the next Lost and JJ Abrams stealing my ideas.  ;-)