Arclight is... #9

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

**Arclight is about the dark side of The Greater Good**

Oh, how I hate that term.

Why would I hate something that is, by name, both great and good? Because, in fiction, it's often neither of those things.

We all know the story. A wizened, old mentor seeks out the orphaned chosen one in order to inform him (it's always a him, right?) that he's the only hope for humanity. What follows is a grand adventure wherein the hero is trained for battle against evil forces while keeping friends and family (if he finds them) at a cautious distance because they're distractions or potential weakness. But the mentor has a secret - he's not training the hero to fight evil; he's raising up what he believes will a ritual sacrifice. When he finally reveals this to the hero it's with an air of mystical purpose - grand ideas of duty and honor that never quite manage to incorporate free will. You see, the mentor can't couch things in terms of "request." He has to make them "demands."
By making the hero fixate on the quest as something he “must” do, there's never an occasion to realize it's something he “wants” to do. There's no choice presented... but the choices still exist.

The hero can choose to switch sides, if he wants. He can find himself a significant other and make the best of the time the world has left. He can get stinking drunk and pretend he doesn't know the doomsday clock is ticking. He can even choose to do nothing but convert oxygen into carbon dioxide until the whole thing's over and done. But, and this is the important part, he can still CHOOSE to save the world.

A real hero will be presented with all their choices and still pick the one that ends in victory.

Marina, the heroine of ARCLIGHT, is in a bind. She’s a refugee who has endured something so horrific that her mind retreated, locking her memories away to protect her from them. Without that reference, she has to rely on those around her to tell her who she should be. But the more of their beliefs that she tries to assimilate, the less right they feel to her.

It can be difficult, especially for kids, to stand up to a crowd and not be swayed. When the overwhelming majority of those around Marina believe that sacrificing her will buy them safety – they want to choose for her, and to make her feel ashamed, even selfish for disagreeing. They want her to believe that her life holds less value than theirs, simply because she’s an outsider, and they say so.

If person (or group) A volunteers to suffer and/or die so that person (or group) B gets a better lot in life, then that's their right, but a group tagging something as "for the greater good" too often devolves into a shaky rationalization of fear and a willingness to barter with a life that's not theirs to give.

I wonder if any of you are familiar with Ursula LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". This is the plot summary from Wikipedia:

In the story, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are intelligent and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the city's one atrocity: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens should be told of this upon coming of age.

After being exposed to the truth, most of the people of Omelas are initially shocked and disgusted, but are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worth it. However, a few of the citizens, young and old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

And THAT is the problem with the idea of The Greater Good. Who chose for that child? Why someone with no choice? Why not a volunteer. If the end result is so noble, and so understandable - so acceptable - surely there was one person among the population who would take that child's place voluntarily. Only, no one ever does. Even those who leave the city rather than face a life bought with innocent blood don't try to save the child from his fate or take him with them.

This concept is nothing new in sci-fi or fantasy. (You could probably write a Master's thesis on the subject using just Dumbledore.) 

Good intentions often lead down disastrous paths because ideas don't accept the rigidity of reality with ease. But the thing about this concept of "Greater Good" is that it's unprovable. You can't say that by choosing this person over that, that the outcome will be better than if their roles were reversed. Is it really progress if, in the smaller population chosen to suffer for the greater, you sacrifice the (wo)man who will one day cure cancer to prolong the lives of one hundred afflicted with it?

It was important to me that Marina find a voice to speak for herself, and that she gather the strength to use it. And it was imperative that she define herself before deciding if she’s someone she’s willing to lose.

2 Chiming In:

Jenny said...

Master's thesis on Dumbledore... (*mentally makes note of this future goal*)
I can not tell you how much I both love and hate this series of Arclight explanations (though I only hate it because it makes the anticipation for Arclight so much worse). Marina sounds like a complex, yet relatable character battling far more than just the threat of mysterious (read: please tell us more about the Fade!) creatures, but something far simpler, yet infinitely more complex.
I need this book now!

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