Terror and Power
A happy new year to all of you!
January has just begun to have its dreary, invasive way with us as I write this blog. The festivities are a headachy memory. Our resolutions are tinged with an unspoken cynicism; memory of past failed resolutions. Depression or caustic nihilism await… So. Let’s see what I can write as this planet begins to hurtle once again around the sun.
This might have been a blog about Terror in the sense of the horrific, about horror writing blending with fantasy. It might have been a blog about Power in the sense of systems of magic, or forms of authority in fantasy writing. It is neither. This blog is about Terror and Power in the sense of Terrorism and Power. Asymmetrical conflict. Like the nightmare that has caused a diaspora for the people of Syria, here in our nightmareish real world… …Did I mention, Happy New Year?
Terrorism is fear exercised as a weapon through violence or the threat of violence. More specifically, it is a tactic used where the targets are civilian non-combatants, designed to provoke outrage, notoriety and, well, terror. We normally think of terrorists in terms of small, armed ideologues. Thanks to our relationship with the Middle East here in the West, we tend to think first of Al Qaeda and more recently ISIL, partly because our media (understandably) focuses our attention there whenever terror is in the news. However, terror attacks can and are carried out by large and powerful groups or countries, as well as small cells. And some people accept certain attacks on soldiers as being acts of terror as well.
Terrorism in fantasy or SF writing can’t help but recall the real world. Data informs us that neither religion nor geography dominate terrorist activity. Contrary to the expectations of most people, it is political ideology that most frequently drives people to shoot or bomb non-combatants; extremes on the right or left of the traditional political spectrum. Religion, when it is involved, adds a powerful layer of motivation, but is by no means the primary factor. The primary factor, I argue, is Power.
Data informs us... oh come on, I’ve got to lighten the mood somehow…
In fantasy and SF it is common to see asymmetry in conflict. The good guys are often outnumbered and outgunned by the bad guys. The antagonist is most effective when he or she or it threaten to totally overwhelm our hero or heroes. We like to see the struggle of an underdog. Even in more nuanced examples of the genres, where good and bad are not so plainly outlined, it is typical to see sympathetic characters outmatched and in peril. The enemy have more men, more resources, more Power.
Commonly we balance this scenario by giving our protagonist power of their own. It might be spiritual power, such as The Force in Star Wars—have you guys seen the film yet?! Do it!—or arcane knowledge like a word of power, or it might simply be knowledge itself—the alien mothership is vulnerable to computer viruses, there’s a super vulnerable exhaust port, etc. In any case, this device, magical or otherwise, is the not insignificant tool that we writers use to balance the power wielded by the opposition.
Now. Say I take that away. Leaving my outskilled and outnumbered protagonists with no hidden nature magic, no dragons to ride, no plans obtained by bravely deceased Bothan spies. Giving them no more than weaponry and a few people who know how to use it. I’ve just created a truly asymmetrical conflict. Now I know, that unless I plan to strain your credulity as a reader beyond breaking point, there’ll be no victory for my good guys. If they fight openly, they’ll die. Lucky escapes are acceptable to a point, but luck is a cheap tool if overused.
Now. Put yourself in the unfortunate shoes of such a character. You can’t fight the soldiers. They’re too strong. If you want to fight the enemy, you’ll need to pick on the weaker ones. Bureaucrats. Maybe politicians. Men who maybe don’t carry weapons to work with them.
At this point, your character is contemplating terrorism. Even though the actions of the enemy might mean that they’re totally evil—even if the politician is a SF/F version of Bashir Al Assad, someone who hangs on to power by chemically bombing children—it is still terrorism. I say this not in moral condemnation, but to make a point.
The point is this: Motivation doesn’t affect whether or not an attack is terrorist in nature. It’s the tactic that defines the word. Whether your character is doing it because Talos wills it, or because their people have been slaughtered by the other side, or because they first inflicted terror attacks on you… it doesn’t matter. Which brings me to my second point.
Terrorists believe that they are good people. That their cause is just. In some cases their cause may even be just. It is the action that is an atrocity. See, in the real world, I’m a pacifist. As a fantasy writer, I’m a genocidal maniac. I have one character—not yet in print—who is a flawed and idealistic hero, albeit one who commits acts of terror. His motivation is the ending of slavery, of oppression and the suffering of innocents. His tactic is to blow up businessmen, their ships, their homes…there is perhaps a reason why this character is not yet in print.
Terrorism is an alarmingly sensitive topic. Writing about it is dangerous. It is likely to be misunderstood or misrepresented. So write about it. Subvert the basic expectations of your readers. Inject nuance. Raise troubling questions. Horrify the reader with their sympathies for characters who do terrible things for beautiful reasons.
Because both Terror and Power thrive in a world without nuance. Without shades of grey and without troubling questions. Terror frightens us into accepting a black and white illusion of the world. Power exerts itself to make us accept its version of such a world. Sometimes it even uses Terror to get that message across.
Both Terror and Power are dangerous forces. Literature is meant to explore and even tackle dangerous forces. I strongly believe that fantasy and SF are best placed to take on this task. After all, we wouldn’t want to leave such a challenge to ordinary fiction, now, would we?
Happy new year. Write bravely and try to stay off any lists…
Michael-Israel Jarvis was born in Cambridge, brought up in Bishop's Stortford and moved to Great Yarmouth in his teens. He got his degree in Creative Writing at the University of Northampton and returned to Great Yarmouth with his wife, Katie.
Michael-Israel writes principally for Young Adults, which is what he intends to be until he's very, very old. Further explorations of the genres he prefers to write in throw up fantasy, adventure, coming of age stories and more. If possible, he prefers to write in a way that bends the distinction between different genres. Why shouldn't the superhero trope take place within a fantasy novel? And however serious a book is, shouldn't humour weave its way in?
Michael-Israel chose to go the route of Independent Publishing after observing the increase in sales of eBooks and a move towards indie expression in general culture. In early 2015, after self-publishing three books through Amazon, Michael-Israel was accepted by Booktrope Publishing, an international publishing company with a unique model.
Booktrope offered the expertise and structure he needed (much like a traditional publisher) but also offered a system with far more creative control and better royalties, as well as a system of cooperation at the heart of the professional team. This was the perfect middle ground that Michael-Israel had been dreaming of, and he was delighted to sign with them to republish his previously independent work.
Booktrope published Gravedigger by Michael-Israel Jarvis in November 2015. It is available on Amazon.com and .co.uk as well as through Barnes & Noble.