The collective hero?

In Uncanny magazine, Ada Palmer and Jo Walton write about “the protagonist problem“. In stories, who has “the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything?” Who possesses that quality which makes them the one to lead the action, to advance the plot?

“Think of the formula for an action team,” they write. “There might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and…the protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow.”

(One of the ways we know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is that she is the one to kill the principal villain. Max, imprisoned as the start of the film as a “blood bag” for his valuable universal donor’s Type O blood, serves the same purpose at the film’s end, when his transfusion prevents Furiosa’s hard-won victory from costing her life).

Palmer and Walton argue that it’s “harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.”

If we feel that we are not protagonists in a world which has them, we may experience

imposter syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunting, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.

This feeling also causes us, Palmer and Walton argue, to believe that mundane activities such as grassroots organising and even voting lack the power to truly change things, as they do not seem “heroic”. To believe real life has protagonists is to succumb to talk of heroes and villains, the conspiracy theorist’s belief that some secret plan underpins the state of the world, and the notion that acting like a character in a book, film, or videogame is the right way to address the world’s problems.

For those who not only accept that there are real-life protagonists, but believe themselves to be cast in that role, the consequences can be even more troubling: “recklessness, power trips, and […] the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you.” Palmer and Walton give the example of people who were not COVID deniers yet felt that their gathering wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem; the rules didn’t apply to them.

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The Important Thing Is Elsewhere

The Family Tree

Before all this, I went to my grandfather’s house in Spain. I’d never really liked it. It wasn’t the house he’d lived in as I grew up, which was just down the road from the new place. That had been the house of memories, the place where my grandmother had died before I was born.

He bought the new place when it was time to find a smaller, more manageable property, as he entered his eighties and I my twenties. I worked with him on both houses, helping him to do up the old one and improve the new. I painted walls white and coated tiles with red rubber sealant; mixed cement and ferried endless wheelbarrows of it to wherever he was working that day. He chided me for my cement mixing technique, for the way I handled a paintbrush or a pickaxe, the way I clambered up and down ladders and scaffolding, fetching tools and materials. It was the happiest time.

He died, digging over the garden of the new property with a rotorvator, when I was 23. He’d have been glad to go that way; he’d always talked of “falling off his perch” rather than a dreaded slow decline, and even when we were working together on the new place, he’d still pull stunts like climbing into the tree he was pruning, clinging to the branch above him while standing on the one below, which he was sawing off, jumping up and down to speed the process.

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#NotEnoughSciFi: To Write Like A Woman

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

Girls who loved the strangeness of pulp SF have grown up and seen that strangeness as a tool for inventing futures where women are free (or become free).

– Joanna Russ

I was excited to discover that Gwyneth Jones has just written a book about the American feminist scholar and science-fiction writer Joanna Russ.

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Summer Reading, Summer Viewing: Film and Fiction

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and that means holiday season for many of us.

I’m a pretty voracious reader at any time of year, but I squeeze in one or two extra books when the days run longer and vacations slow the pace of people’s work emails. And a trip to the movies takes you out of the heat and out of your head, with an air-conditioned spell in the world of someone else’s projected dream.

Inverted Manhattan skyline from the cover of Fleishman is in Trouble
The flipped city of New York, from the cover of Fleishman Is In Trouble

My summer recommendations are two very different works of art about New York, one old and one new, both offering prisms through which to look at how we live together today. Read more

#NotEnoughSciFi: Feels, Facts, and Reason

#NotEnoughSciFi is an occasional series looking at works of science fiction and fantasy which I think might be useful for organisations, institutions, companies and communities which are trying to get ready for the shape of things to come. See previous entries here.

These days, it can feel as if reason, facts, and truth themselves are under assault. As if the institutions and professions – the academy, journalism, research, librarianship – which have allowed many of us to understand and discuss the world on common ground are beleaguered.

In pop culture, can we find new ways of imagining these figures for the coming world? Do science fiction, fantasy, and the study of our society overlap and can this overlap help us?

I’ve just finished a couple of books which turned out to converge in weird and useful ways: William Davies’ Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World and Una McCormack’s production history and critical response to a 1980s BBC TV serial, The Curse of Fenric. Read more