I just finished Juli Zeh’s book In Free Fall (Dark Matter in the UK, and although I’m not doing a cover comparison because this post isn’t actually a review, the British cover wins and will be counted as such in my end-of-year tallies), a book that seems to assume a moral stance I can’t get on board with: If you are being blackmailed to do a murder, the fact that you then do murder doesn’t count. In my opinion, yeah, it definitely still counts. I had other problems with the book (started very strong; ended less strong), but I had a particular problem with this assumption, and it started me thinking about moral stances in books and problems thereof.
Take Lolita, a book I truly love. The morals of the protagonist are repugnant, to the degree that some readers find them rebarbative and give up on the book altogether. But the morals of the author are fairly clearly aligned with ours, which is what makes even the most upsetting scenes in the book readable for me. (I’m ignoring here the insane critical stance of Robertson Davies and his ilk, which take Humbert’s claim that Lolita is a temptress at face value. Hush your face, Robertson Davies; the grown-ups are talking.)
By contrast (since I’m taking cheap shots), my problem with the Twilight book isn’t actually that the characters are silly and gender-regressive. It’s that the author has demonstrated on more than one occasion that she has no idea that she’s writing silly, gender-regressive characters. There’s no corrective for them; the people who say “Hey this is unhealthy” are not taken seriously. It’s the lack of self-awareness on the part of the author that bothers me so much.
As is my custom, I have been fretting about being bothered by something like this (not in Twilight, because Twilight is garbage, but in In Free Fall and books like it). Isn’t part of the point of reading to get inside someone else’s head who thinks different thoughts in different ways than you do? Am I so close-minded that I won’t read books by people who believe things different to what I believe?
You know that legal objection that sometimes lawyers say on lawyer shows? Objection, not in evidence, that one? I think that’s my problem. I am a generous suspender of disbelief, if the author knows what disbeliefs she’s asking me to suspend. Lev Grossman’s Magicians series takes place in a world that is very much like our world, except they have some different books from us, and some people can do magic. Fine. But the earth still revolves around the sun, and it’s still a dick move to cheat on your girlfriend. I am happy to read a book in which the sun revolves around the earth, but The Magicians is not that book and cannot toss in a casual mention of the sun’s circular path around the earth without doing some work to explain what’s going on with that.
It is just the same with morals. I’m happy to read a book that takes place in our world that argues that killing someone because you were coerced to do it is morally justified. I’m happy to read a book set in some other world where everybody believes that killing someone because you were coerced to do it is morally justified. But until the argument’s in evidence one way or another, it just feels like the author doesn’t have control of the ship. Nothing says “I have control of this ship!” like some other character calling bullshit on the protagonist’s legitimate bullshit.
(Hey, guys, remember that time Hermione told Harry he had a “saving-people-thing”? That was a good day, wasn’t it? Or, I mean, that was an awful day and I cried and cried, but it was good when Hermione articulated “saving-people-thing”.)
Where are y’all on moral disconnects between your own brain and the brains of fictional characters?