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The myth of heroism

(I am scarce around here because I am simultaneously grappling with impending burn-out—I'm 240,000 words into a 300,000 word project, which is to say, neariy 800 pages into a 1000-page story, and it's hard going because my natural length is closer to 30,000 words—and trying not to scream myself hoarse with rage because politics. (Ahem. That is: we swim in a media environment that is designed to act as a potent neurological depressant, the various incumbents are currently covering possibly the most important election campaign I've lived through, and about two-thirds of them have a partisan agenda: the cognitive dissonance is getting to me.) But anyway: happy fun blog thoughts, or at least not overtly political blog thoughts, now follow.)

Where do heroes come from?

I will confess that I find it difficult to write fictional heroes with a straight face. After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?). And people who might consider themselves virtuous or heroic within their own framework, may be villains when seen from the outside: it's a common vice of fascists (who seem addicted to heroic imagery—it's a very romantic form of political poison, after all, the appeal to the clean and manly virtue of cold steel in subordination to the will of the State), and also of paternalist authoritarians.

But where does it come from?

I've been reading a lot of superhero fiction lately (The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, Turbulence by Samit Basu, the Velveteen books by Seanan McGuire, to name but four: I'll even confess to Carrie Vaughn's superhero spin-off series, and others besides) and pathologically failing to get around to reading Supergods by Grant Morrison—I am remiss, and my ability to absorb dollops of theory after a hard day of scribbling is very small ... but it seems pretty damn clear that the superhero archetypes hail back to the polytheistic religions of yore, to the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian pantheons and their litany of family feuds and bad-tempered bickering. (And is it just me or are half the biggest plots in superhero pre-monotheist mythology the punch-line to the God-Father (or occasionally one of his more troublesome sons) failing to keep his cock to himself, and the other half due to a jealous squabble between goddesses that escalates into a nuclear grudge-fest until suddenly Trojan Wars break out?)

We have this in common with our 5000-years-dead ancestors: we're human beings, and our neural architecture hasn't changed that much since the development of language and culture (unless you believe Julian Jaynes—and I don't). We still have the same repertoire of emotional reactions. We still have a dismaying tendency to think it's all about us, for any value of "it" you care to choose. We fall for a whole slew of common cognitive biases, including a complex of interacting heuristics that make us highly vulnerable to supernatural beliefs and religions. (The intentional stance per Dennett means we ascribe actions to intentionality; confirmation bias leads us to assume intentionality to natural events because this is something that's been bred into us throughout the many millions of years of predator/prey arms races that weeded out those of our ancestors who weren't fast enough to correlate signs such as lion prints at the nearby watering hole with other signs like Cousin Ugg going missing and realize there was a connection. So our ancestors looked on as lightning zapped another unfortunate Cousin Ugg, felt instinctively that there had to be a reason, and decided there was a Lightning God somewhere and he'd gotten mad at our tribe.)

We have other biases. We look at people with good skin and bilaterally symmetrical features (traits indicative of good health) and we see them as beautiful (hey, again: we're the end product of endless generations of organisms that did best when they forged reproductive partnerships with other organisms that were in good health), so obviously they've been blessed by the gods. And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin ...

This isn't just a fictional trope. Look at the studies of physical appearance and pay levels in business: the taller you are, the higher your earning potential, and the fatter you are (fat is currently associated with sloth and greed—both vices) the less you earn. (Again, look at US presidents: they're all freakishly tall, and it's very common for shorter candidates to be weeded out earlier in their party primary selection process. The POTUS is a hero role—the father of the nation and all-protector with the power to throw nuclear fireballs or send Reaper drones to slay the tribal enemies. No surprise that candidates for POTUS have to look heroic, inasmuch as this is possible when there's a threshold age for entry of around 40 years and the uniform is a lounge suit.)

But back to fiction: we also have the reification of good and evil. People who believe in such a dualistic eschatology often find it quite hard to explain just what constitutes good or evil; as the judge said in the pornography trial, "I know it when I see it". I say that it's entirely an artefact of where you stand; good is what I think is good, evil is what people who disagree with me think is good. The inability to separate subjective detriment from objective detriment is at the root of a lot of our social failure modes: from morality legislation along the lines of "this is no good for me, therefore we must forbid everybody from doing it", to the blood feud. It's a very handy tool for constructing the plots that underlie narratives of human tragedy, as long as you don't take it at face value (in which case you get paper-thin ugly caricatures of villainy battling it out with two-fisted pretty-faced righteousness, and you just know in advance how that is going to end).

Okay, simple thesis: superhero fiction and imagery is very largely a throwback to an earlier age, to the clan-based hero/villain narratives of polytheism, the great tragedies of lust, betrayal and revenge. By giving the protagonists of fiction supernatural powers we can amplify the drama of their confrontations: turn up the gain on the emotional nuances, present with dramatic immediacy and impact questions about philosophy—the will to power, the limits of moral behaviour—that are for most of us, most of the time, remote abstractions. All of this is a major tool in the arsenal of the fantastika, allowing us to examine these themes of empowerment and morality in a contemporary or alternate setting without the handicaps of excessive realism (as with hard SF) or the other problematic issues of genre fantasy (do you pick high fantasy, with the distancing and frequently questionable cod-mediaevalism of its settings, or urban fantasy, with its raft of cliched vampire and werewolf lore?) ... to some extent the cold war spy thriller also enabled these fantasies of super-agency, by placing mundane trenchcoat-wearing office workers at the fulcrum of terrible forces, but it was a clumsy and indirect approach, more reminiscent of the form of Lovecraftian horror (as I've written elsewhere). Giving the agents and antagonists personal superpowers (as Lavie Tidhar does in "The Violent Century") works so much better at highlighting the human consequences of tragedy.

Superhero fiction emerged in its modern form in the 1920s and 1930s, at much the same time as science fiction. (I think it's no coincidence that these forms emerged just as mainstream literature decisively turned its back on the fantastic, while ongoing accelerating technological change and the social tensions of the Great Depression and the rise of duelling totalitarian ideologies took hold on the popular imagination.) At times it was used for much more experimental work, but from the early 1950s onwards the dead hand of the Comics Code Authority crippled its efficacy as an expressive fiction format in American literature, with particularly detrimental effects on the depiction of female and ethnic minority empowerment (no, seriously, click that link: Saladin Ahmed has done your homework for you and there is stuff there that you probably won't believe). But from the late 1970s onwards the effects of the CCA—and, in the UK, the Obscene Publications Act (1958) (which gave the police extraordinary powers to seize and destroy anything they deemed "obscene", with the onus on the accused to prove that it wasn't with their liberty in jeopardy if they took the case to court) began to fade. And since then we've seen, first, the flowering of graphic novels (permitting long form story arcs to progress and develop, with character studies far more detailed than the previous norm in weekly or monthly 16- or 24-page comics), and subsequently the adoption of some superhero tropes in SF/F written fiction, and the huge boom in the Marvel and DC movie franchises.

The big movie breakthrough was probably the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman movie, a big budget film that was groundbreaking in the way it handled both storytelling and production values for what had hitherto been perceived by the film industry as "kids stuff". And I don't think it's a coincidence that 20-30 years later we're seeing a boom in literary fiction that uses with the tropes of superhero/supervillain comics.

Novelists don't really hit their stride until they reach their late 30s to 40s; the generation who grew up with post-Superman movies and the likes of "V for Vendetta" and Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" were ready to take the rich source material of modern mythology seriously in a way that most of their elders (honorable exceptions like Kim Newman notwithstanding) were not. We're probably still 20-30 years away from a superhero novel winning the Booker prize, much less the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I wouldn't write the idea off as fantasy; the re-legitimization of the art form into the mainstream of literature is visibly on-going, and its assimilation is probably proceeding faster than that of SF—a spiky, chewy, unlovable form that is hard for the humanities to approach. (The tools of hard science fiction are much trickier and slipperier to handle than those of the fantastic, because the cultural divide in our educational systems deprive many of the people following the literary and cultural track of the tools they need to engage with science and technology effectively. Whereas myth and legend comes naturally to the hands of people whose education, even if it doesn't directly engage with the Greek and Latin classics, is pervaded by the writings of the literary elders who did.)

As for me, I'm writing this blog entry to keep track of my thoughts on the subject for another matter: the afterword to Laundry Files #6, "The Armageddon Score". Which is complete in first draft, and will be published in July 2015, and deals with the matter of superheroes. Because in today's fast-moving hyper-colourful world, a literary character study of a middle-aged civil servant's mid-life turmoil, marital breakdown, and career crisis really needs Dolby surround sound, spectacular special effects, and lots of skin-tight lycra. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. (It started with two elevator pitches: A character study of a middle-aged female civil servant's marital and career breakdown (with super-heroes), and—the action-oriented version—Bob's exes form a superhero team: together, they fight crime. Make what you will of this, I'm saying no more until this time next year.)

175 Comments

1:

I got lost during your exposition. "Hero" is not the same thing as "superhero," at least by the definitions I use.

2:

Good essay, really look forward to seeing how this works its way into your fiction - but a superhero novel won the Booker in 1981!

3:

Typo alert:

...superhero novel willing the Booker prize.

(Now to read it all again, and follow some of the links. Lunchtime has been declared.)

4:

Speaking of superheroes, have you read Worm?

http://parahumans.wordpress.com/

5:

No surprise that candidates for POTUS have to look heroic, inasmuch as this is possible when there's a threshold age for entry of around 40 years and the uniform is a lounge suit

Barack Obama wears the hell out of some very fine suits.

6:

The confusion comers from the fact that "hero" is used in at least three different ways in English (and some other languages).
First, it is often just used to mean "protagonist" - i.e. Hamlet is the hero of "Hamlet", or Elizabeth Bennett is the heroine of "Pride and Prejudice".
Second, it's used in its original Greek sense of "warrior" or someone with outstanding physical qualities. Usually such people were semi-divine, like Achilles, and they are the obvious models for today's super-heroes. (Stories of heroes played the same role in classical popular culture, so far as I know as superhero stories do today).
Finally, it can refer to very ordinary people who are required to behave in an unusually courageous or ingenious manner, which they could not have reasonably anticipated. So in "The Lord of the Rings" Frodo is a hero in this sense, whereas Aragorn is a hero in the second sense. Aragorn has spent his life fighting monsters and evil forces, Frodo hasn't and never expects to.
Heroes do exist in real life of course. As regards middle-aged civil servants, well, there's the case of Jean Moulin. A middle-aged French civil servant, he left occupied France in 1940 to join De Gaulle in London, and was sent back in 1942 to organise the Resistance, which he did very successfully, in conditions of great danger. He was betrayed and captured by the Germans a year later, and tortured to death without even revealing his own name. Even after his death, hardly anyone knew who he was. That's heroism as I understand it.

7:
We're probably still 20-30 years away from a superhero novel winning the Booker prize, much less the Nobel Prize for Literature

Nitpick: The Nobel Prize is awarded to authors, not novels. Arguably it has already been won by a fantasist in the shape of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but he had to pretend he wasn't doing fantasy in order to sneak past the judges, in a way that may not be necessary in a few decades' time.

8:

"We're probably still 20-30 years away from a superhero novel willing the Booker prize"

Kavalier and Clay was certainly worthy, though not strictly speaking a 'superhero' novel. http://www.amazon.com/The-Amazing-Adventures-Kavalier-Clay/dp/1480537209

See also, Jonathan Lethem's 'Fortress of solitude'.

9:

Doris Lessing, the 2007 winner of the Literature Nobel, wrote science fiction, and said, in response to those who criticised her for it:

"What they didn't realise was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer."
She was also the Writer GoH at the 1987 WorldCon.

10:

I'm not sure I understood where you were going with that Charlie; it seemed to start off with "where does it come from" and end up with fantasy winning the Booker.

Anywho, a thought for you.

As you say, conventional hero vs villain tends to come down to perspective much of the time - and most 'villains' don't see themselves as such most of the time (I'm sure Murdoch sleeps soundly in his bed - the sleep of the just).

The best I could come up with as a differentiator was empathy. To be 'evil' you have to lack empathy with others - to be self-centred and narcissistic. Anyone with true empathy will find it difficult to harm others "without a good reason" (which is the definition of a different perspective). Only those without empathy can do true evil - hurting others without a valid excuse.

Of course, that's a pretty good definition of most heroes - they are self-centred, self-assured and usually not too aware of the bigger picture.

So, maybe the myth of the hero is the tale of the evil villain - told from the other side and with characters which are virtually the same in motivational terms. They are evil.

11:

Worm was insanely awesome, just be prepared to devote a lot of time reading it...his new serial Pact is going good so far:

http://pactwebserial.wordpress.com/table-of-contents/

12:

Yes it did.

Yet if we're willing to consider for a moment that magic realism is something other than fantasy dressed up in the clothes of literary fiction, then I'll note that Midnight's Children is also a novel about growing up in India and Pakistan while those newly independent countries also grow into themselves as entities. These elements are arguably more important than the fantastic bits, and almost certainly were in the awarding of the prize.

In a classic superhero story the climax will revolve around the hero(es), usually with them punching someone (after optionally outsmarting the villain). Rushdie's novel doesn't do this; the superpowers become less and less relevant. If it were generally agreed to be part of the development of superhero stories it would be a deconstruction, like the ones that became prominent in the mid-80s.

Sarcastic TL;DR Midnight's Children is clearly the inspiration for Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns

13:

Interesting, I didn't know that. Among other recent winners, Seamus Heaney took a lot of inspiration from Irish and British mythology -- for instance he wrote a highly regarded translation of Beowulf.

14:

Side comment: "The News - a User's Manual" may be a counter-agent to the media's brayings.

15:

Well, there's my honeymoon reading sorted.

16:

You might look to Mary Midgely's book "Wickedness" for a nuanced view on the evil versus authoritarianism thing.

17:

You know... I think you could make a superhero story work in the Saturn's Children world. The people there are hackable enough.

18:

Saladin Ahmed's tweeting of his Comics Code research over the last couple of months is one of the best things I've read in a long time. I was wondering if you've seen Orphan Black? It's definitely making reference to superheroes and Greek mythology, and Tatiana Maslany is brilliant in the 11 main and supporting roles she plays. Also Person of Interest, which reminds me often of the Halting State world.

19:

Orphan Black and Person of Interest are TV shows, so no, I haven't seen them. (I don't watch TV drama. Life's too short.) (Forms of narrative fiction that take multiple tens of hours to absorb? Sloooooow!)

20:

So does "The Armageddon Score" take place before or after "The Apocalypse Codex"?

21:

"The Armageddon Score" overlaps with the last week of "The Rhesus Chart" (both take place a year or thereabouts after "The Apocalypse Codex"). Note: "The Rhesus Chart" is told by Bob. "The Armageddon Score" is told by Mo.

22:

"even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?"

Except for the name on the label, that's exactly what many people do. Why did Lee Atwater have a deathbed repentance, if he truly thought he was working in the service of good?

Superheroes... I think you're reinventing the wheel here. Hero studies are rather old: see Lord Raglan 1936's book, for instance, which follows an earlier strain of literary anthropology. The superhero is a commercial instantiation of this type, derived from the pulp hero, a history that has been picked over repeatedly.

The use of mythical tropes is deliberate, not archetypical, added by specific comic book creators. It's a manufactured polytheism, used to sell consumer goods -- mainly movies, toys, and a very few comic books -- based on those intellectual properties; and even this very materialist view of the superhero has been mined to death by writers inside and outside the genre.

The rise of the superhero movie is an interesting story, but I don't think it has much to do with evolutionary psychology or a turn of movies away from the fantastic. Rather, it was an untapped vein of fantasy already storyboarded for a director. The Christopher Reeves Superman was important, but it tapped into a preexisting vein of good will for the character -- what they call a high Q-rating these days. The American market already had Superman cartoons, television series, a radio show in recent memory, and millions of comic books distributed at non-specialty retailers across the country.

(Note how one company of the superhero duopoly has done a much better job in promoting its intellectual properties over the other, even though the other has more traditionally iconic figures. It means people aren't responding to the myth. They're responding to the soap opera.)

23:

First off: Bob's exes form a superhero team: together
Uh-oh, hope the splits were amicable.

Second: I don't think my thoughts are relevant. When it comes to superheroes (something I was never much into*) I tend to think of how so many of the classic characters** seem to be Jewish Assimilation stories; secret identities and 'passing' in society, strong sense of justice (Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Justice! Justice you shall pursue), and other things I can't think of this early (8am). Not original thoughts to me, but I haven't read much on the subject.
And no, I haven't gotten around to reading my copy of "Kavalier and Clay", though I liked the Chabon I have read.


*except TV Batman when I was young --6 year old Halloween costume. I despise the whole Dark Knight thing.

**created by Bob Kane (Kahn), Siegel & Shuster, Stan Lee (Lieber). Lee's characters always struck me as particular examples of this, they're so goyish.

24:

I think the biggest reason for writers to use superpowers (or their cousin, intrinsic magic powers) is to make specific characters indispensable. Otherwise the it becomes increasingly hard to understand why the hero doesn't hand the problem off to the professional, well trained and equipped emergency responders.

25:

"(as I've written elsewhere)" — hahaha. Indeed you have.

26:

As someone who watched literally *zero* hours of television for 30+ years, I am sympathetic to your stance. I have to tell you, however, that there are now some shows which are truly worth the time/life investment because they are truly excellent.

27:


After all, we are all the heroes of our internal narrative (even those of us who others see as villains: nobody wakes up in the morning, twirls their moustache, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of EVIL™ today?).

What, not even Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate?

I suspect that nobody wakes up in the morning, shaves, and thinks, how can I most effectively act to further the cause of GOOD™ today? either. In such a situation, heroes and villains alike are more likely to be thinking about breakfast (which reminds me of a tempter's tactic in the Screwtape Letters, by which a philosopher fell ...).


And the gods bless those who are virtuous, because virtue (by definition) is what the gods bless you for. So beauty comes to be equated with good ...

Ah, but, identifying "the good" and "virtue" is projecting modern values on to the past. Before the Judaeo-Christian ethical system, paganism didn't do that; the classical philosophers and dramatists had to wrestle with the dissonance that arose out of the clash between their aspirations and the traditions they had received. I can recall how, as a pre-teenager with my own set of values, I was indignant at the fate of Laocoön and his innocent or at any rate uninvolved sons during the Trojan War, who were destroyed by sea serpents sent by partisan gods for warning the Trojans about Greek trickery with the Trojan Horse - Laocoön was right both ethically and in the engineering sense, but it got him killed. (There is a different story as well as that one; as wikipedia puts it, "[t]he two versions have rather different morals: Laocoön was either punished for doing [emphasis added] wrong, or for being [emphasis added] right" - and here "right" and "wrong" are not opposites but "ethically wrong" and "engineeringly right", a second order disagreement.) Piety was about staying engineeringly right with the gods who could blast you and your sons with you like drone warriors avant la lettre, and - like staying engineeringly right with the U.S. government - only about being "good" to the extent that being "good" and staying engineeringly right with the gods were aligned (thus, what the Athenians did to Socrates - and why they did it, as a precaution to preserve the state against divine wrath).


... So beauty comes to be equated with good; and this plays itself out in our fictions, where our heroes and favoured protagonists are mostly handsome or pretty and the villains are ugly as sin ...

Not universally. I suspect it may be culture-specific, because the French comic book heroes Astérix and Obélix - superheroes, by virtue of the druid Panoramix's magic potion - are short and fat respectively (notice how I brought out an alternative sense of the word "virtue" there).


... SF—a spiky, chewy, unlovable form that is hard for the humanities to approach.

I can remember, many years ago, seeing a one man play based on the life of Rudyard Kipling. It was pretty good apart from one thing that struck me as completely false: the Kipling character comments on a long passage in The Devil and the Deep Sea, which he describes as tedious and then "explains" as irony that some readers missed. But I had read that, and it had struck task-oriented me as riveting (almost literally - it's about how the ship's machinery was responding while the story's action was unfolding; Kipling uses that idea elsewhere, too, but in that other story he anthropomorphises the parts of a ship that come together to become an anthropomorphised ship, with the steam as an anthropomorphised witness). Those damned humanities people simply couldn't get it that some people - no doubt more common in the Victorian era - could find anything of the sort at all interesting, not being directly about people at all (but machinery is as common here as people are in London). The playwright should at least have read Kipling's own The King (in which "... all unseen / Romance brought up the nine-fifteen", and so on), and maybe compared and contrasted that with Masefield's Cargoes, before deciding to impose his strained and apologetic reading on his audience.

28:

To a large extent, yes, but I think it was Robert Graves who said that the best modern equivalent to the Greek Myths would be the adventures of cartoon characters. If you actually look at the subject-matter of almost all gods and heroes legends, it's pretty mundane and often disreputable - soap opera with swords and sorcery, in many cases. And well before superhero comics, there was a very long tradition of both heroes and villains with magical powers in popular literature going back to the Middle Ages. The superheroes of the late 19th century, for example, were people like Sherlock Holmes, an amoral but super-intelligent being gifted with supernatural powers of insight, who fortunately happened to be on Our Side against the forces of gathering darkness.

29:

It was Robert Graves, but Graves was a serious nut.

While it's a spectrum, popular culture differs from folk culture in two important ways: first, the cultural product is usually a consumer good, and second, it's usually a good that can be produced or reproduced on an industrial scale. Superheroes are an industrial product. Perhaps they hit certain archetypes, Jungian or otherwise, but again, the more iconic and mythic superheroes are not the ones which are pulling in the money at the box office.

30:

Sherlock Holmes, an amoral but super-intelligent being gifted with supernatural powers of insight

TO borrow from the BBC's modern adaption:-
Sherlock (to a police officer) "Get your facts straight. I'm not a psychotic but a high-funcitoning sociopath!"

31:

well darn, I was hoping the marriage falling apart was related to the events of "Fuller Memorandum" and had been resolved. Now I am emotionally invested in worrying about the health of a fictional character's marriage

32:

"marital breakdown"? You're breaking Bob and Moe? Good gods, why?

33:

I think you are missing an important element of the hero mythos, which is the protector/sacrifice element that is missing in the traditional Classical gods and heroes, who were largely a self-serving lot. "The most noble fate a man can endure is to place his own body between his loved home and the war's desolation," to quote Heinlein.
Traditional superheroes are more than just godly, good-looking holders-of-privilege; instead of using their abilities to amass even more power and privilege, they spend their time and energy protecting others. That element of self-sacrifice may be something inspired by Christian thought (i.e. the good shepherd dying for the flock), or simply a throwback to the recognition of the value of the warrior class in early societies, namely protecting said societies from attack (and also, of course, to attack and rob outsiders).
Sure, the selfless sacrifice meme can be deconstructed in a myriad of ways, and "protector of the weak" can easily be perverted into "protector of the status quo" and all its inherent evils, not to mention the paternalistic, noblesse oblige theme underlying it all). But that self-sacrificing protective element, I think, is a fundamental part of what constitutes a hero. It also depends on a better definition of evil than yours: evil is what brings harm to one's people (which may be extended to one's family, tribe, nation, species, all life on Earth, and beyond).

34:

I thoroughly enjoyed Supergods, but it may be tangential to your concerns right now (although it has plently of good historical material and spends a lot of effort on correspondences and the cultural ramifications of superhero mythos). The main thesis (if there can be said to be one) is that the nearly-Manichean moral black-and-white area in certain superhero stories (specifically, the way this dominates Superman stories) is justifiable on the grounds that superheroes are aspirational figures, and that furthermore, a lack of a moral grey area is not a criticism that really applies to comics in general and the superhero genre specifically since the end of the reign of the comics code authority. This being Grant Morrison, the book is also semi-autobiographical and spends a great deal of time wading through his personal metaphysics.

There's something to be said for harnessing the hero archetype and then using it to subvert itself. Morrison is probably notable for doing this (although he tends to, at the same time, play with ideas about identity; if PKD had any 'traditional' heroes who ended up possibly being merely delusional losers, that might be a good description of what some of the notable Morrison works attempt). But, there's so much momentum behind the hero that this can backfire: the Harry Potter series seems to have failed in this particular way (minor spoiler alert: everyone we thought was an unambiguously good character in the first few books ends up being revealed as a total jerk, but not necessarily *evil*). Attempts to subvert the hero narrative in sensible and realistic ways (Heroman had good intentions but was under a mistaken impression, and as a result, his actions had terrible repercussions) tend to take on a mythic dimension (Heroman was deceived by the dark lord, and became a pawn in his evil plan) or end up losing their potency because of other related memeplexes (Heroman was deceived and therefore his actions were not his own; Heroman had good intentions and that's all that matters; the Heroman who did this was an evil crazy clone called Antagonistman, who Heroman must defeat in single combat).

Even attempts at putting a completely unheroic character in a heroic role tend to backfire! Ian Fleming claimed that his James Bond character was intended to be a boring bureaucratic man -- an accountant-type with very little personality, to whom things merely happened. I'm not sure when he gave up on that (after all, James Bond became fairly proactive in the books as well), but it certainly never made it into the films. For an example a little closer to home: Harry Dresden is introduced as the hardboiled detective type, down and out and alternately given the role of the trickster or the jerk with a heart of gold. By the time five or six books pass, he has taken the role of one of the authority figures that antagonized him in early books, and fairly explicitly plays the role of hero in several contexts (including playing the role of a war hero).

The easiest way out seems to be to start with an explicit anti-hero (it took a long time to wear Batman down to his Adam West variation), or to throw away characters before they can degrade into hero archetypes. The identity games that Morrison uses are an alternative, but when they are used in the wrong context they can make the material seem excessively dark (a single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer used this idea, and it's probably the most legitimately frightening episode of the series), whereas if they aren't taken far enough they just degrade into a part of the same heroic narrative form (as when the crew of Odysseus's ship are turned into pigs -- it doesn't have the same kind of kick, because we don't see the transformation from the pig's perspective, so it comes off as something closer to an injury).

35:

Now I am emotionally invested in worrying about the health of a fictional character's marriage.

And you're not the only one.

36:

I followed your suggestion... and Saladin leaves a *large* hole: underground comix of the sixties and seventies, which weren't "mainstream", but easily and widely accessible... and were *certainly* disrespectful of the Authorities.

mark "where's my copy of Fat Freddy's Cat, now...."

37:

Its a bit older than Christianity: compare Virgil's Aeneas to the Odysseus of the Odyssey or the Achilles of the Iliad. For that matter, compare Homer's Hector with his Achilles.

I agree that there is a great difference between the egotistical hero and the self-sacrificing hero, although the later can be perverted ("even though he would prefer to live a quiet life, Leader nobly does horrible things in order to protect BeliefSystem").

38:

Not "super" but wasn't Kim a hero - also learning to cope & start with comoing of age - with a mystic Tibetan monk thrown in for good measure - Nobel Prize for literature, no less!

Oh: CJCarella @ 33
That element of self-sacrifice may be something inspired by Christian thought ...
Err ... lays of Ancient Rome, MaCaulay ... "dying for his country & his gods" (Or something like that) ?

P.S: It is to be hoped that the Bob/Mo split is temporary ... but the idea of Mo & Nahri ( I had to go & look her name up!) forming a team, though ... could be interesting

39:
particularly detrimental effects on the depiction of female and ethnic minority empowerment (no, seriously, click that link: Saladin Ahmed has done your homework for you and there is stuff there that you probably won't believe)

Further reading: Google the phrase "You can't have a Negro." tl;dr it's about the straw that broke the camel's back for EC Comics (widely viewed as the most innovative publisher in comics history, and which the Comics Code Authority set its sites on destroying from day one).

The story's also well-told in The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu, but he gets a few details wrong (his version ends in the oft-told but wrong claim that Mad became a magazine to avoid the Comic Code -- actually, Mad became a magazine because Harvey Kurtzman wanted to run a magazine; avoiding the Code was a happy coincidence).

I've been putting off reading Supergods too. I really should get to it one of these days.

I like Morrison's approach a lot. He writes complex superhero stories without confusing complexity with whining and violence. (Not to say there isn't plenty of those, too...)

40:

Yup, we're back to my earlier comments about different understandings of what a hero is. The problem is that the traditional view of the hero as defender of the people (that you find in Homer for example) has to coexist on the one hand with the idea of attacker and destroyer of other people (which is logically implied) and on the other with pretensions to the defence of some kind of universal "good". This leads to all sorts of interesting questions, such as: were the Waffen SS who held off the Red Army in 1945 to enable German citizens to escape to the West heroes?
In practice, and for all these pretensions to universality, the "heroes" we value are those that protect us and reinforce our values, whatever they may do to others.
The superheroes themselves, on the other hand, are fairly obviously the descendants of the figures of gothic romance (Dracula etc) but ideologically recast to be defenders of society and its values, rather than potential threats.

41:

Hmmm . . . the dissection of evil. My two-bit assertion is that people who misrepresent things in the knowledge that doing so will advance a hidden agenda of their own at the expense of others publicly stated interests most definitely know they are doing 'evil'. So is Dick Cheney knowingly evil? I'd say yes. Some clueless (but for the sake of comparison, non-racist) FOX news consumer? Possibly not.

Say, aren't there some handy TV tropes for this one?

42:

Villians aren't always ugly, or even unheroic. Consider the "Girl Genius" stream of graphic novels. Some of the handsomest or most beautiful characters in it are the villians. Some of the less handsome (by my standards, anyway) are "sort of" heros. (In this case I'm thinking particularly of Baron Wulfenbach, who is the ruler of Europe. He did it by force, but he established a just peace, and nearly everyone against him is a villianous power-seeker.)

Of course, things are a lot more complex than that summary, but there's clearly no congruence between beauty/handsome and virtue...and just consider the JagerMonsters. They are intentionally monstrous, but are loyal, brave, honest. Some of them are even smart. Their only real defects are a love of violence, and a need for an authority to follow. They don't really seem to fit anywhere on the hero/villian axis. (E.g., if it seems appropriate, they are quite willing to exert their love of violence on each other, with both sides enjoying it tremendously.)

A lot of this is due, of course, to the artistry of Phil Foglio (who has a long history in science fiction artwork). I remember back in John W. Campbell's Analog (I don't think he goes back to Astounding) his work was always recognizable.

OTOH, this may be an exceptional case. I'm definitely not well read in graphic novels. (In text novels I tend to build my own mental imagery, which isn't always closely backed up by the text.) In Usagi Yojimbo, when I followed it, ugliness was more closely associated with poverty than lack of virtue. I can't think of anything else in the way of graphic novels.

So. Back to text. Specifically the Lensman series. Admiral Hayes was not described as particularly handsome. Worsel was described as particularly ugly. Kinneson was handsome. Clarissa, Virgilia, etc. were beautiful, but so were the Lyranians (except that they didn't pay attention to their hair), even if they refused to admit it. It's true that the Eich were considered extremely (indescribably) hideous, but Nadereck was never described as either beautiful or handsome...merely indescribable. And, of course, cold.

So even in the most classic of space operas good==beauty, vile==ugly doesn't hold up. (I could also have drawn on the Skylark series to make the same point, but that's more obscure.)

I think your point should really be that there's a cultural stereotype of good==beauty, bad==ugly, and that poor writers tend to write in stereotypes.

43:

It's just struck me that superhero comics have the same bug/feature that OGH has talked about SF having in the past — so much of it is wrapped up in reinterpretations and references to previous work.

Somebody reading Morrison's Supergods or Ellis's Authority without having absorbed large chunks of DC, Marvel, et al is — to some extent — reading a very different work from those who have.

For example I can't imagine that reading Frank Miller's Dark Knight would have the same impact on somebody who wasn't, at least, basically familiar with previous interpretations of Batman & the DCU.

You can see Marvel/DC see that it's a potential failure mode in engaging new readers because of the effort they put into continuity reboots, and entry points for new readers into existing continuity.

44:
I've been reading a lot of superhero fiction lately

You might wanna give Ales Kot et al's Zero a whirl. Sort of Bourne / Harry Palmer / Superhero mashup - light on the superhero. Different artist each issue. I've been enjoying the heck out of it.

45:

The original Holmes certainly thought his judgement was superior to law and custom, and the challenge was foremost amongst his motivations. But he was not totally amoral; he despised criminals for their crimes, especially blackmail.

46:

I can't imagine that reading Frank Miller's Dark Knight would have the same impact on somebody who wasn't, at least, basically familiar with previous interpretations of Batman & the DCU.

One of my minor regrets is that I never got to give a copy of The Dark Knight Returns to my late grandfather. When visiting me circa 1990 he referred to comics as "funny books" and I realized he'd been away from the medium since the Golden Age; I would have liked to show him that the state of the art had progressed since he'd last looked, and thought that a more sophisticated Batman story would demonstrate the point. Sadly he passed away before I got the chance, but I would have liked to know what he thought of it.

47:

What your fellow SF writer the late Frank Herbert had to say about heroes:

Don't give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero's facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero. And sometimes you run into another problem.

It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are imbalanced — in a word, insane. … Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.
It is the systems themselves that I see as dangerous.

48:

And this is what Frank Herbert had to say about charismatic leaders:

"The mistakes (of leaders) are amplified by the numbers who follow them without question. Charismatic leaders tend to build up followings, power structures and these power structures tend to be taken over by people who are corruptible. I don't think that the old saw about 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' is accurate: I think power attracts the corruptible."
- Frank Herbert, BBC interview promoting Dune

49:

Then you are missing out on the Golden Age of Television:

- The Wire

- Breaking Bad

- Game of Thrones

Just because its TV doesn't mean its bad

50:

IIRC Lex Luthor's biggest complaint about Superman is that he made us lazy and dependent on him.

Why bother to design and build a system to protect Earth from a massive asteroid impact when Superman can just fly up and push it away?

Luthor is right, an actual Superman would be disastrous for humanity.

51:

daniel, why should we have to design and build an asteroid deflection system? I know why in real life we should, but have to? If we could magically teleport asteroids somewhere else rather than hitting us, why not use that as well? Superman would just be another vector for that.

Superman can't cure Malaria, or stop plate tectonics. Can't cure us of electing idiots to political office, or avoid global warming. These things we have to work at.

52:

Don't have any academic/scientific references to back this up but ...

Recently - because there's so much of it around - I've started thinking about super heroes and arch-villains as addicts/junkies. They always start small, but soon become addicted to a particular behavior because it's JUST SO REWARDING TO (whatever) ...and then most can't help but derail in some way depending on their own particular make-up whether genetic, environmental, or whatever. The specific addiction could be excitement/adrenaline rush, adulation, emotional power over others, etc. Seldom is the payoff purely material for either the heroes or the villains. This is the only place where there's a huge partial emotional pay-off that's socially acceptable or justifiable along with an at least as great emotional price paid.

As far as why our species has heroes and/or gods ... Right now, I prefer to think that it's probably because one of our specific species traits is the ability to empathize .. theory of mind. This trick/trait was so successful in helping us outwit our prey, allow us to live and learn from other humans, singly and in groups and create civilizations, that it was only 'natural' to approach how nature/the universe works in the same way. So, basically, religion is an explanatory tool - the earliest analogy or metaphor.
AFAIK, no other species has gods.

Historically, when do heroes, heroic tales become most popular? Is it a backlash against the current powers that be who may be urging something else entirely as the preferred behavior and sentiment .. such as religious or technological dogma?

53:

I'd argue that the modern superhero archetype is a combination of two pieces. Only one of which is really rooted in the hardwiring of our brains.

The hardwiring part is that we, humans, are basically pack animals. Not unlike dogs. So we're programmed to see Alphas or leaders in a certain way. We (speaking very generally) respect them, defer to them, admire them, aspire to that same Air Of Confidence.

(The way we talk about them when they're not around is a different story.)

The not-so-hardwired part is the Good-vs-Evil part.

Once upon a time, heroes would have been the champion of our tribe. No Good vs Evil, just Us vs Them, and the hero was fighting for our side, against those other guys. This is the Trojan War - the other side weren't the Forces of Darkness, they were just, you know, the other side. This kind of hero is a lot like the star quarterback of your high school football team. (Doesn't matter which flavor of football we're talking about.) No special moral virtue, but he helps your team win, and he gets status for that.

In recent centuries, though, the notion of absolute Right and Wrong has really caught on, and gotten interwoven with the conflict between Us and Them. So, we expect heroes to champion not just our tribe, but immortal virtues - because we believe in those now, and very often that's part of how we see our tribe.

54:

Heroic fiction plays on humanity's natural egotism. No matter what the genre, the protagonist is usually the One Person Who Really Matters, and everybody else just doesn't matter. Harry Potter, Jack Bauer, Luke Skywalker, Sherlock Holmes, and Clark Kent all have different justifications for why they Matter when nobody else does (except the villains, of course), but they're all of a piece. Superheroes just turn natural human ego up to 11.

People will do almost anything to avoid facing the fact that none of us is more important than the rest of the teeming masses.

55:

However, all of these heroes pay a price: they can only succeed if they slip on a mask or accept outside agency in order to become some godified self. The superpower is just whatever attribute the author/society thinks is needed to resolve whatever the greatest/most pervasive imbalance is in that universe/worldview.

Also, a keen dispassionate intellect is not enough, but brute force combined with the right emotional attachment/perspective sometimes is.


56:

I have a wider perception of heroes.

Sure, US superheros are included, but so are Junior Woodchucks form the Disney comics done by Carl Barks, and so are Paul Bunyan and Kuloscap / Glooscap:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glooscap

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bunyan_%28lumberjack%29

And then, you have this mythical Greenland Inuit hero whose spelling I can't get right: Qajarvassuq or Kjarvasuk or some other variant.

They come from a deeper place than the one you define now, although they certainly include it.

57:

"Again, look at US presidents: they're all freakishly tall"

An exaggeration for effect? Abe Lincoln was the tallest at 6'4". Obama is 6'1". Taller than average, to be sure, but hardly a freakish height.

58:

Here's an article about the ethics or values being shown in the latest crop of superhero movies:

http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-5-ugly-lessons-hiding-in-every-superhero-movie/

Yeah, it's an online magazine called Cracked. Yeah David Wong uses more harsh language than most. He's still an interesting writer.

59:

David Wong is also the author of John Dies at the End and sequel This Book is Full of Spiders, which (besides being pretty good ripping yarns in their own right) are interesting deconstructions of many modern horror and SF tropes.

60:

Yikes. Till the last line of the main blog page's article foreword, I was reading it as "the myth of terrorism".

61:

Hi Charlie,

I'm not sure that I accept you initial premise of heroic action as a conflict between primeval archetypes. An alternative model of the hero is Joseph Campbell's mono-myth of the "Hero's Journey". When you look at a range of protagonists from the Dark Knight to Frodo of the shire you see that pattern of journey, transformation and return emerge again and again. This also seems to be cross cultural trophe as you see the same story arcs from Prometheus to The Fool of the World, to Buddha.

Likewise I'd challenge your assertion that there's no 'absolute' evil and it's all a matter of POV. There's a body of evidence that indicates that humans do share a species concept of what constitutes good vs evil else how do we explain that similar concepts of 'good', like the golden rule, emerge in the worlds cultures (usually in religions) time and again? We also seem to have a highly developed sense of what constitutes justice, and injustice (See Paul Slovics work on jutice as a factor in societal risk perception). Restorative justice being again traditional meat for the heroes or superheroes struggle.

So do some people wake up and go "Let's go out and do some EVIL(TM)?" I kind of think that's a false dichotomy. Good and evil is more like a spectrum. Some people are just ethically inert and unthinking. The banality of evil seen in concentration camp guards who were 'just doing their jobs'. Then some people know it's wrong but do it under some duress, the folk in Milgram's experiment who continued to up the voltage as requested, while their pulse and BP told how stressed they were getting. Then there's people who know it's wrong but choose to do it anyway as an act of existential will, evil in the classical Miltonian sense if you will. Finally there's those who have absolutely no conception of right or wrong, psychopaths and that ilk. So I guess you could say that evil wears many faces.

62:

(It started with two elevator pitches: A character study of a middle-aged female civil servant's marital and career breakdown (with super-heroes), and—the action-oriented version—Bob's exes form a superhero team: together, they fight crime. Make what you will of this, I'm saying no more until this time next year.)

"Once upon a time, there were three little girls who all encountered the occult. And they were each assigned very hazardous duties - "

Cut to scene of Mo playing her violin against zombies. Cut to scene of Ramona seducing some poor victim. Cut to scene of Mhari [REDACTED UNTIL RHESUS CHART PUBLISHED]

" - but I've taken them all away from all that and now they work for me. My name is Charlie."

63:

Jay
Diagree profoundly with:
People will do almost anything to avoid facing the fact that none of us is more important than the rest of the teeming masses.

Most of the time, maybe / yes ... but, sometimes, individuals really do matter & make a big difference.

I often uses a mismatched pair, born 14 years apart.
The older was the son of minor nobility in the extreme provinces, who rose to military power & then turned into the usual mass-murdering dictator. { Though at Estercon last year or '12, he was referred to as a "liberator" bysome deluded fuckwit, who had obviously only read "romantic" history ]
The younger was born into extreme poverty in a mining village, he only learnt to read at about age 12-14, but who changed the world beyond all recognition. His first invention saved many lives & his second (made in conjunction with others who shared his vision) changed the social & physical geography of the planet - for the better.

I've also seen a comparison between the two men named "William Morris" - the latter was a motor-car manufacturer & later educational benefactor - one of many such.
The other, whose childhood home is about a km from here was a unique artist, poet & designer whose work is still with us as an inspiration.

Sometimes, individuals can & do make that astounding difference.

64:

I don't think you can really argue heroic tales have up and down cycles, not clearly. The nature of the hero changes and mutates across the age but the human hero, the idealised leader/role model type, the brave stereotype is always there.

I think, as well, although people outside the normal readership of this blog will find it offensive, I'd argue the mythical/magical loosely defined superhero is always there in most cultures as well too. Before we became a Christian country, and in various other countries, there were a multitude of deities, often with demigod offspring. After the church came to power, we replaced those humans with superhuman powers with saints - men and women so blessed by god they could heal by touch, their bodies would not rot after death and they could perform other miracles. As we entered a more secular age being 'touched by god' increasingly wouldn't cut it and our mythical/magical superheroes came from other places. We might still believe aliens, we'll only buy 'massive doses of radiation' or 'the bite of a radioactive spider' or similar because we know that's the back story for at least 3 characters and I'm sure many more. If you'll accept vampires and werewolves as heroes (and there's chunks of writing out there that certainly cast them that way) then you've got a mystical bite-transmitted disease that pre-date the radioactive spider bite. The other big player, replacing 'evil radioactivity' is mutation.

I guess what I'm arguing is that the form of the superhero changes to suit the times. Their origin myth, their framework and powers, whether they're a welcome part of society or not and more. There may be very short lulls while there's a change between one form and the next, these days while the money-makers are sweating and the story-writers are looking for the next form to grab the public imagination.

But, if you get it right, demigods and saints managed to hold their place for a few centuries each. I don't know that vampires, werewolves and mutants are the right combination for the next few centuries. But a potent mix of disease and sexuality and coming of age taps in to some pretty primal drivers - it's got a decent chance of hanging around. Living forever isn't a driver for me but seems to be for a lot of people. Mutation taps in to worries about what your children and grandchildren might be like for older folks and some nice escapist stuff for younger folks. It's another decent set of primal hopes and fears. I think between them they stand a decent chance of dominating the landscape for a chunk of decades to come.

65:

LOL, yes literally.

66:

I'm not sure they are exactly TV shows in the traditional sense, given that the ability to download and watch whole seasons in a single go (as distinct from the months or years later DVD releases) seems to have led to a narrative style that feels distinctly different (said as someone who hasn't had or watched TV since many years ago). I think of these two particularly as long-form films. Perhaps also I like slowness, like books that keep me thinking for years, which I return to repeatedly.

67:

Superman can't fix the world. Miracleman on the other hand...

Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Become Invincible has a fresh take on heros and villains, and manages to work a Narnian reference into the works

68:

First, I also strongly recommend the cracked piece. Here's why:
I think superhero is far from classical greek and similiar mythology (superpowered beeings do amoral things) and closer to knights tales - stories spun to teach those knights how to behave.
Nowadays, we don't have knights, but we have stories that tell teh rest of us to trust the powerful - see the cracked piece for more details.

And Bobs exes team up? Will his new love have to battle them in the next sequel, a la scott pilgrim?

69:

The most damaging form of "superhero" is the political one - and by that I do not mean Stalin or Hitler, but the "One True Way" ideology that will save us from ourselves. We see it in the West - surely the only True "on true way" is secular liberal democracy! Inside every foreigner is an American trying to get out...

70:

Add me in as another one who's worried for Bob and Mo.

As for Supergods -- Morrison is the best writer of superhero comics of the last twenty years or so, and one of the two or three best writers in comics. What he isn't, though, is a particularly compelling thinker, theorist, or prose stylist, and Supergods is a particularly bad example of this. It tries to be simultaneously a history of the comics medium, an examination of the theoretical underpinnings of the superhero concept, an autobiography of Morrison, and a defence of his employers' less savoury business practices, and fails at all four.

I've seen multiple people describe it as the third best book about Grant Morrison of 2011, which is about the kind of faint praise it deserves.

71:

Once upon a time, heroes would have been the champion of our tribe. No Good vs Evil, just Us vs Them, and the hero was fighting for our side, against those other guys.

I'd tend to disagree on the GvE thing, even back then. One person who's always been despised is the Traitor, or rather, the Traitor in the Camp. And even the Old Testament has strictures about not bearing false witness (against they neighbor). You can take away a lesson in evolutionary psychology if you like, but it seems that most people instinctively realize that using various stratagems to prey on members of your own in-group is wrong.

Yes, even the ones doing the preying.

72:


The older was the son of minor nobility in the extreme provinces, who rose to military power & then turned into the usual mass-murdering dictator. { Though at Estercon last year or '12, he was referred to as a "liberator" bysome deluded fuckwit, who had obviously only read "romantic" history ]

I suspect you are referring to Napoleon. He is regarded as a liberator by many Swiss because he ended Bernese hegemony in Switzerland, though no doubt with ulterior motives. His motives and other things he did elsewhere are not considered relevant by the Swiss, so it is an accurate enough assessment in their own terms.

I can't guess who your other example is.

73:

I don't think we disagree by too much - I agree that people long ago would have had strong codes and condemned those who cross them, I just think that belief in moral absolutes that transcend group identity has grown over time.

74:

I'm going to wait and see on Bob and Mo.

I find I'm invested them as characters but somehow not invested in their marriage. Not sure why but while there are certainly literary couples I'd be devastated to see in marital breakdown, with Bob and Mo it just doesn't hit me that way.

I suspect it's because the model of the books is normal life issues and much bigger things from alien dimensions eating your soul issues. While I don't particularly wish divorce on anyone, it kind of feels like an unsurprising normal life issue to pick on.

75:

When enough people are willing to follow a dictator, which dickhead wins their affection doesn't matter all that much. Similarly, most of the really important inventions and discoveries have been discovered in multiple places by independent groups within a few years of each other.

In very rare cases, a person is simply in the most critical place at the critical time (Stanislaw Petrov comes to mind), but that usually doesn't last very long (last I heard, Petrov was in a trailer park somewhere).

I think Napoleon had it right: the graveyards are full of indispensable men.

76:

Agree about the false dichotomy and the spectrum. I think the picture of evil as somebody who gets up in the morning and decides to go out and do some EVIL is a red herring.

If we look for real-world examples of evil, mostly we'll find cases of "lack of moral constraint". Think of warlords recruiting child soldiers in Africa, or of the North Korean government. They aren't positively looking to be Evil. They just don't care about being Good. And so they pursue their goals in a way that violates a lot of what we (or I, anyway, I won't presume to speak for everyone) consider to be important moral principles.

Yeah, there are serial killers and such, but they're rabid-dog type aberrations, and honestly they're small potatoes compared with the Khmer Rouge or Stalin or Mao.

Ties in with the idea that "all that is necessary for evil to prevail, is for good men to do nothing". If those moral principles are not defended and enforced, we lose them, and the lack of those constraints is what we call Evil.

77:

Heroic epics tend to be the first literature a culture develops, and tend to be pretty similar. Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Susano-no-Mikoto could pretty much trade swords with the guy on their left and trade monsters with the guy on their right without changing the tales all that much.

78:

"To be 'evil' you have to lack empathy with others - to be self-centred and narcissistic."

I'm not convinced by this argument: it's partial or incomplete.

One can have empathy with one's own group society or culture and still be seen as evil by those opposing or without.
Thus, for example, fervent Nazis saw [and perhaps still do see] Hitler as a genius hero who represented and bonded with a very specific set of "beleaguered" peoples; his opponents saw him [or at the very least portrayed him] as the embodiment of evil.

That Hitler may also have been self-centered and narcissistic are somewhat different issues.

If one has grown up in a post-Shah Iran or North Korea then the UK and US are rather likely to seem "evil" - and much the same tags will be applied to whoever is the current figurehead representing those nations.

Good and evil are, to a considerable extent, socially conditioned perspectives. We see our heroes and heroines by virtue of the subtle knife of those embedded cultural lenses, which divide them from us; which seek to block our empathy with the other.

79:

I assumed the second example was George Stephenson, born about 5 miles from where I currently sit, inventor of the miner's safety lamp and developer of steam locomotives.

80:

That's an interesting point: literature.

The first myths many groups tend to develop (and this is based on what I've read of Australian and Native American myths) often seem bizarre, because they're effectively memory palaces. The story of a god of water may be associated with a desert outcrop because--surprise--there's a spring hidden there. A lot of these types of legends are bewildering for us because they're innately tied to a place. Many people are very good at making mental maps, just as they are at remembering stories, and tying stories to those maps is a good way to remembering information. A lot of information can be tied to "remember the story of how Bill got his dumb ass killed by doing that up on Red Mountain?" Some Apaches use this kind of question as a way of telling someone they're about to make the same mistake that Bill made. These stories sound strange and often boring to our ears because we don't know Red Mountain.

You can see this kind of story in places like Hawaii, where Pele's saga of romancing various gods and demigods can easily be read as a metaphor for the volcanic development of the Hawaiian chain, from her first and long abandoned home on Kauai to her current home in Kilauea, and her slap-kiss-slap relationship with Kamapua'a (the Hog Child, an avatar of the vegetation god) is a pretty good short-hand for what volcanoes do to forests and vice versa.

It's in some ways less interesting, but more universal, when we get to myths as literature. In many of these cases, the original information-dense myths have been repurposed to highlight their entertainment value, often at the expense of anything else. For example, Beowulf is a Christian retelling of a set of pagan stories, and I'm willing to bet that the Romans retooled the stories of Hercules at least as much as we've retooled Jesus over the centuries. The universal appeal destroys the particular message, and in the end, we may never know what Jesus of Nazareth was really teaching in the Galilee, because all we know is the reworking of the reworking of the reworking of his teachings.

This is a normal thing, but I'd suggest it's not the "original" purpose of myths. The original myths were a way of helping people live proper lives in a particular place in time. The later, "universal" myths are more fun to read, but they're probably less useful.

81:

If one has grown up in a post-Shah Iran or North Korea then the UK and US are rather likely to seem "evil"

If you've grown up in a post-1953 Iran the UK and US are rather likely to seem evil. Because, you know, they overthrew a democratically-elected social-democratic regime and installed a bloody-handed dictator who tortured and executed his enemies? (And this wasn't the first such "intervention"; just the most recent.)

This basically meant that the UK and US abdicated any pretense at the moral high ground in Iran. And by killing off most rival politicians, the Shah ensured that the remaining legitimate opposition to his dictatorship would be theocratic. Then Ayatollah Khomenei came up with a synthesis between democracy and islamic theology in exile in the 70s, so when the revolutionary tumbrils finally began to roll he, appallingly to our sensibilities, emerged as the leader of the Sans-Culottes-equivalent.

As for North Korea, that's just plain weird (and not in the psychology sense -- "Western Educated Intelligent Rich Democratic" so much as in its antithesis: theocratic hermit-kingdom surrounded by enemies, basically).

82:

Sometimes, true heroism exists Try HERE
( Marc Brunel & his son & their epic struggle in London. )

83:

SOmething went HORRIBLY wrong with the HTML there ....
http://www.londonreconnections.com/2014/king-of-the-underworld-building-the-thames-tunnel/
Direct link ....

84:

Evil is indeed often used to describe way people we don't like act, but that's just an example of the way the meaning of words tends to drift and weaken. Look for the core meaning, and you find a socially useful abstraction.

Basically, the acts which are universally considered evil - random murder, torture, raping children - are acts which would lead to nightmare societies if they became widespread.

[And, before anyone mentions the death penalty. that's not random murder.]

Imagine if anyone you met might to kill you on a whim, and all the bystanders wouldn't so much as tut disapprovingly, just step over your cooling corpse and go about their daily business.

There are doubtless some people who'd love to live in such a world, but not many, and most of them would probably soon regret it if they got their wish.

Having a category for such behaviour is useful, even if it's difficult to define.

We can also usefully consider a closely related concept to evil: malice.

Malice certainly exists. People do sometimes set out to deliberately harm others, driven by hatred or sadism. There's also considerable overlap between malicious acts, and evil acts.

Someone motivated largely by malice and self-interest may not think of themselves as evil, but they will generally be considered evil, if people find out about their motivations, and that's a moderately useful way to categorise them. People like that are a danger to all around them. Labelling them as evil warns people to stay away.

85:

I realise you're arguing from universally accepted evil acts but I've started to work from a definition of evil as the anticipated cost for others outweighs the anticipated gains for others, with a side-helping of continuing to do something when it's obvious that expectations are not being met and actual costs for the others are outweighing their gains is also evil. There's a separate spectrum of how selfless or self-serving your acts are.

Of course, measuring cost is a tricky thing - happiness, health/wellbeing and like certainly need to be rolled into the equation as well as things like money. Long-term gains have to be weighed against short-term costs and the like. Is being annoyed by a wind-farm now better than the effects of global warming?

But, skirting Godwin's Law, Hitler still weighs in as evil. However much good he did and intended to do for the Aryans, the cost to those he classed as undesirables was just too high. People who are attracted to children but don't act on (while very unfortunate in today's society) don't come out as evil, but those that act don't benefit others and do cause a high cost to a number of others so come out as evil still.

Of course there are problems with this. By my own standards I've done things that count as evil, although nothing in that league. I suspect we all have. Is there a critical level at which you become evil? An overall balance? While it doesn't stand up to really close scrutiny, it's still a quick, useful measure for me.

And, I guess it's one where your own values start mixing in to your costs. Personally I consider the death penalty evil. The benefit to others is negligible and the cost is quite high. There's no clear preventative effect, there's a sense of vengeance served rather than anything else IMO. As well as the financial cost of the whole lot, and the craziness we see of appeals and last minute reprieves and hopes raised and dashed, society as a whole pays a harder to quantify cost of hardening itself to kill people. I appreciate there are a lot of other attitudes to this but it's a useful example to apply my system to verbally.

86:

I see Bob Howard as a heroic character-- he puts tremendous effort and takes serious risks to save people he doesn't know. Admittedly, he was drafted at the beginning, but he's developed independent motivation. Am I missing something?

87:

Sure, Bob is a heroic character. He's a card-carrying member of the Nerd Tribe, like his target audience. His main adversaries are Eeeeevil cultists, the insane, and the deliberately unrelatable monsters (seriously, who has considered Bob's actions from a tongue-eater's point of view?). Almost anything he does to stop them is going to be perceived as justified. But that's fiction.

88:

I don't think you can escape from politics here. I think the idea of the hero is an extreme of the halo effect, which is one example of people over-simplifying a situation. If you could write (and sell) fiction which got people thinking in more complex ways about your characters, you would probably influence people to write and think more accurately about real life politicians, which would significantly expand one of the major bottlenecks in democracy - the ordinary voter's evaluations of the politicians they vote for. Since this is a known hard problem, we're stuck with incorruptible heroes in white hats triumphing at the last minute over incorrigible moustache-twirling villains in black hats.

89:

In the comics, a superhero is a person who believes they can solve problems by fist-fighting in their underwear.

90:

I've noticed (probably not uniquely, but I've never bothered to follow up) that many many works of opera have a lot in common with comic book story-telling.

The first time I saw Wagner's Ring Cycle (some 30 years ago) I was struck by Siegfried--he's the Great Hero, but he's also an idiot (and arguably a boor and a lout as well). And I started to realized that many (most?) epic heroes are also idiots--it takes a real lunacy to go out in pursuit of heroic deeds.

Anyway, I love opera, and I think that the comic-book quality of the characters and stories is pretty obvious. Not many people have any problems calling opera great art, though.

Just a couple of thoughts that don't seem to have been mentioned by others on this thread yet.

91:

Superman can't cure Malaria, or stop plate tectonics. Can't cure us of electing idiots to political office, or avoid global warming. These things we have to work at.

He could zap mosquitoes with his X-ray vision surely, at super-speeds sufficient to kill off every mosquito in the world. Then doing the same with politicians would solve problem three. Not sure about plate tectonics and global warming.

92:

Not sure about plate tectonics and global warming.

OK, just realised that for global warming, he could deploy a giant parasol like the one that freezes Scotland in “Snowball's Chance”.

93:

He could zap mosquitos with his X-ray vision

Maybe not. There's an exam question in here, around using quantitative methods to estimate whether superman can kill of all the anopheles females ...

1. Estimate how many female anopheles mozzies there are.

2. Estimate mean distance in metres between anopheles mozzies.

3. Estimate time taken to zap each mozzie, factoring in (a) the speed of electromagnetic radiation in air, (b) target assimilation time (reflected light) and time to zap (coherent X-ray emission) and time to confirm kill (radar pulse?) (NB: assume superman's neural propagation operates at lightspeed and actual processing is via a simple neural network with no back-propagation, i.e. bloody fast).

4. Assuming superman can fly no faster than Earth orbital velocity (at mean surface level), calculate an approximate solution, using the Travelling Saleman Problem, to his flight time between all targets. For added lulz, allow him to zap all female anopheles mozzies within a 5 metre range of one another simultaneously (X-rays are absorbed rapidly by air: honors students may also add a derivative for emission brightness against target proximity to compute an optimal number of stops on the DAG superman is traversing).

5. Given superman's path distance and his velocity (orbital velocity), what will his black body emission spectrum due to atmospheric friction look like when he completes "operation: freedom from malaria"?

Discuss.

94:

Unless it's Silver Age Superman, in which case he'll just use his super mosquito genocide power.

95:

I like it! I think you've just written the follow-up to Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex". By the way, are there any stories in which atmospheric friction has been a problem for Superman?

96:

The trick would be killing mosquitoes and letting the rest of the insects alive. We need the anti-mosquito-life equation.

97:

Assuming superman can fly no faster than Earth orbital velocity (at mean surface level)

This assumption may not be true. Superman's usual flying power seems to need something like levitation, which could (or not) mean the ability to exert at least his weight in force against gravity. If he can flip that 180 degrees, he would able to do a forced orbit. Doing that at MSL would produce even more noticeable results.

(I just finished reading The Trade of Queens on my new Kindle Paperwhite, which I love. Somehow the end of it seems consistent with this discussion.)

98:

"If you've grown up in a post-1953 Iran the UK and US are rather likely to seem evil."

This varies more than one might think. Some of the most pro-foreign-intervention people I've met are Iranian expats who dearly wish the US would overthrow the current theocracy. (From what I understand, most of the populace in Iran is quite secular and moderate, by Western standards, and the current government is largely an artifact of the revolution that has managed a sort of highly restricted democracy.)

Naturally they might change their minds if it were to become a reality. But there are quite a few Iranians who really, really want Iran to be much more like the US or UK.

99:

"He could zap mosquitos with his X-ray vision"

Maybe not. There's an exam question in here, around using quantitative methods to estimate whether superman can kill of all the anopheles females ...

There's a claim that female anopheles mate only once. The males congregate in big swarms and when the females are ready they fly into a swarm....

So Superman could get a big fine net, scoop up a swarm of male mosquitoes, sterilize them with his x-ray vision, and let them go. Each female that never lays eggs is a female as good as killed, next month.

Instead of finding all the females, he only needs to find all the swarms of males.

Next year when there aren't enough males to get a good swarm, will the mosquitoes die out? Likely a few of them mate some other way, and those will tend to breed true, and next year some other method will be needed. But it *might* work. And maybe if they suffer a big population crash other mosquitoes will move in and take over most of their ecological niche, and they may never return to substantial numbers. It *might* work.

100:

Interesting.

I've heard that a majority of Americans want a European-style health care system-- a health care system that they are highly unlikely to get with the plutocratic / oligarchic nature of the current US governing structure.

Should the EU (supported by Canada, natch) overthrow the US government to enable this, and other reasonable laws? It might require targeted death squads to manage American so-called "patriots" who don't want foreigners involved in running their country. I'm sure that such hostile feelings will quickly dissipate, given the obvious good intentions of the invaders.

On second thought, perhaps this wasn't a good idea...

101:

Of the top of my head, I would define heroes as people who do great good, usually involving great risk and/or sacrifice. They often serve as symbols of values that their society holds sacred.

So to me, this is really a discussion about the merits of nihilism. If you are standing outside of all social constructs and don't believe in absolute good or evil, then ipso facto how can you believe in heroes? But if you do believe in good, at least as a social construct, then surely there are a few people who have done great acts of good that serve as your heroes?

102:

(seriously, who has considered Bob's actions from a tongue-eater's point of view?).

There's an impressive bit in Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga (_Pandora's Star_ and _Judas Unchained_) where, after spending most of the first book chronicling an invasion by an implacable and hostile alien force, it switches to the alien's POV (singular, MorningLightMountain), and shows that the xenocidal violence makes sense within its own context.

103:

You seem to have fallen in to the fallacy of the excluded middle, with "absolute good" on one side and nihilism on the other. Most of the rest of us are talking about good as a social construct, but societies aren't seen as monolithic and societies are in contact with each other.

104:

Try Stephen Hunter's "The Day Before Midnight"... a real page-turner. The obvious "heroic" characters, mostly aren't; the "real heroes" are those who do a selfless thing that (unintentionally) turns out to have a disproportionate effect on the outcome. Lots of little things, not fewer bigger heros for a simpler narrative.

To me, that chimes with reality. The things that make a difference often turn out not to be the things we accept, or view as received wisdom. Len Deighton looked at this in "Fighter" and "Blood, Tears, and Folly"

Heroes are those who (in a crisis) act to help others/the group, rather than themselves. This may or may not be in a way that exposes themselves to risk, in order to diminish the risk to others. It is probably in a way that doesn't seek, and often doesn't get, recognition and publicity. Selflessness, and often with the act described by the person who was selfless as "well, it needed to be done, and I was there and able to do it" or "I didn't think about it, I just did it".

105:

OK, fair enough, I wasn't very careful in phrasing in my earlier post. =)

I don't actually *agree* with the idea that the US ought to do that, and if we were talking practical realities, I don't think they would really like the idea either.

My point is that despite the powerful human instinct to cheerlead for their own "team", many people do look at the society they consider home, and say "this is awful - I want us to be more like those other guys".

American college students not uncommonly take the same perspective looking at Europe, interestingly enough.

Afternote #1: that scenario with the EU and Canada overthrowing the US government to install single-payor health care sounds like the sort of satirical comedy movie that just doesn't get made any more.

Afternote #2: "a majority of Americans want a European-style health care system" sounds like a result that somebody did some really creative poll-designing to generate. American public opinion is pretty complex on the topic (and "European-style health care" varies a lot across Europe), but there's a lot of skepticism.

Just as a f'rinstance,

http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/archive/health_care_update_archive/april_2014/37_favor_single_payer_health_care_system

106:

The pedant in me can't help but reply that x-rays would overpenetrate such tiny targets. Heat vision would be a more efficient method, but frost breath used on mosquito breeding pools would be even better.

And, if you ask, I don't know how frost breath works, except to note that Superman seems to have far more lung capacity than his torso size would indicate.

107:

Your examples are pretty much the reason for my suggested definition of 'evil'.

I've never really understood the mentality of someone (usually from the US far right) who can declaim that flying aircraft into the twin towers was "an act of monumental evil"; and then cheer a few months later as a smartbomb hits a skyscraper in Baghdad and blows it apart, straight down the middle.

You'd have thought that a some point the symmetry would have rung some bells?

Saying someone you don't agree with, doing something to 'you and yours' is 'evil' is missing the point and misusing the word. You should be able to swap around the do'er and do'ee and still define it as evil.

Hence why I'd say 'evil' is not defined by the actions, but by the reasons and the lack of empathy shown. The 'final solution' was evil because the jews were seen as animals (to be eradicated) and there was a lack in empathy that any sane human being should feel.

I'll leave it to you to consider the empathetic position of many US right wingers, and what that might reveal ...

108:

Not so much lung capacity rather a combination of super-strength and invulnerability, to be able to breath in and compress a large mass of air, the expansion on blowing it out chills it.

Except these days I prefer the theory that most of Superman's abilities are actually psionic talents (mostly telekinesis) in disguise.

109:

Good vs "Evil" & heroism ....
Traditional christian theology rates "Pride" as the greatest & "cardinal" sin.
Almost, but not quite, IMNSHO.
Is "selfishness" to the point of dominating all other emotions the real definition of "evil" - in that: "Other people don't matter, except perhaps, as a means to my personal ends" ( ?? )
If so, then is "selflessness" ( = ? altruism ) &/or the service of others, often at a cost to ones' self the prime "virtue" ( ?? )

Of course, you get twisted examples of the latter, just to confuse the matter. The vile Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu is a horrible case in point.

Discuss?

110:

This may be true, but nobody likes a foreign invader: change works best if it comes from within. Which is to say, Iran needs another revolution. It nearly got one in 2007, but I'd say that the strident rhetoric coming out of Washington DC under the Bush administration did a lot to shore up support for the regime -- and the invasion of Iraq (a neighbouring majority-Shi'ite state, despite the recent Ba'ath dictatorship) didn't help.

My gut feeling is that the Iraq invasion probably prolonged the life of the Ayatollah's regime by a generation. Yet another happy fun outcome to lay at George W. Bush's feet. (Along with the paintings of dogs.)

111:

I would argue that, in the case of Iran, from 1953 to 1979 probably was one of greater anti-US/UK sentiment in the populace (as opposed to the government) than in 21st century Iran and your post provides good justification why this should be.

Here is my rationale for why this makes sense. It turns out that religious fundamentalists tend not to be very good at running countries (surprise, surprise). The Islamic Republic of Iran is no exception to this tendency. In the Persian world, unlike the Arab world, the very visceral anti-US position of the government makes the sort of notion that America is somehow in control of, and therefore responsible for, every thing the (rather unpopular) repressive government does a non-starter.

Add to this the fact that, for the substantial majority of the Iranian population who are under 40 (Iran has an age distribution which skews quite young), they have no memory of SAVAK or the overthrow of Mosaddeq. I suspect that if you were to say "crushing of democracy" to a young Iranian the first thing that would probably come to mind would be the aftermath of the 2009 election, where protests against electoral irregularities were savagely put down.

Note that the usual caveats apply in that I am talking about the "average" opinion, not suggesting that such beliefs are universally held.

>>Casual Observer- You can see from what I just wrote that my opinion is quite close to the one you expressed, so consider this to be a friendly suggestion (as it is intended). I would avoid relying overmuch on the opinions of the expat community as an exemplar of how thought within Iran runs.

Given the percentage of that community whose expat status is involuntary in one way or another, it would be very surprising if sentiment for Iranian regime change did not run high. For another example of this effect you need look no further than the Cuban exile community in Florida. Again, this does not mean I disagree with your conclusion, merely that I think it prudent to look elsewhere for evidence to back that conclusion.

112:

A number of the Iranian expats who were beating the "let's you and him fight, I'll hold your coat" drum via neocon thinktanks and other groups in the US (Benador Associates, for example) were ex-members of the Shah's government and supporting institutions rather than being simply opponents of the current government in power in Teheran. They're dying off from old age now though while the Iranians continue to hold remarkably fair elections every few years.

113:

I heartily agree that the worst thing the US could do would be to try to topple the Iranian government. Fortunately, this is highly unlikely to be a worry in the near-to-mid future, IMO. My take is that both the electorate and much of the government in the US are under the sway of intervention disaffection very similar to that experienced post-Vietnam war. Note the reluctance of the US to get involved in Libya, or to take even limited and arms-length steps in Syria, and limited appetite for assertiveness in the ongoing Ukraine standoff.

The emergence of the Paul (Ron and son Rand) wing of the Republican party, which seems harken back to pre-1940 isolationist sentiment, rather than the reflexively pro-intervention stance of the late 20th early 21st Century, means that skepticism about use of force is no longer confined to Democrats. This suggests to me that, using "Vietnam Syndrome" as a template, the next decade or 2 there will likely be a lull in adventurism on the part of the US.

114:

I don't see much written about it, but it seems to me that most superhero fiction is by its nature inherently libertarian if not anarchist. While heroes are not actively acting to overthrow the state, they quite often ignore laws, due process, borders, national sovereignty, etc. They are in many ways the ultimate empowerment of the individual over society.

And many supervillians by contrast are actively pursuing authoritarian and totalitarian ends -- just with them at the top. Doctor Doom is the dictator of Latveria, Magneto ended up ruling Genosha and pushing out all normal humans, Hydra wants to create a fascist world government, etc.

115:

More than half of Iran's population is under 35.

US Iranian history did not end in 1979. The US has had sanctions on Iran during their entire lives. The US backed Iraq's invasion of Iran and war from 1980-1988. Then there is Israel.

The US has been profoundly hostile to the majority of the Iranian people for a solid 65 years, basically nobody in Iran other than those favored by the Shah's regime has experienced anything different, not even indifference.

The United States has well earned any ill feelings from the Iranian people.

116:

Whilst I agree, it's hard to see how they can ignore the symmetry of the situation, I have to stop and remind myself of the group of people we're talking about.

By and large the far right in the US is a group of people that ignore the evidence for evolution, global warming, the age of the Earth and the universe and the like because their good book and their preacher tells them so. They decry muslims for their treatment of women, then oppose birth control, abortion and sex education for women unfortunate enough to be near them.

By any standard I can apply they're either complete brainwashed, irrational, evil or insane. Possibly more than one of the above. (By their standards I'm definitely evil but I can live with that.)

Given that, I find it easier to accept they fail to see that when others do to them and they think it's outrageous, if they do it back others will consider it outrageous too. It's just another example of just how lacking in core empathy and humanity they really are. Maybe Icke was nearly right. But it's not the Royals, it's the fundies...

117:

For certain values of "straightforward", which doesn't mean easy, the most straightforward biological way to wipe out mosquitoes (or humanity) is with a "meiotic driving gene", e.g. for mammals like us all you would need to do is genetically manipulate the Y chromosome so that males would never produce viable X spermatozoa, then turn a few individuals with that loose. Unless something else interfered, a Tragedy of the Commons-like mechanism would eventually lead to extinction of all but the isolated populations. This isn't just theoretical; genes like that have been observed in nature, along with other genes that that interfered to prevent extinction, and the first sort were transferred to laboratory populations of a related species to confirm that they would die out - which they did.

What with selective X-rays and so on, we can easily hand wave that Superman could do the equivalent to mosquitoes (I doubt if they have sex chromosomes of precisely mammalian behaviour, though, so he would have to do a bit of R&D first).

118:

Lest we forget, though, the problem is not really mosquitoes (on their own they're a trivial irritant) but Plasmodium Falciparum and P. Vivax (and related plasmodia). They're a whole chunk harder to guarantee elimination of; they cycle through other species and if we simply wipe out mosquitoes, will some other vector emerge?

119:

If you've grown up in a post-1953 Iran the UK and US are rather likely to seem evil. Because, you know, they overthrew a democratically-elected social-democratic regime and installed a bloody-handed dictator who tortured and executed his enemies?

Thanks for this one. It let's me condense my earlier noodlings so I can now say that willful abuse of trust as always been considered knowingly evil.

120:


If you've grown up in a post-1953 Iran the UK and US are rather likely to seem evil. Because, you know, they overthrew a democratically-elected social-democratic regime and installed a bloody-handed dictator who tortured and executed his enemies? (And this wasn't the first such "intervention"; just the most recent.)


This basically meant that the UK and US abdicated any pretense at the moral high ground in Iran.

This is one of those "print the legend" things that has crowded out more precise details. Those are no more creditable for either the U.K. or the U.S.A., but they are muddier:-

- Before Mossadegh's violent overthrow, he had already done a Napoleon III type coup of his own and started ruling as a dictator, locking up opponents or worse in the usual manner, so the U.S.A. was actually overthrowing a dictator and not a democratically-elected social-democratic regime (he manufactured plebiscites to give an appearance of legitimacy like Napoleon III, too, and just as spuriously). Mossadegh had launched his coup when his parliamentary coalition fell apart and he was constitutionally dismissed by the Shah, acting as a constitutional monarch under the Constitution of 1906 (from memory), only instead of going to new elections (as he had on an earlier occasion) Mossadegh threw over his constraints completely. But ...

- ... the U.S.A. had been behind some of the erosion of Mossadegh's parliamentary coalition in the first place, through bribery. But ...

- ... not only was bribery culturally acceptable and par for the course, some of the coalition had switched for genuinely patriotic reasons, fearing that international isolation and sanctions would hurt Iran (which they did). Also ...

- ... the U.K. wasn't behind that latter part, and really only provided background intelligence. The thing is, Britain was geared up for replacing the Shah (as it had done to his father, when he proved risky during the Second World War), not reinstating him, and so had a pretender from the previous Qajar dynasty waiting in the wings. Yes, I know that's like an alibi for murder being an armed robbery on the other side of town, but still. Also ...

- ... the U.K. didn't get any good out of the exercise anyway; it wanted to get back the oil resources that Iran had seized, and sure enough Iran gave (most of) them up after Mossadegh's overthrow - but the U.S.A. actually got them, not the U.K., which shows that the U.K. wasn't a major player at that point. Also ...

- ... Iran was actually morally in the wrong on that oil nationalisation without compensation, in a number of respects: the entire oil exploration had been entirely at the cost and risk of British Empire entrepreneurs (William Knox D'Arcy et al et seq, who had nearly gone broke doing it, and had needed refinancing); the Iranian government and people had provided no unpaid inputs at all but had only undertaken not to interfere; by the standards of the time (early 20th century) the then Shah had been well compensated for his non-interference with both cash and a proportion of shares; unlike the analogous holdings in the Suez Canal Company by the Khedive of Egypt, the Iranian holdings had not been eroded (not that that justified that seizure either, since neither fraud nor force was involved in that erosion, though the Egyptian people had just grounds to seek compensation from their deposed king for the forced labour his ancestor had made their ancestors do to build the canal); and the Iranian interest in the oil fields was due for arms length renegotiation a few years later anyway, so Mossadegh had a contractual alternative open to him anyway if he were acting in Iran's interests rather than his own short term political interests.

So you can blame the U.S.A. and the U.K. for destabilising Mossadegh while he was still legitimate (in a way that matched what some accused the C.I.A. of doing to Gough Whitlam in Australia in the 1970s), even though at that stage they were acting within accepted norms and to recover unjustly seized property. You can blame Mossadegh for seizing the British-owned oil resources, probably under the faulty impression that they had been unjustly taken from Iran since so little direct benefit was then reaching Iran (as opposed to the scheduled deferred benefit), and so blindly destroying all basis for national stability (a fool, not a knave). You can blame Mossadegh for destroying Iranian democracy, albeit with some, but not sufficient provocation (a knave, not a fool). You can't blame the U.K. for what happened later, because it neither gained from it nor had the facilities to do it. You can't really blame the U.S.A. for how it eventually overthrew Mossadegh as such, but you can (and should) blame it for not doing a Glorious Revolution that restored constitutional monarchy but instead making the restored Shah into a dictator who started where Mossadegh left off, i.e. not measurably improving or harming the polity, instead leaving it on the same deteriorating path - quite the opposite to earlier rounds of western pressure, that had led in the first place to the Constitution of 1906 and in the second place to the cutting down to size and bringing within constitutional bounds of the first Pahlavi (who had taken over as a dictator and overthrown the previous dynasty after the First World War, using his power base in the formerly puppet Persian Cossacks once he was no longer under the Czarist thumb - Hasan Arfa's Under Five Shahs is a good if biassed contemporary source).

121:

"sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is." -- Granny Weatherwax (Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett)

122:

Just to be really pedantic the binomial system usually like P. falciparum and P. vivax with a capital for the genus and and lower case for the species.

As for the wider question, it's an interesting one. Hard to be sure without running the experiment but I think probably no, no alternate vector.

I'm basing that on a few things:
1) There's plenty of other biting bugs in malarial areas and no evidence they act as vectors. This suggests that the mosquito plays an important part in the life cycle too - the Plasmodia aren't just transported around they actually have a few stages of their life cycle in the mosquito and so it's all got to be replaced at once.
2) Plasmodia being a protozoa are diploid, in this case having 14 chromosomes and about 15 million bases in their genome although only 5,300 genes. Randomly mutating to resist a drug is one thing, and probably only involves one gene - possibly only actually up regulating one existing gene a lot - evolving a whole new life cycle when there's no evidence there's any variation to allow to start to do that is another. Bacteria and viruses might manage it still, but the mutate more readily and far less complex life cycles usually.
3) When there have been programmes to try and wipe out mosquitos (for example, spraying detergent onto lakes to make the larval stages drown) they're generally effective at reducing malarial. The issue is that they never follow through for long enough and don't get the whole of the massive areas required.

Of course malaria is a bit of bugger and hangs around in one of its hosts (humans) for a long time so there's a 70-year or so period for them to try and evolve a new alternate host, but with tertian fever that's only 6,500 generations or so and a pretty big change.

123:

"For certain values of "straightforward", which doesn't mean easy, the most straightforward biological way to wipe out mosquitoes (or humanity) is with a "meiotic driving gene""

Yes, my only concern is that this does not particularly play to Superman's strengths. "I'm a superman, Jim, not a mosquito breeder!"

"Lest we forget, though, the problem is not really mosquitoes (on their own they're a trivial irritant) but Plasmodium Falciparum and P. Vivax (and related plasmodia). They're a whole chunk harder to guarantee elimination of; they cycle through other species and if we simply wipe out mosquitoes, will some other vector emerge?"

It could easily. But if the large majority of infections currently come from mosquitoes, when that cycle is broken then at least for a while the number of infections can be expected to go down. That gives us something of a breather to find out about the next host and see where the weakest link is in that infection cycle.

We could try segregation distortion on the plasmodium, but I have a lot of doubts. There are at least 10 species that infect humans. We'd probably try it on Plasmodium falciparum first, since it has the worst symptoms of the common types. The sexual forms meet in a mosquito's stomach. A mosquito which bit only one infected person might likely get both genders from one bite, so if one infected person produces only one gender in the mosquitoes that bite him, those would have competition to create the next generation.

124:

SoV
Errr ... dangerous territory here: so I can now say that willful abuse of trust as always been considered knowingly evil. But that is almost a definition of what "priests" do all the time - isn't it?
Exploitation of people's expectations & better natures for other ends, often vile ones.

125:

jeffrey.eric.fisher writes:
More than half of Iran's population is under 35.

US Iranian history did not end in 1979. The US has had sanctions on Iran during their entire lives. The US backed Iraq's invasion of Iran and war from 1980-1988. Then there is Israel.

The US has been profoundly hostile to the majority of the Iranian people for a solid 65 years, basically nobody in Iran other than those favored by the Shah's regime has experienced anything different, not even indifference.

The United States has well earned any ill feelings from the Iranian people.

And yet, most of the young population of Iran would like to visit the US and welcome American visitors.

And quite similarly, despite similar generations long sanctions against Cuba, the US is the destination of choice by refugees fleeing that government, and American visitors are welcomed in the streets there.

Whether either or both of those sanctions regimes were ultimately fair or justified or sensible to maintain, at this point, the peoples of those countries seem to differentiate inter-governmental squabbles from genuine ill will between the populaces.

126:

Seems the research is piling up strongly suggesting that most humans are born with a 'moral sense', i.e. a 3-month old can tell the difference between fair/good and unfair/evil. And this ability is precisely that, another 'sense', only instead of enabling us to perceive/use certain wavelengths, this sense allows us to perceive consequences of our actions and interactions on other mostly-bags-of-water. And, similar to other senses, we're generally not aware of this sense until it fails, in us or someone else.


127:

I think you mean "instinct" rather than "sense". The baby takes information from his actual senses (sight, hearing, etc.) and makes an instinctive judgement in favor of fairness and against unfairness (for sufficiently simple examples of fairness/unfairness). The sensory information is critical; if you watch a dozen people use computers with the screens away from you, you won't be able to somehow sense the one pirating music. Or at least I can't.

128:

>>Whether either or both of those sanctions regimes were ultimately fair or justified or sensible to maintain, at this point, the peoples of those countries seem to differentiate inter-governmental squabbles from genuine ill will between the populaces.

I concur and would further offer as further evidence of a desire for rapprochement on the part of the Iranian people, the election of Rouhani, who campaigned on a platform of negotiations with the US.

129:

"This may be true, but nobody likes a foreign invader: change works best if it comes from within. Which is to say, Iran needs another revolution. It nearly got one in 2007 ..."

Couldn't agree more. There are many ways of alienating people, but few as effective as dropping bombs on them.

A change of government in Iran a few years back would have been a real historical pivot point - one of the great what-ifs of recent years.


130:

Charlie:
"This may be true, but nobody likes a foreign invader: change works best if it comes from within. Which is to say, Iran needs another revolution. It nearly got one in 2007 ..."

Casual Observer:
Couldn't agree more. There are many ways of alienating people, but few as effective as dropping bombs on them.

A change of government in Iran a few years back would have been a real historical pivot point - one of the great what-ifs of recent years.

They did get a change in government post-2007, but it wasn't a change *of* government. The Supreme Leader and their security council (clerics, the Revolutionary Guards, etc) looked at their near-revolt, and the actual changes of government around the Middle East, and changed behavior enough that the latest election was *not* fraudulent, as the second Ahmadinejad election campaign was.

Rouhani is not all sweetness and enlightenment, but he is a substantiative change in both tone and substance, and more importantly the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards are shifting with the winds as well.

131:

A change of government in Iran a few years back ...
Like the fraudulent (USA) result in 2004 you mean?

On the same sub-thread - GH @ 130
The "Supreme Leader" will die, eventualyy, but the Revolutionary Guards are the main obstacle to Persia re-joining the concord of civilised nations.
Young men who want to lord it over women, permanently ( & with a "good religious" excuse, too! ) ....
Yeah, I can see that collapsing any time soon.
/snark

132:

You did read the bit where I said I couldn't tell if they were brainwashed, insane or just evil?

I'm not sure what relevance a moral instinct that a baby has, and those who are not brainwashed, insane or evil probably by and large keep through their adult life, has when applied to those who are in one or more of the now oft mentioned groups?

If anything it simply adds fuel to the fire that they are abnormal in that they can't apply their moral sense to these actions.

133:

Thanks for writing that. I found it really interesting.

Can you recommend any further reading on the subject beyond the Five Czars?

134:

Actually, consider Scotland in the 17th/early 18th centuries. In the latter half of the 17th century it was vile fundamentalist theocracy that was at least as extreme as Iran in the 80s, yet nevertheless it spawned the Scottish Enlightenment by the early-mid 18th century.

It won't happen in our lifetime but I suspect Iran will be a bastion of enlightened liberal values and a beacon of hope and human rights by the end of the 21st century.

135:

Shahs, not Czars.

General Lionel Dunsterville, the "Stalky" of Kipling's Stalky & Co., took a flying column ("Dunsterforce") up through Persia as far as Baku in the wake of the October Revolution (remember the Twenty-six Commissars of Baku!), so see his memoirs, The Adventures of Dunsterforce (London, 1920). Those should cover the Persian Cossacks when they had just become free standing.

For other relevant information for the early period, look at biographies of William Knox D'Arcy.

For material relevant to Iran in the 1940s to early 1950s, look at anything to do with the wartime Persian Corridor that supplied the U.S.S.R., and anything to do with the financing and building of the major north-south railway in Iran (since great efforts were made to avoid foreign interests dominating it, the way the Czars had been trying to do with a road system they set up the Persian Cossacks for; the British equivalent was the South Persian Rifles, but that wasn't pushing further into the country, just policing the oil fields). Interestingly, that railway's tunnels stumbled onto a huge cave system that needed an underground bridge inside the tunnels! Not only did that extra effort greatly weaken Iranian finances, but also (interesting for our day) it offers a very good way to hide secret development efforts of any sort, just as abandoned qanat underground water transport canals offer places to hide inventory and the world's most naturally radioactive area in northern Iran offers radiological laboratory locations that are hard to distinguish by airborne reconnaissance. Not that I would know anything about that, of course.

Oh, and you can get economic background for Iranian oil in that period from the work of Khodadad Farmanfarmaian, e.g. a paper that, among other things, used Leontiev input-output analysis to show how the oil industry in Iran was connected to the economy of the U.K., not to that of Iran.

136:

Evil is the deliberate infliction of unnecessary suffering.
The argument is over the word "unnecessary"

137:

I think you're about a quarter of a century ahead of the change, for Scotland. Remember that Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy as late as 1697, near Edinburgh. We may take it that he represented an early stirring of that Scottish Enlightenment spirit a quarter of a century before it became acceptable, just as Sir William Lawrence's imperfect speculations on evolution were suppressed forty years or so before Darwin could be heard publicly.

BTW, I think some links have held up a comment of mine in moderation.

138:

BTW, I think some links have held up a comment of mine in moderation.

Yes, for some reason the automated filters don't like your comments. I think that was the second of yours that got trapped.

139:

Interesting post. I hadn't heard that take on the 1953 coup before, so I looked it up on wikipedia. . . fortunately, this was one of those wiki entries which was supported by some solid references and citations.

Two things stood out for me: firstly that Mossadeq had tried to negotiate a settlement with the Brit oil companies that would have involved some degree of compensation, and secondly that his government was the object of deliberate attempts at subversion by British intelligence:

"The nationalization law provide that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Mosaddegh#Support_for_oil_nationalization

"In the Majlis election in the spring of 1952, Mosaddegh "had little to fear from a free vote, since despite the country's problems, he was widely admired as a hero. A free vote, however, was not what others were planning. British agents had fanned out across the country, bribing candidates, and the regional bosses who controlled them. They hoped to fill the Majlis with deputies who would vote to depose Mosaddegh. It would be a coup carried out by seemingly legal means.""

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Iranian_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat

Now, maybe these accounts are flawed. . . but I'm more inclined to follow them than your insinuation that Her Maj's govt did nothing wrong and that the man in Tehran brought it on himself.

140:

( And pml540114 as well ... )
Erm, yes the Scottish Enlightenment ...
But Sunday trains were the work of the De'il until 1910 (ish) the islands in particular were gripped by either RC or WeeFree extremism until the 1950's or later ... see also the incredibly depressing novels of A J Cronin for Scottish religious values, treatment of women & (horrors! SEX ) & brainwashing in the 1920's too.

141:

Actually I do mean 'sense' ... although if you define 'instinct' as a compilation of routines based on sensory data plus preferred outcomes, then 'ethics/empathy' could be considered an instinct.

I'm keeping in mind that although rods and cones are in the eyeball, the 'seeing' is done in the brain. Seeing is also not something we automatically do, it involves an awful lot of learning/practice between external stimuli and various brain regions. In order to learn how to see correctly, we need the right environment, feedback, etc. Ditto for 'empathy'. Where the 'empathy' sense can get derailed is when the infant/child/adult starts seeing unfairness rewarded, therefore his internal empathy gyro gets reset. Such an internal reset of a sense also happens with vision ... there's a well known experiment where the researchers attach mirrors to a subject's glasses so that everything is literally upside down. After some time, the brain 'corrects' for this and the subject again experiences the world right-side up.

Hmmm ... wonder if this is what's happening with the vets suffering from PTSD ... once soldiers are removed from the 'experiment' (war) where it's okay to kill people, their brain resets itself to normal, and they're unable to accept what they have done.

Also, like all senses, there'd be a distribution curve/range for this sense: some folk have better than 20/20 vision, some folk have really terrible vision, so need glasses. And, like vision, this sense (empathy) can vary within an individual over time/age, by environment, etc.


Re: 132 --- "You did read the bit where I said I couldn't tell if they were brainwashed, insane or just evil?"

Yes, I did read and understand that. However, if the more accurate model is that 'ethics/empathy' is a 'sense', then it probably operates similarly to the other senses (seeing, hearing, etc.) that we're already familiar with. Adopting this perspective makes it much easier to identify and correct that sensory deficit. Plus, just knowing that person A is unable to 'see/internalize how someone else feels' would change how others interact with person A. Think of color-blindness - if you know that a certain percent of people are red-green color blind, you'll make sure that all stop signs have a distinctive shape so that everyone can recognize that signal. Similarly, with people who've had a stroke or brain injury, we no longer assume that they still share our worldview (Phineas Gage is the historical example for brain injury), and because of this, we're usually more patient with such individuals and actively try to figure out communications bridges to reduce friction and misunderstanding. Going forward, if we recognize and accept that empathy is an advantageous 'sense' to possess and are able to accurately gauge its presence in another individual, we might get/elect better leaders/policy makers.

142:

>Evil is the deliberate infliction of unnecessary suffering.
The argument is over the word "unnecessary"

Really? I could argue over "deliberate" and "suffering" all day...

143:

to some extent the cold war spy thriller also enabled these fantasies of super-agency, by placing mundane trenchcoat-wearing office workers at the fulcrum of terrible forces, but it was a clumsy and indirect approach, more reminiscent of the form of Lovecraftian horror (as I've written elsewhere). ..........link, if available, please?

144:

If you are inflicting suffering by accident, it is hardly evil is it?
As for suffering, I think the victim gets to decide - not anyone else.

145:

Usually a the word "sense" refers to a method by which information from the environment is perceived by the brain. An instinct can refer to a natural favoring or aversion to specific sensory input.

If a person can directly perceive injustice without the intervention of another sense, then empathy/justice/whatever is a sense. If the baby is prone to judging input from another sense in a certain way, the word "instinct" would be applicable. Hearing is a sense, liking music seems to be an instinct.

146:

It's not online, but if you read the afterword to "The Atrocity Archives" you'll get what I'm talking about. (It's an essay on this very topic.)

147:

Your definition makes sense ...

However, there are some senses that are very hard to notice and pin down. Empathy might be one of these. Being able to 'see' motion relies on more than rods and cones, yet I think that visual motion detection is a fundamental sense.

148:

It seems to me that the classical heroes, i.e. the sort you see in the myths, tended to be slayers of monsters, often (but not exclusively) draconic at some level. The problem with superheroes is that in this post-modern era, the monsters tend to be things you cannot slay.

149:

As I understand it, motion is seen, like everything else, in the rods and cones of the eye. The nervous system has some specialized image processing bits, some of which handle different types of motion. For example, linear motion gets handled differently than curved motion. It takes an infant some time to learn how to use those innate capabilities to make sense of a scene, as well as to figure out how to use the eyes themselves (focusing them, tracking an object, etc.). It doesn't help that, anatomically, some of the image processing neurons are located in the retinas, not the brain.

The interface between senses and behaviors is a bit fuzzy. If I put my hand on a hot stove, I'm not sure we could even in principle separate the neurons that sense painful heat from the neurons that decide to withdraw the hand.

150:

Okay -

I think we can agree on the classic-five senses, mostly because their anatomy is well-known, i.e., sensory perceive (afferent neurons) and muscular reaction (efferent neurons), plus they each have specific unshared cells, pathways, etc. The biggest obstacle to being able to label 'emotional senses' is that (so far) we haven't been able to trace comparable structures/pathways. But, is this a good enough reason for rejecting this ... because look at how different sight/speech (wave lengths) are from smell/taste (molecules). Even the classic-five senses operate on different scales/modalities.

And, it appears that emotional senses (emotional "resting states") are heritable: you can breed scaredy-mice and fearless mice, friendly/cuddly mice and aloof/loner mice. So there is something tangible about emotions; they're real.

151:

It's like the difference between water and hemoglobin - both are molecules, real and well-known, but they operate on different scales. Explaining hemoglobin in the same way as water to a high school kid (our probable stage in understanding our brains) just doesn't work, it misses the point.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1GZX_Haemoglobin.png

The first time I saw a hemoglobin molecule diagram, my reaction was - holy crap! - how do you figure out how this monster works, where do you start?!

152:

no-one mentions joseph cambell?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces
hello, george lucas?

153:


Two things stood out for me: firstly that Mossadeq had tried to negotiate a settlement with the Brit oil companies that would have involved some degree of compensation, and secondly that his government was the object of deliberate attempts at subversion by British intelligence:


"The nationalization law provide that 25% of the net profits on oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the company for compensation."

That "some degree of compensation" is, basically, codswallop. Look at the numbers and qualifications. The only "legitimate claims of the company for compensation" that would have been accepted related to things like staff relocation versus staying on for a handover and paying for machinery that could have been evacuated etc., since the whole point of principle at issue was the claim that the oil properly belonged to Iran even after the transfer involved in the concession. There would have been no compensation for seizing the oil itself, which we can see from the small size of the suggested provision.

The thing is, Iran was already getting revenues equivalent to corporation taxes at levels typical of the time they were negotiated. Yes, times had changed; the prospect of that was why the concession had been set up with renegotiation points, which were only a few years off when Mossadegh seized the oil fields lock, stock and barrel. So the original deal was fair to Iran, and the seizure was not made a matter of justice simply because Mossadegh offered something in the hope that Iran could buy a going concern - the underlying assets were to be taken without compensation.


Now, maybe these accounts are flawed. . . but I'm more inclined to follow them than your insinuation that Her Maj's govt did nothing wrong and that the man in Tehran brought it on himself.

The accounts there are flawed, but not by being inaccurate, rather by being incomplete and then leading people to draw false inferences. Unfortunately, wikipedia being what it is, it's impractical to remedy that there. But, even so, it doesn't contradict my position, it merely insinuates.

I'm afraid that you have misread what I was trying to tell readers here, and I may have been unclear in places. I never made any "insinuation that Her Maj's govt did nothing wrong", not nowise, not nohow. Right there in the first paragraph of my own, I wrote "Those are no more creditable for either the U.K. or the U.S.A.", remember? Your own citation from wikipedia about what British agents did squares perfectly with what I wrote was happening, further down, "not only was bribery culturally acceptable and par for the course" - which is damning with faint praise, even if the alternative was to let the other side's bribery etc. prevail (wikipedia is wrong about Mossadegh being "widely admired as a hero", from only and selectively presenting an urban view not shared in many regions; his tactic was to allow a free vote where he wanted, and suppress rather than distort voting elsewhere - which he repeated later, under his unauthorised plebiscites). The faint praise only means that Iranians themselves have no grounds for complaint as bribery was following their practices, and that the U.K. had the extenuating circumstance that it would have lost to dirty play if it hadn't done it too; but none of that makes it fair play, either. Those "seemingly legal means" wikipedia mentions were not only formally and technically legal, they were in keeping with the spirit too, by Iranian standards, so wikipedia is insinuating something untrue there. But I am not insinuating that that makes it right and proper for the U.K., I am pointing out just what I did before: 'This is one of those "print the legend" things that has crowded out more precise details. Those are no more creditable for either the U.K. or the U.S.A., but they are muddier [emphasis added] ...'

However, looking back on what I wrote, I can see that you might have taken my "the U.K. wasn't behind that latter part, and really only provided background intelligence [to that latter part]" as claiming that it wasn't involved in the bribery and the first, non-violent activity. If so, I must apologise; by "latter part" I meant the later, violent overthrow.

In any event, the summary in my final paragraph stands, including both "you can blame the U.S.A. and the U.K. for destabilising Mossadegh while he was still legitimate [emphasis added]" and "You can't blame the U.K. for what happened later, because it neither gained from it nor had the facilities to do it".

154:

Ok, I understand what you were getting at now, it just wasn't clear to me from what you wrote at first. Sorry for being slow on the uptake. (Some definitions of insanity and evil would include processing sensory information in unusual ways mind.)

While I can see people authorising intervention in the case of someone who has suffered clear trauma and now suffers an empathy deficit (for want of a better phrase) - you would offer it to someone who had had a CVA or a car crash and part of the aftermath was a sudden loss of empathy, just as you'd offer different therapy if the aftermath was the inability to walk - I'm not so sure you'd get those who think drone strikes on skyscrapers in Baghdad were a good thing to agree to treatment. In fact they'd probably want to arrest you and me for being unpatriotic. I'm not sure about you, my defence would start with "I'm not being unpatriotic, I'm not even American thankfully." I might be rapidly deported thereafter... but I can live with that.

But, more seriously, we accept that for the senses we're more used to considering there's a range of acuity and sensitivity. Some people have sharper hearing than others, you can be long or short sighted, some people even without that are better or worse at noticing things. We expect, certainly for a great chef, a good palate - some of that comes with training and experience, but some of it is natural variation too.

If we accept that empathy/natural justice are senses then simply generalising from every other biological system we know suggests there's going to variation. Perhaps I'm wrong, and they're not brainwashed. Perhaps they're simply natural variants towards the unempathic extreme, they interbreed and inherit those traits and that cluster of traits happens to either be closely genetically linked with other traits that form this cluster or the culture that goes with the right wing politically rewards accepts people that exhibits those traits more obviously than the left wing does so you simply see more of them there and they're more confident about expressing their views.

155:

You said that so much better than I did - thanks!

Another thing that I'd like to bring in to this discussion is: once we accept that emotions are another set of senses, therefore necessary to our optimal functioning, we would then be more likely to attach more importance to keeping those senses intact and healthy. So, just like workplace safety rules like hearing protection for airport runway employees, jack-hammer operators, etc., it would make sense to establish 'emotional' safety standards. In a way, we've been doing this for thousands of years ... ten commandments, eightfold path, civil rights and so on.

However, because of our inability to define these senses combined with zealous application of 'logic', we've ended up fighting dogma wars between a bunch of competing systems/approaches that were initially formulated to address our 'soft senses'.

'Soft senses' (emotions) have been demeaned by 'logic'. In the Western world, logic is derived mostly from math. Okay so far, but then consider: just how much math did the ancient Greeks know? Probably about what a 13-year old today knows, and definitely not statistics. And this 'logic' is what many leaders use to formulate policy.

Another argument in support of biology/neurology-based decision-making algorithms is that such an approach typically includes a feedback mechanism. The classical logic approach has no such mechanism, therefore no upper/lower limits, and if some is good, then more is always better. This is not true in the real world, whether you're talking about dosages, decibel levels, stress or corporate profits.


156:

" .. In the latter half of the 17th century it was vile fundamentalist theocracy that was at least as extreme as Iran in the 80s, yet nevertheless it spawned the Scottish Enlightenment by the early-mid 18th century. "

Yep ..a vile Theocracy ..with Witches ..

" An examination of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s sources leads us to formulate several conclusions concerning the motives behind the dramatists alterations. It can be argued that the changes serve three main purposes: the dramatic purpose of producing a more exciting story than is found in the sources; the thematic purpose of creating a more complex characterization of Macbeth; and the political purpose of catering to the beliefs of the reigning monarch, King James the First. And, in the grander scheme, Shakespeare’s alterations function to convey the sentiment echoed in many of his works – that there is a divine right of kings, and that to usurp the throne is a nefarious crime against all of humanity. "


And quite Right Too ..KINGS, wot a GOOD Idea!


KINGS tm as Super Hero?

http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/macbethsources.html


Anyway, should you be short of relaxing reading material Charlie then you might like to have a look at a police proceedural/espionage series...

"Sir Robert Carey took up his northern post as Warden of the West March in order to escape the complications of creditors and court life. However the dashing Carey, possibly a cousin of the Queen, merely trades one set of troubles for another.

One black night in 1592, Carey is on night patrol along the unsettled border anchored by the garrison in Carlisle. It’s a disaster. First, there’s the fugitive he has to hand over to the warring Scots. Next come Wee Colin Elliot’s sheep stealers. And then a gun explodes and takes off the hand of one of Carey’s men. Back in Carlisle, Carey soon learns more faulty guns lie in the armoury in place of the sound weapons shipped in from Newcastle only last week. When these explosive deathtraps are stolen, he sets off in pursuit of both batches of guns—and the thieves.

The search ends in Dumfries where King James VI of Scotland—potentially King James I of England when his cousin Elizabeth dies—and his raucous court have assembled. James is as dissolute as ever, lovely Lady Elizabeth Widdrington, Carey’s true love, is still shackled to her husband, and seductive Signora Bonnetti takes a serious interest in Carey and in the missing guns. Will the frustrated courtier be gallant enough to flirt with the Signora—and with treason?…" ..

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Surfeit-Guns-Robert-Carey-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00822JYPK/ref=la_B001K7TW56_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400960307&sr=1-3


"

157:

Going back to heroism and where it comes from, I'm going to recommend reading the first essay in On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Seriously. I do not agree with Nietzsche's philosophy or endorse his values, OK? But he had some interesting and thought provoking ideas, and this is about the only book of his which is written in a clear and lucid style.

By this interpretation, there is no good and evil, just noble and ignoble protagonists. Noble here means your intent and actions, not your birth. The noble or "good" people can be on opposite sides.

Applying to the Trojan War, Paris isn't a good guy, not because he steals Helen from Menelaus, but because he sneaked away with her rather than challenge Menelaus to a contest or duel. Hector of Troy is a very good guy, because he defends Troy against the Greeks, and also defends his brother Paris - even though Paris isn't a good guy, he is Hector's brother.

Achilles is also a good guy, but not quite as good as Hector because after he kills Hector, he dishonours the body by dragging it behind his chariot. It's not what he did that is the problem but who he did it to. If it had been Paris that he'd killed and dragged around, both Greeks and Trojans would have probably agreed "Yeah he deserved it."

You can see this way of thinking right through the middle ages. Hector of Troy was one of the Nine Worthies (male), examples and paragons for would-be knights to draw inspiration from. (None of the Greeks qualified.) Saladin in the Crusades was respected even though he was an infidel. The feudal system though added a belief that only those of noble birth were capable of noble behaviour, which the Greeks and Romans wouldn't have agreed with.

According to Nietzsche, this way of thinking is incompatible with the spread of Christianity, and hence had to be replaced by good verse evil.

158:

ARNOLD:
Robert Carey, was actually a real person & Warden of West March, & 2nd cousin of the Queen.
His epic ride 24-26 March 1603 - London-Edinburgh on horseback in 3 days (!) is also a tale often untold.
For more information on the troubled borders, it is hard to beat George Macdonald Fraser's "The Steel Bonnets"

159:

possibly the most important election campaign I've lived through

and

We still have a dismaying tendency to think it's all about us, for any value of "it" you care to choose.

Does the first refer to the Ukrainian situation, or are you just proving the second? IMAO, the Scottish independence vote is about as important - possibly less - in geopolitical terms as the Slovakian one turned out to be.

160:

Nick, I'm referring to the Scottish independence vote.

If it was your country deciding whether to go fully independent or not, you might credit it with some significance. (The geopolitical significance is utterly irrelevant if it happens to be the place you live.0

161:

You do know about the dirty tricks that Amazon are playing, using their market dominance to cut the money paid to their suppliers.

I am sure it is a fine book, but I don't want to see Amazon profiting from it. Do you have an alternative e-book source?

162:

I'm a Storey ... and thus a minor Border NAME. Well, my Mothers family were Storeys. OF course I know about, George Macdonald Fraser's "The Steel Bonnets" I've got an ancient copy in Dead Tree plus Rag on my shelves.

The odd thing there is that I don't much like Frasers 'Flashman' novels - though I have several of them on The Shelves.

As for for Sir Robert Carey? He was also a great Walker.

Walking races started much earlier than their popular origin in

" Wobble To Death (Sergeant Cribb #1)
by Peter Lovesey
3.56 of 5 stars 3.56 · rating details · 189 ratings · 32 reviews

In 1879, race walking competitions, known as “wobbles,” were all the rage. The death of a contender, followed by a second murder, introduces Sergeant Cribb, who goes on to investigate sports-related deaths in a series of eight books."

A really good historical crime series and also a spin off TV series that was reasonably true to the books.

Available in both forms from ...oh Great Cluthu save us ..Big American River.


" One of these evolutions involved betting large sums of money on walking contests. One famous example occurred in England in 1589. An English nobleman, Sir Robert Carey, wagered he could walk non-stop for 300 miles. Winning the bet, he set the stage for even greater walking feats. In 1608 he journeyed an amazing 2000 miles across Europe in 41 days.

"

163:

On Big American River and the Publishing Piranha 3D ?

Well I bought the most recent in the series directly from...


http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/surfeit-of-guns/


Ah, Hem...embaressed Cough... here a bit of correspondence by e mail ..


" Arnold -

Thank you for notifying us of the problem. We believe the inclement weather in the midsection of the country where our printing facility is located is responsible for the late arrival of the books to the warehouse. Also, at this moment the book is not in distribution in the UK, but we are working on that. If you would like, you can order directly from me. You can place an order through our website www.poisonedpenpress.com and I will see that a copy is sent to you.

Suzan Baroni

Bookkeeper
Poisoned Pen Press--Discover Mystery
6962 E. 1st Ave. #103, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
suzan@poisonedpenpress.com www.poisonedpenpress.com
800-421-3976 x 12
480-945-3375 x 12
Fax 480-949-1707


On Sat, Feb 8, 2014 at 3:56 PM, ARNOLD AKIEN wrote:

I congratulate you on your good sense in publishing ".... F. Chisholm - An Air of Treason: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery " the latest in a successful series of historical detective/espionage stories byPatricia Finney ..but deplore the shambolic mess that the publishing process has turned a simplicity ..people want to buy book and log on to sellers of book only to discover that the book is available from obscure bookshops in the US of A but not from the UK ..thus..

**************


and also ..

***************


An Air of Treason: A Sir Robert Carey Mystery [Paperback]


Currently unavailable.
We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock.

Formats
Amazon Price
New from
Used from
Hardcover -- £26.04 £26.04
Paperback, Large Print £13.60 £9.06 £13.34


-- --


Would you like to tell the readers who have been awaiting this book for years why you have made such a botch of its publication? "


********* represent Big American River links

On, " We believe the inclement weather in the midsection of the country where our printing facility is located is responsible for the late arrival of the books to the warehouse. "

I do remember watching a news reprt on TV in the UK that showed an entire flock of swans swiming about over the car park of a factory in the Midlands ..you don't suppose that My copy of that Book was under water at that time? As if writers didn't have enough to worry about.

164:

PS ..

" Suzan Baroni Bookkeeper "

" BOOKKEEPER " ... Isn't that a terrific Super Hero Job Title?

165:

True enough, but...weary sigh of one who can’t afford to get too depressed - two bouts of Clinical Depression caused a decision that one more would be too many thus early retirement from Public Service - it’s not as simple as all that.


“Scottish independence ‘bad for north of England’ "

http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/scottish-independence-bad-for-north-of-england-1-3327716

166:


It suddenly occurs to me that you might be interested in..

"
Would anyone like a \”Sir Robert Carey trail\”?
Posted on October 20, 2013 by patricia

I\’ve been in Northumberland researching my next Carey novels. The latest one \”An Air of Treason\” is coming out in the spring of 2014, published by Poisoned Pen Press and this trip is for the ones after that. Carey and Dodd are finally on their way north at the end of \”An Air of Treason\” and the next three books will take place on the Borders again."


http://www.patriciafinney.com/?p=654


and also


http://www.climbingtreebooks.com/im-still-writing-elizabethan-crime-novels/

167:

Further to my post at 163. That referred to Real Books - Dead Tree - of course. I've been pecking arround for e books that aren't Big American River sourced and have hit a blank. I'm reluctent to admit it but it does begin to look as if Big American River has begun to build what amounts to a monopoly in e books for the work of some quite sucessful mid list authors.

Since many readers do now prefer e books to Tree books this does look look like a cartel.

I'm familiar with the general situation ..


http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/focus-criticism-shifts-to-amazon-in-apple-e-book-trial/

but I will admit that I havent given it that much attention and it looks to be far worse than I had supposed.

168:

Hero checklist: showy/stands out in a crowd; confrontational - the more public, the better; muscular/athletic - action not words/argument.

Wonder if these heroes were actually created by their era's introverted nerds and geeks, whose worst fear was public speaking?

169:

An independence movement from the next folks up the road is also a traditional cause for concern.

At least this time it's likely to be peaceful, in the short term (in the long term, war is a recurring part of the human condition).

170:

IF you read "The STeel Bonnets" ...
You will see that for the whole of Gloriana's longreign, 1558 - 1603, England & Scotland were at peace.
However, on the Border, you might not have thought that was the case!

171:

I couldn't maintain interest in "Supergods" very long, as Morrison seemed to be surrendering to the same sort of self-involvement and credulousness that makes some Alan Moore material uninteresting to me...but near the end of his run of "Animal Man" there's a moment when an explicit author avatar ('grant Morrison') says something on the order of 'We have complex problems we can't solve so we dress up hyper-muscled men in costumes and have them punch each other to figure them out.' (Material not available to us, so read once, two years ago, so my apologies for any inaccuracy in that.)

172:

'Marital breakdown': don't completely lose heart, those of us inclined to be saddened by this possible fictional event. Plenty of things that break down have been repaired---marriages are notoriously difficult on that score, but as a mad old marriage counselor once wrote (in Edward FitzGerald's translation) 'That is not dead which can eternal lie.', and even though these characters don't have eternity as such, having (as Jerry said to Frank) the Heat Death to look forward to, theirs are universes of possibility...magic seems to be able to do more and more as the series moves on, probably a combination of avoiding repetition and the near-Discworld levels of ambient magic attendant to the onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

(And for those of you who think magic can't fix a relationship because that didn't work on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", note that Charlie's vampires probably don't turn to dust when dispatched, and none of their exorcisms ended with a heartfelt 'Now piss off.'.)

173:

It's to be expected, really. Bob and Mo have to be getting a bit low on SAN points by now.

174:

...and none of their exorcisms ended with a heartfelt 'Now piss off.'

I have no trouble imagining Bob doing that after a long day at work.

175:

Your heresy against the Lightning Gods is not appreciated, unbeliever. They will smite you.

Methinks you've missed the economic drivers in superhero fiction, Charlie. More likely that superhero fiction reappeared in the 1920s and 1930s because that was when economic inequality skyrocketed, taking Euro/American societies back to levels of inequality not seen since the Gilded Age or earlier.

As everyone knows, economic inequality has (if anything) worsened today. The essential paradigm of superhero tales involves paternalist authoritarianism: in a society where only the elites are empowered, only a member of the elites can save you. Bruce Wayne must therefore be a billionaire, just as Lamong Cranston had to be rich. The most odious avatar of today's neofeudal economy is of course the Tony Stark of the movies, who styles himself "billionaire, genius, philanthropist." Instead of a corrupt incompetent crook running Wall Street con jobs and building non-working superweapons while gouging the Pentagon for trillions.

Which of course is what American military contractors actually do.

Auditors said the Defense Department showed few signs of improvement since the GAO began issuing its annual assessments of selected weapons systems six years ago. "It's not getting any better by any means," said Michael Sullivan, director of the GAO's acquisition and sourcing team. "It's taking longer and costing more."
Chris Isleib, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a written statement, "We'd like to look at what GAO has said, and then at the appropriate time make an informed comment."
The Pentagon has doubled the amount it has committed to new systems, from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion last year, according to the 205-page GAO report. Total acquisition costs in 2007 for major defense programs increased 26 percent from first estimates. In 2000, 75 programs had cost increases totaling 6 percent. Development costs in 2007 for the systems rose 40 percent from initial projections, compared with 27 percent in 2000. Current programs are delivered 21 months late on average, five months later than in 2000.
"In most cases, programs also failed to deliver capabilities when promised -- often forcing war fighters to spend additional funds on maintaining" existing weapons systems, the report says.

Source: "GAO Blasts Weapons Budget," The Washington Post

In the real world, Tony Stark would deliver Iron Man exoskeleton weapons suits that didn't work, electrocuted the soldiers who used them, and cost trillions more than budgeted -- and Stark would evade indictment while continuing to supply non-working weapons systems to the U.S. military.

The odious stench of paternalist authoritarianism has seeped into the far corners of science fiction, from David Brin's offensive "uplift" series which essentially dredges up 1920s-era eugenics and dusts it off, telling us implicitly that no one can be better than their parents (you can't hope to become a squire if your parents weren't noblemen, you serf, so stop writing down those idiotic equations in the patent office and jabbering about relativity, you nit) to the profoundly depressing Star Wars sagas with their revelation that the hero is a hero not because he has pluck or skill or brains, but because he's the son of a nobleman (Anakin Skywalker) and inherited tons of those wonderful midiclorians in his bloodstream.

Everywhere, the message in today's sci fi is the same: if you're not the scion of the rich and powerful, shove off. You'll get nowhere in life. Only those genetically endowed with those wonderful wonderful genetic traits that make rich better so much better than the common folk can possibly hope to make a differen in this world.

In the process, real heroes like Norman Borlaug conveniently get written out of our superhero movies and sci fi/fantasy sagas.

I'd really like to a three-part fantasy novel or science fiction saga featuring some ordinary schmuck like Norman Borlaug who changes the entire world in radical ways without being wealthy or superpowered or psychic or a mage.

About the last that happened in science fiction was...Samuel R. Delany's Nova. Which of course got stiffed for the big awards.


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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 19, 2014 10:11 PM.

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