Is the “Real” Truth Always Grim?

There are no good people in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo- and- Nebula-winning novel, The Windup Girl. Everybody is out for themselves and even people you think are loyal, if not decent, turn out to have betrayed each other.

I say this not to dis Bacigalupi — I’ve been a fan since I first stumbled across his short fiction years ago — or the book, which certainly deserved recognition: it’s a thoughtful, well-constructed story, blunt about the effects of climate change, international and multicultural in scope.

But reading it left me with the feeling that there was no good in the world, that if you scratched the surface of anything to get at the truth, you’d find something unspeakably ugly.

This isn’t an uncommon attitude. Darwin’s theories are frequently shorthanded as “survival of the fittest,” and that, coupled with the idea of “nature, red in tooth and claw,” implies that violence is a necessary part of life. Then there’s Machiavelli, whose advise on how to run a state gave his name to the idea that leaders cannot be bothered by petty concerns of morality.

It’s ubiquitous in our fiction, especially in spy stories ranging from the complex works of John Le Carre and Len Deighton to the TV show 24, in which Jack Bauer does the unspeakable so the rest of us can live in ignorant comfort. And it shows up in everything from conspiracy theories to our nodding grim satisfaction when some public figure turns out to have feet of clay.

Truth is ugly. Everyone knows this. Except lately, I’ve begun to think everyone is wrong. Sure, there are ugly truths out there. But there are also good ones.

This is not an argument for fiction heavy on the sweetness and light. Anyone who’s read my fiction knows that I don’t do sweetness and light. At Clarion West I got a reputation for writing stories in which a female protagonist killed her lover. (It was one story, damn it.) I love stories in which the characters confront moral dilemmas, and I particularly like the ones where all the choices are bad.

But lately I’ve run across a lot of nonfiction discussing the biological basis of human altruism and cooperation. This research is still in its early days, but respected scientists — biologists, anthropologists, cross-disciplinary folks — are starting to hint at the idea that it is the human ability to get along with others that differentiates us from our other primate cousins.

Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy provides a vivid example of the difference between the behavior of a planeful of people and a planeful of chimpanzees at the start of her recent book, Mothers and Others. Despite the annoying pressures of plane travel, human beings get along surprisingly well. But, Hrdy says, “What if I were traveling with a planeload of chimpanzees? Any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed.”

Why We Cooperate, a book edited by developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello that includes articles from biologists and those in other disciplines, provides a good introduction into the speculation and research on human cooperation. A more philosophical approach to the human capacity for goodness can be found by reading Diane Silver’s In Search of Goodness blog.

Now once again, this isn’t an argument for sweetness and light. I was discussing the idea of human cooperation as a basis for our development as intelligent beings with Aikido teacher Ross Robertson, and he speculated that the first example of human cooperation was probably organizing armies and fighting wars. Makes sense to me.

But I do think it’s an argument for a more complex explanation of human beings than the overpowering image of something awful just below the surface. We do terrible things; we do great things. Usually the same person does both. I suspect virtually everybody has done something they’re ashamed of, but I’d be willing to bet that almost everyone has also done something brave or decent at a cost to themselves. Hitler was human, but so was the guy in Halifax who, when the harbor exploded, stayed at his post at the telegraph office to warn others even though he must have known he would die there.

No, I’m not arguing for sweetness and light, for fiction that ignores the ugly truth out there. But I would like to see more fiction recognizing that sometimes the hidden story is one of incomparable goodness.

That’s human, too.


No Man's LandMy story “Gambit” appears in the new anthology No Man’s Land, now available from Dark Quest Press. You can read an excerpt on Book View Cafe.

My novella Changeling is  available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the latest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 52 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.


About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Is the “Real” Truth Always Grim? — 16 Comments

  1. I admit that this is one reason I haven’t read a lot of books (like The Windup Girl.) I only made it halfway through Andersonville

    I believe it is possible to write about people who can find the decent things, the kind things, the great things about being human, without sinking into treacle. Sometimes less is more for horror writing — or writing about horrors.

    And I think you are right — for better or worse, the fact that we can cooperate for both brief and long periods of time is probably a large part of what made us evolve into Homo sapiens and not a closer variant of chimps or apes.

  2. Nancy,

    I was never a big fan of Oprah, but I’ve watched more this last season than the rest of her career combined, including the final broadcast yesterday. She is one person who has gone out of her way to take ugly truths out of the closets and shadows, dig up the bones and expose it all to the light of day.

    Hard to watch.

    But then she does a follow up highlighting how former victims have turned their lives around, mostly by proclaiming the truth to the world and confronting it themselves. The beginning of dealing with the problem is exposing it.

    One woman had indeed done much to change the world. Our fiction should do the same. Expose the truth and then grow as a person.

  3. There are of course evolutionary forces that encourage us to take care of Me, First. But there are also powerful countervailing forces, even more evolutionarily successful, that move us to cooperate. The proof is in our very ubiquity — human beings are unquestionably the most successful large animal on this planet. And we did it all by cooperating — taking care of each other’s kids, grumblingly paying up for water systems and sewage and vitamins for everybody instead of just our own selves, kicking in for hurricaine victims, knitting sweaters for AIDS babies.

  4. Growing into SF and fantasy in the 60s and 70s, a lot of the stuff I read was relentlessly downbeat; I began to think there was a rule that said serious fiction (or at least fiction that wanted to be taken seriously) could not be upbeat; that happy endings, or even inspiring endings (as in, for example, Casablanca) were unrealistic, passe and naive. Who wants to be naive?

    As it turns out, I do. If I had to write, or read, books that have no glimmer of redemption or possibility of a better future, I’d probably stop writing or reading. I’m interested in struggle and conflict, but not a rigged game where nothing anyone does matters.

  5. Literary fashions change too. Thank goodness the grim ‘n’depressing fashion has passed in fiction. Although in the comic books it still seems to be powerful, drat it.

  6. I’m interested in struggle and conflict, but not a rigged game where nothing anyone does matters.

    I vote with Mad. So-called literary fiction never interested me, because nothing anyone did mattered in the end, or even short term. I’m watching too many people slowly slip into the abyss because they think nothing they do matters. I want to write books that inspire people to be competent, and go out to look for their own happiness and a way to make a difference.

  7. The Grim n’ depressing stuff has just migrated from contemporary fiction into genre fiction.

    There was a huge blow up a few months back about the very topic.

  8. Screwtape had it right a few years ago:

    “You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the world ‘real’…The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are ‘real’ while the spiritual elements are ‘subjective’; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist.”

  9. It also didn’t help that the plot was not moving forward swiftly. That I didn’t care about any of the characters helped make that more important.

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  11. Two words, erm…, four words…

    Clifford Simak. Zenna Henderson.

    (further explanation, _kind_ fiction)

  12. It has to do, I think, with the general principle that we chimps prefer invective to panegyric (h/t Northrop Frye, the geek’s favorite literary critic). Realistic fiction begins by trying to describe how people actually behave, and by operation of the principle, descends into a description of how the worst people behave. Nobody believes in characters who are virtuous all the time, but people seem quite able to believe in folks who have never done one decent thing in their whole lives (note Stewie in Family Guy as the ultimate example; do we really believe in toddlers whose basic desires are matricide and world domination?) That in turn reappears, according to Frye, as myth: there is no book in the Western tradition more pessimistic and defeatist as (most of) the Bible, which tells us that not only this world, but most of its population, are literally going to Hell.

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