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.
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.