Monday, August 23, 2010

Spanner: Morality Is Not the Point

Lately I've been paying too much attention to a site called Television Tropes & Idioms and listing the tropes relevant to Spanner in a Microsoft Word document. When I got to Character Alignment, I realized, for the first time since I started my first preliminary work on this story in 1992, that in a story about a revolution sparked by a monkeywrencher against an oppressive technocracy, morality is not the point. In most stories, the vertical axis on the alignment chart (good vs. evil) is the focus, and most writers (and moralists) conflate "order" with "good" and likewise "chaos" with "evil" (hence the trope Anarchy Is Chaos and its twin, Democracy Is Bad, which Spanner puts in the mouths of Lawful Evil villains but utterly rejects). Spanner is about freedom, not morality.

Character alignment is a concept from role-playing games that turned out great for storytellers. For about a decade starting in 1994, I thought of writing Spanner as the record of a GURPS campaign; the only concept I retained from that is character alignment (though I continue to use GURPS sourcebooks as reference material). Normally, storytellers, and especially the authors of thrillers, put their characters on a single axis representing morality, which in traditional Western religion is vertical, as the standard metaphors of "higher" and "lower" represent. Up on the axis is "higher morality", or Good; down on the axis is "lower morality", or Evil. Conventionally, Good and Evil represent altruism and ego(t)ism, though they can alternatively represent being nice or cruel to people, or obedience to God versus disobedience to God (this is the actual position of traditional Christianity and Islam), or obeying the law versus criminal behavior (i.e., Order vs. Chaos, the traditional position of mystery fiction, crime thrillers, and those political thrillers that do not advocate revolution). Usually, there is no Neutral position; instead, you have Good and Evil characters acting as The Mole on each other's sides, a trope used most effectively in Infernal Affairs and its American version, The Departed. Neutral tends to be an unstable position in narratives of Good and Evil and is usually represented as vacillation or the refusal to change sides (which, conventionally, is foolish).

Properly considered, the moral axis represents one's philosophy of conduct toward others, or altruism. (For my storytelling purposes, I have a separate axis of egoism, or moral conduct toward oneself; I will not consider this here.) Altruism is, of course, at the top of the axis; at the bottom is not egoism (as conventionally assumed), but sociopathy. At the highest extreme is the self-sacrificing saint; at the lowest, the serial killer.

When Dungeons and Dragons stopped equating Order with Good and Chaos with Evil in its second and third editions, it added a horizontal axis representing Order and Chaos, which it called the "ethical" axis as opposed to the standard "moral" one, though in a political thriller like Spanner "political" may fit better. This horizontal axis deals with law and rules: "Lawful" alignments (on the right) zealously obey (and enforce) the rules and are prone to fetishizing them; "Chaotic" alignments (on the left) tend to have contempt for rules, occasionally to the extreme of demonizing them and following their whims in defiance of rules; "Neutral" alignments tend to be skeptical of rules but would not live without them. This is completely independent of moral considerations; politically, the extremes would be totalitarianism on the far right and absolute anarchism on the far left.

Now, in a political thriller like Spanner whose emphasis is freedom versus oppression rather than virtue versus vice/crime/etc., morality is not the point. Freedom is. Or, within the politics of Spanner, personal freedom (i.e., the freedom of the individual to do what they want without having to infringe on the freedom of others) as opposed to sovereign freedom (i.e., the freedom of the rulers to do what they want at the expense of those below them in the hierarchy). The most zealous fanatics of Order, the totalitarians, conflate "freedom" with "Chaos" and therefore "Evil", and in their crusade against Evil they fight mercilessly to stamp out all freedom.

Now I can reveal the alignments of the central characters of Spanner — something which, oddly enough (because I intended to base it on a role-playing campaign), I never thought of till now.

First of all, there's Spanner herself, Shira Thomas. Her very handle (meaning "monkeywrench") is code for "Agent of Chaos". As a teenage libertine with a strictly pragmatic morality, that makes her Chaotic Neutral. She is, of course, an ardent believer in personal freedom.

Then there's her antagonists, the Becket brothers who rule the United Corporations cartel, (eventually) the New Confederacy that replaced the United States of America after the coup of 2012, and Dictel Corporation. The Synarchy that put them in power is devoted to the principle of sovereign freedom, which it conflates with Order and Good. Cartel chairman Richard Becket even goes so far as to tell Shira that, to preserve the dominion of Order over the world (which the Chairman and his brothers are trying so desperately to preserve), one must become Lawful Evil. The cops and soldiers working for them (such as Henry Becket's daughter, relentless FBI [and later Europol] agent Diana Shockley) tend toward Lawful Stupid.

The New Confederacy's entire basis is Lawful Stupid. Rather, it's Christian Conservatism, based in the Evangelical churches; Genre Savvy Shira contemptuously calls it "Lawful Stupid for Jesus America". The militant Minuteman organization that serves as its paladins and/or enforcers are Lawful Evil, Lawful Stupid, or both. And why does the Confederacy have such, uh, a high turnover rate at the top? It can only be explained by Lawful Stupid, which turns factional conflicts into blood feuds.

Commander Will Becket, the Navy SEAL antiterrorist and Diana's youngest brother, is one of Spanner's most implacable enemies from the beginning. He is Lawful Good, though, and lives by Honor Before Reason. Unlike some of his fellow counterterrorists (most of them, actually), he is not Lawful Stupid. But for him, morality (Good and Evil) is the point: it is what eventually turns him against his father and uncles. In D&D terms, he is a Paladin — the one, that is, who does not share the traditional Paladin vice of Lawful Stupid.

Team Spanner's alignments are all over the map, so to speak. Among the core members: Shira's girlfriend Leila Shelley, the antiheroine, can be considered True Neutral, since her morality is even more pragmatic than Shira's (to the point of outright amorality) and she is indifferent to Order versus Chaos as long as both sides don't interfere with her life (needless to say, Order does, with a Lawful Stupid vengeance). Jennifer Richter-Thomas, the team's resident Teen Genius and Hot Scientist (and Token Glasses Girl, though generally not quite as "sweet" as the anime archetype), combines Neutral Good with ruthless rationality. Genki Girl Karen Kubota and teenage witch Polly Parker are emphatically Neutral Good; Karen is even a pacifist. "Deadeye" Debbie Longmuir, lesbopunk assassin with dead aim, even though she's a Becket (bizarrely, Longmuir is her married name), is not Lawful but Chaotic Evil; however, she is also completely tsundere: whenever Shira (or, later, other beautiful female characters) kiss her, she melts and becomes, you could say, love drunk; she first appears as a villain, lunatic sidekick to high school Princess of Mean Charmian Fleer (her cousin), but when Shira recruits her she becomes an antivillain, yet ironically the one team member most obsessed with doing Good against Evil.

Of these characters, only two (Will Becket and his niece Debbie Longmuir) are concerned with fighting for Good. All the others, from Cartel chairman Richard Becket to his nemesis Spanner, are concerned with freedom. Of course, they want it for themselves. What divides them, even makes them enemies, is whether they would fight for others' freedom or deny freedom to others: personal or sovereign freedom. And so the plot of Spanner revolves around Order vs. Chaos, control vs. freedom. It's really a battle between two kinds of idealists, both willing to do evil for the sake of the ideal, but only one of which does evil to sustain the ideal. Or, to twist David Twohy's five-word description of The Chronicles of Riddick ("bad guys versus evil guys"), it's like this: good bad guys versus evil good guys.

To sum up: the point of Spanner is not morality, but freedom.

Back to Spanner’s World...

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