Editorial – Sept 2014 : The ethics and responsibility of choice.

Hello everyone

In fiction, whatever the genre, ethics is pretty much the same. It’s divided between working for the establishment or that of the individual in the decision process. No one questions whether either choice is actually right or wrong, just who it serves better. It is rarely about whether there are other choices or where the alternatives will lead. A lot of the time, I suspect writers don’t go into that kind of depth in case they lose the reader in elements of duplicity. After all, are you duping the reader or the character and some readers will confuse the two. You might like the anti-hero but even they have their ethics and do the right thing despite themselves or they would otherwise be called the anti-villain which sounds a bit off. Whichever, any writer finds when they deviate from the expected that they have to explain and justify the choice.

pulpy pulp

Moral behaviour, which is essentially ethics, ensures you root for the right character and go boo, hiss at the villain. There is always that dividing perimeter where the anti-hero lives and there’s never an anti-villain when you want one, although really they are one and the same, created to show a borderline in the choices to be made. As the hero can’t go down that route, it’s left to the more ethically challenged character to make such choices. To some extent, there has to be a level of trust between author and reader that things will resolve itself in the finale.

At the end of the day, the villain is expendable, having served the purpose of being in the wrong doing bad things and shown crime or whatever he or she’s done doesn’t pay and the ethics of the plot is served. The hero being right means an ethical set-up is lodged in your head for doing the right thing. Occasionally, there are grey areas where the characters might flip such rules but these tend to be rare and often left to the anti-hero. Even if there are wider ethical issues, these are still made plain to the reader. You rarely go away from the story to consider the choice of ramifications if the hero made the wrong decision or even made a better decision. The unspoken rules between writer and reader don’t really let you analyse that. Well, not so much outside of our genre but within, we analyse everything, although maybe not ethics so much which is the whole point of this editorial. It just goes to show even we tend to be satisfied just as long as the heroes win.

Fantasy makes this more exact for good versus evil. Horror even more so. You aren’t left in any doubt as to who the good and bad guys or ladies or monsters are. No one looks at the creature’s issues with what it does. Although the creature might be seen as the bad guy, often from its perspective it’s doing what it must to survive, so it must have its own values for what is ‘good’. Humans do that as well so it shouldn’t seem that surprising, although self-sacrifice for a cause is acceptable. Science Fiction is somewhere you expect things to do more and even surprise the reader when it comes to ethics. The price paid to win can often forget the bodies and destruction left in its path. The win is everything. The hidden rules. Good beats evil all the time or at least gets it pushed under the carpet or into a version of hell so it doesn’t menace for some time.

If you don’t think that these hidden rules exist, then the next time you read a badly composed story, ask yourself how did you recognise the mistakes? You have a feeling of wrongness whether you realise or not, even if your grammar isn’t top should you write yourself. As an editor, I look for these things all the time and my job is to ensure that such mistakes aren’t there or at least minimal. No one is perfect so it’s more a case of minimising such errors to tolerable levels. Even if your grammar isn’t perfect, there’s part of your head that will notice a disjointed pattern and know something isn’t working. This can extend beyond grammar. It applies to ethics as well. Yet beyond the good guys winning or occasionally, the no-win end for the hero, no one queries the ethics and very rarely if there was a better solution than the one the author used, mostly because there’s a certain amount of conditioning to accept the printed page as what is intended not what could have been done. With our genre, there is a lot more analysis and even with plot choices, few will query the ethics of the situation or the right decisions being made. Interestingly, this doesn’t happen so much with genre films and everyone criticises when there is a poor ending, unless it leaves things open for a sequel.

Very rarely in fiction in any genre, outside of maybe romance, is there any compromise in finding a solution between the characters. Everyone stays to the plan. When you consider that in peace negotiations, it is the compromise that is looked for, it seems to be rarely used or I’m simply not reading the right books. In that respect, the good soundly beats evil plot has remained with us since childhood. It’s no wonder that the interest in mythologies and even super-hero comics has remained with us into adulthood. We like things more in black and white, good and evil, than in shades of ethically gray. Looking at what I wrote here, when it comes to my own fiction, when I’m plotting and come up with several viable solutions, I tend to incorporating them into the story so nothing is wasted but that‘s just me.

With the latter, even if you don’t like heroes sacrificing their lives, you abide by the decision of the writer. I suspect on some level to question means not only to question the character’s choice but that of the author and it might be seen as a given that he or she might not make such a mistake again if too many don’t like the ethical choice.

If you do a body count, you might well wonder what kind of murderous feelings the writer conceals, especially in the manner of the deaths. After all, he or she doesn’t discriminate whom they kill, providing the main characters are there until the end. They might be words on paper but digging into your imagination, they brought these people alive to life for you. So you’re essentially being played to believe words have been murdered although really it’s the images you have in your mind. Not wishing to put you off writers in person, those authors who have discussed it tend to see their stories as exercising their inner demons and nothing like it in real life.

In reality, though, you are seeing a mental exercise in ethics. Often as authors would like it to be seen. A few years ago, when I was reading some Russian Science Fiction, I expected to at least see some sense of their country’s ideology coming out in their fiction, even if they didn’t necessarily privately go alone with it, but the ethnics were still largely similar to our own. Of course, it could mean that either author ethics are the same around the world or there are rarely any good (sic) successful writers with oddball ethics in their fiction. It could also mean such fiction never gets past a publisher’s dustbin as well.

Let’s go back to this sense of ethics. It can be based off the ability to differentiate between right and wrong and self-interest. The fourth interest could be deemed patriotism or that of the interests of the people or country you work for. This extends the ethical consideration because I doubt if rival countries would see the actions of their agents as being anything but being ‘good’ for their country, even if the way they do things would be questionable in a court of law or at least as far action accountability is processed. Think of that the next thing you watch or read an action spy thriller and see the body count. In such genres, no one is accountable in a court of law. With Science Fiction, where it could be the whole destruction of worlds and a massive loss of life, accountability is also forgotten. The ethics tends to turn to survival and any court post-mortem not put in film, series or novel. It’s challenging to think that ethical consideration is left at the door, mostly because many authors see things as a given and the reader is caught up in this hidden rule.

So, let’s end on a little poser: What if you discover that the writer has questionable ethics and even commits crimes later, does this stop you siding with them in the process of the story or makes you wonder if he’s already testing out his own ethics base on you before committing such acts so you don’t see them as being quite so bad? It’s an interesting dilemma. Let’s hope not too many people do it for real.

Thank you, take care, good night and think whose ethics you support and test in your reading.

Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk


A Zen thought: The weather of choice is often random.


Observation:  Now here’s an interesting problem. When Kane enters the egg nest in ‘Alien’, he complains that it feels like the tropics. However, he’s wearing a spacesuit which should be keeping his body at room temperature. So how would he know that? Even if Kane was carrying an exterior thermometer, I doubt if this would affect him inside unless his spacesuit was really faulty.


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