Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Hero Stories

A strange blog item appeared the other day on New World Notes, and will be little noticed by the world at large.

In the online Snow Crash-inspired world of Second Life, a volunteer group of guards has appeared.

They have spontaneously joined together to protect a charity organization: a group that has been using an island in the game to create a simulated refugee camp in Darfur. The group is trying to raise awareness and funding for the refugees. Unfortunately, people on the Internet, seemingly rational adults, sometimes behave like assholes. Someone has "griefed" the site repeatedly, trying to crash the island's simulation, throwing the volunteers around with "push guns."

The guards are now patrolling the area, asking anyone suspiciously hanging around what they are doing there, and trying to prevent future acts of griefing.

The guards? They're the Green Lantern Corps. A bunch of Second Life residents who have been role-playing as members of an alien police organization from DC Comics. They wear green spandex outfits and glowing rings, and they have created little bits of computer code to give themselves special effects related to their comic book alter egos. Now they are playing hero in a tangiable, albeit still virtual, way.

The power of stories is something often commented on, but little understood in the practical sense any longer.

It is not hard to see why not. The sweeping narrative poems of the ancient world are only studied in schools. Shakespeare is admired and revered more often than felt and loved. The didactic stories, the Boys Own tales of the Victorian era, are regarded, by those who know them, as the cheap struts that held up a hypocritical empire.

(Socialists even have a rigid taboo against storytelling. There is a refusal there to imagine future socialist worlds of any kind which I find appalling, but that is a post for another day.)

What is the power of stories? It is ultimately the power of making people find in themselves what they wish to find. If you hold a story inside, you learn from it. Fiction is ultimately a shaping force on the human mind. How many knights rode into battle with the Song of Roland's words ringing in their ears? How many Greeks entered the phalanx thinking of Homer's Achilles? How many American soldiers went to war thinking of Davy Crockett at the Alamo?

Stories, as the above examples indicate, can lie to us, send us cavalierly into combat, make us sell our lives for lying politicians. But they have also inspired some of the noblest actions of human history. Yet when I look around at modern literature (that's capital L literature, books that Matter) there aren't a lot of stories that stir the soul to greatness.

There are a lot of things to be said for modern literary fiction, and the boundaries between that genre (yes, it's a genre) and the fantastic and adventurous ones is thinner than those on either side imagine. But the division is usually seen, by the partisans of each side, as one between fascistic, juvenille power fantasy (SF and superheroes) and carefully studied middle class misery posing as realism (Literature). The raw, inspirational stuff has been left to the genres considered less serious.

The Second Life Green Lantern Corps is not going to save the world. They may get bored with their guarding job next week and wander off. They might never stop another griefing attack. And all in all, it's a pretty insignificant conflict, as we are reminded by the presence of the real Darfur.

But the very fact that it was the Green Lantern role players who stepped in makes me hopeful for the power of story. There are a lot of role playing groups in Second Life, everything from air pirates to furries to vampires. It doesn't surprise me at all that none of them stepped in before the super heroes did. The tales of a bunch of green-clad aliens may not seem very important to the world at large, but to the people who first picked up those comics at the age of ten or twelve, they could be as powerful as the Song of Roland. Those 22-page books taught kids, for the purpose of separating them from the cost of a comic, that the defenceless should be protected, that the good should sacrifice themselves for a just cause, that might does not make right. The fact that they have stepped in to help the Darfur volunteers showed they have internalized that lesson to an extent.

So have we all. Every one of us had an experience like the Green Lantern Corps. We have all read noble, cheap fiction. Maybe clumsily worded, but filled with high ideals.

Warren Ellis is a writer who has made something of a career of stripping comic book archetypes down to their essences. He wrote a brief story in his Planetary series that summed up the Green Lantern ideals: "Be the kind of policeman who works, not for laws or authority structures, but for finer worlds."

We can all do this. If we have ever read a hero's story, we have heroes inside of us. When we play the hero's role, it doesn't matter to the world at large if we are insecure, full of doubt and hidden torment. Think of the stories, pretend to be the hero, and let the fiction become reality.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Quote of the Day

"Actually, if you just went and hired and assembled every bureaucrat who fled in disgust from the Bush Administration, they might make a pretty good government."

- Bruce Sterling, from his blog.