F&SF Cultures — Who’s Responsible?

I came across a comment by a reviewer that condemned [yet again] one of my characters [not Van Albert, surprisingly enough, who has taken much abuse over the years since The Ethos Effect was published] for killing “innocents” when she destroyed a city ruled by those who had inflicted great evil on others for generations. The evil wasn’t questioned, but the extent of the “collateral damage” was, and it was questioned on the grounds that it was akin to condemning all Germans in WWII because Hitler was the German head of state.

Now, it could be that I’m just cynical and jaundiced because I spent some twenty years in and around national politics in Washington, D.C., but evil governments aren’t just foisted off on hapless people. All those evil lobbyists? Are they really so evil? I mean, if General Conglomerated Amalgamations doesn’t get the contract for the SPX-Vortex, the good people of West Podunk will lose a thousand jobs. And if we don’t contract out to Halliburton and Blackwater, why… to keep the war going in Iraq we might have to extend Army and National Guard tours of duty, or even re-institute the draft, and isn’t it much better just to handle these disagreeable tasks with good old American private enterprise?

There’s something about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

And the same realization should permeate good fantasy and science fiction. That evil king who tortured peasants and abused young women in ways too degrading to mention… did he do it all alone? Who supplied the torture tools? Who staffed the dungeons? Who grew the food that fed the castle? Who made the spears and swords? Were all his subjects so cowed by his army that they could do nothing? Perhaps, but what cowed the army and the generals? They had the majority of weapons, and why couldn’t they suggest that torture wasn’t a good idea? Besides upsetting people, it’s really not very effective in getting accurate information.

The same questions arise in SF, in future high-tech terror states. Exactly who’s behind all the spying, the loss of freedom, the midnight raids? Is it just the president, the prime minister, the head of the military? Or might it be also the industrial combine that supplies surveillance gear, and the people who work there who want to keep their jobs and their paychecks? Or the weapons manufacturer and its employees… or the communications giant..

As I and others have noted, no government in history has survived against the will of the majority of its people. Many haven’t even survived against the will of a small and determined minority. That does have a tendency to suggest that when evil individuals rule a land, fictional or real, they do so with either the tacit acceptance or the willing support of the majority of the populace. And under those conditions, just how innocent are the “innocents” who accepted the benefits of that government while claiming it wasn’t their fault?

In short, does the responsibility for evil rest solely on the designated head of state? It’s so convenient and reassuring to think so, but should we, as writers, really foster that comforting illusion?