The End of Everything? From So Many Mighty Powers?

Have fantasy and science fiction become a choice between the endless series and the “end of everything” fiction, with the middle ground being the endless series attempting to fight off the coming apocalypse, otherwise known as the end of everything? And of course, these days in fantasy there are more gods, goddesses, sorcerers and sorceresses, demigods and demons, and various powers of incredible might and unfathomable evil than ever existed in all the belief systems and divine pantheons in all of human history. And then there are the vast and sinister conspiracies that are so well organized and so secretive that, if unchecked, they will rule the world, yet are so often stopped in their tracks by a single bumbling wizard or barely trained whoever or whatever.

The media arena doesn’t have quite the variation, but has a definite emphasis on the evil supernatural, depicted in terms of blood, gore, and sex that would have seemed far beyond decency for movie-goers of 50-60 years ago.

So… why all the incredible evil, the almost unimaginable power, gross sexuality, and all too vividly depicted gore? What is it about American society today that finds all this so fascinating?

Do so many Americans believe that the end of the world, or their way of life, is coming to an end? Or are they so jaded that the simpler evils and triumphs enjoyed by earlier generations fail to move them? Or do they lack the imagination to picture the impact of less vividly described or viewed pleasures and punishments?

Or is it that all too many of the current generation of Americans have no real idea, no personal experience with starvation, death, brutality, tyranny, and the crushing burden of true slavery or even the grinding wage slavery of a century ago? Oh, everyone in range of mass media sees the pictures, hears the trained solemnity with which talking heads present yet another death or disaster. And Americans behave as if the everyday world in which they live is beset with terror, danger, and death, when the fact is that, for all the faults our society has, today we live in a society with one of the lowest levels of overall danger in human history. And, sad to say, even the less privileged position of poor minorities today is far less dangerous the the average middle-class life of less than a century ago.

But then, perhaps too many Americans revel in media death, depravity, and danger because so few of them have truly seen or experienced much – or any, in some cases – of it in real life, and not as the media once put it, “up close and personal” [which was never really either], unlike previous generations who did experience more than most ever wanted, and that may be why they wanted more uplifting entertainment.

As for me, I don’t claim to have experienced it all. If I had, I’d already be dead, but I’ve seen more than enough, and experienced enough of the less than wonderful times, that I find no appeal in the “darkest side” of fiction and media… and still wonder about why so many seem to revel in tales so dark that the darkest of what I’ve written seems light by comparison, despite the fact that some of my work is, beneath the surface, rather dark.

10 thoughts on “The End of Everything? From So Many Mighty Powers?”

  1. James Goetsch says:

    I also share your puzzlement, Mr. Modesitt. I can recall even as a teenager (in the ’70s) walking out of “slasher/horror” films (to the puzzlement of my friends). When they asked me about it, all I could come up with then was “Why would I want to fill my mind and memory with all those ugly images?”–and I don’t think I have a much better answer than that to give today, no matter how I might try to gin it up with sophisticated language. I gave up quickly on “Game of Thrones”, as it served simply to remind me of so much in our real world that is bleak and disheartening, and I have regularly shied away from all the various so-called “Grimdark” novels that are so popular. I suppose I even prefer the old Batman tv show to the new ones (and certainly to the new Superman, who killed his enemy in the latest movie). If you have studied history even a little bit, it seems there are enough horrors there to stagger the mind and send you whimpering into the corner, and I am most grateful for books like yours–which certainly contain, as you say, a lot of darkness, but not the violence and degradation that seems so prominent and favored today. The “Game of Thrones” phenomenon is again the prime exemplar of this for me–a sort of reveling in the base side of human nature (especially in how women are treated). But perhaps many of these people don’t believe there is anything BUT a base side to human nature, and so they take what they can get from their point of view–poor bastards.

    1. Dave White says:

      Excellent post. I too find Modesitt a most enjoyable writer and have read most of his books 2 or 3 times. Have tried many others and find only a few who create compelling and interesting characters and situations. Hope he has another 20 years of tales in him.

  2. Sam says:

    When I read books as a child I was open to everything. I had preferences of course but I had a very low threshold for suspension of disbelief – suspension of disbelief in my view being a prerequisite for enjoying/immersing yourself in a work of fiction.

    As I’ve gotten older I have become more cynical. When I read/view works of fiction about human characters even in fantasy settings I expect them to behave like humans in the real world in order to suspend my disbelief.

    Also as I’ve developed my own views about the world and the way it works things I once lapped up I now think twice about.

    Superman’s no killing rule for example. As far as whether or not Superman should kill I am a fence-sitter. What I do think is that whatever he does he should have to face consequences for his choice. For example not killing Zod meaning he had to bear the guilt for not being able to save that family in that moment because he couldn’t kill.

    I am fairly left-wing leaning as I understand the meaning and am opposed to the death penalty which was abolished in my country before I was born for which I am glad. I am often uncomfortable with how much killing Mr Modesitt’s protagonist’s engage in to accomplish their goals.

    Yet my aversion to this aspect of his work does not dissuade me from reading and enjoying it.

    The same applies to Game of Thrones. The books took so long to come out I’ve lost interest in it somewhat but years ago I enjoyed the first three books and eagerly awaited the fourth.

    I don’t like everything every character does in those books but truthfully I cannot say that if I was in their position I wouldn’t do the same in some cases.

    Circumstance dictates our choices as much as any moral code we adhere to.

    Lack of education and basic literacy likely makes peoples worldview much smaller and less focussed on the larger picture and other points of view.

    I think Game of Thrones highlights this in many ways.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    I think you’re 100% right on this one. Those (such as my parents) that had seen real evil first-hand found nothing entertaining about it in fiction, certainly not taken to fanciful extremes. They might have favored (or indeed written) a relatively realistic (but not gruesomely detailed) cautionary tale.

    Conversely, given some slight censorship in the past, the backlash against that plus the profit motive, plus jaded consumers as each extreme must be topped by another, have set up a situation where some in the creative (using the word loosely) community act as if it’s their outright duty to push beyond any limit. While there have perhaps not yet been snuff films, the typical boost for the last movie or album by someone dead of other than natural causes, makes me wonder if half the country doesn’t watch Jerry Springer.

  4. steve says:

    It is only after raising and butchering poultry, lambs and pigs that I have all but stopped eating meat.

    It is only after meeting and working with undocumented individuals that I advocate for balanced immigration reform.

    It is only after working with people bankrupt by medical bills that I advocate for healthcare reform.

    Perhaps it will only be after Americans experience violence that they will have their fill. However, since movies still depict mass shootings after Sandy-Hook, and widespread destruction after 9-11, perhaps there is no limit to the violence that our society will tolerate.

  5. alecia says:

    I think there have always been vicarious thrills for readers and watchers of dark stories, but today, the trend seems to be more is better(?) and subtlety is a lost art. I refuse to read or watch or support this trend. I just don’t enjoy it – it doesn’t teach me anything or make me feel anything other than nausea. The sad thing is that I feel I’m in the minority. I understand violence is sometimes necessary as a preventative against more – and worse – violence (the ISIL/Yazidi issue is an awful, but to-the-point example of this), but I don’t understand the current use of gratuitous violence in movies, books, or movies.

    As far as sex in media, I haven’t really send any changes here – other than it is more visible in mainstream television and movies. But I think that is a change in censorship rules more than anything else. What annoys me about the emphasis on sex, is that it’s frequently reviewed as daring, or important to the story, or whatever, other than what it really is, and that’s just pure titillation or appealing to the lascivious appetites of readers/viewers.

  6. Peter says:

    I have noticed the series and the exaggeration of bad guys, too. I think it’s a marketing thing: Emphasis on the former makes it easier to reach established fans, especially in video, while the latter aims to carve a niche in the audience. Once the barriers to sex and gore fell years ago, producers in print and video have been pushing the stakes higher and higher to grab that emotional impact and get people to send their friends. Not everybody enjoys high-impact bad guys — I have enjoyed your ambivalent characters because they’re fresh and realistic, even in a fantasy environment — but they’re a staple for investors and publishers, and I fear people who don’t have your clout don’t get much attention if they don’t comply.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    Roman Gladiatorial Contests….. except sanitized so as to not offend. Who will be our Nero?

  8. Tom says:

    From “The Elysium Commision” – A tactic for affecting a society’s priorities. Various forms of vice generate credit flows. Once they are large enough, they take a life of their own. Social analysis shows that, over time, they turn the society inward. They make it more selfindulgent, more isolationalist, less likely to attack or expand, or even to defend marginal territory or commercial activity that does not seem to bear on the society’s immediate needs. Those needs veer toward present self-gratification. … Are our society’s need for the dark side of entertainment another sign of a degrading nation?

    1. Unless there’s a significant change in the near future, I fear so.

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