Politics is very strange stuff – during smooth and prosperous times, it feels far less urgent – more like a running game, or a longstanding rivalry conducted within some sort of agreed framework of sportsmanship or honour.
When it gets very tense, it actually becomes impossible to discuss quite a few important matters – people are too upset to learn. Too defensive to allow that their treasured position might yet be denying important realities for others.
I’ve long been fascinated by the ways creative people have found to speak, during times when political dialogue is charged, and the mood, contentious. The McCarthy era makes an especially interesting study, because so many of it’s products yet survive and charm us.
Walt Kelly’s Pogo was always outrageously political (and yet still hilarious, even for a kid who didn’t get that subtext) but I would say Charles Schultz’s Peanuts was in a way, even more lastingly effective – and this, by being more ‘meta’ – and less grounded in the sorts of specific detail that invariably drift out of common knowledge over time.
Mind you – there was at least one occasion when Linus was doing an Adlai Stevenson outright, and the whole cast give us a wonderful vocabulary of archetypes, for a wide range of political/psychological positions, most of which do some sort of damage or insult, that poor Chuck must simply bear.
Science fiction was pressed into service in this same period – quite spectacularly in “The Twilight Zone” television series, and the enduringly poetic humane and brilliant books of Ray Bradbury.
But there’s one very odd later sci-fi classic, as adored as a work, as it’s writer is controversial, which has been popping into my head a lot lately, suddenly insisting far more general relevance than I ever saw there before.
“Enders game” by Orson Scott Card, is a truly brilliant piece of fiction – and in the next few paragraphs, I am about to give away it’s treasures (spoiler/dissection alert!).
If you want to read it (and if you’re game, you should), stop now, go to your library – they will have a copy – or they are a bad library (seriously, it’s an agreed part of the essential canon).
For those who are curious what I’ve found there, and willing to forgo the author’s own entrancing pace of revelation – here’s the central gag:
The tale follows an almost-teen kid (Ender) through a training school, where he and a group of others (all at their biological peak of comprehension and reaction speed) are learning to think about a brilliantly devised (and superbly described) game, which teaches it’s players to think in deep space terms – all relative velocities and closing vectors – no true “North/South, or Up/Down” reference at all (and so, no risk of trouble and confusion, in it’s absence).
The high-pressure school (to which Ender is the least socially entitled) has other features too – including a good bit of bullying directed his way. This, it turns out, is deemed part of his training, and his learning to be vicious, to force the bully to back-off for once and for all, is considered a valuable milestone by his supervisors. Not for no reason. While playing their zero gravity sport, the students are also studying tactics for fleet combat in space – and their integrated thinking grows steadily, as the physical experience of forces and ideas proved sound or faulty is added to raw study and intense computer simulation (almost a Montessori approach to space-thinking).
The only people who are completely real in that situation are the other also emotionally immature, guided and stressed competitors, being force-fed all their information and victory conditions by their trainers – the outside world is effectively irrelevant to all of them – the only thing that really counts is their games, and becoming the very best at them.
When the time comes for the greatest simulation battle of the course – their final graduation exercise – Ender is selected to lead the whole effort – and, remembering the superior force of the aliens and his bully both, he (at great sacrifice to his own forces) largely ignores their overwhelming striking forces, choosing instead to cause a mass extinction event on their home planet.
Only when they are finished the harrowing and extremely emotionally taxing test are they told that they weren’t actually playing a game at all. They actually were commanding the real massed forces of Earth in battle with the same aliens who threatened the Earth a generation ago – and they really did wipe that alien race out completely, even as Ender himself had begun to suspect the whole conflict was based upon a misunderstanding. The character Ender returned, riven with guilt, in “Speaker for the dead”
Now of course, we don’t know any immature people playing a contrived and competitive game so hard that nobody else outside their reality bubble even seems fully real, or in danger of causing an extinction event for which they can never hope to apologize, or find any hope of forgiveness, even in themselves.
It’s just a really good story, that’s all. Back to sleep.