Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Moral Majority

Warning: The following post contains spoilers for my books. Please proceed  accordingly.

One of my favorite themes as a consumer of fiction is Grey and Grey Morality. This is for a few reasons. The first is that it's more life-like than the alternatives. Few people are saints, and few are total villains. Everyone has flaws, and everyone ends up hurting someone, somehow, at some point in their lives, no matter how well-intentioned they are.

I heard someone say once that they "try very hard not to cross moral lines." I'm sure this is true, and I think most good people make that effort. But in my view this is impossible -- different people have different ideas about what is moral, and most people's moral universes account for changing situations. What is unacceptable under one circumstance might be acceptable or at least regrettably necessary under others. (For instance, killing someone is generally regarded as wrong, but killing someone who is trying to kill you or your children? Much more acceptable. And so a person who would be a murderer in one circumstance is transformed by context into a victim, a blameless party, or even a hero.)

Which brings us to my second reason for enjoying Grey and Grey Morality, and making it a staple of the fiction I create: it allows me to explore the moral acceptability of different acts in different contexts. Most of the characters I write are well-intentioned people acting in the greater good as they see it. You'll find few true mustache-twirlers in my work. And yet some of them, at first glance (and sometimes at second and third glance, as well), appear to be monsters.

For instance, Ainsling Cronlord, the mother of Alex Cronlord, one of the protagonists of The Weaver Saga, is a woman who has been conducting genetic experiments on Alex since birth. For Alex's entire pre-story life, she has done so without the girl's knowledge. On its face, this is a heinous, horrific act. Surely no jury in the world would have sympathy for such a person, and would impose a lengthy jail sentence (if not the death penalty) of anyone convicted of doing what she did.

And yet, in the course of the story, we find out that Ainsling and the people she works for experiment on their children in order to protect them (and the world) against the Xorda, a race of beings who are stronger than we are, faster than we are, immune to most human weapons, and regard us as food. Oh, and they can make themselves almost irresistible to us, too, by the way. Faced with such an enemy -- one determined to kill us, and against whom conventional methods of self-defense don't work -- wouldn't Ainsling have a greater license to do things that would be unacceptable under normal circumstances?

This is not to say she's an unalloyed "good guy," either -- she's still experimenting on her own child, for goodness sake! But it becomes harder (I think) to view her in purely stereotypical terms when you understand the desperate circumstances she faces. (More about those circumstances will be revealed in Book 2 of the Saga, The Void, coming April 2012.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Hunter Gamble, the protagonist of The Legal Fiction Series, seems pretty darned heroic up front. Not only does he idolize Atticus Finch, from To Kill A Mockingbird, he tries very hard to be Atticus, building a law practice consisting of defending "arcane" clients that the rest of society reviles. Sam Pollard's murder trial is his version of the Tom Robinson rape trial -- he takes the case, and the harm to his reputation that comes with it, because he believes it's the right thing to do. At first glance, he's practically Ghandi.

But as the book goes on and the violence of the Salvation Alliance, the human supremacist group that opposes his efforts, escalates, one must (I think) ask: how good is he, really, if he's willing to put innocent lives in danger for his own views of right and wrong? Surely anyone would agree that his life is his, to do with what he wants, but what about Kirsten and Sabrina? They didn't ask for this. It's not even clear whether they're fully aware of the risks involved in taking Sam's case. And Sabrina's a teenage girl.

Granted, Kirsten almost certainly would have assumed the risks anyway, for other reasons. But still. Isn't there something a little cold or at least irresponsible about someone who will endanger innocent lives for the sake of some amorphous "greater good"? Isn't there at least an argument that Hunter's first responsibility is to his friends and family, not to a client he barely knows?

I'm not going to tell you what to think about either character (at least not yet). But for me, it's a much more enjoyable experience when a reader is forced to question his (or her) preconceived assumptions about both the "good" and "bad" guys. And that's why you can almost always count on my fiction to be grey-on-grey. That way, you can make men out of monsters, and monsters out of men.

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