Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Science Fiction & Thanksgiving

**SPOILER WARNING**

This is what is on my mind this morning, as I come back from a weekend where I went out to the movies twice, once to see Catching Fire and once to see the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special.  There's a common thread that runs through both the recent Doctor Who seasons and the Hunger Games trilogy, and that is the effects of war on the survivors and the ethical struggles before and after making a decision to kill innocents in order to end a war.

It's not really in Catching Fire that this question occurs; it's actually in the next book, Mockingjay.  In it, there are two parts that I'm thinking of -- first, there's the decision by District 13 to bomb children and aid workers to advance the rage against the Capitol.  Here's the description of when Katniss learns about the weapons that will eventually be used in that way:
This is what they’ve been doing. Taking the fundamental ideas behind Gale’s traps and adapting them into weapons against humans. Bombs mostly. It’s less about the mechanics of the traps than the psychology behind them. Booby-trapping an area that provides something essential to survival. A water or food supply. Frightening prey so that a large number flee into a greater destruction. Endangering off-spring in order to draw in the actual desired target, the parent. Luring the victim into what appears to be a safe haven— where death awaits it. At some point, Gale and Beetee left the wilderness behind and focused on more human impulses. Like compassion. A bomb explodes. Time is allowed for people to rush to the aid of the wounded. Then a second, more powerful bomb kills them as well. (Kindle Locations 2381-2387)
Gale and Beetee are contemplating something unthinkable to Katniss:  large-scale killing of innocent people in order to get at a few desired targets.  And then, there's the question posed to Katniss and the other surviving victors by Coin near the end.  President Coin says:
"In fact, many are calling for a complete annihilation of those who held Capitol citizenship. However, in the interest of maintaining a sustainable population, we cannot afford this....  What has been proposed is that in lieu of eliminating the entire Capitol population, we have a final, symbolic Hunger Games, using the children directly related to those who held the most power.” (Locations 4675-4682)
Coin presents these options as if they are the only choices -- mass killing of all Capitol citizens, or a Hunger Games, killing innocent children to satisfy those whose rage calls for complete annihilation.

Katniss is not the person really making these decisions, despite the illusion that the victors get to decide between two false choices, but she is haunted by the decisions she has had to make, and haunted by the knowledge that people she knew and cared for have been involved in these decisions.  It is President Coin who made the decision to kill innocents to stop the war sooner, and to give into the two evil choices of mass annihilation or hunger games to satisfy political unrest after the war has ended.  We don't see in Coin any regret, any awareness of the level of evil.  We only get that through Katniss, who has willingly been her Mockingjay.

In Doctor Who, the Doctor has been haunted for the last several seasons by the decision he made to destroy his home planet of Gallifrey in order to end the Time War.  We haven't known a lot of details about this until recently, and whether or not he thought he made the right decision, only that the decision left him in a world of regret and sorrow.  In the 50th anniversary special, we get to hear him say for the first time that he has counted the number of children he killed, and that his decision was wrong.  Fortunately for a Time Lord, he is able to undo, or, rather, not do that decision.  He makes another choice, and Gallifrey falls no more.  It doesn't erase his centuries of sorrow at what he thought he had done, but it changes the final outcome.

In the real world, we don't get to stop time and go back and put Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a pocket universe to protect them.  The Pequot Massacre isn't averted by our sending an arrow through Captain John Mason at the last moment.  Science fiction often lets us off the hook about feeling the full weight of the horror -- our heroes, eventually, make the right choice.  But what science fiction also is letting us do is know that there is a number to be counted for the degree of comfort and safety we hold.  Were we as good as the Doctor, we would hold that number in our heart and know it, and know the decision was wrong.  Of course, were we as good as the Doctor, we wouldn't actually have pushed that button after all. 

I want our world to be more like the Doctor and less like Coin.  But I fear that the opposite is true and our world is much more like the District 13 or even the Capitol, which in the end seem much alike.

It's a sad message I'm taking into Thanksgiving this year.  But after a Sunday of sharing the pulpit with a local Native American friend, talking about the truth and myth of Thanksgiving, this is where I'm at.  Ultimately, I conclude where I did on Sunday, that what I, at least, am feeling now is the need for the holiday time this year not to be so much about giving thanks as truth-telling.  Thanksgiving is becoming, for me, less of a Passover story of exodus, and more of a Yom Kippur, a day of atonement. 

No comments: