Magical Economies (Part Three)

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Here is the last of three installments of my musings about magic. In the first episode I dealt with fictional stories portraying magic as an arcane study. Following this, I reviewed the sinister side of magic with ill-made pacts and potent items luring characters to their doom. In this last part, let’s consider the act of self-sacrifice made in hopes of ridding the world of some great evil.

Below are links to the other two posts referenced above. Please check them out if you haven’t already.

In all of these different applications of magic or supernatural power, I argue there is always a price to pay. Nothing is really free.

Dying for Others

The most basic instinct of any species is survival. Humans contain the capacity to conceptualize the future and are uniquely positioned to consider their own death. This burden of awareness of one’s own mortality haunts all of us at some point in life. Yet, it presents humanity with a unique opportunity when confronting death. We, alone of the animal kingdom, are capable of influencing when, how and why our death occurs. Throughout the ages, countless people have made the ultimate sacrifice of dying in order to save others. Soldiers, public safety personnel and everyday, ordinary, good samaritans are honored and celebrated for their willingness to put their lives in danger, so that others may live. 

Self-sacrifice is enshrined within the mythos of many spiritual traditions. These faiths believe eternal life, unobtainable to mortals, is secured with an incomprehensible divine gift. The narrative of a god becoming human, suffering and dying to vanquish death, is the ultimate illustration of the adage, “You can’t get something for nothing.” This prodigious concept has had a perennial effect, rippling through generation after generation of humanity’s collective consciousness. It is a notion consistently revisited and explored in the stories we create. Literature classes, worldwide, discuss and dissect pieces of writing, attempting to make sense of what has become know as a “christ-figure”. This literary term denotes a character, who willingly sets aside their own life to accomplish some greater good. Fans of The Lord of the Rings recognize Tolkien’s works are replete with examples of a willingness to die for the greater good. Gandalf’s sacrifice battling the balrogin the Mines of Moria, Boromir’s attempt to save Pippin and Merry from capture, and Sam and Frodo’s taking of the Ring to Mount Doom are merely the more recognizable instances of putting the life of others first. 

In the Star Wars, we all remember watching Obi Wanallow himself to be struck down by Darth Vader. This is a rich plot element not easily pinned down. His sacrifice allows the others to escape the Death Starwith the battle station’s design plans. On the face of things, this noble act gives the rebels a chance at destroying the super weapon. The jedi’s death saves millions of lives. Yet, Obi Wan has other motives. He is playing the long game, hoping to irrevocably turn the younger, impressionable Skywalker away from his father, Darth Vader. Ensuring Luke became a jedi was central to Obi Wan’s mission of restoring balance to the Force. The original 1977 movie was incapable of conveying the vastness of Lucas’s story concept. But, years later with the making of The Clone Wars series, fans finally learned the larger, cosmic backstory. With the rise of Emperor Palpatine, the very Force itself manifests to Yoda. He is given rare training providing a new understanding of the Force. Not unlike, Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation, a story about the creation of an enduring repository of knowledge for rebuilding civilization after utter destruction, the remaining jedi, armed with new insight, lay plans to safeguard the fading embers of their order. Under Yoda’s guidance, Obi Wan learns individuality can survive physical death, transitioning to a new, powerful state of existence. While remaining true to his oath to honor and protect life, Obi Wan’s new perspective empowers him to sacrifice his life for others. There is no evidence of fear. Viewers are treated to a figure tranquilly confident. He recognizes the loss of his physical body pales in comparison to what he’ll become. We all love Obi Wan’s line before he is slain, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” An older, weaker man during the time of the creation of the Death Star, Obi Wanhad much to gain by passing into the Force. The price of his physicality seems inconsequential.

The New Jedi Order book series, set years later during the time of the New Republic, tells the story of a novel threat from beyond the confines of the galaxy. An enemy wielding sophisticated, biologically-based weaponry is bent on total domination. Artificial intelligence and technology, the norm in the galaxy, is abhorrent to the invaders. They seek to eliminate all traces of it and reorder every world to align with their organic-based civilization. Similar to the Na’vi of Pandora from the movie Avatar, their way of life is entirely constructed around merging with other lifeforms in symbiotic relationships. However, unlike the inhabitants of Pandora, the Yuuzhan Vong dominate and genetically alter life to suit their needs, rather than working in harmony with it. This extragalactic society is ruled by a theocracy of warrior priests worshipping a cruel pantheon of gods. Their culture celebrates acts of self-mutilation, pain, treachery, egomania and war. Complicating matters, the Jedi can not sense Yuuzhan Vong within the Force, negating advantages Jedi typically have when fighting other species. The original characters of Star Wars remain actively involved in the story, along side a younger generation of Jedi. In the spirit of redemption, Han and Leia have named their youngest son, Anakin. He is a powerful jedi. In a desperate mission behind enemy lines, he desperately draws ever more of the Force within himself to save his friends, siblings and the mission. Readers discover the physical body has limits though in terms of how it can interact with this mystical energy. As Anakin pulls ever more of the Forcein, beyond safe limits, performing impossible feats, he burns the very life out of himself and dies. The episode is an exemplification of the magical economy at work. Possession of great might always takes a devastating toil on the wielder. Anakin saves the day, like Tony Stark does in Marvel’s, Avengers: Endgame, but interacting with such forces kills both. 

Finally, let’s consider the Thomas Covenant series. The main character, a true anti-hero, is hopelessly flawed and overtly resistant to helping anyone, but himself. We are confronted with his heinous crime, early in the series, and most readers are bewildered, as other characters resign themselves to helping Thomas Covenant. Sacrificing their own ethics and sense of morality, his victim and her family lay aside justice to save their world from its ancient enemy, Lord Foul. The Land, the name of the world in which Thomas Covenant finds himself transported, is inhabited by an archaic people, who consider white gold as an element of ultimate power. Thomas Covenant wears a white gold wedding band. To the people of the Land, he is the reborn embodiment of an ancient hero. He spends much of the series refusing to believe he is experiencing anything other than a dream. Continually playing an unsympathetic figure, he is confronted repeatedly with others sacrificing their lives in the belief he is the Land’s savior. Eventually, he comes to accepts his role, but finds himself ineffective and bereft of any sense of how to save the Land. He is in unable to reliably access the power of the white gold. This is a story full of great loss and tragic defeats. But, the ultimate battle isn’t meant to be won in the traditional sense. To defeat Lord Foul,the Despiser, brutish power will avail Thomas Covenant nothing. Salvation arrives only with the surrender of the white gold and sacrifice of himself. Through his own destruction, he enables the white gold power to use his essence to protect the Arch of Time from Lord Foul’s attempts to destroy it. Ultimately, the evil Despiser, Lord Foul is defeated not through any potent strike against him, but by his own use of the power surrendered to him.

Humanity is easily tempted. Many would be willing to pay a high price in order to achieve great wealth, power, fame or love. Even without magic, there are real world examples of men and women sacrificing morality for gain. Greed, pride, jealousy, zealotry and hunger for power are age old human conditions. These elements of humanity perpetually sow conflict throughout our world. Perhaps, storytelling is a form of catharsis for the entire species, allowing us to focus on acts of generosity, love and altruism. Historically, there is ample evidence of the ability of power to corrupt those with it. Yet, even the meekest have been know to display acts of sacrifice, tipping the scales to save many. Science fiction and fantasy offer the opportunity to explore  exaggerated situations, helping even the dullest of us contemplate the struggle between good and evil. Power always comes with a price and great responsibility. 

The Allure of Fantastic Technology

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My youngest turned 18 years old today…which in my mind makes me officially old. Many parents face this milestone with a sense of accomplishment at a job well done. They got their child to adulthood. Their son or daughter can now vote, is legally responsible for themselves and most likely is either in their first year of college or getting ready to start it. My son is 18. But, due to complications from an acute illness he had as an infant, he won’t be going to college, voting or ever to acting like an adult. For us this is just another day; a continuation of the responsibilities and care giving required over the last 18 years. I know most people who don’t know me or my son will instantly utter something like,

“Oh, that’s awful. So tragic. Poor thing. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

I do appreciate the well-meaning, genuine sentiment behind those words. Yet, these days when someone meets us and reacts this way, I feel a sense of embarrassment for them. I respond firmly stating,

“Yes, it was tremendously tragic 18 years ago, but not now.”

You see my son is perfect just the way he is. Do any of us really get to decide how their life plays out? I stop to reflect on what is it that they see as so grievous. They only see the things he can’t do. Of course they haven’t gotten the chance to get to know him and see how happy he is. A stranger doesn’t know what my son is capable of appreciating in this life. But, the people close to us celebrate his life for what it is. He lives in the moment untroubled by past and future. He judges no one. He is wide-eyed, curious, social and loves being in the thick-of-it surrounded by busy, bustling people. He enjoys walks outside and watching the trees speed by during a drive. His wookie-like vocalizations and his huge smile are delightful. (Incidentally, Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca is also deaf.) In a word, my son is joy.

Science fiction is rife with examples of extraordinary medical technologies that can cure all of this world’s current health woes. Instantly, I think of the character James Rhodes from Ironman. Rhody who becomes paralyzed is aided by Tony Stark who creates braces allowing him to walk normally when he is out of the War Machine suit. Similarly, LeVar Burton’s role as Jordy, on the television series, Star Trek: Next Generation, gave writers an opportunity to explore topics surrounding life with disabilities. The character was blind, but benefited from a stylish visor implant. The device not only restored his vision, but allowed him to see things the normal human eye couldn’t. Of course, I can’t help mention the suit Darth Vader wears after the loss of his legs and his near death at the lava fields on the planet Mustafar. The idea of using medical devices to help people live a better life is a noble one. Yet, some few point out that just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should. The deaf community has long fought to counter the push to use the cochlear implant as a means to “cure” deafness. Most people who are deaf resent the idea there is something that needs to be fixed about them. For them the inability to hear is just a part of who they are. They live happy, productive, rich lives.

Taking the idea of using technology to benefit humanity a bit further, there is a growing interest in wearable technologies that people can use to enhance the typical human body. VR googles, iWatches, and eye glasses that allow us to access the internet with eye gaze is perhaps the current limit to this concept of merging human and technological systems. Yet, anyone familiar with the Borg from Star Trek: Next Generation will give a bit of shutter and pause to consider if this is the direction we want to go in as a species. The Borg are an advanced humanoid society that have evolved to meld their biological bodies with robotics. They are very advanced and billions of individuals are connect intimately through a kind of wireless neural network. The end result is a total lose of free will and self-determination in the aim of serving the whole. The idea of a collective consciousness is one well explored in some eastern spiritual traditions and it has a sense of beauty to it. The Borg though are anything but this, they are merely pieces of a vast machine.

Another theme that is explored frequently in science fiction and fantasy is time travel. This is a concept that is immensely appealing to all of us. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back, hit delete a few times and rewrite the story of our live? I liken it to a video game. When the character dies you can restart at the same point, if you save your progress sufficiently. Feels like a cheat to me. Again, I return to my son. Would I wish he never got sick at two months old? Yes! Would I change that? Yes. Should I change it? Pause…now I’m not sure. I have always subscribed to the notion life’s tough knocks and bumps are learning lessons. They refine us, make us stronger; purer. When the storm clouds come it can be fierce and dreadful. But, as they recede we see the rainbow. So, I try to reflect on the unexpected joy, good, and benefits coming my way from the bad situations in life. Yes, we all have things we would change. But, I venture most of us wouldn’t.

Son, I love you just the way you are. I look forward to witnessing all the things in life you will do. I know you will make a huge impact on those around you. Like a pebble thrown in a pool of water your life will make ripples throughout the world. Happy Birthday!