Reading for War
A Worth of FictionBy Callum Muntz August 31, 2020
“The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.” ― C.S. Lewis
If you could choose a single superpower, what choice would you make? Does manipulating objects with your mind excite you? Have you always wanted to be able to fly, or move very fast, see through walls, or shoot lasers from your eyes? My choice would be the power to manipulate time. Stop, slow, speed up, modify my time relative to yours, travel through time both backwards and forwards – anything and everything to do with time control. Not only do I think this choice has the power to beat all other superpowers, but the lives I could live would only be constrained by my imagination. Want to see what imperial Rome was like? Fine, go there. Oh, and go ahead and check the future lotto results so you can fund your flights to Italy to start your journey.
While waiting for such a superpower to manifest itself within me, reading fiction is the next best thing – and really, probably the only thing – that will get me close to living multiple lives.
“Congratulations on the new library, because it isn't just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you -- and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.” – Isaac Asimov, Letters of Note
Mythical creatures, magic spells, laser weapons, space flight, thrill inspiring horror, and gut-wrenching suspense are all elements of fiction, but they are not essential to good fiction. Good fiction is about the exploration of ideas free from the shackles of our individual existence. How many of us will ever work on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence development? Yet through good fictional story telling, we can appreciate the opportunities and problems such development presents. None of us will ever be a wizard as powerful a Sauron, but we can appreciate the notions his story presents, such as the corrupting influence of power and ambition, or that the use of power must be balanced and appropriate for the maintenance of order. Ask yourself, is there any ideological difference between the death-star and present-day nuclear weapons? The Empire’s ultimate weapon grants us excellent insights into diplomacy, the use of force, and deterrence not too dissimilar to the real world. Moreover, stories can offer us insight into, and appreciation for, real world circumstances. Using the Death Star example, we could reflect upon the United States’ experience immediately post WW2 as the only nation with the almighty power of a nuclear arsenal. In doing so, it might just generate an appreciation for how the US’ appropriately and responsibly used that power – something Star Wars inversely demonstrates too well in destroying Alderaan.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” – Dr Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
Fiction is free to explore ideas we have not experienced in the modern world or have not experienced for some time. A pandemic is the easiest to appreciate now, with COVID-19, but many others are foreseeable. War, famine, exploration, government overthrows, radical adjustments to the world’s order, religious zeal, use of weapons, use of technology, and a host of other ideas can be explored (or re-explored) freely in fiction. Better yet, fiction can explore these concepts together and in fashions that may have never occurred. What happens when a State collapses from widespread famine, leading to a military over-throw of their government who control significant quantities of weapons of mass destruction, and the military leaders have been influenced by a recent religious fanaticism spreading across the region? Different types of fiction build upon this opportunity by offering unique variances of this experience through their different settings or mediums. As examples, science fiction can do so amongst a possible – and even plausible – future setting, offering a glimpse into what might come to pass. Fantasy stories explore modern and relatable ideas free from the constraints of our real world – expressing ideas in an easily understandable fashion and with quite clear character tropes. This may seem paradoxical but think how straightforward it is to attribute evil to a creature like an orc. Historical fiction can give a great study of history in an engaging and personal fashion, perhaps even describing how modern ideals grew from ancient human values. Lastly, contemporary fiction brings with it a degree of gritty authenticity and realism which in turn creates relatability with the reader and allows them to explore alternate viewpoints very close to home.
Fiction can explore near limitless concepts, through many mediums. Yet central to all stories is an interest in the people involved in the tale, and the human condition within. Which leads me to the next important point. Good fiction is always a human story.
“You tried to help the people of the market. You mostly failed. This is life. The longer you live, the more you fail. Failure is the mark of a life well lived. In turn, the only way to live without failure is to be of no use to anyone. Trust me, I’ve practised.” - Chapter 82 – The Girl Who Stood Up; Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
Good fiction authors are masters at studying humans and their lives. A reader can learn as much from a good fiction story as from studying philosophy, morality, ethics, leadership, or even psychology. Moreover, what often delineates good from bad fiction is the author’s ability to examine these disciplines in a veiled fashion, embedded amongst engaging, entertaining, and interesting prose. The power of such story becomes even more potent when the reader is able to relate with their own experiences, perhaps even ‘inner demons’, or become inspired in their lives. Fiction allows the reader to partake in a personal journey they will probably never be able to within their reality, absorbing the experience all the same.
Yet it is worth noting that, despite their importance, traditional stories are not terribly comparable to the real world. Almost all stories are founded upon the structure of the hero’s journey. Anyone who has been presented a story is likely to have followed a hero depart on an adventure, face significant challenge, and then return having changed in some fashion. But rarely are our lives so nicely structured. Rarely will someone, or something, find us and disrupt our ordinary lives and give us the call to adventure. Rarely, if ever, are we special. If this is the case, why do such stories still have such appeal and are able to ‘draw us in’?
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” – J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The hero’s journey is certainly not the only story trope, but they all share a common appeal. This commonality, and what is fundamentally different from real life, is destiny. Bilbo was meant to find the ring; Luke Skywalker was the son of the chosen one; Batman’s parents were murdered at a young age, putting him on a destined path to save Gotham city; you may have a dormant time-manipulating super-power. Whilst these ‘heroes’ may not necessarily appear predetermined, because you can ask ‘why couldn’t this happen to any ordinary person should fate thrust similar circumstances upon them?’, it is precisely the act of storytelling that grants them their destiny. The story will always be the narration of their destined tale. All stories are effectively told ‘in reverse’, where we sit at some future point recounting the hero’s journey, and destiny has already selected the hero – which is why we never see them pull their hamstring before the final battle, unless it contributes to their fate or is perhaps for comedy.
So, if the structure of fictional stories is not akin to the real world, why is it so attractive and what value does it hold? Simply put, it is enticing to feel a part of something grand. Stories show us what life would be like if reality were not a chaotic mess of unpredictable interaction and gives us hope that perhaps everything happens for a preordained reason, or that we have a destined purpose to fulfil. This is one part of their appeal. This is what also makes them so relatable. If you went back through your history, selecting key elements from it, you could undoubtedly tell the hero’s journey of your life – perhaps with some creative licence, selecting what was important to the story of how your time control super power manifested and you saved the world. But when it was happening, I doubt it felt that way.
Which ties us back into the benefits of fiction and all you can learn from the lives of its characters. Their story tells you how they became who they are and asks you what you can learn from their experiences to become who you want to be. Yes, it is very unlikely you will live a hero’s journey, or a tragedy, as life is far too random, chaotic, and confusing to craft such precise tales. We are not destined for anything, but to live and die. But fiction just might allow you to live in a world, or many worlds, where such experiences exist – experiences that, without fiction or time control, will allude you your entire life.
 Mine is lying dormant, I have no doubt.
 Do not look to what the holistically best-selling fiction is… that way lies the path to the ‘romance’ category, the gateway to which is aptly inscribed ‘abandon all hope, all ye who enter here’.
 Also referred to as the Monomyth.
 Sorry, your mum is fallible and was wrong.
 Such as Tragedies, like of the story of Achilles or Shakespeare’s Macbeth.