Friday, April 23, 2010

Hoping for an End to Fate

The Ape just returned from a much-needed and enjoyable Caribbean sojourn. And like on many such past occasions, the reading selection for the trip was, shall we say, somewhat less rigourous than our normal fare. Enough praise and poison has been written about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy that we aren't interested in piling on another review or reflection.

Instead, the Ape would like to spend a few minutes thinking about a particular cliche of fantasy and sci-fi, especially of the young adult variety. It's familiar to us all, dates back to the earliest stories, and suffuses many religious traditions, especially in the West. In fact, this particular crutch is so common that I don't think we even think about it as a narrative device, though it's as hackneyed as a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. Yes my friends, it's time to be rid of destiny.

I have a sort of philosophical objection to leaning on "fate" to motivate plot, but that in a minute. Let me get the rant out of the way first. And the rant is thus: dear god, is destiny boring. Harry Potter. Anakin Skywalker. Neo. Lyra Silvertongue. Aragorn. The kids from The Chronicles of Narnia whom I don't want to look up right now to get their names straight. See what I'm getting at? At this point I'd prefer a Bruce Willis wisecrack in the middle of a terrorist plot to another fantasy/sci-fi protagonist who has special powers, no parents, and a lame-ass prophecy.

So that's the first part of this little diatribe and it's something I've been thinking about for awhile. But this next little bit is new, and it crystallized around His Dark Materials. First a little unavoidable plot summary: His Dark Materials follows young, parentless, and fated Lyra and her long-foretold role in the remaking of the world. An infuriatingly played-out set-up to be sure, but not, on its own, unforgivable.

What is unforgivable here, or at least extremely annoying, is that the idea of fate contradicts the ideological ax Pullman is grinding. See, His Dark Materials is about the triumph of reason, understanding, and tolerance over the oppressive, dictatorial, and soul-crushing power of the Catholic Church (though he probably wouldn't mind if we threw even the most benign Protestant sects into the vat as well. Like Presbyterians. And Banana Republic).

So the idea that there is some age-old prophecy about how some little English girl will overthrow the tyranny of organized religion seems just downright wrong-headed. And it gets even more convoluted from there. Not only is there a prophecy about the girl, but she can't know about it, or it screws up the prophecy. Except that she finds out about the prophecy and still fulfills it. Oh yea, and knowing about the prophecy didn't in any way advance, enable or otherwise activate the plot; it was, as a practical matter, totally unnecessary. So what in the hell was it doing there in the first place? I suppose you could ask the author, but getting a statement from an author about a literary question just shows that you aren't trying hard enough. What's next? Reading the instruction manual for your phone?

Here's my take: we want to believe in destiny, but we know it doesn't exist, so we look for it in fantasy. Rarely will you find references to fate in political thrillers, crime novels, literary fiction of virtually any stripe, war stories, or family drama--really anything except certain kinds of romances. So we relegate expressions of destiny to books that already have dragons and faster than light travel for the simple reason that while it would be really cool, like magic swords and food replicators, we know it doesn't.

And that's fine. Escapism is as escapism does. But I do worry about feeding all of these stories about fate to kids. They probably can tell that photon torpedoes and invisible cloaks belong to a world other than our own, but can they also see that prophecy is a load of hooey? Prophecies offer ready made meaning and purpose; if you have a prophecy, then you don't need to do the hard work of figuring out who you are, what you believe, or what in god's name you should spend your short, miserable life doing. But the fact is that this is precisely what we all have to do; destiny isn't going to save us.

So if you have a half-finished young adult novel about twin orphans who can turn into animals and are destined to save mankind, please reconsider. I hear the Coast Guard offers flexible hours and a variety of excellent dental plans.

PS- "Soulmates" be warned; the Ape is coming for you next.


  1. You know I barely managed to get through northern lights (maybe golden compass to you) I didnt know it was a young adult book until I starting reading so kept wondering why the whole thing seemed a little childish.

  2. I did something like that once with Across Five Aprils, a young adult book about the Civil War. A friend recommended it, but didn't think to mention it was intended for people about 20 years younger than me.

  3. Nice work there, Ape. Couldn't agree more. I've popped your post into this fortnight's Blogsplosion, so hopefully some more intelligent souls will wander by, stroke their chins, and nod sagely...