Friday, November 6, 2015

Reading Stormfront, Book One of the Dresden Files

The last three weeks have been a bit full; first field work, then meeting, then moving house, and then a bad cold. But although we are still sitting between boxes waiting to be unpacked, I finally feel like writing something again.

At the last Lifeline book fair I bought a couple of books. Let's start with the first I read, Jim Butcher's Stormfront - Book One of the Dresden Files. Minor spoilers obviously ahead.

Harry Dresden lives in what is pretty much our contemporary, industrialised world, only unbeknownst to the general population there are also fairies, vampires, magicians and suchlike. Although magic is mostly hidden from public view, the protagonist makes a living as an openly magical private investigator. Most people simply assume he is joking, but he uses his powers to find lost items or people, and a results oriented policewoman regularly consults him for help on weird cases or those potentially involving a supernatural creature.

Despite the difference in setting, I am immediately drawn to compare the book with one of my favourite fantasy series, Martin Scott's hilarious and impressively subversive Thraxas novels, because their protagonist is also a magical private investigator, albeit in a typical, vaguely Tolkien influenced fantasy world.

What the two have in common are probably the fundamental tropes of the genre: the hero was once set up for a stable, well paid career but was kicked out of polite society due to the corruption or unfairness inherent in the system; they are living under squalid conditions and chronically short on money; they need both official and underworld contacts to do their work, and they need to please both these sides without running seriously afoul of the law; the story is told in the first person; throughout the story everything gets progressively worse, up to the protagonist being hunted by various parties, until the final confrontation resolves the situation; and they are rewarded for their efforts but not so lavishly that they won't be back in trouble by the beginning of the next book.

The shape of the final resolution is interestingly different. Thraxas novels always contain a puzzle that the eponymous detective manages to figure out through a stroke of true brilliance, usually at the last minute but sometimes too late to actually still save the day. It is generally hard to figure out what is going on, but the same hints that help Thraxas solve his case are dropped for the reader. If this first novel is any indication, Harry Dresden books work differently, because here it was fairly obvious to me who the bad guy was going to turn out to be, only Harry neglected to follow the lead.

The most interesting contrast is in the abilities of the characters. Thraxas is a self-admitted failure in magic, a drunk, a gambler, and a glutton, but a sharp investigator and a tough sword-fighter. Harry Dresden, on the other hand, is physically a bit of a push-over and seems unsystematic in his investigation (see above), but he is reasonable, sober, and a very powerful magician. His mixture of strengths and weaknesses - the latter including something as realistic as Male Gaze While Feeling Bad About It and several emotional scars that are only hinted at in the first book of the series - make for an interesting character. All in all, I largely enjoyed Stormfront and am ready to see how a few of the sequels are.

That being said, there is one major fly in the ointment, and it has to do with the setting chosen by the author. As mentioned above, it is our world plus a hidden, magical subculture, kind of like in Harry Potter. So why don't the normal people, the Muggles, know of all the magic, the potions, the fairies, the trolls and suchlike? In Harry Potter it is because the wizards made the conscious decision to stay hidden, and because they have special task forces with memory-wiping spells on hand to keep the general populace ignorant of their existence even when something spectacularly magical happens in public.

But for some reason, the author of the Harry Dresden novels decided to go down another route. It is heavily implied that in his world the Muggles don't know of the existence of fairies and magic because they had become too enamoured with (straw) science and too (straw) skeptical to accept their existence. But now "science, the largest religion of the twentieth century, had become somewhat tarnished by images of exploding space shuttles, crack babies, and a generation of complacent Americans who had allowed the television to raise their children. People were looking for something - I think they just didn't know what." Yes, because using the scientific method will totally make you take crack and neglect children, and believing in magic is the cure for those ills. Or something.

And that is what I found really difficult to stomach. There are two reasons for my disappointment, and although they are of course related one is kind of tactical and the other concerns quality of story telling.

First, this 'explanation' for why magic isn't widely accepted is of course what a lot of real conspiracy nuts, cranks, quacks and charlatans argue in real life. "If the deluded sheeple and/or the scientific establishment would only open their eyes, then they would see that laying on hands / crystal power / homoeopathy / snake oil / seances / exorcism / my self-invented perpetuum mobile totally works, but they are just too biased and unfairly suppress the Truth!" It consequently cheeses me off to see this harmful nonsense that regularly leads to people suffering or dying from preventable diseases or being fleeced by con men treated as even marginally plausible.

Second, that is just not how science works, and worse, it is not how people work. Seriously, if there were fairies, they would find themselves written about in monographs and field guides. If one could brew magic potions or cast spells, we would have research programs and lectures dedicated to them at every university. If one could summon demons to attack one's enemies just by saying the right words, armed forces across the world would be using them right now. In fact when science started, people tried all that stuff, like alchemy and sorcery, and then merely gave up because it didn't work. In fact the word for all the ways that are demonstrably working to figure out stuff about and manipulate the world is simply "science"; in a world where summoning spirits worked, its practice would simply be added to the methodology of that world's science.

And the idea that our whole current culture would have denied the existence of all that, of all those opportunities, of all that knowledge, throughout the 20th century just because people are arrogant and close-minded is utterly ridiculous. Quite the opposite: many people at all times have wished with all their heart these phenomena would exist, and a distressing number was gullible enough to believe in them even in the absence of any evidence whatsoever.

Understand that this is not just me being cranky because the author goes against my personal philosophy of science. If it was only that, I would have no more problem enjoying the justification of the setting than that of any other novel with magic in it. But it is one thing to accept a story's premise that there are fairies hiding from us, it is another to accept the premise that a story plays in our world when it contains something that is incompatible with the story playing in our world.

This "people don't want to believe in magic" trope is so blatantly wrong, so totally at variance with how people really are and think and behave, that it just destroys my willing suspension of disbelief. It is equivalent to reading a historical fiction scenario in the Middle Ages in which a peasant pulls out his cell phone, or to watching a supposedly Hard SF movie in which an astronaut is shown to breathe in interstellar vacuum. Perhaps the best comparison is with the common criticism of the Christian fundamentalist Left Behind novels that they too have humans behaving in really implausible ways because it is required to make the contrived plot work. The problem is the same: not unrealistic elements per se, but the incompatibility between people's behaviour and the claim that the story is set in our present world and culture.

Still, I will give the sequels a shot and hope that this aspect of the setting is at least not going to be front and centre.

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