Authorguy's Blog

Strength of Arm’s dilemma

Posted on: June 23, 2011


Like a lot of people out there, I have favorite books that I like to re-read. One of these is Valor’s Choice, by Tanya Huff. Which I was in fact re-reading this morning, which is why I’m writing this now. In the course of the story there is a character named Strength of Arm, who is a member of a species called Dornagain (and no, I don’t know how to pronounce it). The Dornagain as a species are thoughtful and usually very large and slow. They do not commit violence, like most of the members of the Conferation. That is why they need humans among other races. The basic idea of the Confederation is that most species who have gotten to the point of expanding into space have gotten past most of the violent instincts, and so are incapable of fighting when a species expands into space that hasn’t. In self-defense they recruit younger races, like ours, and give us the tech to get into space in exchange for us fighting their wars for them.

I am reminded of Gordon R. Dickson’s book Hour of the Horde, which features aliens from the interior of the galaxy who are gathering forces to confront a horde of invaders. They are able to fight, but only if they calculate that they will win. It is the Earthmen, who fight regardless, who tip the scales. And presumably go on to take over the galaxy. I am also reminded of the Uplift series by David Brin, in which some young and dynamic races from Earth are accepted into a rather static and traditional galactic culture and proceed to upset a lot of applecarts. And presumably go on to take over the galaxy.

Books like these are one of the best reasons for speculative fiction I know of. They give a concrete form to issues and ideas that in most cases are pretty abstract to most people. I started writing when I heard of a pretty theoretical notion of the ‘Holy Will’, which is only motivated to do the right thing. In the real world no person like this could exist, since we are motivated by lots of different things. But in a fantasy world they can. In the above-mentioned books the theme seems to be that dynamic races are the ones that will go on to take over the galaxy, but at least they leave open the question of whether or not this is a good thing. (Somewhat. The older the book is, the more it seems to be assumed that dynamism, especially of the American sort, is good.) The price of any kind of dynamism, economic, political, or biological, is high. (Hmm, story idea. A human who is born cold-blooded.)(See, this is how it starts.)

Anyway, back to Strength of Arm, rebuilding a well from the inside so that the troops protecting her will have water, when the enemy attacks and gets into the compound. She isn’t in any danger (yet), but she can hear the fighting above. She rises up out of the well, grabs an enemy fighter and throws him away. And again. Afterwards she suffers an agony of remorse for her thoughtless actions that leaves her fellows fearing for her sanity.

The question is, should she?

I would say she should not. From her perspective in the well, somebody was going to die. All her actions did to affect the outcome was change who died. Nor is it even made clear that they died, since she threw them away but we don’t see them land. I would also claim that she was right to do so, since her relationship to the soldiers defending her was stronger than her relationship to the enemies attacking and therefore she had a moral obligation to act as she did. From her Dornagain perspective I suppose the logic would be that since she was unwilling to commit violence in her own defense she should be equally unwilling to commit violence in defense of those defending her. I have a hard time seeing the persuasiveness of that argument, but I am also willing to entertain any others I haven’t thought of.

What do you think?

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4 Responses to "Strength of Arm’s dilemma"

Hmmm, this is a dilemma, since no one wants to come right out and say, “Hi, I’m bloodthirsty. Let’s kill them all.” Unless of course you happen to be a character on HBO or in Spartacus.
While reading this, my mind kept wandering back to this question: If a mother and her children were put in a primal life and death struggle for survival, are we right to judge the mother negatively for doing things that she normally wouldn’t have to do? She wouldn’t harm anyone if it was just herself. Maybe she wouldn’t be motivated enough. But in defense of her children, this theoretical mother in this theoretical situation would do whatever was necessary to protect her children. Let’s compare mothers to Dornagains. Mothers are considered to be nuturing and peaceful and loving, but would a mother be wrong to keep her children safe?
I do not think it would be reasonable to ask any mother to stand back and leave her children defenseless. I think Dornagains need to consider extenuating circumstances. So, I guess I agree with you on this one.

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This is the problem with writing alien species. Characters have to have their logic, but if the character logic doesn’t match up with our Earth logic we the readers will get lost at the curve.

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I would love to hear your thoughts on The Road by Cormac McCarthy…

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I’ve never read it.

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