Social Reconstruction through Heroic Fiction:
The Role of Literature in Envisioning our Future
Janet Morris and Chris Morris
presented June 25, 2014 at Library of Congress
LCPA What If… Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum
Social reconstruction is a philosophy focused on achieving social change. Heroic fiction has always addressed issues of personal responsibility and freedom through social change; heroic fantasy and science fiction are the literary inheritors of heroic fiction because the worlds and world views created examine self and the individual’s place in society in a way much freer than can any other form of literature today. The human mind organizes the world and its detail in story form; fantasy and science fiction help us pierce the veil of complexity and examine the underlying questions facing society today and tomorrow, using story as our vehicle.
Why do heroic fiction and fantasy matter in a context of social change? Because people do what they are trained to do. If you are exposed to dystopian values, the ascendancy of the antihero, the dispiriting tales so easy to tell, you see only darkness around you. If, on the other hand, dystopian chaos is challenged by a hero who can make a difference, one who labors in service to an ideal, who risks and inspires others, then such a person inspires others to excel. One single myth, above all, pervades human history. Called by Joseph Campbell the ‘monomyth,’ this world view is the bedrock of all cultures: in the monomyth all humans share, a simple person hears a call to duty, answers, reaches deep within the self for strength hitherto unknown, and changes the world for the better.
Myth has always been used to teach common values, shared truths, since earliest times. From the story of Gilgamesh and the Flood, humans have used mythic models to send shared values forward, find the courage to bring order out of chaos, memorialize our struggles, create role models, and thereby shape our future. Homer’s epic Iliad inspired Alexander of Macedon; Alexander carried The Iliad with him as he changed the world. From the ancient mythic writers through Shakespeare and even today, the common values of myth continue to inspire us, to make us more moral, more honest, more brave and more enduring. We need and want heroes; they make us stronger; they show us courage, sacrifice, the importance of the individual to society.
Heroic tales are about the few who meet a challenge and, in surmounting it, make everyone’s life better.
As Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “Character is destiny.”
We write heroic fiction and fantasy to bring these myths to life. In I, the Sun, we found an historical hero who had left behind a partial record of his deeds, which begins “I, the Sun, Great King, King of Hatti, Favorite of the Storm God, the Hero.” This Hittite hero of the 14th millennium BCE so inspired us that, once we had researched him and learned his story, all the great myths and legends and fantasies we’d read came alive for us anew.
We begin our story when this conqueror and dynast was fourteen years of age:
There is a man who stands always on my horizon: large, cloaked and formidable. I have seen only his back. Over the years, that back has preceded me, on occasion dropping clues for me to read when I come to where he has passed. I have never been able to catch him, though I am coming closer. He has been in my dreams before every moment of crisis, for every tumble onto truth that has ever befallen me, striding away, his shoulders like a second horizon. I know that when I overtake him, I will have what it is that has eluded me over the years. Then, I will learn a thing. Then, I may truly say that I have done it. Now, I am still following. Last night I was able to see that he wore sandals, and their soles were worn. But he is getting dark.
When I first saw him, he was bright and shining. The Great King Arnuwandas, my father, had just died. I sat atop the rock sanctuary while the moon rose, looking down on the mausoleum stone-house, its grounds alight with mourners’ torches, as they had been for thirteen days. I moved only to hunt or elude the Meshedi – the Great King’s bodytroops – whom my mother periodically sent to search for me. Otherwise, I sat below the black eagle’s nest, and we watched the ashes of Arnuwandas receive the adulation he had never been accorded in life. They loved him for dying. Their relief was a palpable thing, and that grieved them, so their grief was real enough.
The black eagle screeched and flapped as I snuck, hunched up, to my hideaway. I was due for my manhood ceremony this year and, at fourteen, was barely able to fit into the crevice I had found five years past.
What Suppiluliumas’ life story did for us is what we try to do for readers of our fiction: bring the heroic spirit to life; write tales of those who achieve greatness, whether or not history ever records their names. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Malvolio says, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open their hands. Let thy blood and spirit embrace them.”
And so, taking that advice to heart, we are not afraid. And neither are you, or you wouldn’t be here today.
To embrace greatness is to change the world. Your world can be changed only by one hero at a time — by you. Whether your heroism is demonstrated on the playground or the battlefield, the boardroom or the bedroom, is not important. The determination to create a better society, rather than abet a worsening one, is critical to us as a free people and as an evolving species.
We write about war, freedom, love, loyalty, passion and determination, conscience, because human life is defined by these qualities. We always write about men and women who reach beyond themselves, who find the strength to accomplish what others dare not try, because these are the deeds that change societies for the better.
In Beyond Wizardwall, one of our Sacred Band of Stepsons novels, our immortal hero Tempus ruminates:
“Woe betide the soul who loves too much, wants too much, dares too much. Soon now comes the hour of doom for some, victory for others: if I didn’t recall that once I’d cared so much, I wouldn’t care at all. What matter who triumphs on any day or who tumbles from grace? Life always ends in death, and struggle spends itself against tomorrow. This empire is dissolving; and not a festival nor a change of emperor nor a hundred oxen sacrificed on every hill will forfend the coming hecatombs of war and bloodbath. So why bother with this deadly sally in the face of obliteration? Assassinate one sovereign, usher in another: no difference. This empire’s storm god is gone, and with him a people’s future. One look around confirms it: All that remains is to save myself and my Stepsons, to fight on other days.”
And fight our heroes will, for freedom of the human spirit, for “a chance at life, and to fight on other days — the battle of your choice, of the body, the heart, or the soul,” as Tempus remarks later in our epic novel, The Sacred Band.
Also in The Sacred Band, an ensemble cast of humans and demigods and goddesses and witches and sorcerers, young and old, mortal and immortal (including a ghost horse), face trials of heroic proportions. Some meet those challenges, some fall by the wayside. Part historical fantasy, part Homeric epic, the men and woman, boys and girls of the Sacred Band of Stepsons bring us into their world and share their love, their courage, their doubts and fears with us.
Here is Randal, the Sacred Band’s warrior-mage, on a mission to test the staunchest soul:
No one had asked the Riddler or Niko if Randal should do what he does tonight. He knows Strat and Critias well enough to be sure of that: these two labor to protect their commander and Nikodemos, both wounded by ineluctable forces no simple fighter understands. But Randal has a glimmer. And what he sees, he fears: the dream lord.
The only way to face a problem is straight on, so the Stepsons had taught him. Tempus lived that maxim. Niko followed in his commander’s footsteps. And Randal, too, must always find the strength that courage needs. Crit had asked him, never looking Randal in the face, to do this for Nikodemos: get two keys out of the Mageguild that three boys have lost here. Simple. Go in and get the keys. And live to bring them out again.
There are too many heroes in the Sacred Band these days, all trying to save one another… after whatever happened on the Chaeronean battleplain.
Randal didn’t argue that keys were meaningless to Aškelon, regent of the seventh sphere, who could twist eternity to his will and make reality itself a different shape. Or to angry Fates, if any such roamed here.
But Critias asked, and Randal must rise to the occasion – to the challenge. He belonged to Tempus’ Sacred Band, body and soul. His oath to his former left-side leader, Nikodemos; to Tempus; to the Stepsons, was on the line.
So down he swept, decided, a great black eagle of a man, wings fighting air. Updraft rushing by his keen eagle’s ears. Wings slowing his descent. Making order out of chaos as the wind skirled, he dropped like a stone from heaven.
Crit had sent a contingent here and they’d broken out some windows with their crossbows, got in the gate but couldn’t breach the mansion’s wards.
Randal will – or die trying.
To the death, with honor. For his one-time partner, Nikodemos, who wouldn’t even speak with him, or meet with him. Because the Stepsons asked it. Because the Sacred Band was the best that a man could do. Try your damnedest in the face of everything. Never falter in your loyalty or betray your oath. Live and die, shoulder to shoulder, back to back. For the honor of serving by your partner’s side. For the glory of dying by your partner’s side. Honor and glory meant everything to these men. And whatever else Randal might be, he was a man. And one of them. And bound to them, howsoever long his life should last.
And proud to be so.
Heroism as its own reward is at the center of the Heroes in Hell series and its newest volume, Poets in Hell. Poets from humanity’s history vie with each other to win Hell’s greatest poetry prize, where no trick is too dastardly for the damnedest poets of all time.
Here’s an excerpt from Words, by Chris Morris, the first story in Poets in Hell:
In the beginning was the Logos, the Word. In the beginning come always the words. Words are the mortar of the mind.
“Look, you!” J the Yahwist, first author of the Old Testament, exhorted empty air, waving her hands about her on a blasted heath encircled by dark and cold.
As in ancient times, this command brings light out of darkness, souls out of nowhere. All the heath fills with them, the detritus of the damned, singing and keening and rhyming aloud at the top of their lungs, each trying to outshout the other: the prolix, the wordy damned of perdition. Here are the teeming illiterati, the poor poets of pride and ignorance, angry and bleating like sheep at the altar, romancers of death, hoping for slaughter, dreaming of surcease.
J would give them peace if she could, but she couldn’t: peace was oblivion, oblivion was escape, and escape was unattainable in hell. Death could be had, and cheap, but never lasted long: no sinning soul could win its way to heaven’s grace.
“Look, you,” J called a second time aloud, and a thousand heads turned her way; a thousand mouths clamped shut as she began to tell her tale to their minds’ eyes.
Invariably, these words are her signal to infernity that she is ready to begin. Inevitably, those words summon not only story, but the Deceiver, a lord of hell himself.
Sensing joy, incensed by pleasure, now comes Satan, white-winged and glorious, amid his host of fallen angels, circling to land, streaming intolerance and wrath on all the fools below, who howl the more.
Down swept Satan and his five stalwarts, surrounding J in a buffet of wings, smelling like salvation. Bodies for gasping on hot nights under starshine; ruination in infernity was their allure: not boys or girls, but more than either. Encounters with great Satan’s cohort had brought not only Eve, but J, to heel before. She tried to close her nostrils to their perfume, avert her eyes from their magnificence. Each of the six carried a sack.
In those sacks might be the prizes most desired by the thousands gathered here. But as J watched with covetous eyes, all six sacks disappeared. Her heart sank.
She had to know:
“Infernal Majesty,” spake J, “have you heard my plea and brought them? All these faithless self-aggrandizers seek only what I hope you have in your sacks, and more beggars await behind them. They will pay any price, commit any sin, no matter how foul, to get what they came for.”
“Get salvation?” scoffed Samael, the angel of death, most beautiful and deadly of Satan’s warriors cast down by an angry god. “Not for them. Not ever. Torture, yes, as suits their passions. Punishment, always, befitting their crimes. But you know that, J, yet you ask this favor for such rabble? You seek to aid these pustules of soul, these walking pots of stupidity mixed with arrogance, these insatiable nobodies who lust for fame? What do they want, all these self-anointed bards who seek to win our poetical contests? Don’t they know the winners already are decided?”
“What do they want?” J repeated, aghast that Samael did not know. “Not their soul’s salvation, mighty Samael; neither forgiveness nor manumission. Words. Words immortal. Words of joy, words of grief, words of power, words of penance, words of passion. Words beyond their ken. Words to fill their mouths. Words to disguise. Words to make an idiot sound wise. Words they don’t already know. Words they’ll never understand. And a pronunciation guide, so none will hear how ignorant they are when they speak the words of others.”
“I’ll give them words of death,” offered Samael. “Words of pestilence to rival Erra, plague god of Babylon. Words to rot them in their boots. Words of contrit– ”
“Silence, Samael.” His Infernal Majesty, the greatest fallen angel, raised a hand which Leonardo would have envied.
Despite Satan’s clever plan, and all the gods of hell, humanity’s love for one another and hopes of escape or forgiveness make our heroes strive ever onward, as heroes do. Here is the beginning of Seven Against Hell, by Janet Morris and Chris Morris, from Poets in Hell:
I am Diomedes, son of Tydeus.
These poets in hell account me ‘second best’ of the Achaeans, after pouty Achilleus. How is that? I killed more Trojans than he upon Troy’s battlefield, yet never committed hubris. I partnered with Odysseus on the night hunt. My aristeia, my excellence in combat, at Ilion was unsurpassed. I even stole the enemy’s best horses. Although I was the youngest warrior-king among the Argives, I won more than my fair share of glory. Poets through the ages extol my battle: Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Colophon, Sophocles, Antimachus, Appolodorus, Virgil, Ovid, Pausanias, Dante, Marlowe, even the loutish William Shakespeare, barely a man himself, praised my valor.
When Shakespeare’s wittol Marlowe recast Ovid’s Elegia, he wrote of me: ‘Tydides left worst signs of villainy;/ He first a goddess struck: another I./ Yet he harmed less; whom I professed to love/ I harmed: a foe did Diomede’s anger move.’
So why am I in New Hell, you ask, sitting on this rise called the Devil’s Mound, above the infamous Damned Meadow, a sheep field boasting a clamshell stage where perdition’s self-appointed greats come to outshout one another’s verses?
True it is that on the battlefield of Troy in a single day I killed Astynous, Hyperion, Abas, Polyidus, Xanthus, Thoon, and two of Priam’s sons, Echemmon and Chromius. And I wounded Aphrodite, but at Athene’s order. And attacked Apollo. Twice. Thus I became the only man to wound two Olympians on one day in that battle. Notwithstanding, the worst I ever did on my own account was to steal the Trojan Palladium, their statue of Athene, with my bloody hands: yet without that theft, said the oracle, Ilion would never fall. So we took it, Odysseus and I, and this exploit brought Odysseus and myself not to Elysion with her bright blue sky and starry nights, but to Tartaros, to Erebos, thence to stinking New Hell City, here where the worst of the damned prey upon one another.
This hell of the New Dead is more proliferate than Achaea, vaster than all of Hades’, and full of pitfalls as grave as the love of a faithless woman — or any woman, since faithless all will be: my queen Aegialia proved that more than once.
Even a man such as I, who founds ten cities and is worshipped in his day and thereafter, can end in Erebos or Tartaros or worse. Thus here I am, with my fellow Epigoni — sons of heroes, accursedly forgetful of our valor: Until we drink the blood of earthly sacrifice we don’t recall our names, despite all that Mnemosyne, the waters of Memory, can do to prompt us.
So here I await a hero’s coming, in New Hell’s foulest park, while flocks of damned souls crowd and churn below me, hoping to find a patch of grass near the clamshell where the poetry contests will be held.
No matter what you’ve heard, it was Homer who in seven thousand lines told my Epigoni’s story, the tale of us seven heroes’ sons avenging our fathers’ deaths upon all of Thebes, commencing: “Now, Muses, let us begin to sing of younger men. . .”
What modern scribbler could vie with that? What thewless mincer down alleyways in darkest night, what tattooed and pierced and wild-haired oaf of little use could sing a song of heroes, since these but talk and heroes do?
In our Heroes in Hell series, up to twenty writers per volume, some new, some well established, give you their vision of hell and by so doing, their vision of the human soul.
Heroes of tomorrow are as important as heroes of our mythology or our past. In Outpassage, Sergeant Det Cox and his
troop of Army Rangers, and Paige Barnett, a woman from one of earth’s most powerful corporations, face an unexpected choice when on an alien planet they encounter a cult that promises eternal life. Heroes must always make conscious choices, between good and evil, among fates better or worse, and take a stand. Or not.
Heroism will be just as important to our future as it’s been to our past, and is today. In Outpassage, Det Cox faces difficult choices from the very beginning:
The sky was thin and the color of dirty motor oil, except where it exploded above their heads. Concussion was delayed in the thin air but the smell of roasting rangers got to you right away, even through your air filters. The terraformers hadn’t done much of a job on this classified ball of rock before the corporation workforce moved in, the shit hit the fan, and a request for military assistance followed.
The request wasn’t denied, exactly, but it was rerouted to InterSpace Tasking Corporation’s security division, who sent out a deniable reconnaissance team –– thirteen US Rangers sheep-dipped for hazardous duty under the command of Colonel “Mad Jack” Reynolds.
It was Reynolds whose charred flesh was sending up the stink that made Cox gag as he dove for cover. Long recon meant long odds, long distances, and long hitches, but nobody ever wanted to think it meant dying a long way from home.
Overhead, even through his flash-and-blast suppressing helmet, Cox could see the enemy coming in for another strafing run. Nobody ever thought the enemy was going to come at you with airpower, either, because there wasn’t supposed to be any hostile force out here that had airpower.
In Cox’s ear, Locke was screaming over the comm set: “…suggest you form up for extraction, sir, at the beacon.”
Cox huddled under an overhang of silicate, his rifle cradled against his chest and his knees pulled up, shifted enough to turn his head. “Reynolds?” he said into his comm-mic, just to be sure.
But there was no way the barbecued officer lying beside him, charred limbs askew, was going to answer. The airpower came over and Cox covered his head: his helmet’s recon pack had sent plenty of pictures already; he didn’t need to risk his life for one more shot of somebody shooting at him.
He needed to risk his life to get to the extraction point, and that was about all he could handle. “Hey Locke,” he yelled into his mic because the airpower was strafing what was left of Reynolds: “Reynolds is past it. I’m here by my lonesome.” Rock exploded near him. Reflexively, he ducked his head in the shelter of his arms, eyes closed, and said as clearly and calmly as he could, “But I’m real ready for an order to get the fuck out of here.”
“Then give it,” came Locke’s voice, laconic over the static and hard to hear because the sniper aircraft was coming back for another pass. “You’re the only friendly voice I’m hearing.”
“Falling back,” Cox heard his own voice say, and his body followed suit. He knew he was calling the roll as he got to his knees, then his feet, crouched under the overhang, listening hard for even a groan or a grunt in response.
But nobody came back to him over his comm-link. Thirteen guys, and of the twelve on his comm-link, Cox couldn’t raise a single one but Locke. He was poised, his thighs cramping, as he waited for what felt like the right moment to sprint across the scree, a mapping display already enabled on his faceplate that gave routing overlays to his target –– the extraction site.
But through the electronics, he could see Reynolds. Behind the colored grid with its pulsing points and alphanumeric displays, Reynolds seemed to be moving.
Sliding along the ground, almost. Cox didn’t want to leave anybody behind that had a breath of life….
He scuttled toward Reynolds, his pack scraping the ceiling of the overhang –– scrambled close enough to see that not only Reynolds’ left arm and leg, but the left side of his skull, was burned away.
“Shit.” The shock of it propelled the ranger out from cover, along the suggested track on his visor-display, as fast as he’d ever moved in his life.
But in the confines of his helmet, he knew what he’d seen: something moving; Reynolds moving. And he knew he was running from that vision as much as from anything else here.
Because there wasn’t anything else here. There wasn’t anything but some deep-space double-cross having to do with mining rights and racial hatreds spread across the stars.
It was the gang bosses against the cheap labor, was what it was. There wasn’t any alien life here, despite the security classification level of the planet designated X-31A, due to artifactual evidence. There wasn’t any alien life anywhere, not above the vegetable level –– a century in space had proved that beyond a reasonable doubt.
Everything that seemed artifactual had, eventually, turned out to be natural, not intelligence-made. There wasn’t any reason for these IST honchos to be afraid of the boondocks on X-31A but the way they treated the contract laborers they’d trucked in here.
If Cox said different, he’d be in psych evaluation for the rest of his life –– if he got off this shitball to have one.
It hadn’t been anything, not anything, that he’d seen out of the corner of his eye. It sure as hell hadn’t been a white, human-looking, delicate hand pulling Reynolds toward a wall of solid rock –– coming out of a wall of solid rock.
It hadn’t. His lungs were burning despite the augmented oxygen-rich mix his recon pack was feeding him as he sprinted; he was sweating like a pig –– sweating worse than his cooling system could handle. And, overhead, he heard a subtle change in volume that wouldn’t be subtle for long: the pursuit aircraft, laying down rivers of flame as it did a one-eighty, had sighted him. It was coming back.
With the bogey on his tail and nobody to answer to, Cox hit his jet-assist. It was a one-time-only, emergency move, but there was no way he could outrun that aircraft, not on foot.
The characters in these novels, whether you agree with them and think them heroes, and disagree so that you think them villainous, believe passionately that change can bring a better life. They fight one another, they struggle for primacy, they join together against common threats. They live. They die. But it is the way they live that makes them special. They each labor in service to an ideal, trying to make a better world; to save one another, when they can – as Tempus says, to live to fight on other days.