Cinematic Indulgences: Worldbuilding Weirdness

Modern Military Fantasy
The UK cover.
(Loads better than the American one, in my opinion. Better title, too.)
My theory on speculative fiction: Like a rollercoaster, a piece of genre fiction has a little sign before you get on — You must tolerate this much bullshit to enjoy your ride. Too much bullshit, and you can’t enjoy the ride. Call it the Bullshit Tax. (To mix the metaphors thoroughly.)

What do I mean? Epic Fantasy is based around magic, usually powerful magic. If you can’t accept the existence of magic, or find it aggravating, Epic Fantasy just isn’t for you. Powerful and pervasive magic is the Bullshit Tax for epic fantasy.

In other words, I’m talking about the premise. When considering suspension of disbelief, works of fiction basically get their premise “for free”.

“What if Elvis was still alive, and was an avatar of Cthulhu?” If you can’t accept that, don’t read the story.

Yet even granting the author their premise, one can criticize how it’s developed, both in world background and in the story. Sooner or later, you have to be able to say: No, that makes no sense. And aspects of Shadow Ops: Control Point, even granting the premise, make no sense.

Magic returns to the modern world. Okay, that’s cool. As a premise, I can buy that.

Magic is innate, and can manifest at any age. When it does, it is often uncontrollable. Again, no problems.

Some kinds of magic are inherently harmful. That’s not a big stretch.

Harmful magics are banned by law. Okay, that’s a little odd. How do you ban something that is innate, especially when no external force can prevent it?

The law is a behavioral regulator. By punishing specific actions, it discourages those same actions. In its ultimate form, it prevents actions by incarcerating or executing people. In prison, you can’t rob a bank. Dead, you can’t kill others.

The law is only effective to the extent that it can affect behavior. In this world, people can only control the magical abilities of others personally, one-on-one, by riding shotgun over them at all times (an expensive and difficult endeavor). And Selfers either lack control, or refuse to control themselves. So how can the law regulate their behavior?

Manifesting a harmful school of magic means the death penalty. What? Manifesting a Prohibited school (which makes one a “Probe”) is an instant, universal, and unappealable death sentence? Are you kidding me? That answers the previous question, but with something that’s far, far worse. And not just morally. But let’s start with the morality.

Justice is based on the desire to render to each offender what they deserve. The punishment is proportional to the severity of the offense. If you steal from a person, you make restitution. Even those who support the Death Penalty do so because they see it as a just punishment: if you murder, you sacrifice your own life.

How is killing someone just for manifesting magic, and not for anything they’ve done with it, in any sense just? “You have the capability to do Y, so we will execute you.” That’s simply wrong.

The next problem is practicality. As noted above, the law exists to influence behavior. Penalties attached to actions discourage those actions. Arbitrary and draconian penalties, on the other hand, often encourage the opposite.

You’re a nice, normal person who’s just become a Probe, simply by breathing. Now, you WILL be executed, no questions asked, no trial, no hope of appeal. What do you do?

Flee. Rebel. Strike out. Wreak vengeance.

If they’ve have done nothing wrong, and have no hope, then desperation will drive many Probes to do horrible things, out of panic, anger, or despair. People rebel against injustice, and this is an unjust law.

And who will bear the brunt of these outbursts? The people around them and the law enforcement agents assigned to capture them. Congratulations, you’ve just taken a difficult, but manageable problem and turned it into a nightmare.

So the law is morally wrong and fails to discourage the behavior it outlaws. Yet somehow it’s politically feasible.

Politics is the art of the possible. And, as a matter of sheer practicality, I don’t see how it’s possible for such laws to be passed in the first place.

The Death Penalty is hideously controversial. How much more controversial would a law that mandates the Death Penalty for every single Probe, without trial or recourse, be?

Yet we’re to believe that everybody in America just accepts it. No protests, no civil disobedience, no pastors appealing to the consciences of their congregations (a magic Martin Luther King, Jr.), no opinion columnists elaborating on how impractical and unjust these laws are, no civil rights lawyers slavering to make their bones taking a test case to the Supreme Court, no governors who commute these instant death sentences, no Presidential pardons? No controversy, ever?

Can you imagine the news stories? “Next on 60 Minutes, the story of teen prom queen Sally Pretty, the vivacious blonde from Cornfield, Kansas, who just last week was giving her valedictory address at Smalltown High, and this week finds herself in front of a firing squad at the tender age of 18.”

The Death Penalty is one of the most circumscribed outcomes in American law. It has already been outlawed once by the Supreme Court (in 1971), and allowed only under narrow circumstances (including requiring an entirely separate trial, held solely for sentencing purposes). The total number of executions in America since 1976 (according to this site) is 1321. For those opposed to the Death Penalty that’s 1321 executions too many, but in any case, it isn’t a common event. (By way of comparison, more than 40,000 U.S. citizens die every year in car crashes.)

Probes are so common, there’s an entire branch of the military dedicated to (or at least tasked with) hunting them down. How many Probes is that? No way of telling, but let’s suppose it’s .001% — 1 out of 100,000. That’s 3000 probes instantly executed. 1 out of 1 million is still 300 probes, dead. And if it’s more common, the numbers go up, drastically.

The book would have us believe that society accepts, as a settled matter of Constitutional law, that some citizens can be executed immediately, just for becoming capable of manifesting a specific school of magic, and for no other reason.

Call me a dewey-eyed optimist, but since we have enough trouble executing two brutal murderers (like the Hi-Fi killers), I do not see Americans accepting a regime that executes 3000 people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

I do not believe it. It’s too large a Bullshit Tax, which is why I didn’t enjoy the ride.

[Ob. Gaming reference: We’re talking worldbuilding. As a GM, you worldbuild, even when running a published setting. Be sure your settings don’t have a higher Bullshit Tax than your players will be willing to pay.]

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10 thoughts on “Cinematic Indulgences: Worldbuilding Weirdness”

  1. One of the reasons why I found the Hunger Games movie less than entertaining. Don’t know if the book is any better.

  2. It contains more of the background, if that’s what you mean. At least, in later books. A lot is left vague, however, possibly on purpose.

  3. That type of Draconian and ultimately counterproductive law is almost unthinkable in the modern US, but it’s hardly unknown, or even rare, historically. Various regimes have levied a death sentence for being born in a certain ethnicity, or professing a certain religion. Under Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge, it was considered a crime against the state to be an intellectual, to the point that wearing eyeglasses was grounds for execution. It’s bizarre and horrific, but it does happen.

  4. Which is pretty much the point: it’s possible in a police state (and pretty much only in a police state), in fact is one of the tentpoles traditionally holding up such regimes. (Police states invariably have some internal enemy they point to to justify the repression.) It would require a police state to implement the monitoring and enforce the law, via Suppression.

    The problem is, there is no such police state in evidence. And the law is incongruous in an American (or even Western European) political context. (Not suggesting its more congruous elsewhere, those are just the places I’m familiar enough with to make a claim.)

    One could explain the law, but the novel hasn’t done so.

  5. Well, I haven’t read the book, but it seems to me that if the laws are there allowing the state to remove all rights from a portion of the population, and the people are so misled or terrorized that they allow it, then it is demonstrably a police state. Just one that pretends that it isn’t, like all other historical police states.

  6. But nothing else in the novel supports that. There is literally no discussion of it, no evidence of it (other than as a “No Prize”), no worldbuilding that supports it.

    This theory being true makes main character’s attitude in the opening scene (discussed in the earlier piece on the same novel) even more aberrant. If the Police State theory is true, of course he signed up to hunt teens: American society has been drastically re-ordered, just so these teens can be hunted. TV shows encourage this, the law mandates this, and vast resources are bent towards this.

    “I didn’t sign up to hunt teens.” Yes, you did… All of society did.

    See what I mean? If that theory were true, a lot of other things would be impacted, even if only implicitly.

    It’s bad form, as a novelist, to have a huge, key change in society that isn’t signposted. It’s either lazy or incompetent worldbuilding.

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