How Far Are You Willing to Go?

As I prepare for the launch of PARTIALS next month (my new book, coming on February 28), I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and writing a lot of blog posts and, in general, looking back at my career as a writer; it’s not an especially long career, but it comprises 5 published novels, soon to be 6, and that’s not too shabby. What stood out to me recently was the running theme in all 6 of them, a theme I didn’t even realize was there until I saw it in my outline for FAILSAFE and started looking backward. I talk about a lot of things in my books, but one thread ties them all together:

How far are you willing to go to do what you think is right?

In the case of my ebook, A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, it’s less about “doing what you think is right” than about “getting what you want.” The main character, Frederick Whithers, is trying to steal money and save his own life, and is forced into a series of ever-mounting dangers and relationships and compromises in the single-minded pursuit of that goal. It’s a classic farce structure, and the book is a comedy, but his need to say and do and become things who would never have considered before make it a very dark comedy. Every new obstacle that arises forces him to choose, however subtly: do I take the next step and push this even further, or do I walk away? That’s a choice that all of my characters, in all of my books, face again and again.

John Cleaver is a great example. In all three of his books (only three so far, at least) he finds himself facing terrible enemies that only he can stop–or at least he thinks he’s the only one who can stop them. There may be some self-delusion there. The first book makes this choice plain: a killer is dismembering my friends and neighbors; I can stop him, but doing so will make me a killer in the process. Is that worth it? Most of us, in a moment of extreme danger, would lash out at an attacker, and maybe even kill to protect our children and family, but what about other people? Would you kill a man to protect your neighbor? To protect a stranger? What if it’s not a moment of danger: you know that someone WILL kill someone else, and the law is not an option, and now in the dark and quiet is your only chance to stop him. If you kill him, you’re a killer; if you let him live, someone else dies. Would you be partly responsible for that death? Would you FEEL responsible, even if you weren’t? I don’t have a great answer to these question–I wrote three books about a character struggling with the issue, in part because I struggle with it myself. Maybe it’s easy for you; I suspect that the decision itself may be much easier than living with it afterward, no matter what you choose. John Cleaver faces permutations of this same problem over and over, sometimes going one way and sometimes another. “How far is he willing to go” is the question that drives the series.

My fifth book, THE HOLLOW CITY, isn’t even out yet in English–the US gets it in July–but it’s been on shelves in Germany since October, and it deals with the same issue plus an extra complication: how do you know you can trust yourself? The main character is Michael Shipman, and he is deeply schizophrenic, seeing monsters and manipulators behind every shadow. As the book progresses, however, he starts to realize that some of the monsters are real, and they have a very real connection to a series of grisly murders. No one believes him, so like John Cleaver he’s on his own, but can he even believe himself? If this threat is real, it must be stopped, but with his own mind broken he runs the serious risk of harming innocent people along the way. Should he back away? Should he take the risks? Can he live with himself if he’s wrong? The added uncertainty make Michael’s conflict different from John’s, but the core theme is still there: how far are you willing to go to do what you think is right?

All of this leads us to PARTIALS, an SF novel about the survivors of a world-killing plague as they try to rebuild human civilization. There are approximately forty thousand human beings left alive on the planet, and there are still many, many dangers that could reduce that number further. The stakes here are not just a murder or string of murders, but the utter extinction of the human race. How far would you be willing to go to save your own species? What would you do, what crimes would you commit, what morals would you compromise? There is a point at which NOT doing something “evil” could itself be considered wrong, if the evil act is the only way to preserve humanity. The sheer scale of the problem, in other words, warps the morality involved. The world of PARTIALS, and the outline of FAILSAFE, are filled with people who make difficult, questionable, often terrible decisions with nothing but the best of intentions. In some ways the books have no villains at all, just earnest people who define “good” in very different ways. Playing with the multitude of strategies people come up with to save the humans race is part of what makes the series so fascinating to write–and, I hope, to read.

In part, all of this is on my mind this morning because of our own world situation: this week marked the 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Detention Facility, an off-shore prison where suspected terrorists are held without trial, tortured for confessions, and denied any semblance of human rights. My personal opinions on this are very strong, but I recognize that it’s a thorny issue with weight on each side. I’ve added a poll to the left sidebar here on my website, and I’d love to get your opinions. Given the complexity of the issue, I’ve made it so you can choose multiple answers. I’d also love to hear your responses in the comments, but remember: keep it polite.

15 Responses to “How Far Are You Willing to Go?”

  1. Speckk says:

    You’re missing the option: “Human rights abuses against individuals of questionable guilt and intentions just creates more terrorists”

  2. Adam says:

    In one of my psychology classes we were discussing ethics in research. One of the things that came up was the idea that occasionally research can cause harm to people, but to determine if the research is worthwhile you have to consider the benefits. During this discussion, he asked a simple question “If killing one person would save the lives of 5,000, would you do it?”

    It was very strange to hear a college classroom that quiet, and it stayed silent for a while until I quietly said “do it.”

    I don’t think that the spur of the moment decision would be that difficult, but living with it afterwards would be very hard.

  3. Adam’s comment makes me think of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which I haven’t read but many SFF writers have mentioned lately (including you, Dan? I think so, but not sure).

  4. I’m amused that, as of this writing, “necessary evil” has five votes and “has helped stop terrorist acts” has four votes.

    At least one respondent thinks that Guantanamo is necessary, but not helpful.

  5. WhoMe says:

    Adam, what if it wasn’t just killing the one person, but it had to be in a long, drawn out, torturous way? And would it make a difference if the person was a volunteer?

  6. Raphael says:

    I agree with Speckk. Stuff like Guantanamo pisses off more people, creating a spiral of death. You might also call it self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Regarding your books, will any more of them appear as DRM-free ebooks? Even though I prefer physical books.

  7. admin says:

    A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS was DRM-free because I self-published it and chose to do it that way. My other ebooks are all put out by my publishers, and as of now I don’t have any say in how they are constructed or distributed.

  8. I don’t know, Dan. I’ve looked over your options, and I can’t choose. I hate what Guantanamo represents, especially since it excludes due process. The potential for abuse is HUGE. How can we justify our love of freedom and democracy (even if that’s not really our form of government) when we do things contrary to those ideals? How can we be okay with stealing years from the lives of people who may be innocent? We are in jeopardy of becoming the very thing we hate.

    As for not knowing if Guantanamo has done any good, how can we measure what was stopped before it happened?

    It’s easy to watch Jack Ryan on “24″ and see the brutal things he does to stop a travesty from occurring (all the while thinking, “Yes! Yes! You have to do that to save so many lives!”). It’s another to find out about the real people who get trampled on the way who just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (or look a certain way). They locked up the Japanese after Pearl Harbor but they didn’t lock up German Americans. You couldn’t tell someone was of German descent just by looking at them.

    I have an uncle who not only survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor but also made it the attack on Iwo Jima. This very question is what Truman faced as he considered dropping the bomb on Japan. After the devastating losses we took on Iwo Jima, and the anticipated losses for an attack on the main island, which was better–attack or bomb? We know what choice he made, and it took two bombs before the Emperor and his war council would cease hostilities.

    I find it curious that President Obama was so sure he would close it, yet he’s kept it open. What does he know now that he didn’t know when he was just a candidate?

  9. Robin Weeks says:

    I’m a criminal defense attorney, so my opinions are rather predictable on the topic, but I think this said it best:

    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

    William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

  10. BC Woods says:

    I’d have to quote Terry Pratchett on this one: “Evil happens when you start treating people like things instead of people.”

    When you make these kind of Faustian bargains, are you really saving “people” or are you saving sacks full of improbable chemical reactions? Because there is a difference there. A very big and profound difference for what kind of civilization we’re going to live in.

    When you make these kinds of choices that’s what you turn “people” into. The math of it is easy and seductive. It’s the being human in the face of the math that’s hard, which is what leads me to believe it’s the right choice. It feels sometimes like all of the universe is telling us that we are not that special and that nothing matters. But there is one little part of the universe that says that isn’t so, and that’s us, so maybe we should listen to that part more than the rigid mechanical part.

    As my grandfather once told me “If, when you think about right and wrong, it somehow magically turns out the right thing is what you wanted to do anyway then you’re not thinking honestly.” In other words, if you don’t occasionally have to think of yourself as the bad guy, or do something you’d really rather not have to do, then what you have isn’t a system of ethics. It’s a series of excuses to make yourself feel better about everything you’ve ever done.

  11. Adam says:

    @Stacy
    I’ll have to look into that book, it’s always interesting to see how a writer deals with topics such as this.

    @WhoMe
    It’s a slightly different question, but I’d have to say that yes, I would still endorse doing it. Unfortunately this is entirely theoretical and it would be almost impossible to guarantee that your efforts would actually prevent anything.

    Part of the problem with asking a question like this is that it is inherently biased by our own judicial system. Our judicial system is set up so that we are (hopefully) more likely to acquit a guilty person than to convict an innocent person. However, if we’re convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that a person has information that could be used to prevent a tragedy, I think in some ways it’s ethically wrong not to do everything you can to obtain the information.

    This discussion falls largely into the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. Affirming the consequent is saying “because Y happened (or didn’t, in this case) X must have caused it (or prevented it from happening in this case).”

    This is a discussion that occurs almost entirely in hindsight, because it’s almost impossible to look forward and project the results. It’s entirely possible that what has happened at Guantanamo has prevented 10 more attacks similar to 9/11 from happening against the US. However, because nothing happened, it’s easy for us to demonize the actions and say that they’re entirely unethical. On the other hand, it’s also very easy to look at what happened on 9/11 and say that we need to do everything we can to prevent another attack like this from happening.

    There is no easy answer to this, and that’s why I didn’t vote in the poll but commented about it. It’s a very difficult question to ask, and there is no right answer. All in all, I stand by my previous statement. If I was 100% convinced that torturing or killing 1 person would save 5,000 lives, I think I would be able to do it.

  12. Jordan says:

    I have to say I’m with Adam and Jack Bauer on this… mostly. I would never want to torture somebody. I believe that a human being deserves a certain amount of respect, no matter who they happen to be. However, I believe that if I were the one tasked with protecting this nation, and had the responsibility of keeping millions of people safe, I would do whatever it took to get the job done. Thank God for those men and women.

    This is an easy claim to make, sitting in front of my computer at home. I have never done–and hope to never need to do–physical harm to someone. I’ve only ever killed animals I’m hunting, and can honestly say I don’t enjoy killing critters all that much. (Ducks are fun to clip every once in a while.) But if I personalize the situation, and imagine my 8 week-old daughter and wife being held somewhere, in danger of losing their lives, you can bet your bacon I’m gonna torture the hell out of anyone who might be able to give me information to their whereabouts. I wouldn’t hesitate for a heartbeat.

    Guantanamo IS a necessary evil. It saddens me that we live in a world where this is the case. Islamic extremists are out there, hoping for and striving for the destruction of America. If anyone doubts this, they are in serious need of a reality check. America isn’t perfect. Our government has caused a lot of the messes that we are in around the world. But the people of this country shouldn’t have to fear flying on a plane, going to a big city, or traveling abroad because of those mistakes. Guantanamo gives my mind a measure of peace, if not of the guilt-free flavor.

    I can only pray for those in charge of such facilities that they are doing their best to make the right choices, with regards to our safety. Actions should never be taken based on bad intelligence. If the info is good, though, and there’s a chance that one man’s imprisonment might save a hundred American lives, I’m in support of keeping the place running.

  13. jd says:

    There’s an issue of morality here, on which it sounds like people are already decided. I think it’s plain wrong, but I doubt I’ll convince anyone. I’d like to say this, though: the idea just scares me.

    It’s so easy to say it’s US versus THEM, and THEY must be stopped. But every time something happens, WE are afraid, and WE sacrifice people who used to be US but must now be THEM.

    How far are you willing to trust people, and how much authority are you willing to give them? Personall

  14. jd says:

    (sorry, bad click =P. “How far” on from that last post shouldn’t be there.)

    These people who decide who lives and who dies and who suffers, in a place where none of us can see, are they really worthy of trust? Perhaps they are. Perhaps they are not.

    I am afraid of meetings in dark places. I am afraid of power in the hands of people who want me to look the other way. I am afraid that we will whittle away what ‘humanity’ means until there is nothing left.

    I am afraid of the day when I wake up, or the night when I go to bed, and someone comes to my door to tell me that I am one of THEM. When I am taken away I hope there is someone left to care.

  15. Aegean BM says:

    Guantanamo is a miasma of misery, an infector of fear. 312 million Americans are now afraid to continue the containment of 217 prisoners. But the 312 million are also afraid to release the 217 prisoners. They are afraid there are still more tragedies to be prevented, and equally afraid they tortured innocents. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t. Americans are damned by Guantanamo.

    One benefit of law is being decisive. Criminal law, civil law, or martial law–makes no difference–has a defined process that ends with a decision. The rule of law makes Americans free. They can play the game because they know the rules. Americans even have rules for changing the rules. But when the rules are suspended, how do you decide the next move?

    By choosing to ignore the law, and the order that results from law, can anyone be surprised at the chaos? Guantanamo is American’s limbo, a condition of oblivion, a region of neglect, a place of confinement. 217 continue to confine 312 million. They will do so until Americans return to law.

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