26 April, 2009

On Torture: A Look at the Use of Pain in SFF

With President Obama taking out the trash with respect to our nations dirty torture secrets, I thought it a fitting time to discuss the function of torture in science fiction and fantasy.

For the purpose of this blog post, I will take a fairly broad understanding of torture, defined as
the infliction of intense pain to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.
The word torture comes from the Latin torquēre, to twist. Already form this we get a presage of the use of torture in SF/F. By reducing reality to it most fundamental components, pleasure and pain, life and death, authors are able to drawn in the clearest detail the basic building blocs and motivations of their characters.

I am reminded of Achamian in the The Warrior-Prophet, by R. Scott Bakker, whose torture at the hands of the Thousand Spires reveals the depths of his relationship to his School and his gnostic magic:

How many times had Achamian survived the Wall of Torment in Dagliash? How many times had he bolted from the anguish of his sleep, weeping because his wrists were free, because no nails pierced his arms? In the ways of torture, the Scarlet Spires were mere understudies compared with the Consult.

No. Achamian wasn’t strong.

For all their merciless cunning, what the Scarlet Magi never understood was that they plied two men, not one. Hanging naked from the chains, his face slack against shoulder and chest, Achamian could see the foremost of his diffuse shadows fan across the mosaic floor. And no matter how violent the agonies that shuddered through him, the shadow remained firm, untouched. It whispered to him, whether he wailed or gagged . . .

Whatever they do, I remain untouched. The heart of a great tree never burns. The heart of a great tree never burns.
Two men, like a circle and its shadow.

The torture, the Cants of Compulsion, the narcotics—everything had failed because there were two men for them to compel, and the one, Seswatha, stood far outside the circle of the present. Whatever the affliction, no matter how obscene, his shadow whispered, But I’ve suffered more . . .
The passage not only underlines Achamian's relationship to his magic through Seswatha, but further underscores the brutality of the Schoolman's nightly dreams. Achamian, more so than ever before in the trilogy, is uniquely defined by his suffering, his nightly torture at the mercy of his magical heritage. In contradistinction the reader finds Esmenet, the only point of hope and love in Achamian's life and instantly understands Kellhus' 'theft' of her love to be the deepest betrayal Achamian has even know, thereby justifying his twenty year obsession with Kellhus in the following trilogy.

R. Scott Bakker's use of torture is by no means unique, but the frequency with which it is visited upon some of his characters makes them somewhat monochromatic. All of their thoughts and actions are animated by their painful trials and so robs them of much of their originality, depriving the reader of what could be a much more complex and endearing personage.

Torture is also used in is science fiction and fantasy as a simple means of defining the villain or the 'other'. I would name at least a dozen arch villains who fit this profile, some more realistic than others. In fact, looking at the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind , I have difficulty thinking of at least one dubious antagonist who does not in some way indulge in torture, either out of pleasure or what they consider to be necessity.

Setting aside discussions of Mr. Goodkind's literary talents, fabricated or not, I understand the ease with which authors fall back on torture to define their villains. Indeed, what simpler way is there to brand someone as evil than to make them take pleasure form the debasement and suffering of the righteous or innocent?

Torture is implicitly used as a defining mechanism of the human condition. For example, either torture admits the ultimate malleability of its subject, rendering them utterly to the will of the torturer, or the author elevates some specific a priori value beyond the reach of torture, and thus of change in general. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell is a prime example of a case in which the protagonist is utterly remolded, in this case to the precise political specification of the torturer.

Some authors, such as Terry Goodkind, whom I have already mentioned, strike a delicate compromise. Richard is effectively remolded to Darken Rahl's specifications by Denna, after months of agony, yet is able to reclaim himself through the use of magic. We can interpret this as admitting malleability with the rare possibility of resistance through profound inner strength.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have protagonists, generally considered the 'good guys', who indulge in torture out of necessity. These scenes generally speak to an overarching philosophical principle that the author wishes to express. Means justify the ends, love permits all, desperation knows no reason, ect. These instances of torture are however generally brief and lack some of the more intimate and frightful details that qualify the other types of torture I have discussed.

Lastly, we have characters who laugh in the face of torture, demanding more simply to rebuke their captors. In these instances, I have always thought first that the character is somehow dehumanized, elevated yet distanced from his fellow human beings. Second, that the character becomes the personification of a certain philosophy or ideal that they hold above all other concern. We return here to monochromatic personage whose utility I understand, yet whose use I find trite and unoriginal.

I have given here a brief overview of the use of torture specific to fantasy and science fiction literature, and tried to break it down into distinguishable categories. I do not doubt that they overlap and even that I have omitted some, and so invite readers to submit their interpretation and understanding of torture and its uses in science fiction and fantasy literature.


A fascinating article on the erie parallels between recently released torture memo's and famous literary works on torture.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your following of a theme through multiple stories and torture is a pretty intense theme. Torture for me brings to mind the classic tetrology by Gene Wolf, The book of the New Sun. The protagonist IS a torturer. Having such a dark protagonist reflects the decay of the far future world, and offers a VERY long road to redemption.

In Richard K Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books, particularly Woken Furies, Kovacs excessive use of violence can easily be seen as him lashing out against the world that allows so much pain and suffering to exist. It also firmly establishes that the character we're following is NOT a good guy, and thus it's all the more impressive that he does so much good for those he lets beneath his shell.

I think a quick look at who is doing the violence (and why) will let you know how black and white the themes of good and evil will be. I tend to like my fiction much more gray.

Neth said...

Interesting article. It sounds like you should read The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie - one of the main characters is a torturer and it's a very interesting exploration.

Steven Erikson got a little political with his dealings with torture in The Bonehunters a few years back.

bloggeratf said...

@ mentatjack:

I agree with you on the gray issue, although sometimes for a face paced book, say hard/military sf, it can make for a quick yet entertaining read.

I am most definitely going to take a look at the Gene Wolf books, that seems like a very interesting angle. Would you recommend those over Morgan's? I'm about to read Altered Carbon by him so I might just go for the Wolf books... we shall see.

@ Neth:

I'll check out that First Law trilogy, if only because the name sounds cool.

Neth said...

From the other reviews I see you've done, I imagine that you are going to enjoy Abercrombie quite a bit.

bookwench said...

Fascinating analysis. I'm very impressed. The sci-fi book I found most relevant with regards to torture was the book "An Exchange of Hostages", a book written from the torturer's perspective, and an interesting way of making the torturer and the tortured both sympathetic: both were prisoners of a larger structure.

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