April 2, 2017

Slice of PIE: Punishing Characters In Speculative Fiction…

Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August 2016 (to which I was invited and had a friend pay my membership! [Thanks, Paul!] but was unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #2501. The link is provided below…

Punishment by Airlock: Death by airlock. Spacing. Stepping through the Moon Door. What is it about this trope that holds fascination? What is the science behind it and would it really be a good idea to create yet more space debris?

Lettie Prell – a novel and short SF in ANALOG, APEX, ANDROMEDA SPACEWAYS, and etc…
Susan BetzJitomir J.D. – Bath, NY lawyer, no fiction credits I can see
William Frank – speculative fiction poet
Mr. Guy Lillian – dedicated fan of speculative fiction

Not sure why I thought this was interesting – except I think it gave me an idea to explore “torturing characters” to advance the story…which is what all writers DO.

But is it effective? Throwing someone through the airlock to kill them? Pushing them out of a Lunar airlock? Is it that even possible?

TV Tropes explains explosive decompression like this: “…they'll pop like a turkey with a grenade stuffed inside…reality is quite different…you've got about 15 seconds before you pass out from anoxia…minutes…until you die from the same…exposed areas swelling up, body fluids boiling off…outermost layer of capillaries…holding your breath would be worse than useless; the difference in pressure would cause a…fatal embolism even from the smallest amount of air in the lungs...pulmonary barotrauma is possible, but not guaranteed…it can happen in real life if you get a really high pressure gradient – eight or nine atm to 1 atm (normal)…[The term] refers to the speed at which the decompression occurs, not the result or cause…however, space it cold…A really unlucky character might suffer as they're blown into space, then undergo Explosive Decompression…”(http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ExplosiveDecompression)

How often is a character affected by this? According to TV Tropes again, about 76 times. Not a lot. What are some other ways to threaten a character – or, if you think about it, you’re not threatening the character. The “evil” person tosses a victim out the airlock, they explode in a shower of blood, thereby establishing the villain as a really “evil” person – which gives the heroine someone to fight against. If they didn’t act fast enough, we have an angsty, self-flagellating, introspective monologue. If they were held back after arriving at the last second, begging to replace the victim’s fate – then it makes the villain appear monstrously villainous.

But is it necessary? If “throwing them out the airlock” is done to help innocent bystanders, then it’s sacrifice – and gives the heroine the moral high ground (unless you have no morals, in which a person who sacrifices their life for another is plain stupid…) to do anything to pay back the deed. If “spacing” is done as a punishment – then you have the loud argument against capital punishment, and it puts your sympathy firmly on the side of your first victim. If the hero opposes it, then you know who to root for.

So – punishing prisoners…how well does it work? How many former prisoners are there as heroes in SF? THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY springs to mind.

GALAXY QUEST shows the villain about to space all sorts of innocents!

Suggested many times, threatened countless others, and executed (so to speak) several times well, according to that fount of trivia, TV tropes, I THINK this might be symbolic of something else? I think it might be an attempt to justify whatever a writer wants his or her audience to feel. Realistically, throwing someone out an airlock into open space is about as exciting as smothering them with a pillow to the face. Certainly it’s horrible. But it lacks in real drama. Imagine replacing all those space murder scenes with one of a spacesuit mask filling with foam rubber…ugly to watch, but hardly high drama. It might even be why we continually turn to the Nazis as villains.

There’s no doubt that they SHOULD be villainized, but other nations do what they did – just without the high drama. For example, how about the Tuskeegee syphilis experiments? Or feeding mentally handicapped boys radioactive oatmeal to see what would happen? (Google Walter E. Fernald School and Quaker Oats…)

“Spacing people” has become our go-to signal of villainy at its lowest – despite the fact that it would demonstrably slow and anticlimactic in a story.

I wonder if anyone said anything about that in this discussion? Hmm…

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