Fall is usually a time of celebration not reflection. Usually, winter means fires, books, and contemplation whereas fall is a festival, a harvest, a time to bury ourselves in pumpkin spice. Halloween has grown more important, the time when we can shed the costume worn 11 months out of the year and be our true selves, especially for those of us in the speculative community.
But while the season promises fun, we at Vex Mosaic find ourselves in a reflective mood.
As I write this, America has experienced a mass shooting, the worst of recent memory, as a gunman in Las Vegas opened fire on a country music festival. The death count is over 50 and the injured number over 500. And while sadly these events have become normalized, this latest tragedy is so profound with so little reason (as of press time) that it has given us pause. That this man-made tragedy comes on the heels of three major natural catastrophes in Houston, the Florida coast, and Puerto Rico can only compound the overwhelmingness of life in the 21st Century.
But while our guts may tell us that we live in the most dangerous time, that is easily debunked. For example, comprehending the massive amount of death perpetrated in World War Two alone, a period of only six years, is difficult. According to Wikipedia, 50 to 85 million people lost their lives. Within that number were the six million Jews, homosexuals, and Romany who were not only robbed of their civil rights but eventually their lives. Lest we forget, Russian and Chinese civilians made up the greatest number of fatalities.
But here is the difference: those deaths, regardless of how they were perpetrated, were systemic, orchestrated by governments who waged the war, rained down the fire bombs, and initiated the holocausts. The killings we experience now feel random, out of control, and, worst of all, out of nowhere. No matter where we are or how insulated we may be, violence can touch us.
And as we tumble to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, emotions start to spill. The loss of control leads to a feeling of powerlessness. Once that takes over, it drains hope, the most positive drive of any human. Thus, circling back to speculative media, we turn to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s run on Daredevil: “A man without hope is a man without fear.”
In Daredevil: Born Again, Kingpin finally puts together the puzzle of our hero, figuring out he is Matt Murdock. After progressively taking everything from him (he is disbarred, isolated from friends, finally rendered homeless), Kingpin finds he has reduced the hero to an animal, but in that state of mind, Murdock doesn’t have to play nice anymore. He can fight Kingpin without adherence to society’s rules, encapsulated in this famous panel:
And while Murdock’s sense of justice slips away, so does his power increase because of the freedom that accompanies it. It is an appealing notion, especially for those with a Libertarian streak.
But that is a comic book.
In the real world, living without fear will drive our primal emotions. Ask the murderous gang members of Chicago or my hometown New Orleans. They saw no other path to their goal than kill or be killed to get to the top of the drug trade. Many of them paid the ultimate price, losing their lives at 21, then 18, then 16, and finally 13.
We can see it in the appeal of ISIS. Muslims see their religion vilified in Western civilization, they are harassed and treated as terrorists even when they are peaceful and may be denied access to the social order in the form of jobs and opportunities. They are prey for those who would give them an ultimate purpose, be it revenge or simply a place in the order.
And it will drive individuals from Charles Whitman in Austin to Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas and the many, many in between to climb a tower and open fire.
While these examples show the expansion of society’s malaise, we can break the cycle. We must provide hope as well as explore our own hatreds. Education is the key, but even those of us who have degrees may still be lacking because we have drawn lines, divided our allegiances, and see the world as us vs. them. Most who breathe the hottest fire don’t know who they’re railing against as the supposed “enemy” is a faceless monolith. Confronted with a living, present individual even the most vitriolic partisan will temper their rhetoric.
Which brings us to the way to find hope within the hopelessness: empathy, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And nothing helps that grow faster than reading fiction.
For a story to work, the reader must be able to see through the characters: their struggles, loves, cultural activities, day to day life. And a landmark study shows this act will expand empathy.
So, I have an assignment for you (yes, the teacher in me reveals itself in many ways): pick the culture you fear, distrust, even hate the most and read one book that explains that side. Don’t understand Islam? Maybe The Satanic Verses could give you some insight. Don’t understand the violence in African American culture? Native Son may hold some answers. Confused by how Germans acted during the Nazi times or how Southerners can be so unyielding? The works of Günter Grass and William Faulkner await you.
We would love it if you would share any insights you may have, regardless of whether your opinion changed or not. But we hope the seed of empathy, once planted, will grow into a beautiful flower. This world could only benefit.
To the extent that we could gain new insight from reading, our essays this month reflect on the human condition, both future and past.
Our resident futurist Aaron Emmel follows up his article “Possible Futures” with “Change or Die,” an essay focused on the ideas laid out in Seveneves by Neal Stevenson but expanded to show how the future of humankind relies on being flexible in all situations.
Looking in the opposite direction, John Peters looks to the sum total of human evolution in “How Did It Get Like This?” He explores how Homo sapiens’ rise from living with other beasts to becoming the apex predator happened too quickly for us to process the effect on our environment.
Both essays reveal something new about human society. Whatever it may reveal to you, gazing with fresh and empathetic eyes may change us all for the better.