Multiversity: #earthme

May 9th, 2015

Let’s talk about celebrity culture.

Many, many people seem to think that there’s something shallow about following celebrity culture, in magazines and on TV talk shows. On my worst days I’m one of them, but I try to be better than that. Because there’s something that most people understand, at least on a gut level, about celebrity culture, but which those of us who sneer at it don’t.

People need stories.

The human race has a cortex that is vastly larger than any other animal’s, and for years people have wondered exactly how it evolved — how the part of our brain we use for thinking is so much bigger, and why we’re so much more intelligent. It’s not like that intelligence has any obvious survival value for individuals — being able to derive the Schrödinger equation is not the best tool to use against a leopard on the African plain. But fairly recently a consensus has been reached as to what runaway selection pressure caused this explosive growth.

The human brain didn’t grow to do mathematics, or write poetry, or compose sonatas, or design computer games, or write 10,000-word essays about comics, or figure out the nature of reality. It grew because people were playing social games with each other — backstabbing, forming alliances, gaining followers, making pair-bonds, having sex on the side without the other person in the bond finding out. Those social games are what our brains evolved to do, and everything else they do is just a side-effect. (This is, incidentally, why those of us with autism really are disabled, even though we don’t seem it — our brains work fine at all the other stuff, but absolutely awfully at social game-playing).

Our brains exist in order to think about other people, to model their behaviour, to predict them, and to decide our own actions based on those models. And so, when we want to learn things, we learn from stories about other people.

Some of those stories are fictions, of course — the story of the man who was stronger than anyone, and could do anything, but who was still perfectly good; the story of the man who suffered a great loss, but used that loss to become stronger and to prevent others from having to suffer in the same way; the story of the woman who was made out of clay, an idea made flesh, having to deal with the realities of patriarchy and modern civilisation — but even the most layered, complex, fiction doesn’t quite have the feel of reality to it. The people in the story aren’t real, and on some level we know that even when we’re reading or watching them.

So we’ve always had stories about real people, too. Stories of great warriors, and of tricksters, and of kings, and of prophets. But those stories change in the telling — we emphasise those aspects that serve to teach the lessons we wish, and get rid of the aspects that are problems for us. So the story of Brutus, founder of republican Rome, becomes the story of Amleth, son of the governor of Jutland, defeating Feng, his father’s brother, which in turn becomes the tragedy of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, paralysed by indecision and dying because of it. The stories are twisted until they fit the moral we want to tell, with every story eventually conforming to the shape of the same few stories.

But these stories need refreshing, all the time, because the world changes, and we need new models of how those morals apply to the present. And so we get the story of Jimmy Savile, telling us as Bluebeard did before that powerful men hide dark secrets; the story of Paris Hilton, telling us that unearned wealth leads to moral vacuity; the story of Justin Bieber, like Britney Spears and Michael Jackson before him, telling us like Icarus that if you aim too high too soon you will fall.

How closely the actual lives of those people approximate the story we tell about them doesn’t really matter. That is their position in life.

The position of the “superheroes” in The Just is explicitly that — to act out the old stories in new forms, even though they no longer have a point, purely in order to be seen to do so. They have been left these roles by a previous generation, and they fit awkwardly into them, but they have to act them out. The stories of Superman, Batman, Superboy, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern…these stories must be told, even if the most exciting thing Superman does now is “team up” with Sandman by dreaming about him. As long as there’s a demand for stories of the superheroes, the superheroes must exist, even if there’s nothing left for them to do.

The characters are striving to be alive, to be real, to cut the strings of their puppet-masters and to become post-modern Pinocchios, but the only thing left to do that hasn’t been done before is to commit suicide, and even then, the means that Megamorpho chooses, falling off a tall building, is an unoriginal way for a superhero to die. And her boyfriend doesn’t even care, because in this universe the stories are doomed to repeat — the dead superhero will always return, so why mourn for them?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad, forcing you into roles that you didn’t ask for. And the fathers of the comic industry have fucked up their successors, condemned to write Batman fighting the Joker for all eternity until the industry itself commits suicide. Somewhere some teenage kid is being groomed as the next big pop idol, and somewhere out there another teenager is watching what happens to him and thinking “there but for the grace of God go I”. And somewhere out there some twenty-year-old is writing her first Future Shock submission, planning how she’s going to break into the US comics industry and shake it up, how she will tell the ultimate Superman story.

[Over a ten-day period I will be posting my long piece on Multiversity. Those who want it in one piece can buy the whole thing as an epub from Smashwords right now for $1, on Kindle (US) and (UK), and my Patreons get it for free]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.