I am currently plowing my way through the fourth installment of David Weber’s Safehold series. For those of you not already involved in this particular method of wasting time and brain cells in equal measure, the basic plot…doesn’t really matter. It’s mostly all a setup to allow Weber to stage elaborate 18th-century naval battles (though maybe it’s early 19th? I’m not enough of a naval historian to know) in a universe that also contains androids, BEMs, FTL travel, and semi-intelligent AIs. Like Weber’s Honor Harrington stories, the Safehold series is more-or-less an ode to Horatio Hornblower, only this time with actual sailing vessels and cannons.
The novels bounce back and forth between details about the political and religious climate of Safehold and ripping great naval battles. Those reading just for the latter can safely skip about 60% of the pages (and pretty much pass on vol. 4 entirely), but for those few of us who actually enjoy the world-building, the other stuff is interesting if for no other reason than that it shines such a light on Weber’s own political beliefs. Let’s just say that “subtle” is not a word that a sane person would use in describing Weber. And, like most of the writers who found stardom writing for Jim Baen, Weber leans decidedly rightward.
For starters, the omnipresent bogeyman in the series – one who is referenced on nearly every page, but who appears only rarely – is one Zhaspahr Clyntahn. Meanwhile, Weber’s great conquering general is Hauwyl Chermyn. The fourth volume revolves around an ever-larger collection of protagonists who are (a) living in what is pretty clearly the analogue of the British Isles and who (b) fight off an oppressive universal (dare one say catholic?) church by forming its very own, modestly reformed version, while (c) using their navy and marines to dominate the seas and conquer pretty much everyone whom they perceive to be a threat.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “You’re on volume four of that?” To which I can only say: Did I mention that Weber writes really ripping naval battles?
But all of this got me to thinking about what looks to be a pretty significant trend in adventure-oriented stories: Pretty much all of them (and certainly the best of them) seem to embrace a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with what we might think of as a liberal worldview. I’m talking about people like Forester, O’Brien, Kipling, Burroughs (the Tarzan one, not the Beat one), Tolkien, Heinlein, Lucas, Rowling – or we can skip modern(ish) examples and go all the way back to people like Homer and Mallory. In every case, there’s a single theme: All you really need to triumph over the forces of evil are a few heroic individuals and a band of ragtag but faithful followers who can be turned into a disciplined (and generally unstoppable) army. Our heroes win a battle (or, more often, a big-ass war), and then happily end their days engaging in a bit of benevolent despotism over the conquered barbarians. For the villains are nearly always barbarians – or, worse, decent people who are easily duped by a few truly evil leaders and who will require more benevolent despotism “for their own good.” In really extreme cases (see Tolkien and everyone who writes fantasy afterward. Also maybe Kipling.) a little bit of ethnic cleansing is necessary before we can get down to the really serious business of glorious absolute monarchy.
Even when our adventure stories take on what looks like a more quintessentially “liberal” worldview, these more traditional – conservative? neoconservative? – attitudes persist. I’m thinking here of Dances With Wolves and its three sequels (The Last Samurai, Avatar and District 9). Yes, you might be fighting against the forces of colonialism or racism (or a little of both), but in the end, you triumph by aligning the natives with the Power of Western Male Individualism. (Yes, sometimes there are technically females involved. But they are typically Heinlein-style Men With Perfect Breasts. I’ll leave the deconstructing of gender stereotypes to people who are better at it, though. The same goes for critiquing the trope of the surprisingly-Western “natives.” I’m self-aware enough to recognize the white male-centricness of the adventure genre, but am probably also too deeply steeped in that culture to have anything useful to say about it.)
My point (and yes, there really is one, buried under all the digressions) is that I wonder whether or not the myth of the heroic individual isn’t necessary to make a really good adventure story work. Maybe all good adventure stories need to turn on the existence of a small group of people with the courage/brains/grit/etc whose possession of said characteristics is the very thing that allows them to save the day. Maybe only a hero straight out of The Book of Virtues can really sustain an adventure worth reading/watching. I mean, what would a truly liberal cosmopolitan adventure story even look like? Goblins who realize that their life prospects are way better if they unionize and then collectively refuse to a (very brief) career of catching Legolas’ arrows for the (Saru)Man? Martians who engage John Carter to open up trade routes between Earth and Mars rather than perpetually stealing the princess he wants to marry? Stories of leaders who come to power because the citizens are really annoyed at high unemployment rates? That all sounds rather boring.
Or, rather, it sounds a bit like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Which is something that I hugely enjoy reading, but which is also (a) not adventure-like at all and (b) essentially unfilmable. Because, of course, pretty much nothing happens in any of the books. Or, rather, stuff happens, but it all happens off-screen while the protagonists have long conversations during the months it takes to travel between planets. And even the action that does happen is not the result of the heroic actions of a few rugged individuals. It’s generally the product of the forces of sociology and economics and basic human nature. That closer to a liberal account of how the world works.
But it makes for a pretty boring adventure story.