Compare and Contrast: Lackey and Kratman
It’s really interesting to reminisce about reading Mercedes Lackey’s early books while reading some Tom Kratman on the side. One of the things I find most so is the large amounts of genuine thematic similarity in their works. One would not expect much in common in the invented worlds of one of the early voices of feminist fantasy and genre-definers of romantic fantasy, and a mil sci-fi author who describes his previous state of residence as “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts.”
And yet, there they are. Herald Talia and Legate Carrera would, I feel, get along splendidly if they were to meet. Both were anointed as virtuous by significant others; Talia by her Companion, and Carrera by his wife. Both had high social status and power thrust upon them as a result of this approval; neither actually question if an ethereal undead horse-spirit / realized doomed Platonic ideal of housewife are actually ensured to be perfect judges of character. Both run into quite a lot of extras who appear to take time out of their actual lives to serve as a temporary prop in their narratives, and both distort the orbit of their romantic partner’s arcs like a black hole in an asteroid belt. Oh, and they both torture people. (Bad, evil, deserving people, of course.) And both use a layer of indirection; Talia uses her horse-given psychic powers, so there’s no blood or screaming, and Carrera just orders it and has it done by his subordinates, so there’s no blood on his actual hands. And in both of their stories, their enemies turn into blatantly evil caricatures, and who hit the exact same notes of greed, tyranny, and sexual sadism to prove their card-carrying membership in the League of Acceptable Targets.
And I think this means something. Specifically, I think that both A Desert Called Peace and Arrow’s Flight are basically works of untrammeled id, spooling out from their author’s minds, unconcerned with self-censorship or self-justification, in Lackey’s case because she hadn’t yet learned to imagine that her characters might be anything less than pure and perfect, and Kratman because he gives no fucks. And, at their core, people tend to want pretty similar things. It is nice to have power, to have status, to have the winding paths of romance always unwind in your favor. And, although it is not as often spoken of these days, it is nice to have a hated enemy, dangerous enough to gain status from destroying but not enough to actually really defeat you, for you to loathe, and to purge, and to be recognized as strong and just for doing so. Hell, I want that. I also, however, recognize that this is one of those things that you don’t really get in the world, because people and the groups they form are complex.
This is one of the reasons I game, for instance. You can get that kind of enemy from orcs or necrons or pulp Nazis. But I can’t take a story seriously that tries to push actual humans, with actual human variation and actual human motivations, into that kind of box. They’ll disappoint you. They might show some actual nuance, and you’ll decide “Huh, that Schindler guy is kind of making me rethink my ‘gut all Nazis without exception.’ policy.”
And even if they don’t, you might find that actual enemies might move from despised to terrifying as they start claiming victory after victory, egregiously disrespecting their narrative role of obstacles to be overcome to make you look good.
And worst of all, they can be defeated, and lay before you, broken but not humbled, and then people who don’t know how the story is supposed to go will look down on you for hating them.
I certainly don’t dislike this style of writing. I read books in it, and I play games that operate under id-gratification-style on occasion. But it’s a sometimes food for me, and often, one of the best parts about it is when you stop, reactivate the critical thinking part of your brain, and ask “Wait, is there any reason why the teenage telepath with the reality-bending horse spirit might have people act out-of-character around her, in service to a story that flatters her?” or “Wait, what would actually happen if America tried to quash ISIS by playing more-atrocity-than-thou?” Just like you explore better in a known area by starting with getting lost and finding yourself, so too can you explore nuances of character and motivation by turning off the part of you that says “I deserve…” and listening only to “I want.”
And the great thing is that Mercedes Lackey apparently did this. She made one further attempt to have her cake and eat it too, by mixing the id-writing with obvious ipso-facto justifications, then apparently look at what she had wrought, said “Wait, actually, this is horrifying.”, and started writing the Vanyel books to set the record straight on what protagonism actually meant to her. And there there were still the odd misstep…but we will get there in time.
Dunno about Kratman. If I come across an incident of him appearing to give a fuck in any future writings of his I choose to consume, I’ll let you know.