I was watching one of Bryan Singer’s X-Men films and I was thinking of the overarching conceit of the franchise (using “conceit” in the poetic sense of extended analogy, I am not implying that Mr. Singer has an inflated opinion of himself.)
The mythos of the film franchise (I am not familiar enough with the comic book series to comment on it) is that a random selection of individuals are born with bizarre and fantastic powers. Despite the odd reference to genetics, I consider the series to be fantasy–no attempt is made to give any scientific explanation for how a human being could generate laser beams or magnetic fields.
While the films are visually interesting, there is a certain predictability to the franchise. Basically, they all follow a pattern:
- Mutants are subjected to an unprovoked attack from humans
- Mutants argue among themselves about how best to attack back
- The mutants win.
I am given to believe that the conflict between Charles and Eric is somewhat more pronounced in the source material, but in the films it comes down to a disagreement over technique–since Charles has mind control powers, he wants to control the humans’ minds and since Eric has metallic telekinesis, he wants to crush things and blow stuff up.
In my opinion the mythology morally hamstrings the characters. All of the significant choices have been made for the characters before they were born–one is born either mutant or human. It’s a kind of atheistic Calvinism and everyone is predestined to play a particular role. Ones only self-determination is to decide how flamboyantly to play it.
I find Calvinism depressing in real life and limiting in fiction, so I have deliberately worked out an Arminian cosmology. One of the central premises of The Book Of Lost Doors series is that what we become is determined by the choices we make. (And while I feel that both Mr. Singer and I use our central conceits as a metaphor for the same subject, I’d rather not discuss that subject in a non-metaphorical sense at this time.)
My semi-human characters are what they are as a result of their own choices. They chose to become something other than human. Not all at once, and not with full understanding of what they were becoming, but in the end they are responsible for what they are. I believe that this allows a deeper range of moral development of the characters. They aren’t (as the X-Men so often seem to be) victims of their natures, rather they are active participants in what they have become.
One of my favorite novel quotes is from Thomas Harris’ The Silence Of The Lambs. Hannibal Lector says, “Nothing happened to me. I happened.” That’s my philosophy in a nutshell.
There are two notable exceptions to this, of course. Catskinner and Agony are both entirely non-human, and can never be human. They never chose to be what they are, and they can’t choose to be anything else. They lack the capacity for self-invention; they simply are what they are. (James, on the other hand, can and does make moral choices. He can’t do anything about being bound to Catskinner, but he can and does choose how he relates to Catskinner and the extent to which allows what was done to him to proscribe his life.)
I think that this issue is an important one in speculative fiction. Because we deal with issues of identity in a broader (if not always deeper) way than mainstream fiction, we have to ask ourselves to what extent our characters are responsible for their own self-determination. Is everyone in the story destined to be what they are, chosen for a particular role by some outside force? Or is each the master of his or her own fate, the captain of her or his own soul?