Returning to Themes

I know I’ve covered this ground, but I feel it’s something I’ll be returning to repeatedly. As an aside, I wonder if I should learn to type properly. I’ll try typing the rest of this blog using the home-row keys and all of that. I don’t know how well it will work.


All right. Here I am typing on the… fuck it I can’t stand that. I typing the way I type.


Okay, so I’m talking about themes. Why? Well, I have a 200 word prose-poem due on Thursday, and the only way I can think of creating some context for writing it is to outline a new story and then zoom in on one of the more evocative scenes. You know… I get what Joel is saying about writing evocatively, but sometimes I wonder if he doesn’t advocate going a bit too far. I mean, I get that you want to provide some detail and add some richness to your prose, but do you really want to get bogged down in that detail? Sometimes you just want to cut to the chase and move the plot forward. Anyhow…


So yes, themes. Themes because I start all of my stories with a theme. Then I move on to fleshing the specifics of the theme I want to explore, and then comes the outline. Or the characters and setting, I suppose, but to me that’s part of the outline.


What themes have I been interested in exploring lately? Well, I’ve been starting to plan out my next project – or series of projects, really. I’m reading “Last Call” by Peter Okent (sp?); it’s a history of prohibition in the States. I’m finding it interesting on its own, but not only that I’m planning on using it as the basis for my fictional world. In a nutshell, I’m using the themes of the Prohibition years to base a series of short stories, and ideally eventually a novel on. I think there are a number of interesting themes to be explored by looking at Prohibition, personally. Let me try to outline a few:


Morality and how it intersects with legality

I think this is a fascinating theme. I see this all the time, that people can’t tell the difference between a moral and a law. For instance, ask the typical person why murder is illegal and they’ll tell you it’s because it’s wrong to kill someone. To me, that’s a completely false statement. I don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to kill someone – in fact as long as you eat the body I can’t see how it’s ever morally wrong to kill anyone. I mean, people are no different than any other animal when it gets down to it, so as long as you eat what you kill I’m not seeing the problem. But really, I think the reason murder is a crime is that we acknowledge that our society would struggle to be orderly and productive if people were free to kill one another. Let me put this a different way. Consider automobiles. Every year in Canada, 3,000 people are killed in automobile collisions. Statistically, we could reduce that to zero if we reduced the speed limit to 20 km/h everywhere at all times. Consider that, really. We could save 3,000 lives per year, 30,000 per decade, 300,000 per century by simply agreeing to drive no faster than 20 km/h. What do you think that odds of anyone agreeing to that are? Somewhere close to zero? So to me this is interesting, because we’re so sure killing someone is a moral infraction of a very high order, and yet we’ll willfully consign 3,000 people a year to death just so we can get to work faster. Doesn’t that seem odd? So what’s my point? I resist having a point; I just want to explore the theme.


The role of government

This theme is central to Prohibition because in general the government had never been concerned with limiting the freedom of the people until Prohibition started. The one exception was emancipation – you were not allowed to own slaves. After Prohibition, you were not allowed to own slaves and you were not allowed to purchase alcohol.  I guess in nations like Canada and the U.S. where common law is practiced, it seems odd for a government to need to step in with some sort of constitutional mandate of what people are or are not allowed to do. There’s nothing in the Constitution for example that tells you you aren’t allowed to kill someone. That’s something the courts have decided and it’s enshrined in the common law of the nations.


The effects of laws and how real effect differs from intended effect

This is interesting, too. During Prohibition of course the Mob gained all sorts of power and wealth. Why? Because making something illegal doesn’t take away people’s’ desire for it, it just makes it harder to come by and hence more valuable. So during Prohibition, alcoholic beverage became quite valuable and very attractive to organized criminals to smuggle in. The other impact was that people started distilling their own alcohol in basements and sheds. Of course, that alcohol was often poisonous and the drinker would die, or go blind, or what-have-you. But in the eyes of the Prohibitionist that was an entirely fair and just fate for someone partaking in the demon liquor. This reminds me of abortion, actually. When you make abortion illegal you don’t stop it from happening, you just drive it underground into back-alley clinics where women risk their lives and criminals profit. Prostitution is like that, too. So are drugs. Imagine if cigarettes were made illegal, you’d have smuggling rings spring up over night so criminals could profit bringing in smokes for the people who want them. So we have alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, other drugs, abortions, prostitution, add gambling to the list… basically these are all things that are considered to be moral vices. Some people object to them, some people quite stridently. So through that moral objection and through the political pressure these moral groups can wield, these vices become outlawed. Does it help? Does it work? Well, most of these things have been illegal for decades if not centuries, and they’re all still here, so I’d say not.


It’s worth pointing out that these are large, overarching themes that I want to include in setting and character design, but I don’t think I want to smash the reader over the head with them. It would be way to heavy-handed a narrative style. I need to break these up and find some simpler, more personal themes to actually start writing stories about. You know, Party at Steve’s! could easily have been one of this series of stories if I’d wanted it to be.


But, the main conceit of the setting is that magic exists but it’s illegal. Magic becomes the big allegory for alcohol or drugs or prostitution or anything else that people have historically tried to suppress or destroy. Now, there’s a difference between trying to suppress something that’s blatantly harmful, like murder, and something for which there is arguably no victim, like alcohol. The gray area is that alcoholism can have a victim if a drunk beats up his wife or smashed his car into someone or something like that, but here we have to be careful and ask if that was the fault of the alcohol or of the drunk him or herself.



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