Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evolution of Duality in Fantasy and Science Fiction

It is my great pleasure this week to host Terra Whiteman as our guest blogger on Heroines of Fantasy.   I met Terra when she attended the School of Health and Science at Avila University.  Terra was one of those students who makes it a joy to teach:  intelligent, dedicated and hard working; always bringing an insightful and focused presence to the classroom.  But it wasn't until I announced the forthcoming publication of my novel EOLYN that I learned Terra, like me, had a secret life as a fantasy fiction author.

The first installment of Terra's web serial THE ANTITHESIS was published on line in February of 2010.  By the time she finished the web serial in August of 2011, the site had received over 270,000 hits.  The serial was picked up by 1889 Ltd Labs and released in three print volumes this past summer.  THE ANTITHESIS takes our traditional vision of heaven, hell -- and the struggle that at once separates and unites them -- and turns that vision inside out.

In addition to her fiction, Terra writes a bi-weekly blogzine at 1889 Labs.  She currently works in the field of clinical toxicology and plans to pursue a PhD in microbiology/virology.  She is married and lives in Kansas City, Kansas.

Please welcome Terra Whiteman, and join us in a discussion of duality in the context of fantasy and science fiction.


Duality is a term that describes opposing forces; though, the opposing forces that mainly pertain to duality are placed within the topic of good and evil.

The basis of theology—most religion and belief systems, revolves around duality. We must be good and thwart evil. We must abide the laws and learn from the morals written for us, so that we can continue being good. For a large majority of the existence of human civilization, religion was the supreme force that shaped our societal, political and cultural beliefs. Some may even argue that it is still this way for many countries and societies.

Therefore, it goes without a doubt that many forms of fiction, spanning across all genres, somehow encapsulate duality. I'm sure you can think of several off the top of your head at this very second. Many of the classics deal with duality, and without it, we wouldn't have had fairytales either. Duality is a reflection of how us, as a human collective, view the world in the most basic sense.

But how exaggerated is this notion, when placing duality in the perspective of the real world, and real people?

The Enlightenment Period of history was when things began drastically changing. Duality was still there, but it shifted from 'good and evil' to 'right and wrong'. And, though these terms are definitely related to one another, they are not synonymous. During these times, literary fiction began changing as well. Even before then, the Greeks explored the spaces in between good and evil, or right and wrong, reciting epics of wars where not everything was simply one sided, and each character had their reasons for acting in certain ways. The Iliad, Paradise Lost (where Satan is actually more of an anti-hero) and The Divine Comedy are excellent examples of this. It was during these times that duality was approached and analyzed in a more philosophical way, leaving readers questioning whether their idea of 'good and evil' or 'right and wrong' was actually correct.

Since then, we've had a significant addition to character roles in fiction. Before, we simply had the hero/heroine and the villain/villainess. Later on, we switched the hero to the protagonist, which is a more ambiguous term for a leading character, because people began exploring main characters that were less than heroic. For the villain, it was the antagonist, which pretty much is described as the person the protagonist has a problem with. No longer do our 'villains' cackle from towers, attempt world destruction for no apparent reason other than for the fact that they are genuinely evil, or try to cook and eat children. No, now emerges characters that are a little more easily relatable to us; that deal with situations and are placed in circumstances that perhaps we have experienced as well.

Both the worlds of fantasy and science fiction are the leaders in this new evolved form of duality. Often, we are introduced to a number of characters on opposing sides, who despite being enemies, have some traits that we find likeable, or we can sympathize with. When the war begins, and ensues, we are challenged to decide what is right and wrong, given the circumstances, based on the characters we've grown to know (and sometimes love).

And I think this is very important, and crucial, because our world is actually one that is entirely subjective. The best stories were the ones that made us stop and think. They made us question our beliefs, or morals, or their message stayed with us for a very long time. Classics continue to be read for a reason, after all.

The evolution of duality—the black and white curtain of good and evil to the gray veil of right and wrong—has not only made fantasy fiction more complex and deeper, it also made it more personal. Making it more personal allows us, as writers, to touch readers in a way that we couldn't in the earlier ages of fiction. And ultimately, moving readers is something that writers aim for.

Because writing is art. Therefore we are artists, and art should both edify and evoke.

In the parting words of Archdemon Belial Vakkar on the topic of good and evil, from The Antithesis:

"I supposed the events of my life posed quite a good example of the fallacy that was ‘good and evil’. Though I’d occasionally done what might be considered ‘evil’ things, I was most certainly not an evil man. What was evil, anyway? I’d have liked to see a true definition, pointing out the prerequisites of ‘evil’. On that note, I’d have liked to see ‘good’ as well. Because by the standards given in the mythos and religion we’d brainwashed all of you with, I’d say with the utmost sincerity that I had never met a good man. Why?

Because none of that rubbish actually existed. Not good, not evil;

Only justice.

We did what we did because of what was done unto us, period. Justice needed no good or evil, nor had it needed an ethical guideline to reference. It needed a reason, and that was all. And everyone had their reasons, right?"


Terra Whiteman said...

Thanks so much for having me, Karin! :)

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terra --

Thank you for being our guest this week. I really enjoyed your post, and was wondering if you could take a little time to tell us something about duality as it is expressed in your stories.

Also, do you think "right" and "wrong" is truly subjective? Or, perhaps the better question is, what do you mean by 'subjective' -- dependent on the context, or dependent on the point of view?

Thanks for making us think again. ;)

Terri-Lynne said...

Wow, Terra, some heavy and cool stuff here! I'd never really thought about the switch from hero to protagonist, villain to antagonist before. Very, very cool. I'm glad I finally got to read this! I'm still without power (borrowing from a local gym!) but I'll be looking for more on this.

Anonymous said...


Excellent post! What Karin and Terri said and more.

Living in the real world, we know that things aren't ever as cut and dried as good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. If that were the case, we would see the word of the government as expressly Right, holding us in the light from the chaos of the world without law. If that were true, things like Jim Crow and witchhunts would still be alive and well. Perhaps when people saw that these so-called Just laws were doing so much harm, the characters needed to evolve as well.

In my experience with films and books, you see this a lot. From Bilbo Baggins being the "hero" of The Hobbit, and at the same time a "Burglar," hired by the dwarves, and even Richard B. Riddick as an escaped murderer who saves a bunch of prospectors from critters with big pointy teeth in Pitch Black, it's not hard to see good people doing bad and bad people doing good and ourselves rooting for them just the same.

--Clint Harris

Terra Whiteman said...


The Antithesis revolves more around moral ambiguity, where angels and demons aren't necessarily good or evil, and the duality that religion imposes on the Celestials' creations (us, along with a few other intelligent species on other planets within the story) is used for an experimental design. In The Antithesis, the angels and demons are actually a very scientific collective, and they're studying behavior. Therefore, they created extremes on the moral spectrum, and study how many of their creations abide by what is considered 'ultimately good'.

Needless to say, not many do.

The main character, our 'hero' in The Antithesis, is actually the closest thing the story has to a villain. However, despite being a complete moral nihilist, readers will often find that they sympathize with him and his actions, even if they're considered wrong if one were to take a specific moral high ground.

I think right and wrong is subjective to a certain degree. What one society considers wrong might not be considered as such elsewhere. The thesis of The Antithesis is that right and wrong are less relevant than action and reaction. We become what we are, and do the things we do, based on what we were taught to believe, or how we were treated throughout our life. We are not born good or evil, and right and wrong become subjective in the sense that to some (our main character, actually), killing people in order to achieve a certain goal, or killing people so that someone else that the main character is specifically attached to can live, seems perfectly alright with him.

Of course, all of my writing is strictly a work of fiction. What my characters believe may not necessarily be what I believe. :)

There is also a big deontology vs. consequentialism theme within the story. Is killing intrinsically wrong, or is it justified to achieve a higher, more important goal that may save more people's lives in the end?

@Terri-Lynne --

Thank you so much! I hope your power comes back soon.


I *love* Pitch Black! Your examples once again fall into the idea that right and wrong are subjective when it comes to personal stock in what we think is important. In fact, this idea has become such a social norm nowadays that all areas of art and media portray it. For example, how many books and television shows have anti-heroes? How many people root for these anti-heroes?

Real life is not black and white. It is gray.

Terri-Lynne said...

The whole notion of villains and anti-heroes was a topic at WFC last week. The line between the two wobbles a great deal. Take Dexter, for example--a serial killer who kills serial killers. He's doing the world a service, right? By being exactly what he's trying to rid the world of?? Round and round we go, and yet it's hugely popular, and everyone's always rooting for Dexter. Is it a case of who's the WORSE villain? Or is he an anti-hero? House was another one brought up, though he's a straightforward anti-hero, I thought.

Good and evil depends upon the eyes one is looking out of. No one thinks their the villain of the story. That's why I loved the original sentiment up in the post, that heroes turned into protagonists, and villains into antagonists, because the lines are wavy, the spaces between quite greay, and there's really either or neither, depending upon the story at hand.
Cool discussion.

Kim Vandervort said...

Fantastic post, Terra! I really enjoy playing in the grey areas myself-- not only are they where most of the living takes place in life, they're also so much more interesting.

This idea of duality is so topical right now, as our political system becomes more and more polarized each day. One of the things I love about SFF is that we can create a safe distance from what's happening in "the real world" to explore some of these ideas in depth, break them apart, analyze what they mean.

You've really expressed these ideas well in your post. Thanks for being our guest! :)

Eric T Reynolds said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric T Reynolds said...

Hi Terra, the concept of good and evil always causes me to think how one's good can be another's evil and vice versa. Consider between creatures:

Human: It's great they widened that road so there'll be less deaths.

Gopher: It's terrible they widened that road, causing all those deaths.

This is also true between humans, one culture vs another. We can have a consensus of what's good and evil, but it sometimes depends on pov.

Terra Whiteman said...

I couldn't agree more, Eric.

And since everyone had already mentioned how rampant moral ambiguity is throughout media and our society, I thought the best way to make it very obvious was to use Heaven and Hell as a theme. By taking two historically (and religiously) polarizing realms, and making them nearly isomers (haha, chemistry--couldn't help it), it really serves to emphasize the anti-duality of our current world.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...


haha! So, behavioral biologists are just supernatural beings in disguise. It's good to know at least one of my students got that right. ;)

I confess, I haven't had a chance to read your novel yet (it's on my list!), but I have always found the premise fascinating; it's one of the many reasons I invited you to do a post on HoF.

You may be happy to learn the sequel to Eolyn features an amoral villain. Though I do think most people will consider his actions wrong, or evil. I hope so, anyway...though they may 'like' him, nonetheless.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Terri -

I'm so out of it when it comes to pop culture & TV series, I had to google Dexter. I haven't seen the series, but I think no matter what his motivations, I'd have a hard time approving of any serial killer's actions. But I could be wrong...

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah, you're not wrong. It's a stretch, but there's a whole lot of people rooting for him. Kind of...disturbing.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hey Kim --

Brave you, bringing up polarization in politics! But that does make me wonder; we may feel the freedom to explore these things in fantasy fiction. But are we a minority in today's society? So many people, it seems, want to believe in an absolute right or wrong. It's scarey to live in a world where one must participate in defining 'morality'; where 'right' and 'wrong' are not set in stone.

Hey, this reminds me...I read once a very interesting interpretation of the story of Adama and Eve, by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, if I remember correctly.

I wish I could recapture the eloquence of his argument, but basically what he proposed was that the decision to eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents not a 'fall from paradise' (as St. Paul insisted) but a daring and transformative event in our evolution; the moment that made us fully human -- participants in the endless journey of defining 'right' and 'wrong'.

(Part of what follows from this moment, in the Old Testament, is the long history of 'covenants' between God and the Hebrews; each covenant defining a new 'agreement' as to what constitutes 'right' and 'wrong'.)

Under this interpretation, Eve is seen not as the instrument of humankind's damnation, but as a visionary leader who helped set us apart from all the other animals created by God.

And the 'punishment' meted out by God (you know, that whole monologue about all the ways in which Adam, Eve and their children will suffer forever more) becomes simply a preparatory lecture of sorts: God advising Adam and Even that becoming aware of 'right' and 'wrong' brings with it the burden of understanding the meaning of love, labor, pain and loss.

It was one of the best essays I've ever read. The only interpretation I've come across that came close to making sense of all the apparent contradictions found in those first chapters of Genesis.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Clint --

I've been trying to think of a response to your comments, but you have a way of posting that just says it all. So, I'll say thank you for stopping by, instead. :)

Eric --

Aaaaaw! I'm so glad there are people like you in the world who think about the gophers. ;)