I like moral dichotomies and moral conflicts in settings. I even, on occasion, enjoy the epic struggle between Good and Neutral, or Candy and Chocolate. But when you have a conflict between the forces of Light and Darkness and they represent Good and Evil every time, well, I get a little exhausted by it. The next go-to option is little better. Order and Chaos? Nowadays that seems to be just as overplayed as Good and Evil. Sometimes even more— or worse, it’s supposedly about Order vs Chaos but these are just synonyms for Good and Evil.
Maybe one day I’ll write up a column about other ways to treat Order and Chaos in fiction (let me know below if that would interest you) but today I want to deal with moral dichotomies in general and present four Light/Dark dichotomies that are about a little something more.
There is a war between the forces of Light and of Darkness, and it is a war between knowledge and secrets, unrestricted freedom of expression and censorship. It is for this reason, and not on any moral basis, that the champions of the former, no matter its price, are called “of Light,” and the forces of censorship, who seek to obscure, are called “of Darkness.”
And yet the divide is not so clear-cut as between good and evil. Do not think it self-evident that all knowledge must be made known to the world. Information wants to be free, but so do serial killers. Can information, then, be a threat not just to the powerful but to everyone? Is there ever a time when it is better to bury secrets than to bring them into the daylight?
These things are what this dichotomy are about. We could make the matter very clear with book-burners hunting down copies of The King in Yellow, with investigators grappling with how and whether to reveal any of the horrid truths that they have learned, but it is not just a question for fantasy stories. Would the world have been better off if the secrets of nuclear power had been somehow buried beneath a mountain of paperwork or even never pursued at all? Or, closer to home, is it ever better to lie to a loved one and not tell a truth that would hurt?
Nyarlathotep never lies. He presents you with the truth of things, terrible and unvarnished, and forces you to look until it becomes a part of your soul.
But maybe you’d like something that is just a little more clear-cut, even if it isn’t based on something as nebulous as Good/Evil. The labels don’t tell you very much.
Hope spurs people onward and uplifts them. Fear causes people to shrink away and freeze. Fear can bring about great things but only when there is the hope that these actions will have an effect. Without the tempering effect of hope, there is only raw action or inaction as chance circumstances dictate, and one is an object to be acted upon, not an agent that acts.
The soldiers of the Dark are without personal identity, defined and shaped more by their foes than by innate nature, and its lieutenants are those who made contracts with the Darkness so that the day of their reckoning, now before them, could be pushed back. Yet a greater one always comes, and they come to understand that they now face a worse fate— one day becoming a mindless servant of the Dark with no identity outside of half-conscious nightmares, doomed to die again and again only to be brought back to life each time.
They do not have the hope of delaying this reckoning, either. It’s time is set in stone and can only be moved to a closer point in time, as punishment for betraying the Dark. Nor do they have a hope of the torture ending, for the Dark is indestructible, and so long as it exists it will be able to resurrect its servants. There is, at last, only the fear of this fate.
Is it better to be happy or to be free? Worse to be sorrowful or without the will and power to act? The Light and the Darkness, which some call Hell and Heaven, disagree on these questions.
Hell is an army of hedonists, true lovers of happiness to whom suffering is abomination. Nevertheless, they are willing to sow and reap blood and horror across the whole span of the universe if it means that they will one day succeed. Eternity is a very long time, and all sacrifices will be justified when it comes to pass that this conflict— and the occasional betrayal of their values— shall become but a mere speck on the face of time.
Heaven would liberate you even from the manipulations of all, even themselves. Just not today. To be without free will, even if one has subjective experience, is to be an object to be acted upon and nothing more, in their views. Such a thing, can it be called a person at all? But true freedom means the freedom to suffer, for which reason Hell cannot abide their agenda just as Heaven cannot tolerate the control that would be necessary if no being would every experience pain. Nevertheless, they are as hypocritical as Hell and will manipulate and override the agency of other beings for even a small edge in the war.
There is a war between the Light and the Dark, and it is between those who believe in a higher cause and those who believe only in themselves. To put it another way, those who believe that existence has meaning or can be given meaning and those that are possessed by nihilism and cooperate only out of enlightened self-interest— they can do more united than divided.
Many similar groups would succumb to treachery but the Darkness is not stupid and safeguards have been implemented. Those who break oaths made in the name of the Dark suffer whatever fate is detailed in the oath, and the first promise that any follower of the Dark must make is to serve it and not knowingly act against or harm it (including through inaction), and their second promise is to further the interests of her peers when these do not conflict with her own.
Not every servant of the Darkness is cruel or malevolent. Some recognize in themselves a preference for helping others, for instance. Nevertheless, they join the Dark because they see this as nothing more than that, and they are willing to accept the trade-off. The pleasures of the murderer and the tyrant are no less valid past-times or life choices than her own, after all, and the world is a big enough place for everyone to have their own playground after the Dark has definitively won.
The Light is hardly nice, either. Everybody has their own idea of what the universe’s meaning is or ought to be, and they are joined together more out of ideological opposition to the Dark than anything else. In this scenario especially, there was truly the Darkness before there was the Light.
Your turn: What is another moral dichotomy you think would be interesting story fodder?
R. Donald James Gauvreau maintains a blog at www.whitemarbleblock.blogspot.com, where he regularly posts story ideas, free fiction, and other goodies, including a free guide to comparative mythology that was written specifically with worldbuilding in mind.
He is probably not a spider.