Monday, March 06, 2006

An Ethical Weekend

"Ethics" is a word with a built-in lisp.
Just noticed that now.
This weekend, an agent, Deidre Knight, discussed the ethics of an agent who is also an author; and a writer, Joe Konrath ( A Newbie's Guide...), pondered the ethics of describing in fiction various means of evading justice, frigging with lie detectors, and pinning apples on Hallow'een.
At first, in my lamentable literal way, I thought he was serious.
He even wondered if he should include a disclaimer.
After a few decades of reading crime fiction, I could think off-hand of about six different methods, described in loving detail, to accomplish the same.
After a few decades of reading the news, I could recall about six different non-fiction, how-to examples from real life.
Without actually adding them up, anyone can think of hundreds of ways fiction and non-fiction has described means of murder, both mundane and esoteric, from bang-bang and boom to boomslang and fer-de-lance.
And he's concerned about the ethics of describing how-to- break- jail?
I decided he must be speaking figuratively, concerned with the cross-over reality that fiction sometimes creates in the minds of those with an anti-social bent.
The "what-if" factors, the question of self-censurship, the moral dimension of writing.
Of course, there's an element of mild conceit involved here. But we're all probably prone to that.
And of course, objectively, such suspicion of cause is an excellent promotional point, borrowed from true crime. Evil. Revealed. The book at the murder's bed-side.
A poster pointed out that for every nut-case that might view a work of fiction as a handy-dandy blueprint, there were many more readers who would bend their analytical, hunter-minds towards circumventing the dastardly, the devious and the depraved.
A valuable context, that.
Fiction, however, does educate us in practical ways.
I remember reading an account of an officer in the Burmese jungle during WW2. Strange noises from the night disturbed his patrol. Having read Kipling he knew what it was and was able to reassure his men they were not about to be ambushed - at least not then or by that.
Myself, I had never seen a certain breed of dog, but thanks to Haggard, recognized a Rhodesian ridgeback at first delight.
And a Superman comic allowed me to impress my grade school teacher to no end - I knew what heavy water was.
It's an interesting topic.


Anonymous said...

It's a tough line to walk. You want to be fresh and inventive and original, but don't want to harm national security. Yet, there's risk in everything we do. Since JA Konrath presumably didn't spike Halloween candy, or beat lie detectors, or commit the perfect murder, I imagine that information is otherwise publically available. I would hesitate to put more secret information out there, however.

In the end, we just have to take the risk. Salinger probably never dreamed someone would accuse him of killing John Lennon.

Bernita said...

Very available, Jason.
Of course, it doesn't necessarily have the same visual and persuasive power that well-written fiction does, but the informations is certainly out there in massive quantities.
I find the idea that terrorists read corrupt Western fiction for ideas on how to destroy corrupt Western society very innocent.

Sela Carsen said...

Tom Clancy, I believe, was horrified when terrorists tried to fly a plane into the Capitol Building. He'd written about it in one of his Jack Ryan novels. I'm sure they figured it out without having read his book, but I can't blame him for getting the creeps.

Rick said...

Supposedly there are people at the CIA whose job includes reading spy fiction for tradecraft ideas. For that matter, I think the word "tradecraft" was coined by le Carré.

Carla, Gabriele, and I are all presumably safe from this sort of problem! Though in the summer of 2001 I was discussing on an SF board the possibility of future terrorists hijacking starships and ramming them into planets at catastrophically high speeds ...

Gabriele C. said...

Lie detectors aren't allowed as court proof in Germany. In fact, they are seldom used at all. A sensible decision, I think, with all the cases where the result is wrong.

In times where you can find detailed plans how to built a letter bomb in the net, I won't worry about people learning how to escape from jail from a book. Escape from a fictive jail, after all. Reality oftenlooks different.

And what about ethics in a time where people kept slaves without giving them a second thought, where torture was part of finding the truth in a court process? I even have a woman accepting an arranged marriage without flinching, angsting or anything. ;-)

Bernita said...

I imagine he was horrified, Sela, by the allegation, the accusation.
I wonder if the publicity department, however, hastened to make hay of the suggestion, cynic that I am at times.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. already did a version of that, Rick, in The Ecolitan Enigma, published in 1997.

Bernita said...

Don't believe lie detector results are allowed in my jurisdiction either, Gabriele.
And in cases where I read of an individual demanding a lie dectector test, I tend to think of him as guilty as hell.
And you raise a good point, those that insist one must insert modern "ethics" into historical fiction.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Sela, an added bit to the story...I'm a Clancy mega-fan BTW...Tom has friends in high places in the NSA (that's where he gets a lot of his gov't stuff. When he wrote that particular book, he and the 'friend' were discussing it and he asked, what would be the safeguards to keep that from happening....The 'friend' stuttered and said nothing...thus the program put into place before 9/11 was a result of a Tom Clancey novel.

I don't write with those kind of hostilities...yet!...but I think you could probably go as far as your conscious would let you. All the info is out there on the internet, anyhow.

I'm sure terrorists don't buy for novels when they can just search the 'net!

Tsavo Leone said...

I'm not sure the issue of ethics really comes into play in this instance, since real life murderers, gangsters, and various 'reformed' hardmen are probably making more money now from writing about their exploits than they did perpetrating them.

As to the implictions of one or more individuals successfully acting out a work of fiction? Well, if the author used legal means to carry out research then they are bound only by their own morals. And since publishers appear to be quite happy to print lies as truth (James Fey?) the issue lies solely with the 'criminals' who take the author's work onboard as a blueprint for their activities.

Bernita said...

I'm inclined to agree, Tsavo, that it is a faux moral issue.
The responsibility for acts lies with the perpetrator.
Someone did suggest on Konrath's board( tongue in cheek) that if someone did copy his method, he should sue the pants off them for copyright violation.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, in crime fiction you do wonder about lines.

I've had speakers come in who've shut off recorders when they told us how to break the law because they didn't want to be responsible for that info going beyond the room. So it isn't just the writers who deal with it, but the PI's and cops.

But I think whatever you do come up with in fiction, someone else has come up with (in terms of a crime that's been tried, or someone's planning to try). I consider my writing to be a reflection of society, not a catalyst for evil.

I mean, the Bible's filled with rape, murder, really, if we're going to start laying blame, the ideas in print came long before us crime writers did!

Bernita said...

Obviously real time officials and law makers have to worry about consequences, and they would be irresponsible not to consider them, because there is a degree of authority as well as authenticity underlining anything they say.

Erik Ivan James said...

Good discussion. I agree with what I perceive the consensus to be here; that the problem belongs to the perpetrator, not the novelist. I believe while writing fiction our only moral responsibility is not to portray any "real person" in an unfavorable way. After all, we're writing fiction and we as individuals don't have access to any information that is not available to anyone else. If we do, because of employment, etc., then we are bound by other codes of conduct.

Bernita said...

Now "real person" deserves some expansion and definition, I think, Erik.
Terrorists who love tacos? Sensitive serial killers?
Psychic vampires?
No creeps or cowards?

Erik Ivan James said...

Okay, how about "real person" = "regular good citizen"?

Alexandra said...

If it's fiction, hasn't it all been made up? ;-) But seriously. Hasn't the internet taken over from novels and newsprint?

Oh, and I've missed my daily trip to see the 'hangers'.

Bernita said...

The line definitely blurs between fiction and non-fiction at times. Readers demand that fiction be 'realistic."
Yep, Alexandra, the internet comes in for a lot of blame.
It's the nature of the beast to want to point at something, some source, to blame some agent for reprehensible acts. Sometimes everything but the prime actor himself. Criminals, it seems, are perceived as devoid of any imagination.

You're weaseling, Erik. The character is as the writer makes him. Are you saying a writer should devise only "regular" people?

Rick said...

"Real people" also includes specific, named public figures who may appear in some genres - politicians, for example, in a novel dealing with public events. I would not want to use a novel as (say) a mere soapbox for my political views, but that doesn't seem quite like an ethical obligation. Or at least it's a specialized ethic relating to my sense of the purpose and value of fiction, not a general ethic.

But since several of us write hist-fict, the question of how you treat "real people" has another interesting angle. What ethical obligation, if any, do we have toward historical figures as characters?

Then there's the question Gabriele raised about even purely fictional characters in another era, who would be expected to have different values. I just banged right into that one. Queen Catherine has to decide the fate of 500 foreign not-quite-mercenaries who were involved in a failed rebellion. Does she hang the lot of 'em? Reasonable for a 16th c. monarch, but tough to have a sympathetic protagonist do!

ivan said...

I tried to read Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, Flowers of Evil, and I feel the old reprobate left me at about the point where he says let your pen go where it will, even unto pure evil.
I love to read about that old French genius-degenerate, but when it comes to the text...somewhat flat after a century and a half.

Anyway, Chuckercanuck is missing you over on my site. Something about old Leopold about him. Thinks you are a genius and are going to slap him good for what he terms his feeble attempts at humour.
I dunno. Aldous Huxley turned from the serious to producing humourous carricatures of the day and came out with a masterpiece titled Chrome Yellow. I especially loved the part where he had an upperclass Englishman trying to be Vladimir Ilich Lenin...I think Iwatch too much public tevlevision.

Shesawriter said...

I'd be mortified if something I'd written winded up as a part of some nut's plan. I think most writers would be.


Bernita said...

Rick, possibly by having her find a pragmatic, political reason not to do so. Have her mulling over alternatives: salt mines? slave galleys? Emphasis on their possible atrocities against innocents during the rebellion? ie. remove it from the political into the particular? Having her cut through the over-arc justification of principle down to an actual and less heroic motivation?

But how would one know, Tanya?
Sometimes goodness invited evil, as well.

Rick said...

Bernita - exactly what I'm doing. She tells them that their own king hung them out to dry, then gives them a choice of prison or enlisting in her army. Somehow I think most will enlist! And she will have embarrassed a rival king.

I handle my Lord High Admiral's galley problem much the same way. He disapproves of galley slaves, not for any Lincolnesque reason, but an old-fashioned preference for rowers who come up from the benches to fight when it comes to push of pike.

(Historical note: Slave galleys only became the norm in the 16th century. Ben-Hur to the contrary, Roman and other ancient war galleys were not normally rowed by slaves.)

Bernita said...

Oh neat, Rick, and fits with her cool acumen.
Re: galleys and slaves. Thought that they were in use during the crusades and one of the activities of the Knights of Malta and Templar, etc. was ransoming them. No?

Rick said...

No, not during the Crusading era - the Knights of Malta did do this later, once galley slaves became the rule.

I should make a double proviso - things may have been different aboard Muslim galleys, since less is known about them (at least in the usual references for medieval sea warfare). Plus, some medieval Muslim states resembled the later Ottomans in having forms of slavery wholly alien to our conceptions. In my fictional counterpart:

Galleys of al-Fustat were pulled by slaves, true, but that was different – the Mamelukes who fought on their gangways were also the Caliph's slaves, as were their captains, and the Grand Vizier himself.