That Whole Death Thing

It does not take the most incisive literary analysis to say that murder mysteries are about death. Someone turns an alive person into a dead one, other people react to that, and a detective (sometimes as the representative of larger society) examines the death in an effort to learn how and why. There is an exploration of what that death means, usually in a variety of contexts: there is the disposition of property, there is the sudden removal of an obstacle, there are social roles left unperformed, there is a stark and shocking reminder of human frailty. Often, there are uncomfortable questions about just when it is permissible to remove a fellow human being in this way — if not the victim (often an odious sort who “had it coming”) then the killer, who in many stories is turned over to an absent justice system with punishment left nebulous, but in just as many commits suicide or is killed by someone else in turn.

I listened to part of an interview with Sherry Turkle (on NPR, I think) this afternoon and she talked about our relationship to technology and each other. One thing that struck me was her discussion of robot pets: kids grow up with digital pets rather than real ones that need to be cared for, and nevertheless grow old and die.

Already, people grow up with both less and more exposure to death than they used to. On the one hand, our friends and family are living longer: maladies and accidents that would previously have caused death, now do not. Even live pets live longer, being vaccinated for more diseases, having better food, and for other reasons. There is no reason not to expect these trends to continue, robotic pets or no. I attended a lecture some years ago in which a respected engineer told the audience that our generation may be the first to never die. It was probably hyperbole, but definitely a good way to get his audience to warm up to him.

But there is also more exposure to it in terms of the news and entertainment: Blood sells ad space. Blood sells games. Blood sells movie theatre seats. Blood sells politics (why talk about “struggle” when you can talk about “battle”?) Even without that, though, it’s unconscionable to ignore the violence being done in our names — whether one agrees or not — and increasingly difficult to.

Death is becoming simultaneously scarce and ubiquitous, and I’m not sure there’s not a connection there.

Since this is my writing blog, this makes me think about my novel in progress, a murder mystery in a science fiction setting. People in that setting live longer and can expect to live longer. They know fewer people who have died. It’s a rarer and more shocking thing, even when they insist that the death under investigation an accident.

I’ve decided to make some adjustments to the age and backgrounds of the characters, to better explore this. In particular I want to contrast the reactions of the two younger characters, with different backgrounds in terms of economic class, religion, education. In my mind, one of them has had many of the benefits of longevity: a large family support structure going back generations (all in the same large and urbane colony) and the resources (monetary and political) that come with that, but also the confidence of being able to plan for the very long term, including social permission to make “youthful” mistakes into one’s forties and spend as many years as one likes in education.

The other character has suffered many of the downsides: living in a small agrarian colony whose elders are all in their 80s (and expect to live to be 120) with almost no political turnover in thirty years, no opportunities for advancement, and very little sense that the new generation has anything of value to add except labor; longer generation gaps lead to less of a sense of having anything in common. The only way for that character to advance is to go off-world, where the willingness to risk one’s life is a very valuable asset.

I still need time to think, but I suspect that these two people will have very different opinions about death — especially murder. I’m just not sure yet what those opinions are.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “That Whole Death Thing

      1. Thanks, very interesting to listen to… And I know this didn’t have anything to do with the content but I love the reference to Spinal Tap’s Rockumentary 😀

  1. Reading this made me realize how reluctant I’ve been to kill off any of my characters, particularly main characters who I’ve grown to care about…but I’ve got plenty of blood and dead extras. Hmmmm….might need to do a bit of rethinking myself.

    1. I’m in something of the same boat. The important characters of mine who die have generally done so off-stage, before the story starts. Main characters are valuable: there’s a lot of promise there, lots of potential plots and uses, maybe even more whole books, and it seems like there ought to be a very good reason to throw that away.

      And killing off a main character is also a risk. I’ve read a few stories where a main character gets killed off, and I know I’m *supposed* to feel awful about it, but either I’d been primed so well for it that I expected it (and pre-emptively stopped caring about that character — or worse, got bored waiting for them to die) or just didn’t care about that character much in the first place.

      At the same time, if I’m not willing to kill off my protagonists in any of my stories, then they’re never in any real danger, are they? With the Basic Plot of “Get your characters up a tree. Throw rocks at them. Get them down again.” I’m basically throwing under-hand if I’m not will to do real damage.

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