What is Evil?

Recently, a guy named Benjamin Smith was arrested in Florida for "stealing" signal from the open WiFi network of his neighbors. Then John Geraty, a cop in my very own beloved San Francisco, bizarrely suggested to a local newspaper reporter that it's illegal for people to get their Internet connection from a WiFi network unless it belongs to them. So now it appears that millions of people across the nation are in danger of being arrested when they surf the net from cafés and parks.

Meanwhile, scientists in Japan and the United States have invented skin for robots. Thin sheets of rubbery material threaded with conductive graphite sensors can "feel" in much the same way human skin does, sensing pressure of various kinds and responding to it with movement. You can imagine that this would be useful for some of the robots already being used in hospitals to monitor and care for patients. They could sense light touches and squeezes of a hand. It's also just kind of creepy. The more humanlike robots get, the more I worry about Rucker's Law. You know, the law that SF author Rudy Rucker lays out in his "live robots" books? Put simply, it holds that the more robots feel like human beings, the closer they are to fomenting revolution and starting a separatist robot colony on the moon.

With people being arrested for "stealing" WiFi signals, and the skin-covered robots about to revolt any day now, I decided to spend some quality time reading two new fantasy novels: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling; and Godslayer, by Jacqueline Carey. Wizards, dragons, and magic would surely take my mind off high-tech injustice in the contemporary world.

Unfortunately, they didn't. In fact, these novels reminded me that fantasy novels are often pointed allegories about the times in which they're written. Rowling has already been praised -- and reviled -- by critics for taking a progressive stance on issues such as racism and political witch-hunts. And Half-Blood Prince is no exception: The tale has Harry coming of age in a nation wracked by antiterrorist hysteria provoked by a government more interested in political spin than protecting its citizens. With Voldemort and his Death Eaters at large, Harry and his mates are forced to endure magical security checks every time they enter school grounds. A new, security-minded prime minister has taken over, and Harry must battle government restrictions as often as he does Voldemort's henchmen.

It's hard to fight for good when you aren't sure what the forces of good actually are. That's one of the central issues in the new Harry Potter novel, and it's also Carey's main concern in Godslayer, the conclusion of her two-part Sundering series. For those unfamiliar with Carey's oeuvre of door stop-sized fantasy novels, she's the purple-prosey brainiac behind the Kushiel trilogy, which is about a heroic prostitute-spy with sexual superpowers in an alternate version of the Middle Ages.

The Sundering series, on the other hand, is a kind of retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Sauron. There are many key differences between the stories that make Godslayer's dark lord Satoris more sympathetic than Sauron -- he raises a defensive army of trolls because he wants to be left alone, for instance, not because he wants to take over the world -- but the story is clearly intended to be read against the backdrop of J.R.R. Tolkien's influential fantasy novels. As Godslayer begins, elflike beings have joined with humans and a Gandalf-like figure to ride against Satoris. Their goal is to fulfill an ancient prophesy stating that Satoris's death will heal the "sundering" of the world and reunite mortals with their "Shapers." And yet Satoris has done nothing more terrible than building a city where he gives shelter to social outcasts, trolls, and the insane.

Sure, he's depressed and prefers to live in the dark, but does that mean Satoris should be killed? And what's so great about the Shapers, anyway, since they were the ones who originally sundered the world and left to live on an island far from human shores? Why should mortals fight the Shapers' battles for them? It's fascinating to watch a fantasy novel grapple with these kinds of questions, since the genre is rather notorious for making evil so obvious that our heroes never have to question their motivations.

It turns out that fantasy, rather than science fiction, may be the genre that best captures the vicissitudes of our relentlessly high-tech, security-obsessed age. By casting doubt on what constitutes evil, both Rowling and Carey have written novels about magical realms that are, ironically, more realistic than many US newscasts.

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