Thursday, December 26, 2013

Steelheart: Do the ends always justify the means?

One of the things that I can thank the Internet for, and book blogging in particular, are online deconstructions. Although I clearly lack the discipline to bring mine out in a timely fashion (sorry, Bumped fans!) reading other people's works has helped me become a better, more thoughtful critic.

It's also opened my eyes (well, opened them further) on the importance of thoughtful world building, and how it means much more than simply the author doing their job well.

I'm saying this because, had it not been for that, I would have enjoyed Steelheart much more.

My other main influence, which I would very much like to disclose before I go on further, is this video by Foldable Human which, hand to my heart, changed the way I view superheroes forever. 

In case the link doesn't work, or you're short on time, the gist is that superhero movies (Iron Man, Superman, the Avengers) all tend to glorify America's tendency to invade other nations and screw sovereignty in the name of the greater goal. Also, that superheroes' impact on the lives of regular humans is much more profound and devastating than we tend to think about.

Here's why this is important: Steelheart is set in a world where superheroes (well, Epics) are ruling the Earth, and our hero David joins a group of vigilantes, the Reckoners, in an attempt to take down the ruler of what was formerly known as Chicago. 

Or so the synopsis would have you think.

What actually happens is that David stalks out a relatively small-scale vigilante group, and then basically hijacks the team to fulfill his own personal vendetta against one of the most dangerous and powerful Epics alive.

Obviously, I have problems with David. 

In fact, I loathe David.

And I wouldn't be lying that I kept holding onto the small hope he gets his comeuppance until the very last page.

Sorry. That makes me biased, but then again, I never was the most objective critic.

See, the problem with David is that he epitomizes everything I despise, in fiction and in general -  the self-assured, entitled asshole who plays Russian Roulette with not only himself, but everyone around him as well. David's "improvisations" throughout the novel constantly put the Reckoners in danger, and the fact that those risks constantly paid off in a good way never ceased to irritate me. 

Imagine if David was a girl. He'd be basically Kelsey Heyes, Celaena Sardothien, and every other female character you despised for just stumbling onto solutions because she's just so damn special. But even if we put the dynamics of gender aside, can you imagine having some snotty brat you barely know put you and your friends at risk of death and torture? Yeah, you'd say no.

There is some token acknowledgement that what David is doing is wrong from Prof, of course, and there's also the assumption that the rest of  the Reckoners knew what they were signing up for, but even those considerations are sent to Hell when we consider the wider picture.

Steelheart is a dictator, but he's also one of the few Epics out there who make sure the humans under his rule have roofs over their heads, food coming despite the fact that he and his buddies have basically made it impossible for the city to be self-sustaining (steel soil + everlasting darkness = bad agricultural prospects), maintains trade, and has a working infrastructure (roads, sewage AND electricity.)  If Steelheart falls, Newcago, as it is now known, would fall into anarchy, people would die, and it would suck pretty hard.


Oh, I'm sorry, you privileged asshole, but not all of the little people can afford to strive for such high goals as fighting the oppressors. Some of us don't have ready access to fresh produce, fuel, vehicles, and state of the art rifles. The Reckoners hadn't targeted any powerful Epics before David came, and it is explicitly stated they probably wouldn't have, had he not come along. Basically, David screws an entire city just so that he could have his vengeance. (Chicago's population today is 2.7 million, but if we adjust for the Takeover period and diminishing birth rates, we can assume that's 1.35 million people that David is willing to sacrifice for his cause. Fuck you very much, buddy!)

Which brings me to Megan, aka the only Reckoner who cares for collateral damage, aka the woman David has a huge Nice Guy boner for. David manages to snipe some people before they kill Megan early on in the book, which apparently means she's his personal possession. No, seriously. He has exactly two types of thoughts about Megan for the first part of the book:

1. OMG, boobs!

2. DAFAQ, how dare this female have opinions of her own!

And then it just gets better. #sarcasm

What really bugs me is that Megan is the only person in the group who seems to have the balls to point out that David is not so awesome, that his plan is reckless, that the collateral damage entailed would be terrible. More than that, she's also professional enough to go along and not hamstring the operation when she is outvoted. Yes, Megan, that is quite a sensible position to be holding, why is nobody appreciating you?

I'm not spoiling the rest of the book, but I don't think that, at any point, Megan gets any validation. In fact, her whole arc undermines the very good points she (and only she) makes throughout the book.

Which brings me back to the title of this post, or the ends justifying the means. Steelheart is very much THE superhero book, underlining the same points that Foldable Human brings up in his video. The rules are a formality, and they can be weaved aside for the sake of the greater good... but only if you're a entitled white guy. If you're a woman, or don't have access to a helluva lot of money, you're pretty much screwed. 

Not a new sentiment by far, but after Mistborn... I kinda expected more of Brandon Sanderson. Or maybe I just didn't know better three years ago.

Note: Image via Goodreads. 

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