Phil Christman interviews the prodigious Adam Roberts — classics scholar, parodist, translator, award-winning author of science fiction. At one point Roberts notes that the "grandiose and hyperbolic melodrama" of which many of us are enamored, even addicted, is false, in terms of its relationship to actual life, and perhaps unnecessary. He says:
… no gigantic space explosion or earthquake or collectively vast hideously beweaponed battlecruisers the size of moons can capture the intensities occasioned by the quiddities of ordinary living … It’s what Chesterton says: the two great human dramatic stabs are mortality and ridiculousness: every (wo)man is tragic in that they have to die; every (wo)man is comic if their hat blows off and they have to chase after it down street.
Lately I've been thinking about melodrama, its demands on our imagination, and how those demands seep from the dream-space of content consumption into our waking lives. It's true that the dullest of human lives contain all the tragedy and comedy necessary for meaningful drama, but it doesn't feel true, does it?
I think Roberts undersells the addiction aspect, at least in this brief snippet of his thought (perhaps he delves more into the concept elsewhere). We crave the "big stuff" of explosions and post-apocalyptic struggle, and we need each spectacle to out-pace the previous one. That's what we get in a world where content choices have exploded, along with the budgets and technologies that make each movie or dystopian TV show seem so much cooler than the last one, at least until it is quickly forgotten. Streaming is the heroin of popular culture.
This particular addiction is to an experience, not a substance. Science fiction tropes have long warned us of the dangers of artificial entertainment becoming so lifelike and all-consuming — the "metaverse" of lore — that we lose ourselves inside a fantasyland, becoming brains in jars or, at least, heads in VR helmets. Perhaps someday that will be a concern, but so far it seems that instead we have become so bored by the real world that we are remaking it into one more similar to the "grandiose and hyperbolic melodramas" of popular culture. Conspiracies, villains, the conviction that those who think like us are "good" and that our political opponents are not misguided or wrong, but literally "evil." We turn school board elections into apocalyptic showdowns and fail to notice the absurdity.
Then, when something actually evil happens — like the literally evil invasion of Ukraine by Putin's Russia — instead of mourning the tragic turn while hunkering down as a society to do the hard work of defeating, or at least containing, that evil, many of us simply treat it like another cultural spectacle. Sitting senators (!) call for assassinations like a moviegoer loudly offering advice to the characters on screen. Some pundits (idiots) gustily root for a shooting war between the USA and nuclear Russia. (Other pundits, also idiots, claim "the real totalitarianism" can be found in American COVID-19 restrictions.)
The "real world" is a dangerous and deadly place, full of stubborn sinners (aka people like me, and you). While those of us in the West cling to our smartphones and share our expert opinions on everything and nothing, people in other countries, such as Ukraine and Yemen, are hungry, dying, brutalized, experiencing actual oppression and siege.
And we (at least in terms of Ukraine) treat it like we are watching a movie, instead of an evil war of aggression that should be managed carefully and diplomatically by those of us on the outside so as to avoid the escalated spectacle of a nuclear conflict. No, we don't recognize ourselves as actual players cheering for the doom of civilization, but as an audience demanding more, bigger, more, now.
It's enough to make one think that Chesterton might have been right for his time but wrong in ours, that now there is only one "human dramatic stab" because we have managed to turn mortality into something ridiculous.
Postscript: Adam Roberts has long been on my list of "authors I need to read but haven't yet," and Christman's interview sent him straight to the top. I'll decide on which of his works to start soon. But I don't want anyone to think based on this blog post that I'm claiming any sort of familiarity with Roberts' work in general.