On those who make sense of the world

Given my recent writing on the hardboiled detective tradition, I thought maybe I should go ahead and lay out some thoughts on the detective as a literary character. But this is meant to be a blog on SF/F, so I wondered how to work that in. Really, it wasn’t hard, as I had this idea already. It just struck me now was the time to write on it. So, I give you: wizards == detectives.

That probably sounds pretty weird. Of course it does. I just said dudes with long, grizzled beards are the same as dudes with square, grizzled jaws.

Hm. Maybe it’s not so odd? Well, one uses magic and the other uses… well. Honestly, how in the hell do detectives do their shit?

Let’s see which is which. This dude spent most of his life learning his craft. It was useful to him at a young age but shaped him into a person who has difficulty living with others who are not in his craft. As a robust practitioner of his craft, he sees things others don’t and knows in detail the way the world around him works – and he often manipulates the way in which the world works for his benefit, or at least for what he considers good reasons. He is generally aloof and hard to know, and relationships with women are often disastrous if not outright marked by attempts on the woman’s part to use the man.

Shit, dude, which one was I writing about again? It’s hard to tell. Because that’s both of them.

(and yes, I am entirely aware of the gender situation there. It would be hard to miss it, particularly the last part – which, by the way, specifically applies to Merlin and his offshoots).

Well, so what? They’re similar. So are oranges and Chudley Cannon fans, that means you should care?

(Wow, I had to dig deep in the old nerd coffers for that joke. Damn.)

The question that this fact – that they’re similar – answers is, what do these characters do? As a whole, what do they do in their respective settings. For instance, the hero illustrates the effects of strength of will in the world, coupled with a kind of faith or determination. The bureaucrat / vizier makes a claim about the tendency of organizations to need so many people that good and bad aren’t taken into account.

(Think about it. How easy is it for a bad person to be a knight in Arthur’s court? Now, how hard is it for that same bad person to get a job in the Social Security office?)

Wizards and detectives, the literary unit, makes the claim that there is sense to the universe if only one had the skill and vision to find it. Wizards directly deal with this – they manipulate the stuff of the universe; they find the sympathies that make the world work and find ways to make them work. In some cases they directly express the will of the universe itself, in the guise of fate or destiny. The detective is a step removed from the matter of the universe itself, but there is a constant that, realistically speaking, is as mystical/magical: human nature.

Ask any good psychologist what human nature is and the only way they’ll really give the same answer as the one you asked last week is if they A: had the same professor in college or B: are referring to neuro-psychology. And even then, it’s likely that A and B will have to apply. But somehow a detective has mastered the art or science of understanding the physical world (how far a sprig of parsley sank in fresh butter) and the intricacies of the human mind (exactly how badly a gangster wants a statue of a bird). Motive is as clear as physical evidence – which, in fact, always manages to lead the detective to an understanding of the motive.

Detectives are wizards in a world without magic. It is not actually possible to do what most of them do, but it appears as though it is. A magician’s world is one in which nature itself works differently, with symbolic logic. A lock of someone’s hair can stand in for them because it was part of them. Stab a hand you stabbed a person, and a hand is a part of the person. So stab the hair, with the right sympathetic magic, and you’ve also stabbed the person.

Detectives don’t have sympathetic magic. They have analytic magic. Ever hear the idea that if you knew and could process the history of every single particle in the universe, from the beginning to now, you would be able to see the end of the universe? You would essentially see the future, because it would be inevitable. The detective, interestingly enough, rose to prominence as science began to give credence to that idea. Determinism got very popular around the time Sherlock Holmes came on the scene. Am I claiming there’s causation there? No, but mostly because I haven’t done the research. But they were both fostered by the same setting. Both ideas, the detective and determinism, made sense to a lot of people where they didn’t before.

So in both cases there’s this guy who makes sense of the world. What does that mean exactly? Well, think about it – how much sense does the world actually make? It doesn’t. And also, that’s why scientists aren’t in my little equation up top. Scientists on the literary level (maybe the zero world label, but I don’t want to get into this argument) deal with how the world works. Both wizards and detectives can tell why it works the way it does. Both the detective and the wizard are sages, wise people who can help those who ask. And often for no payment, or very little. Holmes was a publicity hound who didn’t want his names in the papers – sometimes I feel like he took cases so the client would tell everyone he or she knew. I think that because often a client heard about him from a friend who did exactly that.

And finally, their methods make a difference. If they just assured us there was order in the world, again, scientists would qualify. They don’t necessarily know why something happens the way it does, but their proof that logic prevails would assure one that there is a system of some sort. But the methods of the wizard and the detective rely on motive, actually rely on a kind of psychology. So in both cases they assure one that there is a reason somewhere, and you could possibly figure out how to find it for yourself, or at the least, ask someone who knows.

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