Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (4 of 4)

Reality Skimming concludes its 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q. You wrote ‘character stories’ for the survivor characters in the zombie-verse game. Is it important for such characters to engage sympathy? Or can it be more interesting to make them ‘bad’ people?

I could make a case for both premises. Engaging and sympathetic characters give the audience some investment in the victims of a tragedy and make them care what happens to those characters. On the other hand, ‘bad’ people create conflict, and conflict is the soul of all good fiction. Humans are hard-wired to sit up and take notice when other humans aren’t getting along.

So far as Fort Zombie goes…there are no ‘bad’ people per se among the survivors. Some of the humans you run into will be more likable than others, but the real enemy isn’t your fellow apes—it’s the Rot, the force that animates the dead. Since the Rot has its own malevolent personality, and uses the dead and the dying as a medium for expression, players could work up some serious hate without ever really directing it at another human being. People who stuck with the game through a few updates reported an experience of slowly mounting rage: they really wanted a chance to deliver some payback to an enemy who piled up corpses like cordwood and used blood as spray paint. They wanted to track down the heart of that infection and destroy it. (And if there’s a sequel, they might get a chance to do just that.)

Q. The new millennium has seen increasing interest in ‘bad’ characters as protagonist – villains or anti-heros, vampires and murderers. Would you agree? Any insights into ‘bad guy’ fascination, from an anthropological viewpoint?

I would certainly agree that authors and audiences have fallen in love with a villain, more than once. Hannibal Lector and his nephew Dexter are probably the most dramatic cases that come to mind. From the anthropological standpoint, I would say that the fascination with serial killer anti-heroes stems from a subconscious desire to impose control and meaning on homicidal madness which is otherwise senseless…and thus, more terrifying.

People want to believe that a man who hunts his fellow human beings can be controlled, channeled, even made to serve a greater good. The fantasy of a serial killer who only hunts the annoying, or who can be targeted and trained to hunt and destroy other killers, is quite appealing. It is certainly easier to cope with this fantasy than the reality, which is that serial murderers hunt like any other animal: they prey on the weak, small and most marginalized or isolated members of the available herd. Modern genre fiction is not all about taming real monsters, though. Vampires, werewolves, fey creatures and fairy tale monsters can have another meaning, especially in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre. The “bad guy” mystique is certainly there, but there is a deeper thread running through a lot of this fiction. Once you get past the front cover, you generally find that the vampires and the werewolves in these books are not particularly bad people, or at least not always bad people. Often these characters come across more as symbols of alternate sexuality and lifestyles. They appear frightening and monstrous to “normal” people and outsiders. They tend to be stereotyped by tabloid headlines generated by the worst of their kind. Once you get to know them, however, you find that they are just people. They want love and acceptance, they need kinship and support like any other human being. In this sense I think that the “monster community” in paranormal romance novels is probably a pretty effective metaphor for the social, political and personal issues that might come with homosexuality, transgendered identity, sadomasochism, polyamory or any other alternative lifestyle which makes you “monstrous” in the eyes of the outside world. Some of these stories are about the search for love, friendship, and family (and the limits of tolerance) when you live outside the canopy of the norm.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

Share this post:
515f981ae6" />