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I’ve nearly finished gathering together all of my Cognitive Mapping columns from Vector. This is the penultimate one, and it first appeared in Vector 193, May-June 1997.

Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognise in him a certain Mr Hyde, who once visited her master and for whom she had conceived a dislike. He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience. And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr Hyde broke out of all bounds, and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot, and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
Robert Louis Stevenson

It seemed John’s hands worked of their own, tearing the pages aside, grabbing for inks and washes while the drawings grew in depth and vividness. The brilliant side lighting; film of sweat on bodies that distended and heaved in ecstasies of pain; arms disjointed by the weights and pulleys, stomachs exploded by the rack, bright tree shapes of new blood running to the floor. It seemed the limner tried to force the stench, the squalor, even at last the noise down onto paper; Brother Sebastian, impressed in spite of himself, had finally dragged John away by force, but he couldn’t stop him working…

He only spoke once, and then to Brother Joseph; leaning upright, eyes frightened and wild, gripping the boy’s wrist. “I enjoyed it, Brother,” he whispered. “God and the Saints preserve me, I enjoyed my work …”

Pavane (1966)
Keith Roberts

We live in a violent century. Inevitably, popular literature, all literature, has reflected this: war and crime have been a fundamental element in the plots of an overwhelming majority of novels and films, plays and television drama. It is hard to think of a computer game today that does not have violence as its guiding force, as the impetus that drives everything else.

A lot of this, of course, is cartoon violence: on one page the hero is cruelly beaten by the bad guys, by the next page he is up and about as if nothing had happened. Or a war leaves the screen littered with dead bodies, but they are neat and tidy, there is no blood or pain. It is simply a conveniently violent backdrop to highlight the heroics of our protagonist. There is plenty of this in science fiction. Militaristic sf has a long history of providing violent but generally sanitised wars as a backdrop for far-fetched adolescent adventures, ranging from the space wars of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series [1934-50] in which each subsequent episode seemed to feature a yet larger weapon, to the conflation of World War Two and alien attack in Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar quartet [1994-96]. In film this has been, if anything, even more obvious with marauding aliens from The Thing [1951] and The War of the Worlds [1953] to Independence Day [1996] and Mars Attack! [1997] there simply to provide an excuse for a visually satisfying sequence of on-screen explosions – a far cry from the rare message of peace that is preached by the alien visitor in one of the first major sf films after the violence of the Second World War, The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951].

Often violence provides an easy drama: the writer keeps the action going by introducing another fight just as things begin to flag. Occasionally it is used to signify the degeneracy of the bad guys: we know the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine [1895] have degenerated because of the way they attack the peaceful Eloi, just as the ritualised violence in Piers Anthony’s Battle Circle trilogy [1968-75] is a symbol of the way this post-apocalyptic society has broken down.

Sometimes violence acts as a counter-example, a representation of the author’s horror at the violence in the real world around him. Philip George Chadwick reacted to the rise of the fascist powers by creating the chilling violence of The Death Guard [1939], while in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty Four [1949], saw a grey, inhumane, communistic future in terms of one of the most violent images in the whole of literature: a boot stamping on the human face, forever. Political satire has continued to provoke violent images ever since, whether it is Norman Spinrad’s cruel but slapdash novel The Men in the Jungle [1967], typical of the way a generation of American writers reacted to the Vietnam War, or Ursula K. Le Guin making a feminist point in stories such as “A Woman’s Liberation” [1995] by subjecting her protagonist to a series of rapes, attacks and degredations.

More often, today, writers paint a generalised picture: violence is a constant but often unremarked part of the background to their novels. By the end of Iain M. Banks’s Against a Dark Background [1993], for example, virtually every named character in the book has been killed or damaged in some way. Or violence is a recognised but unavoidable social evil that reflects an increasingly morbid dread of the future. This trend was clear as long ago as 1962, when Anthony Burgess portrayed beatings and rape as a common form of entertainment for disenfranchised teenage gangs in an urbanised future in A Clockwork Orange. Certainly the lustre of the future that once was a feature of science fiction has long since worn off, and few of us are likely to want to live in the grim, realistically nasty worlds portrayed, for instance, in Richard Calder’s Dead Girls [1992] or Jack Womack’s aptly titled Random Acts of Senseless Violence [1993].

For all the persistence of violence throughout the last century or more of our genre, few science fiction writers have used it as much more than a dramatic backcloth, a propellant to the plot, or an easy symbol of their disgust for the way our society is going. But in one of the first and in its way most violent of all science fiction novels, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson actually makes the violence of Hyde a fundamental part of his acerbic examination of the veneer of civilisation. The story is based on the true case of Deacon Brodie, a respectable and successful Edinburgh merchant who, by night, was am equally successful thief until he was captured and hanged on a gallows of his own devising. This notion of duality, of civilised and non-civilised behaviour existing side-by-side in the same person, was explored and expanded by Stevenson in the character of Dr Jekyll who, by use of a potion, frees himself from the artificial constraints of civilisation. The result is Mr Hyde, a man whose release from proper behaviour renders him so abhorrent that everyone who meets him is filled with genuine but inexplicable feelings of distaste for the man. But escape from civilisation is not the freedom that Jekyll imagines, and Hyde becomes a monster of increasing violence. What civilisation has done, Stevenson is saying, is provide a stopper which bottles in our natural violence and by so doing allows us to live a more pleasant life.

Violence is, of course, ugly and unpleasant. We none of us wish to be its victim nor do we want to be part of a violent society. (The adverse reaction we have to the worlds of Dead Girls or Men in the Jungle, for instance, is ample evidence for that.) Nevertheless, Keith Roberts provides something of a corrective to Stevenson’s view in “Brother John”, the story that forms the centre of his mosaic novel Pavane. Brother John is a talented artist and a monk who is called in by the Inquisition to record their activities. This becomes a series of pictures of bodies distorted by pain and violence, but the real horror does not lie in the violence itself but in Brother John’s reaction: “I enjoyed my work.” Here we see violence not as something terrible but as something fascinating: it is not the violence bottled within us but the love of violence, the ability to witness without speaking out, the way that fascination overwhelms disgust that is the true horror. Martin Amis captures something of this in Time’s Arrow [1991] in which we witness a man’s life lived backwards. He begins in old age as a surgeon who takes whole, healthy bodies and breaks them into the victims of accidents or disease, but as he grows younger he becomes a doctor in a Nazi concentration camp who takes wrecked bodies and turns them into whole human beings once more. The violence of the twentieth century has been transmogrified, but in the transformation the old questions of complicity are asked anew.

Stevenson seems to have discovered a truth in the notion that civilisation holds in check the raw violence within us, but Roberts seems to have found something deeper and more disturbing, the fascination of violence that implicates us all in the crimes of our time. It is perhaps this same complicity, this same fascination, that makes us write scenes of violence into so much of our fiction and, more importantly, that keeps us reading such scenes.

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