Recently, I finally got down to watching the film Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Despite some problems with the interior logic of the story --- those are the things that make you say, “Wait a minute, why don’t they just do this instead, the dummies?” --- the film was, overall, quite good. I liked the characters, I liked the story, etc. And after all, as Cinema Sins says, no movie is without sin.
One thing I particularly liked was the major dilemma presented to Chris Pratt’s character, Jim. Passengers takes place on board a starship carrying colonists to a new world... and everyone on board, both passengers and crew, is asleep... or more accurately, in hibernation or suspended animation. Which makes sense if we don’t have a Star Trek style warp drive to get us between stars inside an hour long episode, because people who are up and around, walking, talking, eating, breathing etc. consume prodigious amounts of resources. People who are asleep consume way, way less. So.
On this voyage, a malfunction occurs and Jim is awakened. Only Jim. He can’t get back into hibernation, and the incredibly smart computers on the ship don’t seem to be aware of his problem (that’s one of the interior logic problems I have with the plot, but let’s just go with it for now). His ship is decades away from arriving at the new world. He’s staring at spending the rest of his life on board ship... in an ironic paradox, completely alone, yet surrounded by thousands of other people. (There is an urbane android bartender named Arthur he can talk to --- played superbly by Michael Sheen --- but Arthur isn’t a true substitute for human companionship: when Jim tries to discuss the dilemma I said I liked so much (be patient, I’m getting to it), Arthur hesitates, and then says, with no detectable sense of irony, something to the effect of “These aren’t really android questions, you know.” Translation: I don’t know how or have the capacity to discuss truly abstract moral and intellectual issues, mate. If you want a drink made, I’m your android. But aside from that, I’m really just a glorified Ken doll. Sorry.
What’s the dilemma? you ask impatiently. Simply this: Jim is a pretty handy kind of guy, and after a year of this extreme solitary existence, he figures out how to awaken one of the colonists (he can’t get into the crew hibernation area). But... should he?
On the one hand, it would put an end to a staggering isolation few humans have ever known. And let’s be clear: humans are not cut out for total, complete, permanent isolation. We’re just not wired for it. We need community --- even introverts like me who want and need time by myself on a fairly regular basis. Long term isolation from everyone starts messing with our mental health pretty quickly. So waking someone up to have company is justifiable on that side of the equation.
(Especially if it’s Jennifer Lawrence you’re waking up. Although, to be fair, Jim finds out quite a lot about Aurora, Lawrence’s character, while she’s still in hibernation, so the idea is that he knows they’d be sympatico, and isn’t just waking her up because she’s drop-dead gorgeous. I think. Although it probably doesn’t hurt, either.)
On the other hand, waking Aurora would be a massive violation. How dare Jim play God and make the decision to awaken her, thereby condemning her to the same fate he’s experiencing? What colossal arrogance would make him think that would be okay --- or that she’d possibly be okay with that? She didn’t sign on to the voyage to be someone’s default spouse and die of old age long before reaching their destination. Especially if she has no say in the matter.
So... nice dilemma... to view compassionately from the comfortable perspective of an audience, anyway. Not so nice to be confronted with it in real life.
As a writer, these are the kinds of things you want to be foisting on your characters. Really tough dilemmas always make for great stories... especially if you can make your readers appreciate both sides of the issue and experience empathy for the character in the middle of the mess. Gosh, thinks the reader, all alternatives are simultaneously reasonable and unreasonable. What will the character do? Of such cruelly stark choices are great stories made, stories that will make readers compulsively turning the page to see how things are worked out.
Now, I need to stress that I don’t think this is the same as a no-win scenario. Dilemmas involve tough decisions, yes, but a character will ultimately choose one alternative because he/she has come to the conclusion that it is the best one, either for the needs of the one and/or the needs of the many. And despite the warts involved, the winning alternative will have justifiable elements. The no-win scenario is different in that, no matter which alternative you choose, things will end horribly (“do you want to die this way, or that way?”). It’s a fine distinction to make, but an important one. I’ve written about the no-win scenario --- you can find it here if you’re interested in reading those thoughts --- and generally don’t like authors presenting their protagonists with no-wins. It’s not that I don’t believe in the no-win scenario (unlike James T. Kirk) --- real life tends to hand out no-win scenarios with depressing regularity. But as authors, we have it within our power to grant a little redemption the real world too often lacks.
So dole out that redemption once in a while, but in the meantime, you don’t have to handicap your characters’ lives by making things easy for them. Far from it. Make ‘em sweat through some juicy dilemmas. After all, that’s what makes a story compelling.