#146: Coalition

Panel from saga, serpent train, one character saying to another, Who has time to read anymore?

Today I finished the fifth volume of Saga, a (still ongoing) sci-fi graphic novel that I’d first heard about from my friend Ian, who’d heard about it from this (appropriately lengthy) interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.  Maybe the context primed me for a more-political reading of the story, but something that jumps out at me about Saga, and makes it especially relevant to this year’s American election cycle, is this: It’s all about coalitions.

Two characters who are at each others’ throats in one chapter will get trapped in a lighthouse (or spaceship) five chapters later. They’ll often work against their own species to seek help for (or avenge the death of) someone they love. The term “unlikely bedfellows” applies in more way than one. It’s a mirror for our (maybe) increasingly-fragmented society, the way groups who are often at odds with each other in that society can at times come together, temporarily and unexpectedly, for wildly different reasons, in order to effect some change in the world. Tea partiers and environmentalists march side by side to fight combat urban sprawl. A robot prince and a horned magician follow the nose of a seal wearing duck boots to find their lost families.

Every group consists of people who align on common (yet never all) issues; we all have our individual differences. But what Saga depicts, and what the word coalition gets at, is an awareness of how fluid and temporary these groups really are. Coalition also understands how big the differences between its members can be. Difference, in the context of a coalition, is the initial state; the noun coalition is the outcome of a verb: to coalesce, come together. When we hear about the split of a political party we feel like the world is ending; when we hear about the dissolution of a coalition, we are at one with the natural order.

I want to bring it back to writing: Saga isn’t just about coalitions. It’s about revenge, and family, and a number of other Big topics. Like all great stories, Saga is a coalition of ideas. Alone these ideas are fragile, easily replicable. They’re the kinds of ideas that we all have, the kind we’re afraid other people will get to first. It’s when these individual ideas come together, when you’ve wanted to write a sci-fi epic and a story about parent-child-relationships and a story with robot heads having sex and you realize that they’re the same story – only then, when you have that coalition, is there enough critical mass for the story to start speaking in its own voice.

And maybe that’s what a story is – not an eternally-present set of ideas, but a record of their brief coalition.