Overthinking it

I’ve been feeling like a small child this past month. It began with the giddy anticipation of the new SimCity launch on Tuesday, which quickly turned into a fiasco and has all the makings of a high speed train wreck. I’ve officially now spent more time waiting to play the game (between downloading, processing, and waiting in line) than I have actually playing the game; between the server issues, the small city size, and the loss of the really awesome mass transit options I have to say I’m really disappointed. The adult in me says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.” Then the child in me says, “But I want to play it nowwwwwww!” And the adult in me suddenly realizes that the child is right, that I paid $80 in what was supposed to be a rational business transaction, and got something that doesn’t work.

No wonder I’m pissed.

As a distraction, I’ve been revisiting Tintin. I got the complete series a couple of years ago for Christmas, finishing off a collection I’d been working on since I was a kid, and it’s fun to go back and re-read these books now with an understanding of the context that was missing when you were six. It’s easy to see the events of “King Ottokar’s Scepter” as Herge’s way of writing about German aggression and the rise of fascism in the runup to World War II. It’s also just as easy to see it as a story about palace intrigue and mystery, and my 5 year-old self certainly saw it in that light when I first encountered it at the library way back when. It’s hard to say exactly when I realized Tintin could be viewed as a parable about the wider world, about contemporary issues and problems for Herge, and I’m even less sure when I realized that some of the stories (“The Castafiore Emerald,” in particular) were really just exercises in narrative creation and storytelling. Unlike a lot of people I never really got into comic books beyond Tintin, but when I finally did start reading graphic novels as an adult I immediately recognized the legitimacy of their kind of storytelling — Sin City is nothing more than a Tintin story with a higher body count and a lot of nudity.

Many of the features of Tintin’s world — Tintin’s agelessness, his lack of a family, the absence of any clear employment mechanism (he’s supposed to be a reporter but we only see him file a story once or twice), his multifaceted skills, the near-total lack of women — have been well established otherwise. But what I was thinking about the other day came to me as I finished reading “The Calculus Affair.” Set in the immediate aftermath of the Syldavian moon program, it’s a good story and relevant these days: Calculus finds a novel weapon of mass destruction, and two rival countries will stop at nothing to gain control over it. One does not have to work very hard to find the parallels in the real world, and as a story about the arms race between east and west during the Bad Old Days it’s pretty good and easy for kids to understand.

That Borduria would be interested in Calculus’ discovery, and that they would send agents to kidnap him, is understandable, but it’s less clear why Syldavia would be interested in kidnapping him. (There is a moment where Syldavian agents spirit a bound and gagged Calculus away in an airplane.) Syldavia, after all, had only recently enjoyed very good relations with Calculus — they’d funded and build his moon rocket, and even given him some measure of control over their internal security forces. The most reasonable explanation, drawn primarily as an inference, is that at some point after returning from the moon Syldavia tried to get Calculus to build nuclear weapons; he refused, they kicked him out, and after learning of his new discovery decided they’d get him back one way or the other. This is pretty thin, though; it doesn’t square with what we know of Syldavia through the previous books, and in order for it to make any sense there would have had to be some kind of significant change in governance and controlling ideology.

I think I know what Herge was getting at here: the superpowers aren’t really that different when it comes to their pursuit of weapons of war, and no one’s hands are clean. It’s a surprisingly cynical vision, though maybe one that could only come from a Belgian or at least someone in western Europe that had gone through the second world war with his eyes wide open. And all of this was something I had completely missed until quite recently.