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Literature / The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

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https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/dragonsketch.png
Silly sketches aside, this dragon would be a Cosmic Horror Story in the making anywhere else.
"We all know that this man had some irresponsible ideas, but his writings were quite entertaining and perhaps we should be grateful to the dragon for making possible the interesting genre of dragon-bashing literature which reveals so much about the culture of angst!"
The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant is a short story by Nick Bostrom serving to
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deconstruct society's views on aging and death.

Once upon a time, a tyrannical dragon demanded thousands of human sacrifices per day from a kingdom to appease it. Many have tried to slay the dragon, and all have failed, owing to its impenetrable scales. The people submitted to the horror, forced to feed the dragon. Time marched on, and as feudalism became industrialism, the dragon-tyrant lived on and continued to eat and grow. However, as the nation entered the information age, scientists riding the wave of exponential growth invented a material so sharp, it could pierce the dragon's scales. However, the citizens had grown complacent, accepting the dragon as inevitable and essential to the human experience. Some had even come to see it as natural beauty. As the scientists and engineers realized the weight of their discovery, they must trek the arduous path of, someday, using it to slay the dragon against all social pressure.

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In 2018, CGP Grey adapted this fable into an animated YouTube video for his biological immortality advocacy campaign.


Tropes:

  • The Ageless: This state is what the fable argues we should strive for, as technology is advanced enough now that we could make it happen with enough dedication.
  • An Aesop: Accelerated technological progress has created possibilities Stock Aesops would consider unnatural. Despite otherwise wise people advising us to accept it as inevitable since time immemorial, aging is merely another disease. We must cure aging and not respect it as what gives life meaning. Do not fear to challenge long-standing Aesops once a reasonable doubt to their validity and soundness appears, for you may, in doing so, abolish a primordial fear. "I fear death" are not the words of a coward but only those of a hero.
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  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Everybody is happy about the dragon dying.
  • Appeal to Nature: The fable criticizes the idea that you should accept death as a natural and beautiful part of life as this fallacy.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: After two royal officials praise the dragon as a crucial part of the natural order, one boy in the crowd mentions that his grandma died to it. This outburst makes everyone realize they shouldn't tolerate the dragon anymore.
  • Awful Truth: Deconstructed. The kingdom started by teaching children how the dragon was a harsh truth nobody wanted. Over time, they began teaching children how the dragon wasn't awful. Embrace an awful truth too much, and you may lose sight of chances to eliminate it.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Zig-Zagged. The fable depicts religion as just one more coping mechanism regarding the seemingly invincible dragon. The king's chief adviser for morality calls it "presumptuous" to try and kill the dragon and all but claims that it's "playing God." Notwithstanding, a spiritual sage widely respected for his kindness and devotion encourages the child who calls out the dragon.
  • Big Bad: The dragon as a metaphor for aging as a horrible disease.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The dragon is slain and will never kill anyone ever again. However, it is too late for those already devoured and those who died from needless initial hesitation.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Justified; the point of the fable is to show how death has no innate redeeming qualities, be it "giving life meaning" or anything else. Trying to argue about some social benefit of death detaches the social good from the people's welfare. A society must ultimately serve its citizens, and saving lives is the most fundamental of services.
  • Breaking Old Trends: The point of this fable is to argue for invoking this trope against Who Wants to Live Forever?, as Bostrom and CGP Grey consider it horrendously outdated.
  • Brutal Honesty: At the open hearing, held to decide whether or not to kill the dragon, the leading dragonologist did not downplay the risks of the plan. Instead, she described how her plan would work and how long it would need, admitting that there was no guarantee. The court may have rejected her plan had it not been for the child in the hall who denounced the dragon as an evil monster.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When an innocent little boy who lost his grandmother to the dragon hears someone try to justify such horror, he immediately calls them out on it. Purple Prose will not fool a naive child who only knows Black-and-White Morality one bit. The child will only see you defending the source of the most traumatic event in their life, obliterating any goodwill you have in their eyes.
  • Cassandra Truth: The fact that killing the dragon is even possible so ridiculous to society that the movement gets delayed decades.
  • Central Theme: Bostrom wrote this fable as a Take That! to mainstream society's hostility and negative view towards immortality, advocating for everyone to reject aging and our acceptance of mortality as inevitable. To biological progressives like him and CGP Grey, we must work as hard as possible to expunge death from its status as a "natural part of life."
  • Children Are Innocent: The socio-economic implications of killing the dragon cited as a reason why it should continue to live fly right over a young boy's head at the open hearing. All he knows is that it killed his grandmother; this outburst makes everyone realize any benefits the dragon grants aren't worth the massive cost.
  • Clock King: Despite controlling millions of people, the government keeps track of who is due to die to the dragon at all times during feudal ages. Justified after the time skips to the modern era, given the use of the internet.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: The kingdom has adapted to cope with the horror of the dragon, as the real world has with death.
  • Crapsack World: The dragon breeds the entire kingdom's population as its primary food source.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Even with magic, a medieval kingdom has no chance against a dragon embodying The Grim Reaper. Immune to the best spells, weapons, and toxic potions humanity could conjure, the dragon burned everything in sight and beat the kingdom into submission.
  • Dawn of an Era: With the dragon dead, the kingdom must reshape itself. However, they now have time to do things right, and the specter nature hung over them is gone.
  • Don't Fear The Reaper: Deconstructed with the dragon-tyrant being the reaper. Here, the fable gives An Aesop that we are perfectly justified in fearing death and that lack of fear is more dangerous than fear itself. A society that doesn't fear death will never have enough motive to invent immortality.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Inverted: Bostrom shows the attitude of modern people towards immortality in the fable as a general critique of our modern prejudices against every Immortality Seeker.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: This trope serves as the main plot: the dragon, long thought invincible, is slain by a technological breakthrough.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The dragon is a metaphor for death. It destroys an increasing number of people every year, and those who had family taken away suffer immense anguish. Most people accept it as natural and good until it takes them.
    • The king's promise to complete the dragon-killing missile within the decade alludes to President Kennedy's moon-landing promise.
  • Draconic Abomination: The dragon that demanded human sacrifices since medieval times qualified. For a long time, everyone was too afraid to act against it.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Deconstructed. The fable depicts those who advocate for this trope as a dangerous obstacle to immortality. Viewing death as something you would want to face at all fosters complacency and procrastination.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Deconstructed. One of this fable's morals is how villains with Mortality Phobia are genuinely the only ones with a clue despite being undeniably wicked everywhere else. We have no evidence of anything but Cessation of Existence for people gone forever into the great unknown of death, and appealing to the social disadvantages of immortality is always Skewed Priorities.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: It's part of what makes the boy's speech so powerful. As a child, he's still an outsider who hasn't fully absorbed adult biases.
  • The Good King: The king cares about the well-being of his people, and once it becomes clear how much they hate the dragon, he throws all his power behind killing it.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Deconstructed. Bostrom wrote this fable to show how aging is nothing dignified, being the principal cause of almost every degenerative disease in history. CGP Grey's animation includes a shot of the dragon's jaws chomping on people crying in despair and gory bones and tissue pieces, showing how utterly horrendous death is.
  • The Heart: Once the king is convinced to support the dragon-killing efforts, he praises it and encourages the scientists by donating money and liquidating some of his assets.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Well, the fable gives us one of the most extreme deconstructions of this trope in history. Everyone knows the classic Aesop that every child learns as a hard truth. Supposedly, everyone dies at some point, you can never avoid death, and misery means living forever is non-negotiably terrible. Most children shiver at this lesson, but you can tell that behind their stern words, Bostrom and CGP Grey are fuming with contempt at feeding children something so dangerous. In any case, their words here are probably harder-hitting than the original Aesop itself. With how the fable puts it, sometimes the instinctive answer truly is correct. We have no greater enemy than death, and the greatest evil is the one we paint as good.
  • Hope Springs Eternal: Early attempts to slay the dragon initially failed, so everyone but a few WMG-loving sages gave up. However, as technology improved, a technological breakthrough allowed the kingdom to kill the dragon.
  • Human Sacrifice: The citizens must feed 10,000 humans to the dragon every day, or it will take them by force and cause considerable destruction in the process. This number gradually grew to 80,000 and then 100,000 humans per day as both the kingdom's population and the dragon grew.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: The king orders the trains carrying the human sacrifices to continue to the bitter end, even after research to kill it has begun. When faced with choices to save additional humans, such as an early launch or recalling the final train, he decides doing so isn't worth the risk that the missile would fail to strike.
  • Immortality Immorality: Deconstructed when the king's advisors claimed that a world without the dragon would "undermine our dignity." It pointedly shows how fear of the "immorality" of ground-breaking science is one of the most dangerous things in the world, forcing innocents to pay for our ignorance with blood.
  • Immortality Seeker: One of the only positive examples. They're the scientists serving as the main heroes of the story. They eventually succeed in their quest to vanquish the dragon and aging along with it.
  • Immortal Procreation Clause: Bostrom discusses this trope in the appendix and suggests possible solutions like space travel.
  • Immortals Fear Death: A Tropes Are Not Bad example: the fable pushes the idea that you should not suppress your fear of death any more than you do with disease. In the end, some fears are okay.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: The scientists try to explain the proposal to everyone, despite the king's advisors worrying that it will cause unrest.
  • Kryptonite Factor: The dragon's scales can ward off the most potent spells, but a missile of one specific compound is sharp enough to tear through it like tissue paper.
  • Living Forever Is Awesome: Reconstructed as the theme of the story. The fable seeks to show that aging is a disease and not an inevitable part of life. The story pushes the idea that we could potentially cure aging within the next generation if we invested our idealism into the urgency.
  • Logical Weakness: Arguments that death is inevitable and beautiful have never completely subjugated humanity. They act against our survival instinct and only survive due to our coping instinct. Most people would break down in terror if they confronted death, while the few who wouldn't are questionable in terms of mind. These arguments also use heavy Purple Prose at their core, rendering them ineffective against naive kids who only see in Black-and-White Morality.
  • Magic Versus Science: The mythic dragon goes against the engineering of many scientists who eventually create a missile that kills it.
  • More than Mind Control: The kingdom wholeheartedly believes that the dragon is inevitable and virtuous, reflecting that many people in the real world have this mentality towards aging and death. The fable deems this mindset archaic and dangerous in the modern world, with genetic engineering to cure aging now on the table.
  • Mortality Phobia: Justified; this trope would be one of the last things you would consider heroic, but you are neither Bostrom nor Grey. They point out that emotions towards death can and should motivate appropriate action.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: One would think slaying the worst evil humanity has ever known with your One-Hit Kill missile would be anti-climatic. However, the long build-up to that moment, combined with the description, makes it far more spectacular than some drawn-out battle.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When the dragon-slaying missile is finally about to launch, a man begs him to stop the last train because his father is on board. The king refuses as he does not want to risk the dragon stirring before the missile launches. However, he deeply regrets that he didn't start the decade-long research process sooner. He states that if he had started sooner, the man's father would have survived along with many others.
  • Nameless Narrative: The fable names none of its characters.
  • Not Afraid to Die: Deconstructed in several ways.
    • Despite what people want to tell you, most people feel uneasy at the thought of death. Most of the time, what seems to be fearlessness is merely emotional suppression.
    • Not fearing something we can have perfectly justified fear for is as dangerous as fearing something we don't need to. Fearlessness towards death caused hesitation at a proposal that should make Captain Obvious look confused by just how obvious it should be.
    • Humans will always try to justify suffering we can't eliminate. We called diseases and famines punishment from Powers That Be, wars a daring adventure for glory, and slavery a benefit for the slaves who could not find their way. Speaking strictly progressively, Who Wants to Live Forever? is no different.
    • Using belief in an afterlife to justify not fearing death gives people a coping mechanism akin to drugs. People are so addicted to their traditions to nullify grief that they can't fathom sacrificing some comfort to have a chance to greatly extend their lives.
    • The fable aims to induce justified exasperation at the thought of people who know that they will die saying Shut Up, Hannibal! and eloquently speaking that they will Face Death with Dignity. They may or may not believe what they say, but their words are ultimately the most dangerous facade in the world.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: The king's executive branch sweeps the iconoclasts' petition for funding to build their anti-dragon missile under their rug at first. These people have many pressing matters at hand and can't pay attention to what they see as an escapist fantasy.
  • Not So Invincible After All: After centuries of the dragon being immune to every attack thrown at it, from regular weapons to magic spells, to poisons, a scientist finally invents a material sharp enough to pierce the dragon’s scales, enabling the kingdom to fashion a weapon to kill the dragon.
  • Now What?: The last sentence is a vast understatement of the enormous changes to society that will result from the dragon being slain. The king's declaration may be rather too optimistic.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: After the king approved the project to kill the dragon, it becomes his #1 24/7 priority.
  • Sadistic Choice: The king faced two of these.
    • Firstly, he could choose to launch the dragon-killing missile at the earliest time; if it failed, it would force the kingdom to start the decades-long process from scratch and cause a reprisal. He could also choose to delay to test the missile and remove potential flaws, meaning thousands more would die; he decides on the latter.
    • Secondly, a man begs him to stop a train before launch to save his father. The king opts against it because it would risk stirring the dragon and causing the missile to miss.
  • Science Hero: The scientists who developed the dragon-scale piercing material and built the dragon-killing missile succeeded in slaying the beast where armored knights failed.
  • Screw Destiny: Society always taught children that everyone will die to the dragon and that there is no avoiding this for anyone. Many scientists are discontent with this and decide to develop a way to kill the dragon no matter what.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The kingdom became hellbent on slaying the dragon after hearing a boy wailing on the subject. People selflessly donate everything not strictly necessary; the king liquidates much of his property to provide funding.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Downplayed. While the wealthy can bribe the press-gangs to delay their fate, they cannot do so indefinitely, a way to acknowledge that the rich can afford better healthcare.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Double-subverted. The rich and powerful can avoid being fed to the dragon temporarily, but sooner or later, all of them, the king included, will get fed. However, eventually, the king grows discontent and throws all his efforts behind a project to kill the dragon.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Teaching everyone we can never do something discourages people from researching it, meaning we still can't do it. As shown by how faulty education actively stagnated the anti-dragon movement, this phenomenon is deadly when discussing curing aging.
  • Skewed Priorities: Some of the king's advisers think the dragon should be allowed to live because killing it would cause social unrest and destroy dragon-supporting industries. The king himself ignores anti-dragon petitions on two occasions to hunt less menacing threats like tigers and snakes.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The fable is firmly idealistic towards the feasibility of biological immortality. Having been a cynical Crapsack World for centuries, the society portrayed manages to painfully claw its way to idealism via the dragon-slaying missile project.
  • Society of Immortals: The entire world becomes this after they kill the dragon.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: One of the king's "senior courtiers" asks this question verbatim after the dragon is slain.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: After centuries of submitting to the horror of the dragon, people have come to accept it as a necessary and beautiful part of life. Anyone showing this mentality towards anything else will get ridiculed, and yet, in reality, this attitude is the confusing norm.
  • Take That!: The fable is a massive slap in the face to every person who has declared immortality a curse, sharply criticizing their coping denial. Bostrom and CGP Grey pointedly bash those people for throwing up barriers to urgently needed action in the name of comfort and acceptance for millennia, right back to The Epic of Gilgamesh.
  • Time Skip: The prologue starts in medieval times, and the fable implies that the kingdom went through the Renaissance, colonial era, industrial progressivism, and modernism/postmodernism before picking up in our contemporary information age.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: An adviser of the king gave an eloquent address that spoke of the beauty of the dragon, but it all goes over a naive boy's head. Unable to understand the ethics of the situation, he only knows how the dragon killed his granny and wants her back. His display of emotion kickstarted the project to kill the dragon.
  • We All Die Someday: Deconstructed. The fable sees this trope as a dangerous idea ingrained in traditions that stop us from seeing just how awful death is and discourage us from finding salvation. At heart, the narrative questions why we even consider this trope heroic.
  • We Are as Mayflies: Defied; the society sets itself on conquering the dragon, thereby indefinitely extending their lives.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Deconstructed. The fable denounces this trope as an archaic coping mechanism and a dangerous obstacle to progress now that biological immortality is on the table.
  • You Are What You Hate: The child at the public hearing who shouted "The dragon is bad" went on to be an official who ran the train that fed people to the dragon, one of whom was his father. Downplayed as he certainly had no love for the job.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Deconstructed, with "fate" here being the claim that you can never avoid how We All Die Someday. Society taught everyone you could never hope to fight the dragon just because medieval weapons failed against it. With that, scientific geniuses who invented revolutionary technology lost sight of chances to make progress against the dragon's tyranny, delaying their anti-dragon movement significantly. Claiming aging is uncurable because all past attempts failed commits the proof-by-example fallacy, making a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

The CGP Grey animation contains examples of:

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/dragonanimated.png
Now do you believe death is an Eldritch Abomination or what?
  • Adaptation Distillation: The video is far more streamlined than the original story, removing technical details.
  • Anachronism Stew: In a few decades, the country goes from a medieval agrarian society to having electricity and missiles, all while several characters who were there at the start are still alive.
  • Death by Adaptation: Here, the king has a queen with him when the dragon first appears. Later, he has a locket picturing a woman likely lost to the dragon. The original version mentions no family of the king.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The dragon portrayed here is a classic western one and serves as a metaphor for death.
  • Drool Deluge: The dragon is enormous, and the sickly green drool coming down is proportionally large.
  • Good Wings, Evil Wings: The dragon has wings formed from shadows to emphasize its evil.
  • Gorn: The animation shows the Dragon actually eating people, fully aware terrified people being ripped to bloody shreds in front of the viewer.
  • Modest Royalty: The royal couple's formal wear is rather simplistic and stays that way through the decades.
  • Prayer Pose: Some of the crowd, including the king, have this pose at the launch.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: The dragon has these.
  • Tragic Keepsake: The queen sits by the king when he presides over the anti-dragon hearing. She never gets seen again, and when reflecting on the deceased, the king looks at a locket picturing her, implying that she was among those eaten.

Stories about aging have traditionally focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigor and impending death was resignation coupled with an effort to achieve closure in practical affairs and personal relationships. Given that nothing could be done to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, one could aim for peace of mind.
Today, we face a different situation. While we still lack effective and acceptable means for slowing the aging process, we can identify research directions that might lead to the development of such means in the foreseeable future. "Deathist" stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are fatal barriers to urgently needed action.

Alternative Title(s): The Fable Of The Dragon Tyrant

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