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Literature / The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

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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 where a gigantic dragon tyrannized a kingdom and demanded thousands of human sacrifices per day to appease it. Many have tried to slay the dragon, and all have failed. As such, the kingdom 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 began to push for a new attack; someone had invented a material so sharp it could pierce the dragon's scales. 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 as part of 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 that the dragon is dead.
  • Anyone Can Die: A literal example: under the tyranny of the dragon, no one, not even the king, is above dying to feed it eventually.
  • 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 others realize that the dragon is not something they should put with for much longer.
  • Author Filibuster: Inverted: an antagonist speaks against the author's position before a child calls him out on it.
  • Awful Truth: Deconstructed. The kingdom started by teaching children that nobody wanted the dragon, but it was a harsh truth of life. Over time, the kingdom started teaching that the dragon wasn't awful. Immerse yourself in an awful truth too much, and you may lose sight of chances to eliminate it.
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  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Zig-Zagged. Religion is, at first, depicted 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." That said, a spiritual sage widely respected for his kindness and devotion encourages the child who calls out the dragon. Furthermore, when the dragon-killing missile finally launches, several people, including the king, pray to the sky.
  • 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 pragmatically argue about some social benefit death provides detaches the social good from the good of the people, as a society must ultimately serve its citizens, and saving lives is the most fundamental of services.
  • 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 would have rejected her plan had it not been for the child in the hall who denounced the dragon as an evil monster.
  • Cassandra Truth: The fact that killing the dragon is even possible so ridiculous to society that the movement gets delayed decades.
  • 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: All of humanity 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.
  • Dawn of an Era: With the dragon dead, the kingdom will need to reshape its society. However, they now have time to do things right, and the great specter that hung over them all is gone.
  • Death by Adaptation: The animated version has the king hold a locket with a woman's picture on it, likely lost to the dragon. The original version mentions no family of the king.
  • 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.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The dragon, who demanded human sacrifices since the early days of humanity. For a long time, everyone was too afraid to act against it.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Deconstructed. One of this fable's morals is how villains with Mortality Phobia are the only ones with a clue despite their methods being undeniably wicked, as we have no evidence of anything but Cessation of Existence for people gone forever into the great unknown of death. Any attempt to appeal to the social disadvantages of immortality is Skewed Priorities.
  • Forced to Watch: The entire kingdom looks on every day as trains ship people to the dragon to die.
  • 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.
  • 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: everyone dies at some point, which you can never avoid, and misery means living forever is non-negotiably terrible. Most children shiver at this lesson, but from this fable, you can tell that behind their stern words, Bostrom and CGP Grey are fuming with contempt at the thought of 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: there is 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 have to feed ten thousand humans to the dragon every day, or it will take them by force. This number gradually grows to one hundred thousand per day as the kingdom's population 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." The fable pointedly shows that fear of the "immorality" of ground-breaking science is one of the most dangerous things in the world and will force innocents to pay for the authorities' ignorance with their blood.
  • Immortality Seeker: One of the only positive examples. The seekers in question are 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 some 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. The message is that some fears are okay in the grand scheme of things to guide humanity.
  • 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.
  • Kill 'Em All: A literal example: younger children are less at risk, but everyone will inevitably die to feed the dragon. The main Story Arc follows the kingdom's commitment to defying this trope.
  • Kryptonite Factor: The dragon's scales are tough enough to 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, as 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 that don'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 up against the engineering of many scientists who eventually create a missile that kills it.
  • Modest Royalty: In the CGP Grey animation, the king's formal wear is rather simplistic.
  • More Than Mind Control: The kingdom wholeheartedly believes that the dragon is inevitable and virtuous, reflecting that most 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, who treat emotions towards death similar to how you would regarding actions. Fear is sadly sometimes necessary, as both type I and II errors in this field are dangerous. Although only fear can diminish your willpower, it can also motivate you if the fear itself means you have more reason to fight.
  • 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 for which we can have perfectly justified fear is as dangerous as fearing something you 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.
    • 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 heal their genes.
    • 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.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The dragon portrayed here is a classic western one and serves as a metaphor for death.
  • Prayer Pose: Some members of the crowd, including the king, when the missile launched.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: After the king approved the project to kill the dragon, he makes it 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, which meant 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and nature of the dragon, but it all goes over a naive boy's head. Unable to understand the ethics of the situation, all he knows is that the dragon killed his granny, and he wants her back. This display of emotion by him is what kickstarted the project to kill the dragon.
  • Tragic Keepsake: In the animated version, 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.
  • 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 discouraging 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.

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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