Thursday, July 24, 2008

Considering the Culture in Objects

I loved all the discussion of dialects, and I'm planning to revisit the topic, but today I thought I'd take a little turn into the Anthropology area and talk about representing culture through the use of objects. Or "props," in drama terms. You really can't have a story without them, but this is a place where it's good to do some thinking, so as to use the opportunity to its fullest.


You can really deepen a sense of culture in a story just by paying attention to the stuff you find when you look around a room. In "Let the Word Take Me" I gave David Linden a chance to look at a Gariniki artifact called "sun armor," a perforated leather coat covered with white feathers, that had been repaired several times. This single object let me expand on several ideas. It linked to the idea of the Gariniki as a cold-blooded species, who would need to protect themselves on a journey through the desert. It established that their economy would not support the easy creation of sun armor, and also allowed me to hint that the gecko-girl Allayo was engaged in a special mission where she would possess a ceremonial, highly valued object. It also fleshed out the fauna of the planet Garini by indicating the presence of birds (feathers) and grazing beasts (leather). The sun armor did not have buckles or other complex closures - an indicator of their technology level.

In that story I gave the sun armor quite a bit of attention, but objects that surround the main actors and their actions can be just as revealing. Here are some examples.

Example 1: Sources of light. Do you have natural light, a fire, torches, candles, oil-lamps, kerosene lamps, gas or electric lights, glowing rods, etc? How (and if) people make light for themselves can be a great way to evoke a larger technological context, even with just one or two words.

Example 2: Food and drink. There are so many possibilities here I'll just touch on a few. What do people eat and how is it cooked (or is it?)? What kinds of tools do they use to eat it? Where do they eat, and in what kind of social situation (many people, or few, or alone)? What manners are called for? Take for example a glass of beer: when an American is finished, he or she will leave the glass empty. But in Japan an empty glass is effectively considered an invitation for a refill - so when you're satisfied, you actually have to leave the drink unfinished or you'll get more than you bargained for.

Example 3: Literacy-related objects. Captain Kirk's little etch-a-sketch pad would fall into this category. So would inkstones, brushes, and mulberry paper (ancient Japan). Or typewriters, or a printing press with moveable type. Pencils, or mechanical pencils, or possibly charcoal. Ditto sheets. Computers (yay!). Or clay and stylus. I also remember clearly the sand tables that were used for recording music in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger.

Example 4: Incidental objects. I remember being very impressed with the variety of objects in Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman, including but not limited to fans, lacquer boxes, and folding screens. When I look at my own desk I can see American and Australian flags (we're a mixed nationality household), and a container of bubble solution (we have kids). Clocks could fall into this category as well.

As a final note, I would also like to say that the absence of objects can speak as clearly as their presence. This of course has something to do with the expectations of the observer, and as a writer you can decide whether the absence of the object is remarkable to the story character, or simply to the reader. In my Varin world the absence of wooden tables is considered completely unremarkable by characters, but I've had several critiquers point this out as something they found intriguing.