Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Politics, Religion, and Pets

My friend Ann Wilkes was telling me recently that she never blogs about three topics if she can help it: politics, religion, and pets. I agreed with her, and then realized when you're doing a blog like this one, the topics are fair game - the only trick is not to localize them. So today for fun I'm going to share a couple of my thoughts on politics, religion, and pets (thanks, Ann!).

Why are there so many dictatorships in SF/F? Maybe it has to do with the prevalence of medieval cultural models. I'm certainly not immune - I've come up with some of these types of societies. But the ones I think are more interesting are ones where the authors have really delved into what a monarchy means and how it influences society, or ones where monarchy is only one of the options in the world. I like Jacqueline Carey's fantasy Europe, for example, because she maintains differences in governments that parallel the those of the nations she's fantasizing. And of course I like Ursula LeGuin's approach. The Left Hand of Darkness has two major models, one a monarchy and the other a "commensality" that feels a lot like a communist state. In her Earthsea books she has multiple different types of governments depending on their location in the archipelago. If you're designing a society yourself, I encourage you to ask yourself why the rich are rich, and how they get their money. There are a lot more options out there than one.

I usually think of religion in created worlds as a tool. A really, really useful one too. It helps you figure out how people swear (or not). It helps you figure out what kind of activities are taboo. It also helps to link people with their local climate and means of feeding themselves. Even more importantly, I think, it helps you figure out some really basic metaphors that people use to understand their world - because religion is full of symbols. Unity. Duality. Trinity. Multiplicity - it all depends on where you look. You can have a group of gods who bicker like family. Or two groups of warring gods. Or an omnipotent God who is tyrannical, or one who is merciful, and that difference will completely change how his/her/its followers think. Does life end with going to heaven? What do you have to do to get there? Are you looking forward to being sacrificed on the altar? My friend Aliette de Bodard had a great moment in one of her pieces where a person headed off to be sacrificed (rather gruesomely, I might add) was impatient with the protagonists for blocking his way. That is one of the kinds of moments that you always remember. Be it fantasy or science fiction, the more people act in accordance with their localized world view, the more I love it.

I actually had a funny moment recently where I had to figure out if members of an alien society I was designing kept pets. The part that made it hard was, these guys are carnivores. I thought at first, why would they keep pets and not eat them? But on the other hand, they're social creatures; they might well keep pets to combat loneliness, for example. People do keep pet rabbits even in places where they are regularly eaten. So the final result was, I decided that some of them might keep pets.

Then there was yesterday, when my kids got their National Geographic Kids magazine and we were reading snippets about amazing cats (part of their Halloween themed issue). My daughter loved it, and so did my son - different cats, for different reasons. Animals are so much a part of our consciousness, even if they're not a part of our daily lives, that the first words we learn in children's books are things like "cow," "horse," "bear," "lion," etc. The list goes on and on, though we may never see these creatures in the wild in our entire lives. What, then, would be the significance of animals to a fantasy or alien group? What kind of behavior would be associated with each? Would fantasy people automatically say that foxes are crafty and snakes loathsome and sneaky, just as we do? I'm not sure.

It's something to think about.