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Wednesday, July 19, 2017


I was really glad that Morgan suggested we discuss Ancestry, because this is a topic that is often given a great deal of importance in genre fiction. Blood, and who your ancestors are, are huge topics. It's surprising to me how many works simply accept the idea of the divine right of kings, for example. That's one of the reasons that I'm critiquing it in my Varin world, which definitely tracks ancestry because of birth-based castes, but also has a nobility that tracks it - which of the Twelve Great Families are you a member of? The trick of course is that the Great Families are so inbred that there's really no genetic distinction between them. (Of course I'm trying to subvert the concept; it's what I do.)

What are the reasons to track ancestry? One is to keep track of whether you are in line to inherit money or power, but there are also other reasons. It's deeply woven into your identity in some places in the world. Kat told us that in Japan, you have a family registry, and in many places, your ancestry is not only known to your family but to everyone who lives in your community. It's not just a pedigree of power. It's also potentially a vector of oppression, if you are a descendent of an outcast community, or also potentially of a religion which gets discriminated against.

We talked about the religious ancestry aspect of Judaism. Within the Jewish faith, if you have a Jewish mother, then you are considered to be Jewish, so there is a strong focus on maternal lineage and tracking that to assure your membership in the communities. There are also rabbinic dynasties. This can hand down to a descendant the idea that he should be a rabbi. In Judaism there is also the idea that if you are the child of an incestuous or adulterous relationship, you should not be allowed in the temple, and neither should your children for ten generations. Somebody is going to have to track that.

It's this sort of thing - the idea that children are tainted by some aspect of their parentage - that leads to dalits (Indian untouchables) and burakumin (Japanese undercaste) groups. It also appears in a different context when you look at the one-drop rule used to determine racial identity in America.

Americans don't always trace their ancestry, but there are notable exceptions. There are a number of associations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Mormon community is also very serious about keeping track of ancestry, which is why they have a huge genealogical database in Salt Lake City.

Kat noted that the US has inherited the Western legacy of myths supporting the divine right of kings, so it has a combination of the inherited nobility myth which contrasts with the myth of the "self-made man."

You find a whole lot of stories out there which deal with the idea of kings cast down who have to find their way back to their birthright of power.

Morgan talked about how there is a societal expectation that you will follow in your family's profession. Her example was loggers. People who have grown up in one social group will not be aware of the kinds of tools that people in other social groups use to gain entry to particular places and groups of people who can help them advance. Social mobility is very difficult.

We noted that Austen dealt with people who have class expectations due to birth but without the budget to fulfill them.

There is an interesting parallel to the question of following in one's family's footsteps with the queer narrative. The whole family is heterosexual, but someone is taking a different path and potentially causing the end of the lineage. Is the DNA really what's at stake? How might a family in a fantasy or science fiction story deal with the continuation of the family line with gay family members? Would there be some form of adoption? Would there be a scientifically accomplished mingling of the relevant DNA?

Cliff noted that adoption is often mishandled because of this idea of blood and ancestry, as in Indianan Jones and the Crystal Skull when the birth father is given so much legitimacy - more legitimacy than he deserved.

I noted that historically, Henry IV had lots and lots of children with lots and lots of women, and I found it notable that a number of these children had been "legitimized" so they could inherit property and rank. People have been trying to regularize the irregular behavior of (powerful) human beings for a very long time.

I also pointed out that there is a tradition in Japan, when a family has no sons, of adopting the daughter's husband into the family to carry on the family line.

Kat mentioned that Terry Pratchett's work subverted the divine right of kings idea.

Another important question came up: What do you do with ancestral trades when the world is in flux? What happens when feudalism is dying? What happens to the buggy-whip makers when buggies are obsolete?

Morgan brought up the topic of medical history, and I told the story of my husband's father. When he got a hereditary type of cancer, he sued to have his adoption records unsealed so that he could contact his blood siblings and let them know that they should be tested. He was successful in this suit. Kat mentioned how much drama is currently going on surrounding DNA examination, when people are finding out that their ancestry is not what they thought it was, or not what they had been taught that it was. "We need to sequence you" can lead to "nothing you believed is real." We thought that would make a great story.

Apparently in 30 Rock there was an episode where Tracy Morgan's character finds he's related to Thomas Jefferson.

Should these discoveries about ancestry have meaning for your life?

There's a book out there called My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me.

Cliff mentioned he has a friend who traces ancestry back to the god Odin.

Che mentioned that demigods are a pretty big deal in middle grade literature, and that's all about ancestry!

I brought up the question of naming based on ancestry, such as what happens in Scandinavia with names like Amundsen or Thorsson or Thorsdottir. Some people who came to America from this region Americanized their names by keeping the same last name, but used the father's name as a middle name. Russians often use a patronymic as the middle name. Do we (should we) assume that people have different last names? What about first names? How easy is it to change your name? Does your name change throughout your life? We're definitely going to come back to this as a separate topic.

Kat mentioned that there are tons of storylines out there based on the concept of ancestry. Having your birthright taken is just one. There's also rediscovering your parentage, or conversely, "I'm gonna go be me" narratives.

Americans are often willing to enact classist tropes because of ancestry. The American approach to class is different because our relationship with it is indirect. Disney portrayal of princesses is lacking in some major elements of obligation, etc. associated with nobility. It tends to have an uncritical adoration of class and to reinforce social injustices (we hope that is starting to change).

Cliff, who was being sat on by his son, remarked, "Over here it's more about descendants than ancestry." :)

Enemy Mine features ancestry issues. So do the Descender comics. So, importantly, do Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood books, and the Patternist series. Middle grade features parentage prominently. Che mentioned the Beastologist books (and we didn't even mention it at the time, but Harry Potter, seriously!).

Kat noted that the question of Ancestry is one of the great scars of the transatlantic slave trade. This deleted people's connections to their ancestors and deliberately broke lineages up. We should not be surprised that this gets explored in Octavia Butler's work. It likely will appear in indigenous fiction as well.

Cliff also noted that the concept of ancestry isn't always based on blood, as when you have musical houses which behave as though the musical training is the approximate equivalent of blood relation. He's involved in the Gurana tradition, which used to be a blood tradition, but then became one of teacher and student, a sort of metaphorical ancestry. This is also true of martial arts, kabuki, and other artistic traditions.

This was a really fascinating topic, and we decided to take up the idea of names another time so we can go further into it. Thanks to everyone who attended! Today's topic will be Taxes.