Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Translating "issues" from our world into fictional worlds

In science fiction and fantasy very often we find ourselves dealing with instances of real-world phenomena, translating them into the alternate environment of a fictional world. In fact, I believe it to be a major motivator behind many fantasy and science fiction stories. It's also the reason why Analog magazine is called "Analog" - because of the idea that stories provide a sort of analogy of our own world.

However, dealing with issues from our own world in the context of fiction is not as easy as it seems. If you've been reading and/or writing science fiction and fantasy for any length of time you may have detected this danger before: sometimes a recognizable real-world "issue" can stick out of the story and break the sense of an integrated world.

Now, this is a fine line, which won't be in the same location for every reader. For example, I remember talking about Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness with a friend, and he told me that he couldn't read it because the feminist issues stuck out too far and it just seemed like a lecture to him. I never felt that way - to me it always felt like the gender issues had been beautifully integrated into the story.

In For Love, For Power, I'm dealing with a lot of issues that are relevant to the modern real world. Some are even currently topical. Though their immediate relevance is entirely accidental, I have to watch out. I can't let them kick my readers out of the story. I can't let people think I put them in there just to pound them on the head. So just on the off chance any of you might be dealing with similar situations, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts about dealing with these issues.

Rule #1: Every issue has to have an independent basis/motivation in the fictional world. 
Rule #2: Every issue has to have obvious differences of detail and language from its real-world incarnation.

What this means is you have to know why this issue matters to these people (as opposed to real world people): where it originated, how people talk about it, what kind of fundamental concepts and values (religious or non-religious) they relate it to. And the more potentially salient an issue is, the more work you have to do to support it.

Let's get specific. Here are the issues I've been dealing with, and the kind of historical and cultural support I'm building for them in Varin.

1. Human equality/difference
The caste system of Varin is so ingrained in its people that essentially no one believes in the equality of all humanity. This is a pretty common conceit with caste systems, but to be believable it has to have some basis in fact. So I designed the history of the world to provide a backstory for the origin of the castes which would give each one (except the lowest) a strong motivation for pride in caste identity. While this backstory doesn't come out in the current book, evidence of it is all around, and it shows in caste attitudes. Each of the Varin castes has a strong sense of caste identity, with different ideals and values, as well as different manners and behavior. These people do think significantly differently from each other for cultural reasons. In this context, then, having a character who does believe in human equality would make very little sense. I have a plan for future books which depends on the existence of someone like this, but this cultural attitude seems to belong more to our own world and would stick out by a mile. So I'm going to make sure that my character doesn't actually believe in human equality. Instead, I've given her a backstory where at the age of nine she was forced to steal the identity of a dead person in order to keep herself alive, and as a result does not believe that a person's name is inextricable from that person's identity. Since each person in Varin is identified by caste name first, personal name second, that gives her a kind of skepticism that will allow her to question some of her assumptions without being a farcical crusader for human equality.

2. Contraception
Because of the shrinking population of the noble caste, the nobility have outlawed contraception for their own people, though contraceptives are readily available to other castes (and encouraged for the undercaste). They have also made it illegal for their servants, who have no restrictions on their own use, to buy contraceptives on behalf of their masters and mistresses. Oral contraceptives are available for use by both men and women, but the one that is used in the plot is the male version.

3. Marriage/Homosexuality
The nobility requires all of its people to enter into marriage with a member of the opposite sex, for the same reasons mentioned above, namely that the caste is shrinking and desperately needs children. Newly married couples come under intense pressure until they produce at least two children. These rules apply regardless of the sexuality of the people involved. So among the nobles, homosexual relationships are supposed to be kept quiet, and exposure can lead to a pretty serious loss of reputation (potential loss of employment or other opportunities). This is not the case in the larger population. However, if I were simply to say that both what we call traditional marriage and what we call gay marriage were okay, it would be completely non-Varin. What I did in response to this was re-vamp the concept of marriage in terms of Varin's major religion, a polytheistic family model somewhat along the lines of the ancient Greek gods, in which people invoke different gods on different topics (each god or goddess is a patron of a particular type of activity). Heterosexual marriage is modeled on the relationship of the Youth Sirin with the Maiden Eyn, and the expectation is for the man to be romantic and faithful and establish the home (Sirin was originally a planet), while the woman is so inspired by his love that even though she may wander far afield, she remains faithful and always returns home (Eyn was originally a comet in a somewhat different orbit). Homosexual unions, by contrast, are modeled on the relationship between the Twin brothers Bes and Trigis (a planet/moon pair of roughly equal size) who never abandon each other, and who support one another in spite of difficulty with their other siblings, physical hardship etc. So if two men or two women want to be together in Varin, they enter into a brotherly or sisterly partnership, which works on the basis of entirely different assumptions.

I have read some books (and perhaps you have too) where I was reading along and suddenly an issue stood out as not belonging in the world I was reading about. Maybe it was that the phrasing of the issue was too similar to what I'd heard in our own world. Or maybe it was the subtler problem that even though the words used were different, I couldn't see that a person from such a different background would accept our own concepts so easily. This has (as you can see) led me to do a lot of restructuring of my world's underpinnings, and so far I think it has been pretty effective. I hope my readers agree.

In any case, it's something to think about.


  1. Beautifully explained and illustrated. I learned a lot. Thank you. I am still in awe at the process of world building.

  2. Sharon, thanks so much! I appreciate the comment.

  3. Are points two and three inspired by current events?

    But I do find how homosexuality is treated intriguing? Unions as bonds of siblinghood? Hmm...how does adoption factor into all of this, if it exists in this society?

  4. C0, as I believe I mentioned, they bear no relation to current events. I started planning this book four or five years ago. I realize that siblinghood is not the standard approach, but that's why I like it. I designed it as a variant of the sibling-marriages that one sees among the Greek gods (among the male-female couples in the Greek instance). Sirin and Eyn actually don't follow this pattern because Eyn is not a member of the family that includes Sirin, Bes, Trigis, their brother Plis, and their sisters Heile and Mai. Adoption isn't something I've dealt with in the stories to this point, but I'm sure it occurs; since both types of union are called "partnerships" I would assume adoption is not only possible but unremarkable for both.