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
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.
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.