Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Google+ Worldbuilding Hangout Report: Crime and Criminals

Sorry that it's taken me a few days to get this up! However, I've had this idea that it's too much work for me to write a worldbuilding post and hold a worldbuilding hangout on the same day, and then write the report... so in the future I'm going to be issuing the report on the Wednesday following the hangout, so it will be hangout and hangout report day at once.

I will be holding another hangout this coming Wednesday (tomorrow), October 5th, at 11am PDT. The topic this week was decided at the end of the last hangout: Economics! It's a bit of a forbidding topic for some, but we won't be at all forbidding, so do come and discuss.

Last week's hangout was awesome. I had three visitors: Kyle Aisteach, science fiction writer, Leigh Dragoon, writer and illustrator, and David Peterson, creator of the Dothraki language (Game of Thrones). Leigh did not have a working camera or microphone, so we included her by keeping one eye on the side chat bar, and she made some great contributions. David arrived partway through the session, but we really enjoyed having him. I encourage anyone who would like to drop in this week not to worry about whether you have a camera/microphone, or whether you will be interrupting. I'm sure we will find a way to include you!

When we're talking about crime and criminals in worldbuilding, the (perhaps obvious) first question is "What are the types of crime in your world?" Once you get started, though, the effects can be widespread. What defines a crime? Well, generally, crimes are defined by a set of laws. Then of course you end up with institutions whose job it is to deal with crime. There is also the "culture of crime" which can be very different in our world across countries, and so can differ across your world as well.

Kyle mentioned that you can get interesting results if you have a system where there are different laws for different planets. Smugglers and interstellar criminals would then have to deal with sneaking around different legal systems depending on which part of the galaxy they were in. The idea of smugglers made me think of how different the concept of a "smuggler" is in science fiction versus fantasy. Smugglers are much more common in sf in my experience (but perhaps some of my readers know more fantasy smugglers than I do). What are they smuggling? From where to where, and why?

Crime also brings up the question of punishment. What is considered appropriate punishment? What kind of punishment "fits" the crime? This is a question related to authority structure. In societies which mete out extremely draconian punishments, the likelihood is great that crime will be hidden as much as possible. An "underground" becomes quite likely, since criminals (or law-escapers, depending on your point of view) may want to support each other more to avoid the axe.

Kyle brought up, but didn't answer, the question of what crime and punishment would look like in an anarchistic society. It's definitely food for thought - with no government to create institutions of law, who decides what is wrong? Who decides how to punish people? Is it a recipe simply for endless personal vendettas, or something entirely different?

Certainly for any society, the general social contract will have impact on how crime manifests itself and how it will be treated, how it will be punished. Japan is famous for having low crime rates, so that you will never be mugged on the street. But it's not that it has no crime. To put it simplistically, our American society is very individual-focused, and Japan's society is group-focused, so our "specialty" crime is individual crime (muggers etc.) and their "specialty" crime is group crime (the Yakuza). Furthermore, there can be different assumptions across cultures about whether people will lie to authorities or not (here, yes; in Japan, not quite as much). Kyle mentioned how the Sarin gas attacks of 1995 significantly changed Japan's self-image as it related to crime.

This led us immediately into how the attacks of September 11th, 2001 changed our own self-image, and how we lead our lives. We talked about airport security, and how it has made travel much more difficult, and made it the exception for many people rather than the rule. What other effects might law enforcement have on society as a whole due to a single event? Our view of travel may have changed, but this isn't the first time. Kyle noted that in medieval times the probability was quite high that you would meet bandits or highwaymen on the road, and so you would "lock yourself in a chastity belt" and put your money "in a secret compartment" in your carriage. At that time, travel was inherently dangerous. Is that the case in your world, or can people move relatively freely?

The presence of laws in a society can also create crime. I mentioned caste-marking in my Varin society, where everyone is required to mark themselves with their caste identity or be punished. Kyle saw a parallel with the military, where people are required to wear rank insignia. Leigh mentioned the Stars of David that Jews were required to wear in Germany before WWII. These are cases where the presence of the laws can create lawbreakers of people who would not be considered lawbreakers in other contexts.

This led us to the idea of decriminalization. If a law can create a criminal, and cause the entire society to treat that person as different from law-abiding citizens of other stripes, then can the removal of a law remove the criminality of certain elements of the population? We knew of experiments with decriminalization of prostitution and of drugs in northern Europe. I had heard about the change of law in Portugal which made it illegal to sell drugs but not to possess them for use. Apparently this has had some success there.

Kyle mentioned a time when he was on jury duty where he ended up teaming up with a medical doctor who was also being interviewed for inclusion, and giving the lawyers and other prospective jury members a lecture on addiction.

When I heard that I thought, "Jury duty!" I find jury duty to be a fascinating thing - how juries get selected, how they get paid, how people feel most often like this is something to be avoided at all costs. Not every country picks juries the same way. Some countries just pick twelve people randomly and those people are the jury. In American somehow having knowledge of or a stake in a particular societal issue is considered grounds not for debate on the jury but for exclusion from it. Does that make the jury fairer, or less fair? Is it more representative of the society as a whole, or less so? In Japan, the Americans tried to institute the use of juries after the end of WWII but it was a resounding failure because the jury members didn't want to divulge their opinions or argue them - they were simply unfeasible culturally, and finally they went with having a panel of three judges.

David mentioned he had once been on a jury trying someone for "possession of syringes" which he thought was really not something fair to prosecute.

How do we as a society decide what is harmful to us and what is not? What is fair and what is not? Kyle mentioned a line from Camelot where someone complained, "How can I get a fair trial from someone so impartial?" David told us about the Icelandic "Saga of Njal" in which the supreme court of Iceland was established because of a manufactured dispute across the four "corners" of Iceland. Because the issue couldn't be decided fairly in any of the four "corners," a higher body had to be created...and this created a position for a new chief, which conveniently let Njal get his son promoted. Could he have been behind the whole thing? Individuals can certainly have a big influence on justice, depending on the circumstances.

There is a lot more we could have said. We were not able to get into the question of different societal groups and how they can be treated differently by the justice system (that would have been a rich direction to go). I encourage you to consider brainstorming on this topic.

At this point in the meeting we introduced ourselves to each other and ended up talking about highways for a few minutes, such as the way highways in Northern California are called "Highway 5" etc. where in Southern California they are called "The 5" etc. Leigh remarked that nobody ever resurfaces roads inf Fantasy! Kyle told us about Pompeii where carts had worn grooves in the stones of the road, and that actually had influence on how people built their carts. David asked whether that might have inspired rail. Who knows?

This got us onto populations who travel. The Dothraki of Game of Thrones are nomads, but David says, "they wouldn't travel like that." That most nomads actually have hunting grounds or places of rest between which they travel, or they follow the herds. Kyle mentioned forced migration for work in China. Leigh mentioned how Mexican workers come to work in the US during the summer.

David mentioned how in Jamaica, because of the mild climate, people will often build houses very slowly over fifteen years or so, starting with the roof to keep off the rain. Kyle contrasted this with Egypt where many places will have walls but no roof because the government defines a completed structure (for tax purposes!) as one with a roof. So in the end, we circled back around to the idea of laws. Where there are laws, people will be looking for loopholes (tax loopholes in both Egypt and the US!).

It was a great hangout. Thanks again to everyone who came. I hope to see more people this week to talk about Economics as requested by Leigh!


  1. Apparently I've become afflicted with cluelessness. I finally got Google+ set up last week and added you to my circles, but on Wednesday I couldn't find the hangout. I searched through Help, but only found instructions for starting hangouts, not for finding or joining. Any tips?

  2. It's not you, Fennel. Basically the hangout appears in the stream when it changes status, i.e. when it is first started, when someone comments, and when it ends. the best way to find it would probably be to go to my profile, because it should be there as my "latest post" while it's going on. I'm really sorry for your technical difficulties. I hope we can see you tomorrow!