Thursday, June 4, 2009

White Space?

In our last exciting episode we discussed weak tropes in SF, specifically Hollywood sci-fi. (Which is arguably a distinct genre, but save that for another day.) Most of these shortcomings have no consequences beyond SF itself. NASA understands realistic spacecraft physics, and people in the future will wear believable future clothing without thinking twice about it.

But in the comment thread, Ian M. brought up an issue with larger significance, the all too pervasive whiteness of SF. As it happens, this has been a matter of contentious debate in the SF discussosphere, a debate dubbed RaceFail '09. I was only vaguely aware of it, like events on an extrasolar planet. But like extrasolar planets it is topical to this blog, so here we go:

Rather than try and reconstruct an argument sprawling across cyberspace, I'll start with one part of it, triggered by a (forthcoming?) new recent book by Patricia Wrede, The Thirteenth Child. I have read and liked a couple of her earlier books. This one is historical fantasy set in a parallel frontier 'Murrica, with surviving megafauna (mastodons and such), and magic. The setting would not send me running for a copy. I dislike magic, never got that excited by the American frontier thing, and don't think mastodons would be half as much fun in a book as they'd be in a movie or graphic novel where you can see them.

But what caused the uproar is what Wrede leaves out: In 'Columbia,' the First Nations aren't even zeroth nations, the New World having no human population till Columbus shows up. Wrede explains:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem ...
I appreciate her problem. Noble Savages and just plain savages are equally boring. Her solution I sort of blink at. Even at the level I grew up with as a kid, it means no First Thanksgiving, no Indian scouts, no circling the wagons, no broken arrow or peace pipe. No corn (maize, to some of you), which has been so modified under cultivation that its wild precursors are uncertain. For that matter no Skraelings - so how come the King of Vinland didn't order the Pilgrims to convert to Lutheranism or move on?

Other commentators had a stronger reaction:
There are only two reasons I can think of to eliminate an entire race of people from alternate history fiction: to explore the impact it has on everything else, or because the author is a racist ass.
With that we are, so to speak, off to the races. If you want to try and cut your way through the thicket, grab your machete and follow the link above, or maybe go here. Both linked pieces take the same side of the argument, for the simple reason that that's what I mostly came across in my own brief reconnaissance.

Now, what to make of it? My first, unthought reaction is that it feels like time travel to 'Murrica in the 1970s, which I already visited the old fashioned way. I am proudly 'Murrican, but one thing the Pilgrims brought over was boatloads of self righteousness. Along with that corn, we've been cultivating it ever since. Throwing accusations of racism so freely around comes fairly close to Godwin's Law.

But. Here is a post from a real Indian (i.e. not First Nations) about how problematic genre fantasy can be for someone from a nonwestern background. In micro form, you and anyone like you are mostly written out of it. The issues raised are valid, equally so for SF, even if a lot of the other people raising them online are obnoxious.

The question for me is, what are a writer's responsibilities to their audience? My struggling-to-get-published novel, Catherine of Lyonesse, is full of white people. Since it is set in a parallel Western Europe in the early 16th century, this is not implausible. Due to differences of time line, even a seaman interested in exploration has heard only rumors of an archipelago somewhere west across the Ocean Sea. That rumored land does have parallel First Nations, but my characters will only find out about them if I get to write a sequel.

A more immediately practical concern, for both my characters and for me, is the Monites, adherents of a monotheistic faith modeled on a real one currently much in the news. When the story first took form in my mind, many years ago, Islam was not much in the news. I could fight a para-Battle of Lepanto with hardly a thought to real-world political implications - at least I thought I could. Now that is impossible. Anything I say about 'Monites' will inevitably be read in contemporary context.

In this case the issue isn't precisely race (or strictly SF), but the distinction is barely visible in an ion microscope. I am left, and anyone writing in these genres is left, with a problem not unlike Wrede's. Dismissing entire peoples out of mind (or using them only as handy bad guys) is grotesque, and so is rigidly adhering to a don't-offend-anyone checklist. But the problem won't go away, so I'll throw it open to discussion.


Anonymous said...

Race, ethnicity, and money. Money?

A writer's primary audience is the culture that writer grew up in - People who read the same language, know the pop culture and high culture references, and care about people who think the way the writer's characters think. Most of these people will be from the same ethnic and national background as the writer. That's where most of a writer's income will come from.

So it makes a lot of sense that most English-language SF is written for white Yanks. Most of it is written by white Yanks. There are a Hell of a lot of white Yanks in America, centre of the English-language entertainment world, and the writers want to get as much money as possible out of that market. And it's easy for these writers to create backgrounds and characters that appeal to the white Yank market. In fact, it's so easy that most of them don't even think about the fact that they're doing it.

It's not racism. It's failure of imagination, driven partly by market forces and partly by the fact that stepping outside of your culture is very hard work. Writing a story is hard enough, writing a story from the POV of a 23rd Century Hindi convert to Christ-path Buddhism during an outbreak of caste riots...

A white Yank writer (Or a white Canuck writer) would find it easier to write a story from the POV of a 23rd Century anglo convert to Christ-path Buddhism during an outbreak of Federalist-Reform Party violence. The supposed attitudes of this character are going to be exaggerations, extrapolations, and educated guesses derived from modern urban white experience. They'll feel reasonable.

I don't object to white writers creating white characters. It might be the easy path, but it's a path that has created a lot of good stories. And sometimes the writers stretch themselves, push their imaginations, and create characters outside of the writer's direct experience.

I object to the Mighty Whitey future. I really dislike futures where races and cultures outside of the Western world exist to provide background colour, or sometimes don't exist at all... Western civilization will not dominate the future forever and ever (I don't know who will, but in the medium term I'm betting on India as the premier great power, followed by China, the US, and the EU. Longer term, you can probably dump the EU and US and throw in West Africa).

The Mighty Whitey future is a serious case of failure of imagination, the idea that since the West (And it's core power, the US) is on top now it will be on top in the future. Any future. It's also a failure of effort, since a day's work on the internet can tell you that the US and the West are losing influence right now and has been since the collapse of the USSR. I expect the US to dominate into the near future, but it will be shaky dominion. Stories that say otherwise are self-comfort...

But if you don't want it, don't read it. And don't complain that there are no alternatives, because that's just bullshit. Read Steven Barnes: His introduction to Far Beyond the Stars is worth the price of the entire book. Do thirty seconds of google research and you can find an entire library of brown or yellow or red speculative fiction, and you'll never need to worry about whitey and his assumptions again. Read some of the SF coming out of Asia. It's good stuff. Just don't go to a market that caters to white folk, and then complain that all the product caters to white folk. If you don't want to watch Mighty Whitey comfort himself, make an effort to find the works that go beyond the Mighty Whitey future.

No one is ever really ahead of their times, but most people are behind their times. That includes SF writers.


Rick said...

Gosh, you mean money might have something to do with it? :-)

But even more than markets, mental background (not necessarily the writer's background) is the main driver. I absorbed enough English history and fiction that I slip into that mode readily. And was much flattered when an (English, or specifically Cornish) friend and beta reader said that one of the things he liked is that Catherine is 'not American.'

I also grew up on a lot of classical mythology, which oddly enough is full of Greeks.

That said, the 'Racefail' commentary I could most relate to was Deepa's teenage quandary, especially the honest way she came about it. If you're 13 it isn't so easy to say 'Oh, I need a traditional Indian counterpart of a tavern.' And figure out what would work in the context.

Incidentally, I'm just starting to see where India might be the big future player, more than China, because its culture seems less insular.

Anonymous said...

In very broad strokes - Modern India is excited about its future, and interested in examining what that future might look like. Modern China still looks to its past, and tries to extend that past into the future. But both cultures are powerful now, and both cultures will be powerful in the future.

Deepa's comments were fascinating and painful - My language is broken - but strangely incoherent. There is a lot of SF being produced in India and the surrounding countries, in many of that regions languages. I can't tell you much about it, because I can't read it. But it exists. The same goes for stories aimed at children and young adults. The wounds of colonialism are real and deep, but there is Indian literature and Indian SF. It serves the same purpose that SF serves (Or used to serve) in the West; To entertain, but also to come to terms with the future.

Yes, India is poorer and has less market presence than the US. Yes, the languages of the Indian sub-continent were marginalized in favour of English. Yes, poor Indian children grew up reading second-hand stories about white children.

No, there is not a lack of Indian speculative fiction. But Deepa seems to be strangely uninterested in what does exist, and complains about the lack of...

Something. I'm not sure what. 'Stories like what I grew up with, but Indian', maybe. And she seems to be upset that white writers aren't dealing with her issues. A lot of her posts deal with the idea that Wrede and Bujold and other white suburbanites don't understand the issues of people of colour, and don't write about those things. I agree Bujold is incredibly white and American, but it's not her job to make a non-white non-American future. It's Deepa's job.

The main thing I take away from Deepa is that somebody (else) should do something. But the future doesn't belong to white people any more, and neither does the present. Indians and Chinese and Africans and Latins and all the sub-groups within are doing something about the future and its literature. Deepa seems to have been left behind.

There will be a lot more diversity in SF, but we're not going to see it in English until after the fact. We're going to have to buy publishing rights to the best stories, and then pay to have them translated into English, long after the writers have moved on to newer and more interesting ideas. Just like other people had to do with our stories. We're not the future anymore, and soon we won't be the main market for stories about the future.


Rick said...

One particular subclass of 'Murrican SF might be called Ameriwank, that is mostly about a peculiar sort of nostalgia, for a recent past that never actually existed. But it is at least as much at odds with 'Murrica itself as with the rest of the world.

And in a way the 'Racefail' argument is a flip side of that same coin, also nostalgic for an imagined past, just on the other side. It's interesting how easily Deepa, from a very different background, has slipped into a rather parochial debate. (Though her commentary may have been pulled into the argument, not written specifically for it.)

Per earlier posts about 'neomedieval' power politics, I tend to think the future may be highly granular, perhaps with emergence of something like city states as the centers of dynamism. Forward-looking and backward-looking areas may only be 200 km apart.

The 'Racefail' thing is pretty backwards looking. I brought it up anyway because laziness is an immensely powerful force, and a kick in the aspect is almost always in order. Just on general principles, as it were.

Tamora Pierce said...

I don't think the Monites are a problem--everything in your universe has an altered name so you can play with the history, and you know enough about Ottoman culture to play it with respect. And given the world you're dealing in, an alternate of western Europe, the number of PoC you can have is limited. You're dealing in courts and monarchs. The Monite ambassador and his entourage might be welcome at the court of Aquitaine, but not Lyonesse.

I agree with your other commenters, it's creepy when the future is all white. Not only is it creepy, but it's bad sociology, which is something you would never do.

Rick said...

Given my preferences, I would have tried to deal respectfully with Monites anyway, simply because one-dimensional villains annoy me. They feel like an authorial cheat. Note that Tolkien wisely never makes Sauron a character in LOTR. We never meet him; he's only an inimical force. We do meet Saruman, who is more complex: a Gandalf gone bad.

My real frustration is that real world events can make a story look like allegory when nothing of the sort was intended. (Tolkien famously vents on precisely this.) Especially if the right course of action in a story would be the wrong course of action in a real situation that superficially resembles the story situation.

The hazards of writing fiction!

Anonymous said...

"And in a way the 'Racefail' argument is a flip side of that same coin, also nostalgic for an imagined past, just on the other side."

A nostalgic sense of a wounded past, but a past where you had a potentially golden future. Instead that future has turned into now, and it's messy and hard work and not as good as you thought it should be back in the bad old days.

I haven't read Wrede's The Thirteenth Child, but after reading what I could on line I don't think Wrede is a racist ass and I don't think she set out to explore the implications of a hominid-free continent - The only two reasons one commentator claims to see for her decision. I think she just wanted a clean frontier, open spaces without the bloody history of opening those spaces. And I don't think she understood that making an entire group of cultures vanish for the sake of keeping the hands' of the settlers blood-free... Well, that's got a bad feeling to it. She would have been better off setting her story in an entirely fantasy background, or on a colony world.

I haven't read Catherine of Lyoness either, but from what I've seen in your comments there is one very large difference between your story and Wrede's: The peoples of the Middle East are participants in your alternate history.

As for people reading unintended allegories into a work - That takes us right back to the PoMo thread. 'Round and 'round we go...


Rick said...

A nostalgic sense of a wounded past, but a past where you had a potentially golden future. Yep. Like the bottomless well of Southern nostalgia about the Civil War.

I certainly don't think Wrede is a racist, and the blogger who said so seems pretty much an ass themselves. But deep sixing the First Nations is problematic to me on entirely other grounds.

The reason for writing in a parallel setting, rather than a completely invented one, is presumably to avail yourself of real world echoes and connotations in some way or other. It needn't be for commentary of some sort; it can just be flavoring, a kind of pseudo familiarity. My girl comes of age (in exile) at the Court of la Trémouille, and the name alone implies the flavor of a French royal court.

But 'Indians' are so integral to the flavor of the American West that not having them at all would seem just odd. If I were writing an imagined West the story would be cattlemen and sodbusters, wide-open towns and railroad wars. The First Nations would be only in the background, because that complex tragedy isn't the story I'd want to tell. I totally share Wrede's distaste for both the old and modern stereotypes, but a couple of lines of toss off dialogue should be enough to indicate that I don't buy into either one.

Which is much the situation of Monites in my actual book. I hope to deal with them directly in sequel land, but they're only tangential to the story I wrote, so get only tangential mention.

On unintended allegories and PoMo, round and round indeed! But it's a pain in the ass when the real world noisily intrudes on story elements in a fantasy novel.

Anonymous said...

After reading the comments and some of the links, I have to sadly conclude that bigatry is still alive and well; and it isn't always white. I, personally, don't hold up my European ancestors' horrible treatment of my Native Americans' ancestors for my present condition; I prefer to look ahead. Yes, the past shapes us, but we can't change it by attacking the present.
When we write, we must draw on our own experiances and our knowledge we have accumulated during our life; sometimes it is hard, sometimes it is easy, and sometimes it is impossible. When I imagine aliens, it is sometimes easier than imagining a human from a culture different from my own. I susspect that most writers find that true of their writing as well.
Decrying that the world is unfair isn't helpful; most adults and many children know that already. Leting go of the hate, anger, and religating it to the past while looking forward to making the future better is what I feel is truly needed.

I know that this is rather more emotional than my usual syle of writing, but this is an emotional topic.

Rick said...

Emotional topic is an understatement, judging from a lot of the stuff hiding behind those links, and for that matter the bit I quoted.

You're right about it being easier to write about aliens, or wholly invented cultures, than other real ones. Even apart from dealing with people who make being angry their life's work, we want to get things right. And I totally appreciate Wrede's problem with dueling stereotypes.

I blogged about it with some hesitancy, because the whole thing is so damn nasty. (Though it is probably only a tempest in a Livejournal teapot.) And I bent over somewhat backwards precisely because of my general distaste for militant whatevers.

Incidentally, I mostly use 'First Nations' because 'Native American' annoys me as 70s PC (having lived through the 70s!), while 'Indian' can be awkwardly ambiguous, thanks to Columbus' gross underestimate of the size of the planet.

I've only once seen a snippet that portrayed them as real. It was a PBS show about the transcontinental railroad, and quoted an Indian (sic!) who remarked on the amazing determination of the builders, who after miles of track were pulled up came back and rebuilt it. What amazed ME was hearing for a change the voice of actual people confronted with a strange foreign culture.

Now that would be story-worthy, infinitely more so than either Hostile Injuns or Noble Environmentalists.

Anonymous said...

I think the bloggers Rick linked to in the post have some legitimate grievances. I just don't think they've found particularly useful ways to tackle those grievances. And I find Deepa's apparent ignorance or dismissal of non-white literature to be downright strange. But the RaceFail '09 thing is internet drama, and ultimately doesn't involve a lot of people.

Of course aliens are easier to write than human cultures. Humans are messy and contradictory and even lone individuals will do things that surprise their friends. Groups of humans are even more surprising, being prone to launching invasions because their leader got drunk and thought it was a good idea (William the Conqueror? Drunk when he decided to invade England).

I have a friend who is a few years older than me, old enough that his grandfather and father (Who both worked up north) remembered Inuit tales of the 19th and 20th Century Northwest Passage Expeditions. Apparently the Inuit thought the whole thing was hilarious, watching ill-equipped white men drag sleds across the tundra. The Inuit would get up in the morning, watch the white men load their sleds with supplies and hitch up the dogs, then go about their daily business. When they got back at the end of the day the white men would have moved maybe five miles, dragging enough supplies to feed a village for a year. It took Rasmussen 16 months to cross the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, and every Inuit camp and village knew he was coming days before he got there.


Rick said...

LOL about the Inuit and clumsy Arctic explorers. I seem to recall that one of the first really successful ones (I don't recall his name and am too lazy to google) had the brainstorm of learning how the Inuit managed things.

The nice thing about aliens is that not only will you not run afoul of professional complainers, you don't even have to worry about people saying 'Um, that's not actually what they do.'

One other thing angle of all this. I stumbled on someone who had a snit about steampunk for ignoring the down side of Victorian times. But all of these genres are subgenres of Romance in the older and broader sense. They are not in the realistic tradition of literature, and a different set of critical standards apply. We have the right but not the obligation to engage those realities.

I do think of writers in the Romance genres as having some obligation to their readers. What it is, is complex, and perhaps 'obligation' is not quite the right word. But it is what distinguishes the books we remember as readers from the ones we forget.

Carla said...

I think it was Amundsen who learned from the Inuit, and applied the knowledge to beat Scott to the South Pole. Oddly, Scott tends to be the name that's remembered, perhaps because a heroic defeat is more Romantic than a success. (Where were we discussing this recently?)

"A nostalgic sense of a wounded past, but a past where you had a potentially golden future. Yep. Like the bottomless well of Southern nostalgia about the Civil War."
Arthuriana might come under the same heading.

Rick said...

Yes, Amundsen. I can always count on commenters to fill in these gaps! True about Scott and 'heroic defeat.' Perhaps also with a hint of imperial-age hubris, a bit like the Titanic.

Re Arthuriana, also yes: 'One brief shining moment.' With the twist that Arthur caught on among people who had nothing to do with the original events, or for that matter were on the other side. I've seen one old Brit film where he is king of England, and that particular confusion is probably widespread (especially on this side of the pond).

Carla said...

Well, there were probably a lot more than two sides, and the Norman-French (or even their ancestors) probably weren't on any of them...

Some of the Plantagenet and Tudor kings deliberately picked up (invented?) the idea of Arthur as king of England (and the rest of Britain). No doubt it helped justify their own territorial ambitions and played to their egos. Henry VIII had himself painted sitting in King Arthur's place on the Winchester Round Table (subtlety this is not), which itself is supposed to have been made for Edward I who had just conquered the Welsh princedoms. Interestingly, none of the medieval Welsh princes were using the legend at the time, so it was fair game to be grabbed by a new owner.

Rick said...

With a couple of dozen contending kingdoms there were plenty of sides! Not to mention civil strife - which in the received tradition is what ends the brief shining moment.

Under the Tudors, England nearly DID have a King Arthur. A rather popular line of speculation over at is 'Arthur lives ... Henry becomes Pope.'

And now I wonder whether the Arthurian story was even that popular in medieval Wales, or simply happened to leak over to the continent and then go viral there.

Thread drift alert, but quite topical to this blog, is the multiple ages of Arthur. Even TH White belongs to the era before our own, so to speak. His Arthur, like Tennyson's, is set in a retrospective High Middle Ages. Now both Celtic Arthur and Roman Arthur are set in (rival!) evocations of the 5th-6th centuries.

Carla said...

It was certainly popular in medieval Wales, if the Triads, Culhwch and Olwen, and the Welsh-language romances are anything to go by. Whether that was continuity, or whether the story had hopped to France and Brittany and then hopped back, is a different question. But either way, none of the leaders of the day seems to have tried to make any political capital out of it. Almost as if the story was considered a great tale but nothing to do with them. Make of that what you will.

TH White features Thomas Malory as a young page serving King Arthur just before the last battle, which would place the tale somewhere in the Wars of the Roses if he meant the chronology seriously. He doesn't, I think; it's set in the make-believe world of once-upon-a-time but happens to have the accoutrements of the High Middle Ages. Arguably some of the modern '5th/6th' century settings are in similar make-believe worlds but happen to have different accoutrements. Some of it is fashion and the prevailing image at the time, some of it may be related to the author's agenda. TH White has a very clear anti-war message (not surprising given the time it was written), so the appalling mess of the Wars of the Roses fits nicely as background. A book with a Goddess-worshipping proto-feminist agenda has real trouble attaching that to the High Middle Ages, but a Celtic Twilight setting is perfect.

I shall stop hijacking your thread now :-)

Rick said...

Don't fret about threadjacking! The sub-discussion is quite topical to this blog, and political overtones / authorial agendas are surely topical to this post!

I can think of multiple reasons why the most political dimension of Arthur, the unity of Britain, was of no special interest to Welsh rulers.

Both the traditional high-medieval setting and the modern c. 500 ones are indeed effectively never-neverlands, shaped primarily by concerns contemporary to the authors. But the preference for a 'historical Arthur' setting - however freely reconstructed - strikes me as an interesting general trend.

I can easily imagine a future trend shift, where the literary tradition rather than its possible historical roots again becomes the reference point, so that a re-imagined 12th-15th century milieu is once more favored for Arthurian fiction.

Anonymous said...

Nostalgia tells you a lot about what people want from their future. Arthur and Camelot can promise peace under a continuing reign of wise nobles, or can be a brief moment of priceless calm in between horrors. The nostalgia can go toxic, and Arthur becomes either a warlord thug holding Camelot together by force of arms or a promise of a warlord who will restore order and drive out the Others.

Judging by the stories we tell ourselves, the West no longer believes in peace. I'd like to see more T.H. Whites, but I suspect we'll see more Bernard Cornwells and Doug Leflers ( ).

On a less depressing note, the current 'historical roots' flavour of Arthur comes out of the state-nationalism of the 19th Century and post Second World War interest in tales of a great Briton driving off Germanic invaders. It feels like something that has run its course, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a British author bring it back to the High Middle Ages and add the sang real mythology that has developed over the past thirty years.


Rick said...

Why do I feel a future blog post coming on about all this?

Nostalgia does indeed say a good deal about people. But perhaps the Arthur as Rambo cycle is also reaching its sell-by date, since the recent movies sort of came and went without much of a splash. 'The Last Legion' I didn't even notice, in spite of them finagling a way to get Aishwarya Rai into it. (Take that, Deepa!)

Though I'm not entirely sure the Da Vinci Code interpretation of the Grail is an improvement. Admittedly I never quite got the whole Grail quest, beyond a very vague notion that it symbolizes seeking the ideal. (?) 'Green - no, blue - aiiiiiieee ...'

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Last Legion, but my impression from the reviews and trailers was that Aishwarya wasn't much more than exotic eye-candy. That probably supports Deepa's position more than refutes it.

I could easily see a new san greal/sang real Arthurian cycle building on shared European history and myth to create a Matter of Europe. Call it the Sangreal Cycle.

It would probably have to set in a fictionalized High Middle Ages, since the grail symbolism is so heavily Medieval Christian (Sorry, Goddess worshippers) and the 'history' of it didn't start to coalesce until the 12th Century. That also gives you recognizable forerunners of current European states and their relationships.

Carla would have a better idea of how to do something like this. It's definitely not my field - Ask me about the chateau clique and its relationship to the mercantile families of the Metis.


Rick said...

In action movies, how ofter do gorgeous actresses of any ethnicity serve as more than eye candy?

Historically there was a 'Matter of France,' which since it dealt with Charlemagne could justly be called the Matter of Europe. It never seemed to coalesce with the Arthurian cycle, but there is always a first time. And a Matter of Europe, if it caught on, has profound implications for the EU.

Ask me about the chateau clique and its relationship to the mercantile families of the Metis.

Ask me about my historical ignorance! My first thought was that this was a fictional setting of your own invention. But at least I had the good sense to google it, and find out that it is a matter of Canadian history.

Anonymous said...

Though I'm not entirely sure the Da Vinci Code interpretation of the Grail is an improvement. Admittedly I never quite got the whole Grail quest, beyond a very vague notion that it symbolizes seeking the ideal. (?) 'Green - no, blue - aiiiiiieee ...'
Thank-you for the Monty Python referance! Except for only having one horse in the movie, it was fairly acurate as to how nasty and brutal the real middle ages were. However, it did (in a twisted and humorus way), sum up the reason for the Grail wasn't nessisarily the discovery of the Grail, but the uplifting story of the search for it and the spiritual growth of the searchers and those they came in contact with. That theme is worthy of any setting or age.

Anonymous said...

Take the matters of Rome, France, and Britain, blend in the national epics of the Northlands and add a seasoning of Central European folklore. Mix in the sang real tales as thickener. Bake for two generations in the World Wars, allow to cool for an equal time in the Cold War...

When you get into the references in the Lord of the Rings, you see that it's possible to bring all these tales together (Aragorn-Aragon-St. George, the Nazgul and the Cossacks, on and on...) into a coherent whole. But it's the work of years, and of someone who lives in the environment. You'd need to know the real history, and the mythical history, and the art, and the songs...

Like I said, Carla could pull it off but Rick or I couldn't. You'd need to live in it.

Ask me about my historical ignorance! I don't expect most Canadians to know about the chateau clique or family compact. They were powerful in their time, but not as important as they liked to think. The financial and mercantile families of the era were much more important, and dominated the affairs of British North America and the formation of Canada. The aristocrats had streets and towns named after them. The businessmen formed a banking oligarchy that endures today.


Anonymous said...

Just saw Ferrell's comment - What amazed me later, when I got more into the material, was just how much 'real' material the Monty Python crew worked into their satire. They knew the stories, brought the material in at all the right places, and pulled off one of the funniest movies I've ever seen.

"Three, sire!"

"Right, right! Three... Four... FIVE!"


Rick said...

One of the Pythoners, Terry Jones, is a medieval historian, so it is no surprise that their film showed more grasp of the material than most Arthur hack & hew movies! (Similarly, 'Life of Brian' was theologically sophisticated, as I recall. "Always look on the bright side of life!")

Ferrell - A nice and logical summary of the Grail quest, the search being more important than the finding. I'll keep that in mind!

Ian - Your summary is exactly what I'd expect. Landed aristocracy was pretty much past its sell-by date by then.

As for the Matter of Europe, *I* certainly couldn't pull it off, but I don't know that 'Murricans in general would be precluded. This gets back to the whole question of writing the Other, and fiction writers are inherently in the business of making stuff up and faking it.

Rick said...

One of the Pythoners, Terry Jones, is a medieval historian, so it is no surprise that their film showed more grasp of the material than most Arthur hack & hew movies! (Similarly, 'Life of Brian' was theologically sophisticated, as I recall. "Always look on the bright side of life!")

Ferrell - A nice and logical summary of the Grail quest, the search being more important than the finding. I'll keep that in mind!

Ian - Your summary is exactly what I'd expect. Landed aristocracy was pretty much past its sell-by date by then.

As for the Matter of Europe, *I* certainly couldn't pull it off, but I don't know that 'Murricans in general would be precluded. This gets back to the whole question of writing the Other, and fiction writers are inherently in the business of making stuff up and faking it.

Anonymous said...

If the Trent Affair had gotten out of hand or something like the St. Albans Raid had happened earlier, Canada would likely have a landed aristocracy today. The Family Compact failed because - Well, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the member families spent most of their time defending their privileges or trying to marry aristocrats from the old country instead of governing. If Britain and the provinces had been dragged into a War of the Americas, the Loyalist families and 'men of standing' in the Scots settlers would probably have been rewarded with local titles. The old seigneurial system in Quebec was essentially dead by then (Although you can still see some of the land-ownership patterns today), but I could see the leadership of the Parti rouge being bought off with land and titles. For that matter, Thomas D'Arcy McGee and the local Catholic leadership would also probably have had to be bought off the same way. And Lafontaine would probably be a baron rather than a mere baronet.

I have an entire setting based on a family of drunken Ontario Scots (Ah, mi familia) trying to rob a bank in Buffalo, and the whole thing going horribly wrong. I just don't have any interest in writing a war story, and the characters for a political drama haven't quite gelled yet...

Rick said...

I had never heard of the St. Alban's raid! If a hereditary peerage had been established in Canada, I imagine that as in England it would soon have become a 'beerage,' precisely because business and finance were by then where the real levers of power were.

Curiously, by the way, about a third of this blog's readership is in Canada. I'm pleased that I'm evidently avoiding too much US provincialism, but there's no obvious reason I can think of why I'd pull so much more from Canada rather than, say, Oz. (OTOH, my total readership is small enough that a handful of regulars drive my Google Analytics stats.)

Carla said...

I too would like to see more TH Whites.

On a less depressing note, the Monty Python films work because the team behind them were highly intelligent and thoroughly versed in the material they were spoofing. Life of Brian manages to cover the essence of the history of every major religion in a handful of scenes and be funny into the bargain.

In TH White's version, the quest for the Holy Grail is invented by Arthur as a way of channelling the aggressive energies of his knights. When they have finished killing all the dragons, rescuing all the maidens, deposing all the lawless robber barons and bringing the country under Arthur's Peace, they all start fighting each other for lack of anything else to do. Arthur conceives the idea of sending them off to look for the Grail, which of course works until Galahad finds it.... Then the in-fighting starts again and the rest is inevitable. This isn't so far removed from Ferrell's suggestion above that the importance of the Quest was the search, not the finding. As said, this is a timeless theme.

Cornwell glosses the Holy Grail in his version (Arthurian) as derived from one of the mythical Celtic cauldrons of plenty. In his Grail Quest trilogy it's the much more boring and conventional cup-from-the-Last-Supper and as such is recognisable on its first appearance (about 20 pages into Book 1) by anyone who's seen the relevant Indiana Jones film.

Fashion being what it is, I think it quite likely that faux-High Middle Ages settings will become popular agian when everyone has got bored with faux-neopagan settings. The Sean Connery film on King Arthur (a dud) had this setting, complete with tinsel Camelot, but that was a while back. Actually, come to think of it, the faux-neopagan settings have more scope for pretty actresses (and hunky actors) wearing not much more than a few tattoos, so cancel that prediction, at least for Hollywood.

Slightly related to the original topic (!), when TH White and Mary Stewart were writing Arthuriana the prevailing academic view of British prehistory was the Waves of Invasion theory. If you've read 1066 And All That you've probably met it. This saw every innovation in material culture (beakers, copper, iron...) as proof that a new population of invaders had come over from the Continent and displaced the previous population wholesale. It doesn't have many adherents now, at least in its extreme form. But when it was current it gave authors a bit of a headache; if the "Britons" or the "Celts" (the good guys in pretty much all Arthurian fiction) had invaded Britain in the Iron Age and displaced the earlier population, how was the theoretical earlier population to be handled? A soluton was to make the theoretical earlier population into a stone-tools-and-magic people and call them the Old Ones, or the Hidden People, or the Sidhe, or the Faeries, or the Elves, or similar. The further headache, of explaining satisfactorily why the "Britons" had a moral right to displace the Old Ones but not to be themselves displaced by the "Anglo-Saxons", is rarely (ever?) satisfactorily resolved. White dealt with it by saying: look, sooner or later you have to accept the status quo and get on with the world as it is, instead of pointlessly taking 'revenge' for things that might or might not have happened thousands of years ago. With the decline of the Waves of Invasion theory and the shift to the faux-neopagan setting the problem of what to do with hypothetical earlier races seems to have receded.

Anonymous said...

Actually, come to think of it, the faux-neopagan settings have more scope for pretty actresses (and hunky actors) wearing not much more than a few tattoos, so cancel that prediction, at least for Hollywood.

They could always go for authentic costuming. Pretty actresses with next to no underwear in dresses cut down to just above the line of modesty, hunky actors in short stockings and shorter tunics...


Rick said...

Further to what Ian said, the faux neopagan thing sort of looks low budget even when it isn't - whereas lavish gowns make the whole production look lavish, no matter how readily they slither off. And in Hollywood they slither off readily indeed. As do trunk-hose, etc.

Interesting point about the belief in successive invasions, and the awkward problem of implying that the Celtic invasion was okay, but not the Anglo-Saxon one. Apart from changing views about mass displacements, the whole 'Teutonic invasion' theme presumably has less salience now than it did much of last century. Even that Fawlty Towers episode must be decades old by now.

On the other hand, Vikings / Barbarian Invaders are a well established trope, and the Anglo-Saxons fit that casting call nicely. (On the third hand, 'Saxons' aren't much more than an off-stage McGuffin in the received Arthurian story.)

Jim Baerg said...

Re: Succesive Invasions

I recently read _Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic & its peoples_ by Barry Cunliffe. It's about the history & archeology of the region Morocco to Scandinavia, from just after the latest glacial period to about 1500, when the area went from being the edge of the world to being the center of the world.

One point he makes is that he thinks the 'Celtic' language(s) of those regions of just pre-roman times was a trade language that spread along the coast rather than something imposed by conquerors from the east.

Rick said...

Jim - interesting in two levels, or three. First, the suggestion that trade was extensive enough to spread language(s), and second for arguing against 'invasions.' The standard version I've read is that the 'spread of the Celts' is thought to be associated with the La Tene culture, originating somewhere in Austria, but that gets to the whole issue of inferring language from material culture.

And stemming from #2, it recasts the whole Celtic Fringe thing, suggesting that the Celtic languages ended up spoken along the Atlantic seaboard not because they were 'pushed' there, but because it was their native habitat so to speak.

BTW, my next post will be on a book you mentioned quite a ways back here, Kingsley's Psychohistorical Crisis, which I finally caught up with reading!

Carla said...

Barry Cunliffe's Atlantic theory has a lot to be said for it. It fits with the east-west differences in material culture in Britain that turn up from the neolithic onward, and also with Tacitus' comment in the 1st century AD that the people living in (what is now) south-west Wales resembled those who lived in Iberia.

Rick said...

And Caesar's encounter with the Veneti in Brittany indicates that at least some Atlantic communities had big, sturdy ships, indicative of large scale seafaring.

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