Sunday, February 17, 2013

Otherness in Fiction. Have People Always Been the Way They Are Now?

I belong to an online fantasy writing community, and there was a recent lively thread in their forums that raised the issue of whether or not it is plausible for a fantasy society to sell their non magically talented children into what amounted to slavery. The short answer, of course, is yes. There are numerous examples of parents giving up their children for all kinds of reasons throughout history, and in fact there are societies where parents do this today. But this raised another question: Does this mean that parents didn't love their children, or loved them less intensely in the olden days (or in modern times when they are economically distressed).

The answer to this question is harder to establish. It's pretty common to find educators and academics who claim that childhood is a completely modern construct and for them to make broad, sweeping statements about how all emphasis was on the family unit as a whole back then, and love (whether between partners or between parents and children) did not figure into things. They may even claim that love, as we define it today, did not exist. I even found one source that said that medieval kids were not allowed to play, which is a bit ridiculous when one considers that toys existed in the middle ages, and that archeological evidence for the existence of toys goes back to antiquity.

I think it is prudent to say that people loved their kids, and each other (just because a marriage is arranged does not mean that the people involved do not come to love one another), but there was a different understanding of the obligations and responsibilities that came as a consequence of this love. I think that is also true that in cultures with a high juvenile mortality rate (some sources say that up to 25% of babies died before their first birthday in the middle ages) the process of grieving was different, and parents often had to make choices about where to invest their time and energy that would be incomprehensible to people living in the a modern, post-industrial democracy.

The book Mother Nature, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discusses the institution of motherhood across species and across human history and cultures. I think she provides a lot of evidence to support the notion that the circumstances a mother finds herself in will drive the choices they make with regards to the expression of maternal love.

This raised another question. Have people always been people, or was the experience of being human so different 1000 years ago, or even across different cultures today, that it's impossible for most of us (living in the US, Canada, Europe etc.) to relate? This is a question that is relevant to a writer of historic or speculative fiction, because it is our job to present people who live in different worlds and cultures realistically (as one writing buddy says, not just modern people in dress up) and yet also make their emotions, behavior and experiences understandable and relatable to a modern reader.

As someone who writes for fun, and who wants to get to a place where I can share my writing with more readers, I hope the answer is yes. One of the things that attracts me to both reading and writing (and especially reading and writing speculative fiction) is the concept of otherness. I love stories where I can get inside the head of a different person--someone who is not me but with whom I can relate. If a writer made me care for a medieval peasant or a soldier or a deeply religious person, or an alien from plant Xolorp, then I think they've done a good job. Likewise, if I'm able to get inside the skin of a character I'm writing to the point where I start thinking about how he, she or it would react to something in my world, I know I'm hooked on my own creation.

But there's no getting around the fact that there still needs to be something for me to "hang my hat on" as a reader or writer. I don't want or expect the characters I read or write about to be me, but if they're too alien, then I might have trouble as well. That's why most science fiction books that are written from the point of view of an alien are not as alien as all that. One of my favorite SF writers is C.J. Cherryh, and one of my favorite series she wrote were the Chanur books. The setting is a an alien trade compact where ships can "jump" between star systems, and several alien races have a relatively fragile peace that is based more on economic self interest than liking one another. She's got a couple of truly weird species in these books, but the point of view characters are all Hani, which are a lionlike species (in terms of their social system and rough appearance) but which are psychologically not all that different from ourselves.

And you don't even have to stray into the realm of aliens to run into difficulties. It can be even harder to read a story about a person who is recognizably human but makes decisions that are incomprehensible or unsympathetic to most of us. If I have a story that is set in a society where slavery is commonplace and largely accepted, it may be hard for a lot of readers to stomach a protagonist who blithely accepts the institution, even if it makes sense (at some level) for him or her to be a product of this culture. Of course, no one is going to lie exactly in the middle of the "normal" distribution for his or her culture with regards to attitudes and values. It is certainly possible to write a story set in such a society and to have a protagonist who at least questions the institution of slavery, finds it distasteful, or comes to question it via his or her experiences in the story. It is also possible to write a story from the point of view of someone who is a victim of the society's norms. Such characters are likely to be more relatable without being implausible.

The last tangent this thread went off on related to biology. There was a discussion of the fact that humans have probably not changed much in a biological sense in at least 100,000 years, but we appear to be an incredibly flexible species behaviorally and culturally. A lively debate about ethological topics as diverse as play behavior and maternal self sacrifice in non human animals ensued. I love this sort of thing, because my background is in biology, but the thread probably got sidetracked here. There was some debate/discussion about whether something existing for an evolutionary (or any other purpose) means that the individuals in question are not experiencing pleasure or other emotions while they engage in said behavior. The topic of animal emotions/cognition came up as well, which is a topic I may return to soon, as it also has relevance to a writer who is interested in otherness.

At the end of it all, though, these discussions raise the kinds of questions I think are good for writers to be thinking about.

Unlinked Reference.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. 1999. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. Pantheon Books, New York.


  1. I'm supportive of the notion that "love" did not exist as we define it today and suggest that love still does not exist as we might define it today. Causes and conditions, cultural differences, and having gone far beyond our hunter-gatherer nature ,but trying to survive in a plastic world of psychological threat, would have a great impact on what we call love. All this with the limbic system intact.

    What a nightmare!

  2. Certainly if you go back to the Middle Ages you find that children were not named until they reached the age of five or six because the chance of them being carried off by an infantile disease (or an irate neighbour)was so high. Parents didn't give a name to what they might very well lose. It must have been a way of distancing themselves from the grief of losing a child. If they had to use this kind of expedient I infer that yes, they did love their children.
    Love though would have taken different forms. Society was much more conformist than our modern western societies and the scope for being different was very slight unless you were extremely wealthy. Children of wealthy parents were married for interest not love. Nor did they expect it to be any different. Children obeyed their parents and parents did what they had been taught was best for the family as a unit—individual feelings were a luxury few could afford. The life of poor people was, as we know, nasty, brutish and short. They didn't have time or energy for much except survival.
    Even today when you look at the way children are brought up in the west, is it a mark of love to stuff your kids so full of junk food that they are obese diabetics before they are out of primary school? For some parents it is because eating as much as you like of whatever you like is happiness.
    I have often wondered about how parents feel towards the children, especially the girls whose marriages they arrange. I can see that it could be a sign of paternal love to choose a rich spouse for his daughter, and in societies where children have no real say in their own destinies it would be unheard of for a child to dispute the paternal decision. But when a child is unhappy about the arrangement, worse, when the child is only a child and terrified, or is abused, beaten by her new family? What does her father think of that? I have a feeling that the love is still there, but an over riding sense of tradition and duty stands as a barrier to what we would consider the 'gut' feeling of love. That and what is often considered the naturally inferior status of women makes it easier to put aside any real anguish about the fate of a girl child.

  3. Just wanted to say that your instincts are correct and the above posters are off the mark. Steven Ozment, Barbara Hanawalt, and a host of other historians have demonstrated that the old tropes -- perpetrated upon us from many sources but popularized by Philippe Aries back in the 1960s -- are wildly wrong.

    Of course people loved their kids. And they named them, same as they always have. People fell in love with one another, all the time, and wrote about it and left records that provide evidence of it. Moreover, it's a bit silly to think there's only one kind of love. There were and are many kinds and humans then and now felt the full range.

    Stick to your guns. Biology lasts way longer than history.