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Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dear JK Rowling... Let's Talk Classism!

Dear J.K. Rowling,

I am usually impressed when a famous person takes the time and energy to interact with their fans on the internet. I'm a whole heck of a lot less impressed when that celebrity uses their position of influence to mindlessly repeat slogans and spread misleading articles to the public (with a nice side of good old-fashioned mudslinging).

This blog has already dissected your 'reverse-racism' flavoured post equating support for Scottish self-determination to some strange racial purity agenda (a sentiment, I might add, that you share with UKIP leader Nigel Fararge, and while politics makes strange bedfellows, one must to some degree examine one's allies, perhaps with a particular eye to the psychological concept of 'projection'). So instead, we'll talk about some of your more recent, and equally problematic, tweets.

Now to put some context into our discussion of classism, let's take a quick detour. I do not say what I am about to say to diminish the unpleasantness in your childhood or the tragedy of your mother's illness. However, one set of obstacles in life does not necessarily equate to another, so when I say that your upbringing was cushioned, I am speaking in terms of socioeconomic class. There are opportunities and insulation that two educated, white-collar parents can buy, not to mention the 'cultural capital' gained by inclusion in the socially dominant culture. These are the advantages that make the difference between a single mother scraping by on benefits while they continue their education and write their first novel, (indeed one who finds unemployment to be a 'liberating' opportunity to focus on their creative work), and the one who will be stuck scraping by on benefits for the foreseeable future even as they search fruitlessly for a job.  (It's worth noting that as someone with a genetic disease that is famous for masquerading as a psychiatric disorder, I understand how grueling your struggle with depression must have been; but I also learned from my illness that the ability to access treatment and competent doctors is profoundly tied to social capital and educational privilege).

That said, let's talk Twitter. I will concede that Neil Paterson could have phrased his original comment with a bit more tact (though by outraged internet argument standards he speaks with the grace of a UN diplomat). Actually, had you responded by saying that you donated because you believe the Union is good for the kids, I'd disagree with the underlying premise, but would have considered that a truthful and reasonable response. But instead you offered us this:
I could analyse the irony of the fact that although you complain on your blog about being stereotyped as a feckless leech when you were a single mother, you happily imply that this random stranger is not contributing to his country because he doesn't have millions to hand to donate to childrens' charities (in spite of the fact that you know nothing of his life-- maybe he's the one with the chronic illness and depending on charity, or maybe he spends his whole working day aiding the downtrodden, or maybe he's just an average do-gooder). 
Your response rubs me up the wrong way, partly because I have fantastic parents who taught me that no matter if you're broke (like we were), you could always do your bit to make the world a better place. The implication in your tweet is that throwing barrels of money at something is the only legitimate way to make a difference, which is a slap in the face to all those out there who, in spite of having very little in material things, volunteer their time and energy to help others. Just because someone doesn't have the cultural capital and related advantages to climb swiftly out of poverty, and is living on minimum wage, doesn't mean that the few tins of food they donate or the few hours they can spare to advocate for a cause they believe in don't matter. Since you identify as Christian, I hope you'll appreciate what Jesus had to say on the topic:
And He looked up and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow casting therein two mites. And He said, “In truth I say unto you that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all. For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God, but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. (Luke 21:2-4)

Actually, while we're on the topic of Biblical advice, it also rubs me the wrong way that you imply that you care about Scotland because of your donations, and this fellow doesn't, because he doesn't have gobs of money to back him up, or doesn't shout about his charitable doings. (Or perhaps you intended to imply instead that someone who disagrees with you doesn't care about Scotland? I certainly hope not). Donating to charity is wonderful! But parading it around as proof that you care more because you gave more isn't a very charitable tack. To put it much better than I ever could:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. (Matthew 6:1-2)
I am rankled by your response because I personally see people who are elderly or seriously ill or chronically unemployed or others who are marginalised in some significant way who quietly, unobtrusively pour their hearts into charity. They they organise virtual fund drives from their hospital beds, they stay all night in the rain to hand out blankets to the homeless, they spread joy and practical guidance to the sick, they squeeze their meager budgets so they can donate some shopping to the food bank, they open their homes to refugees from around the world. No, they didn't donate millions to medical research, but they give deeply of what resources they have. Their motivation is not to be seen as paragons of generosity, or to set a bar of involvement to which the rest of us should aspire or be found wanting. They are simply doing good for its own sake.
Because they care about Scotland.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

On Hold for Independence!

As you might have surmised from the banner, I've been quite absorbed with the upcoming Scottish Independence Referendum. Polls indicate that the numbers are very close in spite of steadily increasing support for independence. 

The blog will be on hiatus until the beginning of October 2014. 

For more information on the Scottish Independence Referendum:

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Power and the People: Government in Fantasyland, Part II

If you've decided to ditch monarchy as the go-to government style for your fantasy world, you've opened up a plethora of possibilities. Because you're constructing a world from scratch, you get to decide every detail about the history, culture, economy, and demographics of your setting.

Once you've figured some of these things out, you can decide what form of government best fits the fictional society you've built. 'Government' might actually be a misleading term at this point, since people organise themselves in a diverse number of ways. Maybe your fictional society has never had a need for centralised leadership, and instead groups themselves by extended family. Or maybe they have travelling elders who stop at different towns and mediate disputes. Or a world with very low population density is full of roving nuclear families and singletons.

If they do have a central government, it could be anything from a dictatorship to a representative democracy. Your world might be run by whoever controls the water supply or the distribution mechanism for some other critical resource. At the other extreme, people could take turns being on a decision-making council. Or everyone might get involved voting for their leaders.

All of these systems of social organisation and government have their own inherent problems and potential for grand drama. The key is that the system you choose for your story makes sense in the fictional society you've created and seems like an organic part of the world.

Monday, 4 August 2014

One Monarch to Rule Them All: Government in Fantasyland, Part I

As Diana Wynne Jones observed in her book A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, high fantasy as a genre has a fixation with all things medieval and western European. Obviously, there are a number of exceptions, many incredibly well executed, but there remains a pervasive idea that fantasy setting equals pre-industrial, pre-Englightenment pan-European culture.

One of the prominent markers of this in many high fantasy stories is the hereditary monarchy. Often the struggles for the crown drive the main plot, whether it's a fantasy-flavored political epic (Game of Thrones series) or another royal heir raised as a peasant who's off to overthrow the usurper.  And it's not a figurehead or a constitutional monarch backed up by another governing institution. It's usually full-on divine-right-to-rule hereditary absolute monarchy.

Now, if you're writing historical fantasy or alien-space-bat flavoured alternate history, you may be constrained by what was going on in the time period you're writing about, and should probably ignore this. However, if you're writing a fantasy setting from scratch, it's worth giving a lot of thought to how a monarchy would fit into your world-- if at all. The medieval European monarchies that seem to have inspired the generic fantasyland leaders required special social, economic and cultural circumstances to come into being and survive as political and social institutions. If those circumstances don't exist in your fictional world, it is unlikely that a European-style absolute monarchy would have arisen.

Even if your fictional society had such a system of government, it's worth remembering the myriad of ways the system can collapse without a single usurping uncle. A sex-linked genetic disease can effectively wipe out a line that relies on male heirs within a few generations, particularly if the society in question lacks the tools to treat it. Much more common throughout history have been overthrow by revolution, since a powerful monarch is a focal point for public discontent. Or your line of rulers could simply fail to reproduce, or get wiped out by a plague.

Given all this, I'd suggest that unless you're constrained by a historical setting, it would be more productive-- and a lot less cliche-- to think about some other possible forms of government for your slice of Fantasyland.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Prophecy Spoiler Alert

Prophecies are a well-worn staple of speculative fiction, especially high fantasy. Often, it's the plot device that, directly or indirectly, yanks the protagonist out of their quiet existence as a peasant and sets them off on a quest to save the world. The immediate problem, of course, is that the prophecy in many epic adventures is an epic spoiler.

The problem is that if you establish in-universe that prophecies are reliably true, and then offer a specific prophecy about the main character or the outcome of the conflict, there's no room for the reader to be surprised. They might as well have skipped to the last chapter.

Luckily, there are two possible solutions, and both are equally good ways to add some suspense to a plot involving a prophecy. First, one can introduce a level of ambiguity into the prophecy itself.  It can be vague, or have an inherent double meaning in the language. Either way, if the prophecy can turn from a spoiler into a major twist ending.

The other option is to introduce an element of doubt as to whether or not prophecies are real. The characters might believe them to be true while the narrative subtly subverts this idea. Alternately, the characters may understand that prophecies sometimes don't come true.

Either of these options can allow you to introduce a prophecy into your story as a plot point without giving anything away. Played well, these two options can actually introduce additional suspense and conflict and keep your audience guessing to the end.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Legends Are True

One of the pervasive tropes of high fantasy is the almost-forgotten legend that turns out to be true. Coming from a cultural background that prizes oral tradition and group histories, this seems completely reasonable to me. After all, many cultures have narratives about historical beliefs and events stretching back for thousands of years. That said, these having an ancient legend as a plot device can cause a number of plot holes. Here's some questions to help you place the legend in the context of your plot so that it's a plot point instead of a plot pitfall.

Have any inaccuracies cropped up in the story? The longer and more widely information has been circulating, the more likely it is that details have been lost, changed, or exaggerated.
Is this written down, an oral history, or some combination of the two?
Who knows the story? It could be common knowledge, a culturally specific piece of information, or something that is primarily known within a certain profession.
If it's common knowledge, why are people only acting on it now? There are all kinds of reasons something that was seen as an important part of the past becomes critical to the present.
If it's restricted knowledge, why? Maybe  the story is only circulated in a particular region, or among members of a particular cultural or linguistic group. Maybe a certain group has given up their belief in the story. Maybe it's a closely guarded secret.

If you flesh out how this legend is incorporated into your society as a whole, you have an excuse to sneak in some worldbuilding and make your setting seem more real. The appearance of the legend as a plot point will also seem more believable. Both of these things will help your audience suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

This Is Not Like The Others Either

Courtesy of a politically well-informed acquaintance of mine, I recently found this blog post on how to criticise Israeli foreign policy without leaning on anti-Semitism. The blogger offers concise analysis on some of the more common anti-Semetic tropes, with quite a bit of information in Jewish history to put those tropes into perspective.

What struck me while reading this post is that when we talk about 'marginalised groups', we speak as though they all share some common narrative. Scratch the surface, however, and we find groups with radically different histories and radically different reasons they experience marginalisation. This seems like an obvious statement, but I've heard a remarkable number of well-intentioned people try to make wildly inappropriate analogies between  the experiences of oppressed groups. I've been guilty of making assumptions about what someone would or wouldn't understand based on such flawed analogies ('but you're X and I'm Y, how could you not understand what I'm going through?'). There's also a number of writers I've seen on social media, defending the idea that because they are a member of Marginalised Group A, they totally understand the experience of Marginalised Group B.

This isn't to discount significant overlaps: for example, North American First Nations people and Australian Aborigines would have a lot of similar group history. Similarly, people who can 'pass' as a member of the privileged group will share some common experiences, no matter what their background.

But for the purposes of writing, it's best to focus on what makes that particular situation unique. And of course, do your homework! Primary sources are the best way to do this. No one ever botched their portrayal of a group of people by 'doing too much research' or 'listening too carefully'. Besides, I like to think that understanding the 'Other' through fiction makes us better citizens of the world.