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Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

19 Mar

A few days ago, I posted a quote that expressed a rather negative view of our current system of education  (in American and around the world).  First, I’d suggest you watch the anime mentioned in the title of the work from which the quote is excerpted: “Kare Kano”.  This show was also known as Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo in Japanese, and “His and Her Circumstances” in English.  It really gives you an understanding of where the quote is coming from.  Of course, it’s 26 episodes or about 12 hours long.  So, I also hope to elaborate on that in this post and the ones that follow.  You won’t be required to watch the anime to understand the post.  That would be ridiculous.  But I still think it would help.

Now, you might wonder what this has to do with writing science fiction and fantasy–or anything else, for that matter.  The answer is “nothing”.  And “everything”.  It also might have something to do with fact that I’m researching for a near-future SF story dealing with education and society.  Bear with me.

Every society has two important things that make it what it is: expectations and acceptations.  Expectations are pretty obvious, the things one is expected to do to make it in society.  In the modern world, these often include education, occupation, and reproduction.   Acceptations are a little more complicated.  They are culturally wide-spread opinions on what are “acceptable” deviations from the norm.  Being a child film star instead of going to normal school is an acceptation of modern American(US) society.  Becoming a drug dealer is not.

It doesn’t really matter in practical terms what an individual believes, because social pressures are usually strong enough to override individual opinions..  But it most certainly matters in personal terms.  Being forced to conform to a blanket set of expectations can be very damaging to a person.  For instance, in modern America, there is still a great deal of prejudice towards homosexual orientations.  Society expects that a man will pair up with a woman and have children.  When individuals deviate from these expectations, there are consequences, generally negative, in response to those unaccepted actions.

But think about this, there are also ways to positively violate societal expectations.  If someone drops out of college to join a rock band, there would normally be negative reactions, but if they become wealthy or famous or both, suddenly everyone is praising them.  Sort of the old “I’ll show them!” ideal.  But even with numerous examples of this, the negative perception of such behavior still exists, because “normal” people cannot do these things.  You might call these exceptions.  If one drops out of school and becomes a wealthy prostitute or pimp, even that “success” does not justify their deviation.

That’s how it works in the real world.  And on the surface, that’s how it works in fiction.  Especially mainstream, earth-based fiction.  But what about speculative fiction?  All too often, we drag our baggage along with is into stories ostensibly set in other worlds, dimensions, countries, even if the natural expectations and acceptations would normally be different in those settings. 

On the one hand, it could be argued that the whole point of fiction is to explore our own issues.  But I would counter that that doesn’t require us to transport all of our 21st century Earth attitudes into past or future worlds.  You can still address contemporary issues in fictional settings.  All it takes is a little imagination.  And I know the spec fic community—and the writing community in general—has that.

It’s actually a very common discussion topic on web-based spec fic communities whether or not that ham-fisted projection is acceptable in good fiction.  If we look at contemporary foreign literature (and this applies not matter what is “foreign” to you), we can see that these authors can write a story in which we sympathize with character issues that don’t derive exclusively from our own culture.  Look at how popular Japanese cultural exports are in America.  An enormous number of manga, anime, and light novels are translated both officially and unofficially into American English.  Is Japan a radically different culture?  Not in the modern world.  But they do have a different set of cultural expectations, acceptations, and exceptions.

When writing a story, it’s very important to consider what is “normal” within that setting, and what is exceptional or discouraged.  It used to be that people from the lower classes were discouraged from pursuing higher education—or any education at all.  It used to be in our culture that music was a special activity, for a small number of people, and now it’s a part of most curriculums.  And before that, it was a community activity.

These sorts of societal pressure have an enormous impact on us as people, and the same should be true for characters in your story.  Examining and exploring these issues before you begin to write can cut down a great deal on the clichés common to many spec fic stories, such as the plucky princess, the genius peasant,  the scholarly whipping boy, the child seer/mage, and the feisty girl thief.  Assuming they don’t fit in the context of the story, of course.

And, of course, for those characters that do fall outside of the mold, it can create a more deep and realistic sense of tension between them and society.  And it can open up a wide array of themes for the story to explore: gender, age, race, class, etc.

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4 responses to “Societal Expectations and Real World Cultural Baggage in Speculative Fiction

  1. ekcarmel

    March 30, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    Very thought-provoking post. I can see both sides of the issue, but personally, I love to see something that isn’t just plunking down everything we currently are, into a new setting. While as humans we have the same basic needs and wants deep down now as people 5000 years ago did, society and technology has changed drastically.

    I haven’t read as widely as I would like and my focus now is fantasy, but I seem to come across an awful lot of modern sensibilities in fantasy Medieval settings. The sci-fi that I’ve read tends to be old-school, but I always liked Heinlein’s interesting ideas about how people would react out there away from traditional Earth society.

    How much more interesting to show what we *could* become in the future? The problem for writers, unfortunately, is: Will it sell? I honestly hope it will.

     
  2. atsiko

    March 30, 2010 at 6:49 PM

    I agree. I thik that if you can successfully integrate one or a few aspects you want to explore into the culture, you can analyze them without falling back on explicitly modern patterns. Characters don’t have to follow modern morals exactly to be sympathetic. It certainly doesn’t do much for interest.

    I hope that some more realistic work will seel as well.

     
  3. e.lee

    April 3, 2010 at 5:30 AM

    great post
    one of the biggest SFF pitfalls is that societies are homogenous, every member thinks and believes the same thing/ideology, just like aliens are from planets with one terrain and climate.

    I had a creative-writing tutor talk about ‘normal within a setting’, he meant whatever happens has to follow the story’s internal logic

     
    • atsiko

      April 3, 2010 at 5:43 AM

      Your tutor’s got the right idea. The important thing to keep in mind is that normal in a setting is generally not normal outside of it. Basically, normal in 21st century America is not normal in 3rd century Rome, and vice versa.

       

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