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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Unexceptional Exceptions

In my internet poking, I came across this:

Writing Woman Characters Into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas

Now, first of all, I thought it was super interesting. It’s a long series of examples of times and places in history where women had different roles, or more opportunities and power than we typically think when we think of “women’s roles in history.” And, for a list like this, it provides a lot of citation so that if you feel the need to you can see how BS the source is (always a danger in history writing, and I’ll talk about some reasons for that in a moment.)

Second of all, it got me thinking and I wanted to blog about those thoughts.

Let me start with an admission/example of what I’m going to talk about.

As far as I am concerned, the Middle Ages™ took place in England, and maybe also France and some of central Europe. I’m vaguely aware that as they were going on people in China and the Middle East were developing space travel and iPhones (okay, maybe not, but they were being way more technologically advanced.) But over in the Middle Ages™, lots of peasants who looked suspiciously like characters from Monty Python and the Holy Grail lived in houses with thatched roofs and and did various jobs that make boring last names (Baker, Farmer, Smith, etc.)

So… what did a fisherman living on a Greek island look like during the middle ages? Where did he live? What did his boat look like? Did he have a boat, or were they too expensive?

I have no clue. Without looking it up, any guess I make is more or less making up a fantasy character.     

Now, I’m by no means poorly read on history. I know way more than average (though I am by no means an expert) about the succession of the British royals, about Charlemagne, about approximately when the crusades were. I know off the top of my head that the Norman invasion was in 1066, I know what happened surrounding the signing of the Magna Carta. But I don’t know shit about what Greece was like.

For almost all of us, history is full of holes like this. We tend to know something, vaguely, about a specific set of people in a specific place and time, and to us that’s the Greeks™, or the Roman Empire™, or the Renaissance™.

Part of this is their fault, because they often kept lousy records. One reason so much of history as we know it is BS is because it’s pieced together based on bits and pieces of mentions in the writing we do have, combined with whatever archaeologists can dig up. And often that piecing together is influenced by what we think people should have been doing or how they should have been acting.  

But a larger part is because we like to imagine things as more homogeneous than they were. Or are, even. Even in the modern United States, there’s probably some place or group where life is totally different than you imagine it. And I’m not talking about extreme fringe groups like the Amish.

Here are some examples just from where I live:

A little ways south of me, in the Chesapeake bay, are Smith Island, MD and Tangier, VA. They’re both tiny, isolated islands that can only be reached by ferry. The accents native to those places are considered “relic accents” that still reflect the speech of original colonial settlers of the area.  

On the other side of the Delmarva peninsula is Ocean City, MD. It’s a city on a sandbar/peninsula between the Atlantic ocean and the Assawoman bay-- less than a mile wide, but about ten miles long-- and as a resort town it has about 8,000 residents in the winter, and about 300,000 on weekends in the summer.
South of that is Assateague state park, another island that’s home of a herd of wild ponies that were brought from Europe as domestic ponies and just kind of set up there.

And that’s just within a few hours drive from me. So, while I’m sure there were plenty of Typical Villages™ in England, where the Middle Ages™ were primarily taking place, there were also probably plenty of weird villages, where people were not participating in approved peasant activities but were… I dunno, raising bears or living in caves or trying to convince religious pilgrims to buy timeshares. They just weren’t the Typical Villages™.

And this goes down to the individual level, as well. There have always been people who looked at what everyone else was doing and said, “Mmm… nah.” And on individual levels, a lot of times people just let them, because that was how they were.

Someday I will tell you all the epic story of why neither Cordelia nor Anne Virginia were eligible for the Civil War pension of my ancestor William Sweet, as dutifully recorded in the US archives because there was a legal case and lots of depositions, but the very, very short version is that William and Cordelia were married, and then decided they didn’t want to be. They both went and married other people without bothering to get a divorce by going a few towns over and not mentioning they were already married. Everyone in their small town knew this. They each ended up having children with their new spouse, but no one cared. As far as the town was concerned, they were married to their “second” spouses.

(Well, according to the depositions by Anne’s family Cordelia was a “fast woman,” but that was reportedly why William left her. The people of Oella seemed to think that the US pension board ought to know all the details.)    

Anyway, another of my relatives, my great-grandmother (who was born in 1913 and lived until I was in my early twenties, so I knew her well) was a married woman with a child in the 40’s and 50’s, her husband had a good job… and so did she. She got her high school diploma in bookkeeping, back when that was a kind of big deal, and then she got a professional job and just worked. None of the other women in my family were that educated or worked, but Hazel liked getting dressed up and going to the office, she liked bookkeeping, and she liked having the extra money, so she worked. Once again, she was the exception, most women in her position wouldn’t have worked if their husbands could support them, but she did.

And the important thing about these situations from my family is that they’re exceptions, but they weren’t big deals in those times or places. It wasn’t how everyone lived, but if someone in the community was going to insist on being weird, and they weren’t hurting anyone, no one really cared.

The world is full of unexceptional exceptions; people, places, and even parts of civilization who were off doing their own thing, not fitting into the boxes we like to put stuff in. Sometimes these things are footnotes in history, sometimes not even that.

Writers, especially writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy, often seem to have two categories: Our Super Special Main Characters/Location/Alien Civilization who are all well rounded or symbolic and guided by fate, and Typical Peasant/Village/Space Travelers/Aliens which are pretty much what you’d expect. The captain of the villains forces is a soldier-y guy. The part of the alien planet where the protagonists land is representative of that culture (in some cases the only culture on that planet.) The fellow space travelers who give them directions to the Maguffionium Mines are researchers who were doing researcher-y things.

But the thing is that when people think of the exceptions, and let the background be the weird pallet of life, it’s really cool. Settings like Discworld, Harry Potter, the Hitchhiker’s universe, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Charles De Lint’s Newford… they’re almost nothing but exceptions. Even the normal people (or Vogons, or what have you) aren’t normal.

It can be hard to think outside of those boxes when the boxes are literally how you think about things. “Imagine something other than what you would imagine.”

But I think it’s worth thinking about. And I think it’s kind of fun to think about, myself.

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