This consists of me saying, “Ooooh, shiny!” more than it does ranting. After all, I’ve talked about specific manifestations of social change before, as in the rants on revolutions and civil wars, and the things I find silly or unrealistic about the way that most fantasy authors portray them. So I’ll try to show what I think would be good ways of portraying them.
1) Limited viewpoints can be fun.
The usual approach to social change in fantasy is panoramic—most often done through an omniscient voice, quoting of various “history” books and other documents (my patience for this type of beginning has long since worn thin; give me some people, goddamnit), or constant changing of viewpoints to show people at all social levels and stages of being affected by what happens. And that’s fine, or it can be. This is me being apathetic at it, because of overfamiliarity and because of personal tastes. *is an omniscient-voice hater, most of the time*
But what about a limited viewpoint on that same social change?
I fucking love limited viewpoints, whether by their number (as in the author sticking to only one person) or their nature (all of these viewpoint characters are not the most observant people in the world). And when you’re talking about social change, they present unique advantages:
- The author can show that her viewpoint character’s take on what’s happening is, indeed, not 100% correct or 100% in tune with objective reality, a thing authors could use more practice in.
- There’s a sense of a different psychological verisimilitude than you get with the panorama, that of being in the middle of the change rather than hovering above it.
- The stories are often more deeply nuanced and more personal—narratives rather than histories. (Yes, there are authors who can manage to do fantasy that comes across as convincing history. This is much smaller than the number of authors who think they can do such things).
- You get to play with issues like ‘The winners write the history books” and “People edit reality” more easily than you do when the goal of the book is to show what “really” happens at the particular point in history.
Yes, sure, you can still tell a story from the viewpoint of a general or rebel organizer or inventor or someone else who has more reason to know what’s happening than the average woman on the street. But you can also refuse to commit to stitching everything together so it’s a flawless history, and instead leave unexplored corners. This is Neato.
2) Show all different levels of planning.
I have stared in fear and awe before at fantasies where it seemed that every character went over-the-top with master plans and webs of complex political intrigue. It’s especially true of villains. Impulsive villains who get in trouble because they simply attacked on instinct are not common in fantasy, probably because fantasists seem to feel that if you have a “quick” temper, you’re automatically a good guy. (And yes, I’ve complained about that before, too).
And I’ve rolled my eyes when it turned out that every nuance and implication and consequence of a great social change was planned by someone—until the inconvenient hero comes along to mess it all up, of course. Those damn meddling kids, right? And the hero often turns out to be the result of a complementary plan on the good guys’ side. Or the author could always resort to a prophecy, the ultimate weapon of authors who are afraid of proactive, choice-making heroes, because, horror of horrors, they might be seen as selfish.
Yet, when the whole world is brewing in chaos, I find it very fucking hard to believe that everything is planned, especially when people are supposed to be reacting in the heat of the moment. Where do mobs come from, then? And if you insist that every single mob in history was planned by dastardly men smoking in hidden rooms, I’ll think that you’ve been smoking something really interesting.
Point is, if you really want your fantasy world to be a sea in storm, you can’t insist at the same time that someone knows where every single wave is going to land and which rocks are going to be worn away. Instead, introduce multiple levels of planning: complex political intrigues, stupid dares and bets, pranks, impulsive decisions made because “it seemed like a good idea at the time,” long-simmering problems like famine and poverty that explode when a different bad thing sets them off, misjudged gestures (an execution of a popular hero might intimidate the rebels; on the other hand, it might make them start rioting), ethical decisions that the complex political planners can’t predict, choices made out of hidden motivations that no one knew about, and so on. Not only would these be more interesting to read about, but they’d help your plot and lead to a greater sense of a world in chaos. (See point 6).
3) Let cleverness and opportunism have their day.
Related to point 2, except that that still, mostly, implies planning or responses to plans, such as people making sudden decisions when they stumble over a complex political intrigue. What about a stone that’s just pushed into the pond on the whim of a moment, or for its own sake, and has consequences that not only weren’t foreseen, but couldn’t be?
Say you’ve got a pub where two science students have been drinking…we’ll say that this is a world which has universities, and people still study “science” because its branches haven’t diversified yet, not to mention they’re still mixed with things like alchemy which we would call “magic.” One of them tells the other about this fascinating book she’s been reading, which the mistresses would surely order burned if they knew about it. The other, slightly more sober, thinks it sounds neat and asks to look at it.
She looks at it. It is indeed neat. It is so neat that it lets her shove ahead on a project she’d been stuck on, and whee! Look! We have lightning in a bottle!
Out goes the lightning in a bottle into the world, with our young inventor so devoted to the cause of “It’s neat, look!” and so inexperienced in politics that she doesn’t even think of people reacting any other way than “Wow!” (And yes, people can really be that naïve, even those who want to change the world. Percy Bysshe Shelley sent out copies of The Necessity of Atheism to a bunch of bishops, because he thought he would either be calmly argued with and proven wrong if he was wrong, or accepted as right if he was right. Instead, he got kicked out of Oxford).
Of course, there are going to be reactions other than “Wow!” What happens in a society where certain guilds have a lock on the making of light, and think this new invention will put them out of a job? Or what happens in a world deathly afraid of its technology, where every new invention is studied carefully before it’s permitted to exist, and destroyed if it seems as if it will have unfortunate consequences? Or what happens in a world where the spirits of the lightning are all around humanity and are understandably alarmed when it seems as if humans are going to start enslaving them?
Now imagine all of those happening at once. And it’s not because of some intricate, cunning, cobwebby plan; it just happens because of the invention and the person who made it and innocently let it out into the world.
4) Small periods of flourishing can happen, too.
I get the impression that many authors consider only monolithic changes in fantasy worlds worthy of writing about—a social change that will affect all levels of society, someone trying to conquer the whole world, an invention after which nothing else will ever be the same.
But, you know, there’s an awful lot of social changes and beliefs that arose, flourished, and collapsed. That doesn’t mean they don’t leave behind a mythic resonance. It does mean that there’s no guarantee that a change will last forever just because it happens.
Consider the US Pony Express. It lasted just about a year and a half—April 1860 to November 1861. The transcontinental railroad caught and overran it. Yet I’ve heard about it in every American history class that I ever had, and it’s a term I’ve encountered in plenty of literature that puzzled me by referring to it. The number of Google hits you get for it is remarkable. It didn’t need to last a long time to make an impact. Conversely, it didn’t last the years and years I’ve heard many people assume it did, simply because it made an impact. Other social changes proved more enduring and more efficient than it was.
A great social change might be needed to form the plot for a whole series. There’s nothing that says a small social change couldn’t form the plot for a single novel—or longer than that, if the writer goes into enough detail. Painting deeply instead of broadly is, perhaps, a little more difficult and a foreign skill to some fantasy authors, but I think it should be encouraged all the more for that.
5) Conceive the rhetoric you’ll need for your change.
Assuming that one way your social change begins spreading is by word of mouth and print, then you will need to know what kind of rhetoric its backers use to persuade other people of its goodness/usefulness—and what rhetoric its opponents use to fight it.
Yes, I will admit upfront that I’m more conscious of this because I’m an English major. If it will make you more comfortable, I can start throwing around terms like “discourse communities.” But I prefer not to. For one thing, many people have no idea what the hell I’m talking about when I use academic English, and I tend to turn pretentious. For another, I think most people can understand what I’m talking about without those kinds of terms.
How do people talk about this change? What metaphors/similies/imagery do they use? What “old” traditions do they link it to, or portray it as a continuation of or a return to? What other traditions of speaking do they reach out and touch, or steal tactics whole from? What organizations do they instinctively seek out to spread their message through? In what ways do their means of speaking reflect their principles, and in what ways do they go against them? What is emphasized, what downplayed, what given more attention than it warrants, what left out? What emotions do the rhetors play on?
To briefly look at an example from our own world: the way environmental/environmentalist rhetoric gets played. Proponents of it can represent it as an idea of unity, a global community, or play on a sense of guilt ingrained in many people about environmental damage. One of the predominant images is “greenness” (and then you can ask questions about how and why that favors landscapes like forests, while downplaying the importance of landscapes in other colors, like deserts and tundra). Some environmentalist rhetoric is allied closely with radical activist traditions of speaking, while other speakers primarily use the language of gender (ecofeminists, who make the case that the domination of nature and the domination of women are linked) or race (environmental justice activists, who tackle such issues as why the inner city is seen as a “poisoned” landscape and why toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards are often located in non-white communities). Some of the more doomsaying rhetoric could come from the Christian apocalyptic tradition if you just switched a few terms around. Certain terms, such as “global warming,” have escaped their original constraints and tend to run around in everyone’s vocabulary. Other terms or ideas or images have been co-opted by those traditionally seen as environmentalism’s opponents; the people who sell synthetic mud to spray on SUV’s, so that they will look as if they’ve been driven off-trail, are an example, “getting close to nature” without actually doing so.
A well-developed rhetorical tradition in a fantasy world would do a lot to make it, and the social change the author wants to write about, more real.
6) Change pushes change pushes change; choice pushes choice pushes choice.
This is the “ripple effect,” and it applies just as much to a sense of world in chaos as to Byzantine plotting. Character A chooses to release her lightning in a bottle. Character B, the director of the chandlers’ guild, overreacts like whoa, because she’s like that, and arranges to have A followed and watched by Character C. D, who is not A’s boyfriend but would like to be, notices C hanging around and confronts C, who doesn’t lie well enough. That convinces D that something big is going to happen, and he starts digging around in the university’s archives in his hunt for a way to create a way to protect Character A, attracting the attention of Character E, one of the school masters. Meanwhile, B has graduated to actual assassination attempts on A, but C doesn’t want to condone that, and so she hires F, who has no problem with those kinds of tactics. And A’s lightning in a bottle is merrily rolling about in the society meanwhile, impacting Characters H through Z.
A natural chain of consequence, even if some it is buried out of the characters’ sight, makes for a really interesting story, and no, it doesn’t have to be ordered. When you have people reacting emotionally rather than out of plots twenty years in the making, things can get rather sparky or rather ugly really quickly. And then people react to that, in turn, and there are more reactions. And that’s nothing compared to what happens if you take account of nonhuman things like weather, diseases, geology, natural disasters, natural deaths that happen to look like suspicious murders, and on and on and on.
The trick here, of course, is to get a panoramic view that really is panoramic and doesn’t default to saying that the only things of importance happen to a few characters. Or you could do the limited viewpoint thing from point 1 and have Character A reacting as fast as she can to consequences hitting her from all sides. I think it would make a better story than one in which there are several evil conspiracies, with every conspiracy master being after the character’s oh-so-special magic, or wanting to kill her because she’s a hidden heir.
Getting nature more involved in a fantasy novel is up next.