Perceptions of society

Descriptions of a society is like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant; a partial insight is indistinguishable from a lie.

Iceland just had a referendum on its constitution. Over two-thirds approved and, moreover, over two-thirds voted in favour of specific reforms that they felt the new constitution had to have.

The story told about post-crash Iceland is almost like a fairy tale. A nation that threw out the banksters and cleaned up after being betrayed by its financial class. A left-wing government was voted into power. The debts of the public were written down. Financial crime was prosecuted and corrupt government officials brought to justice. A new constitution has been crowd-sourced and written by the people themselves. The government refused to kowtow to the demands of the UK, EU, and the IMF, and through unorthodox economic policies has returned to economic growth. The government has rejected austerity. They passed a media freedom/free speech law that was written with the advice of Wikileaks.

That is the story told about Iceland in foreign media.

And it’s almost entirely a lie.

Some small fry in the finance industry have been prosecuted and convicted. The big fish not only all got away but continue to own large chunks of Icelandic society. The so-called left-wing government followed the IMF playbook to the letter, receiving praise from the IMF for the work they’ve done. Most of the policies they have put into place would make Thatcher proud. Two officials were prosecuted. One got away with a slap on the wrist (no punishment). The other’s crimes were so blatant that despite the best efforts of various factions in Icelandic society, they had no option but to convict him for insider trading.

The rest all got off scot-free, despite receiving large amounts of money from the banks.

The debt write-downs were almost instantly rolled back by index-linking. Icelandic society is in the middle of the greatest mortgage crisis in its history. It’s a powder-keg waiting to explode.

The constitution wasn’t crowd-sourced but written by a committee appointed by parliament (itself largely composed of the same corrupt members of parliament who ran the place pre-crash). The committee draft, which is what the Saturday referendum was about, is non-binding. The referendum question was whether the new constitution (which will be written by MPs) should be based on the committee draft, not whether it should become our new constitution. The Independence Party, the likely winner of the election next spring and so the party that would have to implement a new constitution, is already claiming that it isn’t bound by the results of the referendum because they don’t feel like it. (Essentially, their logic is as tenuous as that.)

The Icelandic government has already paid most of the Icesave debts, despite what the media may tell you. The dispute between the UK, Iceland, and other EU countries is entirely about how much interest is owed, not about the validity of the debt itself. The supposedly left-wing government tried time after time to accept the UK/EU demands but were overruled as the President forced a referendum on the laws. Which is a Presidential power that is very likely to be dropped from the new constitution.

Yes, there’s a good chance that the gloriously democratic crowd-sourced constitution will be used to roll back the reach of democracy in Iceland.

By any calculation, the Icelandic government has engaged in unprecedented cutbacks in social services, healthcare, education, and support for the elderly.

The growth of Iceland’s economy is probably down to capital, trapped in the country because of the currency controls, overheating the real estate market.

The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative that was passed by the Icelandic parliament was a non-binding resolution, which is a handy way of disposing of things you never intend to implement. The actual media laws that were passed require the registration of every single media outlet, TV, print, radio, or website, that intends to deliver news and commentary to the Icelandic public. Failure to register will result in a fine. The same media law includes new provisions for blocking the IP-addresses of illegal content.

Most of the news you hear about Iceland is a partial truth that, like the blind man describing an elephant as a snake, becomes a lie.

The truth is that Iceland is a corrupt oligarchy that, unless it changes its course radically, is on the verge of collapse.

Why is this important to fantasy and science-fiction writing?

Because every story is composed of partial truths, a weave of limited perspectives that build a picture. Even an omniscient narrator can only describe one thing at a time.

A single society can be represented in so many different ways, can be shown to be so many different things. Who you choose to describe and follow, whose position and perspective is central in the story, is as important to world-building as the actual details of the world themselves.

The details of education and wealth won’t come into it if the lead character comes from a class without access to schools and money.

Interior decoration trends and detailed architecture is a sign of a high culture and a sophisticated society if your lead is a member of the elite but becomes an emblem of corruption and sleaze if your lead is an unprivileged labourer.

And, finally, a country can seem to be an utopia to outsiders who only stay for a few weeks when they visit, but feel like a confining dystopia to those who can’t escape it.

Sanitation in fantasy world-building

Where I address one of the most important questions in fantasy fiction:
A picture of Batgirl crying with the caption: where does the poo go?

Batgirl needs to know!

But first…

There are, roughly speaking, two different ways of approaching world-building in fantasy storytelling: mythological and anthopological.

(Yes, I’m grossly simplifying things, bear with me here or bugger off.)

The mythological approach is easy to find; it’s what almost everybody who writes fantasy, science fantasy, or steampunk does by default. Defining it is a bit trickier, but it generally comes down to one thing. The world is built around the tropes, myths, and themes the writer wants to play with.

Now, everybody does this to a degree, even the pretentious unread few who do literary fiction, but fantasy takes it to another level. The worst of them are little more than grab-bags of tropes the writer enjoys, a mixture of ingredients they enjoy, like a moron’s cliché goulash.

“Dwarves? Check. Elves? Check. Dragons? Check. Enchanted swords? Check. A destiny that will change the world? Check. Grey-bearded all-powerful magicians? Check.”

If the writer’s feeling particularly clever they’ll do a witty twist on a trope, usually by mashing it together with another one.

“They’re dwarves, except they’re actually Morlocks and the elves are actually Eloi. Brilliant!”

No. No, it’s not.

This sort of thing is fun if you’re Alan Moore and have an insane and detailed mastery of all of the tropes and stereotypes you’re playing with. For the rest of us, I think it’s an approach that gets in the way of good storytelling.

My approach is very simple, but tedious, and requires a bit of research beyond trawling the fan fiction listings on dreamwidth (no that there’s anything wrong with that):

You pick an important part of the social infrastructure or economy and figure out how it works in your world. You note everything you learn about your world in the process. Then you pick another detail or part and repeat the process. Repeat until the place feels real in your head, like a place you’ve lived in for, at the very least, a few months.

See? Couldn’t be simpler.

So… Sanitation.

Whenever I see an architecture or city in a fantasy story or movie that clearly is or was jam-packed with inhabitants, one of the first things I worry about is, yes, where does the poo go?

Fantasy is full of buildings like towers, with hundreds of inhabitants, so big that a turd tossed out of a chamber pot on the top floor would achieve terminal velocity and nuke the donkey stables below upon landing, scattering hooves and tails and blood-soaked donkey chunks all over the poor peasants who serve the masters in the tower.

Well, at least the peasants get an outhouse. The wizards living on the top floor aren’t so lucky.

Does the society completely go without a sanitation infrastructure, sewer systems, etc.? That means they’re plagued regularly by typhoid, cholera, and a host of gastric fevers, as well as the bubonic plague (possibly). That also means that the place either stinks to high heaven (the human and dwarf cities) or is soaked with artificial perfumes to drown out the stench of poo (the elves, asthmatics probably have a three minute life expectancy in an elven city, before a semisolid cloud composed of thick perfume and the stench of turd blossoms chokes them to death).

Those massive underground cities built by dwarves in every cookie-cutter fantasy? They can’t exist without a sanitation infrastructure. That means they have a large sanitation staff, sewer engineers, etc..

If the city doesn’t have a sanitation infrastructure, it also means that they really don’t know what they’re doing, that they don’t actually understand the magic they’re learning, because if magic was a science that could be researched, that same scientific method is likely to let them discover why everybody dies young in the cities but not in the countryside. (Sanitation, sanitation, sanitation.) Without sanitation and without antibiotics, moving to the city and seeing a doctor is likely to cut your life expectancy dramatically. (Hence the positive role of faith healing and homeopathy before antibiotics. They saved your life by keeping you away from the demented quacks that dominated medicine. Diluted water or being pawed by a deluded preacher is relatively harmless in comparison to the bleeding and the poisons doctors used.) Even if magic does heal gastric fevers, that still leaves out the poor who continue to die in droves because they can’t afford to hire healers (which tells you a little bit more about what sort of society it is).

If they do have a sanitation infrastructure, is it based on engineering or magic? Do they have sanitation wizards? Who, if they do, don’t have to appear in your story, but their existence should change the way you portray wizards, forcing you to cut down on the mystery aspect. If it’s based on engineering: where do the engineers come from? Is it an apprentice-based system like the bridge-builder and his apprentices? Does the society have colleges? Universities? If you have engineering then you probably have mathematics as well which tells us that bit more about the society.

Also, how this infrastructure came to be tells you a lot about how your society is structured. Was it an automatic, self-running, infrastructure created by a group of all-powerful wizards as a voluntary gesture? (It’s an oligarchy.) Was it done as a civic engineering project and paid for by taxes? (Probably a democracy, or at least a parliamentary monarchy.) Was it done on the king’s orders, by his engineers or wizards? (Benevolent dictatorship. One where the king has the greedy self-centred upper class under control. Also probably not at war at the time.) The existence of sanitation or not also tells you whether labour is cheap, replaceable, and unskilled (why bother with sanitation, who cares if they die?) or educated, unionised (or do they call them guilds in fantasy?), and with political clout.

I’m not saying you should mention any of this in your story. You could write your entire epic without ever mentioning toilets, sewers, or turds, if you want to (why wouldn’t you want to do that? crazy). All I’m saying is that you think about it, how it works, because picking at the sanitation problem forces you to think about how the society works as a whole, how everything hangs together, about the power-structures in place, the class structure, the education infrastructure, and the economy.

World-building isn’t built on tropes. It’s poo all the way down. 🙂