Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Worldbuilding: Political and Economic Systems

It may be the lasting influence of George W. Bush's confused utterances. It may be due to students paying less attention in social studies class. Maybe I'm just more aware of it now that I experience books as a writer as well as a reader.

Whatever the reason, more and more often I see people conflate three very different concepts: capitalism, democracy, and liberty.

Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and the means of distribution. Workers are paid wages, and individuals and companies aim to make a profit.

Democracy is a political system in which the people govern, either directly or through representatives they elect.

Freedom is a philosophical concept. It has had many different meanings over the millennia, but at its essence has to do with the arenas in which people can behave as they choose and the arenas in which people are protected from oppression.

The United States is a representative democracy whose economy is rooted in capitalism and whose Constitution and its amendments guarantee certain freedoms and protections. Democracy, capitalism, and freedom are constantly evolving. For example, two hundred years ago in the United States, slaves and women could not vote, and poor children worked long hours for pitiful wages instead of going to school.

I'm not leading up to an attack on the Tea Party movement, although its members do seem quite confused about these concepts and their history. Rather, I want to encourage people who write historical and speculative fiction to think carefully about their extrapolations into the future or past. Too often, the stories and books I read don't hold water because the author takes as given the idea that capitalism and freedom are defaults, natural and good, rather than social constructs viewed differently by different people. How often have you read fantasies with a Bronze- or Iron-Age civilization with an apparent free-market economy with no explanation of how such an economy could have developed? How often have you read a fantasy or sf story in which a slave wants to be free, with no explanation of how they got such an alien idea in a society in which slavery is accepted and free people are in the minority?

I've barely skimmed the surface of the problem of American beliefs about democracy, capitalism, and freedom infecting fiction set in other places and time periods. I'll leave a fuller treatment to a grad student in need of a thesis topic.

I'll stop here by restating an argument I've made before in my NovelSpaces blog posts: Writers need to be well versed in many subjects, including the social sciences. Poor fiction results when people don't research or examine their personal beliefs and prejudices before worldbuilding.

I'll be blogging here again on October 21. Until then, may your writing be true to your world.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm a very curious person by nature so I really like the aspect of writing that requires us become aware of many different things for our work. It's one of the joys.

Shauna Roberts said...

Me too, CHARLES. That's probably part of the reason I get annoyed with writers who slap a story together without thinking about what they're saying or checking the facts.

KeVin K. said...

In my LiveJournal I recently touched on the fact popular Euro-centric fantasies and historical romances tend to ignore things like mortality rates and the fact all those knights and ladies had never heard of what we consider hygiene. Apparently acknowledging the maiden fair was almost certainly crawling with lice blunts the mood.

Shauna Roberts said...

KEVIN, what is the address of your LiveJournal blog? I'd love to read that post.

Those types of historical inaccuracies annoy me too. But apparently that's what editors think readers want. I know two romance writers who had to go a few rounds with their editors to keep such realistic touches in their books.

Liane Spicer said...

You've touched on one of the reasons I'm not enamored of certain genres: the world building is so flimsy and unconvincing that it jerks me right out of the story and I lose interest. Which I why I have such immense respect for the writers who do get it right.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I am so happy you made the distinction between capitalism, democracy and freedom. It seems even the main stream media use those terms interchangably as if they are one and the same (especially when dealing with foreign systems of government).

I've read a few historical books that were so out of touch with the reality of the time that I had to remind myself that it is just fantasy. The imaginations of an author's mind.