Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Animal models of societies
An alternative to the families and societies present in human cultures is to look at animal models instead. These can give your story a very alien flair, a sense that this is a distinct world with different standards. There are a few points to take into account, though.
1. The animal model should be the start of the building process, not the whole of it.
Let’s say you decide that your society should be analogous to a beehive, with thousands of individuals working together to build up and defend their land. Since someone has to handle the reproduction and give orders, there’ll be a queen, and the regular citizens can be workers or drones. Pretty soon these are bees in Borg suits, and so close to the starting point that it’ll be difficult for any writer to develop a story featuring these as the protagonists. There’s no individuality in the collective, after all, so stories are likely to feature someone breaking away from the hive mind and (re)discovering their humanity.
On the other hand, you could start with the beehive idea and take it down a different path. Let’s say a swarm sent out from the beehive society moves through the land, taking people into its number. Why does the land put up with the swarm, or even welcome it? Because the swarm absorbs only the weak and sick, feebleminded people and unwanted infants, so it’s thought of as a useful scavenger. Maybe the swarm feeds on them, but on the other hand, maybe it alters them in such a way that their infirmities are cured but they’re compelled to serve the beehive society. Much more interesting, and the swarm needn’t be intrinsically evil for taking people’s humanity and individuality away.
2. The animal model should not be presented as abnormal
One reason I like A Song of Ice and Fire so much is because George R. R. Martin presents characters like Craster without any narrative prejudice. Craster lives in the wilderness in something similar to a lion pride, since he has over a dozen wives. When they give birth to sons, he disposes of the babies. When they give birth to daughters, he waits till the girls are fifteen or sixteen, then marries them.
I was stunned and revolted when I read about this, but to Craster’s wives and daughters, this is normal, and that’s exactly how it should be. Let’s say there’s another society where women live solitary lives but give off pheromones when they’re fertile. Those pheromones make the men track them down and try to mate with them by any means necessary. It would be counterproductive for the author to include any kind of narrative disapproval. This would only remind the readers of the author’s own presence and the fact that they’re reading a story.
3. There are many types of animal models
I’d like to read about a heroine who lives with a pack and wants children, but can’t conceive because she’s not an alpha. What about a society where women routinely marry three or four men, and give birth to a corresponding number of children, with each man raising one child? Such a society may have much less conflict between males than one where men routinely compete for women. There’s a lot of untapped potential here, and new worlds to create and explore.