Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crime and punishment




So I finished The Scar, and that made me think about the justice system and legal consequences in fantasy worlds.

1. What is a crime in your world?

This could be an entire post – or even a chapter in a book. A fantasy world should not be identical to our own, and so the laws should be different in some ways – which is part of the fun of worldbuilding. For instance, in a world where everyone is empathic, anger or lust (to name just a couple of the seven deadly sins) could well be against the law. In a world where people become stronger or more beautiful after they die for the first time – like caterpillars turning into butterflies – would murder be as much of a crime as it is in our world?

2. Why is this a crime?

I’ve read a few stories where witches are persecuted, and these weren’t set on past-Earth or alternate-Earth. The good witches were simply hunted down by fanatical puritan types because that’s the established pattern, that’s the way it’s always been done.

Well, you know what? Let’s either break the pattern or show why there’s merit to it. The magicians in The Mark of Vurth, a fantasy of mine, spread magic like a highly contagious disease to normal people, turning them into magicians as well. No freedom of choice about it. And using too much magic too fast, which is what a lot of newly made magicians do, is a sure way to have that power turn against you. You end up not just a magician - which is different enough from the norm - but physically or mentally twisted.

As a result, the authorities have a good reason to want magic removed from their world. In the long run, they believe it causes more harm than good, and they have more than enough reason to think so. So their draconian penalties make sense.

3. Who enforces the law?

“No, I can see that you don’t know who I am,” said Caesar, still in a conversational voice. “Therefore, daughter, it behooves me to tell you. I am the paterfamilias, the absolute head of this household. My very word is law. My actions are not actionable. Whatever I choose to do and say within the bounds of this household, I can do and I can say. No law of the Senate and People of Rome stands between me and my absolute authority over my household and my family. For Rome has structured her laws to ensure that the Roman family is above the law of all save the paterfamilias. If my wife commits adultery, Julilla, I can kill her, or have her killed.”

Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome


On the opposite end of that spectrum is the Riding Women’s society in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines. In this unstructured, nomadic, all-female community, there are few real laws. And when the camp congregates to discuss issues, more attention is paid to women of the Conor bloodline, because they have a long-standing reputation for speaking good sense.

A society doesn’t always need judges or juries – or executioners, for that matter. Punishments can be meted out by the victim or the victim’s family, by a god or by what’s believed to be a god’s avatar, such as a giant snake or a flock of ravenous crows. For a cruel little twist, how about the criminal’s family being forced to pull the lever?

4. What is the punishment?

Here’s where writers can have a lot of fun. China Mieville certainly does; in New Crobuzon, criminals are often sentenced to be Remade. They have the body parts of other people or animals – or even machine parts like caterpillar treads – grafted on to their bodies, sometimes replacing their own limbs. Needless to say, this instantly marks them as criminals. It sets them apart. On the other hand, sometimes it can be useful to have tentacles, or a giant mantis claw.

If your society wants to segregate the guilty, that can be done either physically – exile or incarceration – or in other ways. For instance, criminals could be subjected to spells that leave them visible but incorporeal. They can wander through the world like ghosts for the term of their sentence, but can’t physically interact with anyone.

In any place where space and resources are limited, it makes sense to spend as little as possible on criminals. So for instance, on a sailing ship, they could be put into suspended animation or shrunk to a small enough size that they survive on crumbs and can be imprisoned in a bottle. Of course, if they escaped, they’d be nearly impossible to catch, and might well pose a threat to the ship (story potential!).

What if petty criminals were assigned familiars which accompanied them everywhere, like Philip Pullman’s daemons but with another purpose entirely? The familiars would act as consciences at best and constant witnesses at worst. The criminals might hate their loss of privacy – but to the authorities, this might be quite a merciful sentence.

Readers tend to be jaded by the usual whips and gibbets and chains, so something more is needed to horrify them. I like psychological tactics in this capacity. A punishment which leaves bruises on the victim may be effective – but one which leaves the victim convinced that he deserves those bruises will be shocking. Especially if there's any chance it's being inflicted on an innocent person.

Gaslighting can make the target believe he's slipping into insanity. Permanent personality alterations can change a victim from a courageous resistance leader to a cowed and obedient puppet. A great example of Efrafan discipline in Watership Down is the scene where Blackavar is forced to repeat, to anyone who approaches him, a litany of why he was punished. And he knows that once he's given this coerced confession to the whole warren, he will be killed.

If rabbits can be that inventive, people should be even more so.

7 comments:

Loren said...

As to Europe's witch persecutions of half a millennium ago, the victims were accused of causing bad weather and crop failures and illnesses and other such calamities.

So one might imagine sorcery being stigmatized as dangerous and troublesome, even if that is an unjustified stereotype. It would be like how certain ethnic groups have been hated for supposedly being too smart.

But if sorcery in general is accepted as legitimate, then that acceptance will likely not extend to destructive or malicious sorcery. Trying to cure someone with a magic spell would be legitimate, while trying to make someone sick with a magic spell would not be.

As to additional crimes made possible, the ability to read people's minds would make possible unathorized mind reading, for instance.

The ability to read minds could also be useful in investigation and trials; detectives and judges and lawyers could get information by reading people's minds. But to make it interesting, it might be useful to limit the ability in some way, like to reading only what someone is currently thinking about, and not what's in their memories. So one might try to get away with some crime by refusing to think about it.

As to sorcery-related punishments, one that I just thought of would be a sort of magic leash that keeps someone from going too far away from a certain spot; if they try, then they get dizzy and faint and eventually pass out.

colbymarshall said...

This is funny that you post this today, because on my trip this weekend I actually passed the "Crime and Punishment Museum"...which has a restaurant called "The Last Meal Cafe." A bit morbid, but I really did want to stop there!

Angela said...

Great post. I think the first question is something that can literally change the whole impact of world building. I mean there are so many things out there that are alien to us as being criminal, but if you can pick one and pull it off, what a coup! Suddenly you've snagged the reader through and through, compelling them to read more about the world ad find out the 'why' behind the law. This is one aspect where thinking outside the usual suspects can pay off big time. Imagine a world where criticism or negativity is a crime. A place where touching another living entity is a crime. How about creating fire? Eating donuts? Oh the possibilities!

GunnerJ said...

In a world where people become stronger or more beautiful after they die for the first time – like caterpillars turning into butterflies – would murder be as much of a crime as it is in our world?

Arguably, it could be worse. Say that it's better for one's spiritual development to live a full life so you leave behind a content ghost to "progress on." Much like how one of the horrors of child sexual abuse is the life-long scars it leaves on its victims, ending one's life "too early" could be seen as monstrous for the underdeveloped ghost it leaves.

For instance, criminals could be subjected to spells that leave them visible but incorporeal. They can wander through the world like ghosts for the term of their sentence, but can’t physically interact with anyone.

This seems like a very strange punishment. Such convicts would be very valuable as spies and could probably secure a good sum for themselves upon their return to corporeality. Also, the punishment seems open to abuse: a convict could squat in the home of their victim, their victim's family, or the home of a key witness, mocking them. The basic problem with it is how easy it is for someone so punished to violate others' privacy. There would still need to be controls on where the convict could go, or I wouldn't want to think about "punishing" someone convicted of stalking or spying with such a spell!

So for instance, on a sailing ship, they could be put into suspended animation or shrunk to a small enough size that they survive on crumbs and can be imprisoned in a bottle. Of course, if they escaped, they’d be nearly impossible to catch, and might well pose a threat to the ship...

Which is probably why they'd just be thrown overboard. There'd need to be a good reason for using such an exploitable punishment: the crew might be pacifists, or they might have a strict sense of what constitutes justice, and meting it out might not be possible without a certain type of judge or venue. In any case, escape shouldn't be easier than surviving being keelhauled, or it's going to look like the protagonist only won because the antagonists limited themselves.

What if petty criminals were assigned familiars which accompanied them everywhere, like Philip Pullman’s daemons but with another purpose entirely? The familiars would act as consciences at best and constant witnesses at worst.

In the Transhuman Space RPG there's a variant on this: in the setting, people can have tiny computers implanted into their brain which act like an interface between their minds and the Internet, and these computers have AI assistants which help their owners manage their connections and business. A certain religious sect venerates AI constructs because they believe they are angels, and in their settlements, criminals are subject to having a literal guardian angel implanted into their brains which gives them moral guidance and can shut their bodies down and call for authorities if they misbehave.

A great example of Efrafan discipline in Watership Down is the scene where Blackavar is forced to repeat, to anyone who approaches him, a litany of why he was punished...

If rabbits can be that inventive, people should be even more so.


I'm just surprised the rabbits read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner! ;)

Kami said...

One thing I get really tired of, as the wife of a former corrections officer (or as he puts it, a knuckle-dragging jail guard) is the very nearly uniform evil jail guards, horrid jails, corruption, etc. Maybe I'm just being overly-sensitive, but it would be so nice if there was a well run jail and professional (not necessarily nice, but that do their job and keep everyone, not just themselves, safe) jail guards. Believe me, there's still plenty of trouble to get into on both the guard side and the inmate side with the guards being on the up and up, but still human and fallible.

Goodness knows the number of wonderful men who are seduced by female inmates and then blackmailed, set up to be robbed, etc. Also, guards reach the end of their ropes. They commit suicide. They stop showing up to work. They start drinking. They get divorces. They become deluded--if the inmates make them believe we're all friends, and some use that strategy scarily-well, then they can be set up to be injured or killed. They can stop caring and therefore watching out for themselves; sleep on the job, almost hoping for a shank.

And on the inmates' side, it is so much harder to escape when the guards are pros, and therefore all the more impressive when they do it. It's also harder to get away with stuff. If you're an inmate and honestly in there by some horrible mistake, it's not too hard to get advice and sometimes even a leg-up (like an extra phone call) to get legal help from the guards. You can figure out which guards are scared and start befriending them, giving them a sense that you'll watch their back.

Anyway, there's lots more, but I've already gone on too long. The idea being, maybe someone can write about a non-bad jail guard or non-bad facility with a balance of good and bad guards for once. I like non-bad cops too. Die Hard rocks. Due South, huzzah! They came close in Prison Break with the jail, but not quite.

Heh. The word verification for me is cophips.

Marian said...

The idea being, maybe someone can write about a non-bad jail guard or non-bad facility with a balance of good and bad guards for once.

Hey kami, I did that!

Well, sort of, in the WIP. The protagonist spends three years in prison for a crime that he did commit, and it's a medieval world, so there's not a lot of human rights awareness going on.

It turns out, though, that while the jailers never speak to him, they are also under orders to feed him regularly and make sure he's clean and physically unharmed. The whole point is to keep him alive but confined alone as long as possible, so that he deteriorates mentally rather than physically, but that's the law in the land, rather than a specific intention on the jailers' part.

Your post also reminded me of The Shawshank Redemption, and the way Andy does everyone's taxes to get a little leverage in a bad place.

Marian said...

Arguably, it could be worse. Say that it's better for one's spiritual development to live a full life so you leave behind a content ghost to "progress on."

Good point – and a good example of how an initial undeveloped idea can flesh out and progress.

Also, the punishment seems open to abuse: a convict could squat in the home of their victim, their victim's family, or the home of a key witness, mocking them. The basic problem with it is how easy it is for someone so punished to violate others' privacy.

That’s true, though I was thinking of the punishment as being a kind of extended sensory deprivation. Imagine watching people eat or drink or kiss or enjoy the weather while knowing you can’t taste or touch or speak to anyone, and imagine that going on for years. I think over time, that would drive a lot of people into neurosis or insanity; it would take some strength of character to outlast it.

About the spying issue, maybe homes or buildings could have some kind of talisman over the door, functioning like the lambs’ blood in the Old Testament? It would keep the malignant spirits out.

Which is probably why they'd just be thrown overboard. There'd need to be a good reason for using such an exploitable punishment: the crew might be pacifists, or they might have a strict sense of what constitutes justice…

I was actually thinking of the punishment meted out to Bellis and Tanner in The Scar, where they pass on information about Armada to the New Crobuzon navy and are whipped (though it could be argued that one can’t exactly be keelhauled behind an entire floating city). The Armadan authorities do have their own strange sense of justice, though, and give Bellis a choice between being whipped and being imprisoned for some period of time.