Monday, September 21, 2009
Strangers in strange lands
I read an article about these kinds of characters, and wondered for a moment why I hadn’t written about this before. Just for a moment, though, because then I realized that I’ve been an expatriate (and sort of exile) myself. More than once, too. No surprise that I’m so close to the topic that it never occurred to me to write about it.
Also, I haven’t read too many speculative fiction novels where the main character has been exiled from his homeland or has left it voluntarily. The first examples which came to mind were R. A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy and Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn. I’d like to find more (or write more), because now that I come to think about this, there’s a lot of potential in this setup.
1. Different customs
Characters in a very different society and culture are fish out of water. They have strange ways of thinking, alien habits and beliefs, all of which can cause problems. One of the disappointing aspects of Jean Auel’s The Shelters of Stone is how easily the heroine fits in with the Cro-Magnons despite being raised by Neanderthals.
When I went to Sri Lanka for a visit, my extended family told me not to eat cucumbers while I had a cold (I ate them anyway). We won’t get into all the things I should or should not have done three days out of the month.
2. Assimilation and adaptation
How do exiles and expatriates feel about this? Do they cling to what they once knew, or do they embrace all or most aspects of their new land? I fall into the latter category, which of course means that I don’t fit in with my original culture. Can’t have it both ways.
On the other hand, in speculative fiction, it may not be so easy to fit in. The biological or social differences may be too great to bridge. What if the refugees or expatriates were not fertile with any of the people of their new land? The two races would always be distinct – and there would be no sub-class of half-breeds – but what would happen to people who fell in love with a member of another race anyway?
3. An equal and opposite reaction
I love seeing how people securely established in another land react to foreigners who are there to stay – and how the governments of those lands respond as well.
There’s no need for them to value diversity; they’re not twenty-first century First World countries. Maybe they place much more of an emphasis on absorbing these new people, and so they make exiles and expatriates change their names to sound more native. These could be major changes or small adaptations. For instance, my first name is Marian, but perhaps if I moved to France it would be Marie and if I went to ancient Rome it would be Maria.
Maybe they insist that fugitives convert to the state religion, or at least pay lip service to it. I have an idea for a future story where a character moves to another land that has a powerful and controlling state religion; he refuses to convert to it even though he knows that will ensure a lifetime of menial work for him. But there’s a certain secret order of guards that is always comprised of twelve of the Faithful and one atheist…
4. A place in society
Exiles and expatriates might have a much-needed place in a new land. When I lived in the Middle East, for instance, most of the blue-collar work was done by people from the Subcontinent. And it probably still is.
These people might not be given the kinds of rights or privileges that one would expect in a First World country – for instance, no matter how long or hard they work, they’ll never get citizenship in those countries – and they’re sometimes treated badly. But they earn better money than they’ll get in their native countries. My parents could never have afforded to send me to college in the States if they hadn’t worked for years in Dubai.
In my world of Eden, Iternans are never expatriates, since their native land does not permit any of its citizens to leave its borders unless they are tracking fugitives. However, because Iternans have powerful magic, other lands hire them as sorcerers (until of course they’re hunted down and dragged back to their homeland to face trial for leaving it).