Monday, December 21, 2009
Slavery in fantasy, part II
Do slaves try to escape?
In the antebellum South, slaves knew that if they could reach northern states, they could be free. This won’t always operate in fantasy worlds, though. There may be nowhere slaves can go, if their homes are destroyed or if there’s simply no method of transportation to a safer place. I’ve read of slaves crossing the Ohio River when it froze in winter; crossing a larger body of water – or other substance – might not be an option.
And there are other ways to force people – mentally or physically – to remain in such a situation. In 1851, a doctor actually diagnosed a mental condition called drapetomania, which made slaves try to run away from their owners. Now, of course, that’s recognized as pseudoscience, but it made me think of psychic coercions that wouldn’t allow slaves to go a certain distance from whatever household they served. They couldn’t escape if they wanted to.
Or such magic could simply remove the knowledge of any other place from their minds. Even if you drew them a map of how to reach freedom, it would vanish from their short-term memories instantly. Their master’s household would be the single familiar island in a great unknown sea.
There are so many possibilities when it comes to twisting someone’s mind, and this can often come off as both subtler and more cruel than simply beating them.
What methods are used to break bonds between slaves?
In Karne, one of the lands in my manuscript Dracolytes, prisoners of war are always split up, dispersed throughout the land and renamed. The removal of one’s cultural and personal identity is a powerful method of control. One of the most vivid moments in The Handmaid's Tale, for me, wasn’t the Ceremony. It was when the protagonist, expecting to meet Ofglen, a woman she knows for their regular shopping trip, sees a stranger instead.
“I am Ofglen,” the woman says. Word perfect. And of course she is, the new one, and Ofglen, wherever she is, is no longer Ofglen.
A fantasy could take this even further. If slaves came from different races – some of which might resemble the owners’ species a bit too closely for comfort – perhaps their facial appearances are altered by magic so they all look alike, and strikingly different from their owners. Magic could also take away their memories of families. Or for an even more effective touch, make them believe that their families sold them away.
If slaves have any kind of special abilities, how are these used or controlled?
Innate magical abilities or skills complicate matters. In the world of Nux Varas, in my story Redemption, the Variants all have such skills. So in prison camps, other Variants of other (favored) races are placed in supervisory positions over prisoners. Not only do those other Variants have abilities just as deadly, it’s also a way to ensure that the Variants as a whole aren’t likely to unite.
Magical constraints could also be used to prevent slaves from using any particular abilities – or to ensure that slaves could only employ such abilities when their owners are willing. And the possibilities are endless. Imagine someone taking away some fundamental part of you, like your creativity or imagination and placing it into a small solid form, like a fly in a drop of amber. I wonder how far I might go to periodically get that part of myself back.