Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Slavery in fantasy

Slavery can be a very interesting starting point for a story, mostly because it has so many different permutations.

This article describes various forms of slavery – in other words, concepts other than the usual “chattel slavery” that first came to mind for me. Slavery doesn’t have to be something out of a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic – it can take different forms.

There can also be different customs involving slavery. When I first read Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome, I was surprised to learn that there was actually a day in the Roman calendar when slaves could pretend to show disrespect to their masters, or have a banquet with the masters waiting on them. A few other thoughts, prompted by the article…

How are slaves distinguished from free people?

In the antebellum South, that was easy : slaves had dark skin. What about in fantasy worlds, though?

Appearance still works. I have an idea for a future novel where the slaves are humans and the masters are sentient wolves. In Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Slave and The Free, the slaves are all female and the masters are male. Not only is this an easy method of differentiation, it ensures there’s no chance of the one passing as the other, which lighter-skinned people might have done in the South.

If slaves look the same as masters, they can still be set apart by having their appearance permanently altered – through tattoos or branding, for instance. In Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, a character shows an unbreakable ring that has been inserted into her ankle so that it encircles the Achilles tendon. The only way for her to remove the ring is to cut the tendon – and be lame. And children conceived through the “sexact”, in George Lucas’s THX 1138, are branded with an S on their faces.

Are slaves happy with their lot?

This can be a hot-button issue. The article I read advised writers not to make slaves happy to serve their masters, but I think that depends.

One criticism of Gone with the Wind is that the O’Hara slaves seem to want nothing more than to work for and look after their masters. There’s even a scene where Scarlett meets one of their (former) slaves, who tells her that he’s had enough of freedom and is not comfortable with Northern people expecting him to sit at the same table with them. When she tells him what to do and where to go, he’s relieved.

Is that offensive? Yes. Does it show Mitchell’s idealization of the South’s customs? Yes. Does it reflect a prevailing attitude in the 1930’s, rather than a politically correct modern-day view? Yes.

But what I’m most curious about is whether it’s inaccurate regarding slaves. Would some of them have been content to take orders and do what they were told, rather than seeking freedom?

I think the answer is yes too, though for different reasons. Slaves in ancient Rome, for instance, would have been treated relatively well; they would be attached to the household they served and would have no reason to escape. Even in the Deep South, there would have been some slaves who felt their lot in life was not so bad.

In Roots, Bell is afraid of the consequences of running away and being caught, but she is also in a position of some authority compared to other slaves. As the master’s cook, she not only has access to better food and living conditions, she can subtly influence the master. As a result, she’s much more content than some of the “field hands”. The weeping slaves around Eva’s bedside in Uncle Tom's Cabin comes off as over-the-top to me, but certain slaves accepting their position in life isn’t unrealistic, especially if they genuinely believe that this is where they are supposed to be.

They could feel their slavery was God-ordained, or they could have a Panglossian view that “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”.

More on this topic later…


LM Preston said...

This topic in all sorts of fiction can go as deeply or lightly as you want it. Truth is, most people don't consider how despicable it can be. Just ask anyone, "What would you do to a person if you can do ANYTHING to them and they couldn't fight back." So if we have criminals now, that kill, maim, rape, manipulate, kidnap, abuse, mutilate - imagine what they would do if their victim could never get away. Even people that are kind by nature would be taught that it's okay to hurt another. You can go all over the place on this topic. In fantasy or sci-fi you can create the dynamics any how you see fit, and exploit areas that haven't been touched on in history yet.

Anonymous said...

Considering the frequent slave revolts in Roman times and the fear that slaves would slay or harm their masters, I think it is not possible to say that they were content with their lot in life (of course you can always find exceptions to the rule).

Of course, the Romans had one important escape hatch, the offer of eventual freedom. Slaves that were loyal to their masters could expect to be freed once the master was dead (a common feature of many slave owner wills) or could buy their freedom.

Slavery, by definition, is a demeaning and soul robbing experience. You live and exist at the whim of someone else. For every "well treated" slave there were dozens that engage in menial, degrading and abusive work (sex slavery anyone?).

One has to be careful not to defend such a practice in the spirit of accuracy. An individual slave may feel better off than a freeman, but again, that would be the exception that proves the rule.

Also something that is hardly ever shown is the relationships between slaves or even slave families.

Marian Perera said...

Ralfast - True. I should have been more accurate about that. The First Man in Rome does paint a fairly good picture of slaves' lives, but as you pointed out, there were slave revolts and uprisings. Just because it was a somewhat different system doesn't mean it worked fine for everyone.

Freedom was a promise that could be made to slaves in the antebellum South as well, though it could also have been just another way to keep them in line.

I do wonder, though, if someone born into such a system and not knowing any other way of life would feel that it's demeaning. To us, it would be. To them, that would be the way things are. They'd take it for granted.

Slaves and slave families - that's another fascinating sub-topic. I keep thinking of Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Thanks for commenting and giving me plenty to think about!

Marian Perera said...

LM Preston :

That's an excellent idea - the effect that such power has on the slave owner as well as on the slave. You've made me wonder if there are any stories which begin with a relatively good person who's given absolute power over slaves and who becomes slowly corrupted by it.

Rape is a fact of life in Suzy McKee Charnas's books, but I love the fact that she plays fair. When the women rout a settlement of some kind and take a man captive, they attempt to rape him. There's never any pretense that because they're women/former slaves they're more moral.

Randall said...

There's happy and then there's appearing happy, so you don't get beaten/killed. I keep thinking of a scene in Steven Barnes' Lion's Blood, in which an alternate Europe never developed, so civilized Africans went on to conquer North America and took their white slaves with them.

There's a scene in which the "happy" kitchen slaves are preparing the food for a party, and everyone gathers around as the head house servant undoes his breeches and, er, fills the punch bowl.

I'm pretty sure that was something that black slaves in the american south really did (ie--"I seem to remember . . ."). There were ways of fighting back without being seen to fight back.

Marian Perera said...

There's also Stockholm Syndrome or "He Loved Big Brother".

And I'd forgotten about Lion's Blood - that's another good example of something different. Thanks, Randall!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Marian.

While it's certainly not the same thing, it did remind me of how a lot of the older East Germans felt (and many still do) when the wall came down. Before, everything was orderly. They knew what to expect and what was expected of them. And suddenly that was all gone.

Most humans crave freedom and the ability to choose for themselves. But yet, for some people, if they've never really had to make decisions for themselves, that concept can be very frightening.

Marian Perera said...

Tasha - exactly. And I'd like to explore (or read a fantasy which delves into) certain aspects of slavery that might not be routinely considered.

Such as slaves perhaps feeling protected by their masters - either due to the Stockholm Syndrome or simply because their owners were powerful enough in that society's hierarchy.

And some people like - or claim to like - being submissive and inferior. Some hyper-fundamentalist Christian websites have sections written by the womenfolk, who want nothing more than to serve their men and have their men look after them. I think it's extremely demeaning. But it exists, and if I were writing about such a family, I'd have to acknowledge that.

It will never mean that that way of life is acceptable to me, though.

Anonymous said...

Marian, sorry if I can on a bit too strong but the subject is a touchy one for me. You know the type, the one that screams "Thou must protest!" Still a very interesting subject and one worth tackling.

Marian Perera said...

No worries, ralfast. Other people's perspectives on this topic are very welcome, partly because it is such a hot button and partly because I'm pushing the envelope a bit here.

Not that I approve of the "peculiar institution", but some of my characters might.

Plus, in Sri Lanka it's normal for people to have servants (and it was more or less normal in the Middle East as well). Which isn't really comparable to having slaves, but there's the same class distinction and unequal treatment. On the other hand, working for a wealthy and generous family could be a real advantage for such a servant.

I don't want to imply that slavery is like that, but I also think that so many books have focused on the stick of that particular situation. Is there something to be gained by exploring the carrot? :)

JH said...

Another interesting concept to consider: wage slavery. This is a charge leveled at industrial capitalism on the basis that if one is dependent on giving one's labor over to another in return for a subsistence pittance, one is no less a slave for being able to choose who is the recipient of this service. Simply introducing the idea agitated workers to strike for better pay and conditions, or to try and overthrow the entire system. Socialists were able to formulate this criticism because the industrial revolution changed the social order and provided a point of contrast with the way things used to be.

The point here is consciousness, the ability to analyze and understand one's place in society and thus question it. Slaves born into slavery for generations may not fundamentally question their lot even if they sometimes buck against it, whereas a newly enslaved person may be more likely to challenge the system, having known an alternative, and is a threat to the docility of "tame" slaves. A person reduced to slavery through legal means, if debt or penal slavery is practiced, may accept it if he respects his society's laws and customs. An outsider from a culture without such a condition may consider it barbaric.

Kookaburra said...

In C.S. Lewis' "The Horse and his Boy" there is a great line about how Bree (the horse) having been captive and enslaved as a dumb horse by the Calormenes, had lost his ability to push himself, because he'd become used to whips and spurs doing the "motivating".