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…