Monday, January 17, 2011
Caste systems in fantasy
My favorite caste system is the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are divided into groups ranging from Alpha to Epsilon. Epsilons, if I recall correctly, are deprived of oxygen and exposed to alcohol while still in gestation vats, to physically alter them to the point where they’re appropriately suited for their work and will fit into their caste.
That’s pretty radical a change. Most fictional worlds don’t go that far, though some can be as brutal. In the Holdfast, one of the last outposts of civilization in Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Slave and The Free, fems (women) are at the bottom of the totem pole, but men don’t have it easy either. Their divisions are age-stratified.
The appropriate attitude of an older man toward a younger was wary concern, not lust.
This makes the major caste divisions clear and unchangeable.
On the other hand, caste systems can also be based on some variation of warriors/priests/workers. Substitute magicians for priests where appropriate. Workers make up the largest class, much like the serfs of the feudal system, and tend to have the least power.
Though a fantasy with more interesting political elements may allow the worker class to elect representatives who take their concerns to the ruling council, and who are given at least some respect there.
And in a world where most of the work is done by machines or magic, it may be more difficult to segregate people along these lines. A caste system rarely remains untouched by an Industrial Revolution.
A caste system produces plenty of questions which can be used to shape the worldbuilding. For instance, can people ever rise out of their original strata within that society? Or is there downward mobility? Perhaps the equivalent of white-collar criminals are punished by being made to do blue-collar work.
Do different castes have different religions – or do they pray to different gods in the pantheon? Are certain parts of the city set aside for people of other castes? Maybe the plebs use common coin as money, while the patricians have a different type of currency. What about the results of interbreeding between castes – and if this never happens, why not?
Finally, for every person who hates this stratified system where all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others, there’ll be one who is just fine with The Way Things Are. And the second person won’t automatically be wrong for holding that viewpoint. Even in the most modern of societies there are such divisions – money, education, type of work, where you live, etc. I don’t think it’s something we can ever really overcome.