Monday, October 10, 2011

Interrogating the Tropes: A Columbus Day Post

Almost all my writing, from my very first scrawl, when I was a tiny little novelist (and yes, the very first writing I ever wrote was a science fiction novel), has been what we call in the field "writing that interrogates," though obviously at eight I didn't know to call it that.

You see, basically, there are two kinds of writing.

(I crack myself up when I say things like this. No, obviously, there are not two kinds of writing. There are a bazillion kinds of writing. What I mean when I say things like this is, Let's pretend for the sake of this discussion that there are two kinds of writing.)

Two kinds of writing: Those that reinforce the standard tropes of the society, and those that interrogate those tropes.

Now what do I mean by tropes?

This is a word that just means turns, figures of speech, dohickeys, gizmos. I'm using it so I won't have to use the more specific words like ethics, mores, standards, ethos, norms, all those words that make me itchy. For tropes here, read things that make society work -- the unwritten rules, the warrants we all accept without (usually) understanding we're accepting them.

For instance: warrants in this society include (among others) that the two-parent family is the best family; that a child growing up and leaving home to start its own life is a good thing; that violence is sometimes necessary to solve problems; that people should work to support themselves; that material wealth is a good thing; that ambition is a good thing; that romantic love is a good thing; that love and loyalty to one's family is a good thing; that women loving their children is a good thing; I could go on.

Fiction can either support these tropes, these warrants, or it can interrogate them.

My argument is that science fiction should always interrogate its society's tropes -- bring them into question, ask why we hold them, and whether they are worth holding.

This is, of course, disturbing, especially when the trope in question is close to our hearts. (It's easy to interrogate a trope we despise. Men should be in charge of the household? Bah! I'll interrogate that one all day long! Romantic love is a good thing? Let me at it!! But women should love their children...well, um...) But as Plato pointed out to us, an unexamined trope is not worth holding.

As I think I have mentioned, I've been reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers and Others, which in fact (among other things) examines the trope of the two parent family, the notion (close to the heart of many) that the best of all families is the married man and woman raising children together. In fact, as Hrdy demonstrates, that is not how most children have been or are being raised in human societies -- ever -- and that is not the best way for children to be raised. The trope of the two parent family is an absolutely myth. Alloparents (a mother, a grandmother, aunts, older siblings, uncles) who raise children together turn out to be the best way, and the most common way, for children to be raised, both in pre-history, in hunter-gather societies, and currently. Children raised this way do better emotionally and nutrionally.

Further, apparently, this need to raise children this way -- with alloparents -- is the basis for all human society. Because raising children is such a pricey enterprise humans needed a giant society around them to do it. Despite what conservatives believe, in other words, it does not take a family to raise a child: it does, in fact, take a village.

My point! And I have one!

The best science fiction and fantasy should not support the warrants and the tropes of the society -- as conservative SF/F tends to do -- but should challange them, interrogate them, question them. The best SF/F should say, well, what if this happened, so that we had to do it this way? What would the world look like then? Or what if a society did it that way? Then what? Would that be better, or worse?

What if Columbus had not destroyed the American peoples? What would the world look like then? What if?

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