Verboten

Some things are simply not done. That was on my mind as I finished the innocuous bit of fluff that turned in to something else. That wasn’t my intent – the book was just a diversion for myself- but it happened in a subplot. And when I struggled to write the ending, a struggle because the characters were clearly heading where I didn’t want to go, I realized this was both a subject and a resolution that would be toxic if submitted to a publisher. In this instance, it dealt with thralls. A thrall was a slave in Nordic cultures.

The short summary is that the past is another country; they do things differently there. That includes how they look at things. This 14th Century nation that never was had slaves and certain cultural attitudes that are kinda sorta based on Nordic attitudes of a slightly earlier time . An adjacent kingdom had no slaves, but were ambivalent about them. They might not want their own, but didn’t bat an eye at the practice elsewhere. Another adjacent kingdom had our modern disgust of the practice, because they were once a source for slaves.

I had originally had a vague notion of a warm and fluffy resolution, one that fit the yarn I was writing. Except, it didn’t fit the culture of the country or of the thralls. The happy, fluffy, feel-good resolution I wanted couldn’t happen. Instead, there was something else, something that made perfect sense to that culture, but left me feeling dirty. As consolation, I wrote a scene where someone tells the frustrated protagonist that life isn’t like the bards’ tales, and usually we have to deal with what the dice rolls. The protagonist get up and makes the best he can of the situation. He isn’t happy with it – I’m not happy with it, and I don’t think a reader will be – but it’s the best he can do.

That’s toxic enough. The really toxic part is the thralls will not see any other solution. They are just as bound by the culture and prejudices of that place and time as anyone else. They don’t like being thralls, but the ways out of that – and they are good ones – appeal to them even less.

You can see what the toxic factor is: Even though I show the protagonists treat their slaves like paid servants because their home culture doesn’t have slaves, and how others treat their slaves is pretty nasty, someone is bound to take it as an endorsement of slavery. That’s because our norm has become to condemn slavery in fiction, even in ancient cultures where it was a normal part of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s set in ancient Rome, which practically ran on slaves: the protagonist has to have the Western 21st Century view of the practice, even though that would be an anachronism. Anything else is verboten.

Of course, this covers more than slavery. The list of verboten things is long. Simply put, characters are expected to act like 21st Century Americans in costume. And while this is apolitical in itself, it can be taken to political extremes. This is not the difficulty all of us have in imagining people who think differently and have different values, and act accordingly. Nor is it different genres following different forms. No, it’s the expectation that certain values must be presented, whether they are plausible for the place and time and culture or not.

This has always existed to some extent, but it seems to be getting worse. Novels published in a different time might be panned by publishers today because they don’t have the “proper” tone. This afternoon I was thinking about Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, two novels a bit on the bawdy side, and whether they’d be published today. I have my doubts. And while I don’t approve or care for such, the point is they were published in a time we don’t associate as having more acceptance  of such things than our own. For all our back-patting on being oh so advanced and progressive, we have, in many ways, become more restrictive than in generations past.

This is particularly the case in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Science Fiction has long had the conceit of “pushing the envelope,” even when it lacked the courage to really push it by going against the overall flow of the genre. These days, even that isn’t considered sufficient, and we are witnessing something akin to the Soviet Purges – less bloody, but every bit as vicious and with the intent of removing from Science Fiction and Fantasy those who do not support the “proper” views and make the “right” noises.

All of which takes me back to ideas that must not be discussed and certain views that must be presented, because that’s the expectation. This book, that was supposed to be nothing but fluff? I don’t think it would fly; the mindset is too alien to our own culture.

I don’t know what I’ll do with it. First drafts like this are notorious for needing a good sanding. The best thing is to set it aside for a while and go over it again with fresh eyes. Will I? Don’t know. The one thing I can’t change is the ending, because, unfortunately, it fits. It has period ideas that are just not acceptable in our own. They are verboten. And, in many ways, everyone who writes is poorer for them.

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