layla: grass at sunset (Default)
Layla ([personal profile] layla) wrote2009-05-17 12:58 am

The more serious and thoughtful half of the post

I started to include this with the previous entry, but decided that it needed to be on its own.

Hmm. Not really sure where to start with this. I guess the short version is that there's this shiny new YA fantasy novel by Patricia Wrede called "The Thirteenth Child", in which the basic premise -- okay, quoting from the glowing review at

The elevator pitch for Thirteenth Child would be “Little House on the Prairie with mammoths and magic.” ... This is an alternate version of our world which is full of magic, and where America (“Columbia”) was discovered empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical. In this world the frontier is perilous and settlements need magicians to protect them, but the railroads are creeping across the continent and covered wagons are crossing the Great Barrier that runs along the Mississippi.

In the comments at the Tor thread, the point is immediately made, and then discussed, that this sounds an awful lot like a lite-fantasy version of the very worst aspects of 19th century ideal of Manifest Destiny. All the fun of colonial expansion + mammoths without the pesky natives getting in the way! No guilt over claiming the land because nobody was using it anyway -- for real this time!

Wrede's own comments from her brainstorming sessions on rec.arts.sf.composition do not help matters.

There's a link list at [ profile] naraht's blog archived under this tag; oldest links at bottom.

I already discussed this a little bit at Leigh Dragoon's post on it. It's partly a moral issue, partly a world-building issue, I guess; the problem, really, is that Wrede appears completely oblivious to the idea that she'd be pushing some really sensitive buttons with this, and therefore didn't devote much effort at all to seriously exploring the ramifications of it. The less problematic your basic premise is, the more slack people are going to cut you for not working through the details. I really enjoy Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, for example, even though the basic idea (Napoleonic Wars + dragons) is completely unworkable if you start thinking about it -- the history of a world with actual dragons would almost certainly have more and greater points of divergence from our own. But it's a fun idea and nobody's getting hurt in the making of it. (Well, for the most part; Novik's books aren't entirely devoid of problems either, but she seems to try hard and to be genuinely committed to improvement.)

But when it comes to something like this -- the real-world history of this continent is so terrible and so fraught with pain and death, and is basically the story of a semi-successful effort to wipe out tens of millions of people and erase their memory in reality; to basically use it as a side plot point in a cheerful YA fantasy about a white girl and mammoths skeeves me horribly. I certainly don't think it would be impossible to seriously address the idea of an uninhabited America and its influence on world history -- but f'r pete's sake, you've got to understand what you're writing about and how it works in a broader historical context (both in terms of your created world, and in terms of the real world and the real readers with real feelings who are going to be reading your book). If all you want is a happy magical fantasy with mammoths, and there are dozens of other, less emotionally loaded and potentially offensive ways that you can do it, why not do that instead?

I struggle with these issues in my own writing, because I'm very much a magpie when it comes to ideas, and a lot of this magpie-ism is directed towards other cultures and various periods in history. I used to believe that there wasn't an idea that I wouldn't try to tackle; however, the epic mess that is "Raven's Children" taught me some humility and my reading on cultural appropriation over the last few years has taught me a lot more, and I'm still learning. I don't believe that being a writer absolves a person of the need to be a responsible and considerate human being also; those of us who work with words for a living have no real excuse if we carelessly use those words to hurt people.