Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Making an Ass Out of You and Me Since 1983

Everyone makes assumptions. I studied a little social psychology in college, and this is one of those rare situations where I am confident enough in my knowledge to say "trust me." Our brains are designed to be as lazy as possible - it saves on energy - and only think hard when they really need to. Making assumptions - social psychologists call them "heuristics" - saves on energy. Some of our assumptions are good: if it's glowing bright red, it's hot and it will burn me, so I should be careful. Others are bad: if it's human shaped and has dark skin, it wants to rob me, so I should be careful. Assumptions can be blatant, like the ones I just described, or they can be subtle, pernicious little buggers that sneak into your daily interactions - and your writing - and annoy the heck out of me. No matter how smart, tough, and enlightened you think you are, your brain will do this. It's better to admit it and learn to compensate than it is to pretend it isn't happening.

Case in points, consider the two books I am reading right now: The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn and The Sword and the Dragon by Diane Duane. Both books contain characters of a variety of genders and sexual orientations, but they treat the issues differently.

A brief disclaimer: first of all, I have not actually finished either book, but I have made not insignificant progress in both. Such is the life of a blogger, however: you write when you have the idea, because you've promised your readers one post every weekday and you are going to delier come hell or high water. You can expect more in-depth reviews when the books are read all the way through. Secondly, I am really enjoying both books a great deal. So when I criticize, I do so fondly.

The Sword and The Dragon includes a homosexual pairing. We have a male magician who lives with his father and his son, struggling to master a particularly difficult form of magic. Off in the world his his "loved," a deposed prince who the magician is madly in love with. The opening adventure involves the magician riding off to rescue his beloved from a siege.

One of the things I love about The Sword and the Dragon was the fact that Duane stubbornly insisted on writing this relationship as no big deal. After all, the setting she had invented was one where sexuality was a non-issue. The world is not so much super-enlightened as it is a place where prejudice had settled on different targets. Much of the world's history, culture, and mythology are designed so that this assumption makes sense. Duane takes nothing for granted and builds her setting from the ground up, out of whole cloth.

On the other hand, we have The Wreck of the River of Stars. Again, The Wreck is a wonderful novel that I'm enjoying immensely. However, Flynn has done one thing that I consider a small mistake: he has applied modern day assumptions to a story taking place in the far future. We have a homosexual male character who exclusively likes young men (older teenagers) and a variety of female characters who are either feminine or markedly unfeminine, which is remarked upon by other characters. The book's take on gender and sexuality is very modern.

This is a story set in the far future. Does it really make sense for the inhabitants of a space ship however many hundreds of years in the future to make nearly the same assumptions about gender and sexuality that we do? I'd never accuse Michael Flynn of sexism or homophobia - not only would it be unfair and probably untrue, it's completely missing the point - but I will accuse him including modern assumptions in his setting without really working out the causes or consequences.

Do I like both books? Absolutely. Will I finish them? Definitely. However, The Sword and the Dragon is just ever so slightly superior. The setting is just that much better thought out.

In my writing, I endeavor to make my assumptions make sense. Especially if I am inventing a fantasy world, I take nothing for granted. No assumptions from the real world sneak past me, not if I can help it. I feel that that kind of diligence is the difference between a good setting and a great setting, and a great setting is one of those things that contributes to a really great story.

But in this, we writers are swimming against our own brains. It is a constant struggle not to make poor assumptions in writing, but worth it.

* * *

  • When have you encountered a story the assumptions of which were unpleasantly - or pleasantly - jarring?
  • Where have you struggled with assumptions in your own writing?
  • This last isn't a question: if you enjoyed this post, you should check my previous posts on Big Issues, which might entertain you.

1 comment:

Diane said...

"...not insignificant progress ..."??


Best -- DD