Village of the Dumbed

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As part of teaching the Keys, I have six stories for practice critiquing, each badly flawed in different ways. In some cases, it was a hard decision which I was going to use as a horrible example for dialogue or characterization or plotting, because some are horrible in several ways. Mind you, they were all once published by big houses, and some authors would be considered giants in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Everyone slips sometimes. I think that is an invaluable lesson in itself.

What I notice particularly now is the very common use of Villagers, non-human or semi-human creatures that greatly resemble us, can speak more or less like us, but that have the intelligence of a domestic turkey.

Of course, they are what they are for plot convenience.

That’s so wrong.

Characters of all levels, from protagonists to spear-carriers, need to act naturalisticly, like reasonable people would. Even like stupid people, at the very least.

Yes, the world is full of people who forget to put their brains in gear. I’ll never forget sending back a steak for being too well-done, and the chef sent back the same steak, cooked even more.

However, the constant stereotype of Villagers seems to me a sign of an unconscious, and all the more pervasive, prejudice in the college/academic/intellectual world of science fiction and fantasy, against rural people, farmers especially, as if they were no brighter than their cattle. As an attitude in a field dominated by urban white-collar technicians (engineers, scientists, &c) and “art school geeks,” this is understandable, if not condonable.

You should notice the lack of this in rural-raised writers, like Orson Scott Card, or S. A. Bolich from the horse-raising families out in Spokane, Washington, In her work, it’s as likely to be the citified intellectuals (like the preacher in In the Shadow of Heaven) who wind up the villains.

Certainly, Ursula K. Leguin has noted a distinct lack of blue-collar protagonists in science fiction, and that includes farmers.

Since the beginning of sf back in 1817, the emphasis has been on protagonists who were doctors, scientists, engineers, military and naval officers – intellectual gentlemen. The servant class was mocked, whether the over-educated ones of The Mummy! A Tale of the 23rd Century, Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days, or the many black servants in American-set scientific romances (especially when written by Frenchmen). Yes, they are also mocked as black stereotypes, but it occurs to me that this is because they were the servant class, as much or more so than because they were black. Worse stereotypes exist of slatternly, lazy Irish servants, more likely to be dishonest, thievish, and drunk. Negro servants are more likely to be cowardly, but I find this played up in supposedly true stories of actual servants accompanying officers during the Mexican-American War.

This wasn’t monolithic: some authors created brave, talented, heroic black and Irish assistants, published at the time, like Pompei DuSable and Barney O’Shea in the Frank Reade stories.

There are blue-collar heroes, now and then. In C. J. Cherryh’s Sunfall anthology, she has a story of high-iron workers on the mega-sky-scrapers of tomorrow. In Angel with the Sword, her protagonist carries cargo and passengers for hire in a pole-boat. But they’re rare. Sf or fantasy military or naval story mostly follows the ensigns and lieutenants moving up to captaincies, and not those boring redshirts trying to make chief, or authors follow the lords and famous warriors of fantasy armies, not the grunt troops dying for their way of life. Please note that it’s the gentlemen of the Shire who go off with the One Ring, except for one servant forced by Gandalf to go with them. No coopers, printers, umbrella-makers, or dirt farmers, but those who have the wealthy families that allow them to spend their days doing nothing in particular.

It is residual classism. We are interested in the adventures of the lords, not the peasants, because somewhere, in the back of our minds, we still think of them as poltroons and villeins who can’t go anywhere on an adventure, because they are bound to their work. This, of course, is partly the result of too many old stories, whether Orlando Furioso or The King of the Glass Mountain, that enshrine the world-view that was current back when they were created.

Please notice, though, that modern heroic fantasy, as has been pointed out, is largely highly reactionary in how it repeats this. A great deal of science fiction is, and especially space opera, making the kingdoms star-spanning but just as full of princesses and lords, or handing over rule to a technocratic elite in a new kind of feudalism where everyone will be graded according to their IQ.

Naturally, all the eggheads writing this don’t think too much of mere farmers. They aren’t elite, and so no one wants to identify with them.

As that may be, can we at least agree that having all Villagers act like badly programmed, low-grade AI is a major writing flaw? Yes, this requires giving up a number of age-old, hoary stupidities in plotting. That’s one of the main reasons for doing it.

(Rather than embarrass writers with identifying them with stories so bad I use them as horrible examples, we will have Story 1, Story 2, &c, according to what Key they are used with. If you can figure it out from the clues, from all the short stories since mid century, you need a life.)

Villagers are rooted to the ground.

When some abnormal menace shows up in the neighborhood, Villagers, unlike normal people, just stay around to be victimized by it, for forty, fifty, maybe a couple of hundred years. Stories 2 & 3 both highlighted this. Giants took half the harvest from one, and a terrible dangerous creature was not only killing people but interfering with trade in the other. No one moved away. No one left even for a little while, because no one had heard of the problem outside the village.

Let’s unpack this one. The assumption seems to be that the villagers can’t move somewhere else. Well, I’ve heard of British miners complaining that shutting down their mine will require them, to stay employed, to move fifteen whole kilometers away to a different nearby mine. Their families have lived here for generations, and they shouldn’t have to move just to have a job. On the other hand, I’m from mobile America, and anyone willing to cross the Atlantic (later the Pacific) left us all genes for pulling up stakes as soon as things slow down too much. That’s why, I suppose, America has ghost towns and Europe only has ruins. 😉

In a village, apparently, everyone is a serf, bound to the land, who is not permitted to leave, and no one has the nerve to just run for it.

But there is the contrary problem, that if these peasants are serfs, who are they serving? Because in none of these stories is there ever a lord up in his castle, or a warrior in his manor, whose job is to the keep the serfs in their place, collect taxes in kind, and kill bandits and monsters who prey on them. Somehow, the Village is always out beyond any sort of lordship or government who would tax them (even when there are several villages around) and protect them.

Yet there is generally a civilized, citified area from which the heroes come, and only a couple of weeks away. I find it difficult to believe that, as a matter of gathering more taxes or securing trade routes, that some city wouldn’t claim these hinterlands. I find it difficult to believe that these people, in Old World old settlements, not chop-suey Americo-Australo-Canadian boomtowns, don’t simply have relatives down the road, allied villages, local chiefs, the rest of their language-speakers and culture-sharers, to call on for help or move in with.

Villagers are completely ineffectual – until you need them not to be.

Too much Seven Samurai going on here. They always need some outside hero to come in and take care of it for them. The stories emphasize, over and over, that the villagers can only be slaughtered by the problem and are completely unable to figure out any means of counteracting or counter-attacking. They never poison the food the menace has come for. They never arrange a pit with punji stakes along the only approach.

In story #3, the villagers could manage to burn all the eggs the menace laid, but seemed incapable of, say, crippling it with billhooks then pouring boiling pitch on it and setting it aflame. They live up in the mountains where pine forests all around should provide plenty of cheap pitch.

But, in story #2, when the heroes have overcome the menace, the villagers turn on them, and are suddenly a danger, though they were ineffectual an hour earlier.

Excuse me, but if someone had just saved me from two centuries of oppression, I would 1) not mess with the dude who just whacked a menace that all of us together couldn’t harm in the least, 2) show a trifle of gratitude, even if they had used unexpected means. I would also expect that even the starchiest prigs about proper epicness of method would be counteracted by a faction with a better appreciation of getting the job done. Instead, they all act as one hive mind. This leads to …

Villagers only have one mind between them all, and it’s stupid.

In more realistic settings, there are always factions. Especially under the stress of having something dangerous stalking around, people are going to have different ideas of what to do about it – starting with some ought to be packing to move, more and more as no villager-born plan works. But, nope, everyone sticks right there, no one tries anything on their own, and everyone supports the heroes that come to rescue them or, even dumber, everyone turns on the heroes who have rescued them because, um, Villagers are stupid, and ingratitude is cheap drama by a lazy author.

Villages are just like the cities we live in, only low-tech – and stupid.

They always have an inn, rather than you having to talk someone into letting you sleep in the hayloft, even though there isn’t enough traffic on the road to support an inn (if there were, someone would carry away news of the monster). The inn’s main room is always packed and busy. Everyone has the leisure and the energy after a day in the fields to sit and drink ale for a few hours, rather than eating dinner and falling asleep, or mending harness or carding wool or making wooden shoes or other necessary chores. At harvest time, no one is putting in 18-hour days getting the crop in or taking care of the necessities of storing it, either. They have nothing better to do than stand around and be a menacing group or a bunch of cowardly gossips.

There’s always a dead body or two or three when you need it for bait, which would be an horrific death rate for a place with only three hundred people (okay, 297 since Tuesday). There’s always someone available for human sacrifice, especially among the young women. Do the math. If 3-4 people die a week, how long before there is no village? If no one new comes to the village, even if no one leaves, add to the normal death rate killing 1-4 maidens a year before they can breed: how soon before there are only six people under 12 in the village? The authors act like they have the unlimited thousands or tens of thousands of people of a city or kingdom to draw on.

In a village, adventurers are anonymous in what they do, as in a big city, rather than being the cynosure of all conscious villagers, because they’re someone different and therefore interesting. (They’re also strangers, so not trustworthy, and everyone is watching to see if they try to steal anything.) No one will notice you galloping around with a torch in the silence in the middle of the (streetlight-free) night. No one will notice you or one of your friends got wounded and has to heal up before travelling on — just about the time the worshipped monster disappeared. Nah, you guys couldn’t have anything to do with that.

=====

All of these are behaviors we would call Stupid on Cue: characters that do not behave in any way that seems motivated by anything except the author’s need to have them act like that to make the ill-built plot work. It’s a basic of writing, if you want it to be good writing: you have to convince the reader that your characters are real people, partly by having them act like they have decent reasons to act like they do. It’s called convincing motivation. Without it, you make it too hard for them to suspend disbelief. This applies to all characters, however brief or communal they are.

Oh, I should like to note that the authors of stories with Villagers also usually have their main characters be Stupid on Cue every few pages, too. So while this may be attributable to a kind of communal disdain for rural types, we can also put it down to poor skills in characterization and plotting over all. But as I said, all of these are published by Names, so a percentage of editors are not seeing the problems here. Their community apparently often believes  people act like this.

Try to write better. Don’t wind up a practice crit in the Keys.

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