Writing, Reading, Living Different Cultures

I saw a Twitter thread about writing culture by author Joan He, on the face of it about her (or your) own but by extension that of others, and it has plenty of food for thought:

 

As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.

Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.

Ratatouille Anton Ego Perspective Quote

At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.

One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.

Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.

I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.

Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.

So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.

Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.

Image via The Autodidactic Hacker

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

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Secondary Characters in Love

I realized something recently.

There are lot of books, movies, television series, and so on about people falling in love, or whose main characters end up in a relationship. (No, that’s not the thing I realized.) Mulder and Scully. Lizzie and Darcy. Aragorn and Arwen. For a lot of people, these pairings are a big deal. Fans of these works love watching the characters fall in love (or arguing endlessly on the internet about it) and creators tease us with will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation and big payoff wedding days.

All of this is perfectly fine, but it’s not for me. I don’t mind that Mulder and Scully end up together, but that was never what I watched X Files for. I love Pride and Prejudice for the witty dialogue, expertly crafted story, and deliciously wicked satires of social pretension, not for the Darcy-Bennet nuptials.

Now here’s the thing I realized: even though I have no investment in main character romances, I adore secondary character romances. I love watching side and background characters fall in love and get down to happily-ever-after-ing. I don’t care one way or another if Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson end up together, but I’m all in for Dot and Hugh. To me, the climax of Pride and Prejudice is not when Mr. Darcy proposes (for the second time) to Elizabeth Bennet, but when Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane Bennet.

I think there are some reasons for this. Side characters’ romances are not generally made to carry the same dramatic weight as main characters’. That means they don’t usually get saddled with tedious will-they-or-won’t-they teases or artificial roadblocks to “build drama.” More often they get to be sweet, silly, stories of love. In longer-form works, like television series, secondary characters also often get to make progress in their romance, moving on from flirtation to dating to marriage to wedded life while main characters tend to get stuck in stasis.

Then again, maybe I just love secondary characters.

Anybody else feel this way? Or am I just peculiar?

Image: Jane and Charles via Giphy

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

Quotes: Believing All That Matters Is What They Want

On his blog, author Jason Sanford talks about story submission and publication data, specifically with SFF genre in mind. He refers to an essay, an interview, and his experience as editor, and talks about how men tend to submit many more stories than women, even when their stories were “totally inappropriate” (in Jason’s words). His conclusion?

“In the case of why male authors are far more likely to not read a magazine or their guidelines before submitting, and are more likely to submit multiple stories in a short time frame, I think it ties in with them not seeing the motivations of others and believing all that matters is what they want.

“But if you’re submitting your stories to an editor, what you want isn’t what lands the acceptance. It’s what the editor wants. Otherwise, an author is merely wasting everyone’s time.”

– Jason Sanford

I’ve no comment on the data and survey side of the post, being a not-numbers person. What struck me was that this is the strongest-worded remark I’ve seen—and note that it really isn’t—saying a number of male authors behave in a blatantly self-centered manner and suggesting they change.

Sanford, Jason. “The Submissions Men Don’t See.” Jasonsanford.com, September 24, 2017.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?

Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.

Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.

So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?

My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.

Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.

This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and wet, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.

The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.

Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.

Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.

These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.

When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.

These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.

All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.

These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.

If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.

Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Heroic Warfare and Mass Warfare

There are many ways to fight a battle, even in worlds without modern weapons and techniques. Two terms that are useful for thinking about pre-modern battles are heroic warfare and mass warfare.

Heroic warfare is centered on a small number of leaders. These leaders are usually the most experienced and best equipped fighters their side of the fight can muster. They rely on their reputation as great warriors, so they need to stand out and be seen by everyone on both sides. In heroic warfare, battle begins not with both sides rushing into the fight but with the leaders stepping forward to identify themselves, boast about their victories, taunt leaders on the other side, and generally try to intimidate the enemy while boosting their own troops’ morale.

Mass warfare relies upon large numbers of soldiers who are all similarly equipped and who fight as a group. Commanders often stand out so that their own troops can identify them and follow their lead on the field, but they fight as part of the group and success does not depend on their individual reputation.

Historically, heroic warfare tended to be practiced in small-scale, culturally homogeneous societies. As societies grow larger and more complex, they tend to shift away from heroic warfare to mass warfare. There are practical reasons for this. The advantage of fighting in heroic style is that it greatly limits the number of casualties. The point of all the showing off and boasting at the beginning of the battle is try to convince the other side that they can’t win and so they’d be better off coming to terms and avoiding the fight altogether. For that to work, though, both sides have to have enough confidence in one another that they can make an agreement and expect the other side to honor it. That kind of confidence usually depends on having a shared set of cultural norms and values. It is much harder to manage across a wide cultural divide.

At the same time, heroic warfare is not all for show. The message that a heroic leader is trying to send is: “If we actually do start fighting, we’re going to beat you.” For that message to be credible, the leader has to be able to back it up, and even the best leader is no good without followers. Heroic warfare depends not just on the leader standing in front but on the soldiers standing behind them ready to fight if the other side doesn’t back down. Heroic warfare works when the number of troops on both sides is small enough that one well-equipped, skilled leader’s participation in battle might actually make a difference. In larger societies that can put thousands of soldiers on the field, the talents of individual leaders are much less relevant to the outcome of a fight.

Thoughts for writers

We like heroes. As storytellers, we tend to focus on the stories of individuals, even in settings where the actions of groups matter more to the outcome. There is nothing new about this. Ancient myths and medieval romances are full of heroic warriors, even though they were told by people who lived in times of mass warfare. The ethos of heroic warfare is undeniably appealing, but if it is going to make sense in our stories we have to think about how to make it work in settings where it doesn’t naturally fit.

There is a place for heroic warriors in settings of mass warfare. Where most of the real fighting is done by mass armies, there are still times when a powerful leader can make a difference—when events that play out on a small scale matter to the larger battle and when threat and intimidation are called for. These are the moments we need to craft as writers.

In other words, even when most of the fighting is done by these guys

you can still find a place for someone like this.

Images: Battle of Issus via Wikimedia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples; 1st c. BCE; mosaic). Stormtroopers via Giphy. Darth Vader via Giphy.

History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Speculative Stories Online: Finnish Weird

Finnish Weird is a recent project to publish new Finnish speculative fiction in English. Published yearly by the Helsinki Science Fiction Society and edited by Toni Jerrman, the issues are available online for free to read or download as either epub or pdf.

Finnish Weird 3 Issue Covers

Each volume contains feature articles well as short stories by big-name authors such as Anne Leinonen, Leena Likitalo, Johanna Sinisalo, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, Maria Turtschaninoff, and others. At this writing, the fourth issue (2017) has just been released.

fw4_logo

Author Johanna Sinisalo introduces the project and the style suomikumma (“Finnish weird”) in the inaugural 2014 issue:

“After barely a couple of hundred years of written literary tradition and decades of gatekeepers who have shunned works including elements of fantasy as cheap escapism, Finnish writers now create fiction that is a phenomenal mixture of sf, fantasy, horror, surrealism, magic realism – you name it. It’s highly original, fresh and surprising, sometimes it celebrates elements of our rich folklore and mythos, sometimes it soars sky-high in sf worlds, sometimes the stories are almost realistic, but have that little weirdness or twist that makes them something other than mimetic writing.

[…]

“I’m not trying to say that we Finns reinvented the wheel – new weird – and are trying to claim it as our own, not at all. What I am saying is that Scandinavian countries did not invent crime stories either, but in the wake of the international success of detective and crime fiction from Sweden, Norway, etc., ‘Nordic Noir’ has become a label for a certain quality of story. In my opinion, the label ‘Finnish Weird’ is also a brand – a brand that promises a roller-coaster ride of highly original prose from very diverse writers with truly personal styles. We are weird and very proud of it.”

Images via Finnish Weird

The Long and Pointless War

One of the common tropes in stories about war is that war is pointless and goes on far too long. This trope goes back at least as far as the Trojan War cycle in Greek mythology but a particularly strong version of it became prominent in twentieth-century American science fiction with works like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War. These works portrayed wars that have gone on for as long as anyone can remember and which show no signs of ever ending. The original causes for the war are long forgotten and both sides just continue to fight for no reason other than to avenge the ravages of previous battles. In more optimistic stories, all it takes to stop the carnage is for an outsider to point out to the combatants how meaningless their war is. In more pessimistic versions, the war just keeps going as the populations on both sides are blinded by warmongering propaganda and either unable or unwilling to ask what they’re fighting for in the first place. While stories of this kind may have a lot to say about what it feels like to be at war, however, they don’t match with what history shows us about the real causes of war.

Almost every society large enough to organize a substantial number of fighters, from ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to modern nations, has engaged in war. Some societies go to war readily, other reluctantly, and the immediate causes of individual conflicts vary, but certain patterns recur throughout history. Most wars ultimately come down to the need to control the resources that are essential to survival and prevent outsiders from threatening those resources. Most crucially, this means food, but other kinds of resources, such as access to trade routes, metals, and labor also contribute. People go to war because they are afraid of starving to death, not because they hate their neighbors.

The threat to survival may not always be immediate. Some wars are fought not for a direct tangible gain but to preserve reputation or prevent hostile forces from acquiring a competitive advantage. The danger that people fear when they go to war is also sometimes illusory or misjudged. Just because wars happen for a reason doesn’t mean that we all will (or should) agree that those reasons are good ones. Still, when you look behind the rhetoric and propaganda of a nation at war, you will almost always find a real fear about fundamental survival.

Ideologies, religions, political ideals, and other kinds of identities do play a role in shaping conflicts. They help to draw the lines between “us” and “them” and to justify why, in a time of crisis, “we” should live and “they” should die. Differences of identity alone, however, are not enough to cause wars. The history of the world is full of people of different faiths, ethnicities, and political persuasions living together in peace—not always harmony, but at least peace. War is the rare exception. To put it another way: war is a practical problem, not a moral problem.

Wars that arise from pragmatic fears will tend to last as long as those fears remain, or until the cost of continuing to fight outweighs the cost of accepting a settlement. History offers us plenty of examples of long wars. There were conflicts that lasted decades of more or less continual hostilities such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta or the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe. There were also conflicts that recurred between the same forces on more or less the same terms over generations or centuries, such as between the Roman and Parthian Empires or China and the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. From the point of view of ordinary soldiers and civilians living through them, any of these wars may well have seemed interminable and pointless, but behind all of them were real and practical fears of the threat that rival powers posed to control of essential resources. They continued for so long because these fears remained unresolved, not because of ingrained hostility. When they ended, it was because circumstances had changed—one power decisively defeated another, all powers were too exhausted to continue, or an outside force changed the dynamics of the conflict—not because people suddenly came to their senses and stopped hating one another.

Thoughts for writers

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t write stories about long and pointless wars. This trope exists for a reason and it has an important place in our literature. It’s no surprise that the trope became popular among writers who lived through the Cold War and, in the United States, the war in Vietnam. Both of those conflicts seemed especially pointless to many, soldiers and civilians alike. Almost any war can seem meaningless from the point of view of the common soldier following orders and just trying to stay alive. Stories of this kind express something important about the dehumanizing effects of war and the common yearning for peace.

It’s not our job as fiction writers to try to perfectly replicate history. We have the freedom to be unrealistic, but we should know when we’re doing it. If you want to have noisy explosions in space because they make your story more exciting, go ahead and have them. If you want to write a story about vampires in Victorian London, don’t let the fact that vampires aren’t real stop you. Likewise, if you have a story to tell about war, tell it the way you want to tell it. Just be aware that actual wars begin and end because of practical need and fears, not because people just can’t get along.

Image: Modern soldiers visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, photograph by George Gieske via Wikimedia

Post edited for clarity.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Herodotus on Resisting Tyranny

170220dancerThe ancient Greek historian Herodotus was deeply concerned with the question of how democratic societies can defend themselves from tyranny. In the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, cities all across Greece saw outbreaks of tyranny: wealthy aristocrats seized power by force and ruled without regard to law or tradition. A few of these regimes lasted for a few generations, but most were overthrown in a matter of years. In the fifth century, Greece faced the larger threat of conquest by the Persian empire, whose Great King the Greeks perceived as kind of tyrant writ large.

Herodotus wrote about this history in his account of the wars between Greece and Persia. He told the stories of how the Athenians ousted their tyrants and how the Greeks organized to repel the Persian invasions. Some of his lessons in resisting tyranny, however, come in less obvious ways. Consider, for example, the story of Hippocleides (Herodotus, Histories 6.129).

The tale is set in the Greek city of Sicyon, generations before the Greco-Persian wars. A rich man named Cleisthenes had made himself tyrant and was looking to marry off his daughter, Agariste, to some rich young man from another city who could be a useful ally. Young men of fortune from all around Greece came to Sicyon to compete for Agariste’s hand. Cleisthenes hosted them for a year in his house, testing them on their credentials and talents. After a year, an Athenian, Hippocleides, son of Teisandrus, emerged as the favorite and preparations were made for a wedding. The story picks up on the day of the wedding:

After dinner, the suitors held a competition in music and speaking before the assembled audience. As the drinking began, Hippocleides, holding the attention of the room, called for some pleasant music, and having gotten the flute player to play, began to dance. And while I suppose Hippocleides pleased himself with his dancing, Cleisthenes looked on the whole thing with distaste. After a while, Hippocleides called for a table to be brought in. Getting onto the table he first danced some Laconian figures on it, next some Attic ones, but for his third act he planted his head on the table and waved his legs in the air.

Now Cleisthenes, at the first and second performances, was horrified at the thought that he might still end up tied by marriage to such a shameless dancer, but he kept silent; yet when he saw the man’s legs waving about he could no longer contain himself and declared: “Son of Teisandrus, you have danced yourself out of a marriage!”

The young man replied: “Hippocleides doesn’t care.”

– Herodotus, Histories 6.129

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