Monday, 5 June 2017

Fictional Realms

Here, we discussed:

Technic civilization;
the Emberverse;
contemporary Britain.

How many of these realms are fictional? Geographically, Britain is an island. Biologically, it is inhabited by homo sapiens. But what makes it "Britain"? Its name, language, institutions, laws, cultures, customs, traditions, ideas, beliefs, values and politics are creations of the human mind. Money is notoriously a convenient fiction. It is a truism that a bank does not physically contain all the money that it lends or invests. My name is not part of me but only the memory of having been addressed with a particular sound from the earliest age. My marriage contract, property ownership and right to a state pension do not exist in nature. Apparently it is difficult to determine who owns some fields around Lancaster because the relevant documents are hard to find. The Duke of Westminster and his valet are two human beings. Both need to be rescued from a burning building, not one before the other. Some people are prepared to kill for their sense of national identity...

In SM Stirling's Emberverse, the loss of technology enables some surviving groups to impose entirely different sets of ideas on society. One of these sets of ideas is derived from a work of fiction, and even includes an "invented" language, but were all social ideologies not already works of fiction? Poul Anderson shows us Manuel Argos imposing ideas from the Roman Empire on the social chaos that he has inherited from the Solar Commonwealth. Is Argos very different from Stirling's Tolkienists?


Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

Hmmm, no, in one sense Manuel Argos was not that different from Astrid Larsson and her passion for the works of Tolkien. Like her, the Founder of the Empire was faced with chaos and the urgent need to restore order. So he took over ideas from the past to help shape the structure he planned to build and use as the means of restoring order. It was because Manuel's Empire SUCCEEDED that it was accepted as legitimate and lasted for centuries on centuries.

And the same process was seen, on a smaller scale, in the NW of the fallen US after the Change. The PPA, Bearkillers, Mt. Angel, Mackenzies, Neo-Dunedain, etc.


S.M. Stirling said...

It's important to remember that "created by the human mind" does not mean "arbitrarily made up" or "easily changed by a conscious decision".

If enough people believe something very strongly, it becomes (socially speaking) an objective fact, as real as rocks -- and as capable of killing you as a rock falling on your head.

Money, nations and ethnic groups, and religions are examples.

In some conditions -- what Marxists used to call a "revolutionary situation", or other catastrophe -- mass beliefs become unstable, plastic, and malleable.

But that's not the usual condition; and when it does happen, it's usually bad news. Shared narratives and myths are what let human beings interact, especially in large groups, without continually killing each other. Nobody can reinvent their perceptual world all the time, and trying can drive you crazy or result in sociopathic egoism/nihilism.

The narratives and myths usually function to extend sentiments and attitudes which are genuinely instinctual, like in-group solidarity, to much larger contexts.

The tribe or the nation or the religious community get the blood-relative feeling that transcends self-centered individualism and restrains impulses.

Since human beings are culture-bearers and behaviorally plastic, this can work surprisingly well. A wolf is territorial about it's kin-group's territory; a human being can be territorial about territory in the same way -- it's the default state -- or about things far more abstract, like for example the interests of a guild or a monastic order. (Or a street-gang.)

It's always unstable, but it's very necessary. This is why a consensus narrative reemerges after a period of crisis; we can't live without one. People feel lost and bereft and isolated and endangered if theirs breaks down.

This is why it's also -- usually -- a bad idea to monkey with or undermine a society's myths, on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle. The accumulated layers of myth and narrative work in ways too complex to be consciously designed satisfactorily by any one individual, because they're the result of millions upon millions of acts of creativity and "memetic creation" through the history of the group.

Even when you get a charismatic prophet-revolutionary type who broadly resets a culture, they invariably do it by adding the new to a large body of the old... and even so, the results are often explosively bloody.

Paul Shackley said...

Mr Stirling,
Thank you for this short essay. You say what some of us think but better.

Paul Shackley said...

Poul Anderson's Veleda creatively changes myths.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul and Mr. Stirling,

Paul, I agree. Two recent examples of the prophet/revolutionary who tried to broadly reset a culture and getting bloodily explosive results would be Mao Tse-tung in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia. They were both RUINOUS disasters for their countries.


Paul Shackley said...

A cultural change has to come from within the people. It cannot be imposed.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

Of course! And that is what Mr. Stirling, myself, and characters like Dominic Flandry believe.


David Birr said...

Paul and Sean:
“You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.”
— Terry Pratchett, *Witches Abroad*
The speaker either referred to or was directly reprimanding another woman who was (often brutally) forcing people to conform to her notion of a fairy-tale kingdom.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, DAVID!

And this Pratchett character was behaving like Mao and Pol Pot!