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October 2018



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Reading Fantasy From a Sociological Perspective.

When fantasy writers create novel societies they tell us more about themselves than anything else. Non-fantasy writers use existing cultures and depict situations that are similar to situation we know exist in the real world. They don't need to explain why those situations exist because we all know that they do exist. But if you create a novel culture you have to justify why these novel situations exist. Some authors are pretty good at avoiding the problem, by focusing on the situation itself and moving the action so fast the reader doesn't have time to wonder why things are the way they are. But when authors do try to explain their novel cultures their explanation reveal a lot about how they think, or don't think, human societies work.

Right now I'm reading "Tarot of the Cat People: A Traveler's Report" by Karen Kuykendall. Ms Kuykendall is an artist who created a beautiful set of cat themed Tarot cards. She also created a world with six distinct cultures to populate her cards. The first chapter of her book is indeed a traveler's report on the Domain of the Cat People.

The domain of the cat people is described as "very, very far away" and is frequently compared and contrasted to Earth. From which we have to assume that is not on Earth. It is mostly desert with no large or deep bodies of water. Although there are shallow brackish algae pans that provide most of the water and food.

There are no formal schools in most of the domains and children are treated as adults. Which, in my opinion is unfortunate, because there are good reasons not to treat children as adults. They don't have the mental capacity to understand the consequences of their actions, because they don't have enough experience to understand long term consequences. However there are plenty of human cultures that make that mistake.

The lack of formal schooling is another problem. Kuykendall seems to think that home schooling by attentive parents and apprenticeships for skilled professions are sufficient. I think she fails to consider how this disadvantages the less fortunate. I know that our formal schools also frequently fail the less fortunate. But I don't think leaving parents and children to fend for themselves is the answer.

Most women "mate for life" and yet they have no word for "marriage" and no formal ceremonies. This seems to be a case of the author not understanding what "marriage" means sociologically. Right now American, and European culture is going through a transition on the importance of marriage. Marriage involves legal rights and responsibilities. The only cultures that don't have formal marriages are those where there is very little property, or where fathers have no rights and children automatically belong to the families of their mothers. (In those societies men treat their sister's children as their own. Which is just a good from an evolutionary standpoint. And more reliable, you are definitely related to your sister's children.)

Women and men are treated as equals among the cat people and both get parental leave to care for children. So I can generally assume that the author is a liberal. If I hand't guessed already.

The book mostly talks about five cultures. The four Outer Regions, and the central ruling region. But there is also talk of Nomads. People who can't conform to their society's expectations are sometimes banish or run away to join the Nomads and become brigands and thieves. Defending against these nomadic bands is the primary martial activity of the warrior class. Although the warrior class also provide bridge and road inspection and repair, fire and disaster services, and general policing.

The religions of the cat people seem to be a general kind of animism and sun worship. The Central ruling domain has a formal church and priesthood, but the Outer Regions have local shamans and magicians. The people of the central region are considered out of touch with nature, partly because of their formal religion. I think this reflects the author's bias. There is a large section of our culture that considers religion to be less "spiritual" the more formal or organized it is. They also tend to associate formal religion with dogma. Which is a complicated issue I don't have time to untangle right now.

They also have a right of passage called a "Solo" where a young person is taken out in the dessert and knocked unconscious and abandoned. If they manage to survive they are considered an adult. No in the outer regions is considered an adult until they do the Solo. Well, I guess it's a good thing they treat children like adults then. Because that is a really barbaric practice.

"Government of the five kingdoms of the Outer Regions are absolute monarchies, but not totalitarian." I just laughed out loud. How can a monarchy be "absolute" but not "totalitarian"?

To be continued...