Writing

Get Bent – A Modest Proposal

I started this collection of stories after reading a particularly awful one last month. It wasn’t that the writing was Bulwer-Futton bad; it was actually fairly good. And it wasn’t that the characters were cardboard cutouts; instead, each one had a distinct personality so that you could tell from the words alone who was speaking and acting at any given time. No, it was because the author and the characters he wrote were completely bound by a rigid set of sex-specific roles that were more than anachronistic; they were the Platonic ideal of mid-20th Century America’s view of gender roles. But we know that even in that era [1], those roles weren’t just changing; they were effectively non-existent and given little more than lip-service. And that got me to thinking about how art is supposed to reflect life and wondering if stories like that would still stack up after a little gender bending.

It also got me thinking about Pleasantville. In this 1998 film, a pair of modern teens were sucked into a 1950s black and white sitcom, the eponymous Pleasantville. In the sitcom, everyone is pretty much the same and nothing really bad ever happens – but nothing really good ever happens, either. As the two teens make their way through the monotone world of Pleasantville, they start making changes that cause people to break out in color. And they discover that while color brings with it the possibility of horrible things happening (riots and rapes), it also brings the opportunity for amazing things as well (falling in love and finding your passion). Naturally, the film immediately flopped. That is a shame because the idea behind Pleasantville is very similar to the idea behind the parodies that make up Get Bent: life is more interesting in color.

Right now, most of science fiction is set in Pleasantville, whether the authors realize it or not. They are setting their stories in universes where everyone is the same and has the same background and expectations and morality; they are working in black and white. Even those that include sprawling societies with different languages rarely include anything more than the barest of rainbow-washing with a rare female or non-Caucasian. What they are missing is that the world isn’t black and white; it isn’t even shades of grey. The world is a fabulous technicolor panopticon of weird and wonderful people and the best stories reflect that.

How weird is the world? Let me tell you by describing six different groups that actually exist in our world right now. None of these examples are made up; all of them consider the way that they live to be normal and the rules that they live by to be universal and moral. Any of them could be used as a setting for a story that would be more realistic than most in print today:

The Ghans are a patriarchal polygynous society that is the last lingering vestige of a once-broad trading empire. Many of the morals and habits of the Ghans are traceable to the earlier empire. Family units typically consist of one adult Ghan male and two to three adult females plus their children. When the adult male Ghan is “on the caravan trail”, he is allowed to take a “caravan wife” who is typically an adolescent Ghan male and serves in the same capacity as a regular wife would at home; once the Ghan returns from his travels, the caravan wife is usually abandoned and given a token payment. Women have very limited rights in Ghan society and are considered secondary citizens in almost every way. However, when a family lacks a male heir, the eldest daughter can be legally declared a male and act exactly as a typical male would, including being able to marry and to control “his” female relatives.

The Nams are a group of people who practice serial monogamy and oligarchy. Sexually, about 90% of the Nams are heterosexual, cis-gendered, but they do recognize the rights of homosexual cis-gendered people; transgendered people are still a subclass. Though extramarital sex is common, especially among the various underclasses, the most typical bond is a temporary marriage lasting between one and five years. After the temporary marriage is over, the two members will often seek a new marriage partner from among their social cohort. The Nams are a stew-pot society in which different ethnicities mix but rarely meld. Marriage between the different ethnic groups is legal but tacitly discouraged. The Nams are nominally a meritocracy but effectively an oligarchy as those from the lower social classes typically lack the resources to accrue the merit needed to advance.

The Hass are a patriarchal matrilineal society that is bound by religious doctrine and not by geographical borders; a Hass is a Hass, no matter where he lives. The Hass have distinctive dress and dietary habits that make them easily recognizable; they also have strong restrictions on where they can live and work. In part, those restrictions are self-imposed, to meet the needs of their religion, and in part they are imposed by society. The women of the Hass control matters touching on marriage and the home (e.g., only women are allowed to cook) but have no other power in the society; the men handle the money (women are forbidden to touch it) and the work. If a male Hass offends the women, they can refuse to provide him with a wife or provide shelter to his wife so that he is left without food. Homosexuality and transgender identity are considered to be mortal sins and those practicing them are cast out of the society without any resources which to the Hass is the equivalent of a death sentence.

The Toro live in a dense rainforest where they practice coercive homosexuality [2]. Toro women are kept in a village separate from the men and are visited over the course of a month once a year. Any male who visits the women’s village out of season is subject to strong penalties ranging from flogging to dismemberment; any female who consorts with a male out of season is killed without consideration. During the rest of the year the men engage in what we would describe as ritual child abuse. Male children are taken from the women’s village at the age of three and taught the ways of the rain forest. As part of their training, they are required to absorb vitality from the men and the adolescent males by the obvious route. Toro are fierce warriors and frequently raid nearby villages for plunder and women to add to their tribe. Any defeated men are slaughtered without mercy; any Toro male that dies in battle and the bravest enemies are cooked and eaten by the tribe in order to increase the tribe’s vitality.

The Betts are native to a high sierra desert. There are at least three castes in the Betts: farmers, scholars, and priests. The castes trade resources via a complicated system of obligations. Due to the scarcity of arable land, the Betts practice patriarchal polyandry; the eldest son in a family will find a woman of appropriate caste and he and his brothers will all marry her; she is given control over the family household in return for being confined to the area for the rest of her life. This creates just one set of heirs per generation, allowing the land and other resources to be retained in the family group instead of being split into ever-decreasing plots. A similar rationale is used to maintain the number of priests. “Excess” women who fail to attract husbands are turned into nuns or worked in the fields as neuters. There is considerable extramarital infidelity, especially between the younger brothers (who may not be allowed frequent conjugal visits) and the women who fail to find a husband despite rather drastic penalties against any children born of such a union. Younger sons were also sometimes adopted into families lacking male heirs.

The Nesians practice ritual exogamy and polyandry. They live in isolated groups with multiple husbands and wives; marriage is sometimes mutually exclusive but open marriages are far more common. Children are considered common property of the group. Though the child knows who his birth mother is, any and all females are accorded equal rights with respect to raising the child. The women control the property of the group and reach decisions in a process of gerontocracy-driven consensus. Men have fewer responsibilities and rights than women and are most commonly employed in hunting and gathering foods. When a male child reaches maturity (usually at twelve to fifteen years), he is sent to join another group as a new “husband”. Females typically stay in the group of their birth but may be exchanged in rare circumstances. [3]

So that is my proposal. Instead of living in Pleasantville, where everyone is a cis-gendered heterosexual Caucasian male (with the occasional cis-gendered heterosexual Caucasian female or cis-gendered heterosexual non-Caucasian male for “diversity”), why not move to a place with color and true diversity. Instead of writing aliens who are simply people like us in green paint, why not write about the true aliens among us? Why not get really and truly bent?

[1] Remember that the same era that gave us the tradition-driven fantasy of I Dream of Genie also gave us the Stonewall Riots and The Feminine Mystique.

[2] I really, really wish that I were making this group up or exaggerating their habits. Sadly, I am not. They are somewhat famous in anthropological circles for their unusual habits.

[3] The ethnological study of this society became a number one bestseller

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