Currently, I’m reading Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. For the vast swathe (<eyeroll>) of my readers not from Australia, this is a non-fiction book delineating Australia’s origin myth, the transportation of about 165,000 convicts to the other ends of the earth (often for the pettiest of crimes). Although the numbers were dwarfed by later “free” immigration, the idea that Australia was founded by working-class criminals is a powerful one.
My esteemed colleague Dalibor Perkovic puts it well with the outsider’s bluntness:
Australians, on the other hand, simply don’t have that [romantic] option. Australians know for a fact – as it is meticulously noted and filed in the archives of the Crown – that they are indeed the descendants of horse thieves, highwaymen and murderers. Australians can’t lie to themselves and others. There is simply no room for glorifying the national history. For Australians the truth is literally Out There. So while other nations really need to take the path of national sobering up, the psychotherapy of admitting that they are not really the offspring of heroes, but instead people who, if they were alive today, would be locked up and institutionalized, the Australians are already there: one step ahead of everyone else.
Australians have tried to make a virtue of this, fashioning a somewhat romanticised view of their forebears. My Father, in the brief grip of a genealogical mania, commented that the true holy grail of Australian genealogy was to find convict ancestry, Australia’s official antipathy to class is celebrated as a reaction to the class-based legalistic warfare that saw so many poor people punished for crimes of necessity, as well as the transportation of political prisoners (notably Fenians, Levellers, Luddites and Chartists).
The official disdain of class ignores the fact that Australia DOES have a class system, formal or no, but that’s an argument for a different post… or for that matter, blog.
The book is thoroughly researched, with an eye for illustrative anecdote and pungent imagery, and it paints a brutal picture of oppression and hardship. A lot of the primary sources for the book come from the naval and military personnel who were sent to keep the convicts in line. Many were sadistic or venal, their hatred of their isolation and privation vented on the convicts whose welfare mattered little, or the indigenous population, whose ability to survive in the harsh landscape must have seemed a direct affront to their concepts of civilisation. Even those who were not actively monsters (and there were a few) were unwilling colonists, their future not in the southern hemisphere, but back in lush, developed Britain. As Wikipedia describes it, the New South Wales Corps was:
… composed of officers on half pay, troublemakers, soldiers paroled from military prisons and those with few prospects, who were gambling on making a life for themselves in the new colony.
This has, of course, leads me to an alternate proposition. What if we are not the (spiritual) descendants of poor, put upon convicts, who transcended their hardships to become who we are today, but instead are the descendants of their jailors, of the time-servers, rejects and dodgy characters of an entirely different, and far less salvageable sort.
What if instead of noble, oppressed martyrs to a ridiculously punitive legal system, we are instead the children of corrupt dysfunctional failures, who were unable to prosper, despite good prospects and instead chose to “queue jump” in the hope of a better life rather than face up to reality? What if the corrupt, officially-sanctioned nastiness of the first iteration of “Australia” is what has driven and underpinned our society ever since? If the punitive Georgian mentality of deserving and undeserving is the bedrock of our sense of entitlement, our harsh attitudes towards those who fail, and our current worship of “aspirationals”.
There is of course, no problem with both – or neither – of these propositions being actually valid. What I’m looking at are the narratives, not the historical truths.
In my novel, there are two basic factions slash societies slash antagonists, that of the native “Veedzi” and that of the (effectively) colonial power, “The Federation”, as represented by the Navy. I’ve tried very hard to ensure that there isn’t a simple cleavage between goodies and baddies here. The villain’s plan is indeed dastardly, callous and brutal, but I want to try to ensure that the actors are being rational (for a given value of rational) and that no matter how foreign the mindsets are, both “sides” were presented as a coherent (if not always cohesive) society of individual identities with whom the readers can identify and empathise with.
So I’ve used alternating point of view sections, in order to counterpoint the views of different group, one voice sometimes cutting directly across the views of the other group. These are often minor players in the story, whose explicit role is to provide a window into the world of “the other”. However, like all expository scenes, they have to be seriously rationed to avoid bogging down the narrative.
I mentioned in my Chekhov’s Gun post that you need to show some economy when using elements to ensure that your readers are able to follow your plot, empathise with your characters and process your concepts. Especially apposite in speculative fiction, of course, where (if you’re worth your salt). you’ll have some some attempt at philosophical depth or technosocial innovation that you need to get across. A couple of sections, I’ve already deleted entirely, because they basically served no purpose but to ostentatiously show “this is the other side’s perspective – empathise please, gentle reader”.
One method I’ve used is a hoary old cliche in Sci-Fi, which is to use excerpts from another text as an instructive interlude. Asimov liked the “Encyclopaedia Galactica”, wheras Adams preferred the slightly-cheaper, “Don’t Panic”-on-the-cover Hitchhiker’s Guide. Frank Herbert typically used multiple (and sometimes conflicting) “sources” to comment on his on-page action, and Katherine Kurtz prefers era-appropriate biblical interjections (sometimes used for Ironic emphasis, given the bloody habits of that particular author).
These voices outside narrative flow allow them to provide perspectives that could not plausibly exist within the main body. In this way, information – which could be abominable infodump or come from unrealistically informed characters – may be imparted to readers without breaking the suspension of disbelief, which is always an uneasy bargain between author and reader.
Specifically, my main use of this is in excerpts from the speech of an anthropologist to a conference, presenting their paper on the planet and its inhabitants. My undergraduate degree had some anthropology and hopefully I’ve been able to capture some of the language and preoccupations of the discipline. However, as I approach the end of the first draft, I feel like I’ve committed one of the cardinal ethical sins of anthropology, which is to feel like you own the representation, that the outsider’s construction of “the other” is the clearest view.
The conference paper sections as written are fine, and do contain important commentary and foreshadowing for what goes on in the rest of the novel (a bit of a singular Greek Chorus). So what I’m going to do in the second draft is to genuinely write in the voice of the Veedzi (possibly utilising some form of Oral Tradition) in order to provide a strong, independent perspective for that group, as opposed to the self-interested agendas of individual characters. I don’t intend this as a whitewash or fishing for sympathy, just as a way to add a bit of moral and cultural perspective, on both sides. To be able to express anger, sadness, prejudice, fear, affection and hope in an internalised voice will hopefully give the reader a far better grip on why they should care about what happens to these people.
But it has to be said that this is only the current alteration to the floorplan. that I’m going to have to experiment with and assess. It may just prove to be the page bloat that I was earlier trying to avoid and be ditched for a leaner, more streamlined approach to narrative, allowing readers to use the isolated buoys I drop in the ocean to navigate their own way to an understanding of the world I make.