*Peter Grant is the author of Take The Star Road and the just released Ride the Rising Tide both of which made the list for hot new releases. Not bad for an indie author. He talks about his writing later this week (Wednesday) at Mad Genius Club, but for now, he’ll talk about … other things*
Of Worlds and World-Views
Sarah’s very good at highlighting differences between cultures and societies, be they Portugal versus the USA, or how populations are counted in Africa, or building fictional settings and universes. She and I are both immigrants to the USA, and both of us have experienced many things that are literally foreign to most of our readers. This helps us as science fiction and fantasy authors when we try to build worlds that are new and unfamiliar to our readers. I’m sure both of us have found our foreign backgrounds useful in that regard.
Almost all authors draw upon local sources for their inspiration. Sometimes the similarity is blatant, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune series, where the Fremen culture of Arrakis and their jihad clearly draws heavily upon the rise of Islam. Other fictional worlds and societies are much harder to relate to their earthly counterparts, because their authors have taken great pains to disguise them; or perhaps they’ve drawn upon elements from multiple cultures and mythologies and combined them. One of the things I most enjoy when reading science fiction or fantasy is to try to identify the cultures and myths that have influenced its author and/or gone into its creation. It’s a pleasant – albeit occasionally frustrating – mental exercise.
We have so many variations in societies and cultures on Earth that it’s a much stranger place than most of the worlds we can possibly imagine! For example, I was born and raised in Africa, and spent many years traveling around the continent. I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of tribal and ethnic cultures (including low-level initiation into some of the mysteries of the sangoma – a witch-doctor or traditional healer). Let me give you just three examples of different world-views from my own experience.
– When lightning hits a tree, and it smolders and then bursts into flame, we understand that the transfer of electrical energy has heated the wood to ignition point, resulting in the fire. However, to one rural witch-doctor of my acquaintance (a lady in Malawi who’d completed high school education, including basic physics and chemistry), it was clear that the gods of the trees were at war, and the god of that particular tree had just been zapped. When I remonstrated with her, pointing out that she’d been to school and must therefore surely understand that such superstition was false, she looked at me pityingly and said something condescending about how blind we Europeans were to spiritual reality!
– When South Africa achieved democratic government in 1994, many areas of society previously dominated by whites were thrown open to other races. The national sport, which under apartheid had been rugby (a white-dominated sport) instantly became soccer (football), which was far more popular among the black population. The national team was soon dominated by black players and coaches. The latter immediately began to use muti (herbal concoctions and supposedly magical ‘medicine’ supplied by witch-doctors) to ensure victory. When some players objected to finding their uniforms and boots stuffed with muti, the coaches became highly indignant, and most of those who complained found themselves shuffled off the national squad. Muti was also a factor in the recent World Cup in that country. (Of course, looking at the NFL and NBA, one does wonder sometimes . . . )
– During a visit to West Africa, I stayed at a remote village for a couple of days. One morning I noticed a lizard sunning itself on a tree branch close to the guest hut. I moved slowly over to the tree, ignored by the lizard, which clearly had no fear of humans. It even let me stroke it gently – at which two men coming towards me broke into loud cries of amazement at the ‘white man’s courage’. Baffled, I asked them what they meant, only to be told that the lizard was deadly poisonous to the touch, and any black man doing so would certainly die in agony within minutes. When I looked up the lizard in the local school’s encyclopedia and showed them the entry (which stated unequivocally that the lizard was completely harmless), they shook their heads and said that applied only to white men, who were immune to the lizard’s lethal toxins. They couldn’t be persuaded that their tribal superstition was completely without foundation.
The same problem can be found in many primitive cultures throughout the world. No matter how much ‘modern’ education is provided to the members of those cultures, it usually takes generations for cultural presuppositions to be supplanted by informed understanding. Sometimes it seems as if that will never happen.
Of course, our own First World cultures aren’t immune to such problems. Consider:
– The germ theory of disease took decades to be widely accepted in the Western world, despite overwhelming scientific and empirical evidence of its truth. Believe it or not, there are still those who engage in germ theory denialism!
– Despite overwhelming historical, documentary, archaeological and eyewitness evidence, there are many who refuse to believe that the Holocaust ever happened, or who downplay its severity or significance. Holocaust denial remains a serious problem in neo-Nazi and neo-fascist politics.
– Communism has failed miserably in every single country where it’s been tried. Nevertheless, there are ‘true believers’ who continue to insist that communism would be the best possible system of government, if only it were properly implemented! We have more than enough of them right here in the USA, including some of the ideologues that have influenced the current Administration and informed its policies.
(Both Sarah and I have experienced communism – the ultimate expression of left-wing, liberal, progressive politics – at halitosis range. Our resultant incandescent response when others try to promote such policies leads our respective spouses to try very hard to limit our exposure to them!)
Most First World people of my acquaintance – in Africa, Europe and the USA – regard primitive superstitions as arrant nonsense, without any basis in ‘scientific reality’. I take malicious delight in pointing out to them that they live in societies and cultures where:
– the daily horoscope is essential reading for many people;
– homeopathy is accepted by millions as a valid form of medical treatment, despite it being categorically and incontrovertibly ridiculous from any normative scientific perspective; and
– people pointlessly and repeatedly sound their vehicles’ horns in traffic jams, apparently in the belief that by doing so they’ll somehow magically make the vehicles around them start moving again.
So much for scientific reality . . .
How about you, friends? How have different cultures, mythologies and world views informed and influenced your own development, and continue to affect how you perceive and interact with the world and the people around you? Have you ever examined them in any depth, or is this something that’s largely unconscious and instinctive for you? Let us know in Comments.