Cultural Concentration – Alma Boykin

*Apologies to Alma for getting this up so late.  I’m not functioning overly well in the real world today, because my mind is in the novel.
On the good side I got to write the line every reader of A Few Good Men craved.  “Nat shrugged.  “I am medicated,” he said.”  Unfortunately, I regret to inform you it’s not anti-psychotics. – SAH*

Cultural Concentration – Alma Boykin


At what point do people stop assimilating or at least adopting the surface characteristics of the society around them and start re-creating their old world in their new one? It’s a question science fiction and fantasy tangle with from time to time, although the short answer at the moment seems to be “conquer and recreate” rather than “build parallel.” C. J. Cherryh’s “Foreigner” series might be an exception, but that is one among many on the shelves at Ye Regional Chain Bookstore. A goodly number of works I’ve read the blurbs for, or skimmed recently, posit that the newcomers come in, kick tail, and do whatever they can to erase the former culture. This may be because they don’t like the magic use of the older culture, or perhaps because the older culture was corrupt and evil and practiced infant sacrifice, or because it is just what they do, Borg-like. I suspect it comes from people who are most familiar with the Roman Empire or the US and the American Indians, and use those models of conquest without really digging into the history and pre-history. And “plucky band of survivors carefully preserving ancient magic” makes for a great story. I’ve used it myself in that steampunk thing I need to rework and publish.

When I started the current WIP series, I wanted to try something different. What if the colonial power comes for economic reasons, or pure curiosity that leads to economic reasons, and develops a parallel system that mimics their homeworld as closely as the local conditions allow, working with or around the native species and ecosystem? And what if the native sapients are not really in a position to contest the colonial powers, and perhaps, in fact, their leaders quietly decide that having these new guys around might be a good idea, for Reasons Found in Volume [number]? Where do you go for a model, or is there one?

OK, I see the back grinning and passing notes. Yes, you, middle of the row, the wallaby. What were the odds? Thank you. And the paper says seventy percent chance that she’s found something to steal. Sorry, it was a hundred percent chance, because I am the world’s second-laziest writer. *

Not the Roman Empire, although if you scratch the surface, you’ll find a lot more variation within the Empire than popular wisdom includes. I’m mining the British Empire, especially before it became an official empire. If you go back to the 1600s-1820s in South Asia, you see a lot of adaptation and borderline going native, marrying native women, having children with native women, dressing for the climate, eating local foods, and if not blending in, then absorbing a whole lot of South Asia. It was not until the 1820s, and especially after the British government took over from the British East India Company that Brits began recreating Britain in Bengal, Bombay, Barrakpore, and everywhere else they went, right down to clothing, menus, and precedence. And then they out-did Britain, keeping traditions and patterns that faded away in the home islands.

Part of this was the manners of the times that developed in Britain during the Victorian era, and in the rest of Europe as well. France was busy exporting French culture and superiority, and Germany started spreading German-ism (well, OK, Germany after 1880. But the Prussians were always a bit odd that way). Europeans had surpassed the rest of the world in terms of organization and technology for the first time ever, and had the tools to conquer and manage everyone else, more or less. Why? If you look at the literature of the time you see a number of theories. Ethnic superiority? Cold climate leading to more energy? The special blessings of the Deity and a mission from said Deity to improve the world? Sheer blind luck? No, skip that one. Eating more meat? For whatever reason, Europeans and especially Brits and their odd American cousins were spreading all over the world and doing their best to show everyone else how they would run things if they were in charge. And taking charge if given half a chance, or no chance at all. Whatever it was that allowed the British to take over South Asia, it needed to be preserved, especially when you have a minimum 1000:1 ratio of ruled to rulers. And so the Brits became über-British.

I’ve been reading a great deal about women in the Raj, and about food ways. Food? Yes, because that is one of the places where the Britishness came to the fore, although it did shift over time. In the beginning (British East India Company days through 1820s-30s) the men seem to have ate their weight in food daily and to have drunk enough alcohol to drown half the fish in the sea. Once “civilization” came into the picture, and enough English women, that shifted to breakfast, a snack, dinner, tiffin, supper, and less alcohol unless it was regimental Mess Night or someone decided to go on a spree. The meals remained large, even in the hot season, and people dressed for meals no matter if it were 100 degrees or not. They were British and were going to look and act British, even if the servants were Indian and the main dishes were curries and spiced roasted meats and pork rarely graced the table, let alone beef (unless they were in a Muslim area and formed a multi-family beef club).

Visiting cards remained critical, as did signing the guest book. A new arrival took his or her cards around to various houses, calling on the residents. He might not even get to the door, instead leaving the card in a special box on the gate for just that thing. But one left a card, or else people talked. And without a card, one could not be invited to social functions, and without social functions, one was doomed, either professionally, or to being locked out of society and enduring even more solitude than people otherwise endured. Because no one could socialize with natives, it was not done. That and breaking caste or causing religious pollution was so likely that no one wanted to risk it. Native Christians were considered suspect, and only Parsees and Brits really socialized much, and that in the 20th Century. Were there exceptions? Yes, and children could and did play across caste and creed, and the natives tolerated and encouraged them. According to the first volume of M. M. Kaye’s autobiography, children existed outside the norms until they reached ages 10-12 or so.

And no one thought anything of this separation and this preservation of Britain and British ways until well into the 20th century. In order to rule, so the thought of the time went, Brits had to remain separate and aloof, incorruptible, but with the proper retinue of servants and staff (because of caste limits on what different people could or could not do). Appearances had to be maintained, for the good of the Empire. After all, no one wanted a repeat of 1857-59, the Great Mutiny/Sepoy Mutiny/Sepoy Rebellion/First War of Independence (depending on who is writing and when.)

What if you shift it around and you have an alien species instead of Indians? What if the caste system is not based on religion but something genetic? What if the natives have no problem with humans coming and moving in? How are the humans going to respond and what will they do, especially if you are at the far end of the empire and by a quirk of FTL technology, it is easier and cheaper to move mass than it is to send data back to Home for instructions and advice?

You get Shikhari, the Staré, and Miss Auriga Bernardi driving a rented wombow cart to go marketing as her father supervises the unloading and loading of interstellar transports. And she really wishes the wombow had just a hint more life in him. He’s phlegmatic enough to make a stone statue act lively in comparison.


*The laziest writer has not started writing yet. It takes too much effort.

58 thoughts on “Cultural Concentration – Alma Boykin

  1. You dang well ought apologise! The nerve, keeping your mind in the WIP we’ve all been awaiting eagerly!

      1. I just don’t know.

        Next thing you know she will be putting taking care of herself, her family, her home and paying the bills before us.

        1. And paying attention to her health to such a degree that she actually gets better and thus starts writing stuff!!

            1. The only gods that the English haven’t offended are the ones they haven’t heard of, Well, some of the ones they haven’t heard of.

  2. When I first read the beginning of this post, I assumed it was about another group with a certain level of “cultural concentration,” one that doesn’t have the military might to conquer, but moves into tolerant societies and sets up communities where the morals of the old world apply to such an extent that the dominant culture can’t enforce its norms there and criminals who act against that culture find safe haven. That might also be an interesting pattern for literary conflict.

    1. It would, because this far, I have not found any analogue in history. Granted, I’ve not done hard-core detail hunting, either, but the “deliberate infiltrationist” model seems to be new. Even when you look at group migration into the US and things like the Mafia, the outside culture is able to put limits around the newcomers and enforce local norms, even if it takes a while.

      1. I’m not even sure if there is a “deliberate infiltrationist” model now. I’m reminded of the comments made by some of the more…reactionary Catholic bishops when the Irish swarmed to America due to the potato famine.

        1. I’d posit a major demographic difference, to begin with – you had far more young female Irish coming with the men than you see young (18-35) women from the Islamic world going to Europe. But that’s probably a topic for a more detailed look at my own blog, because it could be serious troll bait.

      2. I don’t know if you’ll find anything like it, because the usual response to a group that moves in and gets violent is to be violent right back– and if the group is still as tiny as it (relatively) is, they wouldn’t survive to do it again.

      3. The Texas Revolution is probably close. America had the military might, as demonstrated in 1846, but it didn’t have the will. Also, the Americans didn’t exactly infiltrate, they were invited by Mexico – at least initially. But the cultural composition of Tejas became decidedly American and when the Mexicans tried to enforce their norms the whole province rebelled.

  3. Hm. The Traveller RPG had the Droyne, who had a biological caste system. Determined via psionics, IIRC.

    1. Yeah, make me pull out my old Traveller stuff…

      Droyne caste is determined by drawing coyns in a casting ceremony. Psionics do come into play, though, when the drones overseeing the ceremony try to telekinetically manipulate what caste coyn is drawn.

      There are also the Zhodani, a human society where a high psionic talent will get a child promoted to the nobility.

  4. … the newcomers come in, kick tail, and do whatever they can to erase the former culture.

    Ayup, that’s exactly what the Romans did to the Greeks and Genghis’ Mongols did to the Chinese. Heck, that ain’t even what the Romans did to the Carthaginians.

    It may describe what the Muslims did to the countries they conquered; I am insufficiently versed in that era to say, but since they mostly conquered culturally similar polities it might not apply.

    It seems that what the British Raj and American conquest of the Amerindian peoples share is that they represent empires arcing across a very broad range of cultures. My recollection of the Indian subcontinent pre-British is that it was comprised of a very diverse range of subcultures fighting one another almost constantly. Certainly that describes the situation among the Amerindian tribes.

    This suggests a theory that when a nation absorbs multiple conquered cultures there is less ability for the conquered cultures to assert themselves (possibly because they remain focused on infighting like a bunch of kids arguing “Mom always liked you best!”)

    1. Well pre-British India still exists in many ways as India was too big to be completely “made British”.

    2. It may describe what the Muslims did to the countries they conquered; I am insufficiently versed in that era to say, but since they mostly conquered culturally similar polities it might not apply.

      *shakes head* Africa use to have a flourishing Christian culture.

      It looks like they only take over similar cultures, because that’s all that was allowed to survive…..

  5. How many here have read S. M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers?

    The basic idea is that in the late 19th century, Europe and North America got hit hard by the effects of pieces of a comet hitting Earth.

    Basicly several years of no summer in Europe and North America.

    Britain managed to move plenty of people to India, South Africa and Australasia with the Royal Family setting up in India.

    By the time of the actual story, the British in India are much different than their ancestors even to the point that the Australiasians consider Indian English as “Hindi” not English.

    It fits what Alma is talking about as the Educated Anglo-Indians may reject some “native” ideas but follow them anyway.

    There was a humorous conversation in the book where an educated Anglo-Indian woman (nice lady) comments that the Indian food-rules are silly.

    Then the man she’s talking to kiddingly asks if she wants a beef sandwich.

    She shudders and acknowledges his point. 😀

    1. Two minds with a single thought. I’d like to add that while the Raj in that world may have started out the way the real one did, the fact that the “Fall” meant that the British had nowhere to withdraw to apparently triggered a far more thorough assimilation on their part.

      1. The “slap” toward the end of the book is also a great little scene. 😉

        1. Giving Stirling’s various Author Appeal moments, I was personally tickled by the mental monologue when the heroine is introduced, which boiled down to “I bet everybody thinks I’m gay”.

    2. I loved that book. There’s a follow-up short story called “A Shikari in Galveston”, but I was underwhelmed.

  6. Has anybody else had WP act up? There’ve been nine comments posted since last WP emailed one to me (at 1400) and nary a blip in the inbox.

    (all together now) Word Press Delenda Est

  7. Interesting ideas. Definitely thought provoking.
    I’m definitely going to have to incorporate some of this into my stories.
    The thought of human explorers being accepted as traders or possibly liberators? It makes the wheels start turning in my head..

  8. I was actually pondering this very thing the other day. What if the mysterious plague/catastrophe/apocalyptic whatever hadn’t struck the Americas, and so the population was still at the full strength that scared off the Vikings when the European colonists arrived? And what if the natives were all “Okay, fine, we’ll let you settle some of this land over here but you’d better behave yourselves.” I wonder how things might have played out…(Well, and removing the devastating effects of smallpox and other illnesses from the equation as well.)

    1. Weeeelll (a deep subject), how many people were in the Americas to begin with? If you go with the “low carrying capacity” numbers, I doubt things would change much. If you go with “high carrying capacity,” I suspect you’ll see a slower expansion of Europeans, but you still have the technology gap to keep in mind, and that even if European (and English/British) monarchs might have tried to stop people going to the Americas because of it being more trouble to defend them than it was worth, or restrict people to the designated areas, enforcement would still be a major problem. Region-by-region could be different, especially in the Deep South, even allowing for the environmental problems in the late 1300s-1600s (major droughts).

      1. At what point? When the Europeans arrived in force, most of the Americas was basically a post-apocalypse landscape. It would be like aliens arriving immediately after the Black Plaque. Most of North America was re-developing cultures.

        There’s an interesting account in one of the Hernando de Soto accounts: They describe a nation-state sort of society with most at war with the other. When several along the Mississippi banded together to destroy the survivors of the expedition, it was something unheard of among themselves.

      2. This. Even if the Mound Builders, etc *hadn’t* been essentially wiped out, the Southern cultures still strong, and so on, technology (not just military technology) and, to an extent, culture would have carried the day.

        Against a nearly equal customer (Vikings) in terms of culture and tech level, yeah, they could kick arse all day long. Faced with a people who already *had* that tech base built back home, and the knowledge of how to bootstrap it in the wilds, absent a truly *major* cultural and technological upheaval (the first being a requirement for the second in most), the outcome was pretty much written. If not as soon, just a bit longer. For one, the colonists’ home countries might have held on tighter despite wars abroad.

        Just as a what-if guess, that is. *grin*

    2. Europe was essentially a pressure cooker with high population densities and hence disease. Yeah, the plague die off made things more extreme. But unless you increase military tech to field better armies and agricultural tech to support greater population densities, you aren’t necessarily going to change much.

    3. Which natives? A big part of the success of the Europeans was due to the fact that the pre-Colombian people weren’t a unified force by any stretch of the imagination; the Spanish, for example, were able to run rampant through Mexico without many numbers mostly because the natives hated the Aztecs far more than they did these newcomers and were more than willing to help out.

      Things would have played out differently probably, if the North American tribes were stronger than they had been, but I don’t think I see them being able to restrict the Europeans to a small coastal area. I suspect that stronger tribes would see the Europeans as less of a threat, and thus been more willing to use them against enemy tribes…

      1. I don’t know. When Hernando de Soto showed up at Tama, the chief took one look at his army and tried to cut a deal to overthrow rule by the town of Ocute; Tama was, at that time, a vassal town.

        This was a game the Europeans played very well, because there was significant bad blood between tribes. Had the Cherokee not sided with the English, the Yamasee War might have been much different.

        FWIW, Brim of the Creeks did a turn-about, playing English, Spanish, and French against each other. Didn’t work out like he planned, but such things do work both ways.

    4. “mysterious plague/catastrophe/apocalyptic whatever hadn’t struck the Americas”

      They didn’t keep livestock, for the most part, and apparently that’s a major reason why Europeans have such disease resistance. Keeping pigs and chickens and cows and ducks and whatnot means you’re always breeding new and fascinating diseases. It wasn’t *a* “mysterious plague” so much as wave after wave of things that Europeans had plenty of immunity to. One disease wouldn’t have had as bad an effect—even the Black Death only took out between a third and a half of Europe. Instead, we have so many waves of disease that they cannot estimate the population of the Americas prior to European contact. You’re trying to estimate from the wrong end, the remnant population, and a tiny change in percentage leads to huge margins of error.

      The most telling thing, to me, was when I saw it pointed out that flocks of passenger pigeons for miles and buffalo covering the prairie were signs of an ecosystem that had lost its dominant predator. I’ll fall on the side of “fairly well populated” in terms of pre-contact America, and wonder what the world would have been like had the natives kept pigs.

  9. [i]”And what if the native sapients are not really in a position to contest the colonial powers, and perhaps, in fact, their leaders quietly decide that having these new guys around might be a good idea, for Reasons Found in Volume [number]? Where do you go for a model, or is there one?”[/i]

    This pretty much happened in New Guinea over the last century. The result has been the growth of Cargo Cults- which exist to this day.
    The locals do their best to fit the Outside Context situation into their own worldview, and some rather odd beliefs emerge.

  10. You get a scene from one of my stories where the cyborg security chief asks the insectoid Technician caste to guard a door and he says “sorry sir, not my caste….”

  11. Caution is called for. If you overconentrate your culture you wind up with concentration camp, and no one wants that…

  12. This called to mind Ursula Le Guin’s diplomat in IIRC Left Hand of Darkness. They send a single person, so that he must socialize and learn the culture of the host world.

    Which matches with Real World examples of the early small groups assimilating and then the later, larger, groups of immigrants self-isolating.

    Another example might be the early fur trappers in the American west, verse the later waves of farmers.

    But your original proposition was more about new people not wanting to assimilate, just take the goodies. The first Spanish and Portuguese explorers were more “find the gold and go home rich” types than the early English settlers who wanted farmland and intended to stay. In neither case did the locals do well, and in many countries there are very few surviving people, let alone cultures. Mexico may be the best example, but I don’t know how much of the old culture survived. Obviously not the religion.

    1. Ooh . . . must mention sassafras. Very popular in Europe, so much so there were incursions into Spanish claims in the Southeast to trade for the stuff. The Spanish didn’t appreciate it at all.

  13. > parallel system

    New Spain *started* that way after the Conquest, with natives being granted noble titles under feoff from Spain.

    There doesn’t seem to be much agreement as to *why* Spain suddenly reduced New Spain from “part of Spain” to “occupied territory”, but it didn’t work out well for either side.

    1. Right now I think the funnest worldbuilding choice would be ‘meso-American religions were mythos cults, and they had to be shut down hard.’

  14. John Masters in fiction and in fact is worth a look for a view of a somewhat failed mixed culture in India. Some folks who wanted to go native and others who wanted something quite different from their parents and the European culture show up in Africa as well.

    “Something lost behind the Ranges. Over yonder! Go you there!” depends very much which side of the Ranges The Explorer starts from.

    Gandhi as neither African, nor British nor Dutch says something about South Africa. Folks from the Indian sub-continent like the ethnic Chinese many places showed up as a new commercial class in parts of British Africa. Cf Tamils. See also the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972.

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