Friday, February 26, 2010

thinking about working class science fiction and fantasy

I just finished 1632, and enjoyed it (with some reservations; see my quickie review at Goodreads). I read it because I heard it wasn't a typical Baen rightwing militaristic fantasy; the heroes include union members. In the afterword (not linked to, because it contains spoilers), Eric Flint said,
Part of the reason I chose to write this novel is because I am more than a little sick and tired of two characteristics of most modern fiction, including science fiction.

The first is that the common folk who built this country and keep it running—blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, farmers, and the like—hardly ever appear. If they figure at all, it is usually as spear carriers—or, more often than not, as a bastion of ignorance and bigotry. That is especially true of people from such rural areas as West Virginia. Hicks and hillbillies: a general, undifferentiated mass of darkness.
So, what examples of working class heroes can you think of in our genres? The first ones that occur to me are Mal Reynolds of Firefox/Serenity, Conan the Barbarian, and Zenna Henderson's characters in her stories of the People.

(Flint's second complaint is cynical fiction, which I think he means to be the opposite of optimistic fiction. Maybe I'll tackle that in a future post.)

26 comments:

  1. Red Dwarf if you count space janitors as working class.

    Some of the characters in Diana Wynne Jones' books are working class. For instance, the mother in [i]Archer's Goon[/i] is a teacher. The heroes tend to be the kids, though, since she usually writes children's literature.

    Charles De Lint has some working class heroes. (He also includes bastions of ignorance and bigotry, of course. Usually white ones.)

    Can't, off the top of my head, think of any US authors of fantasy or science fiction that include a lot of working class characters. Usually they're either poor, upper class, or in the artistic classes. (Well, unless you count cops. Lots of urban fantasies have cops as their heroes.) Although it might be that I'm simply not noticing the ones who work in factories or what have you.

    Oh, wait, Robin McKinley has a baker as the hero in Sunshine... But her family might own the business. Can't remember. It's been awhile since I read that one.

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  2. That should be Archer's Goon. Stupid tags.

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  3. Might just need to look closer at "right wing" stuff.

    Heinlein's main character in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is working class (computer technician). The other "hero" is a computer that is practically a slave. The whole book is a workers rebellion in fact.

    Regards.

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  4. Most of Heinlein's heroes are working class, and at least two I can recall right off the top of my head are from the hills of West Virginia- Max Jones and A.J. Libby. Several others mention coming from small farms as well. A number of authors in the 60s and 70s were doing common man heroes in scifi- we mentioned Murray Leinster in another thread.

    It may be that the working class heroe genre is shifting to Urban Fantasy currently- there are the cop heroes mentioned, and in MR Sellar's "Rowan Gant" series, the main character is a computer tech, and in the "Dresden Files", the hero is a P.I.

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  5. I don't know if Conan counts as "working class" seeing as he's a barbarian from a culture that doesn't seem to have a traditional class system to begin with. Plus he becomes king at some point, which isn't exactly WC.

    Howard's fantasy and historical characters are usually warriors of some sort, occassionally kings, with two examples starting off barbarians (Conan & Kull) and one born into it (Bran Mak Morn). His horror/SF characters are from all walks of life, but I suppose they'd be considered reasonably well off considering the depression.

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  6. Ursula Le Guin often has working class protagonists.

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  7. Taranaich, I'll defend Conan as "working class"--he's not noble or merchant or priestly class. He becomes king by working his way up through the military--there's no sense that his birth entitles him to the job, and I wouldn't be surprised if Howard put in some characters who object to him being low-born. (It's been decades since I've read Howard, so I could be completely wrong about the last.)

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  8. Elizabeth Moon considers Ofelia in Remnant Population to be working class. Of course, she also calls her poor. This is the trouble with blurry definitions I suppose.

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  9. serial, what's Ofelia's job, and what do her parents do?

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  10. Ofelia is a nominally retired farm wife/colonist in her seventies. (Which is why I originally read the book. *grin* Nice change of pace character-wise.)

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  11. If it's a small farm, I'd count her as working class, but if she has hired hands, she's middle class.

    Does sound like a very nice change of pace for f&sf.

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  12. In the future Technology does all the hard physical labor... or maybe it's the slaves... or the aliens... or the alien slaves.

    I've come across claims that most of Octavia Butler's characters are working class. (It's been over a decade since I read any of her books, though, so I don't remember.)

    Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar books have characters that seem to range from poor to upper middle class. I wonder if wizards count as working class...

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  13. The protagonists (and most of the other characters) in Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle and Mockingbird are working class.

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  14. Remnant Population is really good.

    You know, I've read three books by Elizabeth Moon, and none of them was anything like the others. That's high praise from me. Is it for you?

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  15. John, yep. Off to see if the library has that now.

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  16. A note on 1632. Eric Flint has said that he believes that history is not the actions of great men but the actions of many small people. This theory plays out in the extensive sequels and Baen published fanfiction set in the 1632verse. You should check out 1634: The Ram Rebellion and see how the idea of Socialism and the overthrow of the guild system by trade unions is developed in the later series. Eric Flint was a labor organizer for many years and wanted to explore how modern ideas on class and labor might work in this setting. The book is made up of several short pieces of fanfiction with linking bits of other fanfiction and stories from Eric Flint. It's kind of incoherent but that only supports the point that history isn't linear.

    Also, Terry Pratchett's Sam Vimes is a working class hero even if he is a Duke now. He was born poor, to a single mother, and worked his way up as a watchman. His famous ancestor killed the last king of Ankh-Morpork. Sam defended the barricades of the People's Republic of Treacle Mine Road. He fiercely hates arbitrary power even while he, as a watchman, represents it. A fine and complex character for someone so famous for being funny.

    Missing you from Metafilter.

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  17. irisclara, it's nice to be missed--thanks! I'm making the note to pick up The Ram Rebellion.

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  18. Elizabeth Bear plays with the common folk in her sci fi (not so much her fantasy). Richard Morgan does too with his Takashi Kovaks novels (although calling him a hero is stretching it a bit), but I think you might like Thirteen a bit more. Joel Sheppard hits class from a different angle with the Cassandra Kresnov series (think RAH's Friday but different interactions). Some of the Man/Kzin Wars anthology feature the working man hero, shoot, throw the Draco Tavern collection from Niven in there as well. Scalzi's Old Man's War. Brust's Vlad Taltos books. How about Remo Williams? *grin*

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  19. Huh. I should ask Steve if he thinks of Vlad's father as petit-bourgeois.

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  20. P.S. I should ask Steve 'cause it'd amuse me. In the general sense we're using here, Vlad's working class.

    And Remo Williams is the man. It was such a shame they screwed up the movie, but doing it faithfully would be awfully tough.

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  21. Major O'Mara, the chief psychologist in James White's Sector General stories, starts out as a construction worker. He got pushed into the field because he is large and ugly which apparently translates as stupid in most people's minds... But in the end his genius shines through and he ends up in a position that fits his talents. (I always figured that was kind of a middle class myth, though. The inverse of which is, if you get stuck working construction for thirty years, you must really be big and stupid rather than just looking that way.)

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  22. When I was in something like 4th or 5th grade I got a book through the Scholastic Book Club order at school by Robert Silverberg called Revolt on Alpha C. The premise was young cadets from a united Earth going out to bring order to a rebellious colony on a planet around Alpha Centuri. On particular cultural detail of the book was that all the mechanics who maintained the spacecraft's engines (do I recall correctly that they were nicknamed "Tubemonkeys"?) were Irish -- these were working-class guys and they were sympathetic with the rebels. In the end (spoiler alert!) the young cadet protagonist of the boook -- who is friends with the mechanics -- follows along with them and joins the rebels, too.

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  23. Luke Skywalker's mother was a queen, but his father was raised a slave. Further, Luke lived on a farm with Uncle Owen. He's actually Obi Wan's relative, suggesting that Obi Wan came from the working class (Unless droids count as "hired hands").

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  24. I dunno I always thought of Uncle Owen as a small-business owner.

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  25. Yeah, the droids muddy the issue. But certainly nothing suggests that Owen is of particularly high station, and where he lives does strike me as the outer space equivalent of the hills of West Virginia. It's hard to peg something like class in a genre that takes away most recognizable cultural markers.

    While I'm at it in the lowbrow SciFi category, my impression is that whiel Spock's dad was a Vulcan hotshot, James T. Kirk and his father were more or less farm kids who worked their way up the ranks of starfleet, not unlike farm kids who do that in the army today.

    Inded, my impression is that "farm kid/poor kid who works his way up through some kind of space army" was kind of a Sci Fi trope.

    And didn't Buck Rogers start out as a 1920's miner?

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  26. CC, science fiction and fantasy were better at including the range of working class people, imho. Maybe the computer and science guys lost track of blue collar folks in the '70s and '80s. Maybe Eric Flint and I are wrong, and the working class is better represented than we think.

    I would count Kirk as working class, and maybe Luke, too. Luke's parents could be seen as irrelevant; he was raised working class and would've died working class if not for taking part in the rebellion. On the other hand, the introduction of mitichlorians into the story in the fourth movie made it racist and classist as hell--only those with the special juju could be jedi.

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