Monday, March 8, 2021

(Earthdawn 1e)Denizens of Earthdawn, Volume 2

 I'm fascinated by the concept of alien psychology. I like the big questions - how much of our behavior, our very perception of the world, is innate to the functioning of consciousness and how much is a legacy of our biology? Could there be other paths to intelligence and culture? Is there a universal common ground for communication or is the construction of language so dependent on the quirks of specific brains that there must forever be a barrier between species? What, exactly, is the difference between a person and an animal anyway?

It's an interest that can sometimes lead me astray when it comes to fantasy creatures. Because let's face it, they're all human. Elves are mystical and flighty humans. Dwarfs are serious and disciplined humans. Orcs are how racists see the vast majority of humans. It's a whole thing.

That's why I try and be extra conscious of fantasy monocultures. When all of your elves and dwarfs and whatnot wind up acting the same way, your fantasy cultures start to feel like thin stand-ins for human cultures. They are people-who-live-in-the-forest and people-who-live-in-the-mountains and by making them into fantasy creatures, you both under-sell the diversity of the human species and indirectly imply the kind of "culture as biological destiny" that has a bad track record in the real world.

The way I like to do it is to identify some trait that is distinctly and universally elvish and then try and brainstorm at least three different ways this trait could manifest culturally. Ideally this trait would be something fundamental and abstract enough to feel like an evolutionary vestige - something akin to survivorship bias in humans. It's easy to imagine a mind without it, but it's also easy to see how it affects almost everything we do.

That's why I really liked this book's introduction of the concept of "gahad." It's a physiological trait in orks. They get symptoms akin to indigestion when they suppress strong emotions. If they ignore gahad for too long, it becomes like a hangover. Thus any orkish society is going to have to have a means of coping with the fact that there's a physical cost to acting with an emotional filter. There have to be different strategies, each of which could anchor a culture - maybe there are scrupulously polite orks who avoid triggering each other, and also orks who embrace their passion and have a formal dueling code, and so on.

Unfortunately, Denizens of Earthdawn doesn't really do that. Earthdawn as a whole is better than most about humanizing its fantasy creatures, and each of the four chapters makes clear that dwarfs and trolls and such are individuals, but at the societal level, you have Throalish vs non-Throalish, and variants in custom ("differences have remained, even among clans and settlements separated by only a short distance"), but the overall structure of a given species society remains pretty constant. For example, all trolls have the same division between personal, family, and racial honor, even if the specific offenses and proper reactions vary from clan to clan.

I may have given volume 1 too much credit. I like Earthdawn so much that I picked up on subtle distinctions and attributed them to a more modern sensibility than was reasonable to expect. Since volume 2 doesn't have the mandatory diversity that comes with having a humans chapter, and since it covers dwarfs, who have aggressively spread the Throalish culture, it seems a lot more like 1 species = 1 culture to me.

This is justifiable, since Barsaive is roughly the size of the real world's Ukraine, and thus the various cultures of Barsaive are in close enough contact to have common lines of descent (the 400 years spent in underground bunkers notwithstanding), but in that case, why are they breaking down along species lines? Shouldn't there be significant overlap between dwarf and ork cultures (especially since dwarfs enslaved orks in the time before the Scourge)? Shouldn't Throalish (aka "lowland") Trolls have the same ignorance of honor as any other non-highlander?

I mean, honor is far too complex a concept to be genetic. It has to be learned, especially if its as prickly and whimsical as Troll honor is portrayed to be. In troll culture, asking someone about the meaning or purpose of their art is a deadly insult, because art is intensely personal and by asking about it you're implying that you have a right to know all the troll's secrets. There is even an anecdote about a troll who understands that it was an innocent question and forgives the interloper. Her own family kills him and challenges her to a duel because allowing that insult to pass diminished the family's honor.

That shit isn't innate. It's something you absorb over a lifetime of reinforcement.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Denizens of Earthdawn, volume 2 is a bad book. Its worst sin is merely that its focus is a bit too abstract, and as a result it makes its titular denizens a bit too homogeneous, but that's hardly a sin unique to Earthdawn (I say with dry understatement). If you grant it a mulligan on that score, then it continues the series tradition of amazing worldbuilding (it tells me what people's clothes look like!) and its character-driven narration is highly engaging. Plus Mereelva Gadj, the lusty old ork heroine is just an all-around great fantasy character. I could read a whole novel about her youthful exploits (kaer explorer, mercenary, liberator, and mother of ten).

So I guess it's just a question of which genre conventions I'm willing to accept. There probably shouldn't be a single "troll culture" or "dwarf culture" or "ork culture" or "obsidiman culture"(or maybe that last one is okay because they are all these weird rock people who are mystically connected to the spirits of the earth), but accepting that these things are inevitable, then at least Denizens of Earthdawn gives us some well-drawn cultures to work with.

Ukss Contribution: I really like Mereelva Gadi's first baby. Before he was born, she had a prophetic dream where the baby spoke to her in over-the-top epic dialogue:

"I am Dakarga Bral, your son," he said. "You shall give the struggle I demand from you. Lay me down at the fork and unwrap me. The fork represents two paths I must choose from. One is domination, the other subjugation. May I choose wisely in my life.

"When you name me Dakarga Bral, I shall be naked to the world and helpless. You shall snap a thorn and cut the tender soles of my feet with it, to show me that my way shall never bee easy and that the earth does not welcome my tread. Then lift me above the fertile soil so that my blood drips into it. This will show my answer to the unfriendly ground - choke on my blood! Buunda! I will shackle you to my will!"

 I had to quote the whole speech because I couldn't single out a part that was any less awesome than the rest. Mereelva says that this sort of vision is just a regular part of the orkish birthing process, which strikes me as a bit odd, but also the sort of magical nonsense that could happen in a fantasy world. Seeing as how Dakarga became a merchant, and never did anything cool enough to justify that opening speech, I kind of have to assume it was wishful thinking on the part of his mother. Then again, he did wind up dealing in elemental earth, so maybe there's something to it after all.

In any event, I think that there's going to be a character in Ukss about whom this kind of story is told.

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