Worldbuilding: It’s Always The Twentieth Century In Space

Customs. Customs never change. Even when there is basically no in-universe connection to the customs with which we must comply.

This meta-post is inspired by the current flap (and lies, damned lies, and open letters from activists) about Rebecca Tuvel’s transracialism article and the ensuring prompt outrage excursion from the usual suspects, with particular regard to one piece of the response to the response, which I quote here:

As for the accusation that Tuvel “deadnam[ed] a trans woman,” meaning that she used a pre-transition name that was subsequently changed, the authors conveniently leave out the identity of the trans woman in question: Caitlyn Jenner. Now, deadnaming trans people is, as a default rule every cisgender person should know, rude and offensive, and in extreme cases it can actually be dangerous or deadly (if someone isn’t out as trans in their community). But Jenner herself has not been shy about using her old name or talking about her life as Bruce. It’s nonsensical to claim that once a very famous trans person has exhibited comfort using their old name and talking about their pre-transition life, any reference to that name or life is still verboten. It seriously misses the point of why deadnaming is frowned upon.

It’s also inspired by the foofaraw over one particular character in Mass Effect: Andromeda, Hainly Adams, who in a conversation about why she came to the Andromeda Galaxy and left her old life behind, mentions her trans-ness and her old name from said old life, something that has been widely decried as the most terrible and horrible of bad writing and offense-giving.

Now we get to the worldbuilding part:

In the Eldraeverse, one relevant issue here is the Central Office of Records and Archives, whose Universal Registry of Citizens and Subjects is very keen on nymity, on the grounds that without authentication and identification, it’s really hard to have trust, accountability, and the obligation of contracts. You are uniquely identified by your UCID, to which is linked every name you have ever identified yourself by, along with dates, types, and whether or not it should still be considered current. This is part of the core data in everyone’s Personal File, and as such, a matter of public record, trivial to look up. Trivial in the “you can walk down the street and see everyone’s names in convenient entoptic AR floaters” sense.

Should this be something people *there* have a problem with?

Bear in mind, when you answer, that should you meet three women at the bar, that one of them used to be a man is probably the least surprising metamorphosis to you, inasmuch as the second grew up as a hermaphrodite, corona-dwelling space whale and the third is a cephalopoid battle robot in her day job, who’s only biologically female or for that matter biological while on leave – and neither of the latter is what you might call unusual.

(The bartender is a fragment of a mixed-sex/mixed-gender group mind and the house band is an octopus.)

I submit that it’s a real stretch to imagine that anyone from that cultural background – in which what we would call trans-ness is not in the least dangerous, socially taboo, or even curious in the backwateriest of backwaters – would even invent the concept they’re supposed to be upset by.

(This, incidentally, also probably applies to the Mass Effect: Andromeda case. ME:A takes place in the year 2785, and even if we discount the 600 years it took to reach Andromeda, departed the Milky Way in the year 2185, approximately 265 years downtime from now. Leaving, moreover, a universe in which same-sex relationships are ubiquitous and open xenophilia both passes without comment and forms the basis of award-winning movies.

Now, granted, there’s no actual in-game canon to indicate that anti-transgender prejudice has also died off in the meantime, but given what’s apparently happened to other popular twencen prejudices, assuming it hasn’t in the absence of clear evidence seems to demand a higher burden of proof. It is more consistent with the background, I further submit, to assume that – much like “once the races were much more distinct and people felt that was important” and “once gay people weren’t allowed to marry” – it’s something that college students studying “pre-space Earth history” find weird and kinda incomprehensible.)

All of which is to say, this is projecting the mores and bigotries of now onto the fictional future, and there are two reasons why you should stop it:

One, it’s bad worldbuilding. It’s behavior inconsistent with the setting because its precursors are inconsistent with the setting, and that makes it stand out like a sour note in a flute solo.

And two, it’s bad messaging. Do you really want to send the message that humanity, or sophontkind in general, can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t grow the fuck up and overcome its stupid-ass prejudices? Because by insisting that those prejudices (worst) or the responses to those prejudices (better, but still bad) are faithfully shoehorned into every extrapolated future or conculture, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

In our fictional futures, things are permitted to get better.

No, really.


More Questions, More Answers

And more questions arrive:

Here is an interesting what if for you. If you could live in the Eldraeverse would you want to?

They had me at immortality.

Or at post-scarcity.

Or at vastening.

Or at forking.

Or at the Repository of All Knowledge.

Or at, y’know, space.

Or at a refreshing absence of self-appointed gibbering loons under the impression they’re entitled to tell everyone else what to do, or else

So, um, yeah, pretty much.

What parts of Eldrae culture make you personally uncomfortable?

I may be a bad target for this question.

Partly because I’m an SF-reading, SF-writing, transhumanist anarchist. On the Yudkowsky table, my future shock level is somewhere between 3.5 and 4. And while, being human, I have the innate wisdom of squick, I’ve told it to shut up so much due to, well, items one through four above, that these days it barely twinges.

I’m sure there are some things, that I can’t think of off the top of my head – and, yes, that means I do find nothing wrong with that, and I have no problems with that either, have fun going through the index – going on in Imperial space that would make me uncomfortable, permissive society that it is, but for the most part the things that do so – many of which exist elsewhere in the Worlds as a whole – are those things that violate the principles of Consent and Obligation. Which are *there* frowned upon very strongly indeed.

What do you think the hardest cultural difference for you or humans in general to accept would be?

…all of it, in gestalt.

Well, take a look at Blue and Orange Morality and Values Dissonance; and then note that we probably suffer from it worse than most exotic species, because as fellow hominins, we’re close enough to fall into the Uncanny Valley rather than being alien enough to be expected to behave in an alien manner.

And an unfortunate number of instincts we have are just plain wrong by their standards: we don’t respect other people’s lives or their property and especially not their choices, are xenophobic, unempathic, incurious, emotionally labile to the point of hysteria, situationally ethical, obsessed with relative tribal status, and deeply in love with ugliness.

No-one likes to be seen as an inferior species. Especially if they’ve actually studied Earth culture at a shallow level, and come away with the notion that a large proportion of us are the kind of inferior species which, if invited to dinner, is likely to insult their host, take a shit on the table in the middle of the fish course, sexually assault someone over dessert, and steal the candlesticks on the way out, and not doing so is considered coming out ahead of the norm. (Side note: it really doesn’t help that our media does such an excellent job of portraying us as a Planet of Complete Assholes.)

All of which is to say, well, to get along *there* we’d have to completely repress and deny even the slightest, most sublimated trace of envy or enyious-sounding ideas and even a hint of the “there oughta be a law” instinct, cultivate self-control and rationality enough to suit the talcoríëf-esteeming locals (preferably while not losing the capacity for deep passion and childlike delight in things, losing which is also part of their hypothetical critique), find a way to desire neither to lead nor to follow nor to care what the Jones’ are doing, and develop adequately large sticks up our asses about politesse, respect for other people’s stuff, and the principle of the thing – while not showing any weakness on these points, because we will be judged constantly, and especially on what we are in the dark.

Being human and therefore possessed of unavoidably human mentality, it’s hard enough to get my mind into this framework properly enough to write them, never mind trying to live it 24/7. Fortunately, *there*, they have cures for that.

(Note: This may seem harsh, but a thing to remember is that we’re the ones who come with brains hard-coded to relative status hierarchies, and in this scenario. we’d be judging ourselves against people who’ve been engaging in a relentless program of no-holds-barred self-improvement for centuries.)

Do the Eldrae favor punishment, rehabilitation, or something else as a means of combating crime?

Imperial judicial penalties (as handled by the Office of Reconstruction and Execution by the Curial courts, once they’re done), draw from two paradigms: mélith – balance and obligation – and medicine.

So there’s no punishment, per se. By either philosophy, engaging in that is absolutely pointless.

What there is is restitution and cure. The former takes the form of fines: either directly restitutive where economic crimes are concerned, according to the Fivefold Rule (repaying the victim fivefold), or in the form of weregeld. Also, in either case, the criminal is responsible for paying all costs incurred due to his crime, including police costs, court costs, loss-of-income-and-time for the victim and any and all witnesses, etc., that lost time due to the case, and so forth. All debts must be paid, says Saravoné’s Code, and they mean every word of it. (And if you don’t have the assets, they’ll still get it out of you one way or another.)

The latter takes the form of memetic rehabilitation and reconditioning, for virtually all non-violent crimes and minor crimes of violence. Despite the name, this has little to do with rehabilitation in the Western penological sense when, to one extent or another, prisoners are supposed to rehabilitate themselves; meme rehab & recon means being handed over to the psychedesigners, the redactors, and if necessary the brain surgeons.

(On the grounds, you see, that people who cannot grasp and duly follow the principles of consent and obligation, or the Fundamental Contract, are self-evidently insane, and need their mental dysfunction repaired like the faulty component that it is. That being said, the Curia has a tremendous respect for the free will and self-integrity of the individual, and as such meme rehab & recon is not compulsory. If you genuinely prefer dying as yourself to living as your repaired self, you may opt for euthanasia at any time.)

More serious violent crimes (the ones which literally can’t make restitution for their crime because the bill is too high to pay with anything other than their entirety) and cases of incurable dysfunction with or without recidivism are handed directly over to the executioners or euthanatrists, respectively. The intent behind this death penalty, however, is neither punishment nor deterrence (after all, it’s not the severity but the certainty that counts); it’s surgery – cutting out society’s sick parts as surgeons once removed incurable tumors.

(Note: You can put that down under things humans would find culturally difficult to accept, too, inasmuch as the average human, citizens of Western democracies especially, is not likely to be comfortable with a legal system that has but two penalties, brainwashing or death. (But, hey, if you don’t like brainwashing, you can always choose death, right?))

Not Quite a Trope-a-Day: Values Dissonance

Posting this one out of order, too, because it may be useful to have it up here in future, and – well, because having fictional people and real people call each other names just seemed fun to me when I was writing it up.  So.

Values Dissonance: In-world, plenty of it, discussed and handled – as mentioned under Culture Clash – fairly often, because there’s really not much of an alternative in a polyspecific universe, and there are polyspecific and multicultural polities and colonies in which people essentially have to work it out.

Out-world, which is to say, between them and us, plenty of it too.  Look at all the values dissonance evident just from Blue and Orange Morality, for a start, starting with the section on propertarianism and working down.  Or, to put it the way that two people unwilling to take anything but the hardest line on values issues would put it:

They’re grasping and materialistic; we’re envious thieves and whinging martyrs.  They’re cold and uncaring; we’re testosterone-poisoned, bleeding-heart hysterics.  They’re self-centered bohemian insubordinate eccentrics; we’re conformist power-worshipping submissive drones.  They’re legalistic and rigid; we’re treacherous and unreliable.  They’re obsessive perfectionists; we’re sloppy incompetents.  They’re impossibly demanding; we just don’t care enough.  They’re mad scientists; we’re afraid to ask the hard questions.  They’re childishly enthusiastic; we’re boringly cynical.  They’re stultifyingly polite, formal and baroque; we’re as subtle as a brick to the face.  They’re stuck-up judgmental aesthetes; we’re appalling cacophiles who seem to think shock value is an adequate substitute for artistic merit.  Their sense of humor is overly intellectualized; ours is maliciously cruel.  They won’t even try to implement reasonable, effective, broad-based solutions; we’re discipline addicts pathologically incapable of leaving folks alone to work things out.

They’re environmental criminals for wanting to turn the universe into a garden; we’re environmental criminals for refusing to fix what nature got wrong.  They are morally outraged about our treatment of the prosapient species of our world, starting with the dog, dolphin and octopus and working down the list; we… can’t see what all the fuss is about, evidently.  At war, they’re ruthless killers who don’t “follow the rules” and embrace civis Romanus sum; at war, we’re soft-hearted idiots who can’t remember which side we’re on.  They’re gun-crazy madmen who even arm their children; we’re incredible hypocrites for pretending people have a right to defend themselves and then denying them any practical means to do so.

They hate the poor because they don’t give them everything they need and sneer at the downtrodden; we hate the poor because we choke off their opportunities, ignore their rights, and coddle even deserved failure.  They hate the disabled because they insist on fixing everything; we hate the disabled because we keep making more of them.  They’re cruel and inhumane because they execute violent criminals and brainwash the rest; we’re cruel and inhumane because we lock criminals up in prisons for years of pointless torture.  They are so permissive they can’t have any meaningful moral standards (and, yes, this is contradictory, but read moral standards as something like the modern US sense of “family values…in re sexuality, marriage, public modesty, guns, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., etc., etc.”); we are so restrictive we can’t have any meaningful notion of personal freedom (again… yes, but it’s a stereotype).

They’re outspoken and judgmental about (which they would call actually believing in) their sense of ethics and morality and intolerant when it comes to the people that offend their effete sensibilities; we’re so morally flexible (for which they would read lacking) we’ll skip lightly past any amount of suffering, oppression and rot as long as it’s happening somewhere we don’t have to look at it.

Oh, and for different reasons (they refuse to treat anyone differently for the sake of individual fairness, or give the notion of group identity any ethical weight; we think two wrongs can make a right and never generalize to the big picture), each party thinks the other is a bunch of howling (sexist | racist | everythingelseist) bigots.

All of which is not to say that individuals necessarily think all or even any of this, and indeed, as between any two societies people could often find each other pleasant, upstanding chaps, and indeed good friends, especially once individual variation is taken into account.  But there are certainly plenty of places to find said dissonance if you care to go looking…

(For more possible examples, well, look at the Ethnographical Questionnaire series on this blog, which has plenty of them already, and will have yet more.)

A Sermon on Wealth

Wealth is not virtuous.

Wealth is virtue.

Does gold have value?  Does silver, or polished kal-gems, cogs or brights or stones or staves, bars or bills, serren-shells or scrip, shares of stock or notes of hand?

Can shining metal feed you?  Can a mound of scrip build a home?  Will all the kal-gems in the world purchase an ounce of honor?

The worth of wealth is not in its substance, but in ourselves; for each bar and coin and note is a frozen promise, a claim on the goods or works of he with whom you choose to redeem it.

And only the finest of our goods and works may sustain our wealth, for none but a fool will purchase ash-crystal in the place of true fireglass; thus wealth is harmony.

And those who deal falsely find themselves shunned by those who give true value to wealth and their markets emptying around them, as those who enrich themselves by fraud and theft find their false profits will not serve them; thus wealth is integrity.

And those who hoard the symbols of wealth for their own sake find nothing but stagnation; thus wealth is right action.

Therefore honor those through whose hands wealth flows most, for in supporting this virtue, they are those who have served us best.

– Word of Covalan, Commentaries

Values Dissonance

Not an actual trope-a-day, but something I thought I’d write down after the latest xkcd reminded me of the existence of the book, The Giving Tree. Just in case I forgot it by the time I’m actually tackling Values Dissonance, belike.

Which in our culture may well be – although I note the controversy in interpretation Wikipedia mentions – a heartwarming tale of selflessness and self-sacrifice, but the analogous book in the Imperials’ culture would unambiguously be a horror story of how parasites will suck you dry and kill you if you let them, and/or a morality tale for children on how some gifts should never be accepted, and the necessity for mélith – balance and obligation – as the basis for any kind of ethical relationship.