Boston’s still snowed in, with drifts reaching my front window from the ground, but while I haven’t managed to take that snowbird vacation, Steph and I did spend much of this President’s Day weekend at Boskone 52. As always, Boskone was a seed and prompt for great conversations and weird stories. I was on a funny cover pose panel with Bruce Coville (!). And many other excellent people, of course, but I read Bruce Coville when I lived in Ohio, age seven, back when there seemed an impassable gulf between me and the Adult World where people made decisions and wrote books.
One of the weekend’s stand-out conversations for me was a panel discussion with Ada Palmer, Debra Doyle, and Chris Jackson about romance in genre. Ada and I spun off into theory land for a bit, and I’d like to take this post to at least map some of the territory we explored, since this is my blog and I can use it as an ideological scratchpad if I want. Everything I’m about to write is filtered through considerable sleep debt; many weeks’ worth of coffee has been consumed in the interim. Failures of logic are of course mine.
Ada observed that the modern romance, in which two people meet one another, grow infatuated, and celebrate and affirm that attachment through marriage, thereby ending the story, emerges for the first time in the early nineteenth century. Before that, romances tended to be extramarital stories. Debra Doyle, also on the panel, observed that passion in the middle ages was seen as a primarily extramarital phenomenon, since marriage (at least among ruling classes) tended to be a matter of settling property and fealty rights. Passion and romance were directed outside marriage, and seen as dangerous natural phenomena.
Theodora Goss, on the previous night’s panel about parents in folklore and genre fiction, mentioned that the concept of motherhood also emerged in the early nineteenth century, and it’s a truism of college literature classes that the notion of Delightful Childhood Innocence takes shape in the Victorian era.
It seems to me, I said on the panel, though I have no basis for this point beyond correlation and intuition, that these broad transformations of myth might have roots in the societal and economic transformations taking place due to the industrial revolution.
I’m about to butcher economic history, but in pre-industrial times, property and biology seem to have been linked. Accumulation of wealth happened through blood: cows give birth, wheat grew, married couples produced children to inherit. The whole King is the Land myth structure emerges from this: in a society where blood is the store and vector of value, the spilling of that blood, or the failure to respect it, leads to chaos and disorder.
(Insert parallels to the Mandate of Heaven and the bureaucratic failures of dynasties’ late emperors here.)
During and after the industrial revolution, a capitalist pattern emerges: wealth transforms into goods the ownership of which passes between people based on contract. Blood’s significance fades. Relations between people begin to matter less, in terms of wealth development and transfer, than relations between contracting entities that may or may not correspond to people. Marriage ceases to be the fundamental unit of society, and childbearing is no longer a principle form of wealth accumulation.
All the flesh-and-blood stuff, it seems, gets flensed from the wealth-and-power stuff. (I’d say ‘workers get alienated from their labor,’ but I don’t want this to become a purely Marxist conversation and anyways ‘flense’ is a nice word.) The people with their wobbly bits are “free” to develop new, more satisfying relationships to one another, while the contracting entities (which may or may not be people) take on the societal business of wealth transfer. When your child is not an heir or heiress or peaceweaver in waiting (to steal Nicola Griffith’s excellent term), what is she? “Innocent”? Well, maybe. At least, that meme has currency in C19 English society. When you’re no longer required to marry for the advancement of your family’s political and economic goals, what should you marry for? Well, what about this “love” thing over here? Maybe the realignment of romance, motherhood, childhood, and (I suspect) fatherhood emerges from this fundamental systematic shift.
(As I write all this out, I see interesting parallels between the relationships of what I’m calling ‘contracting entities’ and ‘flesh-and-blood persons,’ and the relationships of human minds and hypothetical postsingularity AI minds, in the realm of responsibility-offloading—maybe the development of the human mind post-singularity, if we still are pre-singularity, will parallel in some ways this romantic transformation?)
If we have hit on something here, if marriage and romance really did play different roles for most of (western?) human history until some of their “responsibilities” shifted to the capitalist system, then it explains some interesting artifacts in modern fiction.
The whole “back when men were real men, women were real women, and small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri” idea has been mocked rightly, but maybe it reflects a sense that love and marriage worked differently in The Old Days (in addition to its obvious infantilist yearning for the mighty and perfect parents some of us remember). Even moving away from that toxic image, authors as disparate as Connie Willis and Dan Simmons show us moments when the Postmodern Man confronts a Pre-modern Woman he recognizes as a being alien from the Postmodern Women with whom he’s familiar. (I’m thinking of the historian’s encounter with Helen in Ilium, and Ned’s first meeting with Tossie in To Say Nothing of the Dog.)
The separation of wealth-and-power stuff from love-and-sex stuff would have other consequences, too: on the one hand, a societal intimation that romance is only free and true between equals on the wealth-and-power level (the power-couple dream), and on the other hand, an eroticism of power and contracts, which billionaire romance in general and the Valentine’s Day release of 50 Shades of Grey in specific seem to support. The Kama Sutra discusses spanking people, yes, but the Marquis De Sade seems very much a creature of the transition we’re discussing here. When power and sex become (at least in theory) separate spheres, it makes perfect sense that each sphere should try to colonize, or subvert, the other. (Eddore vs. Arisia, anyone? Squishy shapeshifty biological stuff vs. abstract “higher” mental power stuff that just-so-happens to hinge on eugenics, law enforcement, and the politics of fear?) I wonder if power exchange fantasies as a modern would describe them were as common in the pre-industrial era? (To stem off the most obvious objection to this: I think there are some structural differences between modern power exchange fantasy and courtly love—though that’s an essay I probably won’t write because I’d like this site to stay at least sorta PG.)
Let’s wrap up with the usual slate of warnings: I recognize I’m making huge leaps of argument. I’m not positive I’d stand behind this theory—like I said, this is my ideological scratchpad. And, of course, contractual relationships existed in the pre-industrial world, corporations were formed, etc. etc.; to spin a phrase from Gibson, the future was always here, but it was never equally distributed. Now I’ve written all this out, I’ll have some notes to refer to as I read more, and learn. One of Steph’s div school books is called Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, which seems like a good place to start. (It has an ideological axe to grind, but, honestly, give me a scholar who’s obvious about their axe any day, over a scholar who tries to hide their axe or pretend said axe doesn’t exist. What, this old thing behind my back? It’s just hahaha a potato peeler.)
Anyway, that should give you a sense of Boskone. I just went on for 1450 words about a ten-minute conversation, and I didn’t even get into Ken Liu’s, Carrie Cuinn’s, and my back-and-forth on the folklore panel about authenticity, copyfighting, authority, cadastral mapping and text ownership, or the fantasy-and-vacation chat on the Fantasy Vacation panel, or how awesome it was to share an Urban Fantasy panel with Ginjer Buchanan (!!!!) and Leigh Perry. Or the rest of the convention’s running chat with Ada about authorial responsibility. Or how refreshing it was, after how much I worry about, you know, will the next book sell, do I have any hope, etc., to watch Jo Walton interview Steve Brust and first, realize just how much they love writing, and second, remember just how much I love it, too.