Prodding the Defaults, Episode 316

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I’ve been talking lately about the setting for my new series, but mostly from a scientific point of view (since, despite being a fantasy story, it has a scientist heroine). But I’m anthropologist at heart, and I’d like to step back for a moment and talk about the social side of things. Specifically, religion.

My base concept for the setting was “the nineteenth century, only not.” That is to say, it has roughly the tech level of our nineteenth century (advent of steam, trains, industrialization, etc), and also many of the socio-political issues (global trade, colonialism, etc). There are even general analogues to the cultures of our own world, as you can tell by names like Scirland (i.e. England), Yelang (China), Akhia (a Middle Eastern-esque nation), and so on. I could have used real history, but as I detailed in that original post, doing this gives me more freedom to muck around with the default settings of the world.

When I was first playing around with the idea, I needed Isabella to reference some kind of gift-giving holiday, so I plonked down the term “Frostnight” and went on my merry way. But when I came back to the story some time later, knowing it was going to be my next series, I found myself asking questions. If my pseudo-Europe practices pseudo-Christianity, will my pseudo-Middle East be pseudo-Muslim? Is Akhia a country wracked with religious conflict? What’s the relationship there? Do those religions stem from a common ancestry?

And then, in the way that the hindbrain does, I found myself ignoring those questions utterly — in favor of a new thought. What if I went with pseudo-Judaism instead?

That idea was all of three seconds old when the rest of my brain went, “whoa, slow down there.” Religions (and other aspects of society) are not interchangeable parts; you cannot plug Judaism into Europe and have it turn out the same. Judaism as it’s practiced today is a faith deeply shaped by diaspora and oppression; it has not spent centuries being the dominant state religion of a continent. Temple-era Judaism did occupy that role — but it did so two thousand years ago, before the invention of the printing press, the circumnavigation of the globe, the advent of industrialism, and all the rest of the massive upheavals that changed society in the interim.

But that’s an argument for thinking through this carefully, not for not doing it at all. I’ve got a friend who studies Judaism helping me work out the details, and it’s proving to be a fascinating exercise; I’m developing a world where there is still a Temple-based religion (which has, of necessity, changed and adapted as it spread and came to occupy a position vaguely comparable to the Catholic Church), but also a decentralized rabbinic form (whose rise is taking the place of the Protestant Reformation in the real world). It’s more interesting having there be multiple competing forms of the same religion, you know? Rather than one form that’s the same everywhere. And I’m reading up on the various scriptures and holidays and so on, altering them so that they aren’t straight-up imports from real history, but will be recognizable as Jewish-inspired, rather than the usual cod-Christianity we see so often in fantasy.

It makes a difference, when you prod yourself out of a default mode. At one point in the novel, the local priest (she’s in a Temple-worshipping area) gets it into his head that she’s being haunted by an evil spirit. If I’d gone with my original instinct, he would perform an exorcism. Instead, it’s a mikveh in living water. And when the reader hits that scene, hopefully their mind will wake up a little bit, taking in new details (if they aren’t versed in Judaism) or recognizing the familiar in an unexpected place (if they are), rather than glazing over as the usual machinery cranks into motion. It makes the world seem a little more thought-out, a little more real, rather than a painted backdrop dragged out of storage for the umpteenth time.

Prodding the defaults takes more work, but it’s worth it. I’d love to hear examples of other stories that do this, making an unexpected substitution that brings the narrative to life.