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New Worlds: Slavery in Fiction

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I often mention in these essays that thus-and-such a thing is more or less universal in human society, being found all over the world.

I regret to say that slavery is one of those things.

I won’t claim that every single part of the world has engaged in the practice of enslaving people at some point or another, but it’s widespread enough for me to consider it universal. You find it in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in North America, in South America. (I don’t actually know about Australia. Indentured servitude, yes — and we’ll talk about that eventually — but slavery, possibly not?) The notion that other human beings can be property is one that shows up again and again in history.

Yet it hardly shows up in our fiction. Despite the pervasive occurrence of slavery in human societies, relatively few speculative fiction novels make any mention of this practice. It doesn’t even show up that frequently in historical fantasy, despite the fact that no few of those novels take place in time periods and places where, yes, people were held as chattel. Still less do you tend to see it in secondary worlds, except as a way of marking the Evil Empire as evil.

This doesn’t actually surprise me. I think of slavery as kind of a third rail in fiction, not to be touched without good reason. So often in these New Worlds essays I advocate for tucking little details of worldbuilding into the background . . . but slavery cannot, I think, be mentioned in passing like that. It can’t be an incidental flourish, there just to lend some flavor to your setting. Take a moment to imagine how the reader would react to a casual mention of the hero or heroine having a meal served to them by the household slave, or sending a slave on an errand. I suspect the answer is “not well.” The occasional unsympathetic protagonist notwithstanding, we usually want to identify with the main character, or at least feel some admiration for them, and a character who benefits unthinkingly from slave labor punches a hole in that pretty fast. (One of the few exceptions I can think of is The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters, which acknowledges that Edgar Allan Poe’s foster family owned slaves. It’s less jarring there because Poe himself doesn’t own them, and because he loathes his foster father.) In the worst case scenario, you wind up with an unpleasant suspicion that the author thinks that actually, slavery wasn’t that bad, it was just like being a servant but with a different name.

It was not just like being a servant but with a different name.

Slavery thus becomes something that’s hard to include in the story without it being the story. You can write about a protagonist who is enslaved, inviting the reader to view that institution from the pointy end. Or the main character isn’t enslaved, but they’re fighting to free the slaves and end the institution, because that’s part and parcel of the villainy that needs to be defeated. If that’s not the story, then those people serving the meals or going on the errands tend to be referred to as servants instead, with the implication that they’re being paid some kind of wage and can theoretically leave if they want.

(Paid servitude can and did — and does — have its own problems, of course. And also there’s the concept of “wage slavery,” along with problems like human trafficking. But for the sake of coherence, the focus for this month’s essays is going to be on legal, societally accepted ownership of other humans.)

One thing to bear in mind here is that “slavery” doesn’t mean exactly the same thing everywhere and every time. For me, the term evokes the plantations of the American South; probably many of you reading these essays think of something along similar lines, perhaps in the Caribbean or elsewhere in the New World. That particular system is notable for its sheer, horrifying scale, and for the devastation it wrought on multiple continents simultaneously. Slavery didn’t always look like that: there have been differences in who gets enslaved, and why, and who owns the slaves, for what purpose. There’s a range in terms of what kind of rights slaves might have (generally very few, of course, but that isn’t the same as none). The question of how you might get out of slavery, and what your life might look like afterward, could also vary quite widely.

The remaining essays for this month are going to dig into these differences at greater length. I should, however, flag something before we get to those later essays. It’s always and unavoidably the case that what I write here is limited by my knowledge and research; however widely I read, I don’t know all parts of the world equally well. In this case, that means I’ll mostly be speaking on the basis of colonial Western and ancient Mediterranean examples. Even within those, there’s a fair bit of variation — and (as usual) I welcome additional examples in the comments.

But I want to be crystal clear, right here at the outset: even where there’s variation, and even when that variation leads in directions that maybe don’t look that bad, slavery is and always has been an awful institution. At no point am I saying, “well, this society enslaved people, but the way they did it was actually pretty good.”

I’m devoting an entire month to this not just because of that variation, but because I think it’s important to think about this even when we don’t incorporate it into our fiction. Whether it shows up in the story or not, it can shape your worldbuilding — perhaps by its absence instead of its presence. As an American citizen, I live in a society built on the backs of enslaved people; an alternate United States that outlawed slavery at the outset of its existence would have had a very different trajectory, with its economy growing along different lines and its subsequent expansion possibly being altered. The country I live in now is a post-slave state, indelibly marked by the racism and oppression of that institution. And that’s another way this subject can shape a fictional setting: what does it mean for the society when its slaves are freed? How does that affect the lives not only of those directly emancipated, but of their descendants as well? Slavery can be a force in the world even when it isn’t currently practiced.

Before we can get to that, though, we need to look at where it starts. Look for that in upcoming weeks.

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7 thoughts on “New Worlds: Slavery in Fiction”

  1. The most fundamental reality of slavery, no matter what era of the world, and whatever part of the world, is complete and legal lack of control of any kind over one’s own body.

    We are seeing the same playbook of the peculiar to the US version of institutionalized slavery shoved in our faces right this minute.

    Straight out of what we describe in our book, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry — the capitalized womb, along with the punishment of women who attempt to interfere with the godgiven right of the white man to view herself, and her most intimate parts of self, as his commodity, to use, buy and sell, just as he wants.

    Seemingly overlooked by the multiple and multiplying analysts and interpreters of the Alito draft is this fundamental declaration, which tells us all again — as if we needed to be told, but so many do! — this is indeed a decision propelled by the ideology of the anti-democratic, pro white male racist ant-woman xtian authoritarian theocracy party — he uses this very phrase, right out of TASC — the truth that surely all women at least have known all along, since Reagan, if they paid attention: “… the domestic supply of infants …” which abortion — and all contraception has decreased to nearly “… nonexistant …”

    Written on page 34 of the leaked document: “DOMESTIC SUPPLY OF INFANTS.”

    Same supply chain issues the US southern slaveocracy faced in its dream to fill the entire atmosphere with its own version of capitalism of, birth decreed slavery, and nazi germany and so many other authoritarian tyrannies face(d), including Russia today, whose aim it is to erase and / or replace the ‘other’ with the superior race, plunder by force the resources from the ‘others’ control for their own well-being, service and power. And looking for the same remedy, to deny women, all women, personhood and agency of any kind.

  2. The only kind of story where I can see slavery being part of the background, not the focus, is historical stories set in places like the ancient Roman empire or ancient Greece. Times and places where our school history lessons have already taught us that slavery existed and a bit of what it entailed.
    I’m thinking of older books like Rosemary Suttcliff’s The Eagles of the Ninth and The silver bells, Mary Renault’s The bull from the sea, and the series of detective Falco stories set in ancient Rome, where the way slavery was taken for granted in those societies is part of the accepted worldbuilding for those times.
    Though occasionally something of the evil consequences may be mentioned in those older books, it is not receiving the amount of attention it gets in more recent historical fantasies like A.J.Demas’s One night in Boukos, or Megan Whalen Turner’s Conspiracy of Kings.

    I guess that corroborates your point, that books like those older ones would not be written that way now, as modern writers need to explicitly point out that slavery is bad and does awful things to those enslaved, and good people should oppose it, even though the world they are portraying (including most of their primary characters, if they were realistic) considered it normal and “just the way things are”?

    1. You’re right that such books could not be written now, and I think it’s a shame. If Mary Renault or the other authors you name wrote today, they would be instantly attacked by legions of angry Twitterers, who would falsely accuse them of somehow supporting slavery. I love Mary Renault’s portrayal of Ancient Greece (especially Fire from Heaven). Her recreation of a very foreign time and culture is masterful. Her life was richer because she was able to write that book, and my life was richer because I was able to read it. I regret the fact that current and future readers and writers will be poorer, because our culture doesn’t know how to ignore the small minority of very shouty people online. And I think it a sign that our culture has become less tolerant, when we are unable to even represent people from a foreign culture in fiction without being attacked.

      1. Marie Brennan

        I actually don’t think it’s true that those books couldn’t be written today. I’ve read a recently published book that took place in ancient Rome, and it didn’t ignore slavery; I suspect we’ve internalized the fact of Roman slavery well enough that it shows up in our fiction. Same, of course, for slavery in the historical U.S. Where I see it being elided is in, say, fiction set in later European history: nobody in the Renaissance or pre-modern era ever seems to own a slave, or profit from the slave trade.

  3. Howard Brazee

    I recently read The Silver Pigs: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery (Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries Book 1), which takes place in Rome in the year 61. The lead character is a hard-boiled private eye. He talks about slaves early, but then in his investigations, he becomes a slave working in a silver mine for a few months.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Ooof — he’s lucky to survive, given the *miserable* life expectancy of slaves in the silver mines.

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