Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Binary Politics and the lure of Historical Romance

Many of my Canadian friends don't understand how American politics can be so polarizing that discussing politics at all at family events is considered a bit of a taboo. Part of that, theorizes one friend, is that we have not had a viable third party in elections in 90 years.

To paraphrase one of my favourite authors, we tend to see zebras. Us versus them is a really easy conflict, even more so when we frame it as good versus evil.

Jedi versus Sith, practically everyone versus Nazis, British versus French in the Napoleonic Wars: these are conflicts easily understood as binaries. The only exception is the second world war, which was actually quite complex politically. Most of the stories we tell about it,* though, are ones about one aspect of conflict, with one enemy, easily identified. One possible explanation for this is that real life is complex enough, and fiction is an escape from that. Those stories with grand conflicts tend to be geared more towards entertainment than the elevation of society, because they provide that escape. Thrillers, military historical fiction, and a great deal of speculative fiction tend to all focus on the binary conflict.

Another genre that focuses on simpler conflicts is historical romance. One of the great tools of the romance genre is throwing together two adults and keeping them together through some plot device, and then having them fall in love through repeated exposure. One of the favourites of the romance genre as a whole is having two people married on a slim premise and fall in love afterwards. In historical fiction, we have a great many plausible options to force a marriage, from alliance to scandal. We have divorce as an awful scandal to be avoided at all costs, and heirs as the goal of all marriage, both of which encourage the wedded to get along with each other.

I know I go for simplicity sometimes in my reading material, because historical romance is like chicken soup for the mind when I am sick, and sometimes I just want the good guys to beat up the bad guys. But when I'm all here, I want more. I want the speculative fiction I read to give me something more than 'us', the living, versus all 'them' zombies,** unless the zombies have no fewer than three levels of social commentary.

Two requests stem from this:
  1. I would very much appreciate recommendations for fluffy historical fiction.
  2. If you're a writer, don't give me a binary! Find more nuanced ways to make great plots.
*Harry Turtledove's In The Balance series is a notable exception, in which aliens arrive and it's everyone versus everyone in an ever-shifting tessellation.
**Heinlein jokes are a thing that happen and I am not sorry

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