Writing Fantasy: The Problem of Lineage

“I have encountered a vergence in the Force . . . a boy. His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorian.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“The Force is strong in my family.”  -Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I’ve ever seen in a life form. It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship.” -Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The examples of the problem are countless, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying to count them anyway. Whether it comes from destiny or something about who your dad was, we know this much; in fantasy fiction, it really fucking matters who your parents were. Your real parents, at least. Your powers are something you are born with. Sure, maybe you need training, maybe you need an eccentric mentor type to help you hone your talent, but that all comes later, typically after you inherit your ancestor’s cool weapon.

We could be talking about Star Wars, like with the above quotes. Or maybe we’re talking about Aragorn and the Lord of the Rings. Or with a bit of stretching, we could include any superhero whose powers are the result of their inborn biology as opposed to what they might have constructed in a cave, with a box of scraps.

In fact, because there are so many examples and variations on this theme, we’re going to narrow it down to Star Wars, not simply because Star Wars (and more specifically, the prequels) are the most egregious offender, but because there is such a clearly defined timeline that explains the problem. Even though I’m talking specifically about the Force and the Jedi here, these are themes that can be found in almost any fantasy story that has some kind of magical power and a specific group of people that can wield that power. So you could substitute “magic” and “mages” here, if you really wanted.

We begin with the original trilogy. Despite all the references to Luke’s destiny as a Jedi, because his father was a Jedi, by the time we get to Yoda, we see someone who doesn’t seem to give a shit who your dad was. If you want to be a Jedi, get off your ass and work on it. You better have the deepest commitment and the most serious mind if you want to make it through Jedi training, or your ass isn’t levitating anything.

Sure, there’s still privilege here in the story as presented. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. But why not? Maybe you don’t have the natural patience to sit still long enough to let a green elf lecture you while inhaling swamp gas. Or maybe you couldn’t afford to take a top-of-the-line military starship and fly off to some random swamp planet to meet the right teacher because you have to ride the space-bus every day. Maybe you don’t believe in hokey religions and ancient weapons, so the whole thing is just a waste of time.

Regardless of the barriers that might keep you from Jedi training that exist mentally, physically, or practically, at this point, the metaphor is still clear; if you really want to become a space wizard, you can. It’s going to be hard as hell. You could fail and die, or turn into an evil tyrant instead. But you can still try. It doesn’t matter what your blood type is. It doesn’t matter who your dad is. The Force is everything, even in the trees and rocks.

And then it turns out that none of that is accurate, because while it is true that the Force is super-cool and it’s all things and we’re all luminous beings, it’s also true that you won’t have a chance in hell at graduating from Jedi school unless you won the genetic lottery the moment you were born. A single check of your blood type (so to speak) determines whether you can be a space wizard . . . or, you know, something else. Maybe a queen, if you’re lucky enough to live on a planet with a democratically elected monarchy system.

Sorry, the Force isn’t for you. You don’t have the right blood for it. Even though the number of little organisms in your blood isn’t actually the source of the power, it’s still the bridge, the gateway, but ff you don’t have it, you never will. If you do have it, you can start working hard on developing it.

The parallels to fantasy fiction’s love of the aristocracy should become apparent here, if they aren’t already. The special people get all the best perks because they were born special. Again, and again, we see this theme.

You could argue that this accurately reflects real life and I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about what opportunities are open to you and which ones are closed. Even before we consider anything else about me, the fact that I was born straight, white, and male meant that I had fewer barriers starting out than other people.

But my feeling is that it’s not the role of fantasy fiction to tell us how the world is, but how it should be. We don’t live in a world where good always triumphs over evil . . . but we should. Our fantasies tell us a lot about what we value, what we consider to be important. And so we come to the actual core problem: our Jedi fantasy started telling us that we believed anyone could become a hero, but shifted into telling us that only special people can be heroes.

We learn from stories. In particular, we learn about what’s important because we intuit what people want to tell stories about. Overcoming evil is more important than making breakfast in the grand scheme of things, so we usually focus our grand narratives there. And at one point in time, Star Wars knew this.

REVENGE OF THE JEDI STORY CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT, JULY 13 to JULY 17, 1981—SUMMARY
Participants: George Lucas, Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian
Location: Park Way House
Note: Many of the ideas here are conceptual only and should not be considered canon in the Star Wars saga.
[…]
THE STORY OF ANAKIN
Lawrence Kasadan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everyone can do it.
Kasadan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

That’s the solution. It’s the direction that I went with in my books, although I hadn’t read this transcript at the time. If you make the magic powers a skill that someone can learn, you reinforce the idea that what you do matters more than who your parents are.

In Dinomancer, I intentionally keep it vague on whether or not I think of the ability to wield the Geas is a supernatural power or not. Where does it come from? What powers it? Right now, I’m not saying (gotta save material for future world building).

What I do explore is the relatively egalitarian nature of the skill itself; it really is true that anyone can learn it, just like anyone can learn French. But just like learning French, just because anyone can learn it doesn’t mean the deck isn’t still stacked in some people’s favor more than others.

Obviously, the easiest way to learn French is to be French. Barring that, going to France and living there for a while probably works. Barring that, taking a class or having a French teacher. Barring that? Maybe a book or something; at this point, you have fewer advantages working for you, so most people don’t really try. Sure, there’s the occasional self-starter who really manages to pull it off, but most of us don’t.

Anyone can train to be a dinomancer, which is my current working title and term for the protagonists until I can come up with something better. As discussed in the aristocracy post, this creates a form of social mobility, in that anyone can learn the skills needed to become a dinomancer, and the skills are so valuable that you’re guaranteed adoption into a noble House if you can master it. In theory, anyone can raise his or her station. All it takes is a bit of hard work, can-do attitude, and know-how . . .

Oh, and you need to be willing to stand in front of a bull tyrannosaurus as it charges toward you while all you do is hold out your hand and think really hard to make it not want to eat you and somehow believe that this will work even while your instincts are screaming at you to run away.

And the mortality rate for learning the skill is about 50%, but this risk isn’t evenly distributed. It’s lower if you’re a highborn, considerably higher if you’re lowborn.

Highborn will train for this challenge their entire lives. You can’t take your title or be considered a true member of your noble family unless you’re a trained dinomancer. Those highborn kids that don’t or can’t learn might remain comfortable all their lives as their parents care for them, but they won’t inherit any land, titles, or power ever, so if they don’t want to end up out in the cold one day, they best get to work.

Fortunately, there are plenty of trainers available for these highborn kids to help them prepare. Most families specialize in breeding one particularly powerful species, such as a Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus, but many smaller, less dangerous dinosaurs are common enough to be used for early training. From the time they can walk, these kids will grow up around dinosaurs, learning to interact with them, care for them, and everything else they’ll need once it’s time to learn the skill. They’re given every possible advantage to help them succeed.

The lowborn kids . . . are not. Any lowborn can send a child for dinomancer training to the noble family that rules over them. In point of fact, anyone of any age can go to learn, but culturally, it’s just better economic sense to send your little tykes off when they’re young so that if/when they fail, you’ve only invested six years into raising them instead of sixteen. You’re playing a numbers game when you’re lowborn; all you need is one kid to survive long enough to graduate, then they’ll have enough resources to care for you. You don’t get to become noble yourself, obviously, but most former lowborn provide enough for their families to lift them into a pseudo-middle class. Not all do, but it’s common enough.

Unlike the highborn, lowborn don’t have to send kids for training. There are plenty who don’t, since there’s no social expectation for them to do so. Lowborn kids can grow up and live lowborn lives. But the rewards are great enough that for most lowborn families, it’s worth risking a few sons or daughters.

The system isn’t fair. The powerful hoard their resources to ensure their own progeny retain their grip on power. We’re not creating a perfect world here, after all; we still need enough problems so there are things for our heroes to overcome. But the important distinction is that the core philosophy of the world itself is coded as “anyone can learn” instead of “you must have the right blood to learn.”

The elite of this world twisted things to serve their own interests. If someone more enlightened came along and wanted to open a dinomancer public school, there’s nothing inherent in the setting that would stop them. In contract, you don’t get to be a public school Jedi if you’re not born for it. Don’t even try.

How we construct our pretend worlds says a lot about us. My hope is that we’ll continue to see fantasy settings that trend in this direction. You can still make magic and magical powers rare and special without making them restricted to the genetically gifted. I still love magic and hidden places and lost arts. I just hope we see more things like the Jedi as envisioned in 1981 (“it’s like yoga”), instead of 1999 (“microscopic organisms living in your blood”).

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