June 22nd, 2009

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What I Love Best about Sythyry

bard_bloom started writing sythyry several years ago, back in 2002. I started following the journal several months after inception. It is, in many ways, like any other livejournal, with the writer focused mainly on the events of daily life, with occasional digression to explain some of the more unique factors of the journalist's life so that readers can understand better, or to write about some facet of politics or economics or whatnot that's important to the journalist. When readers comment, Sythryry sometimes responds, and sometimes doesn't, just like most journalists.

Of course, there are some atypical facets to Sythyry's LJ. To start with, Sythyry isn't from Earth but from the World Tree, the setting for the eponymous RPG created by beetiger and bard_bloom. Sythyry is a Zi Ri, a race of immortal housecat-sized hermaphrodite dragons and one of the eight Prime species of the World Tree.

The World Tree is an alien place, and not just because it's a world in the shape of a tree, with a fixed sky and a giant lantern for a sun, or because its people are physically different from humans, or because its gods seed the branches with monsters, or because it teems with magic. No, the thing that really makes it alien is that culturally, politically, and socially Sythyry's world is unlike mine. The political structure for Sythyry's home city-state is sort-of-but-not-exactly feudal, with noble titles often earned rather than inherited and much political power exerted by persuasion rather than force. The standard family unit varies from race to race, with some commonly having marital bonds between groups of a dozen or so, some between just two or three, some between just two. Marital bonds hey may be loose and flexible or rigid, depending on the prime species involved. Homosexuality is not merely tolerated, but doesn't even register as noteworthy. Romantic interest in a member of another species, however, is verboten.

While unusual relationships are one facet of this world, the topic is handled with a refreshing lack of prurience. Sythyry doesn't choose to relate the details of anything more salacious than a kiss. bard_bloom's interest is clearly in exploring the customs and culture of this alien landscape, not their physiques.

It's a world neither utopian nor dystopian. Vheshrame, Sythyry's home city-state, is no democracy, nor is it ruled by an evil despot or a monarch of perfect benevolence. The people have customs that are quite appalling to modern American sensibilities, and others that are refreshingly sensible, and still others that seem bizarre and irrational. The World Tree is an enormous place, and it is not a monolithic civilization where every city has the same customs. It escapes many of the sillier tropes of fantasy and sf.

These are all good things that I like about sythyry, but they're not what I love best. No, what I love best is that the protagonists belong to the setting. Sythyry is a product of zir culture.

This seems like an obvious thing, but it's tremendously rare in fiction. It's easy to make a fantasy setting that's just like America, only cooler: substitute horses and crystal balls for cars and telephones -- voila! Making a culture unlike my own is a little harder, but still simple enough: make a dysfunctional nation ruled by a corrupt advisor and his puppet king, or put evil megacorporations in charge of a hapless population, or make a society according to $PERFECTSYSTEM of my choice, where all the natives will be happy and conflict only happens when some foolish individual doesn't realize how perfect $PERFECTSYSTEM is. Making a nuanced world is much harder.

But making protagonists that go with that nuanced world -- now, that's the real test. Protagonists who don't kneejerk rebel against the irrational beliefs of their society? Ones that will argue stubbornly in favor of moral teachings that are quite clearly immoral by modern Western standards? Now that's hard.

And that's what Bard's protagonists do. And not in a simplistic this-is-our-society-we-all-fit-into it way, either. They rebel, sometimes against the wrong things or in the wrong way. They learn, sometimes the wrong lessons and sometimes the right ones. They grow and change, but not overnight. They don't fit in, but they want to fit in. They struggle not only to do the right thing, but to figure out what the right thing is, guided by a moral compass that is one part rational, one part selfish, and several parts cultural and /or racial. Their opinions don't change in the face of a few paragraphs of well-worded argument, but evolve slowly over the course of weeks, months, years.

They are, in a word, real.

And that's what I love most.




On Starting to Read Sythyry

If you want to start reading sythyry (which I highly recommend!), you can start with the current story arc, Sythyry's Vacation, which is convienently arranged in first-to-last order here or starting here on LJ. Or you can start at the begining, Sythyry's Journal, in first-to-last order here, or you can start it from the first entry using the LJ calendar.

Or you can just start in the middle: add sythyry to your friends list now and read whatever the next entry was, or maybe read an entry or two at random from the recent ones, same as you probably do with any other new journal you add to your friends list. That's what I did, back in 2002 or 2003 when I first added Sythyry, and despite being a diary about a fictional person in an alien setting, reading from the middle worked surprisingly well. You might find it helpful to refer to the glossary, dramatis personae, or other topics like food and calendar if you get curious about what some unfamiliar thing refers to, but you can pick a lot up from context as you read, and you can always ask sythyry questions. There's no reason to be intimidated out of reading by the existance of previous entries, or feel compelled to start at the beginning any more than you'd think you had to read anyone else's LJ from the beginning in order to add them. Of course, the whole journal is worth reading! But I actually thought it was more fun to jump into the middle and eventually go back to the begining than starting at the beginning would've been. YMMV. :)
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Indentured Servitude

Thomas Frank, the Wall Street Journal's token liberal opinion columnist, writes about what he describes as modern slavery.

I titled this post "indentured servitude" because that's more what this reminds me of.

Once in America, the workers found themselves at the mercy of the traffickers, who allegedly kept "them as modern-day slaves under threat of deportation," in the words of James Gibbons of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The recruiters apparently took care to keep the workers in debt, charging them fees for uniforms, for transportation, and for rent in overcrowded apartments. Paychecks would frequently show "negative earnings," in the words of the indictment. And if the workers refused to go along with the scheme, the traffickers held the ultimate trump card, the indictment claims: They "threatened to cancel the immigration status" of the workers, rendering them instantly illegal.


I am appalled by the scheme, and saddened at the way our country's immigration laws have made it possible. I have second-hand experience with the crippling sense of helplessness, the sense that you cannot quit, that comes from your employer controlling your immigration status.

But I called this post "indentured servitude", even though this is rather more reprehensible than indentured servitude usually was -- indentured servitude typically ended eventually. Because the primary threats to slaves were usually imprisonment, corporal punishment, and torture. The ultimate threat was death. Deportation is bad, but it's not quite the same as being flogged to death.

That's one thing that struck me: "Once here in America, of course, they can't quit, or else they lose their visa status.".

Was that really the traffickers' ultimate trump card? Were these workers actually willing to put up with menial jobs, negative wages, and overcrowded homes because all of that was still better than going back to where they came from?

A little more research turned up information Mr. Frank didn't mention in his piece: that Giant Labor Solutions threatened $5000 fines against their employees if they returned to their home countries, and also that the visas they used were obtained using false information.

Still, I remain bewildered by Mr. Frank's solution to the problem, which appears to be 'stop offering the visas at all': "What I keep wondering is why we have such a program. Unemployment is over 9% and climbing. Why make it worse?"

I keep wondering why we have such a program, too. But what I keep thinking is that these limited, temporary visa programs make a mockery of the legend on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I would like those words to be true. I would like to take this "ultimate trump card" out of the hand of these traffickers by telling these immigrants they are welcome in my country, with or without an employer to go through umpteen legal hoops to obtain a piece of paper to hold over their heads.

I would like for the end of this story for these immigrants to be that they get paid the wages due them and are free to go back to their home countries -- or stay in this one, which they worked so hard to get to.

Instead, I suspect the end to their ordeal will be deportation anyway.

Somehow, that fails to make me feel like my government is doing so much better by the would-be immigrants than the traffickers were. And weren't the immigrants the victims?

Oh, I see. I missed Mr. Frank's point entirely. I wasn't supposed to feel sorry for the people he called 'modern slaves'. I was supposed to feel sorry for the Americans who didn't get the jobs the slaves were doing. The fate of the enslaved is quite irrelevant.

... I always get that part wrong.