With the Olympic Games comes travel. A lot of travel. Athletes and spectators from all over the world descending on a country to which they otherwise would never have gone – and in many cases, to one which they know nothing about. Foreign customs and conventions, strange foods and diseases, and many opportunities for misunderstandings and misadventure.
The Olympics is often also an interesting time for authoritarian regimes like Eritrea, with a number of athletes and officials taking the opportunity to defect (and in related news, this week sees the defection of North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK). With travel and exploration such a big part of much genre fiction, this is a great opportunity to examine what happens when people from one culture go to visit another.
The smells were all so strange. The scented smokes and incenses. The strange food with their strange spices and strange ingredients. Boiled meats with a fruit sauce – madness!
But Denner didn’t have a choice. He couldn’t go back to Eregal; they’d kill him. He was stuck here.
He made his way down the street. The sadheira, rather. Even the sounds of the words were strange. Denner could learn the words and the sentence structure as much as he liked, but he still had trouble with the way they pronounced the letters. The way he said it sounded exactly the same to him, but the locals still gave him those funny looks when he didn’t roll the R in exactly the right way.
As he sat down with his steaming bowl-cup of heated fruit booze, he sighed. As welcome as the stuff was after the vicious Franderan winds, it just wasn’t beer, and it wasn’t an Eregalian pub.
So we can see here an exile, stuck living in a foreign land as he would be killed on return to his homeland. What’s most obvious here is that he doesn’t even like the place. This is a man who has defected from his homeland, but not because he thinks somewhere else is better – quite the opposite, in fact.
He views every cultural difference with an air of disdain rather than curiosity. He clearly thinks his own culture is superior, the food and drink better, the people friendlier. He misses his home, and every part of the way he interacts with his new environment tells us that he would much rather be there than where he currently is, if it weren’t for the pesky fact that they would execute him on sight.
What we can see here is an inverted form of the usual trope’s assumption – that if you’re defecting to a foreign land, you’ll see their way of life, their culture and their way of life superior to your own. Clearly, though, this isn’t the case. Here, Denner has defected because he has no other choice. He clearly has a problem with the government, but in all other respects, he still believes Eregal to be superior.
Gallia blinked in the blinding light. Where was she? The last thing she remembered, the reactors on her parents’ junker were failing, pumping toxins into the ship. Gallia had scrubbed the lines through as well as she could, but it just wasn’t doing anything. And then…. something blew.
“I think she’s coming around,” a voice said. That accent. That was an Earth accent. She was on a Humanian ship.
She bolted. Wherever she ended up, it had to be better than being the property of Humanian slavers. To be cooked and eaten. The door opened, and she took off down the corridor. The door opened. Why did it open? The fools must have forgotten to lock it.
“Hey, wait!” one of the Humanians yelled though his sharp-toothed mouth. Those teeth for tearing flesh.
Gallia looked around the ship in confusion. She could only see other Humanians doing the hard work, repairing and cleaning. Where where the slaves? For that matter, where were the carcasses, where the Humanians had stripped the flesh from other species?
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “Calmed down yet?” the Humanian said. Gallia flinched as he displayed his teeth at her. “Come on, let’s get you checked out, and we can get you home.”
Home? They weren’t going to take her as a slave? Why not?
The Humanian displayed his teeth again. “In the meantime, have you ever heard of a thing called a ‘movie’?”
In contrast, here we see an unwilling “captive”, encountering humans for the first time. Clearly, in reality, she has been rescued, but the stories that she had heard about ‘Humanians’, presumably the only information she has about them, colours her perceptions of what she’s experiencing.
Of her own culture and species, we have very few clues. We can tell that they are herbivorous (or at least vegetarian), and as a result they apparently perceive humans to be bloodthirsty butchers, consuming other species they encounter. Accordingly, Gallia perceives smiling to be a sign of aggression; displaying meat-eating teeth in what is surely the first of many cultural misunderstandings.
We can also see that her own species and culture has its own problems. Despite Gallia apparently being a child, she’s given dangerous, life-threatening work by her parents. We might also conclude that Gallia’s species is poorer or less advanced, given the apparently dangerous and barely-functioning nature of their spacecraft. We see no evidence that the humans of this era using child labour or dangerous, broken-down spaceships, and in that regard, Gallia might come to the realisation that ‘Humanian’ culture may be better than her own in some regards.
What kind of cultural differences are there between your traveller and their new surroundings? Where might the difficulties in understanding and cultural norms cause problems, and is there any way to resolve them? The possibilities for plot, conflict and texture are endless.