A reprise of an article that first appeared here three years ago, dealing with work—on Labor Day.
Today is Labor Day in the US, so I thought it appropriate to think a little bit about speculative novels and work. My first thought was, Does anybody work? I mean, in epic fantasy, the protagonist and his crew are questing—traveling, for the most part, from one place to another in an effort to find, win, capture, or fulfill whatever the quest requires. Space opera doesn’t seem very different, but the principles are wondering the galaxy instead of roaming the countryside.
So who works?
I know there are some stories that feature the prince or the warrior or the soothsayer. There are some centered around the dragon keeper (a nod in particular to Donita Paul and her DragonKeeper Chronicles); still others feature the assassin. These, of course, are professions, and there is a certain amount of work connected to what they do.
But who maintains the spaceship? Who cooks the dinner? Who shoes the horses? Who navigates the trail?
I think of the old westerns, which I’ve recently had the opportunity to view, and marvel that they are so well plotted, but also believably peopled with working characters. They have the scout and the cook and the wagon master.
Star Trek, the original, included the same elements, (though, of course, the worker red shirts are inevitably the ones who die in a crisis). The spin-off series maintained that same bit of worldbuilding. Miles was the transporter chief and his wife a botanist. Deanna Troi was the ship’s counselor and Beverly Crusher, the chief medical officer.
What about speculative fiction today? Are our stories including characters that tend to the mundane needs of the protagonist? Is there someone looking after the children, even teaching them? Who gets the meals? Who buys supplies? Who does the repair work? Are these characters significant or peripheral?
I wonder if our attitude toward work might not improve if we began to see it as honorable and necessary in our fiction.
But maybe it’s there, and I’m just not noticing.
What speculative novels have you read that showcase someone with an ordinary job?
Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid opens with the protagonist getting up early to feed the animals. It was his job as a slave. However, he quickly advances to become a squire, and off he goes on his quest.
Patrick Carr’s A Cast Of Stones opens with a drunk given a message to deliver—a job he accepts so he can get enough money to buy another day’s supply of booze. But he soon joins forces with a pair of clergymen and ends up on a quest.
Maybe “ordinary” doesn’t make for a good story. Still, I’d think within stories about the exciting and the exceptional, there need to be those who hold down the fort, who keep the supply lines coming through, who make sure the soldiers have shoes.
What books have you read (or written) that include the everyday in their worldbuilding? What books move those mundane jobs to the forefront and make them significant to the plot?