Thursday, April 23, 2009


Slavery and lycanthropy in the works of Laurell K. Hamilton

Notes and links follow each item

There's a lot of agreement that the second Knights Of The Old Republic game was deeply flawed (to give full disclosure, I liked the first game, but never played beyond a half-hour of the second). The production schedule was rushed, the original ending was changed, length was cut, and many interesting locations and quests were cut. Worse, some of the quests that were in the published game were broken, which is the worst sin in any computer RPG; glitches would cause saved games to be lost, and crucial items did not work as intended.

Much like the Star Control 2 remake project, a group of fans has taken it upon themselves to create a mod that addresses these issues. If anyone knows of any other projects like this – attempts to fix, re-imagine or remake games of the past - please let me know.

"Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords" Restoration Project

"Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters" remake on Sourceforge


The Drawbacks of Lycanthropy

My sister pointed me towards the “Anita Blake” series of books by Laurell K. Hamilton several years ago. I absolutely tore through the first seven books; this series is a guilty pleasure to the nth degree. The strength of the first half of this series is that it manages to juggle a lot of genre balls and keep them in the air in a way that only a few other franchises have managed – Dresden Files and Buffy come to mind immediately. 

In another post, I will explore my mixed feelings about the latest Dresden book, which came out earlier this month. Unlike Jim Butcher, Hamilton made a bold change to her main character a little after the midway point in the series. Namely, she added another peg to her juggling act by seriously ramping up the sexual content of the stories. This has gained her a new (apparently larger) readership while alienating her much of her old one.

It is wonderful to watch a successful balance between romance, horror, police procedural, and action-adventure. There is an intricate and multi-faceted supernatural landscape in these books, with many stakeholders, some occult and some public: vampires, necromancers, voodoo priests, fey, police agencies, and lycanthropes of every imaginable. This essay will mostly be a thought experiment concerning this last group. There's a very tragic dimension to the disease that doesn't get explored very much in the novels.

Lycanthropy, in the Anitaverse (and all the examples I give here are in this fictional setting, just to be clear), results from successful infection of a virus, which causes changes that makes some supernatural energies available to the afflicted person. Not everyone exposed to a virus actually contracts the disease. Most important of these powers is an altered animal form. The species of virus determines the animal that inspires altered form, and different viruses have different rates of infection. From most to least potent, the list goes: wererat, werewolf, many of the large predatory cats, down to wereswans, the hardest species to transmit.

Let us say that you are afflicted, four major problems arise. First, the transition from human being to lycanthrope is physically and emotionally grueling. Most infections are the result of an act of violence, which is traumatic enough by itself. Commonly, a lycanthrope who is in an altered form allows their animal instincts of predation and stalking to overwhelm them, at which point they attack a nearby target, which is hopefully some prey animal, but in the worst case, a member of the afflicted's family, or a loved one. Even in the best-case scenario, where you have a close, supportive, and accepting family with financial means, you represent a real danger to the people around you.

Worse, most lycanthrope species undergo an involuntary change at some point in the lunar cycle. For three nights of every month, you live in your altered form, and must either run wild in some wilderness (where you are unable to injure someone else), or be sedated and physically restrained. Since each transformation is physically exhausting, you lose a day after each night to convalesce. This “lost time” is the most obvious indication to your acquaintances that you have contracted the disease, which leads to the second problem.

In modern Western societies, lycanthropes are tolerated. In most of the world, however, suspected lycanthropes are seized, tested, and if infected, killed immediately by local authorities, with no trial, no appeal, no due process. Equal employment opportunity and disability advocacy laws prevent employers from discriminating against lycanthropes, but in practice the suspicion of infection usually leads to termination under other pretenses. Careers in medicine or food preparation are barred, period. This causes a closed circle of opportunity, as happens in many immigrant communities, where lycanthropes employ and make friendships only with each other, which only makes the distrust and distance more acute.

Thirdly, there are serious dangers from within the lycanthrope communities themselves. The animal instincts which become part of the personality create pack- and pride- like structures, separated along species lines, with an alpha-leader at the top of a hierarchy. It is standard practice for this leader to establish a territory, with borders negotiated with other, adjacent leaders, and to settle local disputes among their subjects. In return for fulfilling these duties, the leader (and this office goes by many different names, depending on the species) exacts tithes from her subjects, and keeps them in line primarily with the threat of violence. It is also standard practice to appoint betas, sergeants that help the leader in her duties. 

In this way, becoming a lycanthrope is tantamount to slavery, or perhaps a better analogy is membership in a gang of penitentiary convicts. Someone is set above, at the top of a social pyramid. They provide some protections, but this is essentially extortion. You will be protected, and you will pay, whether you like it or not. Local agencies almost never intervene in these matters. Your only recourse is to rise in the hierarchy by a series of challenges, almost always physical duels, in superhumanly powerful altered forms, and most often to the death. A duel to replace a leader herself is always to the death, which leads to my final point.

If you would like to “vote with your feet” and leave a particularly brutal regime, you will find that it is extremely difficult. Because were-communities are so closely bound and territorial, and violence is the only way to move socially, moving across territorial boundaries becomes a diplomatic snafu. Calls need to be made, messages confirmed, and the leaders of the realms you move through have to be satisfied. They will probably demand a public meeting to exchange a toll price, or some other symbol of submission. It isn't hard to see why this is. If you are a new lycanthrope moving through a leader's territory, you represent a real threat to the establish power structure, because there is a significant chance that you are coming to fight your way into the pack/pride hierarchy.

Now weigh this spider's web of penalties and problems versus the gifts you receive: a robust resistance to any illness, enhanced senses, an alternate form with superhuman strength and stamina, and, hopefully, bonds of friendship with other lycanthropes in your area. Your mileage may vary, but to me this trade is in no way equal.

Now it's time for me to pays my money and takes my choice. If I had no choice but to choose a lycanthrope group to join, the wererats would have my money. At least in the St. Louis of the novels, wererats seem to be more of an anarchic confederacy of equals than a monarchy. Even though the leader is called the Rat King, he is more of a charismatic representative, who guides by his force of personality. This is the best of the worst choices.

Anita Blake on Wikipedia


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I'm not convinced that this description of lycanthropy is slavery. The leadership can be challenged legitimately and accepted socially; in slavery this is not possible without a revolution.

It doesn't seem to fit the prison gang system, which is still voluntary, despite the popular media depictions.

This is possibly closer to descriptions of brothels or prostitution rings, where dejected members are forced into the open arms of a pimp.
Good points. In prison, you can stay alone; you can choose to "do your own time." If you choose not to join a gang and enter the struggle for dominance between different groups, your choice is very likely to be respected.

The local pack leader is not likely to see it that way.

Hiding, even if you are very careful, and even if you're in a big city, is impossible - you will be literally smelled out. If you stay withdraw and declare independence, don't attend meetings, tithe, or join calls to attack the pack's enemies, other members who resent the current leader will wonder a) why THEY can't declare themselves neutral, and b) whether the current leader is ripe for a challenge, since he's showing signs of weakness.

Your separation forces him to act, like it or no. He must bring you to heel, either by forcing you to obey, or publicly negotiating some arrangement that clearly establishes his superiority.
Still, I'm not convinced. It doesn't seem like slavery but perhaps it is closer to serfdom. A serfdom could possibly tolerate a leadership challenge. All serfs are required to labor for the leader. In the general case, non-leaders are all serfs.
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