I’ve had house guests for the past five days (my cousin stayed with me; my Dad stayed with my sister), and in the process of doing all the show-the-out-of-town-family-around stuff, doing the blog got kind of behind. Which is why I’m late and a bit disconnected with this.
Yesterday, we went to the State Fair. Minnesota has a really, really amazing state fair, and it was actually cool enough in the morning that my cousin who had knee surgery last year and my father who is 92 and sensitive to high temperatures could both walk around all morning (and into the afternoon) without any real problems. We saw the butter heads and got milkshakes at the dairy barn, then went looking for the bacon ice cream (didn’t find it), had honey ice cream at the agricultural building in the section devote to bees (if you’re seeing a pattern here, I’m not surprised; yes, my Dad is very fond of ice cream). We saw the crop art, (which is made by gluing different seeds to a board…and it is amazing the fine detail some people can get that way), went through the Arts & Crafts building admiring the knitting (me), the quilting (my cousin), and the woodwork (my Dad, with my sister going “…and you can make me one of those, Dad, and one of those, and…”
We all admired the pirate ship done in folded paper, but agreed that it was too fragile to survive in any of our respective abodes. We went through the Fine Arts building, where the piece de resistance was a marble bust of a Native American in full feather headdress carved and polished with amazing care and attention to detail. Lunch at the Lutheran Evangelical kitchen (because you could sit down) and then we took the sky tram back to the bus. Yes, that wasn’t even half of what was available, and it took us about five hours and by then we were all bushed.
It did get me thinking, though. I’ve lived in Midwestern farm states all my life, and even though I’ve always lived in suburbs and my stomping grounds of choice have been urban, I’ve always been aware of the vast acreage of corn and soybeans and wheat outside the small area in which I circulate. When I was growing up in suburban Chicago, if you woke up too early and turned the radio on, you got the farm report, even if the rest of the day it was a music channel playing rock and roll, and even though they don’t do that any more, there’s still that awareness – you can’t listen to a weather report (even in a normal year when there’s no drought) without hearing a reference to soil moisture and how the rain or sun is going to affect the crops.
One of my sisters now lives on the coast of Maine. When I visit her, there’s a similar awareness, but it’s about the fishermen, how the fish and lobsters are doing, and how the weather and other trends will affect them. In Alabama, my sister and nieces there hear about hurricanes and the tornadoes they spawn, as well as regular updates on the condition of the Gulf of Mexico.
All of this stuff is almost subliminal, but it’s part of what gives each area of the country its own unique feel, even in major cities. It’s not just that the weather is different; it’s a sense that what people do for a living, the things that feed the city both literally and symbolically, are different. Even in metropolitan areas that are so enormous that some of that sense of being in touch with more rural areas seems to have been lost, there’s still a difference in the feel of the city. New York has Wall Street and Broadway, and Los Angeles has Disneyland and the film industry; you can’t tell me that doesn’t make any difference.
But I don’t see a lot of this in fantasy or science fiction, unless it’s in a story that’s set in a real-world city that the writer happens to love and have a feel for. Even with a real venue like Chicago or New York or L.A., a lot of writers seem to slap the name on a generic urban setting (it’s a big city; you can tell because it’s got skyscrapers, freeways, lots of traffic, lots of people living in generic apartment buildings, and maybe a couple of ethnic restaurants). There often isn’t much attention paid to major-but-strictly-local events like the Minnesota State Fair (heck, half the time there isn’t much attention paid to planet-wide events like elections or their version of Christmas or Independence Day. Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan books have their Midwinter Festival and the Emperor’s birthday, but I’m drawing a blank for other examples).
And there especially isn’t a lot of attention paid to that subliminal awareness of the stuff that ought to make every planet, and a wide variety of specific areas of each planet, unique. When I visit my sister in Maine, she goes down to the docks and we have fresh lobster for dinner; when I visit my sister in Alabama, she makes southern shrimp boil; when I visit my friends in New York they take me to dozens of tiny, phenomenal restaurants (ethnic, fusion, traditional…world cuisine, sort of). In Chicago, the first place we stop is for the hot dogs at Hot Doug’s. I took my cousin and my Dad to the State Fair for honey ice cream and cheese curds and food-on-a-stick, and if it hadn’t been so hot during the early part of their visit, I’d have taken them to see Minnehaha Falls and the Minnesota zoo.
Where do your characters take their visiting friends to show off their town/planet? And what do they eat that can’t be had anywhere else?