Human Lives Matter: Racial Politics in Fantasy

(Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist, or a social scientist.)

Black Lives Matter, the most recent crystallization of racial politics in our nation, has prompted me, among other things, to pause and question the use of race in fantasy and science-fiction, to include re-evaluating how I approach fantasy races in my Ahmbren Chronicles books. If I think about the most influential models in fantasy and science fiction which divide characters into races in such a way where racial differences and inherent natures are highlighted, I would look at Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

In the real world, civilization has moved through periods of time where it was (wrongfully) asserted that races had different characteristics. In the literature of our past, people of the “negroid race” were called savage. Inferior. Of animal passion.

Biologically, it’s been proven that “race” isn’t actually a thing. There is no such thing as race on a genetic level. The color of our skin is no more an indication of aptitude, character, or morality than the color of our hair or eyes. I share with the author of the linked article that I also didn’t learn that race isn’t “real” in the biological sense until I was in college.

Race is a thing, I would propose, in the social sense. A combination of ethnicity, physical characteristics, and a line of ancestors extending back through particular cultures to particular geographic regions. There is a racial effect, an experience, we all have, and each of our racial experiences are different from the other races. To be Caucasian in the world (anywhere in the world) means we will have a different cause-effect response from the cultural system than if we are Black, or Asian, or Semitic. The level of difference, and whether our race gives us advantage or disadvantage depends on the area of the world. In most instances, being white in Europe or North American presents a certain set of advantages. Being Caucasian in Asia, the Middle-East, or Africa provides an opportunity to be the outsider, with what that might mean across a wide spectrum of experience. To be non-Caucasian in Europe or North America also leads to a different paradigm than if one were Caucasian. So, even though race isn’t real from a biological perspective, it would be false to say it’s not real from an experiential and cultural perspective.

So what does this have to do with fantasy fiction?

First, let’s look at Tolkien and Roddenberry. Two writers who created concepts of race to help define their characters, and two writers who approached it from completely opposite perspectives.

Tolkien took concepts from British and European folklore and solidified them into the foundational tropes of modern fantasy: elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, and halflings. Dungeons and Dragons built on this, and a great many fantasy books, my own included, inherit from this legacy. In Tolkien, race matters. I mean, it matter a lot. The elves truly are better and superior than the other races, simply by virtue of being elves. Dwarves are more susceptible to greed because they are dwarvish (there’s even a view that Tolkien’s anti-semitism manifested in his design of the dwarves, where he stated that they were based off of [his stereotypes about] the Jewish people). Humans are easily corrupted because they are human (which is fine if you think of the problems of mortalkind and the temptations of power, but Tolkien makes this a racial thing… and I’m not even going to get into the fact that Tolkien’s black humans all throw in with Sauron). And Frodo is able to resist the ring’s power long enough to complete the mission because it is a characteristic of hobbits. In summary, though Tolkien did have variance in his characters due to their morale center (e.g., Boromir and Faramir made different choices when it came to the Ring), his characters were defined first and foremost by their race.

Roddenberry took the opposite approach. First, although Star Trek correctly Humans, Klingons, and Vulcans as different species, they are, in my opinion, analogous to races for all practical purposes. Because Star Trek has always been socially aware. Roddenberry deliberately wanted to show the commonality in his races, that no matter how alien they were, they still had faces and eyes that express human emotion. Kirk tells Spock at some point, “We’re all human, Spock.” Roddenberry believed in the shared experience of the soul (my words/interpretation) and the common bond of human experience. In Star Trek, races are much more treated as different cultures (assigned to different physical costuming), but the heroes are heroes because of shared moral values based on a universal philosophy (the needs of the many) rather than by virtue of their race; the villains are villainous because of evil values based on a universal philosophy (disregard for suffering in exchange for personal or political gain) that transcends racial and cultural boundaries. In other words, the characters shape who they are based on choices rather than being defined by their race.

To bring this back to fantasy and my treatment of race in Ahmbren, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with my approach to race. Now that I think about it, I was influenced by Tolkien’s approach. I did not pattern my races on real-world stereotypes, and I believe Ahmbren is more nuanced and socially aware than Middle Earth (I also studied, metaphorically, at the feet of Roddenbery, and wanted to make my elves and orcs more “human” than Tolkien did). But there is still a fundamental racial influence on my characters. When I started building my world, I decided to make each race’s character focused around a question they held to be their ultimate philosophical question. They were as follows:

  • Sidhe (elf): What is beauty? What is perfection?
  • Human: What is useful? What is practical?
  • Ratling: What is profitable? What is negotiable?
  • Gnome: What is possible?
  • Orc: What is heroic?
  • Dwarf: What is valuable? What can I make of value?
  • Troll: What is correct?
  • Seelie (elf): What is natural? What is true?
  • Troglodyte: What can I endure? What can I survive?

This was great from a story-building perspective, because it gave me a guide post on how those races’ cultures interacted, and what inherently motivated the personalities of the characters.

And yet, I’m now bothered by this, at how fundamentally a kind of racism is built into my world. Even if it is with fictional races. Based on the world I’ve built, I can’t just wipe it away and say all those races are the same, because in this world, race has biological reality. Trolls and ratlings are physically different from elves and humans. Sidhe elves cannot cross-breed with humans (biologically incompatible), and this doesn’t even account for the wolven (werewolves) and vampires, which also have racial characteristics that fundamentally shape their character and personality. (If sunlight kills you and you must drink human blood to survive, it will have a definite impact on your personality and character).

At this point, those biological differences are baked into the world design. I could write this off as fiat accompli at this point. Except that in the story, it also presents itself as cultural differences. Which means the reader is going to unconsciously experience the racial differences much the same way we perceive racial differences in the real world: along the lines of culture and ethnicity… because I’ve explicitly made all the races human-like (a la Roddenberry), but perhaps mismatched upon a Tolkienesque structure.

I doing so, I feel I’m doing a disservice to the reader. Why? Why do I think this is dangerous? Because I’m encouraging a mode of thinking, of mental experience, in the reader that reinforces the idea of race (as distinct from culture) as having a defining effect on the moral character, preferences, and aptitude of a person.

And I don’t like that one bit.

How to address this? By having my characters start to challenge this notion. I wrote a scene today where I call out the fundamental racial “Prime Questions”. I attribute that to an in-world philospher, and I allow the character to challenge that. In essence, I took a choice made in world-building, projected that choice into the world as an “understanding” within the world, and in doing so, I can start to change the world from within. (Is there some hidden wisdom in here?)

In this scene, when Tomly states the evidence “is in all our cultures”, I’m deliberately alluding to the logic of Mein Kampf, to state that to judge a person’s inherent worth (genetic or biological) based on any particular culture leads to the ultimate in evil and suffering (i.e., the concentration camps). Although this story doesn’t deal with concentration camps, this “Nazi light” that I’m shining on Tomly is the first indication in the book to Joy that something is fundamentally wrong with him. And although Joy (Meara) doesn’t know of Hitler, or Mein Kampf, the reader may pick up on this. And Joy can recognize the rationale is fundamentally flawed and deceptive. And as her mother, Aradma, said at the end of When Dragons Die: Evil is that which conceals the fundamental truth of the universe. Therefore, this is her first real clue that Tomly is evil (the reader already knows this from the prologue).

Here’s the scene (unedited draft):

“Do you think each race is bound to such a philosophy?” Joy asked. “Those questions were written by a historian. He didn’t include all races, and in the end they are one person’s opinion.” Darklings and wolven were offshoot races of humans, and assigned the same question. Gorgons weren’t known about at the time, and vampires didn’t exist yet. “It’s not as if such ‘Prime Questions’ were prescribed by the gods.” She tucked her hair back behind her ears as if it were distracting her from her work, purposefully revealing her dead eye in the process.

He paused. He frowned. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “I do. I think the evidence is in all our cultures. The kind of civilization we produce flows from our nature.”

She gripped her paintbrush. She wanted to stab him with the pointy end. “Couldn’t our cultures have simply been the natural unfolding of history?” She asked. “The accident of our birth? The circumstances of our peoples? I don’t think those questions are universally binding.”

“You mean we have no inherent nature?”

She took a deep breath. Maybe she could change his mind.

“Everyone has natural tendencies,” she said. “But culture shapes us even more. I think Epiphontiles confused race for culture. Perhaps each person has inclinations and tendencies inherited from their parents.” She pointed to her canvas. “I can paint on white linen or black linen. There’s red linen and blue linen, or any base color I’d like to start with. Perhaps that is race. To a certain extent, the nature of our mortal creature, our bodies, are different. Ratling fur, gorgon eyes, human apishness, troll tusks, elf lifespans… If the color of the linen is my race, the pigments available on my palette is my culture. The brush strokes are my choices. I can be born into other cultures and have a different palette. Queen Seonna’s seelie children have an orcish palette, I would wager. Or I can visit other cultures and add to my palette, like I’m doing now. With enough paint and depending on the choices of my brush strokes, I can paint a dwarven vista on elven linen. Or a human portrait on gnomish linen. So no, I don’t think such questions are racially binding, and in the end I believe we’re all people. The mortal races are all rational with the capacity for choice, and that commonality of spirit runs deeper than the accident of our birth. And at the end of the day, even all the varieties of linen we use starts the same tan color before it’s dyed or bleached to become a canvas.”

So, I hope I’ve planted a seed that allows Ahmbren to grow beyond it’s racially flawed construction. One of the saving graces of Ahmbren is that I’ve set very little in stone about the understanding of the world, and that the understanding reflects the characters’ understanding (of Ahmbren’s history, religion, or metaphysics). Thus as characters grow and change, the understanding and experience of Ahmbren can also change without destroying the integrity of Ahmbren herself.

Ultimately, this is one of the things I enjoy most about fantasy writing and world building. It allows me an avenue to continually grow and examine my own beliefs and views, challenging them from multiple angles.

Until next time!


Characters and Power: The Heroines of Ahmbren

Capping off a series on high-powered character, which began with how to make super-powered characters interesting, then isolating effect that power has on a person, and continued last week with a look on how power facilitates corruption, this week we’ll delve into the three main heroines of When Dragons Die.

When Dragons Die centers around the lives of three heroines, introduced in Lightfall. Each of them either start with or gain power that puts them on the level of super-heroes, albeit set in a fantasy world. In a world where magic is fairly common, and people have access to gods’ rune magic, to say someone is a super-hero by comparison means they are as much more powerful than the average fantasy spell slinger in the world as Superman or Thor might be over the average soldier in the comics world.

Three Heroines

Aradma is the closest to the Superman archetype in that she’s born with god-like Aradma_sketchnature powers. She can summon and shape plant life somewhat like Ice Man does in the X-Men comics with ice bridges, encasing people in ice, etc. Aradma can bind anyone in vines, create sharp wooden thorns that fly at her opponents, and anything else along those lines she can imagine. Her power doesn’t make her tired either, as she’s a “low-resistance” channel to the elemental source of Life. This also makes her a natural healer (to a degree).  Her other power is that she’s a druid-savant, in the same way that Mozart was a music-savant.  So, every bit of druidic discipline that others have to learn (such as the healing, and the shapeshifting into different animal forms), she picks up intuitively. In that sense, she wasn’t born with shapeshifting, but he still didn’t have to earn the power. What keeps her from using her powers to overcome all obstacles is the idea addressed in part 1 of this series: just because you have a hammer, not every problem is a nail. She can’t make people love her, and she does care about her effect on people. She self-limits because raw power is not the best way to achieve her goals (such as saving the Matriarch from her fundamentalism), and also because she comes to a point where she doesn’t want to be involved with the world. She has the strength of character not to be corrupted by her power, and her moral challenges come from different angles. More on that later…

Arda is the person who earns her power. She’s a paladin, and she’s trained into her Arda_sketchmartial discipline all her life. She is the epitome of athletic capability (which is powerful without being magical), has an iron will (also not supernatural, but super powerful in the right character), and extremely skilled with pistol and sword. Her sword abilities rival the archetypes of Eastern martial arts movies, and her sword, though not magical, is unbreakable, un-bluntable, and fantastically sharp (it’s magic-like). She’s somewhat akin to the Iron Man style of hero, in that her gear takes her training to the next level. She also has cloth-thin armor, an almost nanotech substance discovered through alchemical means, that is soft and flexible, yet hardens on impact… a very sci-fi idea in this fantasy world (hence, “proto-steampunk”). Take this mix to the next level in that she can channel the mystical element of Light, and we had added the archetype of the Chi-based Eastern martial artist. She can empower her blades and bullets with the Light, and also has limited healing abilities (cure fatigue, for example). While her channeling of the Light is not as potent as Aradma’s channeling of Life, this still puts her on a super-level over the average citizens of Ahmbren in the same way that Jedi in Star Wars wield significantly more power than the average Star Wars citizens.

Because all of Arda’s power comes through discipline, coupled with a Light-based philosophy, her power is not a corrupting influence for her. She has the strength of character to use it when necessary and appropriate, just like any martial arts master.

Anuit’s character deals with the corruptive aspect of power more than the other two Anuit_sketchcharacters. She is a sorceress, and her magical tradition focuses on channeling the mystical element of the Dark, and the summoning, binding, and commanding of demon servitors. Her demons offer a physical representation in the story as to power’s corruptive, and seductive, influence. Unlike Aradma, Anuit is not born powerful. She does have to acquire her power, and to a certain degree she does earn it. Unlike Arda, however, her entire tradition (gaining power from demons) represents a shortcut. Sorcery is inherently easier than wizard magic, and more accessible, because the practitioner doesn’t have to learn to understand magic itself. It all is given by demons in exchange for the demon being able to manifest in the world. Where Anuit’s training and discipline comes in is not in the mastery of technique (though there is some of that), but in knowing herself, her fears, and learning when the demons might be manipulating her. It’s more psychological, and Anuit stumbles a lot on this path. Furthermore, Anuit does become the most powerful sorcerer the world has seen for generations, but that’s because she takes a shortcut even within the context of her own short-cutted tradition. She agrees to learn the secrets of necromancy from the demons themselves, rather than work at the pace her human mentor prescribes.

Anuit begins Covenant in a place where she feels pretty comfortable manipulating those around her to secure her place in her town. She’s not yet done anything to grab power for herself, and turns her powers mostly to secretly protecting the town from the roaming vampires of the wild. In these chapters, she reflects a classic super hero theme: the secret protector, and the secret identity as a mundane seamstress. She’s a good character at heart and the town unknowingly owes her their lives for her protection, and yet she uses her succubus to seduce the town’s lord and masquerades as his mistress in order to secure a place in the community. Her “Clark Kent” persona is much less a paragon than Superman’s. She’s not completely altruistic about it, because she set up her hidden persona before the vampire threat, and it’s also true she’s protecting the town as much to protect her own life as it is to protect the others. She’s a somewhat gray character here.

The demons’ efforts to corrupt Anuit continue into the Tides of Artalon (to be released late 2013), and the sense of security she finds at the end of Covenant, through her relationship with Arda, ends up lulling her into a certain bit of complacency. The demons don’t only represent power and its corruption, they also represent “inner demons” quite literally… as we saw in Lightfall, the demons are partially created from a piece of the sorceress’s soul. Inner demons know your weaknesses because they are you, and no matter how much you intellectually understand they lie, they’ll find a way to convince you to rationalize why they’re not lying this time.

Their Challenges in The Tides of Artalon

Culminating in the Tides of Artalon, each of the three heroines face a different challenge. Arda’s is simply pride. She stands at the pinnacle of her discipline at the start of Covenant and ends up killing innocents because of her pride. She realizes she’s not as perfect as she thought, and the guilt prompts her to seek forgiveness and atonement through the head of her order, the Gold Dragon. By the book’s end, this is pretty much resolved, and she stands as a moral anchor point for Anuit in The Tides of Artalon as Anuit continues her own struggles with the Dark. Arda has, for the most part, settled into who she is in The Tides of Artalon, and the question is, will she trust herself and have learned the lessons of pride enough to do what needs to be done when she’s handed power over the world and the gods?

Anuit’s power continues to only grow. She’s absorbed the aspects of two of her four demons by this point, and they start to manifest in her, sometimes visibly, more frequently. She has a hard time keeping herself from being swept away by anger and aggression as her soul’s channel to the Dark becomes more uninhibited. One of Ahbmren’s themes, unlike Star Wars, is that “the Dark” is not inherently evil. It’s been corrupted, and yes, demons are evil, but the Dark existed before demons. The Dark represents the power of choice, of discipline, and of negation (the ability to say, “No, I am not this… whatever “this” is.) The ultimate question will be, once she does master and find balance with the Dark, what will she choose to do when she’s handed power over the world and the gods?

Aradma has been the most challenging character to write. My beta readers have either loved or hated her, because her character concept is somewhat opposite the typical hero paradigm.  Most heroes learn when not to use their power (e.g., Luke Skywalker learning not to do everything he could possibly do, because that includes the Dark Side of the Force). Aradma’s character concept is different. She starts out observing the world, and acting in an overly restrained way. She explores the idea “with great power comes great responsibility”, but spends much of her life after Lightfall not living up to that responsibility. Most powerful character have to learn humility; Aradma is overcautious with her power. She doesn’t want to intrude and she doesn’t want to shape others lives (partially due to her failures with the Vemnai culture in Lightfall). Also, she doesn’t want to become entangled, which is a selfish motive. She has a daughter and all she wants to do is stay home and raise her daughter.

The problem with Aradma has been that eventually circumstance forces her to act. The choice to not interfere is a choice, and there are consequences for those choices as well. Every time she waits until circumstance forces her to act, the overcompensates, and there’s always a cost. If she had been measured and involved all along, the price for her interventions might not have been as high. Her challenge is not power, but a lack of wisdom, and an inflated view of humility (the desire not to impose on others). Most heroes have to learn restraint, and Aradma’s challenge is that she has to learn to live to the fullness of her power. This character theme has struck some beta readers as arrogance, while it resonates with others, making Aradma a somewhat polarizing heroine. The question will be, by the end of the Tides of Artalon, when presented with power over the world and the gods, will Aradma shirk her responsibility, overcompensate, trust in the people of Ahmbren, or take ownership of the fate of the world on her own shoulders?

I’ve liked the fact that my beta readers have liked and disliked the different heroines. Some gravitate towards Anuit, with her inner struggles made manifest as demons, and others prefer the valiant Arda. Some resonate with the unapologetic Aradma, while others find her presumptive. I’m okay with this, and I like the fact that readers can experience Ahmbren from different perspectives, especially when it comes to the application of power.

I’d always wanted to avoid what Battlestar Galactica did: decide things for their readers (viewers). Things will happen at the end of Tides, and not all readers will agree with the protagonists’ decisions. The protagonists’ won’t agree with each other, and that allows the readers to side with one or the other, and not have me as the author dictate whom they should think is “right”… because the world of Ahmbren is not black and white. It’s… ok, I was about to write “many shades of gray”, but given that’s become a popular book title recently, I’ll avoid that connotation.

Until next week then!

(portrait art by Erin Cooper © 2013)