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!


Story Crafting: SF demands World Crafting

First off, next week is the long-awaited Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Blog Hop!  Roughly 15 SF writers have banded together to build and man a U.S.S. Stareship to take the One Ring and throw it into the Sun, then build a Death Star, fit it with Nova Bombs to take out the Sun to finish the job, and then come back to Earth and Nuke the Site From Orbit to remove any last vestiges of the Dark Lord’s face-hugging forces, you know, Just to Be Sure.  Meanwhile, on this journey, we’ll write about our respective sub-genres and give you the chance to win FREE stuff.  Stuff that was on the starship taking the One Ring to the Sun.  I mean, come on, what’s not to like?  Everyone loves stuff.

SF HOP LogoSince that’s still a week away, I thought I would lead up to that by switching gears from last week’s World Modeling/RPG-analysis series and instead talk about world-building and its integral nature to SF.  (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the more awesome game systems after AD&D in future posts.).  This week is somewhat appropriate to next week’s theme in that this article was sparked by reflecting on the post of  fellow SF author and Blog-Hop crew mate, Tammy Salyer.  Well, that, and a few sessions of pipe smoking while thinking about the importance of setting to Sci-Fi, and whether Dumbledore could beat Gandalf in a pipe-ring-ship-shape blowing contest.  It’s a genre where good characters alone won’t get you from point A to B (especially if A is Earth, and B is dropping the One Ring into the Sun).

Tammy Salyer, editor and author of kindle military-sci-fi books Contract of Defiance and its newly released sequel, Contract of Betrayal, hit on something in her recent article titled “Worldbuilding for Non-Planetary Engineers.” She stated, “the specific world you build is as much a part of the plot as the plot is.”  This precisely nailed it, and I thought I could say in lot more words what she so efficiently rendered in a few.  At any rate, this sparked thoughts…

Setting is important to Speculative Fiction (SF) (I’ll use this as an umbrella term to encompass both sci-fi and fantasy) in such a way that I think it’s essential to the genre. Whether we’re talking sci-fi or fantasy, there is something about the setting, the world, that is different from our own. It might be a small difference, such as a technology that doesn’t exist. It might be a medium difference, such as the presence of the supernatural in the modern world. It might be a huge difference, such as a completely different planet, galaxy, or dimension). Either way, big or small, there is a difference.

And, the unique character of the world must impact the plot.

Let’s call these differences “SF-elements”. These SF-elements could be external to the characters (e.g., Aliens, where the characters are no different from you or me), or they might be part of the characters themselves (e.g., any alien race, or superhero, or supernatural character.) Without that, I would argue, we don’t have SF.

But, let me take that a step farther. If either the character development or the plot itself is not intrinsically affected, in some way, by the SF-elements of the setting, then it’s not SF. In other words, if you’re writing a sword-and-sandal story set on another world, but there’s no magic, or no world feature that sets it apart from Earth (magical or not), then it’s not a fantasy. If it could be set on Earth with no appreciable difference in plot other than to FIND-REPLACE location names, then it’s just historical fiction in a made-up location. Not SF.

It’s an old aphorism that good stories have good characters. It’s not enough to have a great world if the characters themselves aren’t interesting (however you define it—there’s certainly some subjectivity to that). But, characters don’t exist in a vacuum. The whole “nature vs. nurture” paradigm comes into play. Characters have their inner natures, but they and their growth are affected by the setting in which they find themselves.

Not every SF-element has to be central to the plot or character development. For example, in Star Wars the reality of hyperspace is a defining factor of the world, but it doesn’t really have a crucial impact on the story. You could tell the Star Wars story on a single planet, or in a single star system. This is not a criticism—I like SF-elements as special-effects “flavor” as much as the next SF fan. However, I think to have a good SF story, some of that flavor needs to engage and drive the plot, characters… and as a result, the audience. In the case of Star Wars, it’s the Force. The rise and fall of the Empire, and the symmetric counterpoint of the fall and rise of the Skywalker family, is directly and essentially tied to the Force and people’s interaction with the Force.

Star-Trek is a little different. It doesn’t have a single unifying SF-element around which the story revolves. Not only that, it’s a little tougher to find the pure window-dressing as well, since technology in Star Trek is more essential to the stories than in Star Wars. However, I propose the following: the “standard” sapient alien races (Klingon, Vulcan, etc) are the “special effects” elements. None of the stories involving the races are driven by the being aliens (as juxtaposed against Giger’s Alien), because they’re not really *alien*. Roddenberry wanted all his aliens to share an essential humanity. However, the technology, the space distances, the implications of radically different cultures, time travel, the Q, the wormhole aliens, commander Data… all of these mix to combine the core SF-element that *is* integral to the plots and character development. It is the spirit of exploration, not just of space, but of what we can achieve as a people (technology *and* societal).

The Lord of the Rings is clear. I would argue that little of it is “window dressing”. Tolkien is good about interweaving elements of mythology and history that it all culminates to central character that defines the world and shapes the characters. And, of course, with the Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is the central unifying force around which all other elements of the story polarize.

It should also be noted that not all “elements” are SF. There are Real-World (RW) elements, like religion, racism, war, romance, discrimination, etc, that make their way into SF stories. To come back to Star Trek, the SF-elements provide a framework on which many RW elements are explored. I would argue that a good SF story has a blend of SF and RW elements that drive the plot and characters forward, and I like the way SF-elements can provide an angle for perspective on RW-element issues. If we only see SF elements, the characters can become less relatable. If we only see RW elements driving the plot and characters, we can get a great story, but may question whether it needs the SF window-dressings.  However, I would take a RW story with SF elements applied for pure fun factor over an SF story with no RW elements that make it relatable or bring the characters to life.

Ok, that’s probably enough for now… next week, craziness ensues with the Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Blog Hop!

Now I must go back to my scanning console and make sure those face-hugging troops of the Dark Lord don’t cause viral breakouts that create zombie orcs… or worse, My Little Predators.  (Huh.  If male fans of MLP are called Bronies, would that make for Brodators?  Stop, Kyle, now you’re just being silly.)

cheers all,