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!

Kyle

Each Life Is a Story

Following up from last week’s post, here is the final painting for the heroes from When Dragons Die sharing hearth together.

The Hearth of Heroes-FBTolkien makes a big deal about how friends and companions are important to the heroes success. None of them can get through it on their own. And while there’s a big deal placed on ancestors, and lineages, it seems to be somewhat lacking in the concept of the importance of family. Family is something that happens back home, not out on the quest.

This is probably influenced from his time at war, and that’s largely true in modern war. When you deploy, you leave your family safely back home (except those families which have both spouses actively serving). But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges life throws at you to be faced that affects the whole family. Other stories capture this a bit more, whether movies like Braveheart or books like A Song of Ice and Fire (the books from which the Game of Thrones TV series is based).

One of the things I wanted to capture in When Dragons Die is that if the world is in crisis, it’s a family affair. The heroes don’t get to neatly compartmentalize the challenge at hand from the safety, and involvement, of their loved ones. As they go through the world’s transition between ages, trying to win peace, freedom and safety from the last age’s ashes, they have to do so with their loved ones, and their children. The trilogy spans 20 years, and they see the consequences of their actions affect, and sometimes threaten, their children. They have to face danger with family beside them, and sometimes wrestle with the choice to face the world’s problems or turn their back on the world to focus instead on their family’s safety. And, they have to recognize when that’s a false choice.

When Dragons Die has several themes woven throughout. I’ve written before about the importance of reason, and the dichotomy of reason vs. faith. But, another central theme of the book is that life is precious, and life is important. There is sex in the books, but unlike much of our modern media today, sex is not just joy, love, or pleasure; sex is also procreation, fertility, and life. As a druid, Aradma’s character stand for life (even as she stands for reason). Although one of her philosophical twists that sets her apart from the stereotypical eco-druid found modern fantasy is the concept that nature=truth, and that nature/truth is objective, this is not a concept she adopts to the exclusion of a traditional love of life. She’s fertile. She gives birth. She raises her daughters and protects them, sometimes to a fault.

In the picture above, Aradma’s three daughters are shown. In each book of the trilogy, per the series’ namesake, a Dragon dies. But, where there is death, in each book there is new life. Fernwalker sits on the left of the scene, playing dice with Cory Piper. By the series’ end, she’s come into her own as an adult and plays one of the essential roles in saving the world. To the far right at the hearth we see Naiadne, still a pre-teen, and not yet mentally healed from the events in the books. Thus she’s sitting alone, not responding to Eszhira’s invitation to join them at the table. And in the center, we have baby Meara, less than a year old, placing this scene after the end of the final chapter.

The other theme shown here, in addition to life and the continuation of new life, is that every life is precious. Each life is its own story, and although they interweave in this scene at the dinner table, they all have traveled through vastly different paths. I won’t go into each of them here, but to point out some of the supporting characters: the troll Oriand, pouring wine, a character fully introduced in the second book, makes perhaps the largest transformation in the series as she goes from a fundamentalist to a downright atheist (in the fantasy context, the gods are real but she rejects all of them). Attaris, the dwarf in the middle, who first found Aradma when she fell to the world, has lost his wife, his god, but nevertheless holds fast to his faith. Keira, the wolven woman sitting at the table’s front with the turkey leg in her hand, started as a child, a relatively minor character in book 1, and become more important as the series progressed. She deals first-hand with the fact that love and destiny can be messy, and aren’t always in agreement.

And yet at the end of things, they all come together to share hearth together. They’ve had their differences, their arguments, and sometimes outright animosity between them. Not all the characters agreed with the final actions and choices of the series. But they’re still family.

Until next week, and Happy New Year! May this year’s story enrich and bless all of you.
Kyle