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!


Personal Faith and Ahmbren

(the following contains SPOILERS from Myth and Incarnation and When Dragons Die)

Exploring Faith Without Didacticism

In the introduction to the combined edition of When Dragons Die, I mentioned that in my youth I wrote stories to project my beliefs onto the reader. I’ve grown out of that desire, and now prefer stories that engage topics, but leave freedom for each reader to experience the tale in their own way. This is particularly true in the area of faith and religion. I never want to decide things for my readers.

For example, it’s said in the books that there is no afterlife. This is one of the central mysteries to the sorcery tradition, and the reason sorcerers don’t fear entering into contracts with demons. If there’s no afterlife, there’s nothing to pay in the hereafter.

As an author, I committed to leaving that question open. The narrator never states that as fact… it’s only presented as a belief of one particular sect. There are faiths and people who believe in rejoining their ancestors in the afterlife, and the narrator never validates them either. The world of Ahmbren presents no evidence one way or the other (the only instance of ghosts or spirits are those that are unnaturally bound). Even Anuit’s ability to see the decomposed soul matter is challenged by the idea that she doesn’t know if there’s something deeper that doesn’t pass on.

One of the reasons for not being definitive in the books about the presence of an Almighty, or an afterlife, is that my own views on such things have evolved over time. If I write definitively from one point of view, it makes it difficult for me to engage and continue interest in the story’s world when I grow to a new perspective. So, instead I choose to build characters of faith (or lack of faith) who act in the world. They may or may not convince other characters of their convictions, and they may or may not resonate or convince certain readers… and that’s okay. There will be other characters of other perspectives, just like there are in the real world.

At the end of When Dragons Die (Vol 3, The Tides of Artalon), Attaris expresses anguish over his dead wife. The three heroines have just descended the tower after penetrating the mysteries of gods. He has heard Anuit say there is no afterlife, but he wants to hope:

“One thing,” Attaris said. “If the gods are gone, or maybe they just weren’t what we thought they were… I’d really like to see Hylda again. Did you see anything in there… do you think there’s an afterlife?”

“No,” Anuit said. “I’m sorry.”

Aradma looked into Attaris’ eyes. “I don’t know,” she finally said after giving it thought. “I don’t think the gods knew either.”

“I hope in one,” Arda replied.

Attaris looked at his old friend and nodded, satisfied with that answer. “Then I will hope with you, lass. I will hope with you.”

And sometimes that’s what faith boils down to. An irrational optimism and hope, despite an absence of evidence.

The Ahmbren Chronicles: A Faith Journey

The Ahmbren Chronicles isn’t intended to be a faith allegory. It’s not written to teach, convince, or instruct. I meant the books to be a fantasy adventure, set in a world as layered and nuanced as our own. Because of that, it hits upon topics like religion, skepticism, relationships, sexual orientation, drug addiction, and more. It’s a world of magic, without reality being watered down by make-believe. I wanted The Ahmbren Chronicles to reach as deep as mythology, but with a modern voice.

But, there are aspects of my faith journey reflected in each book. The first, Myth and Incarnation, is about how the written myths and prophecies don’t hold up to reality. They warp over time, through transcription or interpretation, as historical contexts change. The religion of my childhood was Christianity, and the idea of greater beings humbling themselves to become human, to work from within human history as participants, as opposed to acting on it as an external force, is the central theme of the book. And, the idea that you can’t know mortal life without experiencing it as mortal is championed by the book when the Archdragons’ plans unravel. They couldn’t calculate for mortal life and uncertainty, and once they become mortal they fail to fulfill their own plans. Myth and Incarnation is very much about conventional religion, and gods, and their relationships to mortals.

When Dragons Die evolves out of the failed plans of gods (and religion). I wrote this during a time in my life where I had walked away from all religion. I declared myself a skeptic (although never going so far as to call myself an atheist), and abandoned all codified faith practices. Aradma, who serves as the central argument of When Dragons Die, was intended to be my rational skeptic, a new ‘savior’ for a world broken by gods, dragons, and demons. As I wrote the book, however, I realized that my perspective wasn’t as straightforward… and, of course, I wanted to preserve the freedom of interpretation for readers of faith who take the journey through the Ahmbren Chronicles. Two other characters emerged: Anuit, who was darker than Aradma. If Aradma was skeptical, at least she retained an unbridled optimism in Life and its purpose. Anuit was a survivor, a cynic… in hindsight, probably the closest to a nihilist. Aradma is the positive outlook of skepticism (and reflecting a kind of atheism), but Anuit the opposite. And then there was Arda, the paladin of the Light, a lady of faith without religion or gods. She redeemed Anuit, and through Anuit, redeemed the dark view that Anuit held of the world.

Aradma triumphs at the end of The Tides of Artalon. Having learned that the gods they know are shaped by prayer and faith, she gets the world to reject them once and for all… she kills the gods. The runes die, and prayers are never more answered. All proof of a transcendent die, because Aradma shows the people of Ahmbren that the gods they believed in were not, in the end, transcendent.

When Dragons Die expresses the utter rejection of religion in all its forms, and the optimism of living a life of purpose free from the confines of tribal stories. Aradma holds truth as the highest value, Life as an ends unto itself, and joy as life’s greatest purpose. And, that mortalkind’s greatest gift is the ability to think and reason.

But although that’s a definitive statement for Aradma, and she shapes Ahmbren to her vision, it’s not a definitive state that fixes the people of Ahmbren in one point of view. The world moves on, and the world grows… and so do I.

Looking back, I resonate more with Arda’s response to the question of the afterlife. Even though Aradma reflects much of my own views, including the optimism and joy in life for its own sake, I still think about a transcendent. I don’t actively believe in an afterlife (Aradma’s “I don’t know” is an honest answer), but I know that I hope in one.

Aradma and Tiberan (her consort) were modeled after pagan imagery: the White Goddess and the Horned God, whose union brings life. Through this story, they restored the world to a natural state, under the auspice that truth is natural. The end of the book, unlocking the greatest mysteries of truth, involves the sacred union of life. They conceive of a child in those final chapters, whom they name Meara, (gaelic for “Joyful”). At the same time, Aradma is telling the world that joy (not the girl, but the experience of joy in living) is life’s purpose, and living is an end unto itself.

Through the magic of Artalon, the god Keruhn (the Horned God of Compassion), who arranged for Tiberan and Aradma to be there in that moment to free the world from the gods, was also present as they entered into physical and sacred union. Keruhn’s spirit was drawn into Aradma’s womb, and he was reborn as the girl Meara, truly mortal for the first time. Meara becomes a salvific figure, not through her actions as of yet, but as a sign of the times, a paraclete of sorts.

Faith Without Words

The working title of the next trilogy is Faith Without Words. I come back to the idea of Arda, the lady of faith, expressing the possibility that even though the gods were made by mortal ideas, maybe they still reflected a greater truth. Maybe the entire universe reflects and is intimately involved with a higher power.

The story starts with Meara. Meara has adopted “Joy” as a colloquial name to interact with the people of the world to hide who she is (the daughter of the woman who convinced the world to kill the gods). Joy used to be one of those very same gods, and when she was a god she had one unique aspect that separated her from all the other gods in the pantheon: the other gods fed off the faith of mortalkind, whereas Joy (Keruhn) put her faith in mortal kind. That charity of the spirit made her stronger than the others, and gave her the insight to orchestrate freeing the world from that pantheon.

As Joy grows up, she identifies more with Arda than her mother. She has a faith, although she can’t define it. She’s exploring the world and finding that even though the gods are dead (meaning, the gods don’t visibly answer prayers any more), people are still praying to… something. People turn to faith in a higher power, even in the absence of evidence. Her mother Aradma doesn’t understand this, but Joy does.

“Faith Without Words” refers to the idea of faith without doctrine. Words refers to labels, and definitions, and religion. I’ve found myself from time to time being asked if I believe in God. In my thoughts, I answer, “Yes, but there’s no kind of ‘yes’ I can tell you that you would interpret the way I mean yes.” So I find it easier to say “No”, because I almost certainly don’t believe in the idea or meaning of God the usual questioner has projected into that question. But when I say “no”, I also feel untrue to myself. Faith has become, for me, a quiet inner dialogue, so intimate as to be held between my soul and the transcendent. I feel that every time I try to externalize it, I speak falsely.

This next book, through Joy (Meara) and Arda, I’ll be exploring what it means to continue to have faith and hope, even in the face of no evidence. I don’t yet know where the story will end for Joy’s character. I know where Arda sits (the advocate for faith), but Joy’s story and perspective is not yet written. I am confident that however things end, Ahmbren itself will hold true to my belief that “Nothing in this [real] world requires a supernatural explanation.” (In the fantasy world of Ahmbren, magic is described as a natural force, and hence not ‘supernatural’.)

Either way, I will work hard to make sure the narrative story doesn’t try to decide anything for the reader. The transcendent will never make an appearance as a distinct and active agent (not even through deliberate coincidences). I won’t shape Ahmbren to prove faith to my characters, but I will have characters of faith acting in the world to shape it, and I hope that skeptical and faithful readers alike will enjoy the story.