Last week, a well known (to me, though not personally) blogger, blogged about the inequality of races in science fiction and fantasy (and gaming.)
While humans can be anything (and are) from treacherous to honest, from traders to warriors, all other races come with assigned professions and psychological traits.
Knowing the blogger, I thought it was one of the most “serious-funny” things I’d ever read, and at the time, possibly because I was still coming up from being feverish, I wanted to write a post about how this could be cured by assigning certain writers of these imaginary races to write sf. However, I’d pinky sworn not to poke fun at a certain writers organization, or at least, in my mind, I’d pinky sworn not to do it unless I had something serious to say and that post I WANTED to do fell under the heading of pointing and making duck noises.
So I sent the link to Kate, queen of the take down, with the idea she’d do something like that. I forgot two things: 1) the tongue-in-cheekness and the subtle subversion of the article might not be obvious unless you knew the blogger from other posts. (Not that the post wasn’t over the top, but we’ve been getting such over the top “real” opinions that it’s impossible to tell. I mean, in times when you have to check whether the article you’re halfway through reading is in the Onion or the NYT, it’s important to give your friends context.) 2) I didn’t forget this, because I didn’t know it. With my being sick, I’d missed the fact that Kate was on half her medicine. See, Kate is narcoleptic and takes meds to counter that, then meds to counter the meds, then other meds to counter the meds that counter the meds. Now, for the first time in many years, Kate’s doctor ordered her medicine wrong and she is not functioning as she normally does. (Kate is generous and says this has nothing to do with the great revolutionary remake of our health care system; it’s just a doctor’s mistake. She might be right. OTOH seeing the madness that has engulfed my own health care network – for instance my doctor of 17 years can no longer afford private practice, so he has joined a group which has upended long standing care arrangements and made this last illness interesting – I suspect it is one of the ripples.) So her post on Mad Genius Club went on the assumption that this article was on the same level as the ones calling for the end of binary gender in science fiction. IOW, it was a misfire.
Which all things considered at least in terms of my writing on it might have been better. This is because over the last week I’ve been unfolding the blog post in my head and getting several important lessons out of it, that apply both to fiction writing and out of it. Not that I disagree with the original blog post.
What the blogger – Tam – commenting on Kate’s post said is that all her post was trying to point out is that humans are inherently and instinctively racist.
We’ll unpack that first.
She’s right, of course. Part of what every linguist finds out when poking around on the background of every language is that whatever the word for “people” is it applied at one time only to that tribe.
We’ll put that on the shelf there, and return to it later.
What she didn’t point out is that it’s not so much “racist” as “tribal.” That is a further unpacking, and further undeniable.
Well, most of those primitive tribes were, to outside eyes, completely undistinguishable from each other. In fact (through swapping or kidnapping or acts that come in the wake of frequent wars) most such tribes are closely related over a wide area. So, calling yourself “the people” while your cousins over there are “Those brute animals” is not so much racist in our sense, as tribal.
Race is a nineteenth century concept, and in many ways an erroneous one. The excesses of race division/distinction have been somewhat curbed since then. Nineteenth century books are likely to consider every different country in Europe a “race” and to refer to The English Race, The French Race, etc, in all absolute seriousness.
These days we know that most of Europe (again, wife exchange, kidnapping and the fortunes of war, and immigration) is related to each other. So we limit the idea of races to more obvious physical characteristics, which are harder to ignore or subsume. (I’ll just note that those are often also fairly arbitrary. For instance, Reverend Wright not only would pass as Portuguese, but in Portugal would be considered “White” with not a blink. Also, recently, while doing covers for a Naked Reader romance novel, I got told I couldn’t use a certain couple, because it signaled “person of color” as the female in the romance. Guys, she looked exactly like one of my oldest friends and distant cousin. But apparently to American eyes, she read “Black” or at least close enough.)
So, humans are naturally tribal and left to their own devices draw distinctions between “our tribe” and “not our tribe” even if none exist. This comes, of course, from our being social animals with a tendency to form packs or bands. It’s very important to bond with your pack or band, and to do so you must have something to compare yourself against “those people over there, who are not us.” (In fact, the warring comments to Kate’s post, even after she said “oh, I completely missed it, didn’t I” were a perfect example of dual tribalism. People attacked Tam because they thought she belonged to “the other tribe.”)
We’ll put that on the shelf next to the “natural racism” thing – people are actually naturally, instinctively tribal, and they use group-identification systems that can be arbitrary or come entirely from external behavior, to distinguish “We who are people” from “those animals over there.”
When I went over to Tam’s site, part of what amused me was the commentary, which involved a lot of serious chest beating over world-building and how writers are failing when they make mono-cultures all over a planet or mono-behavior over a culture.
It amused me, because I thought the post was only tangentially about world building. Though it is about world building too, and that is where it connects to the hoo-ha (ah!) about binary gender oppression and having more writers of (genetic but not ideological) variety and all the nonsense going on in our field (which is only tangentially related to these actual ideas which are just being used a cudgel for supremacy – as in, watch out this week for a post called “How like a serpent’s tooth.” )
Yes, it is true that many writers will imagine a mono culture in every race and a race/culture in ever planet. Yes, this is incredibly lazy and annoying, but there is a reason for it. A craft reason.
I’ve raised two writers. As writers, I’m still raising them. And a couple of years back, I had occasion to bring out something I used to tell the kids when they were little and throwing tantrums, but as a writing criticism. “What do you hope to accomplish by doing this?”
It went something like this – my oldest son was tired of all the “humans in furry suits” and “forehead of the month” aliens and when writing about alien pirates, he made them as authentic as his training in biology and chemistry allowed him to. The pirates are single-celled organisms that speak by secreting chemicals. Worse, he tried to make their psychology fit that.
The result is what I’m sure is a lovely story… with zero audience. The pirate is too alien for anyone – least of all me – to put oneself in the creature’s mind. And even if we did, we’d have no more interest in his dilemmas, suffering and triumph than we do in the dilemmas, suffering and triumphs of a grasshopper. It might be interesting from the point of view of biological study, but as a story? There is no engagement.
This is why “unrealistic aliens” is an obsession (to complain about) of sf fans and writers, and yet even the most “realistic” ones come from the point of view of humans.
Because humans are “racist” and “tribal” and as such are interested, mostly, in the fortunes and affairs of those they consider their race/species/tribe – go too far from that, and it becomes unreadable. We’ll put that concept “Humans want to read about others like them” on the shelf next to the tribalism thing. We’re getting quite a collection of ideas. Don’t worry, I’m going to put them all together at the end. Possibly in a mud pie.
But, you say, what does that have to do with monoculture over a species or planet? Why can’t humans get into stories where there are more than a culture per planet/race?
That, my dears, is because of the exigencies of story telling. I know this is hard to remember, particularly when story telling is really well done, but story worlds aren’t like the real world. They simply lack the complexity and contradictory nature of the real world. Your real self receives a lot of impressions, some of them confusing. Your brain is among other things an instrument to filter story out of reality. Story is how humans make sense of the world, isolating experiences that mean something from those that don’t.
Say you’re sitting at your desk and you smell smoke. Now, if you’re not alone in the house, and you also smell bacon, your story is “Oh, John is in the kitchen, making bacon.” But if you’re alone in the house and smell smoke, particularly if it has that ‘electrical’ smell, your story is “Fire. Must check and get out.”
But the whole time, as you smell the smoke, you might be making the bed, shooing away the cat, you might feel cold, you might be sneezing. Those aren’t important bits of “story” they’re just things happening. They’re not part of what you tell the firefighters/police/insurance when you explain why you’re in the middle of the road, in your pajamas, clutching a cat.
In writing, you isolate the relevant details. You might throw in a couple of the others for verisimilitude, but you can’t put in too many, because then you don’t have a story, you have soup. That is, your reader has no clue where the story starts or whom to follow.
“Young”, often thoroughly professional writers, often start a story with scene setting. City streets, traffic, this car, that person… Often for 10 pages. And by that time they’ve lost the reader. The reader is looking for the thread of the story and the character they’ll follow, duckling-like. All this other stuff is ignored as “not part of the story” at best, and at worst confusing, as he follows each hopeful lead with “is this the thread?”
So, what does that have to do with mono-cultures and mono-acting races. Nothing. Everything. You see, the same discipline applies throughout the novel.
Almost every writer who is now a professional has somewhere in his drawer what I call a “thousand elephants” novel. That is, a novel where he or she tried to mimic the real world by making the novel “real” and ended up with a cast of thousands (and a thousand elephants) and a novel that made no sense. My own was my third – written—novel and to call it soup is charitable.
There’s only so much space and so many threads in a novel, and most subplots, most references, even, should support the main plot.
Say you’re writing a fat fantasy, there might be room to mention that people think all elves are blah, blah, but in fact that’s a cultural overlay and many of them are blah blah – but then you return to your plot, and the elves you’re going to show (unless their eccentricity is a major factor in the plot; or elves AND eccentricity thereof are a major factor in the plot) are just standard elves, which is what people will remember.
Same for the mono planet. When your trading ship lands, you might say that equatorial Gnroxes don’t act like these polar ones, but UNLESS that planet is the sole location of your novel, you’re not going to go into much detail, because then you’d have to set up the conflicts and geo politics of a planet that is NOT the subject of your novel.
So, novels are reality viewed through a highly simplified lens, and to try to mimic reality decreases the readability of the novel to the extent that you actually do mimic reality.
We don’t read reality, we read novels. We’ll put that on the shelf, too.
Unsaid, is that novels are written to be read. And ideally, at least in the world as is (the first person to come in and moan about capitalism gets punted with a baseball bat. Capitalism is simply the way humans choose to trade – it exists even under systems that repress it. It just becomes twisted.) novels are written to be bought, paid for and support the author.
Which brings us to…
Bringing it all together and tangential application to the professional association that shall not be named, but more closely to the madness that has been tearing through our field (and I understand through gaming, too, among others.)
Humans are tribal creatures, who find it easier to read/be interested in people like them – people they can consider “people.” Even the most “enlightened” human who has overcome “racism” or “tribalism” is a member of a tribe – it might be a tribe of belief or the spirit or whatever. Not saying there isn’t a benefit in a “tribe” that can include anyone and which values things other than skin color or geographical location. There is. I’m just saying it is still a tribe – which identifies itself in some way, usually by shunning and casting out the “not us.”
And novels and games and stories are simplified versions of reality designed to be sold/bought for entertainment. Yes, there can be other reasons to write and read a story – enlightenment being one of them – but if you’re not amused/entertained/captured, then you’re not going to pay much attention to the “message” either.
Which brings us to the call for more post-binary gender, more “diversity” (of genetics but not of opinion) more—nonsense.
Nonsense because most of humanity is still binary gender. Most of humanity, depending on location and continent, is one color or one genetic type. (With mix, of course, but it’s not mix they’re clamoring for.)
So if you write a novel people can’t get – either because you overcomplicate the imaginary races and get caught in side issues that have nothing to do with the plot, or because you refuse to identify the gender of the characters, or because there is no clear hero/villain (no one to cheer for, no one to hate) your purpose, which I assume is to enlighten and educate, will be lost. Because in the end we’re human. Yes, this imposes certain limitations on our reading/writing/understanding. But human is all we have. If we destroy the humanity in us, there won’t be anything else to take its place. Best to write for humans, and if we must slide in the story about the rogue gold mining elf, the tree dwelling dwarf, or whatever. But don’t try to make it the dominant trope, or you’ll make the story impossible to read except by those already committed to your cause, whether that be larcenous, ugly elves or post-binary gender, or “diversity” (of skin color.)
It is perhaps interesting the same people complaining about the terrible tribalist oppression of main-stream culture are using that complaint as a tribal badge. That tribal badge says “I am one of the enlightened people, and I belong to the intelligentsia.” Sad that they don’t know that’s all it is, and think that they can force everyone to behave as their tribe wants, without destroying humanity.
Because they themselves aren’t behaving the way they say they want. Just using different markers to identify “We’re people. Those others are not people.”