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The Evil (And the Good) Among Them: Exoticism, The Other, Epic Fantasy, Elves and Orcs

August 2, 2012

Continuing on my current running theme of examining the tropes of Epic Fantasy, a few weeks ago I happened into a discussion that spanned multiple blogs that caught my interest.  And as these things often do, they settled into my mind where they collided with things I was already thinking about.

The topic at hand is apparently perennially challenging to Fantasy writers, especially as our genre grows and matures and opens up to wider audiences.  (Let’s hope it’s opening to wider audiences, anyway.)  And that subject is the question of “writing the Other”.  The “Other” with a Capital-O.  I’ve come to understand the word as something of a catch-all phrase for people who are “different”, in the sense that they have a different race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic background, age, or whatever.  I put “different” in quotes, though, because of course there are all kinds of assumptions implied in the use of the word “different” and “other”: namely, the assumption of a default race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, et cetera.  That basic, unquestioned assumption being part of the problem and, in many ways, being anathematic to one of the core principles of Speculation Fiction, that being the exploration of worlds that are, well, different.

Now, I will caveat my further thoughts by pointing out the obvious: I am far from the first to think about these issues, and I will be far from the best.  In the great hierarchy of people who know what the crap they’re talking about on this issue, I rank somewhere near the very bottom.  At least one author whose thoughts I follow fairly closely, Jim C. Hines points to author Nisi Shawl as a powerful and authoritative voice on the subject.  (That link goes to an article Nisi wrote on the specific subject of “Cultural Appropriation”, which is one of many related topics under the general heading of “Writing the Other”.  But Nisi Shawl along with author Cynthia Ward co-developed a panel on “Writing the Other” as well as co-authored a companion workbook.  I have neither attended the workshop nor purchased their guidebook.)  Meanwhile, here’s a recent interesting post on the topic by an author whose background is somewhat more similar to my own (Ken Scholes).  And fellow writer-blogger T. S. Bazelli addressed this and related topics here.

So yeah, caveats and all, what got me thinking most recently on this subject was a post on Tiyana Marie White’s blog on “Portraying Cultures & Peoples in Speculative Fiction“.  In that post, Tiyana attempts to tackle some questions about writing the “other” that were raised in a post by a Dieselpunk writer named Sophia Martin.  In particular, Tiyana addresses the problems of “orientalism” and “exoticism” and the historical tendency to treat non-“Western” cultures (where the term “Western” effectively means “European or of European ancestry”)  as inherently villainous or threatening to a presumed white or western protagonist.  And there’s also the opposite problem of Orientalism: treating those same cultures as somehow mysterious, mystical, exotic and theoretically superior to the presumed default western culture.

This precipitated a discussion on the problems of Exoticism and Orientalism, and Sophia followed up her original post with an additional clarification of the problem she perceived herself to be facing.  All of this was very fascinating stuff, and I tried to contribute to the discussion in some hopefully positive and constructive way.  I try to come down on what I think is a middle way: I’m not allergic to the idea of the exotic, but I do think the issue of exploring foreign cultures and peoples needs to be dealt with sensitively and with awareness of both your own biases and shortcomings as well as the rights and feelings of those from whom you’re borrowing.  I like to think my approach is influenced by the idea Nisi Shawl discusses in her essay “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation” (which she attributes to Diantha Day Sprouse) of cultural “Invaders”, “Tourists”, and “Guests”: I hope not to be an Invader, and recognize my limited status as a tourist but hope to prove myself as a Guest in time.  Which is to say, I’m trying to approach the topic with the aforementioned sensitivity.

It was while discussing these issues on Tiyana’s and Sophia’s blogs that I recalled an essay I had read a couple weeks earlier for the first time called “The Terminal Orc” by writer Tom Simon.  In his essay, Tom alludes to Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man – a book which I have not read but which Mr. Simon reports concerns a man whose brain is damaged to a degree that he cannot control his violent impulses: effectively the centers of his brain which modulate those impulses has lost its control.  The purpose of Mr. Simon’s essay is something of an apologetic for Tolkien’s work, and concerns an exploration of the problem of evil and how such evil is manifested in the body of the Orc: the villainous and debased brutes who make up the bulk of Sauron’s army.  Mr. Simon posits a solution to Tolkien’s own problem of Orcish evil by linking them with Crichton’s Terminal Man: a race of essentially sentient beings who nevertheless have been sufficiently physically damaged that the empathy centers of their brains are non-functioning, with said trait proving hereditary.

As I considered all these thoughts, I was reminded of discussions I had with friends back in the days when the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies came out concerning whether or not Orcs were meant to represent people of African descent, or otherwise of some non-Western or non-European ancestry.  And certainly regardless of your view on the Orcs themselves, the Easterlings and Haradrim were depicted generally as darker-skinned and looked generally Middle-Eastern in appearance.  And it made me think about Orcs and Goblins and Trollocs and other such “evil” Fantasy races in a more general sense, and how that relates to the problems of Exoticism.

And it came to seem to me that in Epic Fantasy, in particular, this has both become something of a trope and a trap and a pro-active self defense.  Historically, in Epic Fantasies, the protagonists are from a virtually mono-cultural world (Pseudo-Medieval Europe in form and flavor).  Except, of course, for that other culture: you know the one, the evil one, the one made up of non-human baddies.  Evil is often externalized and poured into the empty vessel of this de-humanized Other.  And yes, it’s possible to rationalize and deconstruct that trope in the same way that Mr. Simon did in his essay.  But it still has troubling aspects of Exoticism to it, in the treating of whatever is not the default culture (and even the default sentient being) as being evil. 

The question of Elves is the same thing viewed from a different lens: Elves are also inscrutably Other, and yet in the Tolkienian mode they are typically portrayed as essentially good and superior to the default Medieval European Human culture.  It’s the flipside of Exoticism mentioned above.

The title of my post alludes to this essential problem: this default and uncritical assumption of either universal good or universal evil among some other species of otherwise sentient being in Fantasy.  When I was younger, I came down firmly on the side of Orcs as being essentially divorced from the idea of a “minority” racial or cultural representation.  But when the only exposure to cultural, racial, or ethnic “others” you give in a work of Epic Fantasy is to an imaginary group of non-human beings who are collectively altogether good or altogether evil, then the effect is the same.  Whether intentionally or not, you’ve described those who don’t fit into your default paradigm – whether or not that’s Pseudo-Medieval European – in the same Exoticizing way, and the effect can potentially be one that’s offensive.

This is, for me, an evolution of my position and understanding, and it’s one that I expect to influence my work in the future.  I could cite, for example, the last extant version of my novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever, Project SOA.  The story there began in a typically trope-appropriate Pseudo-Medieval European setting.  It was my intention, over time, to introduce other ethnicities and cultures both human and non-human, most of which would have some good and some bad actors.  And yes, I had my essentially-good Elves and my universally-evil Goblins and Orcs (though none of the latter would be seen until later).  And I had a culture of evil and violent human “barbarians” (whose culture  I never described or interfaced in any meaningful way beyond a general assumption of their being vaguely Vandal-like or Visigothic in nature (from a pro-Roman Empire perspective): uncultured, brutish, violent, and cruel. They were, in effect, Human Orcs. 

Over the years, though, I’ve come to view this whole milieu as overly simplistic and denigrating.  Why would my “barbarians” be so consistently committed to unprovoked violence against my protagonist’s people?  How could such as a thing as a congenitally evil race of Goblin or Orcish minions even exist?  Why do I assume that Elves are morally superior?  I hadn’t happened on these formulations through any critical or intentional approach.  I’d borrowed them uncritically from the Tolkienesque tradition and in a post-hoc fashion I’d attempted to construct some rationale.  In that, I believe, I largely failed. Granted, this was all written some 6-7 years ago, and you can expect someone to evolve in that time frame. At some point I expect to return to Project SOA, and when I do, I hope to re-examine all of my assumptions and biases and to be substantially more critical and intentional in my approach.

Intentionality is a running theme with these posts in which I discuss the tropes and archetypes of Epic Fantasy, and it runs through this as well.  I don’t mean to denounce or dismiss the use of the Evil Orc trope or the Good Elf trope in a categorical sense.  But indulging in these tropes without some understanding of what the tropes will say about the world of your Fantasy work is increasingly ineffective.  You see fewer and fewer new literary works that employ traditional fantasy races, and I believe this is because of the inherent difficulty of doing this well.  Instead, there seem to be three schools of thought about how to approach the problem in Epic Fantasy:

  1. Humans-Only: this approach dodges the problem by eschewing non-human fantasy beings entirely and focusing wholly on an all-human cast of characters in an all-human world.
  2. The Other Side: this approach, such as found in Jim Hines’ Goblin Books and the online Goblins webcomic, either lampoons the problem or turns the tables and subverts by telling the tale exclusively or mostly from the perspective of the non-humans.  These approaches typically attempt to contextualize the all-good or all-evil non-humans and serve to more fully humanize them.  Sometimes, in their turning of the tables, they’ll de-humanize the actual humans.
  3. The Anything But EDO: this approach tries to avoid the problem not by focusing solely on humans but by avoiding the common archetypal non-human races entirely (the EDO stands for “Elf Dwarf and Orc”).  Sometimes this works by turning to some other mythological non-human being (most popularly fairies, who share a not-insignificant overlap with Elves) or by inventing new fantasy races whole-cloth.  The former approach can be successful in ways similar to the way Tolkien was originally successful with his Elves and Dwarves and Goblins and Orcs but also may face a similar fate if a particular common non-human mythological sentient being gets over-used.  The latter suffers from the weakness that wholly original invented species will lack much of the cultural resonance that more familiar non-humans may possess and, being that they are also proprietary they can’t engage in the larger cultural conversation of Epic Fantasy except in the limited context of their own narrative.

Any of these approaches is legitimate, but so too, I think, is the un-ironic, considerate and intentional use of the typical High Fantasy Elves and Orcs – with the caveat that the use be critically examined and contextually meaningful.  This means, I think, questioning your assumptions, as I started to do with my own evil orcs and good elves: Why are they good or evil?  What mechanisms reinforce these behaviors and norms?  What motivates them to act in certain ways?  Can I portray them fairly, from an internal perspective rather than purely from an outsider’s view?  What layers and nuance can I find in how I portray them?  What’s truly normative for these people and what’s dissident or deviant behavior, and why?  Can I show a full range of human emotions, motivations, and experiences for this people.

I think it can be done, and done well, even in this day and age.  But you have to be intentional, deliberate, considerate, and empathic.

What do you think?  Have you come to hate both Elves and Orcs altogether?  Do you write or read only stories with all-human casts?  Have you ever wondered why Orcs and Elves are always in conflict with each other?  Do you worry about Exoticism in your writing and how have you tried to address it?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2012 11:23 am

    I did my masters degree in Social anthropology and my dissertation on cultural theft (if such a thing is possible). One of the modern themes in anthropology is how to represent the ‘other’ and even if such a thing is possible. One of the more approachable works on the subject is ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said; other writers include Gyatri Spivak and Homi Bahba -and you need to set aside a loooong time to get your head around what they are saying. I would reccomend a summary work by a different author, as their writing is uber academic and obscure.

    Broadly, the theme is that the other is always set in a fairly static and stereotypical way, by westerners, allowing them no agency of their own. Said even goes as far as to say that the language used (by western academia) to talk about the subject biases what can be said and how. Also see the philosopher Derrida on textualism for a different and interesting angle.

    What has this got to do with orcs – don’t know; but perhaps it is time to break the mold and write a story with an Orc who suffers from panic attacks who just wants to be loved for who she is as the main protagonist :-)

    • August 2, 2012 11:38 am

      Well, what my point about Orcs is that this can potentially be a very debasing form of Othering: in the sense that the Other is portrayed as literally not human. And, as the problem you point out about portraying non-Western cultures in a static and stereotypical way, “Orcish” culture, such as it is, is always portrayed in the same static and stereotypical way: Orcs are angry, violent, and cruel because that’s who they are. Making them non-human gives the heros license to slaughter them wholesale with little or no regret. An example of this that springs to mind is the endless debate among D&D afficianadoes about whether killing Orcish Babies is justifiable for a “Good” character (which becomes an important game question since some characters who violate their moral alignments will lose their powers). As for Edward Said and other academic stuff: in all the reading I’ve done on the subject, I have seen his name come up, including some discussion about what Said was actually… well… saying. But yes, as a non-academic, I’ll probably focus my continued thoughts on this subject on material that is not purely academic but, hopefully, more practical for my purposes as an author.

  2. August 2, 2012 2:31 pm

    Speaking of orc’s, I’ve noticed that in many cartoons, the MC is never allowed to kill a human, but some kind of strange beasts, robots, or magical creatures created by an evil sorcerer are tossed in to defeat and destroy along the way. Similarly, in really bad video games, or action movies, seldom do you see the faces of the thugs / evil flunkies out to get the MC. If they’ve got a helmet on, or a mask, they’re toast (In the movie 300, for example). It feels like an attempt to dehumanize the enemy, whatever they are, so as to not sully the purity of the hero.

    In terms of orcs and elves, it gets trickier as they are not real races. However in Tolkien’s works, the orcs and races allied with Sauron are typically portrayed as dark (skinned) and brutish, and uncultured (poorly clothe themselves, even their weapons are rough). The olyphants and the use of obviously oriental/exotic elements are associated with the evil races. Whereas the elves are fair of hair and skin, and make pretty music/homes.

    It’s complicated, and yes I do pay attention to it in my own writing. I make a conscious effort to not portray an entire culture or race as uniform, and that every individual is neither evil or good, simply based on what they are.

    • August 8, 2012 11:58 am

      Well. personally I don’t have any problem with predominantly good or predominantly evil individual characters. I think history has shown that you can have true altruism and true depravity expressed at an individual level (we’ve seen extreme examples of both just within the 20th Century). But either can occur within any given culture.

      I do think that at least thinking about the issues and being aware of them will go a long way for our own work.

  3. August 2, 2012 3:39 pm

    I’m glad I started following your bog. I’ve been thinking about fantasy tropes for a long time myself, but have never taken the time to write out a thoughtful blog post about it. I appreciate the time you take to do this. It isn’t easy, and it can take a significant time away from your main writing projects.

    My current work in progress started as an exercise in critically examining racial stereotypes in fantasy, although I wasn’t thinking explicitly about the Other. I was just thinking about the many complaints I’ve heard about the standard fantasy races and wondering whether there was a way to write them that would be fresh and realistic while still trying to stay true to the origin of the tropes. It’s not enough to say that all orcs are violent and all dwarves are greedy. You have to ask why. I’m pleased to say that I think I’ve come up with some interesting and reasonable ways of answering that question, as well as some of those you mentioned at the end of your post. More than one member of my writing group started reading with some reservation or outright negativity but were converted after seeing what I’d really done.

    When you look at what Tolkien did, it’s pretty easy to criticize his moral choices. His own moral and ethnic background is fairly obvious in his work. But he was always adamant about his work being purely mythological in nature. He wasn’t trying to say anything about our world. When you look at Middle Earth as a mythology, the nature of elves and orcs makes a sort of internal sense. After all, they are created beings and can be said to simply be following their nature. That’s how Tolkien set up the mythology. Incidentally, describing Tolkien’s elves as wholly good is a simplification; his elves clearly suffered from things like envy and even hatred. They commit murder, theft, and betrayal in the Silmarillion.

    Of course, this whole argument doesn’t have so much to do with whether fictional universes are internally coherent as with the attitudes and assumptions of the authors in the act of writing. The important point, I suppose, is how Tolkien intended those negative acts to be understood in relation to what elves truly are. Unfortunately, the poor orcs never got the same level of treatment as the elves. Orcs were truly, universally evil. It might be interesting to consider whether zombies or aliens fulfill the same role in science fiction.

    • August 8, 2012 12:04 pm

      Thanks. It does take a lot of time to to write these… unfortunately time I fear I won’t have for future blog posts at this level of detail very soon. I think asking those questions is a great way to dig into the tropes and find somehting deeper and more meaningful; I’m interested to learn more about how you went about that. Regarding the elves, you’re right if you extend our view to include the Silmarillion. But within the text of LotR itself there’s a more narrow and stereotypical representation. Mostly you have Legolas plus a few dashes of Elrond and Galadriel and smaller pinches here and there of others. LotR by itself doesn’t leave a lot of variability in the way elves are portrayed… and it’s the text of LotR more than the Silmarillion and other works that forms the basis for the tropes and stereotypes that pervade Epic Fantasy. Even so, there’s still a lot that can be said about unspoken assumptions when the fantasy race that most closely resembles the Western European default from which Tolkien wrote is the only one written with a complex and humanizing depth…

  4. August 2, 2012 4:36 pm

    Yet again, very, very interesting post. I really like your blog. It does help with my own creative process, and the timing here is particularly noteworthy, as nowadays I’m thinking a lot about my Bad Guy character (and thus, the question of evil).

    Personally, I think this approach of ‘Otherness’ is quite interesting but mostly academic (at least given the references you provide). Why? Because I see this admittedly important question in the context of writing as a simple mirror of real human life. Defining “The Other” or “The Others” against ourselves — and using this to act in inappropriate ways sometimes — is exactly what we’ve been doing, at all levels (from small groups to whole societies), for as long as we’ve been in existence, regardless of the legitimacy of our justifications and our prejudices for doing so. It seems to me to correlate with to the broader question of Identity. If there’s a Me (or Us), there’s an Other (or Others). Inescapable!

    Now, how to treat this Other is another question. The term barbaric is a case in point, as ‘barbaros’ simply meant ‘stranger’ in Greek (and later in Latin), but the step toward treating strangers as inferiors for this reason is, and has been, easy to make. From the 16th to the 18th century In New France, the natives were called Sauvages (Savages), but this meant… “native”, without any negative connotation whatsoever. The Sauvage as a pejorative name started only later in the 19th century. The whole question is bigger than these anecdotes, but there’s already a lot in a name and I thought this was relevant to point out here. Something as simple as naming is already a way to pigeon-hole people (and pejoratives are obviously an open door to prejudices).

    Fighting against your own prejudices as a writer is quite necessary, but I think you cannot escape this “me vs other” reality (and all its variants), so there’s a very real limit to discussing this grand question at length… Especially when you write from the point of view of your characters. And especially when your writing involves any sort conflicts. And especially when this conflict is war, as often happens in Fantasy. There may be a fine line between an author’s own prejudices and his characters’, and it certainly can be a constant struggle to separate the two, but I think that ultimately a story is has to be realistically humanistic and your characters must not themselves try to avoid “Othering” people. All you can do yourself as an author is to remain aware of this, and to me the best solution is the good ol’ rule of show don’t tell: showing the quality and flaws of both sides seems sufficient enough for the readers to see the nuances of your work, without bending over backwards as an author in trying not to offend anybody. That does not sound possible to me. The Others are there to stay, in one form or another. And many of them are going to be Bad for this reason only. That’s the way it is. It can even be the main topic of a dramatic story.

    I very much like the way you pit Elves against Orcs as opposite archetypes of “exaggerated otherness”, but I would point out that these questions are rarely considered in the way that Tolkien himself did or would have liked to. He would answer that many Elves were themselves pretty bad, and that Orcs are not pure evil, they began as free people but were later corrupted; it is therefore not that black and white. In fact, he also replied once that Saruman was evil, though his color was (started as) white, and I often think back on the fact that the Tower guards of Minas Tirith wear black mail.

    For what it’s worth, my personal choice for my own book project is Anything but EDO, mainly because I want to find my own voice and I felt these tropes were an impediment to that. :-)

    • August 8, 2012 12:05 pm

      I think you’re right in many ways about the native human tendancy to de-humanize and “other” (here used as a verb) those who are different. But as an author there is, I believe, a very real difference from representing this as a characteristic of a character in the story and actively contributing to it in the subtext. I think it’s quite possible to demonstrate characters who act this way while implying through the text that the author has a different perspective or otherwise to separate the author from the text. It needn’t (and probably shouldn’t) be overt, but it’s doable.

    • August 8, 2012 12:05 pm

      On rhe subject of Tolkien and elves and Orcs I would point out that there is some evidence that Tolkien at least considered the “problem of evil” with respect to the Orcs even if he never satisfactorily answered it. (See the essay linked on the Terminal Orc.) Elves are more complicated because while their presentation within the LotR itself is predominantly stereotypical there is admittedly more nuance to how Tolkien portrayed them – they are more fully thought out, realize, and more human. Saruman’s color I don’t think says much about his status as evil – in fact the “White” was a marker of his leadership role of the wizard order. He signalled his full conversion to evil by abandoning his color and presumptuously assuming the mantel of “many colors”. Gandalf takes over the leadership role when he becomes the White instead of the Grey. So I don’t think Tolkien meant anything by contrasting Saruman’s White with Tower Guard Black.

  5. August 2, 2012 8:24 pm

    My two current WIPs focus on a lot of otherness.

    In the one, we’ve got — among other groups — “wholly good” elves and “wholly evil” dark elves. Part of what makes it interesting (at least to me, as the one who’s gotta write it) is that the POV is that of the dark side, so all other groups are viewed through the evil group’s lens. That means a lot of picking up on several flaws (or perceived flaws) in the good guys that a less antagonistic party would ignore or even hold up as an ideal. In a way, it’s villainizing the good guys and making the real villains the antiheroes. (Calling them straight-up heroes is too much of a stretch.) I’ve written about these dark elves before, but never so deep on the inside. It’s forcing me to see them as not just the evil ones, but a *specific culture* of evil ones. Villain-lover that I am, I find it fascinating.

    Meanwhile, project two has several groups of non-human others, each of which got a lot of brainstorm time to figure out what differentiates them and why. Again, the POV group is not human, so everything gets filtered through an almost-nothing-like-the-author lens. Your golden word “intentional” has played a big part in this. Even building a race or species almost from the ground up, I knew I was coming in with assumptions. Pinpointing as many as I could and asking myself whether each one got to stay in or was better off tweaked or thrown out was a good awareness exercise, and will, I believe, make for a much more complex and interesting world, not to mention the cast within it.

    • August 8, 2012 12:06 pm

      Good luck in these projects. I will add that switching to the perspective of the ostensibly “evil” race is becoming a bit of a trope and cliche of itself. So I woulf urge you to dig a little deeper. What makes the “evil” dark elves worthy of playing in the protagonist’s seat? Why are them the focus, beyond “evil is interesting”? If there is a conflict between dark and light elves, surely this extends deeper than some quibbles about the character flaws of light elves relative to the dark elves’ perspective. I’m sure you’ve just given the 10-second summary version, but I’ll bet you can find a richer explanation of the story as you explore the conflict and implications of your milieu.

      • August 8, 2012 11:05 pm

        As a group, I don’t know that the dark elves would merit protagany (which doesn’t appear to be an actual word; how sad). But the one who gets spotlighted is more conflicted than the average, with more complicated motivations leading to impressively far-reaching consequences and a personally tragic arc.
        Again, the 10-second summary. I’ll be able to give more thought to synopsizing (also not a word? Tsk, English!) when I can come up for air with my other project du jour.

  6. August 3, 2012 4:42 am

    I probably haven’t given a great deal of conscious thought to this.

    I love fantasy where things are turned on their head — especially comic fantasy. (The Thraxas series by Martin Millar/Scott, for example.) But then I also love Tolkein’s mythology.

    For my own WIP I include quite a lot of Others in an urban fantasy setting, although none of the non-human races are all good or all evil — they’re all pretty human-like, really, with their own goals and beliefs. I’ve had my alpha readers comments that they find it interesting that the fairies are the “bad guys” and the trolls are the “good guys”. So perhaps my subconscious has its own ideas about Others after all…

    • August 7, 2012 8:01 am

      That’s the kind of interesting dynamic I think I’m trying to point toward in this post. Not just that fairies are bad and trolls good – just switching the dynamics between stereotypically good and stereotypically evil races, which is an easy but shallow change-up (no offense, but since that’s not the only thing you hopefully you’ll accept apologies) – but adding depth and complexity and humanity to these various stereotypes. And that does a lot to solve some of the problems of overly one-dimensional Fantasy race archetypes.

      • August 7, 2012 8:18 am

        No offence taken — both the trolls and fairies in my WIP have their own motivations, and aren’t intrinsically good or evil any more than humans are intrinsically good or evil.

        Although wanton slaughter gets much harder when you don’t have hordes of inhuman creatures to destroy.

      • August 7, 2012 8:21 am

        Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. It’s easy to just “switch the poles”, so to speak, on their moral alignments. It’s more interesting if there are points of conflict beyond some innate and inescapable moral alignment.

  7. August 4, 2012 9:19 am

    This certainly applies pretty generally in fiction, though in particular ways in F&SF, since races are made up. So, with the dark-skinned, savage Orcs, you can also talk about the dark-skinned, savage Klingons in the original Star Trek. But this is present in classic mystery fiction as well. There are a lot of stereotypes and generalizations about people of other races, along with the effeminate gay men and dangerous butch lesbians. Not always, of course, as I talked about in my blog post about Philo Vance, but even some of the best writers relied on these tropes from time to time.

    Firefly took an unusual tack for a SF TV show, in that there are no aliens at all. Just humans colonizing other worlds, so the “Other” thing doesn’t come into play.

    The world I write about is (or tries to be) pretty color-blind (i don’t always specify race when I introduce new characters, in fact), so the main way Otherness comes in is with tourists and the assumptions they bring with them. I often play this for laughs.

    Theresa’s point about the MC often not being allowed to kill humans is very true. I think this is why George Lucas decided in the ST prequels to establish that the Imperial Storm Troopers were all clones, to make them somewhat more “disposable” (of course, the “Han shot first” thing shows this type of thinking as well). This is also why Lisbeth Salander never actually kills anybody in the Millennium books (though she arranges for people to be killed by others).

    • August 7, 2012 8:00 am

      Yeah the impact in SF&F is a little particular and different. But I think it’s a big deal. SF&F has had problems with overly whitewashed protagonists and POVs, so when your only non-ethno-european/non-white characters are stereotypically monocultural non-human races that sends a message, intended or otherwise, that is potentially harmful to people who are not being represented. Taking your Firefly example – and take this with some salt as I’ve never seen Firefly but only read a bit about it – but I’ve read that Firefly is supposed to be an Asian-domnated future universe, and yet there no Asian characters. That seems like a flaw and it sends a message…

      • August 7, 2012 8:24 am

        Oh, definitely. It’s rather creepy, in fact. Why insert that concept at all if you’re not going to use it for something? It looks at times if the main reason was so the (non-Asian) characters could all curse in Chinese.

        (The show is still well worth watching, BTW. :-) )

      • August 7, 2012 8:29 am

        Oh yes, in spite of this, I’m well aware of all the raving about Firefly. It’s just that my available TV-watching Free Time asymptotically approaches 0.

  8. August 7, 2012 8:19 am

    My apologies to everyone who left all the great comments here; I’ve been very slow to respond. Hopefully within the next 24 hours or so I’ll finally be able to get to everyone’s comments.

  9. February 20, 2013 12:09 am

    Have you ever read Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody trilogy? Other than the title character (who is not especially original: a beautiful white woman), the main “good guys” are Orcs, and even Rhapsody allies herself with the Orc communities. Quite interesting.

    And thanks for the linkage!

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