Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Toward a taxonomy of the thirteen races (A Dagger and Coin Joint)

02.24.11
by Daniel Abraham

Fantasy races, but not like this.

With the advanced readers copies of The Dragon’s Path coming out, folks have pointed out that it might be nice to have a primer for the different races.  Who am I to disagree, right?  So here you go.

Racism in fantasy’s an interesting thing, because having an entirely created world, it becomes possible — in fact necessary — to exoticise the other without excluding any real human beings or cultures from the wide and inclusive sense of “us.” 

When I was first building the world of The Dagger and the Coin, I was initially resistant to the idea of having a bunch of different folks — goblins and trolls and elves and dwarfs and on and on and on — but Ty (who is increasingly becoming the unseen force in the steering of all modern fantasy literature) argued that part of what makes fantasy fantasy is that sense of walking into the Goblin Market, of being surrounded by the exotic and strange.  And, whether we’re comfortable with it or not (I’m on the “not” side), that means evoking that feeling of being in a different place and surrounded by people that aren’t like you, and — in this case literally — are only kind of human.

High fantasy has the capacity — just the capacity, it’s by no means easy or automatic — to sit with racism defanged.  When the races are separated by the intentional design of the race of fallen dragons and not accidents of where a particular person’s ancestors spent the Pleistocene, it turns into something like a needle with no poison.

I don’t know that what I’m doing with The Dagger and the Coin is particularly taking on the toxic aspects of racism, but the more I look at it, the more suspect that some of the issues are necessary. To say Jasuru are warlike and Cinnae are cunning is, I suspect, the same impulse as saying Jews are cheap and Blacks are violent, but without anyone to confront it.  If I say that the Haaverkin are one particular way, no one has the authority to disagree.

I feel like I’m juggling with dulled knives here, but they’re still knives.

I’m going to have to think about this some more…

24 Responses »

  1. Just to clarify something I said to you, when I said “I told you so,” I meant it in regards to how people were going to be utterly fascinated with the 13 races and want to know everything about the cultures, the features, etc.

    Kind of like the way the Star Wars Expanded Universe built an entire planetary system and culture out of the word “Corellian,” which is used exactly once in the first trilogy…

  2. To say Jasuru are warlike and Cinnae are cunning is, I suspect, the same impulse as saying Jews are cheap and Blacks are violent, but without anyone to confront it. If I say that the Haaverkin are one particular way, no one has the authority to disagree.

    Well, you can quash stereotypes in your own work in this universe, perhaps, by providing examples where those broad brush generalizations are proven not to be correct in all circumstances.

    Alternatively, you as an author can make it clear that the stereotyping done by characters in the universe is the characters’ perceptions and prejudices, not the author’s.

    I happen to enjoy epic fantasy with lots of races and cultures–Steven Erikson comes immediately to mind, with his world *stuffed* full of beings ranging from Jaghut to D’ivers to ordinary humans. So the taxonomy you provided makes me even more excited to read the book.

  3. Your musing makes me think about the difference (or is there one. . .) between the author’s outlook on the world we know, and the author’s design of his or her own world. Fantasy allows us to toy with things that would not be appropriate in reality, and one of those things is racial tensions and interactions. We’re curious. We want to see what happens if. . . and so we create a whole new world.

    We’d like to make every effort to portray complex societies with individual members of different races who have unique character traits and resist being typecast. But the practicalities of fiction insist that you can only manage so many characters. Once you have written in the roles for those characters, the now limited representatives of any given race will be taken to stand for that race.

    And so the author’s grand intent and vast universe may end up expressed in a handful of individuals whom some readers will decry as sterotypes. Knife-juggling indeed.

  4. Cool.

    Only a barbarian would equate placing beads in your pelt with facial tattoos.

  5. Oooh, yep. Just the descs of the races make me want to read it.

  6. Interesting take on the problem. Hmm.

  7. I think it’s useful to distinguish between race and culture. The two are connected, but they’re not the same.

    What interests me about this taxonomy is not so much that there are thirteen races, it’s that there are (at least) thirteen cultures (or cultural groups) in this world. That’s interesting. That’s where I think the appeal of the exotic and strange lies: in different ways of thinking about and making sense of the world, which in this case may have developed as a result of physical differences.

    Race is just one way to create cultural distinctions in a world, but it’s probably the tool that gives the greatest scope to a fantasy writer. Having one race that can fly and another that lives underwater expands the potential for exoticness way beyond normal boundaries. And pushing those boundaries is one of the great joys of fantasy.

  8. Reading this I was reminded of something GRRM once said in one of his podcasts – about how, in a sense, both the elf and the alien are basically versions of the same trope. They both represent the cultural Other.

    I don’t think having “other” races in any kind of secondary world makes it automatically racist. That kind of logic would make having aliens (humanoid or not) in a SF story racist too, no? Or is the question somehow different when asked in a science fiction context?

    We should distinguish the situation of a certain group within the secondary world itself being exoticised (in-world racism, if you wish) from the overall effect the existence on non-human groups has on the reader. I think having various imaginary races/species (goblins, Wookies etc.) in a secondary world essentially serves as a means to generate culture shock. Therein lies the (potential) problem. If I understand correctly, the issue here is that certain kinds of F&SF tends to use (fictitious) races, among other (fictitious) things, to generate culture shock. That’s… tricky, yes. But racist? Not necessarily. Racism would be saying that there are some kind of deterministic (usually negative) traits to a race, imaginary or not, which are inherent and fixed. Evidently, that’s stupid bullshit. Culture shock is something else, though. First of all, it always says more about the person experiencing it than it does about the culture… Secondly, I’m not so sure it’s always such a shameful thing to experience… In fact, the feeling of culture shock might be pretty closely related to that elusive Sense o’ Wonder, which is why many people read F&SF in the first place.

    As far as unintentional(?) in-world racism goes… Yeah, ouch. I mean, if all the members of a race are similarly characterized/victims of groundless generalizations simply because of their belonging to that particular group (i.e. “All elves are fair & all orcs evil”) then yes, that’s a massive problem and basically no different from declaring that all Jews are cheap or that white men can’t jump. Nobody is determined by just their race.

    But simply making up non-human characters and then trying to describe them isn’t an inherently racist act. It’s just a very nerdy one.

    -Juhan

    • “Racism would be saying that there are some kind of deterministic (usually negative) traits to a race, imaginary or not, which are inherent and fixed. Evidently, that’s stupid bullshit.”

      Coming in to a long closed debate here, but…

      Surely the point is that, as an author creates his world he can decided that his races actually have these deterministic traits, negative or otherwise? This differs from saying, for example, “Jews are greedy”, because that’s NOT TRUE. However, if you have a race which has been genetically designed by dragons to be vicious fighters then a member of another race could make a comment like “Jasuru are warlike” and it would actually be true – they’ve been genetically designed to be that way.

      Obviously, not evcery Jasuru would be warlike, but the exceptions would be outliers on a genetic distribution of traits. Most, perhaps nearly all, would be. And not for cultural reasons, but genetic ones – it’s in their nature. It’s kind of hard to talk about this without writing sentences that would be racist if used in real life context – witness my last couple of sentences.

      How much of a difference does this make? Are racist comments like “Jasuru are warlike” OK, if they’re actually true? Or should true statements like “Jasuru are warlike” be considered unacceptable as they’re racist? In a world with 13 different races, each with its own genetically designed traits and abilities, what would racism mean, anyway?

      Daniel Abraham is right, this is an interesting topic. And one that has the ability to really annoy and offend people, also.

  9. Apparently Ty wrote his post right before I finished mine.

  10. Like Terry Pratchett said, “Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because – what with trolls and dwarfs and so on – speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.” There’s always an Other, but fantasy can be good at interrogating the nature of that Otherness.

    Looking forward to reading this new series, Daniel. The Long Price books are among my favorites in modern fantasy.

  11. What would be really useful would be to have someone draw some images of the different races. This is no criticism of your descriptive capabilities, they are as good or better than most other fantasy authors but I am having a little difficulty in picturing what the races look like. Particularly the Timzinae. They look like roaches but I still can’t piture what a face looks like. Mayhap you might say it is best to leave it to the reader’s imagination but when images are eventually published and they conflict with what images you have in your mind your imagination starts to do mental flips while reading, with one image veying against your original one, which was a sensation I got when I saw the Game of Thrones actors against the original images of those characters I had in my mind. For imagining particular races I think such flipping will be worse. The sooner I solidify those images in my mind the better!

  12. hey guys I just finished book 3, The Tyrants Law on audible and I’m trying to find some artwork of the 13 races. Can anyone direct me? Or is this something that still needs to be done?

  13. I just want to know what they LOOK like!

  14. Hello! Since I didn´t find images of the races of The Coin and the Dagger series, I made my interpretation of some of the races that appear on “The Dragon´s Path novel”… Ufortunately, the other books haven´t been edited in my lenguage yet, but i´m looking foward to it.
    I would love to know how differently the imagining of these races could be depending on each person, especially Daniel…
    I hope you like it:

    http://img03.deviantart.net/2128/i/2017/051/a/b/the_dagger_and_the_coin_races_by_fer_eco-dazsjlt.jpg

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