I’ve been thinking about Daniel’s post on racism in fantasy settings.
Firstly, fantasy, especially high fantasy, has a great big giant get-out-of-jail free card when it comes to dealing with racism in any sort of realistic way. When you make the races up, you get to define who they are and what is true about them. And since fantastic fiction tends to be the fiction of extremes, what is true about your races will tend to be extreme. Tolkien just got to say, ‘Elves are the most wise, the most beautiful, the most artistic people in the land. Orcs are evil, through and through.’ No one questions these definitions. There is no orcish anti-defamation league filing lawsuits over this libelous treatment of their kind. Orcs are evil because they are orcs, and orcs are evil. End of circular story. You can have vicious racism in such a setting because the racists are right! The author has told you that orcs are irredeemably evil, so when our heroes murder the shit out of them, we can be satisfied that justice was done.
Sci fi, especially sci fi dealing with humans. . . not so much. We live in a world where some people treat other people like orcs. They hate them without reservation, sometimes to the point of murdering them just for being a member of their particular group. But in the real world, we actually meet those people. We work with them and live on the same block with them and hang out at parties with them. So we know that no group, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation, is a faceless mass of evil requiring extermination. In fact, exactly the opposite. The more you get to know people outside your particular ethnic/religious/etc group, the more you generally realize they are (other than those surface differences) pretty much the same as you. It’s pretty hard to maintain an unreasoning hatred when confronted with daily reminders of your enemy’s humanity.
But people are complicated. In spite of those difficulties, people find ways to hate. And the easiest way is to pick a group you are generally not required to interact with. Hate gay people? You probably don’t hang out with any then. Hate another race? You probably avoid interacting with them as much as possible. In group/out group dynamics are as old as tribalism in the human species. A couple million years of physical and social evolution aren’t wiped away overnight.
So when you write about the future, how do you handle this? The easiest way I guess is the ST:TNG method of just pretending all racism went away (except, you know, Klingons and Romulans and generic evil species of the week). But honestly, that just rings false to me. We’ve been struggling with racism and tribalism for hundreds of years now, and while we’ve made some definite progress, we’re nowhere near the finish line. I can’t imagine the world is magically bigotry free just because another hundred years goes by.
Daniel and I had these discussions when creating The Expanse, and specifically when writing Leviathan Wakes. Our choice was to shift bigotry away from racial markers and over to birthplace markers. People born on Earth look different from people born on Mars, or born in the Outer Planets. Those places also have significant cultural differences. It seemed a pretty easy leap to assume that those things would become the new basis for bigotry and hatred. It’s tricky though. Sure, we are making up Belters and outer planets citizens and Martians. But they are all still human. We can address bigotry and tribalism in our fictional context, while to some degree avoiding the pitfalls that come with talking about actual groups that really exist. At the same time though, we are dealing with humans. Humans do exist. Most people aren’t going to buy into the idea that a couple hundred years of cultural differences will turn humans into orcs.
And that’s the big difference, to me. Fantasy gets to make all of the rules for its races. If fantasy deals with racism, it does so only when it wants to, and on its own terms. But sci fi, and especially anthropocentric sci fi, brings all the weight of human history along with it, including our long history of bigotry and hatred. You ignore that at your peril.