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

Racism revisited (sci fi style)

02.25.11
by Ty Franck

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.

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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…

20 Comments

Blake Nails It

02.23.11
by Daniel Abraham

Blake Charlton has written what is to my mind the best analysis ever of an author struggling with strong women characters.

In summary, yeah, like that.

5 Comments

Hurt Me by MLN Hanover

02.08.11
by Daniel Abraham

Podcastle has just put up probably the best short story I’ve written.  Other people may like other stuff I’ve done better, and that’s cool.  But personally — privately — this one just makes me smug.

There’s a story about this story.  It’s not actually mine.

"Hurt Me"'s first home.

What happened was Ty had this idea for a story, and we used it as the example when we had this conversation about plot structure.  We talked about how the scenes could build one on the other, and how you try to finesse information control, and how “plot” is a weird sort of cluster of different things depending on context, and that should have been it.  Ty wrote a draft of it that wasn’t quite what I would have done, but it was good, solid work.

The problem was I wanted it.  I wanted it bad, and I wanted it the way I would have done it.  There is no bigger faux pas than stealing your writing partner’s story.  There just isn’t.  Okay, there is, but it involves spouses and hotel rooms, and what I wanted was that story.

And, being a mature fella at the height of my powers, I did what anyone would.  I whined to his wife.  I really didn’t mean for it to get back to him.  I was just venting, but she mentioned it to him, and he — because he hadn’t had any other big plans for the thing — said I could have a go at it if I wanted to.

No one in the history of literature was ever happier than I was.  I had permission.  And I got to do it exactly the way I wanted, the way the story wrote itself in my head in the weeks and months after Ty and I talked about it.

Parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but of all the stories I’ve written, this one is my favorite.  If I ever sell the movie rights to it, Ty gets half the money.

In the meantime, the podcast is free.  Please do feel free to send this link around to everyone you know.  If there were one thing in my career I’d love to see go viral, this one’s it.

11 Comments

Killing Rites

02.05.11
by Daniel Abraham

There is that beautiful moment when the manuscript is finished and before you go to bed, when it is the best book ever written.  So deeply felt and emotionally honest that it shines above everything else you’ve done and everything you’re going to do.

You sleep, and by the time you wake up, it’ll be crap again.  But that one sweet moment when it’s great?  Oh, it’s a nice one.

Mmmm.

So yeah.  That was fun.  Break’s over now.  Heading for bed, then doing the final polish pass before I send it and (hopefully) the pitch for the next two in the series out on Monday.

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No, Really Not A Freaking Game

02.04.11
by Daniel Abraham

One of the real joys of living where I do is the number of really first class authors who are in easy driving distance.  For almost a decade, I was in a critique group that included (just to name the top sellers) Walter Jon Williams, S. M. Stirling, Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis.  I’ve gotten to see books by each of them grow from an idea into a book, or sometimes series of books.

Looks like the thinking person's Tom Clancy, dunnit?

I was there when we planned out Walter Jon Williams’ new novel Deep State, and I was also around when the Green Revolution in Iran started lifting scenes out of it.  When Walter says the news back then was uncomfortably word-for-word what he’d been writing, I can attest that it was pretty eerie for me.  And I’d just been critiquing it.

But then a few of us got together and found ways to gin it up so it wouldn’t look like Walter had been cribbing from the events in Iran.

Now it looks like he was cribbing from Egypt.

I am, as I have stated elsewhere, a massive Walter Jon Williams fan, and was before I met him lo these many years ago.  He has written some of the best space opera there is in the Dread Empire’s Fall series, which CALLS OUT LIKE THE SOULS OF THE DAMNED FOR MORE BOOKS.  If someone out there who knows someone could politely ask our dear friends at HarperCollins to suggest he might drop them a proposal for a few more, I will personally buy you a drink.  Or dinner.  Or clean out your garage.

He wrote New Weird before New Weird existed, and a raft of pitch-perfect short stories, and a critically under-appreciated science-fiction mystery that you have to be from New Mexico to really grok.

I love the new project he’s pitching which I am thus far sworn not to speak of.

Deep State is out now, and as with all Walter’s books, it’s a damn fine read.  I’m just hoping that the third one in the series comes true too…

2 Comments

The No Longer Secret Project Considered

02.03.11
by Daniel Abraham

So, as I said before, the cat’s out of the bag.

Most of my work writing comic books and graphic novels has been adaptation work, and specifically adapting George.  I started off with the Fevre Dream project for Avatar Press and moved on to an adaptation of George’s novella Skin Trade (also for Avatar, but not yet penciled).  I did a six-issue story in the Wild Cards universe which has just some into print after being rescued from obscurity by Dynamite.

Not a portrait of the script writer

I enjoy writing scripts.  The ways that they’re different from prose make them interesting and challenging.  (For instance, in prose, dialog is action.  In scripts?  Yeah, not so much.)  But this thing that I like best about these particular projects isn’t that they’re comic books, but that they’re adaptations.

The project as we’re looking at it now puts the action of A Game of Thrones into several graphic novels over the next couple of years.  It’s a big job, but one that we have the room to do right.  And it’s just about the only work I’m doing these days in which my job is to be more or less invisible.  If I’ve done my job the way I’d hope to — the way my artistic ambition is leading me — you won’t see me in it at all.  You’ll see George’s story and Tommy’s vision of it.  I’m a translator, and my mandate is to take the story George created and make those things which were told in peculiarly textual ways and find mechanisms to do the same thing visually.

Hmm. I wonder if this Abraham fella can write a comic script. If only there was something I could buy to find out...

Just so folks know, I’ve already completed the first three scripts and I’m working on the fourth.  I expect to be cranking them out at about one per month (or slightly faster, just to stay ahead of the production schedule — if I am the rate-limiting step, I’ve failed).  At this point, I do know things about the Song of Ice and Fire story that aren’t in any book.  Tommy and I are working out how to make sure he has everything he needs to make the books work he can be proud of, and I’m having lunch with George about once a month to go over any questions I have about what can be changed without doing violence to the overall story arc and what obscure little grace notes *need* to be there.  It’s fascinating, and it’s giving me an understanding of some of the deeper structure of the project that’s made the whole thing more enjoyable for me.

And no, I’ve got no spoilers to share.  :)

If I may now address the questions I anticipate:

1 ) Will the comic book be based on the books or on the HBO show

I’m expecting it t be based on the books.  The comic book and the HBO series are both translations (in to different media) from the same source.  I don’t expect Tommy’s Eddard Stark to look like Sean Bean.

That said, there are constraints that moving into visual storytelling imposes, and from what I’ve seen, there are solutions that the comic book will reach for that are very similar to the ones the guys at HBO chose.  There’s some stirring about a venue where I might get to talk about that in greater detail as the two projects steam ahead.  We’ll see how that plays out.

2 ) How long will it be?

We went back and forth on this a lot, looking for the balance of enough pages to do the thing right without overloading Tommy and making it impossible, how to break individual issues of the comic book at dramatic high-points without making any changes to the original story.  We’ve settled on 24 issues with the tacit understanding that we’ll flex a little to make it work.  We’re all more interested in living up to the books than keeping a strict, legalistic boundary on things.

3 ) How dare George do anything besides A Dance with Dragons?

George isn’t doing this.  I am.  They are paying me so that George isn’t doing this instead of A Dance with Dragons or the book after that or the book after that.

No, I don’t know the status of that project, and yes, I did delete your comment about it.

So.  Any other questions that I missed?

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Secret Project Revealed

02.02.11
by Daniel Abraham

Well, after. Months of waiting to announce it, the moment comes when I’m connected to the world through a smartphone.

I’ll talk about it in more detail tonight, but A Song of Ice and Fire is going to be a comic book, and I’m adapting the scripts.

More at:
http://grrm.livejournal.com/194025.html

3 Comments

We’re back!

01.31.11
by Daniel Abraham

As folks may have noticed, the site’s been down for a few days while the brilliant team over at Orbit redecorated for us. I’m sure we’ve got some fine tuning to do over the next few weeks, but I’ve got to tell you, the joint looks pretty spiffy to me.

And in celebration, we’ve got the first full-length review of The Dragon’s Path.

All in all, not a bad day.

2 Comments

What the internet was made for?

01.27.11
by Ty Franck

Overweight middle aged white guys talking about space ships.

The only thing that saves this is that we have the incomparable Carrie Vaughn doing the interview, and she is neither middle aged, nor overweight, nor a guy.

Leviathan Wakes Interview part 1

Leviathan Wakes Interview part 2

Leviathan Wakes Interview part 3

Go watch us natter on.

6 Comments