Thursday, December 12, 2013

Race in Fantasy: In Memory of Nelson Mandela

Although this is a writing blog, I didn't feel I could ignore the death of one of the great human beings of our time, Nelson Mandela.

I grew up not only in a liberal family but also in the context of the radical strand of the Sixties whose principal concerns were opposing racism and war.  I partly accessed this through music — Bob Dylan was and remains my main musical idol, and I listened to a whole range of socially aware folk and rock musicians — but I followed the news closely too. 

I was well aware of the American civil rights struggle, but in Britain the issue of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia was closer to home.  We never bought South African produce at home — such that, even now, I sometimes have to think twice before I remember it's fine to eat South African fruit or drink South African wine.

Another issue that brought apartheid very much to the fore was sport.  I've always been a cricket fan, and the pros and cons of playing against South Africa were hotly debated, especially during the "D'Oliveira affair" of 1968.  Although I've never supported political sniping in sport, I always felt that apartheid was a different issue, since it impacted directly onto the sport itself, and I strongly supported banning contact.

The South African issue remained important to both me and the culture I moved in throughout the Seventies and Eighties, and Nelson Mandela increasingly became the icon and the struggle.  The slogan "Free Nelson Mandela" was everywhere, and the feeling was that he could make everything right.  That's normally a poisoned chalice, since anyone who has that kind of expectations laid on them is usually being set up to fail.  Nelson Mandela succeeded triumphantly.

He didn't do it on his own, of course.  There was a whole movement behind him, and the character of the South African peoples was crucial.  Some credit should also go to de Klerk for doing the right thing, for whatever reasons.  But the fact that South Africa transformed from apartheid to the Rainbow Nation without the expected bloodbath is due in no small part to this extraordinary man.

As I said, this is a blog about writing, and particularly about fantasy, so it seems appropriate to mark this moment by looking at issues of race in fantasy.  Traditionally, the genre hasn't dealt well with non-white ethnic groups.  In the old sword & sorcery tales, for instance, if characters weren't so-called "pure Aryan" (a misnomer based on sheer ignorance) they were either stupid savages, decadent barbarians or comic stereotypes.

On the other hand, speculative fiction has often dealt with racial issues far more subtly and sympathetically by the back door.  Tolkien, for instance, has often been accused of a certain degree of racism, and certainly all the "good" humans are white, while the barbarians from far lands all serve Sauron.  It's also true that he uses a traditional colour symbolism which these days is associated with race, although it's doubtful whether that connection would have commonly been made when Tolkien was writing.

However, although Tolkien no doubt shared a certain amount of the casual racism of his generation, he was anti-racist for his time.  He was born in South Africa, where his parents are recorded as being disgusted by the treatment of Africans in the 1890s, and a rare public comment on the subject in the 1950s made it clear that he firmly opposed apartheid.  He was also fairly unusual for intellectuals of his generation, many of whom were sympathetic to the Nazis, in being implacably opposed to anti-semitism, referring to Hitler's "filthy racial doctrine".

Where Lord of the Rings does express a more liberal attitude is in the relations between his fantasy races.  Whether it be the ancient enmity between elves and dwarves, the mistrust of the Rohirrim for the elves of Lothlorien or everyone's scorn for hobbits, one message the book delivers over and over is that the world can only be saved if all peoples of goodwill work together and find the good in one another, regardless of how strange they seem.

This kind of approach to race relations is often used in both fantasy and science fiction.  In Star Trek, for instance (which does better than some at diversity, even if it does occasionally smell of tokenism) it's the relations between the various aliens — Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians and the rest — which often stand in for racial and ethnic issues.  The original series, which had a habit of portraying its ideas in ways that are glaringly obvious but still oddly effective, dealt with the absurdities of racism in the episode about the half-black-half-white race whose bitter prejudice was based on which half was which.

As far as racial diversity in fantasy goes, though, things have improved a little, but not as much as might be expected.  There are honourable exceptions, of course, such as Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series, which has a rich racial mix and a main character who in real-world terms would be Native American (a fact blithely ignored by the makers of the disappointing TV version) but such cases are still the exception rather than the rule.

I've tried to show racial diversity in my work, especially since the stories are spread over an entire imaginary world.  In At An Uncertain Hour, for instance, although the central character is white, the majority of characters, many of them his friends or lovers, are a mixture of black, red, brown and yellow.  Eltava, who appears both in the book and in a series of stories of her own, would in real-world terms be half Chinese and half Native American.

On the whole, I haven't used this to explore parallels with our world's racial issues, preferring simply to show a racially diverse world in a broadly positive way — not that it lacks negative aspects of other kinds.  Occasionally, though, I've included issues of racism, such as in At An Uncertain Hour's portrayal of the city-state of Dakh'el.  This is a place where the white population have subjected the black population (whom they charmingly refer to as the unclean) to such a level of slavery and degradation that torturing and killing "unclean" is seen as a sport that everyone participates in.  Besides using this episode as an outlet to express my hatred of racism, it asks the question — unfortunately without being able to supply the answers — of how to overcome such entrenched prejudice and hatred.  Maybe the answer was that they needed a Nelson Mandela, though I don't think even he could have solved that one.

Many people seem to believe that authors should only portray characters of different races when they want to "deal with the issues" of their race.  This kind of argument, which is also put forward for other kinds of characteristics such as LGBT, seems to me to be advocating the worst kind of tokenism.  Any realistically created world is going to be racially diverse, and there seems no reason at all not to express that diversity in stories.  There doesn't need to be a "reason" for a character to be black, any more than a "reason" for them to be white.

A more serious objection is that many writers feel inadequate to write about characters of a different race, fearing that they won't do justice to an experience they haven't shared.  There's something in this as far as real-world settings are concerned, although I wouldn't say it's an impossible task, but I can't see any reason for such an objection in a fantasy world.  There's a big difference between race and culture and, for example, a black person in a world where there's been nothing equivalent to Africa's experiences of the slave trade and aggressive colonisation won't have the same cultural issues that a black person in our world might.

The legacy Nelson Mandela left is a country where, in spite of many problems, the wounds left by the racial divisions of the past seem to be healing.  Fantasy is, among other things, fiction that gives us visions of the best and the worst that a world can be.  I don't believe it has any excuse nowadays not to reflect and celebrate the same multi-racial nature of humanity.


  1. There you go, boy! That tokenism argument annoys me to no end. It's right up there with the whole "write what you know" doctrine. If you don't know about other people and cultures, then get off your duff and learn about them. Don't just sit there in ignorance and praise the glory of that ignorance for your lack of even trying, and what I can only assume is a weak argument at some folks attempt to mask their own racism.

  2. I remember very well how many here in the States were afraid there's be a bloodbath in South Africa and how many people reluctantly supported the status quo because they were afraid of what would happen if the black majority was empowered. I even remember a reference (in a science fiction book--can't remember the author now) of a future with an enslaved white population in South Africa. Mandela proved that it's possible to rise above hate and a desire for revenge. The human race hasn't seen many leaders as great as he is.

    You also mentioned some interesting stuff I didn't know about Tolkien. My respect for the man has increased.

    As you mentioned, there are still some people who feel that having characters who are not what they consider to be the standard "default" demographic is a political statement. I suppose there is truth in this, but how is writing a story where everyone important is white, straight, cis and male not a political statement in its own right?

    If political statements are unavoidable, I'd rather be on the side of inclusiveness.