Race and Stereotypes in Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Perhaps some of you guys can help answer a few questions for me. I’m somewhat a n00b to this whole fantasy/sci-fi thing. I took a class on it last year at my university, and I’ve been somewhat interested in the genre since. A few things have bugged me while reading through the most popular books and series in this genre, however: the absence of race issues.

Okay, I’ll admit, it’s probably the fact that I am a sociology major that I noticed this, but I cannot be the only one. As far as I can tell, in just about every fantasy/sci-fi novel I’ve read, the human race = white european. The ONLY exception (other than Phillip K Dick, who I’m not going to deal with here because I think his books are almost on a whole other plane of literature) to this rule I can think of is in Frank Herbert’s first Dune book, a book which I think breaks a lot of the molds I’m going to discuss. I think it’s pretty obvious that the Fremen in Dune are supposed to represent arabs, and I think the book does a pretty good job of dealing with race prejudice and other issues surrounding the time, such as oil and drugs. But in no other novel can I think of where there is even a hint of a black, latino, asian, indian, arab, islander, or any other group. Humans are white.

‘So what?’ you might be saying. ‘Fantasy is escapism - it doesn’t have to deal with these kinds of issues. In fact, I wouldn’t read fantasy if it did, because it’s the only genre of books where I can go to escape these issues.’ Fair enough, but I think fantasy has become a lot more than pure escapism or a glorified romance novel in the last decade or two. Whereas perhaps the genre was confined to select groups of white, renassiance faire attending university students and other such types for many decades since the 50’s, fantasy/sci-fi is quickly becoming mainstream. If the huge-budget, immensely successful, award-winning Lord of the Rings movies are any sign, fantasy is escaping its underground roots. Everyone everywhere is reading the lord of the rings, harry potter, and to a lesser extent The Wheel of Time. The problem here is, how long can such a genre’s popularity last if it continues to escape pressing issues of the day? How long before people give up, saying every fantasy world is just the same old boring, old-europe recreation (just look at the map of wheel of time. it’s europe). Why is it such a stigma to bring in some diversity into these worlds?

Perhaps, you might say, it would detract from the ultimate good vs. evil story if you were to input diversity into an already shattered europe. The good vs. evil story would have to be downplayed to make room for the inevitable clashes of the race. But I ask then, why must diversity = dischord? Does a fantasy world have to be so like ours that two people of different color could never hope to get along? Is not fantasy an altered form of utopian literature? Perhaps the worlds created by these authors are not utopias in the traditional sense, but is not the underlying moral of most, if not all, fantasy stories the idea that good triumphs over evil, that humanity ultimately comes together, depite all odds, to defeat the greater evil? Why could fantasy novels not use this idea as a springboard to further ideas about race equality, or even gender equality (I’m surprised at the number of women who like The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan has probably the worst portrayl of women since Ernest Hemingway)? Hell, why does every fantasy story have to use the same cliche of light vs dark, as if it were impossible to conceive that, in another universe, darkness was good and light was evil? Why must we further the same cliches, the same prejudices? Are we so far gone that we cannot imagine two people of different color cooperating even in another universe or dimension?

Humans are white europeans in this kind of literature because it is written mostly by white europeans. Ever played Baldur’s Gate 2?

And there are racial issues. Elves and Dwarves are like palestinians and israelis to each other. Humans hate Orcs for no good reason and kobolds are considered scum by all. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Eh, look at the origins of the authors. Most of them must have had some experiences that inspired them to write a book. Since they aren’t black, nor are they asian, nor are they arabs… you write about what you know best. Most fantasy books also have other races (i.e. elves, ogres, whatever), but they don’t put black or oriental people in simply because, well, what’s the point? People are people. I honestly don’t think anyone would care if the fellowship of the ring consisted of a black Sam, a japanese Legolas, or an irish Gimili. They’re trying to create a story, not a politically correct reflection of the real world.

As for the whole light vs. darkness thing, it provides contrast and excitement. No one reads these stories because they want a deep moral message embedded within the events of the story. They read it because the world the authors creates is cool, and fun to read about. There are exceptions, and the author can put these messages, but the most important thing is that they’re fun to read. Any bad guy protagonist the author writes to get to care always becomes good, because that kind of ending is satisfying. Fairy tales don’t end in “and they didn’t happily ever after, because he got drunk and they eventually filed for divorce and lived single, occasionally bumping into each other in a bar, drunk and full of vengeful hate, and ended up with quite a few bruises each”.

Ren’s right about fantasy. If you include races already thought up then the race hatred gota be there as well. The sci-fi point is a good one though. Maybe it’s because in Sci-Fi anything goes, and so no-one really dares criticise, as the ‘but it’s the future’ argument will be thrown at them.

If you want more racial diversity, try Alastair Reynolds books, or Ken McLeod’s. Both are excellent, and encompass most of the globe in their plots.

I read in the paper or somewhere’s that there were a few individuals complaining about J K Rowling and the way she writes her books because a few fantasy races get stereo typed and are treated poorly in Harry Potter. The main one I can remember is that little dude that shows up in HP and the Chamber of Secrets, I forget his name, but he escaped from a kitchen that he slaved in and Rowling made his race discriminated against…well apparently some people weren’t happy about that and claimed it was unfair that such races get portrayed in her books like that. If you ask me, that’s taking it too far.

And there was a race of black (or Latino) men and women in LOTR…they weren’t highly featured, and I don’t know exactly how it was worded, but there was an encounter with some “dark skinned” persons. A LOTR fan can elaborate better than I can. I’ve seen this topic brought up before, as well.

Originally posted by Evangelion
The main one I can remember is that little dude that shows up in HP and the Chamber of Secrets, I forget his name, but he escaped from a kitchen that he slaved in and Rowling made his race discriminated against…

Dobbie? If people actually bothered to read the book to the end they find out that Dobbie gets freed and is actually more powerful than Malfoy. Dobbie also does not represent any real race. The genre called fantasy for a reason. What the hell is the problem?

The scum who wrote Harry Potter depicted elves as being fugly homuncullus’es. She deserves to die, preferentially crossified topside-down and slowly burnt to ashes.

Psh, anyone who gets upset about fantasy races being “misrepresented” is a nerd in my book :stuck_out_tongue:

Originally posted by Cless Alvein
Dobbie? If people actually bothered to read the book to the end they find out that Dobbie gets freed and is actually more powerful than Malfoy. Dobbie also does not represent any real race. The genre called fantasy for a reason. What the hell is the problem?

Well don’t blame me!:stuck_out_tongue: I didn’t complain about this, I just read about it, and yeah now that you mention it, it was Dobbie, and yeah those people (Londoners, I think) were pretty upset with the way he was treated (at first, I guess, since you mention he gets free). Wasting time like that is ridiculous.

And yeah Ren, I recall something about that too. Elves, though I can’t remember any elves in the books (it’s been awhile since I actually read the books as well)

True, there are dwarves, elves, hobbits, etc…but they’re still all just modified white folk.

There are some good points here, esp. brought up by Cless, but I still ask, why not make a japanese legolas, a black gimli? Sure, you don’t HAVE to, but why not? Would it at least not give the movies more mass appeal? If I were black or something and went to see LOTR, I’d probably feel a little put off. I mean, the LOTR movies certainly aren’t racist or anything, but I’d still not be as interested in a world that consisted of just white people and nothing else. I might have more of a reason to get interested in the plot if I felt there was a group I could more closely relate to. Maybe I’m wrong, as I’m not black, and this is just hypothetical, but it seems reasonable. Maybe it seems petty to bring race into it just for the sake of attracting a wider audience, but why not? The more people can share and experience the same things, the more we’ll have in common with each other, andthe easier it would be for us to all relate to each other. Granted, something like this in fantasy stories would only be an almost neglibily small step, but it’s something.

Cless: anyone using a message board is one in mine, so I don’t care =p

Eva: it was the small big-nosed winged beast with a cowardious attitude.

edit: Zep: some authors do that. Elves, for example, have a lot of different cultures in D&D and Gurps. OK, in D&D they are different races, but in Gurps they are all from the same race, just living in cultures as much varied as humans’ cultures.

So she deserves to die for portraying elves in a more whimsical and less Tolkeinian stereotype? Great logic…

I don’t have much to add, but Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books deal with various human races. The main hero is… I think representative of Arabs, maybe Indians, maybe Injuns. I don’t quite remember. His friend has features more akin to Africans. And the Europeans are represented by an empire not really dealt with heavily except in The Tombs of Atuan. However, the whole world is vastly different from most fantasy since it’s a giant ocean with scattered islands. The plot of the books also differ from normal fantasy since there isn’t much good vs. evil. Rather, LeGuin is a Daoist, and as such, her books speak more on needing an equilibrium between good and evil. That, and the first one has so much Jungian philosophy in it it’s not even funny. :stuck_out_tongue:

I don’t think it reall matters whether, authors include other (human) races in their work. Since I don’t think it would look “right”, I doubt that is the right term for what I’m thinking but it will do.

And also it is meant to be fantasy, as in not real. You are not meant to take it seriously, as if it was the author’s views on the world. On occassion authors add in real life subjects, but only when it truly works in with their idea, since you don’t want anything forced do you? And that is what would happen, if they tried to deal with loads of real issues, it woud end up sounding forced, and would pretty much ruin th story for many people.

Edit: And I have seen some fantasy films that do have people of different skin colours as stars. Like ‘Snails’ from “Dungeons and Dragons”.

WOOO!! popints to post count 666!! The number of the beast!!

Yeah, from what I heard Le Guin had a pretty different take on fantasy. I never got around to reading anything by her though…Jungians sorta frighten me.

Well, from what I can tell, only A Wizard of Earthsea has some Jungian philosophy in it, and really only the concept of the Shadow at that.

Don’t look at Tolkien’s work as a starting point for human racial diversity. He was trying to make a mythological history for England in the same way that Ancient Greece and Rome and any other ancient culture had a mythological history. Since it is England, the majority of the humans would be white caucasians. And yes, I do believe that the people far to the south in Middle Earth were not white, but they play only a minor role in the books.

It is a very good point though. Not that you need me to tell you that. It couldn’t be that difficult to simply alter the description of a potential character. I imagine people for the most part just don’t think about that. When you’ve got dramatic differences in races from orcs to elves to humans to dwarves, things like skin color don’t seem like a big deal (and really, that’s the way it should be).

The dark-skinned people are from the great desert, south-east of Mordor. They joined Sauron’s army along with their animals which were similar to Elephants. I’d get the book out and describe it fully but I can’t be arsed.

furthermore, a lot of fantasy writers we’d have read are either European (especially British) or inspired by European/British writers. And Europe isn’t exactly the most multi-racial center of the world. So they’ve just experienced things differently. Plus, there’s a risk involved with including racially-varied characters. Like say if Gimli was black, and at one point Gimli ate chicken, then some people might call that stereotypical and lose track of the point that he was eating chicken to SMITE EVIL.

For fantasy/sci-fi with non-Caucasian main characters, check out Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. It’s got quite a few different characters, and it’s actually brought up in the book a bit.

Play Morrowind, Zepp. Racial interaction is a major part of that game. There are four races of humans (three are white, one of which is the Imperial invaders that no one likes, and the fourth is black, Redguards), three races of elves (the game centers around the Dunmer, or Dark Elves) and two animal races that are often seen as lower class. Oh, and Orcs, but, y’know, they’re Orcs.