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Speculative Fiction and the "Other"

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on December 2, 2015

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Throughout the history of the genres of speculative fiction people have written from the perspective of their own culture, that is true of any writing, but it becomes more pronounced in genres where other cultures are invented to contrast. Because of the inherent biases that have always existed in the western societies that dominate entertainment production that means for a lot of science fiction and fantasy western civilisation and its predecessors were considered to be the human norm and any invented alien races were given agrab-bag of traits from other world cultures. For a time this worked well. It allowed the reader to be immersed in the beliefs and cultural mores of another people without being aware of it. It slipped in through the back door behind the racists and xenophobes backs and taught them about other people.

But like every other tool of the writer’s trade, this one has become overused and gradually twisted from its purpose by the same system that it was trying to subvert. If all humans are white people, then it dehumanises the rest of the earth’s population. It is a major cause for the absence of decent representation of people from other backgrounds in the genres. In fact, it has gotten to the stage where creators seem to believe that adding in an inhuman race is representation.

World of Warcraft is probably still one of the best known and most played games on the planet, it has become a cultural touchstone, and like Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars; it will influence this generation of creative minds. Setting the standard form for all future fiction. Within that game, Native Americans are represented by a race of cow people, Chinese people are represented by pandas and efforts seem to have been made to introduce African derived traits into many of the monstrous “noble savage” races. This is not representation.

provides a short-hand explanation of the alien people that they are representing, lending itself to lazy world-building and allowing the writers to exploit stereotypes without accusations of racism. The Star Wars prequels were another horrifying example of this, using intensely negative racial stereotypes to represent many of the alien peoples introduced while the lily white heroes brushed past them to get to the real antagonist. Yet another white human.

There was a single black human that could be considered anything but set dressing in the Star Wars prequels. To have truly accurate representation of the human race in science fiction, only 12% of the human characters should be white. Within the genre of fantasy there are many arguments made about historical accuracy and it is true that there was a lower degree of international mobility in the medieval time period. However, fantasy stories are by definition not set in our world. The reason that only white cultures are represented is because the creators are choosing to only represent them.

The tool that was once used to bypass racial hatred is now being used to perpetuate it, both by making non-white people into something other than human and by exploiting our interpretations of alien creatures to avoid having to make any efforts towards representing the real human race.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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