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Wednesday, 5 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 1

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In this post, I'm talking about the recurring theme and motif in many pieces of fiction both good and bad; racism.

What is racism? In its most basic form, racism is discrimination against ethnic groups that are not your own, with the most obvious example being white people discrimination against black people. Racism may be deliberate or unconscious, but it's most clearly seen as a kind of view that your people are superior to any other, rendering any other inferior. True life examples of this are the Colonial occupiers of India during the 1800s, the Apartheids of South Africa, and the entire Nazi regime and its fascist derivatives. There are examples of racism in every single society across all of recorded human history, and can often be accompanied with tales of segregation, exile, and in the worst cases genocide authorised by the powers that be. Because of this, it's a fairly clear topic for authors to take up and use as a motif or even the central core of their story.

Racism is a pressing issue in the modern world, and even when you're looking at historical settings like Civil War America, it's very uncomfortable to see how terrible people can be when affected by such a poisonous worldview. That's why many works not directly retelling historical events have chosen to soften the blow by putting it through the lens of fiction. Clear examples can be found in science fiction and fantasy, where aliens in the former and other races in the latter are often the target of racial discrimination.

An example within science fiction is Alien Nation, a film and television series from the late 80s that revolves around "Newcomers" arriving and becoming integrated into the multicultural United States, and the inevitable discrimination they receive for being "not us". This results in the Newcomers often being seen as enemies just because of their differences from humans. In comic books, the entire X-Men universe is based around this lack of understanding and a wish to see enemies in humans who have developed mystical powers through a genetic mutation, something that happens with humans in the real world every day (mutation, I mean). Azimov's Robot series also demonstrates this, but this time in the division between Spacers - humans who have colonised other worlds - and Terrans who live in domed cities and suffer from trade blockades imposed from beyond. This is added to by the Rs, humanoid machines that can walk undetected among people and are feared by one group and mistrusted by the other. Each human side is shown to be as bad as the other, while the Rs are caught in between, trapped by the Three Laws and unable to prevent humans either restraining or abusing them.

Fantasy has far more scope due to the greater ability of people to construct fantastic races. The Underworld films and the Twilight book series show how vampires and werewolves discriminate against each other due to their differences, failing or being arranged to fail by their leaders at finding any common ground. Several depictions of dragons in multiple media also feature this, as while it's not dubbed as "racism", dragons often see themselves as superior to other races and so are tempted to look down on them, something that is directly in line with racist behaviour. The Dragon Age series, while not really featuring dragons as a sentient race, does have multiple races that discriminate against each other in often sickening ways - the Qunari are victimised for their completely foreign social structure, the elves for their presumed ancient crimes and refusal to worship humanity's monotheic Maker, humans for seemingly being narrow-minded or primitive and brutish in the eyes of others; it creates a vicious cycle of continued hatred.

But what all of these instants, and many others, have in common is this; they separate the pressing issues from reality by placing them in an alien environment. Whether it be the domed cities of Earth in The Caves of Steel or the ancient ruins of elven citadels in Dragon Quest: Inquisition, it can be hard to connect to the terrible events and attitudes when they are so far removed. There are some stories that successfully portray this as a serious and uncomfortable issue while maintaining that distance - such as Princess Mononoke and Ben-Hur - most fail to strike that. It's a pity, as those who can't fully communicate it can risk separating our views of racism in fiction from that in real life, and that risks making us unwitting participants in society's continued, unconscious discrimination.

Next week, in Part 2, I'll be looking at religion, and how this sensitive topic has been approached in various fictional works, with an aim to espouse it, analyse it, and criticise it.

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