In what ways does the fantasy genre explore discrimination and persecution?

Now there’s a question for you.

My feeling is that fantasy is ideally situated to do just that. Moreover, SFF has a better chance of making a point with the very people who need to think deeply about these kind of issues.

Let’s face it, people from, let’s say, the backstreets of XYZ, who practise discrimination, or who live influenced by baseless prejudices, aren’t going to read too many novels that point out how stupid the backstreets people of XYZ are. But they may read – and possibly learn – from reading about the characters from, say, Upper Fantasia. I know that reading LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” opened my eyes to gender discrimination.

What do you think?

And if you think sff does have a role to play – which does it better? Fantasy or SF?

Or am I being naive? Do the folk who need to have their eyes opened the most, read the least? After all, we have the religious right refusing to let their kids read anything – like Harry Potter – that doesn’t preach their narrow view of the world. In other words, there are stacks of people out there who are terrified of reading anything which might expand their world view because their belief is so weak they think it is easily subverted. There are even some religious fanatics here in Malaysia who think that stepping foot in the house of someone of another faith during their festivals will somehow weaken their own faith. Huh? Have they any idea how ridiculous that makes their own faith appear?

Or do people who have closed minds not “get” it even if they do read a book that tackles problems of prejudice and racial or gender discrimination, simply because they don’t recognise themselves?

I have tried to look at some of these problems, even as I try never to allow my own pet themes to diminish a great story.

In The Isles of Glory trilogy I deal with the dismaying similarities between different forms of extremism (religious and environmental and racial); the importance of balance in politics; what makes a truly “good” religious person; how too much power is dangerous etc, etc.

In The Mirage Makers trilogy I look more at cultural differences and adaptation; how we are all moulded by our upbringing and the more subtle forms of prejudice – and how one culture does not have the “best” of everything. Of how we need to see that other peoples’ way of life can be just as valid as our own, even if it is substantially different.

I’m off tomorrow, so chat on folk. I’ll be back.


In what ways does the fantasy genre explore discrimination and persecution? — 10 Comments

  1. I wonder if we are preaching to the converted? I suspect that people whose ideas are narrow and prejudiced would not be open to stories that present the object of their bias in a positive light.

    But if even one bigot can be softened or one racist made to rethink an entrenched mindset, the writer will have accomplished something no politician seems able to do!

  2. Thanks for this, Glenda.
    In my view if the reader is so affected by the plight of the purple spotted whatevers who are discriminated against by the prejudiced yellow striped whatsits there is always the hope they will carry their horror at this mindless persecution over into their ordinary lives.
    As long as the story is paramount and the lesson is not overt (we don’t want to end up with tales like the Victorian moral fables)I can see only a benefit to society.

  3. if nothing else, reading was a big part of how I established what was right and wrong as a child. With an adult, I think you get a chance to make them think and doubt their own views. They’ll probly resist and deny, maybe to the extent of deciding that fantasy is a load of rubbish, but once the seed is planted… well, we can hope 🙂

  4. In one of David Eddings’ books (The Diamond Throne, I think) I was struck by the extent of overt antipathy and racist jokes between the different nations of the world-setting. Of course historically that is pretty accurate for a medieval type society – or just about any society up until the late twentieth century.

    And personally I would rather have that than the TV and movie depictions of ‘historical’ Fantasy villages (villages, not cities) peopled with ‘token’ representatives of umpteen different ethnic origins all living in lovey-dovey multicultural bliss. Because historically, if you’re trying to tie the fantasy to somewhere in our own world, I doubt that ever really happened. Even aiming for an egalitarian society in another fantasy world with a historical-type society can be difficult enough to sustain (we discussed before on this blog the problems of giving men and women equality in a Fantasy setting).

    Moving to modern or futuristic Fantasy settings (‘speculative fiction’) one can either deal with persistent problems of discrimination and persecution, or experiment with possible solutions (both their advantages and their shortcomings).

    So I agree that SFF is well placed to point up such issues – especially because it can be dealt with in a parallel fictional setting rather than referring directly to real-life groups and situations (about which readers may already have pre-conceived ideas and attitudes that get in the way).

    But whether it has a better chance of reaching those who need to think about it, I don’t know. SFF is still effectively a minority market, not mainstream, nor given too much ‘literary credibility’ by critics and academics. Your backstreet people of XYZ may well not have reading as a popular pastime within their culture anyway. And TV and movie adaptations of Fantasy stories … well, let’s just say that the Entertainment Industry usually seems more focused on providing good entertainment than exploring the deeper social and psychological implications of a Fantasy writer’s work.

    However, if you can get people to read SFF, then – as ink paw prints said – I think that the seeds can be sown even into the most closed minds. When and how those seeds germinate is another matter, though reading more SFF will probably help. :o)

  5. My first thought was that we really are preaching to the converted. SFF readers read a lot, and while they don’t always read outside the genre they often read widely within in.

    But then I read Ink Paw Prints’ comment and realised that she had a point. I devoured SFF during my teens (much of it adult SFF), and that’s a very impressive age. This is a perfect age to read SFF for this reason.

    There is still the occasional SFF book I discuss with friends and come away with a changed opinion about some form of discriminatory behaviour.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for the interesting comments!

    I’ve thought about that a lot, Satima. I’ve always liked to believe that wide readers – i.e. people who read a lot and don’t restrict themselves to the same kind of formulaic book – are more tolerant and open to ideas than the non-reading public. Naive of me? Perhaps. And if that is true, then perhaps we are preaching to the converted.

    But I wonder. I remember having a meal in the company of a very well known fantasy author, world-renowned in fact, who said something so “red-necked” that I almost fell off my chair in shock. I admire that author’s writing, and always thought of them as very tolerate and sensible (judging from their novels), and to hear them say what they did left me speechless. And that was a writer, who must surely have read very widely during the course of their career.

    ‘Imagine me’ has put her finger on a very important point. Any writer who sets out to “say” something, has to be so careful they don’t get carried away by the message.

    An excellent example of both success and failure is to found in Barabara Kingsolver’s book, The Poisonwood Bible. Wonderful tale, well written, gets the message across brilliantly until towards the end, when she tries far too hard and starts to moralise through her characters and the story. Spoiled it for me, and it wasn’t necessary. The message was loud and clear when she relied on a great plot and characters – she didn’t need to drive it home.

    Ink pp: that’s an interesting observation about your own imbibing of values. I wonder if that also applies to me – I can’t really remember. I do know that my mother – who had a very restricted childhood and early life – learned much from her wide reading. And she maintained that interest in life and changing attitudes right up to her death at 93. So many people don’t – they get caught in a sort of time warp, maintaining the old attitudes of their earlier life, refusing to shift, especially on fundamentals, even when those are biased and old-fashioned, such as racial/anti-gay prejudice or whatever.

    I mean, how idiotic can you get – refusing to allow a children’s book in the library because it contains an anatomical term – scrotum? Yet that’s what has just happened at various places across the US, decisions taken by Librarians!! Whom, one ho0pes, do read widely.

  7. Hrugaar – Eddings is not the only one to deal out jokes or a storyline based on stereotypes, or on race. There seems to be an underlying assumption that it’s ok, as long as the author speaks of sprites or dwarves or folk from the place called Corndawn across the border.

    Yet it makes me cringe. OK, so Corndawn doesn’t exist – yet the crassness of the behaviour of the people that make the jokes doesn’t sit well with me – at least not if they are supposed to be the good guys.

    I wonder if you are quite right about what technologically challenged societies were like. Individuals can be cruel to the stranger, it’s true – but I doubt that they exhibit automatic prejudice unless they have “reasons”.

    For example, if an English villager knows a bit about France because his brother was killed at the battle of Agincourt and other villagers came back to talk about the nastiness of French troops, then he could well throw stones at the Frenchman, simply becasue the guy is French, who turns up in the village later.

    Mostly, though, people don’t behave this way unless they are either scared, or becasue they have had their ire raised by some incident, rumour, or something in the past that has given what they perceive to be cause.

    I’ve been to some pretty remote places on earth where a white skin is a rarity. Generally speaking, the immediate reaction is one of great curiosity, possible amusement, and wide-eyed stares. Kids giggle themselves silly.

  8. Glenda, I hear what you’re saying, but I’ll offer back two points.

    First, there’s the distinction between individual and group (nation) and how they’re perceived. People can welcome an individual and like them, but still show a prejudicial (or at least stereotyped) attitude toward the nation they come from.

    Secondly, preconception requires a certain amount of information (a little learning is a dangerous thing). I imagine that in the remote places you mention, the people have very little information about white-skinned folk, and therefore haven’t had the chance to develop much in the way of preconception, stereotype or prejudice. Whereas from the time of recorded history onward (at least in Western terms) there has been a certain awareness of the existence of other nations, and enough rumour and information from contact with them (like your English-French example) to fuel stereotypes. In other words it’s not total ignorance that creates prejudice, but badly informed ignorance – and then the us-and-them evolutionary instinct kicks in. Maybe. ;oP

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