Robots, mutants, and kittens

June 16, 2009

I’m pretty much with Willow on this one…As much as I love me the idea of Robo-noir, it does make me wonder- why is it that mainstream media has an easier time building empathic “minority” characters who are robots, aliens, mutants, ghosts, or otherwise literally non-human than they are at having actual characters of color?

To be sure, Penny Arcade touched on this same subject with Resident Evil 5 and the slope of the fantastic, I think that’s exactly what makes it a shield against really thinking about it.

When you have weird non-real beings, and caricatures of discrimination, it’s easy to toss in the same realm as pure fantasy, and not really think about what it means in the totality of it. Just like how war with aliens isn’t the same as war between humans- it’s fantastic enough you immediately go to the land of faerie tales and magic and it loses it’s bite.

And I think that’s the big difference between X-men and say, Bayou. X-men goes fantastic enough that it stops being about discrimination- no one has to worry about the oppression of blue monkey people by giant 50 foot tall Sentinels… whereas in Bayou, the magical threats are just reflections of the human threats- the story begins with fishing a lynched boy’s body out of the Bayou…

How many people even realize The Dark Crystal is a story about survivors of genocide? Muppet Elves and vulture people go a long way towards masking the content.

I think this is why a lot of POC spec fiction gets thrown into the phrase, “magical realism” – in fact, it’s not less fantastic than any given vampire, werewolf, ghost, whatever story- it’s that certain ugliness of humanity isn’t shied away from, isn’t masked by robots waving guns at giant bugs, but that even with magic, history is history and people are people, and not all of it is pretty.


  1. That “survivors of genocide” thing left me with a big “whoa” in my head for quite a while. And it gave me an interesting idea I might have to talk to you about. Watch for an email.

  2. Its exactly that sort of thing that makes Magical Realism a respected genre in literary studies, while SF barely scrapes in and fantasy almost never does. Like the Oxford Guide says:

    “a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report. Designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels–levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis–are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagoric political realities of the 20th century.”

    Fantasy is often about taking our fears and masking them and their ugliness, where magical realism was about the very specific unreality of the divide between the reality of logic and civilization and the reality of the experience of people in the pale. (Sort of like the thing you told me about lethal injection the other day.)

    Which makes for a fucked up sort of status thing. Some of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s works could be put on the shelf with a lot of serious SF work — but no one wants them to be. On one hand the ivory tower designates them as to important to be in the genre ghetto (and thus too important to be enjoyed by the people who most need to read them), and on the other the fantasy-philes don’t want their escapism ruined by works that don’t hide reality.

    Or, in other words, in the land of academic white people, Magical Realism is above fantasy, and in the land of genre-reading middle class white people, it is below. Which neatly keeps anyone from having to read it and consider it as part of a similar phenomena given different expressions by different experiences.

    Like, just earlier today I found myself blinking when someone referred to Butler’s “Kindred” as Sci-Fi. To me, who encountered it in an academic context, it was obviously a book too important to be called science fiction. It was fucking literature!

    But of course, it is science fiction. Its a book about time travel.

    Genres are funny, when they aren’t fucked.

    • (Sorry for the delay – this got caught in the spam filter somehow)

      I think my friend Naamen summarizes a lot of the issues of media segregation through redefining genres, sort of a media “redistricting” to prevent too much POC legitimacy from forming in any currently existing genre… (Musically, it’s like the “division” between R&B and Pop music in this day and age- what’s the functional difference between Beyonce and Justin Timberlake?…)

  3. This. Everything you said here.

    I treat oppression and race issues in allegorical form in my own fiction, I should note — but I also include actual PoC, and give them similar issues even within created fantasy worlds, simply because I think too often fantasy essentializes humanity (e.g., depicting humans as being “postracial” and having a single culture or a single language and no issues amongst itself; I’m not sure that’s possible, for humans). I wish more SF/F would do this; it doesn’t have to be either allegory or realism. What’s wrong with both?

    • Right. And I don’t think having the fantastic dealing with the problematic is a bad thing- which is why stuff like Bayou or Pan’s Labyrinth works so well, but it really comes down to how the issues are treated- whether it’s glossed over or nuanced – used to escape from and distance from the issue, or a way to approach it.

      I just got referred to Sophie’s Race as a Metaphor for Race and Signs your alien race are a dodgy stereotype which are great posts on the topic.

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