Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The aliens... They're just so... alien

J.K. Rowling recently reignited the Potterite shipping-wars by saying that she should never have coupled Ron with Hermione.

Among the things she apparently doesn't regret putting into the world's most widely-read/seen Fantasy franchise of recent decades are the following:

  • Gold-obsessed Goblin bankers with big noses and a nigh-communistic inability to comprehend or respect 'human' notions of private property.
  • A race of willing slaves with brown skin, huge rolling eyes and 'pickaninny' speech patterns.
  • Giants who are born savage and thick, and who live in 'primitive' tribes.

Lest it be thought that I'm singling Rowling out for special snark, let me broaden this out immediately.  The SF/Fantasy genre, as a whole, contains a discourse of race that represents a peculiarly insidious reflection of racial ideology.  Race pervades these genres as a category.  Tolkien's Middle Earth is full of different 'races'.  The world of Star Trek is full of different 'races'.  The world of Doctor Who is full of different 'races'.  Just think how often we are assailed with 'races' in Fantasy that can be told apart by both physical characteristics (the blonde hair of the Thals, the crinkly noses of the Bajorans, etc.) and apparently inborn social characteristics.  The Doctor pronounces the Jaggaroth "a vicious, callous, warlike race" (my emphasis).  A social trait (the tendency to make war) is thus ascribed a racial origin.  And the ones I've mentioned are just some of the best known and most mainstream. 

Let's look at another extreme example, which shows a particular kind of Fantasy worry about race:

There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today—I don’t know how to explain it, but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ’em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of their necks are all shrivelled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst—fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate ’em—they used to have lots of horse trouble before autos came in.

H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow over Innsmouth, written in 1931.

This is particularly interesting because the story is about 'race-mixing', expressing Lovecraft's bigoted horror of 'miscegenation'.  But he wasn't writing in a vacuum.  He was a product of the late-19th and early-20th centuries...  and, indeed, being a man stolidly stuck to the past, he was also a distillation of much of the American 19th century.

The American 19th century was a period of intense construction of race and 'races' as a social category (which is what 'race' is with reference to human ethnicity; as a biological idea it's essentially meaningless).  To quote Richard Seymour:

Historically, the act of oppression that produced the category of race preceded the systematic pseudo-scientific classification of human variation along racial lines. This was true, according to Theodore Allen, in Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy, and it was true in colonial America. What happened first was that a group would be singled out on the basis of some characteristic or other, and excluded from the normal citizenship rights enjoyed by the rest of society no matter how poor. Then, that group would be racialised – a process known as ‘race-making’. As David Roediger points out, this was a very efficient way of stratifying labour markets – colour-coding them, dividing them, making them politically more manageable, and increasing the rate at which it is possible to exploit them. In the history of US industrial relations, ‘race management’ is thus a prominent strategy.

And once this process begins, it doesn’t simply stop and ossify. It transforms in response to new political developments. So, new immigrant groups to America such as European Jews, Italians, the Irish, Poles, Hungarians, etc., would always be initially racialised. But as they consolidated their position in civil society, improved their bargaining power as labourers, and achieved political representation, they became ‘white’.

Look at this positively Lovecraftian bit of racial pseudo-science:

The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eyes; the thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair; and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance.

U.S. Army Surgeon Robert Bartholow, 1858.  

Could almost be a quote from Innsmouth.  But Bartholow was talking about the Mormons.  The idea that the Mormons represented, or were giving rise to, a 'new race' arose from the social practice of 'race-making' and was justified with reference to the ostensibly degenerate breeding practices involved with polygamy.  Note how Mormons are no longer considered a racial category.  Instead of remaining isolationist, the Mormon Church integrated itself into American capitalism.

This is how such acceptance tends to be achieved in SF/Fantasy too.  The Doctor accepts the Thals as people because they prove to share 'our' moral concerns.  The return of the king entails the alliance, by marriage, of humans and elves... though, of course, such inherently evil races as the goblins and orcs remain outside this integration.  In Rowling's last Potter novel, her lumpen Potterdammerung, the house elves are integrated into the fight against Voldemort, with Kreacher becoming acceptable when he leads the other house elves against Voldemort, crying loyalty to his former master.

Notice, also, that Rowling links race-mixing to social integration.  On the surface, this is the exact reverse of any fear about 'mixed blood'.  Hagrid is the product of a union between human and giant that would've horrified Lovecraft (and probably have given Martin Freeman an excuse to make another rape joke).  On the other hand, Hagrid's acceptance as a 'human' (despite his 'mixed-ancestry') is both nowhere near as important within the novels as the acceptance of muggleborns or half-blood humans, and is also linked to his utter passivity and subservience... his integration into the social order.


  1. One thing I really liked in Aliens of London / World War III was that the Slitheen were presented, not as a race, but as a family. (Presumably any family members who want out of the interstellar crime racket end up doing a Michael Corleone.) Unfortunately, this distinction seems to have been elided ever since. Perhaps "Raxacoricofallapatorian" is too long to fit on the action figure box?

  2. Yeah, popular science fiction stories, particularly, seem especially prone to racist depictions of the 'other'. Star Trek and Doctor Who seem to be two of the worst offenders - the Daleks are always genocidal, the Vulcans are always calm and logical, etc etc... and I think it's because each 'race' or species is meant to be an allegory for a real world concern. The Daleks (and the Cardassians) 'represent' Nazism, the Klingons were originally intended as a representation of the Soviet threat, and so on. Star Trek has tried, since the Next Generation at least, to address this problem, with varying degrees of success. Depictions of the Klingons and Romulans became far more nuanced, with plenty of noble and heroic members shown from each society, while also unfortunately setting up new racial generalizations, the Betazoids are all gentle (feminine) empaths, the Ferengi are all greedy, cowardly capitalists, and so on. They then had to deconstruct these stereotypes too, which they mostly did in Deep Space Nine. I suspect it's more to do with the format of the show - the Star Trek series that are set on starships frequently fall into the Planet of the Hats pattern, whereas DS9, in being largely limited to one setting, has the time to really engage with its material and characters and thus largely avoids falling into the trap of making racial generalizations. Sure, different *species* are depicted, but a real effort is made to present any characteristics of each group as cultural, rather than inherent.

    Doctor Who, having more in common with the starship-based Trek series than with DS9, falls into the race trap all the time, one of the foundational structures of the show is the alien incursion narrative - the threat that comes from *the other* and has to be dealt with. And I think there is an awareness in the production team since 2005 of the problematic racial overtones in that structure - as Iain said, the Slitheen are shown to be a family, which is a start, and I'd add that RTD tried to show the cat people as a diverse group too. More recently, Moffat has tried to give us at least one sympathetic Dalek, Sontaran, Silurian and Cyberman (though its debatable whether he succeeded in doing that). But these concessions can't stop the inertia of the show, which is by now a pop-culture juggernaut. The Daleks have always been fascists, that's the way we as a culture like them, and we scream our protests (in all-capslock) when anything is done to mess with that. But maybe they're a special case - I can't imagine anyone kicking up that much of a fuss if the Sontarans suddenly gave up their war-like ways.

    In stark contrast, Star Wars is probably the least racially problematic of the big popular sci-fi franchises - since its inception it's shown a staggering diversity of alien and human characters from a vast multitude of species. There are Ithorian merchants, smugglers, and Jedi. There are both heroic and sleazy Twi'leks. Good and bad Zabraks. True, the struggle against the Empire seems to be largely a human affair, but it's worth noting that the Rebel Alliance includes in its ranks a number of alien faces while the Empire is presented as human, and uniform. Star Wars has its own problems, such as the glorification of militaristic conflict and a deeply ingrained sexism, but race doesn't appear to be among them.

    1. Well, at least until you get to the prequels, where racial stereotypes abound (just within TPM you have crafty oriental trade officials, hook-nosed merchants, and pidgin-speaking comic relief characters that willingly place themselves in 'life debts'). Though I'm not sure I could even look at something like the Tusken Raiders in the original film and come away with a positive reading.

  3. "He was a product of the late-19th and early-20th centuries..."

    And earlier, given the books in grandpa's library.