Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Warning Touchy Subject -- Racism

Okay, so I'm writing an alternate history story that starts in Australia in the 1820s, then veers off into a different time line. The cast consists of educated Europeans, escaped English convicts, Irish convicts, aboriginals and a half-caste girl.

(I do have a map Dave. This whole book grew out of a map!).

Just as we are products of our times, these characters are products of their times. Some of them are down right nasty and, even when they are well educated and good hearted, they are unaware of the depths of their racism.

If I made them 'new age' and aware, this would be anachronistic. (I'm one of these people who like historical stories to be accurate). During the course of the story some of these characters are going to grow and change. But at the start things are pretty grim and accurate, according to my research. The topic of my Masters Thesis was Persecution and Discrimination in Fantasy Novels, which meant I did a lot of research into persecution and discrimination in our real world.

I've been reading Joe Abercrombie's books and I think readers are willing to read more realistic fantasy stories. His books are set in a fantasy world that is based on Europe, but distanced because the names have been changed and things have been tweaked.

I'm just wondering if readers can identify with characters (from our real 1820 world) who don't act politically correct by our modern standards. My hope is that the story and characters are interesting enough to keep the readers reading.

Have you read anything in the fantasy or SF genres recently that explored persecution and discrimination? Do you think readers are ready for more realistic fantasy books?


Dave Freer said...

Personally, I'll probably bless you five times a day. The literati/publishing establishment? I don't know how capable they are of seeing that PC actually hurts the very concepts they want to improve awareness of, and that to be credible does mean getting into the 'skin' and minds of the people of the time.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I was sitting here today, Dave, writing this book and the characters were saying and doing things that are accurate for the period.

And I was thinking, am I shooting myself in the foot?

Will the modern reader get what I am trying to do? Will a publisher even publish this book?

Kate said...

Oh gawd yeah... It's an issue, one I fought with all the way through Impaler.

Dracula's point of view in a way that's sympathetic for a modern reader and not infested by PC? That's a tightrope! (For what it's worth, Dave, you've handled that in the goat-gaggers very well indeed, at least in my humble opinion. Must order the book on Amazon.)

Rowena, weirdly I think what's most likely to bite you is things that are accurate to the period, but not terribly well known. The "everybody knows but it ain't so" stuff... from what I've seen you have to lay the foundations for those very carefully.

Fortunately - or perhaps not - "everybody knows" they were all horribly racist back in the early 1800s: you're more likely to be gigged on your aboriginal characters not being "noble savage" enough! (If you're not bitten for writing any when "everybody knows" only aboriginals can do that).

Good luck - it sounds like an interesting book.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I applaud you for wanting to make your story historically accurate in terms of characterization. Too often author or editors or both seem to want to update the characters -- they way they act, speak and think -- to what they see as today's standards. I don't want to read historical fiction set in Tudor England with young Elizabeth Tudor sounding like a valley girl -- and yes, it does happen. [shudder]

As for having read any science fiction or fantasy that explored persecution and discrimination, Sarah's Magical British Empire series had that as a backdrop. There was no way she could write it without it coming in. What's strange is that she didn't get hit for showing the attitudes that permeated Victorian England. No one, to my knowledge, came out crying that what she wrote wasn't politically correct. In fact, the reviewers noted that her characters dealt with situations with historical accuracy.

Well, all but one. Who somehow got the idea that everything she wrote was politically correct, aimed at condemning Victorian expansionism and the like. Long story short, what this shows is that, yes, on the whole readers are ready and willing to read science fiction and fantasy books that are realistic with regard to actions and attitudes of the time in which the book is set. Thankfully.

Anonymous said...

Sf/f readers are generally an intelligent community and will notice when a work is historically and emotionally portrayed in a "real" way. They know they can hardly knock you for attitudes way back when.

And I've always particularly been put off by authors making the victims of discrimination also perfect people. And yes, Kate, the "noble savage" attitude also comes to mind with the American Indians.

I have addressed discrimination in my shorts, and I personally find that discrimination is a wonderful writing tool to help establish an "underdog" portrayal. I am extremely careful not to make the victims perfect people, but people who are to some level emotionally scarred from the experience. And some of their imperfections have nothing to do with the discrimination.

I realize that it's much easier to do with a short story than a book simply due to length, but I hope that I've learned at least something for when I advance to books. I probably need to start looking especially at this issue when reading in order to see how other authors handle it. It is an issue that pervades all areas of life and will never go away.

Linda Davis

Anonymous said...

David Drake is another author who does an excellent job of this. His characters, whether in his SF or Fantasy, are definitely products of their times, with all the world-views, prejudices, and other customs that go with it, yet he makes them real enough for the reader to identify with and actually care what happens to them. Plus, as he often mentions in his introductions, Mr. Drake draws heavily on historical settings and events to flesh out his stories. His characters are not modern day, cosmopolitan, PC-types dressed up in period costume, which, IMHO, is what makes David Drake's writing so bloody good.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, tahnks,

I'll have to look up Sarah's book, Magical British Empire.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Good point. I need to lay the ground work.

Never underestimate the ignorance of the average person!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


RE: the noble savage thing.

This was a problem for me with the move Gran Torino. The CLint Eastwood character was racist and bad tempered, fair enough.

But his neighbours were so understanding and tolerant of him. I thought it was unrealistic. They would have been irritated by his remarks and pulled back.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I'll have to look up David Drake's work. Can you recommend a particular book?

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, it's actually three books: Heart of Light, Soul of Fire and Heart and Soul.

Chris McMahon said...

Just about every heroic fantasy book has someone who is being descriminated against. The Rigante series by David Gemmell started with some neo-Romans beating the snot out of the neo-Celts in Gaul, then skipped forward to the point where the key tribe - the Rigante (which beat a neo-Roman army) is now being oppressed by the equivalent of the English.

As for what is realistic? What do you mean by that? I liked Joe Abercrombie's books. They were gritty, but making things deliberately dark doesn't make them realistic. I thought he had gone too far the other direction with his characters, providing negative resolutions where nobody wins and no one is saved. Is that 'real'?

Stephen Simmons said...


Recommend a particular Drake novel? That's like asking which snowklake in the blizzard is best ... If you like epic fantasy, his "Lord of the Isles" series is brilliant. If you like hard-science military science fiction with LOTS of stuff that blows up, nobody does it better than his "Hammer's Slammers" books. (Start pretty much anywhere with those, order isn't that critical.) He does have one in particular that might interest you, though, if you can find it: "Ranks of Bronze". It's an older book, so it may be harder to track down. Aliens kidnap a Roman legion, and use them as shock troops for invading low-tech worlds without violating their inter-stellar equivalent of the "Prime Directive". Excellent read.

Anonymous said...

What Stephen said -- especially about choosing the best snowflake in the blizzard :-)

Ranks of Bronze is still available as an e-book through webscriptions.net. I also highly recommend Balefires, which is a collection of his fantasy and horror short fiction (also available through Webscriptions, as well as in paperback). Many of the characters within are from different historical periods, and they are definitely "men of their time." The story in there that really leaped out at me was "Than Curse the Darkness," a Cthulhu Mythos story set in the Congo Free State that delves into why humans would serve beings so inimical to their very existence, and the characters within very much embody the racism and prejudices of the time and place.

See, that's the thing about David Drake; he doesn't point a finger at something and say "Oh my God, look at how horrible that is!" He simply shows the horror of the situation as it is and lets you figure it out for yourself. And that really drives the point home far better than any politically correct preaching.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I liked Joe Abercrombie's characters because they weren't heroic.

Although, I do admit all the negative outcomes were a bit hard going.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I like the premise of 'Hammer's Slammers'. Nicely ironic.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


David Drake sounds better and better!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rowena,

I never saw Gran Torino, but I'll probably catch it on cable one day.

Racism is an ugly subject, but one that is a very real part of life, and all storytellers must deal with it at some point in their careers. Most of us know how life really is, so there's no point in glossing anything over.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

So true, Linda.

Anonymous said...

Rowena, David Drake is an essential part of a well-balanced and nutritious SF diet ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I highly recommend Lord of the Isles, not just for the social portions of it but -- something I rarely get a fix of -- for some truly good word use.