I am a bit tired of science-fictional allegories for racism

coverJust finished reading Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. I enjoyed reading this book alot. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I like to read: a somewhat-fey, somewhat-dissatisfied woman pursues an aimless life as an artist while being in love with an unattainable object. It’s particularly fun because the world exists in this weirdly fallen state. Apparently, a few decades before the protagonist was born, there was this series of Disasters that basically wrecked everyone’s shit. And humanity is only just now starting to rebuild. While the world is not actively inimical to human life, it is certainly a poorer and harder world than the one that we live in now.

In sum: good book, go read it (I enjoyed it much more than I enjoyed Reamde, for instance)

But I will use the example of this book to discuss something I don’t like. The unattainable love object in this book is a robot. The woman is in love with it, but she can’t be with it because in this world there’s been a backlash against AIs because they’re soulless and awful. And AIs have no rights, but they and their human allies are actively campaigning for AIs to be recognized as people.

I see this so often in science fiction (and fantasy novels). Oh no, vampires are persecuted, aliens are persecuted, and it’s bad. Because persecution is bad.

It’s not that I’m in favor of persecution, it’s just that this kind of story seems incredibly easy to me. What is being said here that adds to our understanding of persecution and hatred? In a way, stories like this are almost pernicious, because they make persecution seem so irrational and so crazy. Like, there is literally nothing wrong with the robots in this book. They’re not that numerous or that scary. And the primary robot is exactly like a human being; it doesn’t seem at all strange that the protagonist would fall in love with it.

This is just bad design. There are a zillion ways to create a more interesting robo-persecution story. Like, what if robots literally outnumbered human beings a million to one? At that point, the argument against granting them personhood becomes a little more complex. Basically, the moment they became voters, the robots would control everything and biological humans would be a massive minority. Which is okay…if the robots are actually in some way equivalent to human beings? But what if they’re really not? What if there are differences between them that mean a world ruled by robots would be an awful place for humans.

But, honestly, even the most interesting SFnal allegory-for-persecution story seems a little bit suspect to me. It seems too safe. It’s like the story is saying: “Real life sexism and homophobia and racism are so inarguably awful (and pretty much behind us) that writing a novel about them is pointless, so I am going to construct this bizarre situation that will allow me to get some of the spice and sizzle that comes when protagonists heroically overcome persecution.”

Like, if overcoming real-life racism and sexism and homophobia are really things that can’t anymore sustain a story (and that might be the case, because so many of those stories have already been written*) then why not find a way to revitalize them? Write a racist or sexist or homophobic protagonist. Examine the hatred. Understand it on its own terms.

Or turn it into a thread in an ongoing narrative.

Find something new to add to the conversation, instead of just wandering off a few meters and then starting up the exact same conversation and hoping that no one in this corner of the world has heard it yet.**

 

*No one in the world wants to read yet another coming-out story, for instance.

**Note, this is not real conversational advice. Sometimes, at a real party, the solution is to go a few meters away and start talking about the exact same thing, but with different people.

3 thoughts on “I am a bit tired of science-fictional allegories for racism

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That’s a fascinating post. My intuition is actually exactly the opposite of Aliette’s. To me, the fact that vampires drink blood makes the persecution allegory _more_ interesting than if they didn’t. In real life, foreigners _are_ pretty harmless and inoffensive, so it’s hard to dramatize persecution–it just comes off as being unquestionably evil. Whereas when you, in a fantasy novel, literally give the vampires some of these awful traits (I think the comparison to blood libel was excellent), then you’re getting into the psychology of the world’s real-life persecutors. To them, foreigners are not harmless. To them, foreigners are dangerous.

      In doing so, I think you create a story with more stakes. Suddenly, there’s something you can debate: why _shouldn’t_ the vampires be exterminated?

      On the other hand, oftentimes the answer is…errr….they’re amoral killing machines that can’t be stopped by human cops….soo…..they probably _should_ be exterminated (or at least persecuted). In which case you run into the whole downside of the analogy…

      In general, even though I don’t have that specific problem with the vampire persecution-allegory, I’m still against it because, in the end, those books mostly just set up straw-men and then knock them down.

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