Monday 15 July 2013

The Problem with Humans

The plight of the misunderstood orc

Taking a brief time out from my work, I've been having a gander at several things. One was G. Willow Wilson's post on Tor, "The Orc Renaissance: Race, Tolerance and Post-9/11 Western Fantasy." It's a deeply problematic essay about a deeply problematic issue, and it leads to one of my biggest issues when it comes to fantasy fiction these days - as well as a realisation I came to in my own attempts at dabbling in the genre.

I'm not sure why G. Willow Wilson included The Lord of the Rings in this article. She isn't, from what I can tell, a High Fantasy/Sword and Sorcery author (her graphic novels Cairo and Air are set in modern times) and I can't find much criticism by her on the genre. I also wonder if she's read The Lord of the Rings (or at least remembered it in any detail) given that she writes things like this:

In the director’s cut of The Two Towers, there is a short but astonishing scene which does not occur in the original novel: Faramir stands over the body of a slain Harad mercenary and gives what amounts to a eulogy, wondering aloud what forces caused the man to leave his native land and fight in a war on the other side of the world, and whether he would not rather be safe at home. It is a poignant pause that would have had little meaning before 9/11, the shockwaves of which still reverberate through the global conversation about race, religion and armed conflict. 

This is the scene she refers to, the relevant part three minutes in:

Hmm. Let me just crack open my copy of The Lord of the Rings...

Sam, eager to see more, went now and joined the guards. He scrambled a little way up into one of the larger of the bay-trees. For a moment he caught a glimpse of swarthy men in red running down the slope some way off with green-clad warriors leaping after them, hewing them down as they fled. Arrows were thick in the air. Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen scales was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.

It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace - all in a flash of fought which was quickly driven from his mind. For just as Mablung stepped towards the fallen body, there was a new noise. Great crying and shouting. Amidst it Sam heard a shrill bellowing or trumpeting...

 - The Lord of the Rings, Book IV, Chapter IV, "Of Herbs & Stewed Rabbit," p930-931

That said, Wilson's piece is problematic precisely because it has not only this sort of broad misunderstanding* but because it also has a lot of very valid and important points:

Today, however, globalization through commerce and technology has complicated our view of the world. The Other in the east is no longer so strange: we befriend them on Facebook and watch their revolutions unfold on Twitter. Most of us have come to understand that world politics are rarely as simple or as satisfying as good versus evil. We know now that purchasing a cheap shirt from a Walmart in Topeka has a profound impact on factory workers in Bangladesh; the information economy has made the bleed between East and West unavoidably apparent. The era of tidy political compartmentalization is over, and it shows not only in the way we interact, but in the fantasies we build for ourselves. The orc—the Other—is slowly but surely changing.

Leaving aside the equation of orc to east,** it links to a hot topic in modern fantasy discourse. Much of 20th and 21st Century fantasy, like much of 20th-21st century media in general, has been dominated from the worldview of young men of Northern European ethnic heritage who lived in times and places where contact with people who weren't young men of North European heritage was either difficult, socially complicated if not borderline illegal in some situations, or outright impossible. Stories about Africa and Africans are likely to be informed by colonial narratives and tribal stereotypes; tales of Arabia and Arabians clouded in the scent of Arabesque and Turquerie; adventures of Cathay and Chinese filtered through an Orientalist lens, and so forth; women of any country, even the author's own, are almost foreigners in themselves.

Nowadays, things are very different. Years of suffrage campaigns, civil rights movements, immigration, population expansion, and the dissemination of information afforded by technology have allowed communities and individuals from all across the world to be each other's neighbours. It's easy for people to be dehumanised when the only people not of "your tribe" you see are faraway, or of such a negligible percentage of your world that they're beneath notice. And with that greater discourse, more and more authors from across the ethnic map have shared their stories to an increasingly receptive audience.

I came across this wonderful quote by Junot Diaz recently which, I think, explains things brilliantly:

"You guys know about vampires?" Diaz asked.  "You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror.  And what I've always thought isn't that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn't see myself reflected at all. I was like, "Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don't exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it."

That is amazing.

And yet, through all this, I feel like part of the problem. I am, after all, a young Scottish male of predominantly Gaelic heritage, and Celtic mythology is at least as commonly mined in fantastic fiction as Nordic and Greek are. Any story I could tell that draws from my own heritage has been told many times by many authors in many works, and many people will have read them. They'd be instantly familiar.  As such, I feel that writing about these stories seems rather old hat.

On the other hand, I have a great interest in mythologies and histories from all across the world. In particular, my aunt told me and my sister many stories of her homeland, Kenya: tales of the Swahili, the Masaai, the Kikuyu, and more are as familiar to me as any tale from the Brothers Grimm or Scheherazade. No doubt this is the reason the work of Charles R. Saunders is so appealing to me. Yet though I have great appreciation for the stories, which have the universal appeal of all folk tales, and though they make up a part of my cultural heritage, I was not brought up in the lands those stories were created. I come from the same hills as Scota, Scathach, Nessie and the Selkies. I fear that any stories I tell about Africa (or China, America, or any other place) would ring false for that reason.

I will give the film this much: everything is better with the inclusion of gigantic prehistoric beasties.

I recently watched Beasts of the Southern Wild. As with a lot of films, I was torn. It's a really good film in many ways, and yet it's also a film that rather offended me on some strange level. It's captivating. It's beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, accompanied by excellent music. Little things are shot with grace and care: a swarm of caterpillars on a leaf, a writhing mass of crabs, the dripping of rain into a puddle. The main character is absolutely enthralling, and it's beautifully acted. I was particularly amazed and impressed at the performance of the father, who had never acted before this film, which you absolutely could not tell from his powerful, passionate work. At the same time, it's infuriating.  It perpetuates an odious and poisonous cultural narrative about the poor concocted by well-off urbanites (after watching the film I've read that the director was brought up by two academics in New York. Of course he was.). It wallows in its own ignorance and refusal to acknowledge change or anything that challenges its simplistic pseudo-folksy "poetry," and romanticises poverty to an offensive degree while managing to make the sort of people who save lives into vague antagonists, which utterly astounded me. It's patronising, sentimental, pretentious, vacuous, pernicious, and above all, false. Gorgeous imagery, great music and good acting are great and all, but I cannot get behind a film built on such pernicious foundation.

It's for similar reasons I couldn't stand The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time: it's a story about someone with Asperger's Syndrome written by someone who not only doesn't have Asperger's Syndrome, is not close to anyone with Asperger's syndrome, and actually made a point of not doing any research about Asperger's Syndrome. Inevitably, the book falls prey to stereotyping and misconceptions, all while people who quite understandably may not know the first thing about the subject may feel they can vicariously experience it. The last thing I'd want to do in my art is engage in such a brazen extent of phoniness.

Thus the dilemma. I love the stories of my homeland, and would love to share them with my own little twists - but it's been done so much, so often, and frequently so poorly, that it seems pointless.  I love the stories of other lands and peoples, and would love to share them with my own little twists - but telling the stories of peoples and places whose entire worldviews I can never fully understand could be unbearably patronising, especially when there are people of that background who could and should tell those stories themselves. It's a curious thing, and I don't know if it's universal. But seeing how sensitive the issue is nowadays, I'd almost like to be able to sidestep the issue altogether, to make stories about people without alienating anyone on such an arbitrary basis as their own background.

This leads me onto my next point...

The Problem with Humans

Journey to the Centre of Al's Subconscious

You'd think, given my influences and the approach of these fantastic modern pulpsters, Sword & Dinosaur might resemble some great melange of dinosaurs, mighty warriors, intrepid explorers, grand landscapes and lost worlds. You'd be right. And yet...

So many authors have done the idea of Dinosaurs and Humans together, it's fiendishly difficult to think of a new spin. Ever since Lidenbrock discovered the inner sea at the Centre of the Earth, we've had a plethora of stories where man, modern and ancient, encountered the primal might of the archosaurs. De Mille followed Verne's subterranean theme with his Kosekin, as did Burroughs with Pellucidar, and Obruchev with Plutonia. Conan Doyle famously utilized the impassible plateau with Maple White Land, with Burroughs and Merritt adopting a lost valley for Pal-ul-dun and Yu-Atlanchi. Sea proved an effective barrier, with continents and islands as the setting for Hyne's Lost Continent, Gurney's Dinotopia, and a personal favourite, Burrough's Caspak. There was a curiously popular subgenre which used polar regions as the borderlands betwixt modern and ancient realms, with Marvel Comics' Savage Land its most recognisable representative. Beyond the earthly are a surprising number of stories with dinosaurs inhabiting other worlds or dimensions. And we mustn't forget James Gurney's Dinotopia. Beyond books, there were of course the many adaptations of the above, as well as cinematic creations: Kong's Skull Island, the strange fantasy realities populated by cave people and dinosaurs, and so forth.

But there was always something lacking in them, and for the longest time I couldn't understand what it was. After all, dinosaurs! Adventure! Science! All I thought I wanted, yet there was something always bothering me. It wasn't until I saw Jurassic Park that I finally realised the problem: it was the humans. More often than not, whenever the humans dominate the story in a work, I found myself twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the dinosaurs to come back. It wasn't so bad with the Harryhausen films, since cave people are inherently more interesting to me than most average modern-day folk; likewise, humans from the 19th or turn of the 20th centuries have the benefit of time to add some distinction.  But as the native time period of the human approaches the present, I find myself more and more anxious for the story to get to the bloody dinosaurs. 

This was a particular problem in Peter Jackson's King Kong, where it took the film over an hour to get the blasted island, just so we could get acquainted with a cast of lunchables. And even though the human characters in Jurassic Park were much more endearing and compelling than the usual cast of this sort of film, I still got impatient, because I wanted to see the dinosaurs. Yet many would argue that the reason Jurassic Park is so successful is precisely because of those humans - after all, a good action-adventure relies on the audience's investment in what happens to the characters - so it seems that I'm the weird one who goes to see a dinosaur movie because of the dinosaurs.

So the thing that bothers me about dinosaur movies, it transpires, is the humans. Inevitable, I think: most audiences are human, after all, and producers have it in their heads that audiences couldn't possibly identify with non-humans. And so we have situations like Transformers, where the eon-spanning war between already suspiciously humanoid robots has obnoxious human children inserted as unimaginative and ultimately pointless audience proxies. Because children couldn't possibly have any interest in a show about giant fighting robots unless there's another child in the show, right? The less said about that film ostensibly based on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show which spent more screentime on human characters introduced for the film, the better.

You'd think that films based entirely around dinosaurs would be the solution, then? The Land Before Time: nary a hominid to be seen, dinosaurs and archosaurs everywhere. Of course, the problem with that is that these are anthropomorphic dinosaurs, with distinctly human personalities, minds and even a few physical aspects. Like The Incredible Journey or An American Tail, it's a thoroughly human story in the shape of animals, the tale of a group of children lost in the wilderness seeking their families. Who happen to be in the shape of dinosaurs. Yet when one considers that, well, most writers tend to be human themselves***, is it really possible to write a story about a non-human intelligence?

With many apologies to Les Edwards, whose illustration I edited (from the excellent Brighter Suns SF art site)

Let's talk about Olaf Stapledon a moment. I think he is one of the most important and inspirational science-fiction writers I've ever read: his background in history and philosophy informed his work, resulting in the paradigm-shifting First and Last Men and Star Maker, the two most cosmic science-fiction works I've yet encountered. The first is nothing less than a future-history of humanity, through its development, evolution, and eventual disappearance; the second a future-history of the universe itself. The latter is particularly interesting to me, as it discusses such wild concepts as sentient stars, communal planet-minds, radio-lifeforms, dimensional language... all in singular chapters. It goes places only the most daring science-fiction dares to venture, with some of the most truly alien species, cultures and civilizations a paltry human mind could conceive. I really think any aspiring science-fiction author and every science-fiction fan must make the attempt to read these books, because they show us just what science-fiction could be: beyond space battles and alien invasions, past mad science and robotics run amok, into stretching the boundaries of what life and sentience is.

The problem with First and Last Men and Star Maker is they're tremendously dry. They're fictional histories like The Silmarillion, especially the Ainulindal√ę and Valaquenta. There is no true protagonist beyond the narrator, no plot beyond the sequence in which the narrator recounts events. As such, it's difficult to call these books stories, bereft of traditional narrative as they are. While I hesitate to call any book unfilmable given the sheer number of adaptations that have been made of difficult material, these two books would be a particular challenge for even the most ambitious filmmaker.**** But there is a book he wrote which is different, an incredibly emotional, human story which deals with the alien in a fascinating manner....

There are other books and stories which take non-humans and put them in a prominent role, without taking the "simple" route of putting a human mind into an animal body: London's Call of the Wild and White Fang, Adams' Watership Down, Orwell's Animal Farm, and Baxter's Silverhair are all excellent examples I can recommend. In addition, there are stories about creatures akin to animals, but which aren't explicitly relateable to modern beasts, and manage to convey a distinctly non-human voice: Sean T. M. Steinnon's "Black Water" features a heroic crab, Clark Ashton Smith's "The Double Shadow" has a Serpent-Man sorcerer, and Tiptree's "Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death" managed to pre-emptively steal my idea with its fascinating interpretation of alien-spider relations. Somewhere in-between are stories about animals which have greater intelligence through outside forces, as seen in O'Brien's Miss Frisby and the Rats of N.I.M.H. and Morrison's We3.

You must read this book. All science-fiction fans must read it. It's essential.

The most fascinating of these sorts of tales is Stapledon's Sirius, A Fantasy of Love and Discord. This story is, in short, utterly incredible. It is told through an epistolary narrative of sorts, written by an observer, but the strength of characterisation is so potent and strong that you almost forget. A mere synopsis doesn't do it justice: Thomas Trelone creates a super-intelligent dog called Sirius, and this is the story of his life. And what a rich life it is, as every element you'd expect to come up in a story about a super-intelligent dog is discussed. Everything. And every single one of those things crafts and moulds his personality and life experiences - and the reader starts to wonder about how every seemingly innocuous thing you take for granted would change who you are.

Sirius, being a dog, cannot write like his human "sister" Plaxy. Being "colour-blind" compared to humans, he cannot appreciate the beauty of a sunset, yet his supreme sense of smell means he's bewildered that humans cannot really relish a glorious scent. Being a different species, he experiences all manner of prejudice and misunderstandings. He is constantly torn between his nature as a dog ("Wolf Sirius") and his higher aspirations to sentience, assailed by the tragedies of World War 2, and the complicated and frustrating love he shares with Plaxy. And most of all, the fact that he is unique and alone in the world, of two worlds and none, make this a novel full of existential questions and very few answers.

This element is what distinguishes Sirius from Last and First Men and Star Maker: it takes such grand ideas, and immediately reconciles them with the very modest story of a family - certainly not a normal family, but a relatable one for all that - and it has a clear narrative, plot, and character arcs. It makes the cosmic small enough for human minds such us ours to get a handle on.

And you'll cry, I practically guarantee it.

The Measure of a Non-Human

Imagine the sounds, the songs, the music beyond the range of human perception...

Our entire experiences are based on how we experience the world. The basic human body has eyes, ears, mouths, noses, skin, and a brain. They are, barring accidents of birth or otherwise, much the same across the world save variations of colour and texture. A healthy, average human in one part of the world will not be distinctly different, biologically speaking, from a healthy, average human in another part, or another time. As such, it is differences in society which will offer the greatest diversity, rather than the form.

Imagine animals with the intelligence of humans could communicate as lucidly as people using the same language. What stories would elephants tell us? Elephants, like humans, communicate using senses: visual, aural, tactile. Yet their methods, and the priority of those methods, differ substantially from humans. With humans, most communication these days comes in language, as gestures and other communication methods vary significantly by region, and language can be recorded and remembered in a number of ways. Since human eyesight is relatively complex, much communication is visual, with hearing secondary; communication through smell, touch and taste are far less complex. Elephants have far more emphasis on touch, and even one thing humans lack entirely: in a method called seismic communication, they emit low rumbles which travel through the earth, and are picked up by other elephants miles away.

Think about that. How differently would language be if it was based not on sight, but on another sense? In Sirius, it was smell. Think how many different synonyms there are for things that look good, and how few there are for things that smell good - indeed, think of the difference between the number of visual synonyms and olfactory ones altogether. If dogs could write sonnets, would they write with scented metaphors, extolling a wondrous aroma, a striking redolence, a rich fragrance? With elephants largely using touch, would their vocabulary be composed of tactile similes? How many more words would they have dedicated to particular kinds of touch? What about animals which communicate with taste, like crabs? What of the senses we cannot even begin to match - echolocation, electroreception, magnetoreception?

It isn't unusual even among humans. Sanskrit has an embarrassment of words for what in English is called love. As far as I'm aware, the inventors of Sanskrit aren't functionally much different on a genetic basis from the people who invented English. Yet if we can have such vast differences between the languages of Homo sapiens, one must wonder at the difference between species, should we find a method of translation.

This is why my other Great Work (which I'm still keeping under wraps for the moment, what with the Encyclopaedia, Kalina, Bannockburn and others still closer) will deal not only with my dissatisfaction with the humans & dinosaurs narrative, but will also, I hope, deal with my concerns about cultural voices. After all, even the cavepeople in When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth were cast with modern humans, and there's simply no getting away from the problems therein.

So why make them human at all?

To be continued...

*Two more howlers:

"It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South" - presumably Wilson wants us to forget that Angband, the source of All Evil in Middle-earth, as well as Angmar, domain of the Witch-King, were all located in the North, while Isengard is situated to the west of Rohan;

"Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”)" - which makes not a lick of sense whatsoever if you look at a map of Middle-earth, since that would make everything east/south of the Isen like Gondor and Rohan, or north/west like Rivendell and the Shire, "evil." I can only assume Wilson is getting the Isen mixed up with the Anduin, but even then you'd be putting Dale, Erebor and the Elves of Mirkwood on the "evil side."

"It’s very telling that today’s monster du jour is not the orc, but the zombie: a bewildering, mindless reflection of an ordinary human being." This is a very canny observation, since orcs are arguably closer to zombies than they are to easterners: both Once Were People Like You, both monstrous and corrupted in visage, both consume the flesh of men, both are overwhelmingly numerous...

**When you get right down to it, the orcs are explicitly a genetically formed slave race derived (or, more properly, corrupted) from natural beings which were enthralled to the powers of darkness by Melkor - much like the dragons, wargs, Mirkwood spiders, and similar evil creatures - and not comparable to any real ethnoi in the way that, say, the Rohirrim are the Anglo-Saxons, or the Haradrim can be compared to the Arabs. Plus, remember, that Mordor was not the original home of evil in Middle-earth.

***I have my doubts about Asimov, surely no human could achieve such an astounding volume of output...

****My ideal Star Maker adaptation would be a cross between Koyaanisquatsi and the documentary Space: an experience rather than a proper narrative, with a series of vignettes on each of the worlds. I seriously doubt this would happen, of course: such a prohibitively expensive film would either necessitate extreme changes, or it no-one would see it.


  1. Hero of the Federation15 July 2013 at 21:18

    It's afraid!

  2. Totally with you on the dinosaur vs. human issue. Whenever the humans started yakking during Monster Week (all things Godzilla and friends) when I was a kid it meant time to draw or play with my army men. I still remember sitting up tall in my seat when the dinosaurs first appeared on screen in Jurassic Park and then slumped back down when the camera turned away.

  3. Yeah, I think the fundamental problem with that essay is the fundamental conviction that Everyone Everywhere Is Really Writing About The Bees In My Bonnet.

    1. Could be, Mary: that's certainly a common problem.

  4. It's for similar reasons I couldn't stand The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time: it's a story about someone with Asperger's Syndrome written by someone who not only doesn't have Asperger's Syndrome, is not close to anyone with Asperger's syndrome, and actually made a point of not doing any research about Asperger's Syndrome.

    I believe Mark Haddon has stated at various points that the main character does not have Asperger's. He is only contradicted by all the promotional material for his book and the blurb on the back cover.

    His blithe response to criticism reminds me very much of Boyne and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, another book about a complex subject done without research and excused because it's a "child's understanding" of the events at hand. Come now. it really possible to write a story about a non-human intelligence?

    Stanislaw Lem tackles this problem in Solaris, which does indeed feature one of the strangest non-human intelligences in sf.

    1. He did indeed, Michal - but then, he didn't seem to do much about said promotional material, which has led people to think otherwise. Perhaps I'm being distracted by his response, which immediately put me in mind of Boyne and your epic takedown.

      Solaris is a FANTASTIC example, but then again, this is Lem we're talking about.

  5. I feel the same about the human proxies used in most fiction that focuses on non-human characters. Their soul reason for being is to have the audience relate better the fiction, but they only get in the way of the story. Unless one could use them is an appropriate way, writers should avoid trope outright!

    Yeah, the Transformers maybe giant robots, but they are still human enough to convey complex human emotions, and when one dies - like Optimus Prime in the old movie, or Dinobot in Beast Wars - the viewers are no less sadden... Or outright teary-eyed, for the ones we became so invested it! Hell, Beast Wars had the best drama and storytelling of all the versions of Transformers, all while lacking any (fully evolved) humans!

    Nice article, and thank for the book recommendations. I cannot wait to see the continuation.

    1. Totally, Malcadon: Transformers is an excellent example of how to do complex emotions without "humans," so to speak. The old G1 comics were my primary source aside from a few well-worn videos, and a lot of what made Beast Wars so excellent was reflected in them too: Scorponok reminded me a lot of Dinobot in the idea of an honourable villain who really should be on the other side, but in this case, Scorponok never does defect. Hope you enjoy the continuation!

  6. Hi Taranaich!
    It's me, Doug Draa ( from "Uncle doug's Bunker...".
    I couldn't find a contact form or email so I resorted to posting directly here. Please forgive me this unorthodox means of contacting you.

    I'm the new "contributing editor" at "Weird Tales Magazine". And I wanted to know if you were interested in 2 reviewer's copies (.pdf files)?

    Here is the quai press release......

    Let me introduce myself...
    My name is Doug Draa

    I am the new contributing editor over at Weird Tales Magazine which was re-launched earlier this year. And I wish to inform you that the 2nd issue since the re-launch has been released. The publisher (film maker and director) John Harlacher and editor in chief Marvin Kaye (The playwright, author and anthologist) have made an attempt to take the magazine back to its roots. Each new issue has a mixture of Themed and non-themed fiction.
    The first re-launch issue (#360) had HPL's "Old Ones" as it theme with original fiction by Brian Lumley, Michael Shea and Darrell Schweitzer among others.
    The newest issue has "Fairy Tales" as it's them with fiction by Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) and Tanith Lee and non-fiction by Darrell Schweitzer. So you can see that they are going all out to bring in name writers.
    Here's the link to their announcement...

    This is the magazine that gave us such greats as Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith and many others.

    I'd like to point out that for the time being each issue will be a mixture of themed and non-themed content. And even though we re-instated the classic WTs logo, the artists will be having some fun with it by slightly altering it to fit the cover and theme, this issues "smokey logo" for example.

    I've attached Reviewer copies of Issues 360 and 361 as .pdf files.

    Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions!

    Thanks and take care.
    Doug Draa
    Contributing Editor, Weird Tales Magazine