Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part V
It has been a while since I last launched into a rant about the current state of the genre. Today, I’m having a go at that most quintessential of fantasy tropes: non-human sentient species, or more accurately the way they are portrayed.
5. Humans in rubber suits
One of the favourite whipping boys of sophisticated modern fantasy is Elves and Dwarves (and Orcs and Trolls and whichever other Tolkienian critters you care to name). Forest-dwelling, tree-hugging, pointy eared, tall, long-lived archers, and underground-dwelling, mining, axe-wielding, short, bearded craftsman are so old hat, apparently. And to be fair, they generally are. Tolkien put his own spin on these races, but he didn’t invent them: there is no need to plagiarise him. Take a look at folklore and mythology instead, where you have dwarves that turn to stone in sunlight, and which (in very old versions) aren’t even short. That way you get appropriate resonance without looking like you’ve stolen everything from RPGs.
But where I think sophisticated modern fantasy ultimately falls over is that simply replacing Elves and Dwarves with more original critters is only half the battle. The real problem with the current portrayal of non-human sentient species is that all-too often they simply come across as humans in rubber suits: they may look strange, but ultimately they have the same sort of psychology and emotional responses as humans. Humans are certainly able to interact with them, with only a limited degree of difficulty and minimal misunderstanding (a rare counter-example is Rowling’s goblins, who have decidedly non-human attitudes towards ownership, but Rowling then ruins that by treating the goblins as being in the wrong). I realise that nearly every sentient race in fantasy is going to have to be able to communicate with humans to some degree, since otherwise there’s not much a writer can do with them beyond making them Lovecraftian horrors, or else having them and humanity engaged in an all-out genocide, but I like a bit of alien-ness in my alien psychology. Stephen Donaldson did an awesome job of this with the aliens in his Gap series.
Sometimes this sort of request gets greeted with accusations of racism: as in, by portraying different species as being actually different, you’re reinforcing an us-and-them mantra, whereby a being with a different skin colour is treated as sub-human. The problem with this argument isn’t that non-humans are sub-human, but that they’re non-human (and thus different) by definition. If your non-human race is simply a stand-in for a real-world human ethnicity (for example, you have cactus people who are really Mexicans) then I would argue that you aren’t actually creating non-humans at all, and indeed are not letting your secondary world stand on its own. For goodness sake, if you want to talk about Mexicans, have actual Mexicans, rather than engaging in a half-arsed metaphor. It’s the difference between allegory and applicability, as Tolkien noted in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings.
The actual problem with writing truly alien species in fantasy is that you run the risk of monoculture: all Dwarves look and act the same, for example, with little variation between different characters. I get around this in Wise Phuul by only really having one member of a particular non-human race play any role in the story, but it’s a pitfall I am certainly aware of. Alternatively, if the narrative focus is on non-humans, you run into the danger of alienating your audience (most of whom are human) because it can be difficult to empathise with a being whose thoughts and goals are so different.Suffice to say, Richard Adams pulls off non-human psychology brilliantly, without making his protagonists incomprehensible; there is a reason Watership Down is a literary classic.