The Sciences

Game of Thrones is racist!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApr 1, 2012 10:01 PM


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I wasn't going to post more today, in light of the April Fool's joke I played on you. But here's me going at it again. Lots of stuff I wouldn't normally stumble upon hits me via Pulse, and today I see this in Salon, Is “Game of Thrones” too white? - Fantasy fiction might have racial problems, but they're just a reflection of America's broader battles. Here's the problem I have, imagine this subhead: "Fantasy fiction might have class problems, but they're just a reflection of America's broader battles." You see, in epic fantasy fiction the class structure is a pyramid, with a few who have, and the vast majority who do not have (let's take urban fantasy and the like off the table for this discussion). But that's OK, it's a feature, not a bug. That's because epic fantasy is playing with the furniture of the past, and that furniture is riddled with a class system predicated on radical inequality. The author of the Salon piece concludes:

Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like the Lord of the Rings, is the work of a brilliant and conscientious writer who is nonetheless writing in his own time and place. The United States in 2012 is, far too often, and even with a black president, still a culture rich in racist stereotypes and xenophobic fear-mongering. Expecting a writer to remain entirely unstained by this is expecting a person to live underwater without getting wet. If we still find troubling racial assumptions and caricatures in fantasy – whether on the page, or on the big or small screen — this probably tells us more about our culture-wide problems than it does about a single writer’s, or a single show’s issues. A Song of Ice and Fire is indeed our American Lord of the Rings, and if Westeros has its race problems, they are simply a powerful reflection of America’s.

The above was written by one Saladin Ahmed. Here's his educational background:

He holds a BA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, and an MA in English from Rutgers....

The fact that Ahmed could write something as unhinged from reality as the concluding paragraph to his Salon piece tells us more about his own educational-cultural milieu than it does about the literature and the authors of the literature in question itself. The real pre-modern period was soaked in xenophobia and racism. Ahmed is likely well read enough to have encountered the works of Ibn Battuta, the great Arab Muslim ethnographer and travel writer of the medieval period. Ibn Battuta's work bleeds with unexamined parochialism, prejudice, and xenophobia against other races and non-Muslims. But he was frankly a man of his time. George R. R. Martin has been queried about the sex and brutality which pervades his work. One of his common responses has been that the past was characterized by sex and brutality. It is in other words, a feature not a bug. The darkness lends his epic an air of this-worldy verisimilitude which is often lacking in J. R. R. Tolkien's more high toned creation. The same could be said for Martin's depiction of ethnic differences, conflicts, and perceptions. One of course one might interject here that the viewpoints expressed by Martin are still through quasi-Eurocentric eyes (the Andals and First Men do not exist after all). But that makes narrative sense; the ultimate center of the story arc is fixed upon Westeros. When given page time Martin has a tendency of humanizing characters which were otherwise evil caricatures. The lack of nuance given to non-quasi-European characters is almost certainly in part due to their lack of page time. You might demand that Martin write with a more objective anthropological tone, but A Song of Ice and Fire is not an ethnographic monograph. It's narrative fiction, and the world-building is secondary to the plot and character. My standard response to people who complain about "racism" in X works of literature is that you should write yourself! But Ahmed has done us the favor of doing so, his Throne of the Crescent Moon has been well reviewed. If you want to invert the standard Eurocentric narrative in fantasy fiction, where white is implicitly or explicit right, then you can immerse yourself in Judith Tarr's Avaryan Rising, or if you prefer it done more subtly, David Anthony Durham's Acacia. Let me quote from a description of Ahmed's novel to show you how it can get silly very quickly:

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings: Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “The last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path. Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God’s justice. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia....

Notice all the references to the supernatural and the religious piety of the protagonist. It's a fact that a lot of fantasy fiction assumes the existence of supernatural agents, of gods. Many of the protagonists are depicted as pious and godly, as if these are good things, rather than mental delusions. As an atheist who rejects the supernatural I wonder why there are no atheist viewpoint characters, or worlds where there isn't a reference to supernatural agents and activities? If I did wonder these things I'd be a narcissistic fool. I imagine someone could create a materialist based medieval secondary world. But it would be more a curiosity, or an exercise in the alternative. Pre-modern societies were pervaded by belief in the supernatural, so I'm not particularly surprised if it crops up (works of fantasy which avoid explicit supernaturalism, such as Anne McCaffery's Pern and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover turn out to be cases of science fiction upon closer inspection).

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