Diversity in secondary world fantasy
There’s been a lot of debate in genre circles recently about diversity in fantasy – hell, I was on a panel about this very topic at AltFiction last year. It’s a very broad field, however, so I want to focus on one area that’s been on my mind for a while. Note that I’m writing this article from the perspective of a white Westerner; I’m very much in favour of a diversity of voices in SFF, but by definition that’s not an issue I can address in my own fiction.
Epic fantasy gets a lot of stick for being conservative in its worldbuilding: of cleaving to white, Western, European-inspired settings. And there’s a lot of truth in that. OK, so it’s hardly surprising, given that the acknowledged grandfather of the genre was a professor of medieval languages at Oxford University. But there’s a lot more to the world—and to human experience—than the culture of one small corner of it during a brief historical period.
By the way, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with being inspired by the history and literature of your own culture; if I did, I wouldn’t have written a trilogy of novels set during the age of England’s greatest literary figure, William Shakespeare. Night’s Masque is alternate history set in our world, but there are plenty of examples of secondary world fantasy that, like Tolkien’s work, draw heavily on European history: a particularly famous one is A Song of Ice and Fire, which is based on the War of the Roses. I’m currently reading The Thousand Names by Django Wexler, which is clearly inspired by historical military fiction such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, and thus the good guys are predominantly white and male (or in one case a cross-dressing woman). There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in writing what is in a sense “history fan-fiction”
The problem is that too many Western authors use European-based settings uncritically, as an unthinking default. They create yet another white, misogynistic, xenophobic culture because “that’s the way things were in those days”, ignoring a whole bunch of issues. For starters, that’s not necessarily the way things were. Medieval culture lasted a thousand years and spanned a continent; it wasn’t homogeneous, and the stuff you were taught in school omits a lot of surprising facts. Did you know for example that in the early Christian world, men could marry other men? That in 15th century England, women of the landed classes were expected to run their husbands’ estates, even leading the defence against attacks by rival knights and their private armies? I’ve had people tell me that my Elizabethan characters couldn’t possibly be blasé about homosexuality, when there’s ample historical evidence that sodomy was endemic in male-dominated Renaissance culture.
And then of course there’s the fact that FANTASY WORLDS ARE MADE UP and we can therefore do whatever the hell we like with them! I’m not saying that every secondary world has to be a multicultural feminist utopia, but I’d like to see more writers put as much effort into worldbuilding their cultures as they do into their magic systems or the fucking heraldry of a hundred minor aristocrats. Ahem. Where was I?
Maybe it’s because I started my genre career as an avid SF reader, but it seems to me that there are as many possibilities for exploring the human condition in a fantasy setting as there are in SF. I did this a little in Night’s Masque, where I created a sentient species, the skraylings, that were based not on folklore but on biological and anthropological principles. The result was a culture very alien to my Elizabethan characters but consistent and, I hope, believable.
In my new project I’m taking the worldbuilding a step further, into secondary world fantasy, because that gives me more control over the human cultures. Yes, they take a good dollop of inspiration from European history at various periods, because that’s what I know and love. And yes, there will be hot guys with swords/crossbows/whatever at the heart of the action, because that’s what gets my creative juices flowing. But those guys won’t necessarily be white, or straight, or abled.
The thing is, this is my world, which means I’m free to make changes that simply wouldn’t work in a historical setting. I can give women a more equitable social status, make sexual orientation a non-issue, create a broader racial mix than would be seen in most pre-modern cultures; whatever makes the setting more pleasing to me—and more inclusive for my readers. It won’t be a utopia by any means—there are inequities of power in any society—but I don’t see why I should harp on the same old prejudices that dog our world. I want my writing to be fun, and misogyny, racism and homophobia are the polar opposite of that.
A brief aside on race in fantasy. In real-world settings you can rely on reader knowledge to fill in the details. Mention that a character is Chinese or Japanese and the reader will mentally add straight black hair and epicanthic folds (unless you say otherwise). Conveying race in a secondary world fantasy is a more delicate business, especially if you’re not filling it with close analogues of real-world cultures. And what about creating racial characteristics not found on Earth, e.g. different skin tones or combinations of colouring? So far in my work I’ve tended not to describe characters’ appearance in great detail, so this is an issue I’m going to be wrestling with in my new series.
Anyway, I guess my point is that you don’t have to throw away all the cool toys that you love—swords, castles, dragons, whatever—to write diverse, inclusive fantasy; a fondness for familiar tropes is no excuse for perpetuating hurtful stereotypes. The joy of fantasy is in stretching our imaginations, so why limit ourselves?