Metaphors and allegory for current social issues and prejudices have been a big thing in sci-fi and fantasy almost since its conception. TV Tropes dubs these metaphors “Fantastic Racism” saying it’s “the old trick of dealing with thorny issues through metaphor… Instead of having the hero encounter racism between, say, whites and blacks…they encounter racism between two-headed aliens and three-headed aliens”. Of course, this trope extends to other types of discrimination besides racism, such as homophobia or sexism.
Like any writing tool or trope, social allegories in sci-fi and fantasy have their upsides and downsides. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the whole deal for grad school and I decided to share my findings with you in a format more accessible than an academic paper.
In order to truly examine the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of the trope, let’s go through some examples and discuss the pros, cons and general impact of each narrative’s use of the trope. On our way, we might be able to figure out why social metaphors in sci-fi and fantasy are worth using…and why sometimes they’re not.
One of the most prominent examples of fantastic racism in modern fantasy is the conflict between pureblood wizards and Muggleborn wizards in Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling herself has confirmed that the conflict is supposed to parallel both racism and anti-Semitism.
A lot of studies have been done on the impact that metaphorical messages of tolerance in works like Harry Potter have on children. The general consensus is it’s a good teaching tool and these metaphors can sometimes reach kids more deeply than more realistic parables about racism do. Fantastical representations of these events and issues is more likely to seem more “fun” to them- unlike the civil rights movement, wizards vs goblins isn’t something they’re forced to learn about in school.
In fact, it had been proven that children who read fantasy that contains positive social metaphors are more likely to be tolerant. In 2015, a study was done where several groups of students were required to fill out questionnaires about marginalized groups, such as immigrants, refugees and the LGBT community before and after reading Harry Potter. It was found that after reading Harry Potter, student’s attitudes towards these groups became more compassionate. This was clearly thanks to the series’ themes of standing against prejudice. So there we have it- proof that social metaphor in fantasy can really shape and change people’s minds for the better.
Witches Abroad full cover
The late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is another series of books that deals with “fantastic racism”, by representing conflicts between humans and non-human creatures (such as trolls, werewolves and vampires). Pratchett’s depiction of these conflicts has been praised as nuanced and biting at times. Even his “good” characters struggle with tolerance, so he isn’t afraid of dipping into gray areas.
However, both Rowling and Pratchett fall into the trap of telling stories about racism and anti-Semitism while largely only representing white gentiles in their work, making the message of tolerance and multi-culturism ring a little hollow.
In his book Witches Abroad, Pratchett claimed “Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because–what with trolls and dwarfs and so on–speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.” Many critics think this claim of multiculturism is not reflected in the books themselves. It’s been noted there are very few explicit people of color in the Discworld novels. Mark Oshiro and other bloggers have pointed out the problems with this.
Harry Potter, Warner Bros
The same issue has been noted in Harry Potter. Despite the main conflict being a metaphor for anti-Semitism, there is only one confirmed Jewish character (Anthony Goldstein), who is only mentioned a few times in a very minor role. Anyone in the books who is explicitly mentioned to be a person of color are also in minor, supporting roles. Critics like Kayhan Nejad note that this makes the books rather contradictory, as they uphold the very attitudes they criticize.
Another concern with these “magical cultures” created by the likes of Rowling and Pratchett is that they often rely on stereotypes, rather than being represented as an actual complex race. Both Pratchett and Rowling have come under fire for their version of goblins for this reason. Rowling’s goblins in particular have been accused of being perceived as anti-Semitic stereotypes, as they are large nosed beings obsessed with money. It doesn’t help that the one goblin who plays a large role in the plot ultimately betrays the main character.
Of course, I highly doubt Rowling sat down and thought “I’m going to create this magical creature as a stereotype”, but sometimes this stuff is so deeply ingrained we fail to see the potential implications of what we put on the page.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Telling is a book where a woman called Sutty visits the planet Aka, only to find a repressive government has taken over and suppressed the religion of Aka’s inhabitants.
In both the forward to the book and interviews, Le Guin revealed that she intended the planet’s struggle to be a parallel to the suppression of the Taoist religion by Mao Tse in China. Le Guin wanted to write about this event, but didn’t feel comfortable writing a novel about China due to what she called “a poverty of experience”. She decided a fantastical, broad representation of the problem would work better for her and so she wrote about the repression of religion on a fictional world.
This shows another reason social metaphor in fantasy is often used. It can give a writer who doesn’t have the confidence necessary to do a real life historical prejudice or social issue the justice it deserves, it can still give them a way to write out their thoughts and feelings.
Of course, a lot of people would call this a cop-out, and perhaps they would be right. But I think the key is for a writer not to get lazy with an issue just because they’re doing a metaphor. Instead, work off that historical event to create a story that is less grounded in a particular place and time and more open to the reader’s interpretation, while still respecting the basis of your story…I think if you do that, it can turn out okay.