GRRMartin, it seems, can’t stay out of the news–at least within SFFdom–and while I’m definitely not going to devote a post to his latest ass-hattery concerning “rape vs. dragons,” I would like to write a post in response to the utterly stupid ways in which he calls upon “historical accuracy” in his media creations in order to let his own self off the hook for, well, everything.
As far as I’m concerned–and I accept that there are plenty of people who may disagree with me on this–historical accuracy is only valid if you are actually writing about actual history. This could be biography or historical fiction, or even SFF set in a historical era, but unless your work is specifically set in a particular time and particular place in documented earth-time, your claims to be worrying about historical accuracy are stupid, at the very least. And even if you are writing about a specific earth history, unless you take into account the fact that earth history is generally written by the victors, whitewashed, and otherwise represses marginalized groups, your history is bullshit.
My point is that GRR is unable to account–not for the actual historical accuracy of his work, which is, as I already proved, not even a side of the fence on which to fall in this discussion–for his position in the present, and in this historical context. He is completely unable to fathom his own participation in the time and place in which he lives, and the incredible privilege in which his own existence and media are steeped. Every author brings something of themselves to the table when they sit down to make a story, and unfortunately for GRR, he brings his white maleness and little else. He has shown, time and again, that the only historical context he’s basing his work on is his own narrow interpretation of a really non-existent “medieval” period from which his world didn’t actually spring. His Song of Ice and Fire world came from his head, like all fantasy writers, and the rape and violence and the Orientalism and the white supremacy also came from his head.
Now, since I don’t feel like talking about GRR any longer, let’s talk about some writers who actually do write with an awareness of their own historical context. This will be a series of posts, since there’s no way I can talk about these great authors in brief.
1. Kate Elliott is primarily known for epic fantasy series–she’s written a few million words, probably, by now–which feature meticulous world building. All of them include technology or economic systems which resemble those the reader might recognize from a particular period on Earth. For example, in the Crossroads trilogy the first culture to whom the reader is introduced, the people of the Hundred, eat a rice-based diet, wear sandals, have a relatively warm climate, and live in houses that might remind some readers of homes in Japan. However these people are not Japanese or Asian any more than they are the giant eagles upon which they ride, and their contemporary culture is based in a belief system which grew up over a period of possibly hundreds or thousands of years, and their philosophy of government and military reflects that. Elliott blends characters’ points of view, the narrator’s descriptions of geography and settings, and action to let the reader in on a history and culture she has obviously thought a lot about.
Elliott is very clear that her intention when world building is to create whole places and people and systems of living. By creating whole cultures of people of a variety of skin colors, hair colors, eye colors, statures, and other physical markers, she shows she’s aware of and accounts for her own understanding of history and her place in it. The fantasy genre is one devoted to imagination and exploring ideas through storytelling outside of traditional worlds and world-views. Elliott doesn’t rely on tokens or other tropes of traditionally marginalized people to advance her stories. Whatever prejudices exist in her novels are a product of the cultures she has created; because her characters behaving in a realistic way and have complicated psychologies and motivations–being products of their fully-grounded cultures–they elicit an emotional or intellectual response from the reader concerning our modern preconceptions and prejudices.
For example, still in the Crossroads trilogy, the religious system of the Hundred incorporates a temple devoted to the Merciless One, and one of her aspects is desire. Temple initiates engage in sexual activity with people who come to the temple. Desire is treated as a valid and expected part of humanity; rape, when the story begins, is much less common and treated as a greater crime because men don’t have control over women’s bodies, because sex is not regulated, in the ways we expect to find in our modern patriarchal culture. This aspect of the story may make some readers uncomfortable, for some it will be quite freeing, but not matter the reaction of the reader Elliott’s writing treats the subject with sensitivity and doesn’t rely on tropes or stereotypes to get the idea across, allowing readers to make up their minds without being antagonized by poor storytelling.
Elliott’s characters–protagonists and supporting characters alike, are three-dimensional people in their own right; some fit the traditional masculine and feminine roles we are used to seeing in fantasy, while many do not. One of the things that is most compelling about Elliott’s work is that those who do not fit traditional descriptions are not used to exemplify those who do. Rather than a Brienne of Tarth, who is used to illustrate to the reader what a “real” knight is, throughout Elliott’s stories we have women who are simply warriors or fighters, with much more complicated motivations and histories, with stories of their own to live, than being the woman who will eventually need to be rescued by a man, thus advancing his character development. Elliott uses her imagination and her empathy to find the story to tell for characters from all walks of life, all ages, all genders. She does not use them as merely plot points.
Elliott’s stories and characters are are products of their cultures and exist in tension with the demands of those cultures. People are at the mercy of the geography and climate in which they live. When armies go to war, they are are not the great hordes we are used to seeing in The Lord of the Rings. They are relatively small, only as many as can be sustained by the pre-industrial communities from which they are drawn. If great hordes do arise, there is a measurable effect on the land and people through which they maraud; crops are not sown or harvested, trade routes falter, government and law break down.
One of my favorite aspects of Elliott’s writing concerns when cultures meet or collide in the course of a story. In the Crossroads series, when a marauding group of bandits and thugs springs from the very midst of the Hundred–looting, enslaving, and, yes, occasionally raping along the way–Elliott doesn’t fall back on some oddball assumptions about what happened in feudal societies during a non-existent medieval period to explain how this could happen. She allows the world itself to show the reader how a failure in justice more than a generation ago led to a slowly growing faction of people who decided not only to take justice into their own hands, but what justice is. As characters learn more about the situation, the reader is shown what they and the people they meet think about it, and eventually what the greater repercussions of this horde will be. When characters perpetrate violence, or have it perpetrated against them, there are real, perceivable, realistic outcomes. Abnormal and anti-social behavior is acknowledged, it serves a narrative purpose within the story, and is not just used for ambiance or to lazily illustrate a character.
Throughout her writing career, Elliott has shown she is aware of how “historical accuracy” has been used and misused within fiction, and that it is important to her to create fully functioning, dynamic worlds with a multitude of people and concerns, just like the actual Medieval Earth period was, just like all Earth historical periods are. By creating no less than four cultural groups within the Crossroads trilogy (and even more than that in the Crown of Stars series) that have separate, fully functioning socio-political systems, she has also shown that she is aware of her own identity as an interpreter of history, and a member of our shared contemporary time and place.
She understands that our world is made up of countless cultural groups, some of whom have been left out not just of representation, but of their accomplishments and deep history simply for being not white, not Christian, not European. Not only does Elliott not default to whiteness and using non-white groups as externalized “others” against whom to compare her dominant culture, when she writes brown and black people Elliott does not include contemporary Earth tropes and stereotypes to “explain” the people she has written.
We’re going to leave out the way that Elliott writes her fantasy elements, because that would make for an even longer post.
To conclude, as Elliott herself has written, The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building; from that I assert that the status quo really doesn’t need a novel about it. There are assumptions about what fantasy literature is, from those within and without the genre, based upon the people who have been allowed to create it over the past hundred years, and Elliott chooses not to reinforce those assumptions in her work. Truly, Elliott has shown that it is only lack of imagination, lack of empathy, which keeps authors from creating characters who do not look like themselves and who do not have recourse to agency or even human decency within their stories. Let’s support more authors like her.
Stay tuned for the next post in this “series” and keep reading diversely.