Just saw a trailer for the Shannara TV series that’s soon to exist:
Very pretty. Don’t think I’m going to particularly go out of my way to see it, because at this point I’m a little tired of New Zealand landscapes, orcish hordes, and John Rhys-Davies. I like Tolkien, but I was never a fan of Tolkien clones in textual form, and the film medium doesn’t make them any more palatable. But those of you who are Shannara fans, yay! Enjoy.
I got distracted from the cool landscapes and glowing beads and so on, though, by the fact that once again this trailer depicts an apocalypse that makes no demographic or sociological sense. First off, why would a far-future magical America transform into anything remotely resembling medieval northern Europe, complete with British accents? But more importantly… This is specifically a far-future Pacific Northwest, or so the decrepit Space Needle would suggest, yet it appears to be populated entirely by white people and Manu Bennett. (Or at least I’m told Bennett is in the trailer. If so, he’s there so briefly that I didn’t see him despite viewing it twice.) Well, wait, some of the non-human characters appear to be played by actors of color; there’s one at 2:30 in the trailer for about half a second. Okay. So while it’s possible the show itself features more than this, the show is being advertised with an all white cast plus a token magical brown person, and literally dehumanized PoC. Well, alrighty then.
::sigh:: Let me note once again that choices like these are not neutral in any SFF. They are even less so in fantasies which — intentionally or unintentionally — evoke the real world and real historical erasures. Against the backdrop of systemic racism, every casting choice develops added meaning. This production doesn’t even have the excuse, weak as that one always is (summary and good discussion, for the un-Tumblr’d), that it’s set in some alterna-European country and therefore the exclusion of people of color is somehow justified. This is America, and one of the most diverse parts of Canada. These nations have never, except in the most fevered wish fulfillment fantasies of historical revisionists, been all white.
And that is precisely what we end up with, when this kind of fantastical exclusion gets layered onto the site of real historical exclusion: racist wish fulfillment fantasy. (Way to go, MTV.) Narratively, the exclusion suggests some Shit Went Down after the collapse or the plague or whatever it was that created this future world. What kind of shit? Genocide, apparently, on an epic scale. Eugenics, maybe, since apparently the orcish folks are some sort of mutant; that touches on the long, ugly history of medical experimentation in this country. So now I wonder why I should be particularly entranced by the stirring saga of a magical white supremacist utopia, or near enough to qualify. Don’t I have to deal with enough racist fantasy in real life?
(Note: I haven’t read the Shannara books, at least not past the first few chapters of the first one, so I have no idea if any of the characters are people of color. I’d be pleased — delighted — to know that this is only the doing of the TV show producers and not Brooks himself.)
But let me not single out Shannara; this isn’t the only recent post-apocalyptic story I’ve seen that suggested by the jangle of their appropriated trappings (or the ominous silence of their exclusions) genocides and internments and the Tuskeegee-ing of vast swaths of the human race. As I skim through future after future — some of which seem cool as hell at least on the surface — I begin to realize that most of them bear this creeping evidence of an entirely different apocalypse that happened before the cameras started to roll. And since it’s now 2015, and we have had these discussions again and again and again… now I’m starting to think it’s intentional. Now I’m wondering whether SFF creator after SFF creator is just so fucking horrified by the existence of people of color that they have to wipe us out again and again, without so much as a grave marker.
It probably isn’t intentional. Probably. But that’s the problem with tossing an unacknowledged race war into the background of your post-apocalypse, see. In these post-Charleston days, it’s become clear that plenty of people out there really do want a race war to happen — which means that fictional depictions of same become hard to wave off as simple carelessness. Especially not after the fifth, the tenth, the twenty-fifth, time.
Well. Maybe I’m just feeling especially salty about this because I’m writing my own post-apocalyptic fantasy right now.
The Fifth Season isn’t set on Earth. That’s not a spoiler. I don’t intend to ever write that kind of “but it was our world all along!” gotcha into any of my novels, because at this point it’s a badly overused trope. And as I’ve just shown, it’s usually used badly, without sufficient care for the complexity of real-world social science. Readers, I promise you: if I ever write Earth it will be recognizable as such, and it will be plausible — a future to which you can draw a line of reasonable extrapolation from our currently 52% female and 80% PoC planet. And by every god who doesn’t mind the oath, if I put an apocalypse in something, you will know it. None of this inferred, unintentional shit.
(This isn’t what the trilogy is about, BTW. It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someone’s going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.)
So the moral of the story, or the point of this post, is: SFF creators, keep track of your apocalypses. If you don’t actually believe that the survivors of that plague or that meteor would divert energy from survival to systematically exterminating millions of people, then don’t “accidentally” write futures where that obviously happened. Or at least if you do it, have the courage to go whole hog with it. Some of our best — and worst — SFF has come out of thoroughly brutal explorations of what can happen when human beings let their bigot flag fly. If you’re going to go there, then go there — consciously, thoughtfully, and respectfully of the real Middle Passages and Trails of Tears and Holocausts you’re using as inspiration. Some material deserves better than an afterthought.
And if you’re not prepared to go that far, then just stop. Your worldbuilding needs work; you can’t handle the apocalypse yet. Talk to a variety of futurists. Read some actual history so you won’t reinforce any more unexamined white supremacy, or at least not by accident. Read outside your comfort zone for awhile. Then, once you’ve learned more about the actual world, you can play with its future — or its end.
Remember, kids: apocalypse responsibly. Your readers/viewers will thank you for it.