What is Humanity, Anyway?

Following on from my last post about non-human fantasy races, I’ve been scratching my head lately thinking about how humanity gets presented in fantasy and science fiction. Most particularly what the differences are in the two genres, and what it tends to mean.

Firstly, a slight addendum to my last post; the thought that certain characteristics are inherent in certain racial types. This is bad beyond writing, as it teaches people to stereotype groups of people based on shared cultural or racial characteristics. Which leads to all sorts of nasty prejudices. It also stymies creativity, as people learn to think that things “must” be a certain way, because they’ve already been done that way, when just a little thought on the logical consequences of the race’s condition could lead to some fantastically original results.

Apart from, it seems, humanity in fantasy novels. This is most apparent in roleplaying settings rather than fantasy, where humans are often given bonuses for being “adaptable” or “innovative” in a way that other races aren’t. And this is just packaged up as some nice set of skill bonuses to compensate for their lack of “racial” bonuses, with no real questions asked as to what actually makes humans different, or what humanity actually is.

Contrast this with the way humanity gets treated in science fiction; it gets warped, changed, the boundaries pushed  and prodded fairly regularly. While this isn’t always done well, the questions get asked. What is the right response for a human in a given situation? When does a human stop being a human? Classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? pose these questions as central points of the plot.

When fantasy does this, it tends to talk in terms of going beyond human, rather than remaining human. Even one of the best examples of this (I think), the Vampire: the Masquerade roleplaying game, has a modern-day base setting, not necessarily fantasy as such (although there is a fantastic Dark Ages expansion).

Why is this? Partly I think it’s down to the nature of fantasy, most of which gets treated as “backwards looking”, so the assumption is that the characters in fantasy will be more “primitive” than present-day humanity, which goes hand-in-hand with fantasy’s tendency to ignore progress. Why look around at what humanity is, or where it can go, when the writer is half thinking that the characters aren’t there yet? But there’s no reason why thing can’t be different from our own history and development, apart from the constant argument of why fantasy societies don’t develop gunpowder. It’s fantasy, for crying out loud!

There’s also the centrality of the Hero’s Journey trope that I’ve commented on before, which tends to get pitched as an external journey, rather than an internal one, which can wind up as a cultural description rather than a reflective exploration of humanity. While I’ve heard it said that other races can point to different aspects of humanity, I’ve rarely seen it done. Middle-earth Elves are angels of stasis, dwarves are industrious and grumpy, and orcs are barbaric and evil. This implies nothing about humanity, at least until you get to the Silmarillion, where Tolkien gets moralistic about humanity’s behaviour via the rather crude measure of how close humans are to the Elven ideal, which is never questioned (at least, not obviously). Other settings rarely go this far, pointing out the differences between the races and leaving it at that. The reader is often left thinking “so what?”

One of the ways that fantasy could at least begin to ask these sorts of questions is to go transformative, which is the foundation of several science fiction and horror explorations of humanity; when something about a person changes, what remains the same? This should be a tool that’s readily open to fantasy, with its previous legacy of changelings in folktales, frogs turning into princes and so on. Or even Beauty and the Beast.

Note that to be effective this needs to be a personal change, not a racial one. If someone just gets a new set of abilities and a new automatically accepting social group, they just enjoy their new kewl powerz and carry on as before. To get into the guts of humanity, the lines need to be fuzzier. Why do we judge on appearance? What do we judge in this way? Are certain behaviours intrinsic and logical? If not, why? These are all questions that can be explored as a character changes identity in various ways, but this cannot be just a jump from one box into another, as the boxes tend to come with their own set of assumed answers, without exploring them.

There’s also the question of origins, which also doesn’t get raised often. The only fantasy series that I know of that openly question this is again Middle-earth (that radical, Tolkien!) and the Elder Scrolls games, where humanity and elves (or “mer”, more correctly) are explicitly descended from various fragments of divinity, and their differences shape and are shaped by their cultural outlooks. It doesn’t go a whole way in exploring humanity, partly because the games need to be geared to make any race playable, but it sets up the metaphysical pre-requisites for it far more than many books.

And as a shameless plug, the fantasy world I’m developing for Mists of Albion should be chock-full of these questions about what makes humanity. Because identity is so flexible in Albion due to environmental factors, what makes a person what they are or accepted in their communities will become a major part of how the societies there work. A person’s identity and nature can be easily manipulated and changed by their own actions and those of others, or the world around them. How do you maintain a sense of self or humanity in those circumstances? Who or what do you trust? These will be central questions the world will try to answer.

Watch this space for more on this soon! In the meantime, please leave any comments, criticisms, scathing denunciations etc in the comments.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Commentary, Magic: the Gathering, Roleplaying games and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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