Calling a Spade a Mardonalian (Part 2)

Sometimes, racism in SF is subtext rather than context. In E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space, the heroes are Earth’s best and brightest despite, when told by a malevolent entity there are many ways it could kill them, responding, “Name one!” Upon arrival on the planet Osnome they rescue an airship being attacked by flying monsters. The passengers of the ship are humanoids whose skin color is “a dark, livid… green.” In appreciation for their efforts the Terrans are given “slaves,” seven men and seven women “of a much lighter color” (than the people they rescued). One of the slaves connects the Terrans to a machine that teaches them Onmone’s customs and languages. It seems Mardonale (the land of the dark Osnomeans) and Kondal (the land of the light Osnomeans) have been at war for six thousand years and the “slaves,” members of the Kondal royal family, are POWs. The Kondalians tell the Terrans that the Mardonalians were going to kill them and plunder their ship. The Terrans escape with the POWs and flee to Kondal, killing several Mardonalians in the process. When the Mardonalians launch an attack on Kondal the Terrans use their ship to annihilate the Mardonalian fleet, even after it breaks off the attack and retreats.

Now, not only do the (white) Terrans automatically side with the (light skinned) Kondalians against the (dark skinned) Mardonalians, they do so without ever asking who started the war or why. And despite the Mardonalians’ apparent “treacherousness,” they seem to have treated their captives well. There is never any mention of Mardonalian POWs in Kondal.

In his introduction to 2001 commemorative edition of Skylark, Vernor Vinge says he is disturbed by the presentation of the Kondalonian policy of “eugenics via execution” in “mildly approving terms,” but since few SF writers had local examples of “real, monstrous villainy” pre World War II, he believes “such genocidal fantasies, paradoxically enough, sprang from innocence.” He is confident that “if modern science fiction writers were brought up in the context of the first half of the twentieth century, they would have the same blind spots.”

Perhaps. But the real problem is not the innocence or ignorance of SF writers in the last century. The real problem is the casual acceptance of stereotypes in exchange for a “ripping good yarn” by SF writers and fans in this century.

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Comment by Charles R. Saunders on April 3, 2008 at 3:21pm
Sometimes, subtle racism can be more damaging than the blatant kind, because it blindsides us. In the boxing world, fighters will tell you that the punch you don’t see is the one that knocks you out. It’s also hard to retaliate against subtlety, because it can denied, or passed off as a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

Even so, we have to keep pointing it out when it happens, as you do here. When I first started reading science-fiction stories about humans invading alien planets (as opposed to aliens invading ours), I found so many parallels with the way Europeans treated Africans during the slave trade and colonialism that I could almost predict what was going to happen to the aliens. Green skins, blue skins, black skins … it was all the same.

You make some good points here. I look forward to seeing more of them.

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