Putting the life back in science fiction

White Men in the Jungle, and other Cli-Fi issues
September 5, 2015, 12:02 am
Filed under: book, deep time, fantasy, fiction, futurism, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , ,

Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble here, but one thing I started thinking about is how much stereotypes and standard tropes underpin science fiction and especially fantasy. Even though educated people know about the Medieval Warm Period, so much fantasy contains the equivalent of Game of Thrones’ “Winter is coming.” Yes, this is great escapism in the middle of summer, but still, there are a huge number of tropes that show up when dealing with fantasy: medieval, Europe, wintry, or mysterious, oriental, and so forth and so on. You’ve seen them, you know them, and writers too often depend on you knowing them.

Yes, I can think of more than a few books that break tropes, but equally, I run into people whose take on writing is conditioned by the metaphors and tropes conjured by words, and this makes communication difficult. One example was when I talked to a writer (with a strong humanities background) online, about how I, as an ecologist probably wouldn’t name plants that were growing in a vacant lot in southern California as a way to describe the scene. Why not? came the question. Well, I replied, because I suspected that the names wouldn’t paint the scene for anyone who didn’t know the plants already. This was scoffed at. Okay, I wrote, the plants I’m thinking of are black mustard and ripgut brome. Oh, those are so evocative of doom, decay, and violence. Perfect for a vacant lot in Southern California. Well, I replied, that’s exactly my point. You just misled yourself, I replied, and you have no idea of what I was actually trying to describe…The conversation deteriorated from there. Yes, this conversation has been changed somewhat, because I want to use it as an illustration, rather than to embarrass someone. The miscommunication is the point.

The idea I’m chewing on, the trouble I’m borrowing, is how to deal with climate change in fiction, “cli-fi” if you want a newish shorthand. If you’re writing about a climate changed world and thinking like an ecologist, it makes perfect sense to talk about a tribe of white-skinned people living in a jungle, because tropical forests are predicted to grow north into modern Oregon if we go in for severe climate change. If you’re not thinking metaphorically (would that be trope-ically?), it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about the descendants of today’s Portland hipsters living a barbarian lifestyle in the coast ranges, in a dense forest of bamboo, briars, kudzu, and naturalized street trees, hunting feral pigs and settling all too often for grasshoppers instead.

The problem is, if someone who reads metaphorically sees this, all sorts of problems jump out. Is it cultural appropriation or imperialism to put white men in jungles? Or to have them happily eat the foods of other cultures, like grasshoppers, which are edgy and taboo in today’s America? Or to work with bamboo? I don’t know. But jungles bring all sorts of cultural baggage and expected tropes along with them. Any place does. That’s why fantasy castles are set so often in fantasy Europe, rather than in the fantasy Amazon, fantasy Congo, or fantasy Zomia. Especially if the characters are white.

Climate change violates these tropes, moving climates, and eventually the plants and animals they support, to different places than they occur in now. That’s why I’m interested in cli-fi, really, because a climate-changed future gives you a huge new palette of possible realities to explore. The jungles of Cascadia may be a real place in 300 years.

The shortcoming of this new palette is that it violates expectations, and I suspect this is one reason why people tend to think of post-apocalyptic stories as set in a ruined version of today’s world, rather than in something much stranger. It’s easier to think of such stereotypes, rather than to confront how strange the world could get.

And it does get more complicated. If you want to write a story set, say, 10,000 years in the future, humans probably won’t have the races or ethnicities we have now. And there’s a whole other set of expectations, stereotypes, and tropes associated with race, especially in America and most especially now. If you want to write a story set in the truly deep future, you can legitimately jettison today’s races and start over. However, how do you write the resulting story without it being seen as a commentary on today’s racial politics? I have no idea. Maybe you don’t. Thing is, it’s unrealistic to assume that today’s racial, ethnic, even gender identities have any sort of permanency. Is talking about this a reflection on today’s racial politics, or just some naive white dude (that would be me), trying to think about what the future might hold? It can be read both ways.

And so it goes. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Authors don’t get complete control over what people read into their work, and readers bring a wide variety of preconceptions with them to any work. Still, if you’re going to play outside established tropes, I don’t think it’s overly paranoid to at least think about how things can be misinterpreted, and possibly to take some steps to head off the worst problems.

Or perhaps I’m just borrowing trouble where none exists. What do you think?


15 Comments so far
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I’m not sure that I have any issue with fiction that violates tropes. Gene engineered people running around in a mixed biome jungle eating taboo foods doesn’t bother me. What bothers me more are obvious anachronisms. Famous examples in the movies was the Errol Flynn Robin Hood set in 12th Century England with a California landscape, and that is before the anachronistic castles, armor and weird costumes!

As an ecologist, you probably notice flora that is out of place far more than I, but it can be annoying in visual fantasy.

I would think that you want to make the scenario somewhat unexpected if you are setting the scene 10 ky in the future. A return to pure blonde Caucasian tribes might even occur. What will change for certain is language that far in the future, but there is a limit to what the reader can tolerate before the prose becomes unreadable.

Make the story sufficiently interesting and I think a lot of your worries will disappear. .

Comment by Alex Tolley

I could be wrong, but I think if you are moderately careful not to step on people’s metaphorical ID-politics toes, you probably won’t have a lot of trouble.

Like, Donald Kingsbury’s _Courtship Rite_ was about a whole culture of GM people of asian descent. All of them had black hair, but you didn’t have to notice that. I found myself imagining Taena and Oelita both as blondes, and it had no effect whatsoever on the story.

In the short run, the most important thing would be to avoid trampling women’s issues. You can have men in the jungle, but make sure that the women are treated equally for doing all jobs, and that there’s no hint of male domination. It’s OK to have a matriarchy, of course.

You can have races, but if you talk about how different races are better suited for particular biomes, then you might come off as racist. If you just make it happen and don’t comment on it, then it fades into the background and probably won’t seem important to the story. People mostly won’t notice.

It’s probably that way in general. If you write a libertarian novel where there’s a whole lot of preaching about freedom, it’s political. If you write a novel about people having an adventure in a libertarian society, it doesn’t have to be any more political than a story about people in a feudal society. People mostly don’t take stories about knights and kings and such to say that monarchy is good or bad. It’s just a setting for a story.

Comment by J Thomas

Interesting piece in Wired about how biomes might change in response to global warming. Your descriptions of teh jungle might want to include some reference to how it might look compared to our current conceptions.


Comment by Alex Tolley

Yeah, it’s an interesting paper–I tracked it down and read it after I saw the Wired article. The only downside is that they looked at seedling survivorship, rather than seeing how the adult trees did. Still, we can say that the appearance of any local jungle depends on a couple of things:

–Climate: What’s important isn’t the average temperature, it’s the extremes. A place that’s on average tropical, but which experiences hard frosts occasionally, won’t support any frost-intolerant trees. We’re pretty good on cold, but we don’t know nearly enough on how plants respond to high heat, and even less on how they respond to high humidity.

–local seed sources: To pick on Portland, they could be tropical in 300 years. However, it’s hard for any Central American plants to migrate by themselves to Oregon, because they have to cross through the Sonoran desert and through all the civilized barriers we’ve thrown in their way. It’s rather more likely than jungles will be populated by whatever natives (the plants that were already there) can survive the heat, plus whatever garden plants and weeds escape and naturalize.

–how the climate is changing: Trees can live hundreds to thousands of years, but the climate is changing on the scale of decades at peak climate change (starting later this century, unless we get really busy). The likely consequence is that there, while the climate is changing, there will be a lot of weedy species that can move and grow fast, and diversity in any one spot will likely be low. In the hundreds to thousands of years after this, more species will invade and the jungle will become more diverse.

Still, the weird thing about really severe climate change is that there will be tropical forests on both sides of the desert zones, which are caused by different phenomena and will more or less remain where they currently are. Those deserts will make it harder for currently tropical plants to migrate to the new forests, and so those new forests will be composed of different plant and animal species than their equatorial cousins are.

Comment by Heteromeles

You’re talking about hitting a moving target of cultural acceptance. The tricks there are to research the phenomena and get ahead of the curve or intensively use other people’s knowledge. The issue is made up of many highly-specific cultural references and symbols, and there doesn’t seem to be a shortcut. Worse, if this book doesn’t get finished and completed within the month I guarantee you that before you do finish it there will be new wrinkles to notions of cultural identity, ‘ethnicity’, visibility of prejudice and so on that you are unaware of (and perhaps couldn’t be aware of) right now. Consider, how long ago was it that the violent prejudice of American police was usually declared as smaller, separate, local problems instead of a broad social, economic and cultural issue? That issue existed for longer than any of us have been alive in varying shapes and degrees, but it took a trend for the use of camera phones in recording police brutality to turn it into an active civil rights issue (again). If you were working with a formal substantive editor (the traditional publishing workflow) this would be something you ask the editor and your agent about, ha. Perhaps you can recruit people sensitive to these issues to help you with it developmentally? If you’re doing this without having a formal editor you could try finding a writer’s group and asking about it.

Comment by anonymous coward

Actually, I’m not worried about my book, because it’s a “how to write about this kind of future” from the technical side, and it’s formatted as non-fiction. What I am thinking about is the general problem of writing truly futuristic science fiction. There’s this idea that SF uses the guise of the future to comment on the present. If you’re writing in a “what if severe climate change happened” setting, some parts of that setting, like barbarian white men running around in tropical jungles, can be read ignorantly as a comment on the present (aka imperialism), instead of as showing how weird such a future would be, which I happen to think is a more worthwhile goal.

The major reason I’m concerned about it is that I’m trying to make it easier for everyone to write about such futures, by making it easier to understand the technical side (climate change, mass extinction, societal collapse, etc.). Those are all difficult issues to deal with, and I can make them easier. Still, any SFF author working in such a setting really should think about how others can perceive the setting of their story. Even if you’re interested in creating a realistic story to explore the strangeness of the setting, it can and will be read differently by some.

The only simple solution here is awareness of the issues, and avoiding any current landmines, as J Thomas said.

Comment by Heteromeles

If we look at the George Pal movie of HG Wells, “The Time Macine”, the Eloi are depicted as white people running around in the jungle. Was that supposed to be interpreted as anything more than the dichotomy between the passive Eloi and aggressive Morlocks as Wells intended based on their origins? Was that movie un PC? Is it now? Is newer social criticism a modern layering that was unintended by Pal ( or Wells )?

Art tends to be interpreted by the beholder, even implying interpretations no known to the creator. It has even been used as a joke in movies.

Bottom line is that I agree with the other commentators that you shouldn’t over think this and just write what you want. As long as you are not preaching some ideology you should be fine.

Comment by alexandertolleyAlex Tolley

“Being aware of the issues,” is not a simple solution unless you’re willing to give up at the level of making an effort but not spending more time at this than on the science. A thorough implementation would have to be an intensive part of the production process because it entails awareness of, and sensitivity to, many cultures and subcultures one is not part of. It basically demands outside consultants because of unknown unknowns.

Comment by anonymous coward

If you try not to offend anyone, you can’t possibly succeed except by luck. Because many identity-politics groups are intent on being offended, and they can always find something to be offended at when they try. You can often keep one group from being offended by catering to them and making sure they know you are their friend, but that will insure that the groups that they oppose will be offended.

If you just want to tell a story set in a future-climate world, you can just do that. If the background includes a tribe of white people whose women are superficially subservient and who are enemies with a tribe that has darker skin which appears to be egalitarian, that’s just background — unless you say that one of them is superior or something.

If you want to make an overt metaphor for our own culture, then you will probably offend people. Like, you could have tribesmen in the jungle who want to build a dam to run a waterwheel, and some of the tribe says they mustn’t because it would offend the gods and who knows what would happen, the still water might breed dangerous mosquitoes or something. And then they want to build an undershot water wheel that doesn’t need a dam, and they get told that the gods would still disapprove, we mustn’t do anything until we are sure it can’t have any bad results.

That would be offensive, right?

Any time you use a story to make political points, and those points are clear enough that people really understand them, you can expect the people who disagree to be offended. To do that sort of thing well, you’d want to put your points in the story in a way that they aren’t at all obvious, where people trying to solve a problem just naturally do it in the way you like and obviously couldn’t solve their problems the opposing way, and maybe later they’ll happen to think of the situation you posed in terms of their own lives.

When I was 12 or so I read _Tunnel in the Sky_ by Heinlein. A bunch of kids were stranded in a jungle on an alien planet, spread out. Two of them met up and decided to group up with some others. But they only wanted good hunters, not just anybody. So they sneaked around in the jungle looking for good hunters, and after awhile all they found was a kid who was sick and starving. When he recovered, he told them they were doing it wrong. They sneaked around looking for people who had superior sneaking-around skills, and they didn’t find anybody like that because the people they wanted all outsneaked them. It was a self-defeating criterion. He suggested building a big smoky signal fire and see who showed up.

They did that, and immediately got more people than they knew what to do with. Somebody they’d never heard of before organized elections, got elected, confiscated their cave, and put them on work details.

After that I never forgot the concept “self-defeating criteria”.

Comment by J Thomas

J Thomas, it’s not precisely a matter of not wanting to offend people, because a lot of SFF does offend people. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the audience for the work, and communicating with them. XKCD said something analogous in https://www.xkcd.com/1576/.

Here’s another analogous. I keep thinking it would be fun to write a story set in Bronze Age Europe. One small problem is that the swastika was a normal and common symbol until WWII. If I wanted to make the Bronze Age setting accurate, there would be swastikas all over the place, especially in religious situations. Since I’m writing for a post WWII audience and fascism is irrelevant to the story, then keeping swastikas out of the story is good way to make sure the story doesn’t derail over a minor detail.

Comment by Heteromeles

That makes sense, and it depends. Particularly in a short story, you don’t want to let any extraneous effects interfere with the thrust of getting the story where it’s going. In a novel there may be more room for that sort of thing. If you describe the symbol but don’t give it the name “swastika” then it would have no effect unless some observant reader made the connection. And then, you might not want to deny your readers the chance to think it out — the Nazis tried to tie their cult to an ancient symbol which did not have those meanings, and the reaction is inappropriate.

I vividly remember in _Courtship Rite_ at one point a general who is thinking about grand strategy slides his maps into a babyskin case. The society lacked our plastics, and they had a thriving industry creating GMO humans, and they culled a lot of their experiments at baby ages, and they had no terran animals except honey bees. It makes sense that baby leather wouldn’t be all that expensive compared to alternatives, but I kept forgetting things like that.

It depends on the effect you want.

Comment by J Thomas

More likely it’d be brown people in the jungle, because of mixing, people, especially young ones can be very enthusiastic in that way. And you might not wish to dwell on that, to keep the “Purity of Essence” types off your back.

Comment by Tim H.

Thanks Tim, because I think you made the point about stereotyping very nicely.

Why would people have brown skins if they lived in a tropical rain forest in Portland, Oregon? The point about climate change is that it’s the climate changing, not the amount of light from the sun. If tropical rain forest grows in Oregon (as it did back in the middle Paleogene, which is a reasonable model for what our world will look like under severe climate change), it will do so under the relatively dimmer temperate sunlight of Oregon. Why should anyone’s skin be dark under such conditions, regardless of how they are identified by race, especially in the winter? Climate change will not make the Oregon sun as bright as, say, the Ecuadorian sun. All it will do is to cause more of that light to be trapped into heating up the air.

In any case, talking about white men in jungles isn’t about racial purity, it’s about the setting of future climate change clashing with present-day stereotypes and yes, racism. I think such a clash is useful, because it illustrates how different a hothouse Earth will be from what we currently enjoy. However, it is an issue when for an author if he (or she) doesn’t think about the stereotypes that readers carry around in their heads. And we have stereotypes about jungles and the people who we imagine to live in them.

Comment by Heteromeles

So I’m late to the thread, but I think you’re forgetting something important here.

Indigenous folks in the area around Portland (I mention it specifically because it’s the given example, but this is true throughout the Americas) weren’t homogenous in terms of skin color even before colonization, let alone after (today a lot of Chinook people are white-passing) — but the average skin color was definitely a strong “brown”, and that reflects a set of populations who’d been living in the area (or nearby ones) for at least ~10,000 years. (Current scholarship on how long any particular culture group has been in one area can vary tremendously, as do the actual answers from group to group — but we can genetically demonstrate strong relationships between Coast Salish people alive today in villages along the BC coastline with the people who lived in those villages 11,000 years ago relative to other, adjacent groups — meaning there’s been a lot of continuity, at least in the coastal areas where constructed clam beds and other environmental alterations made permanent settlements possible).

My point here is that Northern European skin colors developed in drastically different conditions than exist in Oregon today (or at time of colonization) and probably persist in the area for reasons that have more to do with the following:

1. The recency of occupation. There hasn’t been TIME or isolation required for the Euro-Settler population in Oregon to adapt to the extant light levels there.

Also, deliberate maintenance at a social level has kept down mixing. The amount of active effort white Settlers put into killing or isolating Native folks while keeping brown/black folks out of the area for as long as possible have led to this state of affairs, and it’s not some relic of the past. The area is still full of white nationalists and literal neonazis, even the city of Portland itself has quite a few. When Oregon was founded, Black people were specifically excluded from the state, and it was full of Sundown towns right up until those became technically illegal. If you’re even a bit swarthy, there are still large chunks of Oregon that you are best advised to keep on driving through, and I say this as someone who knows from experience. Basically, there’s a lot of social barriers to populations mixing, and it’s only been about 200 years since Settlers showed up in any case (even less since they came en masse and began to outnumber Indigenous folks) so presumably even if the ratio of immigrants weren’t as skewed, if Indigenous folks hadn’t been quite so thoroughly affected, and so on, we’d still expect to see a fair number of people expressing the phenotypes you’re talking about.

This will probably persist for a while: Non-Hispanic whites make up ~80% of the population, and Latinx folks another 12% (only some of whom might be considered white by the rest of the population — many are in fact not considered that in their home countries either, since a sizeable number of them are culturally Indigenous in Mexican terms), and there remains a great deal of informal institutional racism in addition to conscious prejudice. The social construction of whiteness as a tool of power is alive and well, and contrary to popular opinion various polls show white millenials aren’t significantly less racist in their attitudes than preceding generations.

Still, those institutions and power relations aren’t going to last, and in Hot Earth Dreams you are positing in the next 50-100 years a societal collapse (and local population contraction) unparalleled in human history. It seems reasonable to assume that, whatever our descendants in the Altithermal make of the variance in human features, appearance, and ancestry, that the way modern society thinks about race and its signifance (and uses that to organize relations of power) will be even less relevant to them than Medieval ideas about the political and social significance of religious affiliation are to us today. Probably vastly less, in fact.

(I’m not saying they won’t have their own political and social constructions that make some people’s lives hell at the expense of others’, but they won’t be the ones that shape our lives today.)

2. The whole European-derived spread of phenotypes that got averaged out, summarized as an ideal and labelled “white” owes its existence to populations living around Scandinavia, eating a cereal-heavy diet poor in Vitamin D in an area that was not only high latitude, but incredibly rainy as well, and even then it’s more like one end of a range than anything — fact is a lot of folks whose ancestry lies primarily in England look an awful lot like a lot of folks whose ancestry lies primarily in the Middle East or North Africa, even if neither of them has any ancestors from more than about 100 miles away in the last 500 years.

Basically, extremely light skin and hair as a very widespread population trait is the result of people eating a lot of oats while sitting indoors to get out of the rain, generation after generation. Not really what we expect out of the future jungles around the Willamette Sound. Remember, Inuit people live further towards the pole than anyone else, and they’re a lot darker than Scandinavians, so latitude alone doesn’t determine this. (There’s likely also a measure of sexual selection involved, but that probably can’t trump basic environmental pressures on something this fundamental.) It only takes tens of generations to see a really marked shift like this.

By the time the coastlines settle down, even if everyone living in the area is descended from SOMEBODY living there right now (improbable in the extreme but go with it), it seems pretty unlikely that the typical inhabitant of *that* time and place would just trivially be taken for “white” in our time and place, regardless of who exactly their ancestors were.

Comment by Amaranth

Or you could blame Irish and Scandinavian raiders dating back to the Bronze Age (maybe before?) for spreading very light skin across the northern part of Europe (cf the Lapps).

I agree with what you’re saying, especially about the coast Salish, Oregon’s history, and Portland’s status as a political outlier. I also agree that things like hair and face shape count as much for “whiteness” as skin color.

The other point I was trying to make is that future climates can trip us up about stereotypes. We subconsciously expect “brown” people in rain forests, whatever their skin color, and no matter what the skin color of the people actually living in a particular rain forest truly is, we have this bad habit of squirming, reworking, and redefining so that the people living in a given rainforest are “brown.”

Comment by Heteromeles

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