JFA 21.3 (2010)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: Race and the Fantastic”
Brian Attebery

The 2010 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts was devoted to the theme of Race and the Fantastic. The response at the conference was so strong that we have devoted an entire issue of the Journal to the same theme. While it might seem (to those who don’t know the field) that fantasy is merely an escape from real-world conflicts such as racial strife, it became clear in conference sessions, special events, and conversations poolside that the fantastic is a powerful tool for examining all things human, including our tendency to gang up on one another based on any perceived physical or cultural dissimilarity. Though race is a bogus category biologically, we tend to act and speak and write as if it were real, which makes races at least as real as, say, genres.

Within science fiction and fantasy, the title of Benedict Anderson’s influential study Imagined Communities (1991) takes on a new and literal meaning. Anderson was talking primarily about nationhood; his thesis has to do with the way we maintain the illusion of shared communal life by identifying with those unmet others who are bathed in the same media signals (print or electronic) as ourselves. Yet his approach is also useful in talking about race, and especially the kinds of racial identities found within science fiction. In many sf texts, of course, communities are not just imagined but wholly imaginary, and, not surprisingly, there is another book, by Philip E. Wegner, called Imaginary Communities (2002). The subject of that study is not the fantastic per se, but a related and overlapping mode, utopia. Sf’s depictions of race can be utopian, as in Star Trek, where alien races serve together in relative harmony on the starship Enterprise. They can also be dystopian, although it is hard to imagine racial interactions more horrific than those found in the real world. Most often, they are simply different: viewed at a distance with the aid of such distorting lenses as alien worlds and artificial life forms. Robots are often the racial other in Isaac Asimov’s stories; so are Martians in some of Ray Bradbury’s chronicles. The alien-as-racial-other metaphor is employed with satire and a measure of hope in Alien Nation (1988 movie and 1989 TV series) and with devastating specificity in 2009’s District 9. The latter film plays on the ultimate racist fear, that the other will turn out to be oneself.

Fantasy has an odder relationship with race than does sf because its races are not so much biological as theological. They are usually presented as originary, ordained by whatever Powers-That-Be may preside in the fantasy world. There were always Elves, Dwarves, and Men, or, in E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922), Witches, Pixies, and Demons. These races differ physically and psychically. They have their own languages, spaces, traditions, and habits of thought, going back to time immemorial. This view of race reflects some of the roots of fantasy in Romantic mythography and philology. Eddison and J. R. R. Tolkien were not the first to combine interests in the origins of languages and myths, and to turn those interests into fantastic narrative. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were searching not just for household tales and Germanic sound shifts, but for the mythic soul of the German people. Race played a big part in nineteenth-century thinking about culture and the past, from folklore studies to cranial measurements, and the races imagined were legion. The Celts were a race; so were the Slavs, the Balts, and the Mediterraneans and, against all historical evidence, the English.

The more innocent by-products of this kind of racial thinking include the reconstruction of proto-Germanic and Indo-European languages and the rediscovery (in the West) of the great Sanskrit scriptures. Combined with European voyages of discovery and colonialism, racial theory produced the somewhat sinister lost world romances of H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, which had a big impact on twentieth-century fantasy. Even less innocent was the jockeying for racial privilege that in the US resulted in the invention of a single “white” race incorporating such formerly other races as Germans, Scandinavians, and even, against considerable resistance, the Irish (see Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, 1995). To become an insider is to define someone else as a lesser and potentially dangerous outsider. At the end of that road lie Klan rallies, ethnic cleansings, and death camps for Gypsies and Jews.

It’s hard to see much resemblance between a joking rivalry between Elves and Dwarves and the wholesale extermination of excluded peoples. Indeed fantasy’s imaginary races can work to undercut real-world racism by overturning stereotypes and by validating cultural exchange and intermarriage. Nonetheless, the historical links between fantasy and nationalism should keep us wary of assuming that any racializing of the imagination can remain innocent. I would suggest that we keep handy a set of hypotheses and test them out regularly as we enjoy our chosen genres:

1. Race in the real world is imagined, but its effects are real.
2. Race in fantasy is real, but fluid.
3. The history of fantasy is bound together with Romantic nationalism, pseudoscientific racism, and empire.
4. That history—including its load of guilt—is what allows fantastic genres to function as laboratories for investigating and reformulating racial differences.
5. Race as an organizing principle for cultural identity can be a source of resistance to oppression as well as an agent of it.

All of these hypotheses are reflected in the contents of this issue. The first entry is Guest of Honor Nalo Hopkinson’s challenging performance piece, in which Hopkinson drew on Caribbean ritual to double as a mild-mannered after-luncheon speaker and an alien critic of humanity. Both “horse” and “rider” made strong points about difference, entitlement, respect, and responsibility. As the online controversy called RaceFail demonstrates, Persons of Pallor like myself need such reminders about the power of race and about the fact that only those who benefit from racial privilege can afford to ignore it.

The first academic article in the issue is Helen Young’s “Diversity and Difference,” in which Young examines The Lord of the Rings—book and films—and offers a new perspective on the races and racial politics of Middle- earth. Young suggests the sociological concept of cosmopolitanism as a way of reimagining differences in both Tolkien’s world and its medieval sources. In a cosmopolitan model, the differences and tensions remain, but the outcomes might differ.

Timothy H. Evans takes on the darker side of nationalist fantasy in a reading of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Dick’s novel, which involves an alternative history in which Germany and Japan won World War II and are occupying moieties of the former United States, offers a number of perspectives on racial and cultural difference. Focusing on the concept of authenticity, a term which can be used to either validate traditions or exclude from cultural ownership, Evans looks at the way the category of “authentic” culture operates as a folk form of ethnography. In Dick’s story, authenticity operates as a source of power and a repository of value: a kind of cultural capital tied to, but not identical with, racial identity.

Our second Guest of Honor was children’s and young adult writer Laurence Yep. In his humane and affecting address, Yep talks about how sf and fantasy led him into writing and eventually into recognizing and learning to represent his own experiences as a Chinese American. History, autobiography, and fantasy variously combine in Yep’s stories to teach us that neither dragons nor humans are exactly what we expect.

Debashis Bandyopadhyay’s article examines a writer whose racial identity was an open question and a source of both anxiety and creative inspiration. Ruskin Bond was an Anglo-Indian, a term which in itself conveys the ambiguities of race, for it can refer either to those whose ancestry is partly English and partly Indian or to Indians whose cultural loyalties and “imagined community” are based in Britain rather than India. In Bond’s work, uncertainties about race and place generate uncanny situations and nostalgia for a past that might never have existed. Bandyopadhyay combines historical and psychoanalytic readings to investigate issues of hybridity, selfhood, and imagination in Bond’s fiction.

In “The Circle and the Cross,” Alexis Brooks de Vita’s focus is on gender, culture, and colonialism, rather than race, and yet the prophetic African literature she discusses offers a powerful critique of racial practices and beliefs. Colonial regimes do not always exert power through overt oppression of racial groups: they also control their subjects through the suppression of culture. In the texts that Brooks de Vita examines, traditional stories, beliefs, and practices from within the “micro-nations” (a more precise alternative to “tribes”) of Africa become a source of cultural resistance and renewal.

Finally, Guest Scholar Takayuki Tatsumi takes what he calls a “planetary perspective” on race. With his usual eclectic brilliance, Tatsumi moves from racial paranoia to black humor to the power of imaginative literature to explode (I use the term advisedly) all conventional thinking about belonging, difference, and postmodern self. Along the way, he cites a figure I remember well: a TV weatherman (since fired) on one of my own local channels who suddenly morphed from a blond and blow-dried nonentity into a widely cited conspiracy theorist. Only the fantastic can properly account for such a transformation; only humor gives us the self-awareness and humility to counteract such insanity.


“Nalo Hopkinson: An Introduction”
Rob Latham

“A Reluctant Ambassador from the Planet of Midnight”
Nalo Hopkinson

“Diversity and Difference: Cosmopolitanism and The Lord of the Rings
Helen Young

“Authenticity, Ethnography, and Colonialism in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle
Tim Evans

“Laurence Yep: An Introduction”
Amy Branam

“Dragons I Have Known and Loved”
Laurence Yep

“Ruskin Bond’s ‘Whispering in the Dark’: A Fantastic Quest for Identity”
Debashis Bandyopadhyay

“The Circle and the Cross: Womanhood, Manhood, and Cultural Destruction in Prophetic African Literature”
Alexis Brooks de Vita

“Takayuki Tatsumi: An Introduction”
Stefan Hall

“Race and Black Humor: From a Planetary Perspective”
Takayuki Tatsumi


Nicholas Ruddick’s The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel
Rev. by Edward James

Patricia Pulham’s Art and the Transitional Object in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Tales
Rev. by Leon Marvell

Carl B. Yoke and Carol L. Robinson’s The Cultural Influences of William Gibson, the “Father” of Cyberpunk Science Fiction: Critical and Interpretive Essays
Rev. by Graham J. Murphy

Irma Hirsjärvi’s Faniuden siirtymiä: Suomalaisen science fiction fandomin verkostot [Mediations of Fandom: The Networking of Finnish Science Fiction Fandom]
Rev. by Liisa Rantalaiho

Douglas A. Anderson, Michael D. C. Drout, and Verlyn Flieger’s Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, Vol. VI
Rev. by Don Riggs

Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner’s The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
Rev. by W. A. Senior

Noël Carroll and Lester H. Hunt’s Philosophy in The Twilight Zone
Rev. by Jason P. Vest

John West-Sooby’s Nowhere Is Perfect: French and Francophone Utopias/Dystopias
Rev. by Monty Vierra

Jeannette Baxter’s J. G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives
Rev. by D. Harlan Wilson

Jo Collins and John Jervis’s Uncanny Modernity: Cultural Theories, Modern Anxieties
Rev. by D. Harlan Wilson