There’s a rather boring but predictable complaint in The Washington Post, In the land of make-believe, racial diversity is a fantasy. We’ve been here before. The author of The Washington Post piece seems angry that his black child can’t identify with the white characters that dominate in fantasy films. But what this has to do with fantasy, as opposed to films, I don’t understand. The visual media aims toward the biggest American (and now Chinese) audience, and is averse to diversity because it thinks it doesn’t pay. I don’t know if Hollywood’s estimation is right or not, but it is no surprise that they turned the Filipino Juan Rico of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers into a Nordic superman archetype Johnny Rico in the movie (granted, this was partly a function of Paul Verhoeven’s “artistic vision”).
While fantasy fiction tends toward a Northern European setting because of the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, you can find a fair number of works which don’t fit this well-worn template.* Recently David Anthony Durham in his Acacia series of books has crafted a world where people of African-like features are prominent. The plot lines exhibit some aspect of symbolic inversion in terms of the conventional racial framework which we see so prominently in the world of Tolkien, where European-like peoples contribute the protagonists and assorted colored peoples are easily swayed to the side of the dark lord (the historical origins of this are explored in The Silmarillion). In Acacia the antagonists are the people of the north, though in the end amity is achieved.
Of course you don’t need to even look that hard to find something with breaks the mould, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea series consciously inverts conventional racial motifs. The civilized people of the world are dark skinned, while the barbarians are clearly substitutes for Europeans. I find Le Guin’s tendency to be rather explicit with what she’s doing in terms of inversion as a “teachable moment” rather ham-handed when it comes to how the ideology interleaves with the plotting. It occupies the foreground a bit too much for my taste. But she’s an acclaimed stylist and world-builder for a reason (I like to think of her as Jerry Pournelle’s mirror image, though his strength is more in world-building than prose style). It also has the virtue of being relatively friendly to children in comparison to Acacia, which is clearly part of the boom of more realistic novels which were published in the wake of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Finally, I need to mention Judith Tarr’s Avaryan Rising series. I won’t describe it in too much detail, but despite the illustration on the cover there really are no white European-like protagonists in the whole series, first to last. But the peoples depicted in these novels are far more exotic than those in either Le Guin or Durham’s universes, and it is somewhat difficult to find easy cognates for them in our world. At the end of the arc of books Tarr actually anchored her Avaryan novels back to our universe. I wonder if that was partly because her own creation in a standalone sense was too exotic to be a plausible secondary world for too many.
The concept of a secondary world is simple. It’s basically the setting for a fantasy novel, and is usually apart, and somewhat different in its basic rules from our own universe. Middle Earth is a classic case. The world of Song of Ice and Fire is another. But one thing about secondary worlds is that our ability to immerse ourselves within them seems to be optimal when they exhibit a fine balance between the lushly alien and the prosaically familiar. This is why this passage from The Washington Post piece is ridiculous:
…Why couldn’t the main characters in these films have been a panoply of diversity? The beauty and ease of diversity in fantasy is that it requires no explanation. It’s fantasy, after all. Just as you don’t have to provide a metaphysical explanation for the existence of a talking snowman, neither would you need to explain why one sister in “Frozen” was Latina, the other white and their dead mother Asian. A fantasy world just is. The strength of the story is all that matters.
No, the strength of the story is not all that matters. World-building is critical, and that needs coherency and clarity. Fantasy is not the same as magical realism. As I note above the most successful fantasy series tend to be those embedded within a backdrop with definite allusions to the lineaments of our world in its order and structure. Tolkien’s world-building was strongly derivative of our own, as is Martin’s. The human imagination has limits, and the reality is that most fantasy authors simply rearrange the cognitive furniture which we find familiar in a plausible but mildly exotic manner. Some barely make a pretense at hiding the origins of their secondary world as a shadow of our own. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series which began with King’s Dragon is based upon 10th century Europe, with a focus upon Ottonian Saxony. She even creates social-cultural analogs to the Christian church, Islam, as well as historical events and personages such as the Byzantine princess Theophanu.
The key in a plausible secondary world is that the familiar is turned interestingly alien, but not too much. Elliott’s very familiar world has elves and assorted supernatural entities. In addition, the relations between men and women are much more egalitarian and complementary than they were in the real 10th century (the clerical elite of the quasi-Christian religion are generally women). This points to the reality that fantasy in literary form can be quite diverse in the way that it modulates and inflects its source material toward the unfamiliar or strange. The author Ricardo Pinto created a very exotic world which is hard to place in relation to our own in his novel The Chosen, but he specifically included a strong gay theme through the series. If you want something with a Christian tinge, Stephen R. Lawhead is there for you. And so on. Strange as it may seem, the best speculative fiction probably consists of minimally counter-intuitive ideas peppered through a conventional setting and story. That is why stories which are exclusively about non-humanoid species, such as in John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time, are not very common. And it is probably why a hard science fiction author prone to extruding very startling futures such as Greg Egan is often acclaimed, but is unlikely to become a bestselling author.
The subtle balance between these variables which lend exoticism and plausibility is why “race blind casting” in fantasy novels is probably not feasible. There are plenty of series with characters of different races playing leading roles, but because they are often pre-industrial secondary worlds all the individuals have to have their own ethnic back-story. It has to make sense in some way that is plausible to us as we understand the pre-industrial world to be. The fact is that it seems likely our native “folk taxonomy” is such that most people would find a “white” mother and father with a biological “Asian” child in a secondary world is ridiculous without some explanation. Fantasy can only be so ridiculous before it loses it allure.
* You might find this Brandon Sanderson piece about the downsides of Tolkien looming so large in modern fantasy interesting.
Note: I’d like to note that the correspondence of secondary worlds to our world holds for Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. It’s vaguely set in an Abbasid-like world.