The above was written by one Saladin Ahmed
. Here’s his educational background
He holds a BA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, and an MA in English from Rutgers….
The fact that Ahmed could write something as unhinged from reality as the concluding paragraph to his Salon piece tells us more about his own educational-cultural milieu than it does about the literature and the authors of the literature in question itself. The real pre-modern period was soaked in xenophobia and racism. Ahmed is likely well read enough to have encountered the works of Ibn Battuta, the great Arab Muslim ethnographer and travel writer of the medieval period. Ibn Battuta’s work bleeds with unexamined parochialism, prejudice, and xenophobia against other races and non-Muslims. But he was frankly a man of his time.
George R. R. Martin has been queried about the sex and brutality which pervades his work. One of his common responses has been that the past was characterized by sex and brutality. It is in other words, a feature not a bug. The darkness lends his epic an air of this-worldy verisimilitude which is often lacking in J. R. R. Tolkien’s more high toned creation. The same could be said for Martin’s depiction of ethnic differences, conflicts, and perceptions.
One of course one might interject here that the viewpoints expressed by Martin are still through quasi-Eurocentric eyes (the Andals and First Men do not exist after all). But that makes narrative sense; the ultimate center of the story arc is fixed upon Westeros. When given page time Martin has a tendency of humanizing characters which were otherwise evil caricatures. The lack of nuance given to non-quasi-European characters is almost certainly in part due to their lack of page time. You might demand that Martin write with a more objective anthropological tone, but A Song of Ice and Fire is not an ethnographic monograph. It’s narrative fiction, and the world-building is secondary to the plot and character.
My standard response to people who complain about “racism” in X works of literature is that you should write yourself! But Ahmed has done us the favor of doing so, his Throne of the Crescent Moon has been well reviewed. If you want to invert the standard Eurocentric narrative in fantasy fiction, where white is implicitly or explicit right, then you can immerse yourself in Judith Tarr’s Avaryan Rising, or if you prefer it done more subtly, David Anthony Durham’s Acacia.
Let me quote from a description of Ahmed’s novel to show you how it can get silly very quickly:
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, land of djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, Khalifs and killers, is at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings:
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “The last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety, is eager to deliver God’s justice. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia….
Notice all the references to the supernatural and the religious piety of the protagonist. It’s a fact that a lot of fantasy fiction assumes the existence of supernatural agents, of gods. Many of the protagonists are depicted as pious and godly, as if these are good things, rather than mental delusions. As an atheist who rejects the supernatural I wonder why there are no atheist viewpoint characters, or worlds where there isn’t a reference to supernatural agents and activities?
If I did wonder these things I’d be a narcissistic fool. I imagine someone could create a materialist based medieval secondary world. But it would be more a curiosity, or an exercise in the alternative. Pre-modern societies were pervaded by belief in the supernatural, so I’m not particularly surprised if it crops up (works of fantasy which avoid explicit supernaturalism, such as Anne McCaffery’s Pern and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover turn out to be cases of science fiction upon closer inspection).