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New Worlds Theory Post: Unfortunate Implications

The last time we had a theory essay, I talked about thinking through the logical results of one’s worldbuilding. Closely related, but not quite the same, are the unfortunate implications that worldbuilding can sometimes have.

By this I mean, not the practical effects on the world — the easy ways to make a kingdom richer or the inevitability of a low-fertility species going extinct — but the message being sent to the reader. I remember one of the first times I read something and, like an optical illusion snapping over to its other interpretation, saw the implicit effect of what was being said. It was in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry is studying wizarding history, and the topic of witch-burning comes up in his textbook:

On the rare occasion that [Muggles, i.e. non-magic people] did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation.

Harry Potter was written as a series for kids (and hadn’t, at this point in time, become the all-ages phenomenon it later turned into), and I strongly suspect the idea here was to reassure the reader that they didn’t need to worry about Harry and his friends being burned at the stake. But: on the rare occasion. Meaning that most of the people arrested and prosecuted in such trials were not actual witches and wizards who could enjoy a gentle, tickling sensation; they were ordinary humans who instead suffered horrifying, excruciating deaths — ones the wizarding world did nothing to save them from.

J.K. Rowling has of course come under intense fire recently for her transphobic politics, but criticisms of her worldbuilding go back to well before that. Many readers have pointed out the way her goblin bankers echo antisemitic stereotypes, or the problem with having innately servile house elves who insist they’re happiest when serving the families they’re bound to. Unfortunate implications like that have a long and inglorious history in fantasy and science fiction, especially back when it was more common for all the humans on the page to be European-coded, leaving non-human species to stand in for other ethnicities. Even when the humans aren’t all white, though, you have to be careful: if you have a Chinese-style empire being overrun and ruled by inhuman creatures from the north, congratulations, you’ve just equated Mongols with monsters. (Or the Jurchens, Khitans, or other steppe peoples.) And if a newly-discovered continent or island has sentient but non-human inhabitants, that risks dehumanizing Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and so forth.

Part of how you guard against this specific issue is by having more diversity on the page. If those creatures from the north have already overrun your world’s Mongol equivalents before setting their sights on that Chinese-style empire, then it looks much less like you’ve swapped in monsters for a real-world culture. If you have a sea full of islands populated by different human groups and then one outlier without them, it feels less like you’re erasing somebody, more like you’re adding something in.

We’re increasingly aware of these issues when they crop up around axes of oppression — race, gender, sexuality, disability, and so forth — but that’s not the only place it can happen. In the multimedia Dragon Age franchise, one of the core conflicts revolves around mages and the religious templar order that, in most nations, is tasked with overseeing and controlling them. My suspicion is that the designers, knowing that audience sympathy would reflexively go toward the mages, attempted to balance this out by emphasizing the danger posed by magic, and therefore the need for oversight to keep everyone else safe.

Unfortunately, they overshot. In my opinion, Dragon Age presents a world that quite simply would be better off without any magic at all.

Mages are highly vulnerable to being possessed by demons — far more so than non-mages are. Mages can use forbidden blood magic to control those around them, and over and over again in the stories, that’s exactly what they do. The one nation where mages are in charge is presented as an evil, slave-holding empire. And because the franchise was built around video games, the vast majority of the magic you see has no purpose other than combat. The templars forcibly relocate mages to guarded enclaves, then apparently teach them little beyond how to kill people; even though healing magic is possible (because it’s useful in combat), you don’t have mages being sent out to provide medical services across the land. Scripture says “magic was meant to serve man, not to rule over him,” but most of the time, that service is nowhere to be seen except in war.

I don’t think this is the message the franchise designers were trying to send, any more than I think George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy was trying to convince me that both the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force can lead to evil. (When your philosophy of non-attachment leads you to walk away from the agonized, screaming remnants of the man you once called “brother,” I call that evil.) But sometimes . . . sometimes you wonder if the implication is there on purpose.

Robert Jordan made no secret of his gender ideology. As he often said in interviews, he believed that men and women were fundamentally different, and you can see that belief playing out in the Wheel of Time, in everything from his characterization to the dynamics of his invented societies to the gendered division of the magic system. The closest that series comes to having a trans character is one male villain who, as punishment for his failures, gets returned to life in a female body. But there’s an additional, less obvious detail which hammers the message home from a new angle: at one point you learn that the Dark One, the setting’s Satan equivalent, was partially freed from his prison by a group of people who were seeking a source of magic that wouldn’t be divided by gender.

In other words, trying to escape the gender binary leads directly to evil.

I don’t know if Jordan would have made such a statement outright or not. But regardless of whether he consciously intended it, that’s the message his books send. Combined with the overt ideology seen elsewhere in the series, it adds up to an uncomfortable result.

As with the logical results of a worldbuilding choice, there’s no checklist for this aspect of writing. The first-line defense against sending messages you don’t intend is simply to be aware: think through your own opinions on sensitive topics, then keep those opinions in mind when you write. Know the negative stereotypes, and don’t let autopilot put those in out of habit. Ask yourself who in the story is being oppressive, and who’s not oppressing but is just ignoring problems, as Rowling’s witches and wizards ignored the burning of innocent scapegoats. Include enough variety and diversity that an absence can reasonably be chalked up to not everything fitting into every single story, rather than to hurtful erasure; don’t use magical creatures to stand in for real-world populations.

And again: get other eyes on it. Beta readers, agents, and editors can all help, as can specific consultants when you know you’re dealing with an issue that could go badly wrong. But outside eyes aren’t a replacement for making yourself more aware of what you’re writing, so you can catch the problems before they’re baked in.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: Unfortunate Implications”

  1. Just a side thought, but one of my biggest problems with the Star Wars universe – one I don’t think I’ve seen acknowledged much, either – is that it is also a slave economy.

    The robots are clearly sentient and aware – and just as clearly, property, with a clear expectation that they have to follow any order by their owner(s). That part makes me uncomfortable, and it really is just part of the background world that nobody talks about.

    1. Ooof, yes. I’ll admit that I never stopped and looked straight at that one myself, but now that you’ve said it . . . not gonna be able to unsee that.

      1. It actually took me a few years, but it was on a rewatch of the original trilogy that all of a sudden I thought, “hang on a minnit, you’re *buying and selling* language-speaking, intelligent, clearly self-aware entities, capable of both anticipatory fear and friendship, and when people talk about disassembling them for parts nobody’s even batting an eye….” and all of a sudden “…but Master Luke” really hit different.

        And then yes, it’s the entire franchise, and once you see it, you really can’t unsee it.

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