Once again, two rants with equal numbers of votes. Once again, choosing the one I want to do more, because the arranged marriage one is currently scaring me.
Definition time! I don’t mean fantasy worlds where a human character spends some time among nonhumans, or even ones in which a group of, say, elves and humans live in complete harmony. I’m talking here about worlds where the moral, cultural, political, social, and magical center is nonhuman. This doesn’t prohibit human characters. It does prohibit humans from being the self-satisfied “consumers” or “tourists” that they’re presented as in most fantasy novels whenever they confront a race or species nor their own. The most common position for a human in these kinds of novels would be on the defensive, isolated, outcast, exile, or lower-class. If he’s not, then that tilts the power balance back in the direction of humans again.
1) The social and political landscape will be theirs.
Should I be biased here? Oh, why not?
That means that not every government has to be a monarchy.
I’ve read all sorts of arguments about why monarchies are inevitable in human societies, why they work best for us, blah blah blah blah blah. I remain utterly unconvinced that they would necessarily work best for elves (one of my guilty pleasures with The Silmarillion is how many High Kings of the Elves die gruesome, if noble, deaths) or dragons or dwarves or gryphons. They may have long enough lives that the thought of one person in power until death is sickening. They may not give the same importance to blood family that humans do, so blood inheritance of business is right out, never mind whole nations. They may have conducted social experiments, observed that monarchy doesn’t work for them, and kicked it out the door. They may not be socially cohesive enough to form nations at all.
It was adoration of intelligent nonhumans that made me fall in love with fantasy in the first place; Lewis’s Talking Beasts were the reason I read the Narnia sequence, and Tolkien’s Elves were what enthralled me about LOTR. (Also, that they had their own languages. But I digress). So long as the author works out an interesting and internally consistent explanation as to why this species is this way, I see no reason that nonhumans couldn’t form successful democracies, or theocracies, or meritocracies, or communes, or tribal groups, or any other of a dozen systems that humans don’t think of as “natural.”
That goes for social groups, too. The usual tack in fantasy is to portray nonhumans having either everything that humans have—churches, social classes, schools, cities, cliques of friends, political factions—or as lacking in one of those things, and being the poorer for it. Very few authors seem interested in granting the nonhumans a social group that would never form in human society, but works here because of reason X. Of course, that’s because the majority of fantasy is set in human-centric worlds, so the question never comes up; everything nonhuman must be judged as equal, wanting, or superior only in terms that humans would recognize as superior, such as having less crime in the society. There is no room for anything Other.
I want to see what Other, portrayed sympathetically and credibly, would look like.
2) Changes for nonhuman physical, mental, and emotional traits would not be weak compromises.
Why authors have dragons use chairs and tables is beyond me. I suppose it leads to “comic” scenes of dragons knocking furniture over, if one is really into that sort of thing. But think about it. Most dragons can’t sit upright, and most of them don’t have a reason to imitate formal human customs of dining. If they shapeshift into humans—must you?—maybe they could have them, yeah, but there’s no reason for them to be intimately familiar with every nuance of human furnishings. That’s privileging human perspective and arguing that every species that isn’t human must want to be.
The point here: nonhuman species on their own ground have no reason to be made uncomfortable by their own bodies. Just because you might want a house your human protagonist could feel comfortable in is no reason to scale it down that way when the host is a gryphon six times human height. Just because a human might feel a little dizzied by walkways high in the air without railings on them is no reason for elves with an incredible sense of balance and utter comfort in trees to act to “protect” themselves against threats that are no threats. Just because you might not want to imagine trolls naked is no reason that, with bark-like or stone-like skin, they wouldn’t go naked. Think about this. It’s one thing to have a character who’s a guide for the reader comparing unfamiliar objects and places with his own soothingly familiar home. It’s another thing altogether to have human objects—many of which are specific not to “humans” in general but to Western, twenty-first-century humans—appear in recognizable form among every other species when they would have no need or use for them.
Then there’s the mental and emotional aspect. Would a species that lives ten thousand years insist that its children act all grown up by age twenty-one? Would a species that had five emotions, one of which is not grief, be outraged when no one mourns the death of a close friend? Would a species with perfect memory have a huge store of platitudes about how wonderful forgetfulness was? (If they do, it most often comes from gazing enviously at humans, which just goes right back to saying how wonderful humans are). We create stories and social expectations and social institutions and relationships and dozens or hundreds of other things that we feel comfortable with, or which aspire to an ideal that, for other reasons, we feel comfortable with. A nonhuman society can obey its own emotional and mental imperatives without picking up the Approved Human Checklist and looking to see if anything’s too alien for a different species to handle. The elves don’t do it for the dwarves; why should they do it for the humans?
(If nothing else, this could act as a useful brake against adding twenty-first-century mores to what is supposed to be a different world).
3) Humans are low man on the totem pole; get used to it.
There is a reason, I’m assuming, that this particular nonhuman species or combination of species is at the center of the world. Decide what it is. Get used to it. Then, if you wish, show the humans in relation to that.
Steven Brust does a wonderful job of this with the Dragaera novels, and it’s the main reason I like his work so much. Dragaerans are longer-lived than humans (to the tune of 2000-3000 years longer), taller, stronger, usually have access to more powerful and better-developed magic among the noble classes, accept a distinctly different standard of morality that allows for different kinds of unity—their genes dictate their character, and their Empire is divinely ordained, and most of them don’t have a problem with that—and are much more casually violent than humans. As a result, they dominate their world, and even call themselves “human,” because they wish to. Humans are “Easterners,” because they come from the East of the Dragaeran Empire, and are divided into a number of smaller kingdoms that most Dragaerans don’t bother to know anything about. When the Empire has a magical crisis, then the humans take the opportunity to invade; when the Empire recovers from the magical crisis, the position is reversed, and right quick. Humans in the Empire are usually regarded as little more than vermin, casually discriminated against and killed. The human hero of the Vlad Taltos novels is constantly aware of himself as an outsider, compromised by the fact that he’s absorbed so much Dragaeran culture and his best friends are all Dragaeran.
I admire this, because to me Brust never compromises and declares that there’s something inherently better about the Easterners that live in squalor just because they live in squalor, or has Dragaerans pause and come to contrived “revelations” out of the blue about how the lives of people that don’t matter to them really do matter. Vlad’s friends talk about conquering the East in front of him, as if he won’t care. That adds a dark and bitter tinge to the books, but it works. (Notably, the Khaavren Romances, books told from a Dragaeran point of view, are considerably lighter, because told from the center of the world, and Easterners hardly appear at all).
Of course, you don’t have to bring humans into this world (see point 4). But if you do, remember, always, whose point of view you’re talking from. It’s not fading, dying elves and strong, fertile humans here, as in the usual cliché. If you decide to change a bunch of people’s minds and move towards equality of the species, it’s not humans you’ll have to convince.
4) “Nonhuman” != “intolerably alien.”
There’s this idea that humans must appear in every fantasy world, because otherwise a human reader has nothing to cling to, and the story will become intolerably alien in its focus on a nonhuman society.
First of all, I wouldn’t consider a lot of fantasy races nonhuman in any sense. Elves are too often humans with pointed ears, and if you gave a typical fantasy wizard the ability to breathe fire and fly and snarl, he could be a dragon as draconic as anything most authors get going. So until authors manage to avoid that implanting of familiar mores and societal structures and everything else in a supposedly nonhuman society, they’ve got nothing to worry about.
Second, I’m of the firm belief that a good author can carry me into the viewpoint of any character and write it well enough that I’ll understand that character. (That isn’t the same thing as sympathy, which is why I can enjoy a well-written antagonist while not agreeing with his goals—or, for that matter, I can comprehend what drives a typical fantasy teenager while disliking her whining). With a nonhuman, there will need to be more explanation, sure.
But you know what? I think that explanation works best when it’s not conscious. In the Steven Brust books I mentioned above, the Dragaerans whose POV he writes don’t walk around thinking, “My, I live in a violent society, and here’s the latest list of statistics on those killed in the last year.” Instead, they fight duels, kill people as a warning—they possess magic that can bring back the dead if the dead person isn’t wounded in brain or spinal cord—use soul-eating swords, exact bloody vengeance without a second thought, and march peasant armies off to wars baldly over territory because, well, they’re peasants. A well-constructed, well-written book that puts a human reader solidly in a nonhuman’s POV would probably be considerably less prone to monologue and infodump than most ordinary human-centered fantasies, which feel the need to drizzle information all over the page about things they’d be better subtly leading readers to appreciate.
So feel free to write all the worlds without humans you want. (And then come and tell me about them, because I’d like to read more).
5) “The unthinkable” becomes much stranger.
This gets a special mention because of how often fantasy is about “the unthinkable”—the destruction of the world, the destruction of a particular race (or multiple races, if the whole world is threatened), the rising of the ancient evil that cannot be let out under any circumstances. If this happened, it would be Bad. So everyone has to work to their utmost to insure that this does not happen.
I don’t think a nonhuman-centered world would necessarily have the same definitions of the unthinkable. The destruction of the world, okay, maybe, since they live in that world too and presumably would like to continue their lives. But what does “destruction of the world”mean, anyway? Most of the time, in fantasy, it’s not actual physical disintegration, or even a wide-ranging plague or famine. It’s the Dark Lord taking over a certain area.
…And if the Dark Lord took over an area that the nonhumans cared nothing about? Or if they lived in a world that wouldn’t produce a singular Dark Lord, because magic is inherent in everyone and powerful in almost everyone, and deals with demons and gods are common? What then?
The same thing happens when you start contemplating the destruction of races. The humans in most fantasies are somehow able to hitch up the help of everybody else when the Dark Lord threatens to kill them. On the other hand, they shed tears for the fading elves, and the dying dragons, and the dwarves whose birth rate is mysteriously declining, but they did nothing to help them. And we’ve seen in our own world that a ton of people care nothing about others of their own species, if they’re part of a different group or on the other side of the world. There’s nothing that automatically guarantees a powerful nonhuman group would care about a group of humans in the Dark Lord’s path, or if humans went extinct, or whether or not humans were made slaves. They could care, but they don’t have to, and depending on how the author has imagined them, they might have excellent reasons not to.
Similarly, a war could take place among the nonhumans without involving humans. If the nonhumans were dragons, capable of flight, breathing fire, and magic, and invulnerable to such weapons as the humans possessed, it’s hard to see what place humans would have in the conflict, other than perhaps as spies, saboteurs, or snacks.
And then there’s the ancient evil. Usually the ancient evil has done something twenty-first-century humans find objectionable, such as murder, rape, torture, and enslavement. Does your nonhuman race find those objectionable? Should they? Perhaps they don’t even have a definition for murder that’s separate from killing in general, or refuse to help because the humans can’t explain to them why this ancient evil killing people slowly is different from human soldiers killing people in wars.
I want to see someone try to write high fantasy from within a truly nonhuman culture. (Tolkien did, somewhat, but there’s a lot of explanation embedded in the books to let the hobbits, and thus the audience, understand how the world looks from outside the hobbit perspective). The number of assumptions that would have to be revised looks fun.
6) Nonhuman magic can be varied, too.
Just a quick note: Human magic is often presented as varied, rule-laden, with all kinds of different effects and talents. A Fire mage can’t do what a Water mage can do, and a bard who creates magic with his music is different from someone who speaks to animals, and so on.
Then why do all elves and all dragons appear to do the exact same magical kinds of things?
It’s annoying, and it speaks to writing from a human perspective, and it presents nonhumans as a block, without individual personalities, skills, talents, or histories. Do consider whether this particular dragon might not also have mastered the ancient skill of drawing magic from moonlight, and not just flying or breathing fire or using claws and teeth and tail and horns.
You’ll probably notice more burble than rant in there. So don’t care. Intelligent nonhumans are still the number one way to attract me to a fantasy book, and the more varied and in-depth they are, the more I like ‘em.