Tuesday, February 25, 2014

National Association for the Advancement of Pointy-Eared People

A post at Lurking Rhythmically reminded me of a lesson that SF/Fantasy/Role-Playing Gaming had been (completely inadvertently, I might add) trying to teach me since adolescence, and yet I only really began to grasp fairly recently:
Us humans, we can do anything. I can't, for the life of me, remember the source of the quote, nor can I the quote itself, but on Star Trek, probably Deep Space Nine, there was a quote about humans that's stuck with me. You take 10 Klingons, you've got 10 fierce warriors. 10 Ferengi, you've got 10 shrewd businessmen. 10 Romulans, 10 expert spies. But you take 10 humans, you don't know *what* you're dealing with. They could be anything. 
What you get is ten bigots. Because, see, humans, specifically the humans that wrote that script, look at ourselves as "people" and the other people, the ones with the pointy ears or the furry feet or the bony ridges on their foreheads, as "archetypes".

All Klingons are honor-loving warriors. All dwarves are beer-swilling Lawful Good blacksmiths with, for some reason, bad fake Scottish accents. All elves are ethereal granola-munching bunny-hugging archers. But humans are people and therefore can be good or evil, horticulturalists or mechanical engineers, priests or physicists, saints or monsters.

In Dungeons & Dragons, dwarves can't be rangers and halflings can't be magic users, but humans can be any character class. In Star Trek, the United Federation of Planets is a galaxy-spanning polyspecies polity, but the officer's mess on any Starfleet vessel looks more like a board meeting at Augusta National than it does the cantina in Star Wars. The most homogenous, conformist technological society on planet Earth has everything from tattooed yakuza to sumo wrestlers to lolita cosplayers, but you could title a documentary on Klingons Fifty Shades of Worf.

A perceptive Younger Me would have tipped to this earlier, and maybe wondered if it had any application in the real world whenever I heard "All men are..." or "All redheads are..." or "All Chinese people are..." Ah well, we live and we learn. Or at least one would hope that we do.
.

110 comments:

Paul said...

It does seem strange that.

LoFan John said...

I read long ago that nearly every primitive human society that was studied called themselves "the people" and had other names for the other human groups they encountered. The technology advances, but...

og said...

"Or at least one would hope that we do."

Don't hold your breath or it will make you blue

Keith said...

TV tropes calls this "Planet of Hats". Humanity is not immune from this and when we do get a hat usually it's an army helmet. I wonder what that says about how we view ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point.

DS9 at least tried to shake this up a bit. Going back and watching Next Generation, with all its stifling conformity, makes me feel like I'm watching a series based on the lives of a crew working for Alliance of Planets--I get twitchy and start wondering how I get out of here and find me some browncoats.

Matt G said...

Remember that Star Trek was generalizing for economy(of script, of time, of actor's wages, of viewers' attention spans)'s sakes. The average adult TV drama in the 1960's and '70s and even '80s had no more than 9 or 10 main and recurring characters. Meanwhile, modern (post Y2k) shows can dozens.

So it was that not only did you get a representative Klingon, Romulan, or Ferengi, but you also had the entire command staff acting as the away teams.

Come to think of that, it just now occurs to me what a fan of Patrick O'Brien that Gene Roddenberry must have been, with his thinly-veiled Aubrey-Maturin space-based video penny dreadfuls. In retrospect, it's almost surprising that we never saw Kirk and McCoy join up in violin/cello duets. (Oh, I know; Roddenbery would made it Kirk and Spock. But still.)

New Iconoclast said...

It seems to be epidemic in all fantasy fiction, probably due to the difficulties inherent in representing the diversity of peoples in multiple worlds of billions of inhabitants. Heaven knows it's hard enough to do it in our own world, but when worlds collide, some simplification and stereotyping is inevitable.

That said, I've known DMs who blew off some of those constraints, and the games have been more interesting...

Tam said...

Keith,

Thanks for the reminder! I knew I'd read about it at the Tropes before, but couldn't remember what they called it.

(Although only a right bastard would send someone to TV Tropes in the middle of the workday. ;) )


Matt G,

I get that, but I'm not just talking about the casting.

When you have time to fall down the wikihole, the whole Planet of Hats subbranch at TV Tropes covers this pretty thoroughly.

Tam said...

New Iconoclast,

I'm picturing the momma halfling with her little daughter on her knee, telling her "Yes, honey, you can be anything you want to be when you grow up. Except a magic user. That's on page 30 of the Player's Handbook." :D


*Note To Aspie Readers: I did not actually go up to the attic to see what page that's on in the PHB so don't bother going to check.

bluesun said...

Isn't it just s little bit... suspicious that the writers are all humans? It's a conspiracy, I say!

Themadlemming said...

As a geek, I feel it is my solemn duty to point out that, in 3rd and 4th editions of D&D, any race can be any class. I shall now go back to my room and weep.

Tam said...

bluesun,

"To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different. Or to shepherds."

Matt said...

1st and 2nd edition D&D were like that, but 3rd Ed and onwards allowed any race to choose any class. There were some incentives to choose 'traditional' classes, but it only really came into play if you were trying to multiclass. So, an elf could be a paladin, or a wizard, or a rogue, or whatever, but if he wanted to multiclass, one of those classes had better be wizard or he'd be penalized.

But yeah, interesting to see such 'progressive' shows as Star Trek adhering to rigid conformity based on race and culture.

Tam said...

I should have known this post would invoke my Indian name. ;)

TBeck said...

The racial limitations were deliberate on Gary Gygax's part. Humans were supposed to be the generalists; they could be anything. Other races were supposed to conform to the template and there were strong incentives not to stray. But they got infravsion.

In Star Wars, the Emperor was a sexist xenophobe who only promoted officers from the right boarding schools.

The Star Trek SFX budget could only support forehead appliances.

Mark Philip Alger said...

I've always derided the monoculture worldbuilding in SF literature. The agri planet, the water world, the jungle planet, the industrial hellhole. The most admired works have this failing (Geidi Prime anyone?) Doesn't anyone building these fantasy worlds take Earth as a model?

perlhaqr said...

I should have known this post would invoke my Indian name. ;)

"Summoner-of-Pedants"?

Tam said...

TBeck,

Honest question: Which of those do you think is news to me?

Tam said...

"The Star Trek SFX budget could only support forehead appliances."

...and the script department could only support 2-D cutouts for the Space Russians! :D

Anonymous said...

Why wouldn't other alien species specialize? There are plenty of examples here on Earth of hugely successful organisms that have clearly defined roles.

Gerry

Garrett Lee said...

Alger,

There are ones who do so. If you want a good example, read the Empire of Man series by David Weber and John Ringo. You really do get the sense that it's a true [i]planet[/i] that they are crossing to get to the spaceport and home.

Anonymous said...

A lot of Trek fans would consider themselves "progressive" and open-minded, but I've always thought that the generalizations were close to what we would call prejudice or racism. "Klingons and Romulans are warriors, Ferengi are greedy," etc. That's very similar to, "Jews are crafty, blacks are lazy, Italians are gangsters, Irish are drunks," and so on.

Knox said...

"We are very slightly changed
From the semi-apes who ranged
India's Prehistoric clay"

Matt G said...

"
...and the script department could only support 2-D cutouts for the Space Russians! :D


It always has bothered me that ol' Pavel Chekov had exactly one defining characteristic, and that was that he confused his V's and his W's. We learned more about him in a couple of scenes when Khan put an ant lion in his ear than in three seasons worth of episodes.

Mike_C said...

I've always derided the monoculture worldbuilding in SF literature
Who was it that mocked this tendency with descriptions like "Regulus IV, planet of the parking lots" and so forth?

The racial limitations were deliberate on [E.] Gary Gygax's part.
Not only was there a race bar in terms of professions, there were also glass ceilings in terms of leveling out in at least one version of the Rules. Plus, "friendly" races were also all shorter than humans, IIRC. It's been literally decades since I looked at the rule books, but weren't male Elves supposed to average 5'5" or something? Kinda makes you wonder how tall E.G.G. was....

Damn it, Tam. That was like sticking a lancet into a boil of geekiness, and all manner of repressed memories are oozing out. Aargh. Speaking of which, anyone remember the kerfuffle about their being named demons in the rule books, and someone (probably E.G.G.) pitching a snit fit about how he would forbid anyone from putting named angels into their games? Sheesh, you'd have just as much luck doing that as, say, forbidding people from writing Hillary/Snape slash (Ewww).

will_1400 said...

Well, that's an interesting spin on it. And it makes a startling amount of sense.

Kristophr said...

Hmmm ... the very notion that someone knows where their copy of their D&D player's handbook is is kinda scary.

Although I guess I coulda got a Benjamin for my copy of Chainmail if I had stored it.

Kristophr said...

Mike_C:

If you take out named demons, then players can't freak out DMs with the Hastur-Hastur-Hastur song.

John Balog said...

Meh, a lot of stereotypes get that way for a reason. "All X are Y" is never accurate, but it's not generally used literally. It's a convenient shorthand for "Most members of X are like Y" and that tends to be very true. Culture and race are not the same, but given how closely they tend to correlate within a given society it's not surprising that people conflate them. Sub-cultural groups are fractal and never ending, but when the fact that there are lazy pot smoking hippy Klingons and naive tie dyed Peace Corps Ferengi has no bearing on the story it doesn't surprise me it isn't mentioned. Chekhov's gun and all that.

Windy Wilson said...

Matt G, that and the fact that to Chekov everything was "Inwented vit' the help uff dee Russians."

This Aubrey Maturin thing isn't new, David Gerrold, writer for the episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" referred to Star Trek as being Hornblower in space, referencing the series by C S Forester, also the author, incidentally, of "The African Queen". Roddenberry himself saw it as something like "Wagon Train, a popular series in the early 60's, with guest stars dropping by to provide the story and drama.
And I noticed long ago that every comedy I saw as a child seemed to have seven regular characters, the only exception apparently being "Please Don't Eat the Daisies", which is not an exception if you count Ladd the dog.

Windy Wilson said...

And, Lofan John, I recall reading that every primitive tribe used names for itself that implied they were human beings and the others were merely people, which may not be that far different from what you said.

And the new meme about chimpanzees being aggressive and war like but the bonobos being more peaceful, and the apes and gorillas being different again in some way or another strikes me as being a sort of natural history example of this, with the homo sapiens being the group that amalgamates all these traits into something called "human".

Mike_C said...

> about their being named demons.... Gah! "their"

If you take out named demons, then players can't freak out DMs with the Hastur-Hastur-Hastur song.
Hah! Learned something just now: thought "Hastur" was some Marion Zimmer Bradley novel [/geek fail] and had to look it up. I thought the official discouragement of named angels was because it was a pretty short trip from, say, the archangel Michael as an NPC to "how many hit points does Jesus have?" and the D&D franchise didn't need that sort of publicity -- you can bet there would've been an $#!t storm if that one hit the press. (Obvious remark about the hurricane of $#!t that would happen if someone substituted "M*hammed" for "Jesus" withheld.)

Meh, a lot of stereotypes get that way for a reason.
This is very true. It's just remarkably non-PC to acknowledge this, of course (so good on you!). We used to joke about this in high school: how many "Asian" stereotypes each of us hit, such as:
* in advanced placement classes
* plan on Engineering or pre-Med in college
* play a stringed instrument or piano
* play a racquet sport
* glasses
and so forth


Star Trek as being Hornblower in space
Hunh. Didn't know people thought that about Star Trek. Now Honor Stephanie Harrington is definitely Horatio S. Hornblower in space (with bonus Space Mormons!), while David Drake's Cinnabar series is Aubrey-Maturin in space.

MonteG said...

The first thing that popped into my head when reading this post was, "The Federation is no more than a homo sapiens-only club."
https://vimeo.com/16411531

Then, I thought of the Next Generation episode, "The Chase," where they kind of explain why most of the aliens in the galaxy are so humanoid.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chase_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

Then, I thought of Farscape, which did a pretty good job of having aliens that weren't quite so human-looking.

Then, someone threw a wadded up ball of foil past me, and I ran after it, yelling "ooh, shiny!"

Will said...

Never cared for TNG of Star Trek. I quickly termed the show "Middle Managers In Space". No real problem solving, just maneuvering for position. At least Kirk was willing to shoot when required.

rocinante2 said...

Oh, dear. I'm going to have to be a pedant meself...

It's not possible that Roddenberry was inspired by Patrick O'Brian's novels, since the first of the Aubrey-Maturin series was published in the US in 1969 (just as Star Trek was going off the air) and a year later in O'Brian's native UK. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Roddenberry stated on multiple occasions that Forester's Hornblower was a major inspiration for Kirk. (I first heard the Great Bird say so in a recorded 1976 interview on this album: http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Inside_Star_Trek)

I suspect that Forester's influence is seen in (former bomber pilot) Roddenberry's use of naval ranks and terminology for his fictional starships and not the much-more-likely Air Force structure. (I have to agree, and as much as I love Marko's novels, it's just wrong to have a colonel in command of a starship...)

NotClauswitz said...

Dogs playing poker - which one is passing the Ace? The bulldog, but only the woods and rocks know it.

Reminds me of the Mushroom People of the Berkeley-Bayarea. When you say something non-progressive they can't mentally digest it and their heads explode in a toxic cloud of Smug-spoor dust. While dead from the neck up it bothers them not, and they just grow a new head-appendage full of more toxic dust, but if you're too close you might get caught in a Diversity Seminar where diversity is divided by zero and they put you in a Tesla Gulag, out behind the University...

Ken said...

As far as the bunny-hugger bit goes, I was going to name-check Beleg CĂșthalion, but I guess I'm late to the party as usual. ;-)

I remember reading Gygax's rationale* in AD&D but never gave it much thought. The Dark Side of the Planet of Hats is "only humans have free will," which is not an idea I much like.

*I also recall reading (maybe back in undergrad days) an editorial by Gygax Dragonlord in The Dragon in which he opined that people who used anything other than official TSR materials and supplements were not really playing D&D, but rather "playing at" D&D. I wasn't in marketing at the time, but I recognized codswallop when I saw it nonetheless.

Overload in Colorado said...

Back when I started playing D&D, elf and dwarf were classes!

Matt G said...

@rocinante2:
I can't believe that I missed that, when I linked the series here! :) Because O'Brien had been active before Star Trek, I had just assumed that it had predated the SF series.

And I fully agree that, once we have an interstellar armed military service, they should follow the naval traditions.

Tam said...

Overload in Colorado,

"Back when I started playing D&D, elf and dwarf were classes!"

It was strange to me the way that D&D and AD&D became two very different games in the early '80s. I think it was with the 4th version of D&D in '83.

markm said...

"Doesn't anyone building these fantasy worlds take Earth as a model?" Jack Vance's Alastor Cluster books had variegated cultures on each planet.

hygate said...

"What you get is ten bigots. Because, see, humans, specifically the humans that wrote that script, look at ourselves as "people" and the other people, the ones with the pointy ears or the furry feet or the bony ridges on their foreheads, as "archetypes"."

Anonymous said...

Matt G. It would have been a trick for Roddenberry to be inspired by Aubrey-Maturin, given that the first book in that series was published in '69, after the TV series was already on the air.

Tam said...

Matt G,

In TOS, the Klingons were the Space Eurasians and the Romulans were the space Eastasians. The Federation was noble and pure Oceania.

hygate said...

"What you get is ten bigots. Because, see, humans, specifically the humans that wrote that script, look at ourselves as "people" and the other people, the ones with the pointy ears or the furry feet or the bony ridges on their foreheads, as "archetypes"."

That's because they are archetypes.

"the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies : prototype; also : a perfect example"

Anonymous said...

The name of the nation called 'Wales' comes comes from Old English Walum, which means 'foreigners'. That is funny, because the Welsh were the original occupants of Britain!

pst314 said...

"The Federation is no more than a homo sapiens-only club."

Remember the Star Trek episode in which a Federation Starship crewed by Vulcans is destroyed? There were hints here and there that the Federation was not as uniform as you recall.

Anonymous said...

Wait wait. Why are you so closed-minded that you think all species would embrace openness and nonconformity to the extent that we 21st Century humans do? Might they instead favor tradition and coalescence behind a single Ideal Drawf (bearded, portly, natural sprinters) or whatnot? This certainly happens in some cultures, even in America: take the Amish, or the Hasidim.

So when an author invents some elves, and says "these elves, they like trees. ALL OF THEM." That's not bigoted. In fact it's the opposite. It's much more bigoted to assume that all cultures would share your own value of pluralism.

Let us return to the actual defintion of a bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bigot

Tam said...

"Wait wait. Why are you so closed-minded that you think all species would embrace openness and nonconformity to the extent that we 21st Century humans do? Might they instead favor tradition and coalescence behind a single Ideal Drawf (bearded, portly, natural sprinters) or whatnot? This certainly happens in some cultures, even in America: take the Amish, or the Hasidim. "

So some humans are Amish and Hasidim... and some are Masai or London punk rockers or Texas cowboys... but all Elves are flower-arrangers.

Your argument contains its own refutation. :)

Anonymous said...

I must respectfully disagree on the "Star Trek species generalization is bigotry" premise.
All races were generalized in Star Trek, humans included. Humans couldn't do everything, far from it. To a Klingon, humans were weak, honorless pacifists. To a Ferengi, humans were naive marks. To a Vulcan, humans were irrational, emotion-driven messes.

When one proposes the writing was simple bigotry, this is nothing but a gross over simplification of the worlds that were created and what we got to see of them. For example, we only saw the Ferengi trade ships.....hence of course they were all greedy merchants. We never got to see the diversity of their broader culture that brought them to space. One has to use imagination....the writers can't do everything for you.
But for many of the species, individual episodes/movies moved the curtain aside. We did see soft family-oriented Romulans at times. We did see diplomatic, philosophic Klingons also.

Complaints about the lack of diversity on the TNG bridge is also a bit overblown. Star Fleet likes intellectual managers. Remember all the trouble Kirk would get in? Picard was the natural product of Star Fleet, as were most of his officers.
And why would one expect other races on a human ship, let alone the bridge? It was a ship within the Federation, yes, but still a human ship. How many other races were on Vulcan ships?


I've geeked out enough for today, but it is difficult to let such PC-driven self hating go.

Tam said...

Anon 10:36,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOtmdHiCJNY

(And you can take your "PC-driven self-hating" remark, fold it 'til it's all sharp corners, and shove it up your ingonrant ass, fuckstick.)

jeff said...

Perhaps in that reality, The vast majority of: Klingons are fiece warriors. Ferengi are shrewd businessmen. Romulans are expert spies. Why do you assume that all life form evolved just like it did on earth? Kind of intergalactic speciest for one to assume this. Tough call, what with it being make believe and all.

Noah D said...

Kristophr,

the very notion that someone knows where their copy of their D&D player's handbook is is kinda scary.

Huh? Mine are on the lowest shelf, the place of the unused books.* Why is that scary?

*Traveller reprints, Apocalypse World, and Fate are on the middle shelf, the place of utility and honor.

Noah D said...

Tam,

In TOS, the Klingons were the Space Eurasians and the Romulans were the space Eastasians. The Federation was noble and pure Oceania.

Okay, I had not thought about it that way. Going to have to chew on that one for a while.

Another interesting interpretation (that I've probably inflicted on this combox before) is this:

TOS is the mythology the Federation tells itself about its past. Enterprise is the messy reality.

Likewise, TNG is Federation propaganda. DS9 is the messy reality.

Voyager...doesn't exist. So much wasted potential, I don't know where to begin.

Tam said...

So, if all the Romulans are busy spying and the Klingons are busy warrioring, who's designing those snappy uniforms or inventing the sonic disruptors?

Roderic Fabian said...

In most science fiction aliens represent different aspects of humanity. These aspects are split off from human nature and developed in isolation as a way of illustrating different sides of ourselves. What would a people who are always cool and logical be like? What is the down side of always being like that? Is there perhaps some value in being emotional at times? What about a people who tend to violence and anger all the time? It follows therefore that aliens can't by design take on all the various aspects that humans have. A race of aliens as complex as humans who take on a completely different but complete set of characteristics would be difficult to identify with and less engaging from a story telling standpoint.

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Not quite sure what nerve I hit to generate such a vicious retort.
My comment was primary directed at other comments and I stand by it.

Seeing subtle bigotry in everything instead of accepting that there is a far more complex, swirling mess behind the surface is the very definition of PC-driven self hatred.

D&D is a friggin game. Star Trek is mass entertainment. SF/Fantasy books, as wonderous and diverse as they are, are written by humans working within their own limitations as well as typically within the constraints of commercial success. As much as we love the imaginative creations that they are, only the best and the brightest can bring worlds and peoples to life of such depth that it comes barely within shouting distance of our own enormously complex reality.

Seeing the flaws and limitations in these worlds and calling it bigotry is exactly PC-driven self hatred.
That one may not have considered the flawed premise that these worlds are ripe with bigotry years ago is not because one was ignorant and that this is a new and novel realization, but rather than one had not yet been indoctrinated by PC culture. This culture is training us to see bigotry in everything.

Goober said...

Yup. To further said discussion, it always struck me that every other planet in the galaxy, according to these shows, was more of a nation than a planet.

There generally weren't nations and factions on the other planets. The kilngon planet had klingons on it. There weren't "American" and "European" and "Asian" klingons. Just klingons. Under one ruler, and one government, over the entire planet.

Only humans have nations and races. There are no "brown skinned" and "light skinned" klingons. Just klingons.

I think it made it easier, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

I'd point out that we tend to do the same generalization thing with all species and races outside of ours.

For instance, Saudi Arabians are not all devout Muslims who wear turbans and burkhas, and some of them aren't even Muslim at all. But ask me to picture a saudi, and I've got a picture in my head almost immediately.

Goober said...

I guess they do the same thing with the planets, too.

Desert planet. Ice planet. Jungle planet.

I guess Earth is the only planet in the galaxy that can have all of those things.

Tam said...

Goober,

"I'd point out that we tend to do the same generalization thing with all species and races outside of ours. "

Absolutely. It's the natural human state: Everybody we know is "The People". All fifty or a hundred of us. Those things on the other side of the hill in the other huts are maybe ghosts or monsters or subhumans that are sorta people shaped, but they can't even use speech: They just make weird "Bar-bar-bar" noises with their mouths.

A globe-spanning civilization is really hard for us to comprehend since, as my friend LabRat likes to put it, we're running a really kludgy software package with a fairly recent patch for "pack-hunting carnivore" overlaid on "troop-living arboreal omnivore", none of which really contains solid rules for multinational aerospace conglomerates cooperating to build supersonic jets.

The wonder isn't how well we function in a global world, it's that we function at all. ;)

Dan said...

How in the hell else are we supposed to differentiate the aliens when we don't know how to make them act alien.

They all act like people right? So we have to make them different somehow.

paul a'barge said...

the officer’s mess on any Starfleet vessel looks more like a board meeting at Augusta National

Really, this is completely false.

Why would you make up something like this?

Anonymous said...

So some humans are Amish and Hasidim... and some are Masai or London punk rockers or Texas cowboys... but all Elves are flower-arrangers.

Your argument contains its own refutation. :)


Tam, I appreciate your response, but believe that you misunderstand. The analogy is as follows: Hasidim is to Humans as Klingons are to All Creatures.

Although 21st century humanity, for the most part, values pluralism, it isn't hard to imagine another species, culture, race, etc., that doesn't. The Hasidim example illustrates that actually this does happen within some communities even in the present, known, real world.

Perhaps put another way, it's fair to say the Dwarves are bigots for insisting all their men grow beards (and thus not accepting those who would rather not). But it's unfair to say that an author who created such characters are themselves bigots. To do so betrays your own lack of imagination.

This is not nitpicking. "What you get is ten bigots" is serious talk. It is name calling and psuedo-intellectual bullying. I briefly read through your other posts, and this sort of thing seems uncharacteristic. So I'm not sure what's going on here.

Your valid criticism would be to say that perhaps its unrealistic to believe that dwarves would ever drive their fellow dwarves to such conformity. But this both assumes your own point (that pluralism is the norm) and is not a very interesting blog post. Dwarves, after all, are not real, and archetype is a fine and useful device in story-telling.

Moreover, it goes to the quality of the creation, not the goodness of the creator.

C Taylor said...

"the officer's mess on any Starfleet vessel looks more like a board meeting at Augusta National than it does the cantina in Star Wars."

This is certainly a valid point as far as books and short stories go. For TV shows like Star Trek, however, I always assumed that had much more to do with limited special-effects and make-up budgets. In the Star Trek books and comics it is much easier to add all sorts of races to the crew. I recall for a while there was even a (an?) Horta officer on the Enterprise in the comic books. That is easy to draw and write, but would have been much more of a pain in the butt to do on the TV show.

Having more variety in alien/non-human personality wouldn't be hard, however, as you point out.

Anonymous said...

Love the satire. Although, you're a bit behind the geek details as others have pointed out about how the simplified character/species formats have evolved over time. Unless its...

The parody of complaining about stereotypes decades out of date, which is awesome.

Anonymous said...

We see conformity in alien species. We're supposed to deduce bigotry as the cause. Could be. But man, that's boring. I'm too old to waste my life on that PC crap.

How about this insteqd? Maybe every individual in this alien species *really does* have defining characteristic X. Maybe they really are all the same, because they like it, or can't help it, or whatever. Now that's alien. That's interesting. Why should every alien species conform to some bullshit PC diversity assumptions, anyway?

Greg Hunt said...

I recall an episode of Voyager that dealt with that directly. A species of "Warriors" had technicians that did all the work of inventing and maintaining but were usually invisible (to the camera) because they weren't warriors. One guy was inspired to stand proud as a technologist or something.

Tam said...

"Although 21st century humanity, for the most part, values pluralism..."

What an oddly insular thing to say. A lot, perhaps the statistical majority, of 21st Century humanity outlaws, fears, and shuns pluralism.

What I am finding fascinating, Captain, is all the inferences and meanings people are reading into what I wrote. It's highly illogical. ;)

SGT Ted said...

Why are you complaining about fictional cultural constructs of non-existent humanoids created by an author that are designed to tell the story HE wants to tell?

You aren't being very clever.

Authors are telling a story and no one is really all that much interested in the minutae of whatever diversity would actually exist in a real society. And in order to portray such, the work has to be a Robert Jordan-esque sized effort.

And sometimes, your assumed construct, "diversity", doesn't always exist within those societies. Because it isn't tolerated within those societies.

The Klingons and Romulans racially homogenous and totalitarian societies are plausible and believable, because we have our own examples in the histories of whole peoples operating for centuries under similarly rigid and brutal systems that requires utter conformity and that were very successful cultures.

Think of feudal Japan or old China or Siam/Thailand, where foreigners, especially foreigners with different skin colors, were restricted to certain cities, so that the "poison" of their cultures wouldn't infect their own with contrary ideas. Those societies were in some cases very racially and culturally homogenous and covered vast swaths of territory in their day, being regional military powers.

This post seems to be just service to PC notions of modern diversity, while not examining the very real history of our own planet that gave such ideas to those writers for their stories to begin with.

Tam said...

I can't decide whether to read Anon 12:43 aloud in the voice of Professor Frink or the Comic Book Guy...

Will said...

"Although 21st century humanity, for the most part, values pluralism,"

Bwaaahaaahaaaa!!!!!

Tam said...

SGT Ted,

"Why are you complaining about..."

What makes you think I'm complaining? Where did I complain? I merely made a casual observation, and the butthurt brigade saddled up their whine ponies and charged.

SGT Ted said...

I think I find the blind adherence to and demands that artists conform with the mindless PC, "celebrate diversity" pap in their story telling to be just as closeminded as what is being criticized in the authors original post.

Tam said...

Are you hard of reading, son? Or do you have magic glasses that let you see shit that isn't there?

Robin said...

With the Instalanche, I say:

Well played, Tam.

SGT Ted said...

Where did I complain? I merely made a casual observation, and the butthurt brigade saddled up their whine ponies and charged.

Because you said "What you get is ten bigots."

That isn't a "casual observation". That's a calumny and an insult and assumes you know better as to why the author wrote their story the way they did and what was going on in their mind at the time. Your assumed superiority is showing.

Instead of even examining why the authors are doing what they are doing and where they might draw their inspiration from, you just feel comfortable to call them bigots, because "multiculturalism".

Then, you wonder what the hubbub is about.

SGT Ted said...

"What you have is ten bigots" assumes facts not in evidence.

Tam said...

SGT Ted,

Let me ask you a question: Do you know what "Dunbar's Number" is?

Anonymous said...

You haven't played D&D for a looooooong time.

Combat Missionary said...

Sci-fi and fantasy often have one-dimensional nonhuman characters because as humans, we're mostly interested in humans. Who wants to see two Tellarites making out? Or a Wookiee making out with a Denebian Slime Devil? Not many people (forgive my mixing universes). The story is only a vehicle through which the writer explores issues important to him, and if he's a successful writer, to many people who pay cash for a story they like because on some level, they relate to it.

What do baseball, football, hockey, ballet, opera, WWE, sci-fi, fantasy and JJ Abrams movies all have in common? There's a big enough demographic that's interested in the basic human themes being explored that the creators of said entertainment get paid for creating it.

There ARE nonhuman characters that are three-dimensional. But they have to have screen time to do so. Worf, Rom, Quark, Nerys, Data, Spock, etc., all members of the different forehead/ears/brain club. But these were not one-dimensional characters. Why not? They related to the story in a way that they were important. If you can't relate Klingons, Dwarves, or The Rock to a story in a way that's interesting, the character will remain one-dimensional.

Or, to quote a recent blog by Larry Correia, story comes before message. If you can't make the story interesting to a large audience, then it's just fanfic. There's nothing wrong with fanfic, but it's not going to be mainstream. That doesn't make people racist. That makes your product a niche product.

Tam said...

Combat Missionary,

Good comment!

I absolutely agree with everything you wrote.

Doesn't have much to do with the OP, but it's spot on. :)

Anonymous said...

Matt: I'm afraid you've got the chronology backwards. The first book of the Aubrey & Maturin series; Master and Commander was published in 1969, after the original Star Trek filming was finished. Perhaps the esteemed Mr. O'Brien got his idea from Roddenberry's creation?

mishu said...

That's what always bugged me about Jim Cameron's Dances with Smurfs movie. The planet is so incredibly temperate that all the blue people could just run around in just loin cloths and strategically placed hair over boobs. So naturally everyone could be one with Pandora. There was not one place with a shitty climate, no deserts, no wind swept, frozen plains. And notice that none of the insects are pests that feed off the skin of these Smurfs in the jungle. What I'd give to see a Fargo, Pandora or Riyadh, Pandora.

mishu said...

That's what always bugged me about Jim Cameron's Dances with Smurfs movie. The planet is so incredibly temperate that all the blue people could just run around in just loin cloths and strategically placed hair over boobs. So naturally everyone could be one with Pandora. There was not one place with a shitty climate, no deserts, no wind swept, frozen plains. And notice that none of the insects are pests that feed off the skin of these Smurfs in the jungle. What I'd give to see a Fargo, Pandora or Riyadh, Pandora.

SGT Ted said...

I had to google "Dunbars Number", but I have heard of the concept before.

My experience and training shows that, for military units, this final number is based on even smaller substructures which then adds up to the 150-200 number, at least roughly.

The basis of the leadership structure in the Military is the 3-4 subordinates maximum to one leader and when it goes over that, you get less cohesion and control. That's why you see teams of 3-4 Joes run by a SGT, 3-4 SGTs run by a Squad leader, 3-4 SQD LDRs run by a PL or PSG and 4-5 PLTs run by the Company CDR. 3-4 companies run by a Battalion CDR, and on up.

Military units with far greater numbers can be controlled with cohesion and common purpose, by applying the 4 to 1 subordinate ratio on up the chain. 4 BNs to a Brigade or Regiment, 4 BDEs to a division, etc.

The BNS that ran my company over in Iraq had 8 Companies under their control and they effectively had *no* control over their units. We ran ourselves.

A very fascinating operational truth.

Ed Snack said...

"(And you can take your "PC-driven self-hating" remark, fold it 'til it's all sharp corners, and shove it up your ingonrant ass, fuckstick.)"

There are none so blind as those who will not see....

I'm so wonderfully enlightened, why oh why can't you all just be like me...

Tam said...

SGT Ted,

"My experience and training shows that, for military units, this final number is based on even smaller substructures which then adds up to the 150-200 number, at least roughly."

Yup. And those guys in Charlie company are such slackers it's hard to believe they're even in the same army, and Alpha company's a bunch of suckups and kiss-asses. But the Bravo Bandits? Best company in the battalion.

Anyhow, back to the post and the Dunbar's Number thing...

What I'm talking about is how people are freaking out over the use of the word "bigoted". I'm bigoted. You're bigoted. We're all bigoted. It comes with being H. sap. We come up with all kinds of ways to create artificial bonds with other monkeys outside of our tribe, to treat them like "real people", but we're not hard-wired to do that.

We tend to reduce people outside our group, especially ones with whom we have no close contacts, to caricatures; like I said above, they're those outsiders who don't even use language, and just go "Bar-bar-bar."

We have to play all kinds of mental gymnastics with our monkey programming in order to operate as a unit larger than company-size, let alone something as vague as a "nation state", and I'm comfortable with my paleolithic underpinnings.

My post was just noting with wry amusement how that simple fact of human gets reflected in unlikely places in our entertainment: "We, the People, are all varied and unique and different. They, the Strange Outsiders, are all the same."

Celebrim said...

Planet of Hats

1) Humans aren't generalists. We are probably hyperspecialized, but lacking anything to compare ourselves too we think we are 'average'. Other races, encountering us, would likewise consider themselves average and be amazed at our hyper-specialization. "Look at those guys. They don't have any hair on their bodies and they can prespire through their entire skin. They can run in 30C heat for hours without overheating, but most of them can't even lift 500kg"
2) Some of this is true, and some of this is just a result of the fact that its difficult to introduce a bunch of alien characters at once and the one you introduce first you'd rather be somewhat archetypal if possible so that they feel legitimately alien. Failure occurs when instead of introducing an alien, you introduce a human with a different particular personality and then say, "They've all got that personality." That's a failure of imagination. It's possible to say "All elves differ from humans" and "All elves differ from each other" and for both statements to be meaningful.

Sebastian said...

I think TOS was good sci-fi for its time. TNG was insufferably preachy, and lousy sci-fi. Even the humans didn't act human.

The best Star Trek of all times was II, the Wrath of Kahn, which I understand Roddenberry didn't have very much to do with, which is probably why it was awesome. Kahn was a great villain, and I can't imagine anyone other than Ricardo Montalban in the role. It's also the only Star Trek, other than the modern ones, with a fair amount of space combat.

Noah D said...

I'm bigoted. You're bigoted. We're all bigoted. It comes with being H. sap.

As one of my profs - who, for a standard-issue lefty academic, had a pretty clear-eyed view of the good and bad of Euro colonialism of Africa, having grown up there and then fled (Congo, brrr) - said, "Everyone is xenophobic. It's normal. That's not racism, so stop conflating those terms."

Tam said...

Sebastian,

"The best Star Trek of all times was II, the Wrath of Kahn, which I understand Roddenberry didn't have very much to do with, which is probably why it was awesome. Kahn was a great villain, and I can't imagine anyone other than Ricardo Montalban in the role. It's also the only Star Trek, other than the modern ones, with a fair amount of space combat."

*fist bump*

Wrath of Khan was not just the high water mark of the franchise, it was one of Hollywood's best efforts at space opera ever.

SGT Ted said...

Yup. And those guys in Charlie company are such slackers it's hard to believe they're even in the same army, and Alpha company's a bunch of suckups and kiss-asses. But the Bravo Bandits? Best company in the battalion.

Actually, the units have metrics and a certain personality that can be measured and observed. So, one WILL be better than the others and used as a goad to get the rest up to par. The rest of it is boastful trashtalk and rivalry.

There's usually a reason one of the Companies, or Platoons has a reputation, good or bad. I saw it over and over, in various units. Another fascinating dynamic.

What I'm talking about is how people are freaking out over the use of the word "bigoted". I'm bigoted. You're bigoted. We're all bigoted.

Ah I see. I think the word -bigot- is very fraught with political subtext. When one see's the word tossed out, the next thing coming is usually a call to conformity and a Great White Bigot Hunt to be launched.


But, yea we all have our prejudices and preferences and they are often based on subjective things.

I'm not a bigot, I hate everybody. :)

Anonymous said...

What we need is more elves, gnomes, dragons and dwarves writing fiction. (And sci fi, if they wish.)
I say we start encouraging them!
Oh, heck, never mind. They don't like the current state of things, they can always go indie.

Sarah Hoyt -- posting anonymous because she doesn't feel like remembering her google password...

Tam said...

Heh.

global village idiot said...

SGT Ted doesn't know you very well, does he?

He's obviously not read your blog or comments enough to have seen your "Tells Jokes to Aspies" existential scream.

SSG gvi

Anonymous said...

This isn't racist.

It is speciesist, humans favoring humans over non-humans. Oh the horror.

Steven said...

Well, I've seen the bit about D&D having gotten rid of the restrictions was mentioned fairly early above, but not an explanation as to why those restrictions existed.

It wasn't because Gygax was trying to lock each nonhuman species into a simple trope, but rather more subtle. A nonhuman should be more than a human in a funny suit; it should be a being of non-human perspective, psychology, and sociology. Which, while it perhaps can be maintained by a disciplined author for a finte time in a specific work, is very hard for a group of people around a table to do for an extended period.

So, from this premise, the civilization depicted had to be basically human, and the nonhumans in a PC party being beings that were "humanized" by being separated from their home culture and living in a human one.

So, how was that problem solved? First, humans were made the most powerful species. While the others lived longer, only the humans could achieve true might in the wielding of swords or magic. A nonhuman could achieve great prowess in only one way; a thief, and thus presumably someone outside the laws of his home society.

Second, specializations were set so that even without humans in the party, the optimum mix in power would avoid being a single nonhuman species. Since the dominant planetary society was humanity, the lingua franca of a mixed party would be human culture. So a fault line was drawn that made dwarves the best nonhuman fighters and elves the best nonhuman wizards (and the only PC clerics were human or semi-human).

Not that this theory survived actual contact with what people did in their own groups, but it wasn't unthinking hat-ism; it was an effort at realistic worldbuilding guided by a (perhaps misguided) concern about the limits of real-life human capabilities.

perlhaqr said...

Sebastian: We have a relatively new engineer in the Unix group at work (which I am peripherally a part of) whose last name is Khan.

I have to suppress the urge to cry out "KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!" at least once a week. ;) Thus far I have been successful.

Sebastian said...

You know, the worst thing about the Obama years is that it's driven the right mad as a hatter. Even mention the "b" work, and it's just PC bullshit and brains turn off to what might actually be said. "Bigotry" is a lefty dog whistle, and it is therefore PC bullshit. I've experienced similar backlashes speaking of similar things, because I don't reflexively think the left is wrong about absolutely everything.

I half expect in the next three years, we'll see people storming Cape Canaveral and burning the Saturn V launch pad to the ground because it was built during a Democratic Administration and therefore must be evil.

Tam said...

Sebastian,

Some dude went on a frothing rant in Marko's comments section about how he wasn't going to read Marko's books because Scalzi gave them a good review. Instead, he was going to read good manly fiction by Larry...

...who had also given Marko's books a good review.

W. T. F?

Jennifer said...

Yeah, you may all be bigots, but you're my kind of bigots and I love ya ;)

perlhaqr,
You have far more self discipline than I. I salute you.

Robin said...

The only part I would disagree with mildly, Tam, is that classic fantasy created "races" that were archtypes of human characteristics - elves were aloof, dwarves were greedy, etc - not as bigotry but to say something about human attributes.

I have always defined the Fantasy genre as stories that personified good, evil and other human attributes as characters to tell the story.

Tam said...

Robin,

Oh, sure, sometimes it was done deliberately and for a reason (witness the references to the OG D'n'D rules) I'm just contending that it's also often done unconsciously, because that's how we're wired.

I think creating a truly alien species (let alone world) with as much variation as humanity and the planet it inhabits is an almost impossible task anyway, akin to making a 1:1 scale map of the US. Hence all the "these are all Space Arabs on the Desert Planet" shorthand that gets done.

Talitha said...

Somebody up there somewhere said that "why not take Earth as an example"?

Well, Earth is weird. Very weird. Yes, I know we are finding more planets that are, in theory, capable of supporting life. But most planets, from what I've heard, DO NOT have the nigh fractal diversity of environment that Earth enjoys. So it might be less realistic to have a panoply of planets with radically different weather on all sides.

Knowing this, it is not unreasonable to have some creatures that specialize.

Admittedly, having a more simplified range of local weather isn't a bad thing. But in the real future, if we are looking at a huge bunch of planets, they will get stereotyped based on what they are most known for in the galaxy.

Not to mention, at one time, the stereotype for Scotsmen were skinflint, bitter, SOBER, and warlike. Often blond, too, thanks to, ahem, frequent visits from the Dane.

Mostly because people met a Scot, it was because he was a either a mercenary or a missionary, and generally a Presbyterian. One could argue that the pot smoking Ferengi stay at home, veging out in the holosuite. Sample bias is alive and well. Seeing people as individuals is great for individual interactions, but if you are planning on going somewhere, and don't have a lot of time or information, you have to make quick judgements.

Also, a lot of aliens are used as a means to talk about human nature, and stereotypes can clarify a story, even to try to underscore the absurdity of stereotypes. Roddenberry did this.

Then there's that other problem that so many want to claim we are no different from a dog or a doughnut. THAT I find offensive, as much as dogs are good in themselves. And they want to make laws based on this. The trouble with ending all stereotypes forever is that you wind up opening your mind so wide that your brains fall out.

What we really need to do is learn the difference between "map" and "territory". We need to be able to tell the difference between "satellite photos" and "quick map sketched on a napkin". Stereotypes are often used ill as propaganda. Instead of ridding ourselves of habits of mind, we should teach how to use the tools we have with prudence and care, so as not to be drawn into the abuse these tools are tainted with.

Goober said...

"They just make weird "Bar-bar-bar" noises with their mouths."

heh... :)

The Raving Prophet said...

As Sebastian points out, the Obama years may have caused many to froth at the mouth, but that particular bit of political rabies is no different from that which we saw from the other side of the aisle During the Bush II years.

When you see things going a way you don't like you're more hypersensitized to buzz words of the other side.

Fodder4Thought said...

I'm not sure if this has been mentioned, but the impression I always got was that the uniformity in alien personalities' was not due to inherent characteristics of the species themselves, but due to the self-selection inherent in joining their respective space-navies. The Klingons were aggro ITGs not because Klingons are born and bred to be space-guidos, but because those were the ones who elected to join their interstellar bro-club. Same with the Romulans - the ones we encountered were almost all in official capacities, so the striking similarities observed could just be the product of institutional conformity, rather than racial characteristics, like Speaking to Stones for Dwarvs, or Crying at Litter for Elves.

Haven't given it too much thought, though, so I could be way off.

Lawrence Person said...

I asked Gene Wolfe about planetary monocultures back when I interviewed him, and he agreed it was lazy writing.

"I think it's mostly laziness. Mental sloth more than anything else. We have no indication that= we are ever going to get a homogeneous, worldwide culture. A number of people seem to take that almost as a given, as communication becomes faster, as transportation becomes faster, everybody will speak the same language and everybody will go to the same movies so on and so forth. I doubt it, I really, really doubt it."

So not all SF writers do it. But remember that most media SF is generally twenty years behind written science fiction...

Seerak said...

The "humans are generalists" bit reminds me of the aliens from The Mote in God's Eye, who actually said something to that effect - that humans were all "amateurs" who weren't good at anything in particular by their standards.

It reflects a pattern that I've long seen in how alien races are defined, which intertwines closely with "Planet of Hats": that truly "alien" races always end up being somehow:

1. genetically determined ("it's in their nature, not the individual's choice")

2. collectivist (two pure examples being the "Borg" of Star Trek, and Heinlein's "Bugs", who he described as a demonstration of how well communism worked for a species actually adapted to it.)

Collectivized species whose individuals have no free will are much easier to homogenize into arche- (stereo-) types.... and these traits make them seem more alien (or "other") to humans.

That said, I've enjoyed Niven/Pournelle's aliens, like the Fithp and the aforementioned Moties, for having some depth and individual variation despite being definitely alien.

Seerak said...

Lawrence: your comment about planetary homogenization reminded me of a scene in "Ringworld" where Louis Wu observed exactly that: the Earth, having worldwide instantaneous transportation (or close to; been a while since I read it) had become rather "same" even as the preserved architecture of different places spoke of the varied past.

I'm not sure if I'd call Niven "lazy"; rather, I think that there are simply limits to how "imaginative" a writer can get without losing himself or his audience, given his/their life experience. It might be lazy for someone to write like that now, though.