Originally published November 25, 2015
As of 2017, winners of the World Fantasy Award receive a statue of a tree and moon, which replaced the bust of H.P. Lovecraft. The new design is…okay, I guess. I can’t help but feel like it could have been a bit better, though.
IT WAS ON a lovely spring day that I pulled back from my computer desk and informed my wife that I’d just finished writing the most disgusting dinner conversation of my career.
You’ll find it in my Eternity Quartet story “Hunting the Future.” The Eternity Quartet is set in an alternate world where magic actually works, and this particular story takes place around the beginning of the 18th century, with colonialism, racism, and sexism in full swing — and most of the characters have just found out that the protagonist is an abolitionist.
There’s a temptation, particularly in fantasy, to drop a modern character into a world based on our Medieval or ancient past. But this doesn’t reflect what the reality would be. Our way of thinking is the result of the Enlightenment, the Suffragettes, the struggle against slavery, the feminist movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the sexual revolution (not necessarily in that order). Without these things, you don’t have the modern man or woman.
It’s amazing how quickly the world becomes alien to us once you start moving back in time. Go back to the 1960s, and you’ve got earnest arguments favouring racial segregation. Go back another 20 years, and the idea of women taking a leadership role in the world of business isn’t just revolutionary, it’s next to nonexistent. Go back to the time of our great (or great-great) grandparents, and the idea that women should have the right to vote, or a place in the political process at all, is revolutionary and wrong-headed to the establishment.
It makes writing these things an interesting challenge. The dinner conversation in “Hunting the Future” takes place at a time of extremes: it’s taken for granted that blacks are sub-human savages and that the place of women is entirely domestic. The abolitionist is a progressive of his day — he doesn’t think that the races are equal, but he does believe that slavery is wrong. And, it’s perfectly obvious to him that the frailties of women make them unsuitable for anything but the home — as he puts it at the end of the discussion, he’s a reformer, not a lunatic.
As I said, it was the most disgusting dinner conversation I’ve ever written. I trotted out every pro-slavery argument I could remember for the other characters to bring to bear, followed it up with a helping of historical misogyny, and at the end of it, I felt dirty having put it to paper. But, I also felt good about it — it was true to the time and the characters. These are not modern men.
The term for it is “values dissonance.”
It’s not easy to write. The fact is that the protagonist still has to be somebody the reader can identify with. There still has to be that common thread of decency, or something that can evoke empathy, even if we were to find his (or her) personal beliefs sickening. Luckily, there is still a common humanity to draw upon and make central, allowing the character to be sympathetic. My technique is to focus on that common humanity, and have the dissonant moments occur in places like dinner conversations — a reminder that even though this is the guy we’re rooting for, he is very far away from us in his values. The protagonist is a good man, or at least as good as the early 18th century will allow. Everybody is a product of their time and society, and we have to remember that when judging their ideals — what was progressive then is not the same as what is progressive now.
Sadly, we forget this all too often. Even those awards that try to be progressive and tolerant sometimes fall into this trap, as we see with the successful push to replace H.P. Lovecraft on the World Fantasy Award with something more abstract. Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft were racists — but so was everybody else in the 1920s and 30s. Robert E. Howard was not a very malicious racist — he believed that whites were better than the other races, but didn’t hold that against visible minorities — and H.P. Lovecraft was quite malicious indeed, the sort who would gnash his teeth at the thought of interracial couples on the streets of New York City. But Lovecraft was on the World Fantasy Award for a reason: neither fantasy nor horror could exist as it does today without Lovecraft’s stories. While there is certainly an argument to be made for replacing him on the award with something more relevant or representative of the field today (and, for the record, I have no objections whatsoever to Lovecraft being replaced by something more representative of the genre than the man), it feels wrong to judge his contribution to fantasy and horror against a moral benchmark that next to none of the early 20th century founders of the genre, from Burroughs to Howard, would have passed (even with Lovecraft probably close to the worst side of the range of historical racism). After all, if we were to keep or discard literature based on whether we agreed with the values of the author, we’d be left with almost nothing older than the 1950s.
(At the same time, I think it needs to be said that everybody being racist in the 1920s and 30s is not a carte blanche to accept this racism without question. It’s still racism, after all, and it should be questioned, discussed, understood, and condemned.)
The people of the past were not like us, and even the most progressive of us today will be judged by those who follow in the centuries to come, and be found wanting. All anybody can do is try to be the best person their time and place will allow, be better than those who came before, and hope that it is enough to be remembered fondly by those who come after.