Ethnocentrism in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I’m a huge Star Trek fan.  Star Wars will always be my first love, but late one Saturday night when I was about seven years old, I was sitting in the living room long after I was supposed to be in bed, and I found a show I’ve never seen before called Star Trek.  The first episode I ever saw was Spectre of the Gun and I was hooked.  I watched Star Trek every chance I could get.  I loved Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  Kirk was my favorite.  Bold and brash.  A hero in the classic sense.  I begged to go see the movies when they came out, and I loved them.  Even Star Trek V

When Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, I was 11 years old, and my favorite character was Commander Riker.  As time went on, my allegiance slowly changed, and by the time the show ended, Picard had displaced Riker as my favorite.  I’m not entirely sure if that’s a result of my own maturity, or the fact that as the show went on, Riker became less prominent and Picard was given more and more of the best storylines, but either way, when the show ended, Picard had a secure foothold on my list of favorite sci-fi characters.

Lately, I’ve been rewatching a lot of old Trek episodes, and I have to say, time has not been kind to my love of Riker, Kirk and Picard.  I do still love them, but at 45, it’s a lot easier to see their flaws.  The way Kirk and McCoy treated Spock, the way Picard, Riker and most of the rest of the crew treated Data (and to a lesser extent, Worf), and of course, it doesn’t stop there.  The way Janeway treated Seven, the way Archer and Trip treated T’Pol (at least in the early episodes, I haven’t watched much of Enterprise).

It doesn’t stop with Star Trek, either.  It’s a problem I see pretty much any time there’s a non-human character in a tv show or a movie.  It’s something less common in written science fiction, though it still rears its head a lot.

It’s the assumption that there is something broken about characters who aren’t human.  The assumption that being human is somehow inherently more desirable than being non-human.  It’s the assumption that to be other is to be broken, and that becoming as close to human as possible is the only way to fix that brokenness.

It’s frankly infuriating.  The way Kirk and McCoy took it a victory when they managed to squeeze a display of emotion out of Spock.  The way no one ever sat Data down and said, ‘You do have emotions, and the fact that they are different from human emotions, the fact that they are less intense, does not make them less real or less valid’.  The way pretty much any character who is Other is cheered on for acting in a way consistent with human values and beliefs and treated as broken when they act in a way consistent with their own nature or culture.

Merriam-Webster defines ethnocentrism as “the attitude that one’s own group, ethnicity, or nationality is superior to others”, and as I go through Science Fiction and Fantasy, both classic and modern, I find ethnocentrism rearing its head over and over again.  I’m not going to claim innocence either.  Looking back at my older work, it’s full of the same sort of assumptions.  That humanity is the best.  That everyone should want to emulate our culture.

I think this bothers me so much because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize how much of the Other I am.  I’m a trans woman.  I’m mentally ill.  I’m autistic.  I’m overweight.  I’m disabled.  I’m bisexual.  Wherever I go, I’m an outsider.  I’m the Other.

The change in perspective has made me change the way I approach writing aliens and non-humans in my work.  They’re not always happy.  Their cultures aren’t always healthy.  But when I am creating non-human characters and non-human cultures I try to not go in with the assumption that humans are better.  When I do give their culture foibles, I try to make them things that humans could just as easily fall into, and I most definitely don’t treat a single flaw as a reason to throw away the entire culture.

An example of this is in my novel Mail Order Bride, where the aliens have a taboo against social touch.  It’s specifically written as the outgrowth of a pandemic which swept through their planet.  A temporary measure for public safety which got enshrined in social customs until physical contact became taboo even though the taboo is detrimental to their physical and mental health.  Even then, I made an effort not to present it as ‘humans are obviously better’, and instead went for ‘this is a place where these people’s culture is failing them’.

It’s a hard line to walk.  To tell a story where you criticize one aspect of a culture without framing the entire culture as irredeemably broken.  It’s just as hard to tell a story about a character who is Other and simply let them be different, let them be Other, without setting an end goal of making the character more human.

It’s important though.  It’s very important to tell stories where characters who are Other are allowed to remain that way.  Where characters are allowed to grow in ways that don’t involve them adopting human culture and tradition.  Where conformity with human values is not treated as virtue.  That’s not to say you can’t have your non-human characters grow to understand humans and become more comfortable interacting with them.  It simply means that you should let the character grow without taking away the alien parts of their identity.

If you’re going to write characters that are non-human, let them be non-human.  Let them be Other.  Don’t hold humanity up as something that is aspirational for the non-human.  But more than that, have your human characters respect that.  Have your human characters grow to better understand your aliens and become more comfortable interacting with them.

In short, don’t treat your non-human characters as sub-human.  Don’t treat the Other as less than.  Respect them.  Give their culture, beliefs and nature the same weight you give to your human characters.  Your stories will be richer, deeper, and more meaningful for it.