Special Circumstances vs. The Dorthraki

Rex’s last post reminds me that I’ve been meaning to write about one of the most fascinating science fiction worlds I’ve come across in a long time. I’m talking about The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, which I want to compare with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones [the TV show – I’ve not read the books].

I want to talk about the role of ethnic difference in narrative, but since Rex brought up the issue of bodies, let me first note that one of the interesting things about The Culture is that unlike the many other “highly advanced alien species” discussed by Rex in his post, bodies are very important to The Culture. In this post-singularity world people can back themselves up or choose to live entirely virtual lives, but most choose to have bodies anyway. These bodies are enhanced, to be sure: they have neural laces to tie them to the co-evolved artificial Minds which run their space ships, and they have extra glands which give them whatever drugs they might like at a mere thought, but they are still bodies. Over their long lifespans they can choose to be male or female at will, and many go through several changes over a lifetime. The Minds too can take on human avatars, and the nature of these avatars is an important reflection of their personalities, although we are frequently reminded that they are not human. For instance, they can eat and defecate, but they don’t have to and the food which is passed through their bodies is still edible since it hasn’t really been digested. We are even told that some humans like to eat avatar-digested food. But then who understands humans?

Getting back to ethnicity and narrative… let me start with Special Circumstances, an organization which figures prominently in The Culture novels. Here’s an explanation from Wikipedia:

Special Circumstances is part of a larger fictional Culture organization called Contact, which coordinates Culture interactions with (and in) other civilizations. SC exists to fulfill this role when circumstances exceed the moral capacity of Contact, or where the situation is highly complex and requires highly specialized skills… Special Circumstances also does the ‘dirty work’ of the Culture, a function made especially complicated by the normally very high ethical standards the Culture sets itself. SC acts in a way that has been compared with the democratizing intentions of real-world liberal intent on overcoming the world’s (and especially other nation’s) evils by benign interference.

One of the things that makes The Culture books so interesting is the deep ambivalence Banks has for his Special Circumstances heroes. While they have no material interest in delving into the affairs of other societies, it is clear that their motivations are not entirely selfless. They are driven in equal parts by a desire to “improve” these other cultures as well as their own boredom. Yes, they usually win in the end, for the betterment of all concerned. One could thus argue that SC is an argument for liberal interventionism. But I think it is much more about the need for good stories.

SC is important to The Culture novels because the world of The Culture is a rather boring utopia. There is no money, no discrimination, no real politics, etc. For this reason, for anything interesting to happen it must happen at the fringes of Culture, at the point of contact with other (usually less developed) civilizations. This interests me because it makes clear how important contact (or Contact) is for narrative. I also think it explains why people get so defensive when anthropologists point out the underlying racism implicit in various fictional worlds.

Take, for example, the Dothraki of Game of Thrones:

The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.

Now, I think a lot of the problem is that the Dorthraki are intentionally a “hodgepodge creation”:

George R.R. Martin has written , “I have tried to mix and match ethnic and cultural traits in creating my imaginary fantasy peoples, so there are no direct one-for-one correspodences [sic]. The Dothraki, for example, are based in part on the Mongols, the Alans, and the Huns, but their skin coloring is Amerindian.”

I think a lot of the problem is Martin’s reliance on the worst stereotypes about nomadic peoples rather than more historically accurate accounts. For instance, one popular history of Genghis Khan emphasizes the importance of the Mongols in the creation of the “modern world.”

But I don’t want to talk about what is wrong with Martin’s Dorthraki so much as why so many people get upset when scholars point out these problems. I think it is because of a feeling that good stories need good “others” and that without difference, including different levels of civilization, one can’t have a good narrative. The anthropologist in me wants to reply that recreating Tylor and Morgan’s stages of civilization in narrative form serves to reproduce the ideological foundations of racism is even if it isn’t directed at any particular ethnic group, but the fan of science fiction and fantasy novels in me understands that such is the stuff that (most) fantasy worlds are made of. Fictional others allow us to explore the limits of our own humanity. Still, I think The Culture novels show that we can do better, that we can ask more of our imagined worlds. But even Banks’ novels still rely upon a social darwinian view of galactic development, with each civilization necessarily going through the various stages of development, with only minimal interference by the more developed societies. I say this not so much to criticize Banks but to point out how hard it is to escape from such narrative frameworks, even in (or especially in?) stories that otherwise push the boundaries of what it means to be human.

Addendum: I posted it to Twitter, but I wanted to link again to a recent interview in Wired with anthropologist Kathryn Denning who “studies the very human way that scientists, engineers and members of the public think about space exploration and the search for alien life.” I think she has some really interesting things to say about our discourses about contact with alien life.

12 thoughts on “Special Circumstances vs. The Dorthraki

  1. For instance, one popular history of Genghis Khan emphasizes the importance of the Mongols in the creation of the “modern world.”

    That’s the default position among historians and Mongolists. The Mongol empire had a huge role in creating the modern world by facilitating contact between Persia, China, India, Europe, Russia, and even the Malay archipelago, to a greater extent than before. The Mongols fought all the way to Egypt, Java, Korea, and Hungary – they were one of the first waves of globalisation. They were also (usually) religiously tolerant; Chinggis [Genghis] Khan and his offspring seem to have thought of religion as a type of supernatural insurance, and they bought several kinds. I studied Mongolian for three years at university, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I’ve forgotten most of the language except basic phrases and the classical script.

    Interesting post, in any case!

  2. Something that comes up frequently in comic book circles is how moves to diversify heroes (either by published creators or via fan-based creations) are rejected as introducing too much realism into fantasy worlds. So in a recent blog post about which heroes ought to (hypothetically speaking) come out of the closet and thus introduce a new wave of queer characters there was some consternation in the comments section as to whether this would essentially defeat the escapist purpose of super heroes.

    Of course we can critique such comments as being made from a stance of heterosexual privilege, but I imagine they might mirror sentiments among sci-fi/ fantasy fans that to bring a racial critique to Game of Thrones is to, in a sense, introduce the very problems of the real world that one is trying to get away from by seeking out this kind of entertainment in the first place.

    Now I’m not especially sympathetic to that view point. As these “Culture” books you describe sound very interesting and show that the genre can be well done and be complex/ complicating at the same time.

  3. I think the comments of Kroeber’s daughter are instructive here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/12/a_whitewashed_earthsea.single.html. And serve as an interesting substrate to pose the question, in response to Matt’s response above: An escape from real world problems/politics **for whom**?

    Yes, this is why I used to post as Discuss White Privilege. Like Rex said in his post on advanced alien species as disembodied, once you notice a cultural phenomenon, you notice it everywhere: so white privilege always has to be reckoned with. Not as ‘polemic’ or a ‘confrontational’ moniker, but as foundational structural condition of social relations.

    As many a Racialicious post (among others) has opined, constantly seeing oneself written out of and excluded from–or marginalized and predictably stereotyped in–fantasy worlds is *not* a pleasant ‘escape’ for most minority readers. It only reinforces–annoyingly, frustratingly, dispiritingly, enraginly–the very marginalization/discrimination/invisibity one would rather escape from in the ‘real world’.

    So yes, escape for whom? And isn’t this really always the question, anthropologically speaking: for whom is this (not) true?

    And doesn’t this last question also speak to Adam Fish’s recent post, citing David Graeber, on committing ‘anthropological suicide’ and theorizing from ethnography (and the ethnographic/anthropological record), instead of trying to be Sophisticated Theorists of ‘Continental’ Philosophy?

    “For whom?”, anthropologists. “For whom?”

  4. Compare Martin’s Dothraki to Tolkein’s generic swarthy bad guys the Easterlings. Part of Martin’s project is to subvert fantasy tropes by making the ‘noble’ knights of the West just as if not more brutal than the ‘savages’ of the East. His portrayals of Easterners becomes more sophisticated in later works, but his primary interest has always been his alternate-history War of the Roses. Orientalism, we will never escape thee.

    I read half of Consider Phlebas, but frankly the Wikipedia articles about the Culture are far more compelling.

  5. Thanks for teh Earthsea link! It’s my understanding that like many great creators Le Guin is irascrible about virtually all attempts to adapt her works. I hadn’t seen the Syfy version (I just don’t watch TV) but the Studio Ghibli version is in my Netflix queue.

    This might be an interesting angle to take should I write it up for an future blog post.

  6. I didn’t want to write a review of The Culture series, but I should add the following for those who are thinking of taking the plunge: unlike other series the novels each stand alone and vary a lot in tone, genre, and even the world-making. That is because the scope is so mind-boggling huge that novels might take place on a planet with mediaeval technology with only minimal Culture presence (basically a fantasy novel) or they might take place in the heart of Culture (more traditional sci-fi). I enjoyed this about the books, and ended up reading all of them, but if you find you don’t like one you might try another one to see if you like it better.

    @DWP thanks for the Le Guin link. Here’s a post about LeGuin by @rex: /2009/10/22/happy-birthday-ursula-k-leguin/

  7. Al, sain bain uu?! That’s the default position of Jack Weatherford, who has gotten the Mongolian Government’s highest award (not a Hero of Labor though like I’m shooting for). I would say that many Mongolists aren’t that extreme about it and like many Mongolians considering Chinggis and contemporary power in Mongolia, spend alot of time thinking about violence, corruption and tribute, though they certainly don’t want to further the sort of “lower on the evolutionary totem pole stereotypes.” Examples: Paula Sabloff, Morten Pedersen, David Sneath, Irina Morozova.

    Apologies for the Mongolist sidetracking: my wider point is that trying to just flip the distinction and call the Mongols “the REAL democrats and liberals” doesn’t do much for us. (Especially when a lot of us don’t take those ideas for granted either).

    On GoT, this summer I had a friend pass through my place in Mongolia with GoT on her computer, and at first I was pretty annoyed about the Dothraki. To back up Dick though, I was more okay with how things proceded. BTW, my dissertation in progress is about the dual involvement of Mongolians in a Soviet legacy mining corporation and nomadic pastoralism, so I especially like how the Dothraki have a city (with a sacred mountain– seems to be a reference to Chinggis’ Burkhan Kaldun). Things as far as the sex and violence on the Dothraki side seemed to be exaggerated in the show verses the movie I need to ask one of my friend here how he thinks about the Dothraki now that I know he is also in GoT! (He’s a Mongolian Kazak who grounds his place in the Mongolian state partly by claiming that one group involved in Chinggis’ conquests, the Kereids, were Kazaks).

    Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is hundreds of times more inspiring though than GoT, because again GoT, as Dick says, is pretty much just flipping a common distinction instead of looking at other ones.

  8. I’ve always liked the Culture novels, but I’ve never been able to love them — they are often overwritten and Banks’s lack of narrative discipline results in massive sidelines as plots get lost in exposition of various species and institutions he wants to describe. However, as a connoisseur of the ‘first contact’ genre of novel I do think “Excession” is a classic.

    Banks is dirty filthy commie, like Mieville — the Culture novels are about imagining what a post-scarcity world would look like, no?

  9. One limitation in writing – Whatever your default perspective culture is, it needs to be familiar enough for the reader to grasp the basics without reams of exposition explaining that all the women in that culture wear knotted sashes on tuesdays as a religious expression of the belief that the primal blah blah blah blah. That might be a really important component of the Author’s understanding of the culture, but to convey any real measure of alienness would turn into a mess of exposition.

    In Elder Scrolls the Redguard people of Hammerfell have dark skin and vaguely resemble Africans or African Americans. In older games… The Hammerfell region is made up of dozens of small city states. Their material culture is the same sort of mash up of antiquity and renaissance that most of the other cultures have. In the older games they have Sword Saints who supposedly blew up their ancestral home island by splitting atoms with the blades of their swords. They wear doublets and carry rapiers.

    Fast forward to the latest game and they have become swarthy Arabian Nights Arabs or Berbers. Turbans, robes, ridiculous fantasy ‘scimitars’. Rather than explaining a land of Renaissance Italian city states in a desert with magical samurai warriors and bizarre fantasy armor they recreated the Redguard as something much simpler and easier to understand without delving into huge amounts of backstory.

  10. I haven’t read The Culture series and thus, won’t comment on that. Rather, I want to look more at the Dorthraki issue presented in the article. First, I think some of the critique rests in the fact that the depiction Kerim was looking at was the t.v. series. The very nature of the medium (1 hour t.v. shows) limits the amount of complexity that can be conveyed, even with some of the main characters. It doesn’t excuse the use of stereotypes but with visual mediums that require rapid jumps in location, you need to be able to establish quick visual cues so that the audience can make the mental switch. “Are they wearing tunics in rainy forests or are they wearing next-to-nothing in a desert?” Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema did the same thing with the cultures in Lord of the Rings. The elves and the dwarves were both all white, but the stereotypes still get played up.

    The books are able to get past the superficial visual stereotypes because there is time to delve into the complexity of the characters and the cultures that they come from. That being said, I think Kerim is right in the critique that the cultural tropes of the Dorthraki persist very strongly in characters across the board. They run the risk of being automatons of culture rather than agents within a culture. This is especially true of Khal Drogo, who is the Dorthraki ideal made manifest. It’s not all one way or the other. Martin lets some of the Dorthraki get past the entrenched “The Dorthraki believe ______” or “The Dorthraki are ______” but not as much as he could.

    One last example of how he could have done it better comes from the depiction of one the characters from the Iron Islands. Among these very viking-like people is Robert Harlaw, a leader of one of the houses, who though the sigil of his house is the scythe and is expected to be very violent, is reserved, patient, and remarkably well-read. Of all the characters in the series, he is one of the most studious characters who’s job doesn’t require such study like the maesters. Robert “The Reader” is an example of how even in fictional depictions of culture, we can get past the notion that cultures allow for no behavioral variety.

    Anyway, interesting article. I may have to go out and read The Cultures series.

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