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Pet Sins July 2010

Alternate Histories: Reversals of Power in Fantasy Fiction

At times, some of us become inured to our collective histories of pain and oppression, thinking that they are somehow 'normal' and acceptable. For instance, there are those who see the Spanish colonization of the Americas as a positive thing, a benevolent act of Spain "gifting" her rich culture to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. While there is undoubtedly much to value in Spanish culture, this one-sided view disregards the damage that the Spanish invaders wreaked on the quality of life of indigenous people. The painful legacy of colonialism still persists in the Americas today.

We may take for granted the direction of the economic or political power differential between different nations, even if we do not like the way things are. For example, we get so used to hearing stories of impoverished Mexicans trying to cross the border to find jobs in the United States, sometimes dying in the process. Regardless of our views on illegal immigration, we may come to see the illegal border crossings as 'normal' or 'expected', even while we deplore the economic inequities that fuel this trend or try to stop the illegal flow of undocumented immigrants.

Fiction about alternate universes can shake our assumptions and perhaps even move us to act for a more equitable world. At the very least, they may help some of us regain our compassion. For example, some of us have become desensitized to tales of Spanish colonial masters enslaving and mass-murdering the natives of the Americas, even if we find such acts repugnant. But when presented with the reverse situation of Aztecs enslaving and brutalizing Spaniards in Europe, the brutality is viewed from a new angle and suddenly becomes more jarring, more fresh. People see more keenly than ever that no one should be doing this to anybody.

For those of us from so-called "oppressor groups", we may have become accustomed to admitting the faults of our forebears out of politically correctness, while still taking for granted (and having no wish to give up) the privilege that has been handed down to us. In this case, exposure to fictional stories in which we as a group are disempowered and victimized can be quite jarring. But perhaps such visions of alternate universes can help us better empathize with the historical legacy and personal experiences of members of less privieleged groups in the real world.

Listed below are a few novels that explore alternate universes in which the oppressed and the oppressor are not what we are accustomed to seeing in our world:

Lion's Blood

Steven Barnes creates a compelling alternate history in "Lion's Blood" and its sequel "Zulu Heart", set in a North America colonized by Muslim black Africans who import European slaves to work their plantations.

The main character of Lion's Blood is Aidan, an Irish boy who, together with his mother and sister, is kidnapped from Europe and sold to an African Muslim slave owner in North America. He becomes unlikely friends with Kai, the second son of his owner, but as the boys grow into men, their conflicting views on slavery and Aidan's love for Sophia, a mixed race slave who serves as Kai's concubine, threaten to destroy their friendship.

Lion's Blood won the 2003 Endeavour Award.

In "Zulu Heart", Kai is now lord of his father's plantation. Married to an Abyssinian noblewoman and about to take a Zulu princess as his second wife, Kai has to navigate treacherous political waters in a world where Egyptians, Abyssinians, Zulus, Aztecs and African Muslims jockey for power.

As international conflicts threaten the Americas, Kai seeks the help of his former-slave Aidan...

Atomik Aztex

Atomik Aztek conjures up an alternate universe in which the Aztecs conquered and colonized Spain. The conquerors see themselves as a superior prople, entitled to their imperialism. They enslave the native Spaniards, proving themselves to be cruel masters.

Author Sesshu Foster seamlessly shifts the character Zenzon/Zenzontli between our present world, where he works as a pig butcher, and the alternate world, where he sacrifices European slaves to Aztek gods.

Parable of the Sower

In her 2-novel "Earthseed" series "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents," Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler paints a bleak picture of a fictional 21st century United States. This is a U.S. lost to social breakdown and moral decay, in which police corruption, gang violence, drug addiction, illiteracy and debt slavery are part of everyday life, and no one is safe from murder, torture or enslavement except for perhaps the very rich, and sometimes not even them.

"Parable of the Sower" mentions desperate Americans trying to sneak across the Canadian border in the hopes of getting work and a safer place to live. But they are often shot in the process because "no one wants California trash." In the US, ordinary Americans who want to work hard and make a tolerable life for their families find themselves trapped in slavery and sweatshop conditions, producing cheap goods to be exported to other countries.

"Parable of the Talents" continues in an America gone mad, where the cops are as brutal and as corrupt as the sadistic and violent pimps who prey on the defenseless. Americans are "giving up their homes and their citizenship," fleeing an unlivable "old country" to migrate to Siberia. The United States receives food aid from Canada and Russia.

The writers of these stories, be they non-white or white, are not creating these alternate histories out of vindictive spite against whites or Westerners. White or Western characters in these fictional worlds, although living in an environment in which non-whites or non-Westerners dominate politically or economically, are portrayed with the depth, humanity and sympathy that many white writers have failed to give their non-white characters.