Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Blogging Against Racism At the Mountains of Madness

July 30, 2009

So, being informed by reliable sources that it is International Blog Against Racism Week, I have been thinking about ways to relate racism to this particular blog. I doubt Antarctica itself is free of racism, as there is undoubtedly some of it in the various organizations that do work there. But, of course, all Antarctic racism is by nature imported. The indigenous peoples of Antarctica suffer very little discrimination on the basis of race, although they are are frequently the victims of existencism.

But some discussion with my family on the topic of racism within Antarctica came up with a natural connection: H. P. Lovecraft, famous racist and founding father of twentieth-century horror. I’ve long been a fan of Lovecraft’s work, and I made a particular point of reading At the Mountains of Madness in preparation for my Antarctic trip. It is about geologists and their graduate students who travel to Antarctica, so it seems particularly applicable to my own situation; the fact that they are nearly all horribly killed or driven mad by Things Man Was Not Meant To Know makes it a valuable cautionary tale. And Lovecraft’s somewhat tenuous grasp on the principles of glaciology is made up for by his mastery of the creepy.

Like most modern Lovecraft fans I struggle to reconcile my fondness for his work with his grotesquely racist views. On an initial reading Mountains of Madness seems fairly innocuous compared to some of his other work–it simply fails to include any nonwhite characters. However, I recently had an opportunity to read China Mieville’s introduction to a new edition of the book, where he examines it in more detail. Mieville points out that in Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft depicts his views in an even more exaggerated way by describing the history of the intellectual, civilized Old Ones and their servants, the protean, bubbly Shoggoths. In fact, says Mieville, the description of the Shoggoth bears some striking similarities to Lovecraft’s description, in one of his letters, of a normal multi-ethnic New York subway train.

The whole essay is worth reading, if you get a chance. I find this sort of fictionalized prejudice to be an interesting phenomenon; where does an author’s need for a good easily-identifiable set of antagonists start looking uncomfortably like a metaphorical justification for racism? I stopped reading the Redwall series when it unambiguously crossed this line for me, and I sometimes see the phenomenon crop up in other contexts.

So, if I do happen to run across a Shoggoth in Antarctica, perhaps I will stop and see what it has to say for itself. Could be an interesting conversation.

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