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View Full Version : Genetics and Human/Non-Human Hybrids In SFF?



Lillith1991
11-28-2014, 12:37 AM
This is inspired by a thread that sort of got my dander up over at the NaNoWriMo Fantasy sub-forum. The OP was asking about one of their half-fae characters, mentioned that pale and literally luminescent skin was a fae trait. I was all for it until they mentioned the other parent being black, because I frankly do not like the stereotype of light & bright being magical. It had me wondering what the purpose of the Black parent was in the first place if they were going to make the child look like a carbon copy of the non-human parent because magic.

I think, in fact I know, that what got my dander up was the thinking behind such things. Which is coincidentally the reason you don't see many POC magical or human/alien hybrid to begin with, unless it is someone like Grover from Percy Jackson. To top it off, that just isn't how genetics works. If a human and non-human can produce a child there's no reason some traits would not be passed on from the human parent.

Take for example the classic case of Tolkien's Peredhil or half-elven. Elvish lifespans and other things, but also human/mannish traits according to everything I've been able to find on what Tolkien intended for them. They are neither man nor Elve. Now, none are POC in any way shape or form. But I think it safe to say such things should apply across the board if the writer is going to try passing it off as a genetic thing. A dominant gene like say paler than average luminescent skin, would in theory mean the childs hair or height or some other feature would follow that of the POC human parent in some way.

I don't know, maybe I am being unreasonable and maybe I'm not. I do know that I've come up with plenty of characters in my time that are non/half-human and POC as well. To me, just dragging a black or other POC parent out and saying so and so is half-black seems disrespectful. Not only for those who can't pass as white, but those who can and suffer grief in their community because of it. The character would still be part of the group, they'd be affected by internal politics. The way that particular poster and others phrased it shows a lack of understanding of stereotypes within the community, how people behave towards such a person.

Friendly Frog
11-28-2014, 02:45 AM
There are two issues at play in the example you posted. One is the tired trope that because light and white is considered beautiful/good, black and dark automatically becomes bad/lesser/undesirable. It seems very out of place in fantasy worlds if one considers the trope's origin lies in western culture. If the fantasy world has no link to that culture, the inclusion of the white-is-good-trope looks rather like lazy world-building. Even here on Earth there are enough cultures with other colour-codes, where white can mean mourning or death for example. If we're talking fantasy worlds, surely we can do better than only western-culture-knock-offs, at least IMO.

Now as far as the genetics, those can be tricky all around, if I recall my biology lessons right. There are, I suppose, mechanisms that could lead to fae-genetics being dominant over non-fae genetics and result in carbon copy fae-offspring. Question is, is that how you want your fae to be? And then you'd have to think it all the way through. Say, if your species makes carbon copies when hybridising, the offspring ought to be the same sex. And hdoes the other parent feel about having a child that doesn't have a single trait of their own line?

Frogs can be a good example of weird genetics. In Europe we have the 'green frog complex' (I call them green because that's how they're called in Dutch, I know they're also called edible frogs in English but I refuse to use that name because of reasons.): Two parent-species (marsh and pool frog) and one hybrid species (green frog) who can all interbreed. There's a special process involved called hybridogenesis. It means the parent-genetics don't mix in the hybrid individual, and when it breeds it always passes on the same parent-part of the genome. It's a very complex mechanism but roughly put: a hybrid several generations later can still have the exact genetic material of one of the original parent-species while the genetic material of other ancestors has been entirely eliminated.

But then again that's frogs, and they're just weird in their own lovable way.

What I mostly have issues with in stories is hybrids often being a perfect mix of the best of their parents' races/breeds/species and then feel at home with neither. Genetics ought to be far more quirky than that.

What I like about Tolkien's Pereldar, even though they appear to get the best of both worlds, is that genetics actually barely enters into it. The Powers that Be had to hold a meeting to ponder the problem and and ultimatedly decided that no, we can't have mixes, they have to be one thing or the other! Sure, they're called half-elven but that's more an intermediate state, the final state is determined by choice of the individual whether to be counted among Eldar or Men. If they choose Men, then all their offspring will be mortal. If they choose Elf, then their kids will have to choose in turn. They're more or less in limbo until they make a choice as to what they are. It's quite ingenious really.

jjdebenedictis
11-28-2014, 06:15 AM
Yeah, that idea seems on the edge of being problematic in that the author is including a black character but then erasing their influence in the world. There's something about that setup that is a little itchy and uncomfortable.

That said, all hybrids between wildly different sentient beings strike me as needing to rely on "because magic" logic. If a human and a chimpanzee can't interbreed, then how could a human and a fae? They're different species.

I agree with you, that if one parent is a human, some of their human traits should come through -- but it is a situation where the author might be justified in saying it's all impossible, so "because magic" is acceptable reasoning.

Lillith1991
11-28-2014, 06:51 AM
I agree with you, that if one parent is a human, some of their human traits should come through -- but it is a situation where the author might be justified in saying it's all impossible, so "because magic" is acceptable reasoning.

See, because magic doesn't work for me at all for the very reason you stated. If it is impossible and you're trying to use a scientific excuse, then actually do your research.

Roxxsmom
11-28-2014, 07:31 AM
This issue is one reason why I've kept away from species that are too close to human but aren't human in my own fantasy. I have a sentient species that's created from spotted hyenas via magic long ago, but they can't interbreed with humans, nor would they want to. But I tend to like to have the rules of biology apply in my fantasy worlds, even if the people who live there haven't discovered genetics or molecular biology.

I think one reason I've come to find fantasy with your standard humanoid species kind of dull is that they often become a substitute for real human diversity in the story, both in terms of including people who fall across a spectrum of skin colors and so on, and in terms of cultural diversity within and between human societies and civilizations. I get that some writers probably feel like they're avoiding thorny issues if they have the two "races" who dislike or mistrust one another be elves and dwarves, or if the society is set up so the elves are the disenfranchised group that lives in ghettos (thinking Dragon age here), but it seems like should be possible to address these issues with humans without just mindlessly duplicating the exact same racial and cultural situations that have existed in our world.

jjdebenedictis
11-28-2014, 09:13 AM
...but it seems like should be possible to address these issues with humans without just mindlessly duplicating the exact same racial and cultural situations that have existed in our world.Depends on whether it's mindless or not.

I think speculative fiction is at its most powerful when it tackles thorny human problems that are in disguise. Often, the ugliest truths become more palatable when served up with the disclaimer, "But this is not our world, even though you recognize it."

Lord of the Rings touched upon environmental issues. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica explored personhood and faith. People who might not be able to stomach a literary novel that focuses on emotional abuse might be able to handle a horror novel that does.

I think there's a valid place in literature for books that duplicate our world's issues in an unfamiliar world, just because they can then reach audiences who wouldn't otherwise delve into such fraught topics.

Roxxsmom
11-28-2014, 09:47 AM
Depends on whether it's mindless or not.

I think speculative fiction is at its most powerful when it tackles thorny human problems that are in disguise. Often, the ugliest truths become more palatable when served up with the disclaimer, "But this is not our world, even though you recognize it."

True, and I don't mean we should avoid these themes. Quite the opposite. I couldn't imagine wanting to read fantasy or SF that wasn't, at some level, about our world really, though it's cool when the problems and tribulations we face in our world are presented in a setting that allows them to play out in a different way than they have in ours.

But I do think that fantasy has all too often presented fantasy races as stand ins for our stereotypes of real-world cultures in ways that go unexamined, perhaps out of a desire to have someone be the unambiguous good or bad guys. So elves become a wise and ancient culture that lives in harmony with nature, dwarves become greedy xenophobes, orcs become the dark-skinned hordes where every single individual is warped and evil.

But human civilizations in a fantasy novel can become caricatures of real-world cultures too.

Frex (taken from the Chronicles of Narnia):


"The Calormenes have dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people".To be fair to Lewis, he did have at least a couple of Calormine characters who were sympathetic, but it was pretty clear from the way he presented their culture and religion, that they were supposed to be the bad guys, and I'm pretty sure they're modeled after Middle Eastern cultures.

Filigree
11-28-2014, 05:46 PM
I have dark-skinned folks throughout my stories, and try to show that skin color is not the major source of their racial prejudices. In my SSF worlds, it's far more likely to stem from caste status and bloodline.

Bolero
11-28-2014, 06:38 PM
In one of the Discworld books, Terry Pratchett makes the comment that humans on the Discworld weren't bothered by each other's skin colour - they were too busy ganging up on green.

jjdebenedictis
11-28-2014, 10:28 PM
But I do think that fantasy has all too often presented fantasy races as stand ins for our stereotypes of real-world cultures in ways that go unexamined, perhaps out of a desire to have someone be the unambiguous good or bad guys. So elves become a wise and ancient culture that lives in harmony with nature, dwarves become greedy xenophobes, orcs become the dark-skinned hordes where every single individual is warped and evil.

But human civilizations in a fantasy novel can become caricatures of real-world cultures too.

Frex (taken from the Chronicles of Narnia): (snip)

To be fair to Lewis, he did have at least a couple of Calormine characters who were sympathetic, but it was pretty clear from the way he presented their culture and religion, that they were supposed to be the bad guys, and I'm pretty sure they're modeled after Middle Eastern cultures.Oh, I agree -- when I was a kid, the religious allegory in The Chronicles of Narnia flew right over my head, but the way the Calormine's were portrayed struck me as Not Right even then. (And to be fair to Tolkien, creatures like orcs and trolls were occasionally portrayed as having flickers of decency and "humanity" too, at least on the individual level.)

As I said, when it's done mindlessly -- or maybe a better way to phrase it would be, when it's done intuitively, the author's unexamined biases can start leaking out and put their internalized racism on display.

Lillith1991
11-29-2014, 03:43 AM
What I like about Tolkien's Pereldar, even though they appear to get the best of both worlds, is that genetics actually barely enters into it. The Powers that Be had to hold a meeting to ponder the problem and and ultimatedly decided that no, we can't have mixes, they have to be one thing or the other! Sure, they're called half-elven but that's more an intermediate state, the final state is determined by choice of the individual whether to be counted among Eldar or Men. If they choose Men, then all their offspring will be mortal. If they choose Elf, then their kids will have to choose in turn. They're more or less in limbo until they make a choice as to what they are. It's quite ingenious really.

That is exactly what I like about them myself, Tolkien didn't try to use genetics to explain the Peredhil.

thepicpic
11-29-2014, 01:49 PM
What I like about Tolkien's Pereldar, even though they appear to get the best of both worlds, is that genetics actually barely enters into it. The Powers that Be had to hold a meeting to ponder the problem and and ultimately decided that no, we can't have mixes, they have to be one thing or the other

I love the images this conjures.

"Bloody humans. We look away for one minute and they manage to break creation."

Lillith1991
11-29-2014, 02:02 PM
I love the images this conjures.

"Bloody humans. We look away for one minute and they manage to break creation."

To be fair, as much as I can see the Valar saying that, they do allow the Mannish descendants of at least one peredhil line I know of to have mortal but extended lifespans. Aragorn dies at 250, because Dunedain live longer than other Mannish peoples.

Anyway.... that doesn't really explain why people insist on giving a character a human parent who isn't white and a non-human, only to have the character be 100% whitepassing. I personally want to six some obviously mixed Elves, or a Minotaur with skin like my own because his mom is a POC. Or more fully POC magical beings like Grover from Percy Jackson.

Spy_on_the_Inside
11-30-2014, 06:16 AM
An alternative to genetic splicing of Earth humans is creating an alien race similar to humans, but evolved from completely different animals. For example, a race the evolved from cats that eventually learned to walk on two legs and ones who evolved from whale-like creatures and eventually crawled out of the ocean.

Of course, this would also involve a lot of consideration on your part. You would be able to introduced this concept and then have the race be completely identical to humans. That would be just poor storytelling. Study the biology of whatever creature the race evolved from (even studying animals that are now extinct) and write down how having a different ancestor would make this race different from the humans we know.

Once!
11-30-2014, 12:36 PM
Whew! Lots of different issues mixed together here. I wonder if we can separate some of them out?

First, could humans interbreed with an alien race as we would understand the concept of interbreeding? Straight out of the box, I would have to say "extremely unlikely". We can't interbreed with our evolutionary cousins, so it's hard to see how we can get it on with an alien race.

Of course, Star Trek gave us Spock (half-human and half Vulcan), but that was based in a universe where most alien races were more or less humanoid apart from their foreheads. I think we can put that one down more to convenience and saving money in the wardrobe and make-up departments.

There is the possibility of non-sexual reproduction, say a parasitic creature using a human host in some yucky xenomorph way. Possible. And it's also possible that the parasitic creature may have a way of ensuring that its genes coming out on top.

But let's say that a human and non-human could mate and produce offspring ... are we so sure that the traits would be shared equally? That doesn't happen in humans, so why should it happen in a human-non human hybrid? And we don't know that the non-humans might have aggressive dominant genes.

So let's imagine that a human black person mates with a non-human pale-skinned creature. What colour skin would the child have? Straight answer - we simply don't know. We shouldn't automatically assume a 50/50 split of traits, but then nor should we assume that the child will automatically be pale-skinned because "white is right".

But I have to ask - why do you assume that there has to be a reason that one of the parents is black? It could be that both you and the person you are talking about are bringing issues to the table.

Lillith1991
11-30-2014, 02:23 PM
But I have to ask - why do you assume that there has to be a reason that one of the parents is black? It could be that both you and the person you are talking about are bringing issues to the table.

Because I am black, and I've never come across a story not written by someone who isn't themselves black that has a black person for no reason. Most often, black people being present because it is normal is something I see in the work of black writers. There's also the fact that they're seeminly looking for ways to make it ok that their character is white-passing while still having a black parent, that sends up a red flag for me.

Soccially in the west, white-passing POC have experiences with a lot more in common to someone is white than their fellow POCs. The trade off for this is that they tend to have a harder time within their community itself, and may feel excluded etc. Unless a writer is going to touch on that in some way, making the character able to pass tends to be nothing more than a cop out. They can say the character is black or whatever without subjecting them to the same issues black people in the west face, while still making them a part of a minority community.

I know I write black and mixed characters of various shades because that is normal to me. My mom is predominantly white, but my father is black and his family spans the entire shade range. Heck, I'm lightskinned myself, so it isn't like I'm saying or implying a mixed character needs to be dark. Just that unless both parents are on the lighter end of the spectrum, what the writer was suggesting doesn't make sense to me.

Once!
11-30-2014, 07:15 PM
Because I am black, and I've never come across a story not written by someone who isn't themselves black that has a black person for no reason.

Hmm. I think we need to unpack that one a little. So are you saying that when a white person writes a story with a black person in it they always have a reason for making that character black?

But it's not the same when a black person writes a story with a black character in it?

Do we apply the same logic the other way round? If a black writer includes a white character they must have a reason for doing that?

We are into dangerous territory as soon as we start saying that black people do X and white people do Y. We are generalising about people on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Lillith1991
12-01-2014, 12:44 AM
Hmm. I think we need to unpack that one a little. So are you saying that when a white person writes a story with a black person in it they always have a reason for making that character black?

But it's not the same when a black person writes a story with a black character in it?

Do we apply the same logic the other way round? If a black writer includes a white character they must have a reason for doing that?

We are into dangerous territory as soon as we start saying that black people do X and white people do Y. We are generalising about people on the basis of the colour of their skin.

I would hope you're not presuming to lecture me about this? I see you latched onto the black/white bit, and have neglected the rest. They're seeminly looking for ways to make it ok that their character is white-passing, and in my experience, NaNoers that aren't from this site are not always the best at research. So I highly doubt they've done research other than asking that question, just from the way it was phrased alone. And yes, yes that does send up red flags for me. It makes me suspicious about why the human parent is POC in the first place.

jjdebenedictis
12-01-2014, 01:36 AM
Hmm. I think we need to unpack that one a little. So are you saying that when a white person writes a story with a black person in it they always have a reason for making that character black?

But it's not the same when a black person writes a story with a black character in it?
I think it's a symptom of privilege -- and quite unfair of you -- to claim these situations are equivalent.

A white person in a white-dominated society can make statements and perform actions and be judged a certain way, while a black person in a white-dominated society can make those same statements and perform those same actions and be judged completely differently.

Yes, it's different when a white person does it. Yes, it's different when a black person does it. Because the society they both live in does not treat them equally even in identical situations.

Lissibith
12-01-2014, 06:03 PM
I guess my question wrt the OP is, was there a reason for the MC to look exactly like the fae parent? Because if so, it's probably fine. I could see a lot of interesting stuff coming out of that - does it affect the social strata that pure fae can't tell people of mixed heritage easily? Does it affect their culture? Does the human parent know this going in, and how do they feel knowing their children will have nothing of their features?

But yeah, I suspect this wasn't so much about complicating factors adding depth to a fictional world. Maybe I'm wrong! but if it is, that's... ugh.

But yeah, the lighter=more good, darker=more evil thing has got to go. I imagine it's mostly unconscious at this point, but it's so prevalent.

Lillith1991
12-01-2014, 09:48 PM
I guess my question wrt the OP is, was there a reason for the MC to look exactly like the fae parent? Because if so, it's probably fine. I could see a lot of interesting stuff coming out of that - does it affect the social strata that pure fae can't tell people of mixed heritage easily? Does it affect their culture? Does the human parent know this going in, and how do they feel knowing their children will have nothing of their features?

But yeah, I suspect this wasn't so much about complicating factors adding depth to a fictional world. Maybe I'm wrong! but if it is, that's... ugh.

But yeah, the lighter=more good, darker=more evil thing has got to go. I imagine it's mostly unconscious at this point, but it's so prevalent.

The gave no reason other than magical genetics, and no indication on how they would proceed.

BreMiche
12-03-2014, 09:45 AM
The gave no reason other than magical genetics, and no indication on how they would proceed.

I'm wondering how heavily actual biology would need to factor in to making a hybrid child in fantasy. As someone who's writing about hybrids in my story there is a base level of genetics at play, and some wild cards and that's about it. Unless they aren't two-legged in anyway, there's some bizarre means of creating mixed beings.

As for why the OP feels the need to make the child take after one parent over another, I honestly don't understand why either. Hopefully there is a plot-related reason if their is no technical one. Being black myself, I cringe a little when I read the 'light is right' trope. I only hope that wasn't the OP's intent.

Mr Flibble
12-03-2014, 03:15 PM
While I'm sure you're right about this particular Nanoer, it could well be that the "reason" a white person includes a black character is as simple as "Black people exist, and I write about people so...." Same as the reasons we make some characters female, or born in a city as opposed to on a farm or whatever. Not for a Reason.

As for the initial issue -- it never made much sense that a child wouldn't take on some attributes from both parents (unless there is something else at play). I've got a WIP with two non identical hybrid twins -- one takes very much after his Dad, the other his Mum. They get treated very differently because of it. Kinda the theme of the story actually.

Wrt to hybrids, as long as the difference is not too great, I can see hybridisation such as mules and ligers etc. I'd expect the offspring to be sterile though.

PaulLev
12-10-2014, 11:10 AM
H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) would be the archetypical example of humans mixed with animals, in a pre-gene-splicing era.