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Will this get me into trouble?

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Laneer

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New author here. I have some autism so what's obvious to most isn't always obvious to me, so I can use some help.

I started my current project by getting an idea for a big set piece, it's a fantasy so set pieces are part of the genre, and the set piece I came up with was a tree world. The whole world is a tree. There's no ground, or metals etc.

So then I thought, what kind of people would occupy this world? The first thing that came to mind was a simian people.

Later, I thought, "could this be considered racist?"

There's no humans on this planet.

I don't describe the characters upfront, I leave it as sort of a mystery. For example, the mother tells the girl she can't have a treat. When the mother turns her back, the girl goes to sneak a treat but before she can the mother slaps the girls hand away with her prehensile tail. That sort of thing.

Besides prehensile tails, they have fur, feet with opposable thumbs, or big toes which are nearly as good as hands. The males have manes. Their skin is white.

Am I fretting about nothing or should I be concerned?

Thoughts and opinions are welcome.
 
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Dan Rhys

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What I've learned from personal experience, including some of my encounters with members here, is that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always offend some people. There will always be people who take things opposite to how they were intended to be taken, either by chance or intention. You can't please them. I think as long as you are not making an effort to be offensive and are trying to be sensitive to the concerns of others, most people will see that and focus on your story rather than such peripheral matters.
 

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It'll depend on execution. The setup you describe could be offensive or not, and I could describe the specifics that would shift it one way or the other, but it seems a bit early to worry about that.

Write your story. Workshop your story at writer groups. Get sensitivity readers of some type or other. Share any passage here that you are concerned about.

FWIW I'm a biologist by training and I consider myself an ape. In fact, I am an ape. I had a line in my novel in which a character comments that people are apes. (We are, in fact, Great Apes. All of us.) He was totally wigging out in evolutionary history and had genetic memory of being an ape.

At some point I saw how that wording was going to bite me in the butt if I didn't change it, and so now 'ape' is replaced by 'mammal.'

It still gets the point across, that the character is in a bizarre delusional state, but somehow works better.
 
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frimble3

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As a start, I wouldn't use the word ape, to describe your characters, not 'til someplace mid-story to end, where someone does something really clumsy, and another person yells something like "Watch what you're doing, you stupid ape!" so as to show that they don't normally think of themselves as 'apes' any more that we do.
Up 'til then, they are the people in your world, men, women and children. Only with tails and prehensile feet.
And, if they have prehensile feet, I can't see them wearing shoes. Maybe those socks with toes knitted in, or thumb-socks like japanese tabi.
 

Paul Lamb

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As you describe it, I don't see it as offensive at all. I can remember reading a novel in which human scientists visit a planet with characters similar to what you suggest, so I think there is precedent.

The only question I have is why do you say their skin is white? Is that important to the plot or theme in some way? If not, why not have their skin (or fur?) be any color? If you suggest diversity in the population, then you deflect any racist reading from the start.
 

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I'm not sure what you mean by "in trouble" but I'd like to point out that there's no reason for a writer to post a question about simian characters in a forum for PoC unless your underlying assumption is that PoC = simian.

I'm moving this to SF & F, a more appropriate forum.
 
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Barbara R.

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New author here. I have some autism so what's obvious to most isn't always obvious to me, so I can use some help.

I started my current project by getting an idea for a big set piece, it's a fantasy so set pieces are part of the genre, and the set piece I came up with was a tree world. The whole world is a tree. There's no ground, or metals etc.

So then I thought, what kind of people would occupy this world? The first thing that came to mind was a simian people.

Later, I thought, "could this be considered racist?"

There's no humans on this planet.

I don't describe the characters upfront, I leave it as sort of a mystery. For example, the mother tells the girl she can't have a treat. When the mother turns her back, the girl goes to sneak a treat but before she can the mother slaps the girls hand away with her prehensile tail. That sort of thing.

Besides prehensile tails, they have fur, feet with opposable thumbs, or big toes which are nearly as good as hands. The males have manes. Their skin is white.

Am I fretting about nothing or should I be concerned?

Thoughts and opinions are welcome.

If the whole world consists of a tree, your characters need to be simian, don't they? I would certainly not give them black skin for fear of the very reaction you fear. But otherwise, I think you're fine.

One unsolicited bit of advice. Don't keep the creatures' appearance a secret. Readers should be able to see what you see. If you hide important stuff from them, they feel cheated, blindfolded, and rightly so.
 

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Later, I thought, "could this be considered racist?"
Well, as others above have said, anything can be considered racist.

The whole world is a tree. There's no ground, or metals etc.

So then I thought, what kind of people would occupy this world? The first thing that came to mind was a simian people.
But it never hurts to consider one's second and third thoughts.

Why are they white? Does white skin enhance survival in this particular environment? (Think about why skin in African countries evolved to be dark while skin in Scandinavian countries evolved to be pale.)

What other types of creatures also inhabit this world? Are some better adapted to live in this tree? To survive on the types of food provided by this world? If so, why are they not the leading sentient species? Yes, non-human primates are much better than humans when it comes to ascending trees, but so are cats. Geckos. Caterpillars. And, um, birds. If the world is a tree, why would evolution not drive them towards being winged?
 

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If the whole world consists of a tree, your characters need to be simian, don't they?

No; not at all. Even in terms of Earth biology, there are a lot of different kinds of beings in trees; not just primates and not just mammals.

Lots of reptiles, birds, insects, symbiotic plants and fauna, fungi, mosses, bromeliads, / airplants.
 

Polenth

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It's not inherently racist to write about other sentient primates and similar. Where it can be an issue is when non-humans are used as a replacement for people from marginalised cultures. If your invented culture looks rather like a marginalised human culture (or a stereotype of it), yet you've assigned it to non-humans, this could be a problem. The film "Avatar" is an example of doing this.

One of the issues is that this replaces people who are underrepresented with someone who isn't them. Many authors love the culture, but not the people who live it.

Another is this sort of replacement tends to lean heavily on stereotypes. One of the reasons for using the replacement is authors don't want to do research and be accurate, so they paint the people green, give them antlers, and roll on with the stereotypes.

It also draws on a history of degrading marginalised people by representing them as non-human. It's not that it's inherently bad to be non-human, but that when a someone says a black person looks like a gorilla, it is not meant as a positive thing. It is meant to suggest that person is inferior, so therefore it's not bad to discriminate against them.

What I'd suggest is considering where the things you add come from. Everything from names, to food, to what they do all day. If you find you're lifting most of it from Native American cultures or the like, you might want to rethink it. This can also help make your worldbuilding richer, because you'll be focused on making your people into their own thing, rather than a copy of existing cultures.
 

Roxxsmom

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No; not at all. Even in terms of Earth biology, there are a lot of different kinds of beings in trees; not just primates and not just mammals.

Lots of reptiles, birds, insects, symbiotic plants and fauna, fungi, mosses, bromeliads, / airplants.

This. They could be based on tree shrews, or geckos, or squirrels, or parrots, or sugar gliders, or even leumurs, which are primates but not simian.

Not that making them non-human, tree-dwelling, simian-type primates is inherently problematic. Yes, there have been offensive racial stereotypes that liken some human beings to other primates, and you should be aware of this. But if you create a stand-alone culture that isn't stealing elements from any real world people, it should work.
 

SAWeiner

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What I've learned from personal experience, including some of my encounters with members here, is that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always offend some people. There will always be people who take things opposite to how they were intended to be taken, either by chance or intention. You can't please them. I think as long as you are not making an effort to be offensive and are trying to be sensitive to the concerns of others, most people will see that and focus on your story rather than such peripheral matters.

I have to agree with this sentiment. Your idea does not sound offensive to me. However, there are so many different groups out there that it is still quite possible to step on someone's toes whatever you say or do. Also, social mores are in a major state of flux. Things considered ordinary 10-20 years ago are now regarded as improper. You just do what you can to be aware and hope for the best when your book comes out.
 

Helix

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I have to agree with this sentiment. Your idea does not sound offensive to me. However, there are so many different groups out there that it is still quite possible to step on someone's toes whatever you say or do. Also, social mores are in a major state of flux. Things considered ordinary 10-20 years ago are now regarded as improper. You just do what you can to be aware and hope for the best when your book comes out.

I think what one has to do is be receptive to responses. That is, actually listen and consider them, rather than immediately dismissing them as the result people taking offence for no reason. Also many of the things that are now regarded as improper were also improper a couple of decades ago, but the ''so many different groups' now have a stronger voice.
 
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Barbara R.

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No; not at all. Even in terms of Earth biology, there are a lot of different kinds of beings in trees; not just primates and not just mammals.

Lots of reptiles, birds, insects, symbiotic plants and fauna, fungi, mosses, bromeliads, / airplants.

Fair enough! But I assume intelligence and mobility are essential aspects of the OP's characters, and there are so few intelligent fungi around, outside of D.C., and even they're not that intelligent.
 

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My first thought would also be some sort of monkey--because of tree-dwelling critters, monkeys are closest to us. In a way, to use a monkey as a tree-dwelling sentient species borders on lazy world building, and cliche.

One of my favorite authors, Marion Zimmer Bradley, * , had a tree-dwelling civilization on Darkover. But there were maybe a half dozen different civilized species on Darkover and her 'monkey people' seemed more like early hominids (evolutionarily based) than anything else. She wrote during the time that certain ideas were taken as 'truth'--Intelligent species would of necessity be bipedal, would have language, opposable thumbs, and so on. There are arguments as to why all of these things are necessary for a civilization of intelligent species to develop.

Using those arguments is one way to approach the challenge of building a new intelligent civilization--make them look like humans more or less. Fiddle around the edges. Give 'em a tail or a bulbous head. Star Trek does this, too. Sometimes panspermia is built into the larger world to explain the similarity to humans of various alien civilizations.

Some authors go the other way, and discard the idea that intelligent species must have opposable thumbs and a written history. Some look to octopi, for example, at their distributed 'brain,' and work off of that. Or birds. Tool use is more awkward for birds, although it happens, so finding a solution there is interesting. Maybe the extra 'hook' that some dinosaurs had could develop a grip/tool use.

In my opinion going the unusual route is harder, both to write and to get readers on board with. It's definitely not lazy imagining or cliche.

Random thoughts. A person could go further yet and put deep-sea creatures into their trees. Starfish, mussels.

* It came to light that MZB was an abuser. This is heartbreaking to me, and I waffle on whether or not to remain a reader of her books. I haven't reached a decision beyond 'unsettled and watching the conversation.'
 
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I don't think simians or any other tree creature is actually needed. If the tree is the whole world, most of the branches would be huge, wider than highways. Normal people could move around without problem on all but the very top of the tree and the very ends of the branches.
 

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Why would anybody be offended by a work of fiction about pople living in trees ?
 
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kujo_jotaro

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What I've learned from personal experience, including some of my encounters with members here, is that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, you will always offend some people. There will always be people who take things opposite to how they were intended to be taken, either by chance or intention. You can't please them. I think as long as you are not making an effort to be offensive and are trying to be sensitive to the concerns of others, most people will see that and focus on your story rather than such peripheral matters.

Second this. Doesn't hurt to try and be considerate where you can, but ultimately you have to write the story you want to write.
 

Mutive

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*Would read about a sugar glider civilisation*

Seriously! "And then I huddled up with my brother-co-husband and the four nubile females of our colony so that we could keep our joeys warm. The fifth female - the mother of my nephew - was off hunting for tree sap and ripe fruit."
 

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I don't think simians or any other tree creature is actually needed. If the tree is the whole world, most of the branches would be huge, wider than highways. Normal people could move around without problem on all but the very top of the tree and the very ends of the branches.

Because Lemurs are freaking adorable. Who wouldn't want to read a book about a lemur-like race of beings? Same for sugar gliders.
 

Layla Nahar

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(wait - if the characters have tails, are they even apes? I thought a distinguishing feature of apes vs other monkeys was the lack of a tail.)
 

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I don't think simians or any other tree creature is actually needed. If the tree is the whole world, most of the branches would be huge, wider than highways. Normal people could move around without problem on all but the very top of the tree and the very ends of the branches.

If the tree is the whole world, it might itself be sentient.
 

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