Avatar: The Legend of Korra is the ongoing sequel to Avatar: The Legend of Aang / The Last Airbender , which we talked about here before. The series is being made by a team that includes some of the writers and animators for Legend of Aang and some new people. There are plans at least 4 relatively short seasons, but only 2 have aired so far. Having recently watched them, I have opinions.
Legend of Aang had a very extensive level-grinding aspect to the plot: Aang starts only knowing air-bending, then learns water-, earth-, and fire-bending in sequence at the rate of one per season. And although there are some complexities to it, the Avatar’s task to restore balance to the world came down to “beat up this guy until he can’t beat up others”.
Legend of Korra has a very different plot. Korra starts the first episode knowing all of the techniques of water-, earth-, and fire-bending. While there is some plot around her learning air-bending, the bulk of the story addresses such things as the ethics of responding to terrorism and social unrest, the implications of a massively changed society to the role that Korra has been born into, and various complicated elements of the Avatarverse that were not addressed in the original series. This is a great surprise to Korra, who starts the series with good intentions but a default strategy of bending-first-questions-later. She learns otherwise quickly.
The changes to the world in the sixty years between the two series were also well-done. In my review of Legend of Aang, I mentioned how the strict segregation of the Four Nations by element-bending skill bothered me. They fixed that. Most of the action in the series is centered around Republic City, where water-, earth-, fire-, metal-, and a few air-benders live and work together with a great many non-benders. After some false starts, the city has its own local democratic government and is the central point of a new globe-spanning organization called the United Republic of Nations.
Legend of Korra is also appropriately updated from the just-post-Industrial-Revolution setting of Legend of Aang. Rather than the thousands of years of near-stasis implied by the Avatar cycle, Republic City is now styled something like 1930’s Shanghai or New York or Hong Kong – except with bending. There are large corporations working in cars, motorcycles, aircraft, radio, movies, bending sports, and clean lightning-bending power plants. Many of the cops are metal-benders, a skill that was brand new during the original series, the better to deal with thieves skilled in using fast cars and chi-blocking.
And, in the second season particularly, we learn about the deep backstory of the Avatar universe. In particular, where the giant lion-turtles that gave the Avatars and all other benders their powers come in. Apparently, 10,000 years ago, the spirit world that was seen briefly in Legend of Aang and the world in which the humans in the story live were merged. The humans fought the spirits, and survived only by working with the giant lion-turtles, who granted them bending (although not the ability to use it well) and safe locations for settlements in exchange for services. The first Avatar, Wan, was a human who was cast out of a fire-bending city but kept the power that its turtle had granted him. He survived by working with the spirits, and acquired different bending skills from other turtles by persistence and persuasion. Then Wan interrupted an eternal struggle between a spirit of order and one of chaos, inadvertently releasing chaos and destruction on both spirits and humans. So he partnered with the spirit of order, making an agreement to last for all reincarnated lifetimes and be a force for order and balance – in exchange for the spirit and human worlds being segregated
This gives some justification for the many thousands of years of near-stasis of the Avatarverse before Aang took the Avatar out-of-circulation for a hundred years: the spirit of order and balance was ascendent, and kept things from changing – for better or for worse. Aang attempted to establish a new equilibrium; but the spirit of chaos gets the idea of also partnering with a human to create an inverse Dark Avatar. Korra prevents total chaos and destruction, but only by ending a part of Wan’s compact and removing the barriers between spirits and humans. This causes some serious changes to the world, which are to be the focus of the third season.
Two final good things about the series:
While nearly all the cast of the original series are dead (Katara takes over the role of grandmother), we still encounter Iroh, awesome mentor figure and tea enthusiast. Apparently, Iroh has transcended the cycle of reincarnation that humans in the Avatarverse are normally subject to. He spends his time in the spirit world, dispensing good advice to visiting humans and drinking the spirit world’s perfection of tea. That was fun.
And, quite obviously, Korra is both an effective and complicated heroic character and also is a (young) woman. Apparently, the show’s audience has not objected to this, and generally considers her an awesome character. That’s good to see. Also good to see: Korra is drawn as quite appropriately athletic for someone who spends multiple hours every day in strict physical training, and without the artificial shortness compared to the older characters that happened in Legend of Aang.
One of the more powerful parts of Legend of Aang was the depiction of the relationship between Zuko, Azula, Mei, and Ty Lee; all nobles of the Fire Nation. Zuko starts as the primary antagonist of the series, but does an appropriately-complicated shift of alliance from hunting Avatar Aang to helping him stop the Fire Nation from committing further atrocities. Azula is Zuko’s sister. In addition to fully supporting war crimes, she is physically and psychologically abusive to her brother and to her friends, Mei & Ty Lee. Azula’s abuse of others is portrayed seriously and as the bad thing that it is, and Zuko’s and eventually Mei’s and Ty Lee’s escaping from toxic relationships with her is a key part of the development of all three characters.
Unfortunately, Legend of Korra does not treat abusive relationships well at all. At one point in the second season of the show, Bolin, an earthbender who works with Korra, becomes romantically involved with Eska, daughter of the chief of the Northern Water Tribe. She is verbally and physically abusive to him, and attempts to force him into marrying her. This is treated as comedy, and as the beta-plot in the episodes that it features in. That is massively uncool. Here is another discussion of the problem.
Something similar applies to Varrick, trade-magnet-turned-media-mogul and conspirator in provoking a civil war within the Water Tribes. His treachery and war-mongering are dealt with seriously, and he ends up imprisoned (although he eventually escapes). But his horrifically exploitative and creepy treatment of his employees is played significantly for laughs. Not cool.
As with Legend of Aang, there is a core group of characters centered around the Avatar, each of whom provides different skills, and the relationships between them are a major part of the plot. We have Korra, Avatar-learning-on-the-job; Bolin, earthbender athlete and eventual movie star; Bolin’s brother Mako, firebender athlete and eventual Republic City cop; and Asami, non-bender expert driver and pilot who happens to be heir to the transportation company Future Industries. It bothers me a bit that over the first two seasons of the show, every possible heterosexual romantic pairing of these four characters has been hinted at or canonical. This is pushing the shipping a bit too much. And it is also vaguely worrisome that all of the characters whose sexual orientation we know are apparently strictly heterosexual, even given the relatively small number of such characters.
Legend of Korra also addresses some complicated social issues explicitly. Amon, the main villain of the first season, is a blood-bender who applies that skill to suppress other benders’ abilities to bend (much as Aang did before). He exploits classism in Republic City to gain power. Benders had used their skills to gain money/power, and then were colluding with one another to shut out many non-benders from the political process in the city. The people thus disenfranchised were justifiably angered by this, and that anger was exploited by Amon and by various political and business leaders for their own ends rather than to relieve the oppression. The analogies to real-life political situations are obvious.
Amon organizes a campaign of terrorism, injuring and killing many, kidnapping and removing the bending of various powerful figures who oppose him and his allies – including the chief of the Republic City police. His eventual goal is to remove the powers of all benders in the city, including Avatar Korra. Korra stops him by forcing him to expose his bending in front of his followers and convincing them that installing a deceiving and mass-murdering dictator is not going to resolve the social problems in the city. He flees, is pursued by a former ally, and both are presumed dead at the end (no bodies found, but an impressive explosion at sea).
The government of Republic City is reformed in an at-least-somewhat more democratic manner; the other leaders of the terrorist campaign are tried and imprisoned; and Korra is able to restore bending abilities to people who had lost them. But what struck me was what was not addressed in the show: the classism and social inequalities that allowed Amon et al. to acquire any support for a campaign of terror in the first place. Simply having an election for a new president is not enough, and the social changes that would need to happen for classism to be far less of a problem would take time. It would have been good to see the show address why terrorism happens, and how that can be avoided, as well as how to react to terrorism after it happens.
One final thought: The lion turtles have the ability to give humans who cannot bend the ability to do so, and at least one of them is wandering around the landscape. Korra can restore bending to people whose bending abilities had been removed – can she also give that ability to others, and give bending to people who have never been able to bend? And given that either Korra or the lion-turtle is willing to do so, why not give everyone who wants it the ability to bend whatever element? It would have been one way to address the power differential between benders and non-benders that Amon was exploiting.
There was a beautiful but terrible film with a bunch of blue aliens. I am not going to talk about that one any more. There was also a live-action film with the same characters, but that’s not it, either.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a surprisingly good animated television series. Some things were awesome. Some things… make me wonder what just happened. As ever, here there be spoilers.
(Also, Michael did some significant writing for this one, since he knows stuff about martial arts.)
Bending in Avatar refers to four (or five) different sets of related styles of Supernatural Martial Arts, themed around the four Hellenic Classical Elements – air, water, earth, and fire. The different societies in the Avatar world are based around primary use of one element: Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads (of whom Aang is the sole survivor for a long time). Despite the Hellenic division of the universe, the societies are predominately East-Asian themed: the Earth Kingdom is styled like classical China, the Fire Nation more like Meiji Japan, and the Air Nomads like Tibetan/Nepali Buddhists. The Water Tribes are a bit stranger: predominately Yupik/Aleut/Inuit, but a group in the equatorial swamp was greatly divergent.
One of the most fun things about bending, and why Rachel asked me to write this section, is how it is animated. The different elements are each associated with different real-life martial arts styles: water bending is based on various forms of tai chi (lots of redirection of motion), air bending on the less-well-known bāguàzhǎng (which focuses on evasion and smooth motions), fire bending on Northern Shaolin (emphasis on straight-line strikes), and earth bending on Hung Ga and related styles (deep solid stances). Like real-life martial arts, there are local variations in each style. This extends down to the level of individual characters, determined by their particular skills and who they were taught by. This is most prominent in the main characters and antagonists, but even bit characters get stylistic touches – some of the Earth benders incorporate American wrestling moves. Also like real-life martial arts, the techniques of bending aren’t restricted to humans. Some animals use them as well. Most prominently, there are flying bison, which stay airborne by air bending. Aang has one, Appa, as his companion. Appa is also the Gaang’s transportation (you see him above in the background).
The next cool thing is how bending is often exploited for mundane utility – water benders can do interesting healing tricks and build cities out of icebergs, the air benders had a global society based around towns that could only be accessed by flying, earth bending powers trains and heavy construction, fire bending becomes the basis of external combustion engines. These interlocking uses of magical and mundane technologies are reflected in relatively high life-expectancy and quality-of-life for human cultures that we would otherwise consider to be just at the edge of the industrial revolution (that and bending is apparently good for physical fitness).
The writers also made an effort to ensure competitive balance. Bending is only so capable (with the exception of the Avatars, who can move large islands around). Non-bending characters can equal or exceed what benders alone can do, either by engineering – such as The Mechanist, who builds gliders and dirigibles – or by subterfuge or by appropriate application of non-magical skill. The last sees the most air time in the show: super-accurate sword experts who can defeat all but the most powerful benders, knife-throwing to pin people in positions they can’t bend from, metal fans to wave fire bender flames out of the way, nerve strikes that temporarily paralyze and block bending. The last is a bit of a stretch for mundane martial arts, and is described as “chi-blocking”, so perhaps it counts as a fifth sort of bending.
There are a couple of problems with how bending is implemented. The most obvious is this: why is the Avatar the only one who can use more than one element? This gets into the Hindu concept of an Avatar as a reincarnating personification of universal power and the idea of bodhisattvas in some Buddhist schools, but just by itself it doesn’t make much sense. Zoku’s uncle Iroh (who is an awesome character) studied with water benders and incorporated some of their skills into his fire bending, although he did not learn how to bend water himself. But he did learn how to deflect lightning. Toph, the short Earth-bender punching things above, figures out how to bend metal. The background material explains that some people born in one nation are able to bend the theme element of another nation and not that of their own (which means that Aang will not be the last airbender forever). They usually immigrate or remain untrained and unable to use their power effectively. But why aren’t there any double-element or triple-element benders around?
The second problem is cultural. Why have the nations segregated themselves? Why don’t we have a more integrated society with air benders carrying the mail and other high-speed packages and working search-and-rescue; water benders handling hospitals and ocean freight; earth benders doing construction and land freight; and fire benders dominating large sections of manufacturing and the restaurant industry? Some of that could be justified historically, but given that the Avatars and the Four Nations have explicitly been around for over a thousand years, more cultural blending would be expected for the economics to be completely consistent. Related to the economics: in the Avatar world, both bending and mundane martial arts skill are egalitarian. The main Gaang has two young women and three young men, but the ratio becomes three to three when the recurring character Suki joins the group during the last few episodes. Several of the most dangerous antagonists are also women. Given this, why are the political and military leaderships of Fire, Earth, and Water still so male-dominated? Air was apparently more egalitarian, but everyone but Aang is dead during the series. We’ve touched on this problem before.
But even given those problems, Avatar still wins at world building in comparison to many other works, especially relative to other shows intended primarily for a young audience.
Character Development is Made of Win
I’m particularly impressed with how well the characters were developed. For instance, Sokka, the kid with brains but no bending, is appropriately snarky, but occasionally frustrated by lacking the raw power of his friends. He gradually transitions from being very goofy to having a more serious mien — though he never loses the sense of humor. Toph’s frustration with her parents and her desire for independence, which causes friction with the group, also work well. Even some of the minor characters have consistent appearance. The most entertaining is the guy trying to sell cabbages… and whose cabbages keep getting destroyed in various unfortunate ways. The appearance of airships is also nicely foreshadowed.
Zuko is particularly impressive. Over the course of the series, he transitions (with the mentorship of his uncle Iroh) from a teenager desperate to earn back his honor and his father’s love by capturing the Avatar to working against his father to save the world. There are a lot of bumps in the road, and I think it does a good job of illustrating the blurry line between good and evil. He shows both kindness and anger towards others in his travels. We learn he was loved by his mother, abused by his father, and constantly in conflict with his sister. He shows considerable internal conflict about changing sides, and has the appropriately rough reception when he presents the other kids with his change of heart. It takes all of the first two seasons and part of the third in order for him to get there. The rapid heel face turns we often see in movies always strike me as a bit… difficult to swallow. This more gradually transition is much easier to accept.
Wait, How Old Are These Kids?
Now, for the head-scratchers. While our heroes were developing mentally, there was a certain lack of physical growth.
Perhaps this makes sense for Aang — after all, he was twelve when he got stuck in the glacier, so maybe his growth has been permanently stunted by the experience. (Apparently this is actually canon, though it isn’t mentioned in the series.) On the other hand, there’s no such excuse for the other characters. Zuko may be done growing, but Sokka, Katara and Toph all start the series at around the age when they should be having a growth spurt. So, why does Sokka stay so much shorter than his dad for the whole series? Why does Toph, the youngest, stay so short relative to the other kids?
<michael>Related problem: the main character’s ages. Aang is physically 12-13 during the series; Toph is younger; Katara, Sokka, and Zuko somewhat older. But a lot happens during what is supposedly 12 months – crisscrossing the admittedly-small map many times, sieges and battles, near-death injuries and recoveries from them, lots of character development and changes in relationships, and Aang re-learning and mastering three styles of martial arts. This is all too fast. He learns fire bending last, but even so three weeks is simply not enough time to master a new set of motions. If the series had progressed in near-real-time, covering three or four years in-universe during its original run, things would have worked better. That would also have made the romantic sub-plots between Aang and Katara and Sokka and Suki more realistic, but would have made the lack of height changes more severe.</michael>
I See Dead People
This is okay, except that in their various adventures and battles against the Fire Nation, it really looks like our heroes have almost certainly killed some — but act as though they haven’t. Were there really no deaths in the Fire Nation ships you guys smacked, or the various fights against their soldiers, or when Aang went into Avatar super-powered mode at the North Pole, or when you assaulted the Fire Nation’s capital – smashing fortifications and tossing bombs into guard towers? Really?
Thus, it comes across as very strange when Aang has severe reticence against killing the Fire Lord after confronting him. He even says explicitly that he has never killed anyone before… when that is unlikely to be true, especially given the North Pole nastiness. Perhaps he means “deliberately” killed someone? It just doesn’t quite fit.
And that makes the ending all the more jarring. Where did that giant lion-turtle come from? Sure, they got a mention a time or two earlier in the story, but the sudden appearance of energy-bending (“bending each other”) really feels like a deus ex machina so that Aang can just de-power Fire Lord Ozai instead of killing him. It really feels like it came out of nowhere, especially since much of the discussion of plans earlier in the story focused on killing or defeating the Fire Lord.
This would have been much better if the ability to bend the energy of people had been mentioned… well, pretty much anywhere earlier in the story. Some sort of interesting ancient legend from before there was an avatar, for instance. That would have made this seem a bit less like a last-minute tweak to avoid having to kill a bad guy on-screen.
<michael>I propose that the mystic-energy-powered water bending healing and the chi-blocking nerve strikes were intended to be weaker derivatives of the energy-bending techniques, but that could have been better developed. Tougher problem: was permanently de-powering Ozai actually necessary to ensure he would not pose a threat in the future? If not, was it justified to do so? When is it ethical to invade someone’s mind/brain and rip out the parts that let them do something extraordinary? And what else can energy-bending do?</michael>
I’m a bit uncertain about writing this post, in part because I am not particularly qualified to discuss the material and in part because there is already a considerable literature on it. Much of what I’ll talk about here has been described already elsewhere, and I’m only giving a few examples of a very complicated problem that connects to a lot of overt and subtle social phenomena. But here we go: some thoughts on gender roles in scifi and fantasy works.
A brief review of terminology: humans are a species with significant sexual dimorphism, but neither biological sex nor gender identity are binary qualities. That is, most but not all humans can be conveniently called women or men. But most human societies also have non-equal gender roles: people are assigned to a gender and stereotyped into a particular set of behaviors on that basis. A lot of merchandise and even words are gender-coded as well. The details of how gender roles are assigned differ greatly from one culture to another.
The problem I’m considering here is how such stereotypes and gender-coding are reflected in sci-fi and fantasy works. This matters because gender roles as portrayed in media affect how we understand gender roles in real life. And gender stereotyping is a serious social problem. We’ve touched on this before, but the basic point is that restrictions on people’s perceived abilities solely based on gender are wrong and put artificial limits on what we can do.
Right now, a lot of gender role codification centers on artificially limiting what women are allowed to do – sometimes in the form of obvious sexism and sometimes more subtly. This set of patriarchal patterns causes a lot of problems for women in everyday life, and also for men and for people of all other genders or no gender at all. And while there have been some efforts to counter this in various media, patriarchal patterns are far too common in fiction.
Examples of the Problem
Consider Star Wars. George Lucas wrote the plot deliberately based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – which outlines a very old and wide-spread plot, a coming-of-age story almost always featuring a man as the hero. And that’s reflected in the Star Wars setting and story: Leia has to be rescued (twice, but the second was part of a rather silly plan); most of the Jedi and all of those who are major characters are men; the Imperial military is all men; and so on. While this is pretty bad, there is something to note: works often reflect the gender roles of the real-life society in which they were written, sometimes deliberately but also out of inertia or simply unthinking assumption. Lucas wrote the plot of Star Wars in the mid-1970’s USA, when women weren’t allowed in many regular military units (although integration was starting to happen). In some sense, Star Wars is a product of its time. And generally speaking, the further back we go the worse the mismatch between a positive egalitarian ideal and what is portrayed in works from the time will be. But there are some exceptions to that pattern.
Gene Roddenberry wanted the society of the Federation in Star Trek to reflect a future nearly-utopian ideal, and made the crew of the Enterprise multicultural and also included women as characters in serious heroic roles. The original second-in-command of the Enterprise was a woman, “Number One”, an intelligent and capable commander who takes charge of the ship while Captain Christopher Pike is not on board. But the character was rejected by NBC executives, who felt that a show with a woman as a senior officer would be rejected by 1960s American TV audiences (Edit: That Majel Barrett was Roddenberry’s girlfriend when she was cast as Number One is a problem, but not the one we’re considering here). Roddenberry did still include Uhura on the main cast, so the egalitarian message was not entirely killed, but there are still many gender-role problems with Star Trek. The uniform uniforms from the pilot were changed to be impractically gender-coded; James Kirk goes around seducing/being seduced by anyone of any species as long as they are attractive and identify as a woman; and many episodes are loaded with Unfortunate Implications. The later series are somewhat better, but even during Voyager the Federation’s society is not actually entirely egalitarian. So while Star Trek included attempts at defying gender stereotyping, that was limited and significantly stymied.
Let me make the causality clear here. It’s not that writers of fiction or their editors, agents, and employers seek to advocate gender stereotyping of people and gender coding of behavior, at least not much of the time. Sometimes, a writer may want to illustrate the importance an egalitarian society – by either positive egalitarian examples or negative gender-stereotyped ones – and is forced to edit their work for better marketing (see the Star Trek examples). And often the writers are simply writing something without thinking about the assumptions they are putting into their character design and world-building. But not intending to enforce harmful stereotypes doesn’t magically erase the problem of their existence. We need to be aware of the problem and correct for the resulting biases.
Works That Do Address Gender Roles
Some works do tackle the problem of gender stereotyping, and try to set positive egalitarian examples.
When Ridley Scott wrote Alien in the late 1970s, he specifically scripted it such that every character’s part could be done by any actor, regardless of gender. In doing so, and in direct contrast to the then-recent Star Wars: A New Hope, there was at least the implication of an egalitarian society – although the cast was still dominated by men, the character of Ripley was a very effective disproof of the idea that a movie hero had to be a man. Somewhat later on, Sarah Connor took many levels in badass during the Terminator movies. And Joss Whedon deliberately wrote Buffy The Vampire Slayer to have the stereotypical horror-movie victim character be the hero. But there is a danger with all of these cases, although they may have been well-intentioned: the characters end up being stereotyped as Action Girls rather than simply being compelling heroic characters who happen to be women. Rachel’s talked about one of the unfortunate consequences of that stereotype. There are works that avert that as well: consider Chell, from Portal. That she is a woman is incidental to the plot, and she wears a practical jumpsuit and boots at all times.
Those are examples at the level of individual characters. At the level of fictional societies, there are also some encouraging examples: the new Battlestar Galactica had an egalitarian military. For children’s shows and cartoons, there has also been an effort to portray more egalitarian societies. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, half of the incarnations of the Avatar are women and half are men, and many of the more powerful benders are women – although not 50%, which suggests that there may still be some tokenism.
All of those examples are from film and television. Let’s talk about one good book example: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Bujold likes to play with gender roles in her different fictional societies: Athos has demonized women to the point that none exist on the planet; Cetaganda has rigidly-codified gender roles for much of the population; Beta Colony is egalitarian and very strict about being so; and the main setting of Barrayar goes through a transition from strict patriarchy to a significantly more egalitarian model over the course of the series. On the more cynical side, Jackson’s Whole is patriarchal because that apparently is good for business. One other bit about the Vorkosigan Saga: Bujold includes, in a by-the-way fashion, a breakdown of the stereotype of the gender binary – the character of Bel Thorne presents as a woman, a man, or neither or both depending on the situation. That’s relatively rare in main-stream fiction – although we perhaps should not excuse Bujold for having her non-gender-binary character be a genetically-engineered hermaphrodite.
A Partial Excuse: Bizarre Alien Biology
There is a partial excuse for some works not discussing gender roles: an alien species that doesn’t have gender or has gender in a way that is very different from how it is viewed in most current human societies. For the Moties in The Mote In God’s Eye, it is more important that they die if they do not get pregnant at regular intervals than that individual moties oscillate in gender identity and biological sex. In Babylon 5, the pak’ma’ra reproduce by parthenogenesis and so have neither gender nor sex.
But this excuse is only partial, and doesn’t work all the time. J.R.R. Tolkien only wrote dwarf characters who were men (with one exception), and had dwarf women be only one-third of the population and be indistinguishable from dwarf men in their actions, speech, and appearance. This doesn’t make that much sense. It allows for an egalitarian society, but only by suppressing any expression of gender identity. Terry Pratchett addressed that in Discworld, where much of dwarf courtship consists of delicately inquiring as to your romantic interest’s gender and a sexual revolution is triggered by increased contact with Discworld human society – which is still patriarchal, but does allow expression of gender identity.
And A Meta-Example
You will have noticed that most of the writers I’ve mentioned here are men. That writers often deliberately or unthinkingly perpetuate harmful stereotypes of male-dominated cultures when most writers are men is perhaps unsurprising. But that does not excuse the writers who do so.
Despite having developed in entirely different environments, with entirely different histories, fictional cultures very often believe things that are similar to one or more human religions. Sometimes the similarity is nearly perfect. TVTropes calls that the Lowest Cosmic Denominator. For the particular case of Christianity being duplicated, it becomes “Crystal Dragon Jesus“. But does this make sense?
Note that there is a hard distinction between ethics and religion. Ethics is prescriptive statements about behavior. Religion is descriptive statements about the universe that assert some supernatural element. “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life” is an ethical statement. “If you murder, your self will spend its next incarnation in one of the Naraka realms” is a religious one.
Some things about religions in the fantasy literature make an abundant amount of sense. If there are zombies running around that a priest can turn back by waving a particular symbol, or if the armies of the Valar are fighting Morgoth across a continent, or if there is a reincarnating elemental-power kung-fu master saving the world every generation, it is quite obvious that something important is going on.
But this does raise a question of terminology: I have defined religion as characterized by belief in something supernatural. But if Aslan is running around the landscape fighting Tash, isn’t that automatically now part of the normal world? Belief in something we would call supernatural is irrelevant if it is an everyday occurrence. And religion no longer applies.
Terry Pratchett plays with this in Discworld. In that setting, gods exist, many of them. But they only have as much power as they have true believers. The Great God Om is significantly inconvenienced when he comes down to the Disc and finds that he only has one faithful follower left, leaving him incarnated as a maimed tortoise. Because most of the Discworld gods are gratuitously cruel, much of the population of the Disc is quietly Nay Theistic to avoid giving them more power than they have (“Of course they exist. But don’t go around believe’n in ’em. It only encourages ’em”). It’s rather like being in a city dominated by rival mafia dons: either you get one to protect you, or you keep your head down to avoid the attention. Vocal atheists tend to get hit by lightning by the gods that do have power, and so the surviving population of them are mainly fireproof golems. This being Pratchett, the social commentary is of course quite deliberate.
Human Religions in SciFi
When an author has incorporated religion(s) into a science fiction setting, particularly those set in the future, human societies tend to have those religions either be current ones or be similar in many ways. This makes sense if there has indeed been historical continuity, but it is important to remember that all real religions change dramatically over decades and centuries. Special mention here goes to Dune, where Frank Herbert took some liberties with Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam to create the Zensunni adepts. Furthermore, Dune has the Bene Gesserit, who exploit religion for their own political ends – deliberately seeding legends on planets for the protection of their agents.
Herbert also did something very important with Dune: he did the research. Herbert was raised Catholic and became an atheistic Zen Buddhist later in life, but he took care to incorporate Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian and Buddhist elements into his world-building. That level of preparation is rare. It is far too easy to fall into Write What You Know while not doing the research and also into Author Appeal, and produce a fictional culture that is dominated by only a single religion that the author is familiar with or professes themselves or a complete lack of religion if the author is an agnostic or atheist. I do not have the statistics to back up the statement, but it seems to me that there is an excess of Christian themes in at least the English-language scifi and fantasy literature as compared to the actual worldwide distribution of religions (although this is perhaps offset by religion or the lack thereof not being that important in many scifi and fantasy works).
There is a related problem, where a fictional culture that is supposed to be one specific religion is portrayed as something else entirely. In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and a lot of other works, Wicca is misrepresented. Going back a few decades and somewhat more abstracted, James Blish was significantly confused about 1950s Catholic doctrine when he wrote “A Case of Conscience“. There are far too many badly-intentioned examples. Some misrepresentation is people not doing the research. Some is people wanting to make a religion look as bad (or good) as possible.
For scifi aliens, there shouldn’t be anything exactly identical in an alien religion as compared to any human religion – there are two entirely different histories. Again, this is religion and not ethics. There are two themes that work as an excuse for there being too many identical elements: ancient astronauts or time travel. In Babylon 5, everyone thinks that the Vorlons look like angels. That was deliberately engineered by the Vorlons, who liked to go around the galaxy hacking the genetics of non-technological races so that they would like flying bilaterally-symmetric glowing figures. Babylon 5 also had a messianic religion centered around Valen, a Minbari prophet who said that he would return in the future. That was explained by Valen being a time traveler, Jeffrey Sinclair, who was born a thousand years later.
Other times there is a partial excuse for Crystal Dragon Jesus. If the religion of an alien culture is defined by the needs of the plot the writer wants to do, they will slant the world-building appropriately. Taking one more from Babylon 5: the Centauri were themed like the Roman Empire, so they have an extensive pantheon of various misbehaving gods and an imperial cult where emperors are elevated to godhood. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the writers wanted to make the Captain into an actual messiah, so Bajor has a religion based around dual gods – good and evil – who are both actually Starfish Aliens that like to live inside wormholes. Captain Sisko becomes the emissary of the good ones (“The Prophets”), and disappears into heaven/closed time-like curves inside the wormhole at the end. Cargo Cults are popular in science fiction too, as a way for otherwise technologically-limited groups to have access to something without being able to replicate it.
But, these excuses for similarities aside, why should aliens have anything like human religions at all?
The origins of many individual human religions are argued. But a tendency to invoke supernatural explanations to phenomena is obviously common among humans, and has been for a very long time. Anthropological models of the development of religion describe religions as an emergent property or byproduct of known cognitive biases of human brains. We tend to assume correlation and causation even where neither exists, tend to falsely assume intelligent intent, and are easily manipulated by even entirely false fears. We fool ourselves into being more sure of our statements than we actually are, over-estimate how much others agree with us or how much we disagree with them, and like beliefs that we know others hold better. We also reflexively divide others into people in our group and outsiders, and favor the in-group over the out-group.
And so unless their members are very careful to avoid it, human societies quite rapidly develop numerous elaborate and very specific fictional scenarios to try and explain things that may not even exist. And things can get very dangerously confused when those different scenarios conflict with each other. To use TVTropes vocabulary again, religions are very devoted fandoms.
Would intelligent aliens necessarily have any of the same biases that we have? And if they didn’t have one or another, would religions as humans make them still appear or not? If not, what else might emerge instead?
Is some level of in-group favoritism inevitable for an intelligent species? Or can intelligence develop without it, automatically valuing all members of the species equally? What society evolves from that, and would something recognizably similar to human religions appear? Can we say that any religious institutions that do appear would be far less hierarchical, and perhaps far less important in society, if people did not often evaluate the needs of those who share particular beliefs in some supernatural concepts above those of those who do not?
Of course, given such a large difference in cognition, many things other than religion would be different. I played with this with the ursians, where over-valuing the in-group leads to a genetic diversity crisis quickly and so they have less such favoritism than humans do. This shows up in their sexual ethics, which are different from human norms because that was what optimized survival. But I have not considered what religions they might or might not have.
Pareidolia makes most of us prone to see human faces and figures and other patterns we consider significant everywhere. Clouds, sand dunes and hills, the shells of crabs, a colon and a single parentheses (parenthesis?). Some level of pareidolia is an evolutionary advantage: it is good for any animal to be sensitive to patterns corresponding to its prey, its predators, and others of its species. But consider an alien species with much less permitting pareidolia than we have. They would not have emoticons, and very different art. They would also not have people asserting that random patterns of char on toast was a miraculous appearance of a religious figure, or that the reflection of light off of a polished steel dome was a sign from God. Would such people still come up with anything we would call a religion? If so, what might it be like?
And one more:
Agent detection is the tendency to assume an intelligent intent where one does not necessarily exist. We do it very easily – just consider how we anthropomorphize even relatively simple devices, such as dice or a deck of cards. Taking a more complex system: when did you last complain that your computer is out to get you? This can be explained as having a survival advantage: anything that could potentially indicate actions by a predator or an adversary should be approached with caution, and false positives cost far less than false negatives.
I don’t think an intelligent species could evolve without some level of agent detection. Part of any successful intelligence has to be being able to identify other intelligences; wither to cooperate, confront, or avoid them. But like pareidolia, we could consider a species where the criteria for what makes them think “there is intent there” are more or less stringent or just different. How does that change a society, as well as any tendency for religions to appear or not?
Many of these questions may seem a bit abstract, but I think they’re useful to think about. Truly realistic alien cultures will differ from human norms in ways that are not simply derived from their environments, and recognizing and confronting the biases inherent in how we think shows some possibilities to explore. I’ve focused on religion or the lack thereof here, but this extends to everything that such aliens might think or do.
I think there is a dearth of good science fiction that explores these themes. We have space opera, where the aliens are often indistinguishable from humans in how they think. Other works have aliens whose thought patterns are said to be incomprehensible, but that usually seems to me as as excuse to skimp on the world-building. There is a large body of literature (including some of my own attempts) that explores how cultures and behaviors can be directly changed by the environment a species lives in, but that usually assumes ‘like humanity unless noted’. Given that Most Writers Are Human, it is hard to work through the implications of alien cognition consistently. Does anyone know of such a work?