Racism in Science Fiction

"If we put people on other planets we will just end up being racist towards them."

racism in science fiction vs reality

I love this meme. I don’t know where it originated. I’ve no idea who made it. No concept of what level of self-awareness the creator had. I just find it hilarious. It makes me laugh. And it doesn’t get old for me. Beyond that humor, though, there’s something more. I feel that last line is more insightful, more prescient than the joke would have it appear. It made me think about racism in science fiction.

This is the first in a series on how fear, ignorance, prejudice, and racism might exist in various futures, specifically in Science Fiction scenarios where first, Human populations have spread and remained distinct for long enough that genetic drift and adaptation have significantly changed the phenotypes of the various groups. The second in the series will discuss whether racism or rather prejudice will exist against AI or other artificial consciousnesses or life. The third in the series will cover the more profound scenario of fear, racism, prejudice and bigotry that might exist in interactions with intelligent alien life. We'll call it...

Racism in Science Fiction 

If you’re a fan of current SF, an obvious example here that I have to mention is the Expanse series and how the Earthers and Martians treat the Belters. There is, especially in the early books, a clear element of racism from the inner system people towards the Belters. It’s not just cultural either, they note that the Belters, thanks to growing up and living in space for generations, do look different than those raised in a full g environment. It’s mainly bigotry, with a dislike of “the other” being prominent, and from there you see the prejudice flow into how they interact with the Belters. On the Belter’s side it’s more frustration and perhaps cultural and political; consider the outer planet alliance, the OPA and how their dislike, even hatred and aggression, is more economic and political rather than racial. 

So would it inevitably be that way? Let’s take a look at it: In our fictional scenario with various populations of human beings living in not just geographically distinct areas but isolated by literal space, whether on space stations or other planets. One isolating factor would be the time, effort, or cost it would take to move back and forth, and how likely reproduction would happen within the separate populations vs between the two populations, limiting gene flow. Genetic drift would have an effect at a fairly well understood rate in such populations. Differences in the phenotypes of those populations would emerge, affecting traits that perhaps wouldn’t have selection pressures. Red hair might spread on those living out at Titan for example. 

Selection pressures and fitness are of course another matter but perhaps even more important. In space, lots of things can kill you. Even if we’ve colonized it, there are going to always be risks that just aren’t present on our home world--at least not anymore. 

Vacuum of course is a big problem. But would someone’s ability to survive for a few minutes longer than someone else provide for natural selection to make them more likely to have offspring? With a small breeding population on their own, I’d say it’s possible. How about adaptability to just the air quality itself? Not too much CO2, not too little O2, and so forth. We already have populations that are genetically better able to survive on Earth in a low oxygen (high altitude) environment. That would likely be a selection pressure in space too. And excess CO2 in your blood is what triggers your breathing, not a lack of oxygen! So there might be an adaptation to that which would emerge if the group was often in a situation where the CO2 scrubbers weren’t working as well as they’d like. 

There would likely be selection pressures that favored people that didn’t get motion sickness if they were out in space or in low-g areas of space stations, and favored people who handled being in low-g generally; someone more coordinated would be more likely to survive and have kids. They’d likely be more popular and trusted, and hey, that might count for quite a bit in being attractive to partners. I don’t think you want to shack up with someone who throws up every day, do you? Well, not quite as much as the guy or gal who never does. 

What would they look like?

Now, would the people on the space stations be paler or would they have tanning beds? I’m betting paler; with some selection pressure for people whose immune system is really great at fighting off cancers caused by gene damage from being bombarded with cosmic rays. You’re going to be exposed to more of them up there. Even with shielding, as I understand it. Maybe we’ll have shielding so good that the problem gets reduced, but right now it’s still a problem; for instance incidences of cancer are higher for pilots that are just thirty thousand feet up for all those flights throughout their career. 

For these people, they don’t need to be tan or dark skinned like people on the ground do in order to survive longer or better in high UV light scenarios. Blocking UV is no problem in space, it’s blocking the cosmic rays that is the concern. So they would be pale, but with better cancer resistance, let’s assume. 

So, we’ve got hypothetical red-headed, pale, no-cancer-getting people in a population out in space. Perhaps the immune system tweaks that help fight the cancer make them look younger, too. OK. 

What about height and body type? Would they have the same sort of phenotype as the Expanse’s Belters? This is an interesting question and could just be an environmental effect. They might be elongated just from being in low gravity as they grew up, rather than any genetic predisposition for it. So they’d notably look different, and that would add to their “other-ness” for sure. 

You say, “Oh Clemmer, we’re beyond all that. We know better than to be racist like that. It wouldn’t happen in our advanced society and surely not in this hypothetical future one!” 

I’m not so sure about that. I feel like that social interaction friction in the Expanse is one of the most realistic things about it. I suspect that it would take quite a bit longer to breed out the fear and distrust of “the other” from our species than it will to breed in new differences in isolated populations. Look at our track record so far. And trying to enforce laws against such prejudice? Across millions of miles? Think about it. 

While a space-faring civilization will surely be powerful and likely have the sort of expansive communication capabilities we’ve come to expect post-Internet, a group that separate physically will grow to value their own judgement about their lives and rules and what affects them, surely. The rules, norms, and eventually laws that a population in one isolated and very different environment works well with will almost certainly diverge from ones that work well for those here on good old planet Earth. Don’t think so? 

Look at history. History shows this again and again, and we’re talking about distances far smaller. Think about when you had to go by sailing ship. Sure, the empires of the age of exploration got a handle on a lot of the planet, but that didn’t last. 

And those were environments, while different at different latitudes and on different continents, in different ecologies. Now we’re talking about different planets, and space environments; places where the environment is possibly about as different as it can be and still have human beings live there. 

So what should we “do about it," this racism in our science fiction future? 

Well this episode isn’t going to go into what we might or might not do about it; I’m not going to posit what the right thing or things to do is. We’re just taking a look at what might happen. 

Let’s consider Generation ships now and Sleeper ships. Colonizers that are going to get so far away that even “doing anything about it” in any local time-frame doesn’t even make any sense. It’s not like you can let your grand-kids 100 years from now know what the law is going to be regarding hiring practices and enforce it, can you?

That’s just silly. Isaac Arthur has covered this at some length in his episodes on generation ships and sleeper ships. While those that wake up later, but went into cryogenic sleep while here, and those who might be awake when they left here, the first generation, clearly will have either the same, or at least *some sort of related* views on law, ethics, and political systems as those here now, that’s going to change when that third generation has no direct memory or interaction with the sociopolitical structures of the Earth. 

Political Systems

One trope we see is that some of the colony ships in Sci-Fi or sleeper ships are intentionally populated by groups who want a different political system! The group goes off to be separate and go their own way politically precisely because they don’t agree with the system or systems here on Earth at that time! We have to consider that. In our hypothetical future civilization that has the resources to launch such colonizing ships, regardless of what type of ship, colony-FTL, sleeper, or generation ship, some of the crews and passengers may be those sorts of people who want something distinctly or even radically different in terms of a social structure or government. 

Now consider that political views and preferences seem to be heritable. Whoa. This is a recent and fascinating outcome of some study in the area of heritability of personality traits. Yes, it seems like there is some inherited preference for political views. Again, wow. I’ve put some links in the description. Other personality traits we know are heritable to an extent. So is there a likelihood that you could wind up with a population that all leaned far right or far left or whatnot? I’ve got to say yes, unless they tried intentionally to avoid it if the group was one that preferred a particular type of sociopolitical system and recruited and collected people of the same sort. 

Think about the polarization of political discourse right now.

In our hypothetical scenario, you might wind up with some weird racist anarcho-capitalist colony out there! I have to give credit to Peter Hamilton in his Commonwealth Saga series, he’s got exactly this sort of scenario there with a group on the planet called “Far Away.” 

So would we wind up with isolationist racist science fiction authors with pale white skin and red hair writing propaganda about how they hate immigrants from their tiny cabins in orbit around Titan? Well, perhaps. Perhaps we would. 



Now I haven’t touched on another aspect of that meme that spawned this discussion. Religion. Religion itself isn't explicit in that meme, but pretty clearly it's a core element in there, whether it’s also intended to be a joke. “It mocks God.” Whoa.

Again I find it hilarious, but it’s something to consider, and we see this sort of religious friction and of course hatred leading up to war, all the way back to a famous instance in the Dune series. One of the fundamental plot elements is the religious break from the mainstream of the Fremen and their fanaticism. So this meme, while apparently lighthearted, once again has insight beyond the surface. This is one of the first instances I recall of clear racism in science fiction. 

If religion does persist and proliferate in our diaspora into space in this hypothetical scenario, just as there have been numerous schisms here on Earth, and of course numerous religions fundamentally different, we can expect this situation would arise in our various populations. 

What would you expect?

As above with the political colonists, why would we not expect religious groups to want to go their own way? I suppose there’s the argument that with this level of advancement everyone would be atheists, but that seems like it might be wishful thinking. And descendants of the first generation or generations, even if they were all atheists at the start, might create an entirely new religion. This isn’t an unusual trope in SF either. I remember a funny one from Dr. Who that I loved as a kid. 

So we have our immigration-hating red-headed racist author of hate speech with a fetish for white pale skin in power on the generation ship (or ships) heading for some faraway planet. And they’ve come up with a religion based around some sort of transcendence or supremacy of their kind over those lowly folks who couldn’t bring themselves up to live in the stars and conquer space. Their messiah will come and do who knows what on their arrival at the planet, bringing them to that paradise and out of their trial on the ship.  Impossible to conceive of? Well, it’s starting to get a bit out there at the edge of plausibility, but it sounds like it might be cool.

Of course in this conflict, who are they going to get in a fight with? We need our science fiction racism to have a target.

What if it’s just them alone out there? Well, maybe there are multiple ships and they’re hating on the folks the next ship over, who aren’t believers in this messiah and just for fun don’t have red hair. Maybe their habitat spins faster in the other ship and they’re stockier and, ah, you know, have very different skin, hair, and eye color. You get the idea. That might be too blunt of a stick to go with to beat that horse though. The difference could be more subtle, just in their personality types and political preferences would be enough. That and not agreeing with that religion would do it. 

They’d be mocking god. They’d need to be punished for their arrogance. It wouldn’t be that hard to destroy them--hey, it’s a spaceship. And there you go. From a meme, to a plot for a science fiction novel. 

I’d like to hear your thoughts about future racism in these hypothetical worlds. Would post-scarcity change things all that much for the better? Seems like it would. But wouldn’t time and distance, as we’ve discussed, cause the same problems we’ve seen throughout history? Hey it will be tough when they’ve got completely different looks, attitudes, languages, and their own history and possibly religion. That's our first look at racism in science fiction. Thanks for listening, or reading, as the case may be. 

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Be well.