(ETA4, May 6: Please feel free to link wherever! I am continuing rather spoonless today, so may or may not be in to respond.)
My cold-addled brain has been sort of fixated on context, of late, namely the racist/Orientalist/fetishizing contextual stew that Secondary-world Fantasy inherited from the Romantics, and Regency fantasy and Steampunk implicitly take on as part of their world-view unless it's explicily undermined; and I've been wondering how to talk about it without shifting the focus to individual examples. (Which isn't to deny the value of calling out examples of fail, just that it's the general underlying tropes I've wanted to talk about. ETA: And maybe the colonial/evangelical agenda wrapped up in their origins, but I'm really not clueful enough to say much about that so I dunno...)
These are all genres I love, and honestly I love plenty of books that fall into the racefails I've been thinking of, so I'm part of the problem too. That's what makes it a general issue -- it's the air we breathe.
So! There I was a couple nights ago, vaguely wondering how to describe this air in a serious and careful manner that made it clear I breathe it too... and my brain started giving it to me in Tough Guide to Fantasyland style instead. So that's what you get :)
(In several posts, probably; for post length and my spoons atm I'm only getting through two entries today. Also, partial consistency with the real book only; I haven't tried too hard to make it all work together. Have used OMT, Official Management Term, though.)
The Evil Empire (EE) lies to the South and/or East of Fantasyland proper, generally on the Other Continent; its inhabitants are Natives.
Tourists will see amazing amounts of Squalor right beside displays of Massive Wealth here, and Terrible Oppression co-existing with Great Decadence. The laws will all be very harsh, but there will be such Corruption that the rich are never subject to them (unless they personally anger the Tyrant). Tourists must be given opportunities to marvel at these contradictions, because one never sees this sort of thing in Fantasyland proper, where Average Folk are contented unless under the Dark Lord, Massive Wealth and Elaborate Courtly Rituals are sources of National Pride rather than signs of Oppression, and sophistication signals Progress rather than Moral Decay.
Flavors of EE include:
- Fanatic Caliphate: Identifiable by desert settings, male Natives in Long Robes and Turbans (or Headdresses), and Veiled or hidden female Natives. Food will be Spicy. Harsh Punishments will include cutting off body parts, public flagellation, and slavery. Female Tourists be warned: female Natives will chide your Independence here, and male Natives will harass you. Everyone will sneer at monogamy. Patriarchy and Polygyny are aspects of the same unshakeable Oppression here (unlike Fantasyland proper, where Patriarchy can be challenged and isn't constantly reinforced).
The FC is always ruled by a Tyrant, who has a Harem. This bears no relation whatsoever to historical female quarters in the Tourists' home world, but derive rather from Victorian fever-dreams about such. The Harem will generally contain one Oppressed Native Girl, who must be Rescued.
This is a Monotheistic EE; if it is part of a Polytheistic Tour, it will turn out that they worship the Evil God here. If part of a Monotheistic Tour, their God will turn out to be a Demonic Figure. In either case, nobody will figure this out before the Tour, even if their God demands Human Sacrifice (c.f. Natives and Progress). The Tyrant will be in the know but he benefits from it. (Outside Fantasyland proper, rulers are too Greedy to have Ideals. For the only exception, c.f. the Benevolent Old Emperor below).
- Celestial Empire: Identifiable by steep mountains, rice paddies, and wise dragons. Clothing will vary depending on whether this EE is of the Chinese or Pan-Asian subtype. This EE is Animist, but Philosophy (generally involving metaphors of Flow and Balance) takes precedence over Religion here.
While laws are as bendy in this EE as any other, Custom/Tradition is Inflexible and Elaborate, and Natives are far more invested in it than they ever are in Fantasyland proper. Tourists will fall afoul of Custom at some point in the Tour, and this will cause them far more trouble than breaking the law ever does. Speaking of trouble, be warned: this destination is an exception to the Management Rule where women never quite get raped unless the Tour is About That.
The Celestial Empire has a Hidden Tyrant: a treacherous noble, trusted by the Benevolent Old Emperor until Too Late. The HT's power comes from the tangle of warring Clans and factions and Age-Old Enmities and notioins of Honor. Tourists must always discover all these the hard way, and Too Late.
The Tyrant can be identified early by his Xenophobia and Condescension towards the Tourists, but the BOE is rather out of touch and will not see any of it. His Death is a mandatory Tour Event, as is the Succession Feud it sets off.
- Heathen Sultanate: Identifiable by tropical settings, Castes, female Natives in Flowing Garments (OMT), and elephants. Bright colors are essential to this setting. Blood is an acceptable bright color.
The Tyrant should, if possible, be even more sexist than other EE Tyrants, because this destination only exists in the Feisty Feminist Tour.
For the same reason, the Oppressed Native Girl is a mandatory part of this Tour. She is almost certainly about to die when the Tourists intervene; whether resigned to her death or miserable about it, she will nonetheless be shocked at being saved, at first. Tourists will have to Enlighten her with Western Notions before she can be properly Grateful (cf. Natives and Progress).
It is entirely mysterious why this EE is a Sultanate, given that it is populated by Tropical Heathens, but Heathens don't have to make sense. Which is convenient, because while these are technically Polytheists, they only seem to worship their Destroyer God. If this is part of a Polytheistic Tour, the DG will turn out to be the Evil God; if part of a Monotheistic Tour, the DG will be a Demonic Figure.
Natives are Fellow Humans who come color-coded, en masse, for the Tourist's convenience. (OMTs include swarthy, exotic, and comparisons to coffee and spices.) Natives are always Hospitable, though they have Elaborate Customs and Exotic Dress Codes and can be unforgiving when Tourists fall afoul of them.
Despite the Hospitality, Tourists should never trust Natives, who are generally either Greedy, Xenophobic, or Frightened Into Subjugation, and will report them to the Tyrant. Natives are also, for some reason, much more class-conscious than any Good character from Fantasyland proper. Exceptions include the Magical Native Mentor, Oppressed Native Girl, and Surprisingly Enlightened Native Prince.
A Note on Natives and Progress: Natives cannot have Progress without the intervention of a Tourist, though they always have Ancient Wisdom in spades. This is because they are Natives, and cannot really think for themselves.
ETA2: Note that, for this reason, Natives must always be straight and cisgendered (unless this is a Tour in which being queer is a sign of Moral Decay), because Diversity, Acceptance, and Social Justice are concepts unique to Fantasyland Proper. Besides, if they're dark and queer, Tourists will just get confused. They can only keep track of so much.