1879: What Is A Human, After All?
This post may get uncomfortable for you. I’m going to take some time here to consider issues of race and species, of Victorian and modern views on the subject, of the boundaries where science and morality and belief and culture all smash together in a horrible muddle and set people’s hair on fire. The comments are open. I’ll be keeping a pretty close eye on them, moderating with a large axe, and not disposed toward explaining why I deleted anything partly so that I don’t get pulled into a slanging match over the content that got chopped. And if you’re a fan of Shadowrun, you already know where this is going.
We need to talk about the Boojums. Initially, when the Rabbit Hole opened, they were thought to be victims of a disfiguring illness. There was even a name for it – Looking Glass Fever. In the late 1800s, as through the rest of the Victorian era, there were terrible diseases rampaging around, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and occupational diseases like phossy jaw. Don’t go looking these up unless you’re from a medical background or have a strong stomach, they’re, um, picturesque. The point is that they scarred people. For life. If you survived smallpox, your skin was etched as if with acid. Saying that someone was pockmarked from a bout of smallpox didn’t come anywhere near being descriptive enough unless you already knew what that looked like. Victims of the disease spent the rest of their lives walking around looking like they’d been attacked by ravenous crows. And then there were the wars. Europe was in one war or another pretty much constantly for hundreds of years. Britain finally managed to get the wars to happen somewhere off their island, but their soldiers went off into the Empire and fought. Some of them died, and some survived but came back with pieces missing. Prosthetics were crude, and plastic surgery hadn’t been invented yet, and some wounds didn’t heal for years if ever, because they didn’t know about proper wound care. So you had soldiers walking around with chunks gone off them, and you sure as hell didn’t react negatively to someone who had been maimed fighting for the Empire. Proper manners said you didn’t treat someone badly for something that wasn’t their fault, so when one of your party guests had divots out of their face from a long ago bout of smallpox, you smiled and pretended that everything was just fine.
All of which means that when people started compressing into dwarves, and elongating into elves, and expanding into snarks and trolls, initially people were sympathetic. It would have been wildly improper to take notice of someone’s being maimed or disfigured by a disease that they hadn’t done anything to deserve. (If your nose rotted off from syphilis, that was your damn problem and you deserved it, but that’s another story.)
But then people started noticing that the survivors of Looking Glass Fever only ever took one of four forms. Elves, dwarves, snarks, trolls. That was it. If you survived the Looking Glass, you became a Boojum, in a predictable way. And science began to poke into the popular consciousness, as scientists had already been poking into the issue itself, and results and hypotheses started being discussed. Something was happening here that wasn’t a disease. The Fever wasn’t contagious. If someone in your family got it, the odds of someone else getting it had nothing at all to do with sanitary measures. You could boil the linens, wear gloves, air out the house, do all the things you’d do for cholera to maintain proper sanitation with someone whose body fluids contained the disease agent, and it didn’t mean squat to Looking Glass. The forms seemed to appear more in some families than others, and if it was bloodline, then breeding entered into the equation, and by golly the Europeans in general were into proper breeding. The upper class considered the poor to be of inferior stock, almost a separate species, and that it was their blood showing when they couldn’t amass a fortune from the pittances they were paid for backbreaking labour.
And then there was the blatant and open racism of the period.
Let’s let that hang there for a minute.
We need to talk about the fact that white Europeans were a lot more racist then than they are now, and white people are seriously racist now in the aggregate. (I should point out here that I’m white, of primarily Welsh and Dutch descent.) Look around at the USA, at Britain, at Russia, and tell me that there isn’t a majorly virulent strain of racism running through the white folks. Yeah, we’ve made progress since Victoria died, God bless her, but we’ve still got a long way to go. And it was a hell of a lot worse in 1880. You think the Proud Boys are a problem now? Their sort were in the majority in 1880. Lot of black folks headed North after the American Civil War only to find that they weren’t any more welcome in the nation that fought against the slaveholders than they were in the region that had been slaveholding before the war. The Chinese experience – well. Let’s refocus on the Victorian era and just say that the modern era sucks but a hundred and fifty years ago it was a lot worse.
So you have four distinct Boojum subtypes. And after a little time goes by, the women who were pregnant when the Fever hit and didn’t miscarry, they start delivering. And maybe they deliver a base stock human, but more likely, like 90% more likely, the baby has changed along with momma and the doctor or midwife has a bouncing baby troll on their hands.
What do you call a change that breeds true?
It’s now, in the metaplot, three years since the Rabbit Hole opened. (The 1879 London Sourcebook moved the metaplot year to 1880. Yes, this will get confusing. Sorry about that.) Boojums have gotten married, had children, and now there’s more Boojums. Elves beget elves, trolls beget trolls, and the occasional mixed marriage is one parent’s Boojum type or the other, but never a base stock human. Once in a while, a human does give birth to a Boojum, or someone has the Fever take them, but it’s gotten pretty rare.
So what do you call the Boojums.
What we have seen is speciation. Four new variants have emerged from the base stock, and they are breeding true. If these were turtles, or horses, or birds, we wouldn’t have any problem with it at all. We’d make up new Latin names under the genus, adopt the new common names that had been generally accepted, and move on with our lives. But these aren’t birds.
At what point does naming a new species of humanity cross the line and become racist? Does it? Science properly should not care about cultural attitudes, especially ones like racism that have no scientific basis. Oh, yes, people were abusing poor Mr. Darwin’s work horribly in the 1880s, more so than now when hardly anybody actually reads it. All sorts of hypotheses about whether Africans and Europeans were different enough to be called separate species of humanity were put forth, and they were all shot down. Didn’t stop people from tossing them back up again. Hasn’t stopped that kind of garbage even to this day, just look around you. Lack of supportive evidence didn’t stop the Nazis from classing the Jews as subhuman, and that got us five million people dead before a war that caused millions of additional casualties finally put a stop to it. Racists will charge right ahead with their garbage, they’ve made up their alleged minds, don’t confuse them with facts.
And when the racists are the majority?
If the Royal Society were to accept and publish a paper that gave a new taxonomic structure for humanity, that differentiated homo sapiens from homo elf, homo dwarf, homo troll, homo snark, or whatever Latin names they decided on for each of the four Boojum species, what would be the impact of that? How quickly would genocide get rolling? Well, the snarks aren’t human, the Royal Society said so, so killing them isn’t murder. How long did it take people in Poland to forget that Chaim Goldblatt was their neighbor, the guy that sold the good sausages at the deli down the block, and cart him off to be murdered in a Nazi genocide factory?
Just talking about the possibility could bring up all sorts of garbage. Look at the way white Americans treat Hispanics these days. Sure, they’re fine having the Latinx population run the taco carts and clean their houses, but they damn well better have been born here to parents who were American citizens, and the hell if they’re going to get invited to join the country club. And those Hispanics trying to get into the country, so they can take the crap jobs that white people don’t want or they’d already be working them, doesn’t matter how bad the situation is where they come from, ‘Murica is going to build a wall to prevent that.
So what are we going to do with our game world, with four new types of people, and the prevailing attitudes of the era? We don’t want to erase the experiences of minorities throughout history. We sure as hell don’t want to glorify any form of fascism or racism. FASA has a diversity policy. We have to remain true to that in our published materials as well as in the people who create and publish them.
In the end, it’s my decision. I’m the line developer. I have to take the responsibility for this, and the blame if it goes wrong. What I can do is listen. There’s plenty of opportunities to hear from the people who would be most affected, whose ancestors would be modeled by this. There’s reading material, videos, rallies to attend, and feedback to be heard. What I can promise you is that I will listen, and will try to do the right thing, in a situation more complex than maybe a roleplaying game ought to be delving into, but if we’re going to model an alternate history, we have a responsibility to model it in ways that represent everyone who might ever play the game, and take into account the history of our own world and the tendencies of the human species. And we’re in no way the first, or even the hundredth, game to tackle this subject. There are precedents, both good and bad.
I’ll let you know what I decide.
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