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Genocide in Science Fiction

12 Aug, 2023


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In commemoration of the Chengdu Worldcon's Guests of Honour, a brief discussion of genocide in science fiction.

To quote Article II of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Humanity having learned some painful lessons from the 20th century, genocide is now universally deemed unfashionable, to be opposed in all circumstances … except when opposition is personally inconvenient or more important geopolitical goals are at stake. Some will stop at nothing to end genocide. Others are willing to start at nothing.

How does SF and its related fields feel about the matter, you ask? As with so many issues, unanimity is lacking. One can categorize SF’s beliefs into four broad sets by asking two questions: Is genocide justifiable? Is genocide avoidable? There are four possible answers:

  • Genocide cannot be justified but cannot be avoided.
  • Genocide can be justified and cannot be avoided.
  • Genocide can be justified but can be avoided.
  • Genocide cannot be justified and can be avoided.

I will be discussing instances of all of the above in SFF plots. I should point out that writing about such scenarios is not at all the same thing as advocacy for that stance. The work could be an argument against a particular stance (if you do this, the end will be ugly). It’s also true that some writers seem to have loaded the dice when setting up plots, suggesting that they personally believe in one of these positions. You’ll have to be the final judge here.

Type A: Sometimes unfortunate events occur but there’s nothing to be done about it, any more than one can legislate away earthquakes, floods, or drunk driving. The forces at work eclipse human (or alien) effort.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Fires Within,” Earth is home to two quite dissimilar intelligent races: humans and a heretofore unknown-to-humans race living deep below Earth’s crust. Direct contact means doom for perishable humans. Alas, the incandescent ones do not realize this until all that is left upside are humanity’s carbonized remains.

Victims of genocide do not see their persecution as justified but at the same time, they lack the ability to avoid it. Like author Darcie Little Badger herself, 2021’s A Snake Falls to Earth’s protagonist Nina is the descendent of survivors of the Lipan genocide. Nina is looking for the reasons for her great-great-grandmother Rosita’s curious (and poorly documented) longevity. Keenly aware the genocide’s failure was not for lack of trying, Nina cautiously avoids drawing Texas and American officialdom’s attention to her quest.

Type B: The position here is that some should triumph at the cost of others and that this is good. The first example that leaps to mind is not from prose SFF, but from its cousin, tabletop fantasy roleplaying games. In its early form, moral alignment was intrinsic to certain races. It logically followed from the fact some races are immutably evil from birth. Not only could good people commit genocide without moral stain, avoiding doing so would itself be bad. D&D creator Gary Gygax’s comments make clear this is no accidental emergent feature of the game but something that reflected his world view.1

Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang relates in passing the regrettable matter of the Pitar, an alien race that while superficially friendly proved relentless xenophobic. Facing no choice to kill or be killed, humans and their insectile Thranx allies united to wipe the Pitar from the face of the galaxy. Very sad but certainly not something either humans or Thranx would have chosen had there been other choices2.

Norman Spinrad’s Iron Dream deserves special attention here. Presented as the novel Adolf Hitler would have written had he been a science fiction writer, Hitler’s novel is enthusiastically genocidal. Spinrad’s novel on the other hand is not. Rather, Spinrad is critiquing would-be genocidaires through the use of heavy-handed satire. Spinrad is as subtle as the Himalayas are effervescent, but some readers still missed his point. There’s probably a lesson there.

Type C: The argument here would be that while obliterating an enemy raises significant moral questions, survival trumps other issues. That said, if some alternative can be found, it should be found.

The first examples that come to mind are Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire and Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, two novels that share a surprising number of similar themes. In both, human explorers discover during first contact that the aliens they’ve encountered present a potential existential threat. Should the aliens escape their home system, humanity may well perish. Nevertheless, in both novels a non-genocidal solution is both sought and found.

Type D: Annihilating entire peoples is both wrong and unnecessary. It does not seem out of line to assert this is currently presented as the default in theory, even if practice often falls short.

Earth in Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky is a radioactive, disease-plagued backwater whose twenty million people bitterly resent the Galactic Empire’s domination. Solution? Dispatch bioweapons to the Empire’s two hundred million planets3 to annihilate the Empire. Unsurprisingly, this proves to have minority support at best. Once exposed, the scheme is quashed.

Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist may seem an odd example, given that many of the central characters are traumatized by the memory of participating in the Ishbalan genocide. As the on-going plot eventually makes clear, however, the true reasons behind that genocide were enormously petty, morally reprehensible, and served as foreshadowing of an even greater crime against humanity to come. The characters are right to feel guilty. Whether it is possible to make amends is unclear.


It may well be I’ve overlooked some relevant works here. If so, feel free to point out the omission in comments below over here. Not sure why comments are turned off here but since I am about to step out, I cannot check.

1: D&D players may resent my observation that the game is necessarily genocidal. They can stand over there with the Call of Cthulhu fans who get huffy when people point out the author on whose work CoC draws (Lovecraft) managed the difficult trick of being exceptionally racist by the standards of a time when lynching was socially acceptable.

2: Foster, the author of The Tar-Aiym Krang, could have imagined a setting in which there were choices. Perhaps he felt that the Humanx Commonwealth needed the elimination of an alien species as a bonding exercise.

3: Which is to say, for every person on Earth, the Empire has ten settled worlds. It may be that the balance of power very slightly favors the Empire.