In the on-going mess of projects, the issue or question of race has come up repeatedly, given the fantasy and sci-fi genres. For some writers, many writers actually, the issue of race or species can be a problematic one to deal with. On one hand, we have the issues of race in the real world that influence how we deal with race in fiction, even among elves, dwarfs, Klingons, and Twileks. Additionally, the question and issue of biological determinism rears its ugly head in these cases.
A classic example of real world race issues merging into the fictional is J.K. Rowling’s work, in which the goblins introduce issues of negative Jewish stereotypes and the house elves bring concerns of slavery that reflect the colonial era enslavement of Africans.
Biological determinism has its clearest example in J.R.R. Tolkien. This is actually one of Terry Pratchett’s critiques of Tolkien—the elves are inherently (biologically) good regardless of their actions, the orcs are inherently evil regardless of their actions. Neither can change, ever; there are no evil elves and no good orcs, ever.
The inclusion of real world race issues can be a strong element of fiction. However, it can also be a minefield unless handled carefully and with a significant amount of research. Cultural appropriation can occur, versus cultural appreciation. Which can lead to issues of conscious or unconscious (systemic) racism coming out or appearing to be present.
On the other hand, biological determinism often leads to flat, generalized, and boring species and characters. For example, I suspect that one reason R.A. Salvatore’s character Drizzt is very popular (annoyingly so) is that he breaks the mold, he is not typical for his species. In other words, he violates biological determinism. Of course, because of his popularity, he is no longer unique or even uncommon (every other drow is a “good guy” rebelling against “evil” drow society anymore).
Despite these potentially problematic concerns, I think species/races are useful in the fantasy and sci-fi genres.
In sci-fi, they are especially useful for thought experiments and cultural experiments. They can be employed to play with different kinds of cultures or to examine particular elements of the writer’s home culture. Gene Roddenberry’s Vulcans and Klingons are good examples that also create a juxtaposition against the Federation’s culture. And, of course, virtually every sci-fi species is made up more or less from scratch.
Conversely, most fantasy species draw on Earth’s deep body of folklore, legend, and myth. Non-humans were originally used to represent outsiders and foreigners, whether outcasts (werewolves) or strangers halfway around the world (sciopodes). Today, I think they are fun to play with, to subvert or toy with the old stories and assumptions, to create new variations. And some of those assumptions are based on the genre itself. For instance, Rowling’s house elves are excellent because they simultaneously reflect European folklore traditions of brownies and other household fae while subverting our Tolkien-esque expectations regarding elves in fantasy literature—instead of being tall, beautiful, majestic, lords of nature they’re small, servile, and decidedly urban.
For my work on the Tower world, I’m playing with idea of a single species urban fantasy (in this case mages). Other species once existed but are now extinct, on Earth at least. Each of those other species is rooted in Earth’s folklore and legend—from djinn to dwarves, fae to werebeasts. According to the dominant surviving species (mages), they couldn’t adapt. According to their descendants (mixed with humanity, four species), they were victims of mage-instigated genocide, and their descendants are in hiding both from humans and mages.