This essay is at least partly because of an argument about the Belgariad, by David Eddings. I loved this series when I was a kid, but as I got older, I began to have some slight difficulties with characterization and race. One specific thing that bothered me was the way that the series “bad guys” were portrayed.
The Angaraks in general and the Murgoes in specific were kind of wooden to me, even for “minions of the evil god.” It did not seem normal to me that people –even people under the thumb of an evil god– would be stupid enough not to have figured out (after a thousand or so years) that the huge stronghold in the middle of the Algar Plains was actually a roach motel for evil-minions. The explanation of this given to me by the person I was arguing with was that the Murgoes were so totally under control of the evil god in question they were literally unable to think–in other words, they were orcs. My counter argument was why are only Murgoes and Grolims orcs, when Nadraks, and Malloreans have more free will? This reasoning wasn’t considered valid by the person I was arguing with, and he insisted that Angaraks were little more than orcs–which was perfectly valid interpretation since that was the way they were written. This is how I came up with the term “the Orc Defense.”
Let me define the “The Orc Defense” this way: Any character race which is inherently evil can never be anything other than evil. It is okay to kill orcs because they are inherently evil and therefore need to be killed before they go and do something evil. The essential problem with the Orc Defense is that it is actually kind of repugnant to most modern viewpoints if transferred outside of the context of the story.
To demonstrate, take the sentence, “Orcs are inherently evil and should be killed,” and replace “orcs” with the culture of your choice. Sounds a bit different in that context, doesn’t it? The current meme is to back away from ideas like that–this is dangerous water, because if we apply “inherent evil” –or “inherent” anything– to another culture–well, there are words for people who have deeply held ideas for the way they think other cultures act.
The problem with orcs, is that orcs are easy. There is something appealing about having a clear, black and white good versus evil story–a meme that says “we” are right, therefore, “they” are wrong. If the good guys and the bad guys are easy to tell apart, you don’t have to wonder about Krag the Bone-Eater having a wife and kid who will miss him when he’s gone–because Krag is evil. You don’t have to care about him whether you’re reading about him in a fantasy novel, or if he’s a random encounter in your roleplaying game–he’s there to be defeated.
On the other hand, when you write a story involving the Orc Defense you have a limited number of options. You can continue with the theme of “this particular race is inherently evil and cannot change because it is inherently evil,” until you’ve wiped out the inherently evil race and have to invent a new one. You can attempt to reveal that the inherently evil race is actually not evil; they have just been forced to be the evil overlord’s minions (in a sense this would be subverting the trope.) You can keep your inherently evil race evil, but provide the reader with a single paragon of virtue who wallows in angst because no one understands him/her –this can be called “redeeming” the trope.
You will often find both redeeming and subverting tropes in the same work.
The StarGate franchise for instance, has an awful lot of orcs. Most of the enemies that the StarGate crew has faced have been “orcs” in one sense or another, such as the Wraith, the Ori, the Goa’uld, and Replicators, among others. In the pilot of StarGate SG-1 “Children of the Gods” Teal’c, a Jaffa, (a humanoid Janissary) decided to betray his liege lord the Goa’uld Apophis in the pilot episode of the series, “Children of the Gods.” He later joined the team and faced a certain amount of discrimination, and is an example of the redeeming trope. (The subverting aspect of this comes out when it’s revealed that the Jaffa are actually slaves, and that some are aware that the Goa’uld are not gods.)
Another example of the redeeming trope in action is the Tok’ra, Goa’uld who reject the imperialistic practices of their cousins and are staging a very covert war against them. The average Goa’uld has the “racial memories of a thousand Hitlers” –paraphrase of words spoken by Daniel in the season four episode “Absolute Power”– except for a very few, all children of one specific queen Goa’uld. Why and how this single example of a “good” Goa’uld is so different in outlook from other Goa’uld is never really explained, we just know that she and the Tok’ra are “not like the others,” because they prefer to live in “true symbiosis” with their hosts, while Goa’uld prefer to be entirely in control–and have massive god-complexes.
Despite a lot of other problems with Star Gate (race and culture issues to name two) I give it a lot of points for communicating “Jaffa are people, not orcs” fairly early on, with the introduction of Teal’c. Usually the idea of “(enemy) isn’t actually an orc,” is communicated fairly late in a series, if it ever comes up at all. Of course, they immediately lose points because Goa’uld are apparently incurably evil–except for the Tok’ra– as are the Wraith –though it might be better said that Wraith are incurably hungry.
The reason I give the StarGate franchise such high points for the early introduction of “Teal’c the honorable warrior” is I think you should establish the idea that “so and so are people, not orcs” fairly early is because if you’re expecting orcs, and have only seen orcs, suddenly seeing that Krag Bone-Eater has been magically transformed into a warrior of great skill and wit–who yes, thinks the bones of his enemies make great midnight snacks–causes quite a bit of cognitive dissonance if up to now you’ve only seen orcs and evil wizards. Of course, it is possible to have a fairly late introduction of “the orcs are people” but I think it’s only possible if it’s a major part of the plot–a sudden revelation that the reason the Evil Aliens are killing everything in their path is because the Evil Aliens have been duped by the real evil being, that’s using them for whatever purpose. An example of that would be Achuultani of David Weber’s Dahak series. No one really knows what the Achuultani even look like until an effort is made to actually capture one and try to find out what’s driving them to be apparently incurably xenophobic.
What we see here is something very similar to the basic plot line of the Star Gate franchise’s Jaffa. “All we have to do to make the orcs–the Jaffa or the Achuultani–people is to take away the thing that’s making them be not-people!” And this is a very interesting, and fairly “new” idea in terms of what you’re likely to find in science fiction and fantasy adventures. The idea is that an “evil-ectomy” is possible–just remove the evil overlord, and you’ll have people again.
A series where this doesn’t quite work so well is possibly John Ringo’s Legacy of the Aldenata. The Posleen are very obviously orcs throughout most of the series, and we really have no reason to become sympathetic with them, and when we’re presented with a character who is a thinking individual–note that I don’t say he’s a sympathetic character–we don’t like him all that much, and we think it’s funny when he gets chewed on by Terran wildlife. Or at least, I did. This might have been a humorous take on the “subverting” trope–but most of the humor is in traumatizing a pernicious and horrible enemy. Going back to the Belgariad and its sequel series the Mallorean, the Angaraks who only occasionally showed signs of being people (and that very rarely) in the previous series suddenly become more fully fleshed in the sequel. It may or may not have been a case of too little too late–even if it is, I do kind of like several of non-evil Murgo characters in the Mallorean.
In fantasy or science fiction, it is very tempting to have inherently evil races or species. The story types that use the Orc Defense can be very entertaining, as long as you don’t think too hard on real-world applications of the concept of an “inherently evil” species or race. A recent and recurring theme in stories that use the “inherent evil” concept is the “redeeming trope” where you have one comparatively saintly member of an otherwise evil race. A secondary theme is “subverting” the concept of inherent evil by creating reason for the race to be actually good or at least non-evil. Some applications of the new tropes work better than other examples.