Dwale’s critical review of “Red Engines”: When furry fiction becomes islamophobic propaganda
by Patch O'Furr
Dwale is a member of the Furry Writers Guild whose story “Behesht” won a 2017 Coyotl award. Follow them on Twitter. Thanks to Dwale for this guest post! Here’s a few previous articles about the anthology. – Patch.
Dwale continues – and see an update from Furplanet at end.
Disclosure: I have a story in this anthology. This analysis will contain spoilers.
I’ve been making my way through “Dogs of War II: Aftermath”, edited by Fred Patten and have now almost finished. I had thus far thought it more or less innocuous. Then I read the second to last story.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: I found “Red Engines” to be an offensive, even dangerous work of fiction. It is a nakedly Islamophobic diatribe, the publishing of which, while not surprising given today’s political climate, is saddening.
The story is told from the point of view of an AI-controlled robotic bird who calls himself Hughin. Hughin comes to an unnamed village in an unnamed part of the Muslim world; desert country (these kinds of stories never take place where the land is green). He sees the dust trails of an approaching army identified as the “Allies.” He perches on “the town minaret” (I guess this is a one-mosque town?), then flies down to a school.
At the school, he meets Aisha, a young girl, and asks her if there are other children present. She takes him inside where he meets and questions the others, recording their answers. Hughin, you see, comes from an island of artificial intelligences and has been told to collect as much data as he can from these kids before they are killed. The reason he does this is to preserve them in some fashion. He is not part of the conflict, we are told, he is supposed to be a neutral observer.
From this information, Hughin constructs within himself what he calls a “djinn,” a virtual representation of what he has learned from the children. Throughout the remainder of the story, this “djinn” spouts off phrases such as “Eat the Jews!” And while Hughin admits that this pseudo-mind is a “nasty parody,” the reader is never really offered much of a counterpoint.
They hear an explosion nearby, and when the children ask who is attacking, Hughin says, “The allies.” He thinks to himself, but does not say, “and you’re all going to die.” This makes clear that the coming battle is not a surgical strike. It is to be a wholesale massacre.
The children implore Hughin for help until he agrees to try and lead them to safety, although he doubts he will be able to save them. During this escape attempt, we are privy to Hughin’s perspective on the war, a one-sided perspective almost completely devoid of nuance. The Allies wanted to be kind, he says, that they were hesitant to kill (since when!?). He insists that the root of the violence lays solely at the feet of those being massacred.
The children make their way to a rooftop and witness their town’s defenders make a last stand at the mosque. Outgunned and outnumbered, the fighters go down quickly. Aisha, who I should remind you is a child, makes to drop a rock on a soldier’s head, but Hughin alerts the soldier, who manages to dodge it.
“I could not stay neutral after all,” [He thinks. He then addresses the “djinn” he has made in an internal monologue.] “Our tribes each have their own ways. Your tribe has chosen to settle our disputes through violence. This is the way of beasts. If you persist, then you will be killed as beasts are. Perhaps when enough of you are dead, the survivors will change their minds.”
Wow, what an amazingly shitty thing to say. At least he didn’t say it to the kids… But then Aisha swats Hughin and he flies away shouting, “Targets! Up here!” The children call him a traitor, but Hughin looks them in the eye: “It’s your own damn fault,” […] “Or your short-sighted friend’s. It’s too late to matter. Goodbye.”
Charming. A moment later, a grenade hits the roof and the children are blown to pieces. Let me repeat that: he tells the invading soldiers that there are “targets” on the roof, and the children are killed by a grenade. In the aftermath of the explosion, Hughin climbs back onto his high-horse and makes an attempt at philosophizing, some nonsense about people who are good being good at fighting, but I’m frankly not in the mood to be lectured by someone who just helped blow up a bunch of little kids.
There is no mention of western culpability at any point in the story. Over a century of flooding the middle east with weapons, imperialism, playing powers off each other to secure oil supplies, invasion and occupation on false pretenses, the overthrowing of established governments and repeated reneging on treaties: none of this gets so much as a nod.
The myriad nations, ethnicities and religious sects of the Muslim world are collapsed into a monolithic “tribe” of violent, brainwashed fanatics who are unequivocally compared to animals. Islam is thoughtcrime in this setting, punishable by death. And our ostensibly-enlightened protagonist deems that this is not only acceptable, but right and necessary.
Even the women and children, this story assures us, are frothing zealots who deserve to die. “It’s your own damn fault,” they’re told. The children, Hughin says, have a “tainted soul,” by which he means they are controlled by hateful propaganda. I think the author would do well to look into his own soul and consider the role propaganda played in forming a story so callous that it dehumanizes over a billion people and justifies child murder.
In the author’s defense, the sort of anti-Semitic, anti-western sentiments he references do exist. Even the killing off of a children’s television character the story mentions is based on a real event. It would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that. But the existence of such in no way legitimizes taking things to the other extreme and painting with a brush so broad that a rainbow comes out brown. How can one decry propaganda, however pernicious, while creating its equivalent? “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NIV)
Inevitably, there will be defenses of “Red Engines.” I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, this story is indefensible. What little attempt there is at calling out the “allies” is far too little, far too late and fails to compensate for the blatant anti-Muslim bias.
Now, do I think the author sat down to write and said, “I’m going to smear Muslims!”? No. I certainly hope not. But the fact is, the west has been inundated with Islamophobic propaganda for centuries, continuing to this very day. Much of it is downright vile. If we here in the west can’t be bothered to pick out the facts from the fiction, then any pretense we have to enlightenment is just that: a pretense, and a dangerous one at that.
The furry community is more welcoming and tolerant than most, but we still have work to do when it comes to shedding this sort of cultural baggage. Who in the fandom hasn’t witnessed racism in the community first-hand? But while most furs will shun those who show overt hatred of, for example, persons of African descent or Latinos, people aren’t always so quick to call out Islamophobia when they see it.
Imagine a story like “Red Engines” seeing print if it had targeted almost any other group. The uproar would have been deafening, and rightly so, but since it’s Muslims we’re supposed to be ok with it. Well, considering no one else has said anything up ‘til now, I guess some of us are.
For those who wish to learn more, a good starting point would be “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People” by Jack Shaheen. There exists both a book and a documentary version.
UPDATE: A Statement from FurPlanet Productions.
As a small press that puts out dozens of books a year, only part of our team is able to read each book before it goes to press, and we have to rely on them and our editors to make sure submissions are acceptable. Unfortunately, that means sometimes we are going to miss things. While we’re not afraid to deal with topics like bigotry and violence, we don’t approve of stories that use these themes disrespectfully. “Red Engines” does not meet that standard, and because we lacked the proper perspective at the time, we missed that.
We are removing the story from the printed version of Dogs of War 2. The anthology has been removed from Bad Dog Books, our ebook service, until it can be re-posted without it. We love the furry fandom. But, like all loves, it is not frozen in static perfection. It is a vibrant and ever-evolving collaboration. Its value comes not in lacking any problems, but in our shared willingness to address them and improve ourselves and the fandom.
Dwale is a valued contributor and someone whose involvement enriches the fandom. We have published stories by them before, including a story in this same anthology, and they provided the perspective we missed. We’ve made sure to discuss this action with Dwale before responding, and we are glad their article brought the matter to a head. As the furry fandom continues to grow and diversify, it’s on all of us to ensure our community does not tolerate intolerance.
Furry has always been a safe haven of the self, a place for exploring your identity and opening up to others. It has helped us stay sane in an insane world, to find friends who reckon justly and love bravely even when traditional society offers only injustice and cruelty. As an LGBT publisher, we are keenly aware of the power literature has to fight injustice. We can’t promise we’ll never screw up. But we will continue to use our platform for furry authors from every background to shape the world as best we can.
Comment from Patch:
The same as others were busy – I didn’t put care into this it deserved by contacting Furplanet before releasing. I didn’t expect a short story would get as much notice as this did. My apology to Furplanet for this lapse that tossed them a hot potato by surprise. Thanks to Dwale for bringing this to attention it may not have otherwise gotten.
Well said, Dwale! I avoid military/paramlitary fiction because so very much of it contains this very kind of flaw. I have almost never seen it called out so accurately. Thank you.
Anyone who thinks one can call a group ‘allies’ and be ‘neutral’ doesn’t know what power words have.
And in what world is a child with a rock equitable to a grenade?
Stories that are published have power. Their meanings shape theirreadera no matter how jaded the audience thinks they are. And meanings may or may not be intended – they can and do happen independently of the author’s intent. Words are powerful things.
Clearly the bird-AI is reflecting its culture and is not the sympathetic character in that world. In the end, it chooses to kill children.
“Red Engines” is biased, but is it necessarily inaccurate? The Middle Eastern world traditionally has its own biases.
See “Hamas Mickey Mouse Teaches Terror to Kids”, about the Palestinian 2007 TV program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers”.
According to Wikipedia, “Presented in a children’s educational format similar to such shows as Sesame Streetor Barney & Friends, Tomorrow’s Pioneers is highly controversial as it contains antisemitism, Islamism, anti-Americanism, and other anti-Western themes.”
The story is set in the undated future, but is it unrealistic that an Arabic or Muslim anti-Western children’s TV program could exist, and that children could be “educated” to such themes?
Also check the history of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, when Iranian draftees were given a “key of Heaven” and told that if they were killed fighting the enemy, they would go directly to Heaven.
There are excesses on both sides, but you cannot justify a wrong with another wrong in any case.
Also, I believe that Dwale prefers to be identified as a genderless “it”.
So what does that have to do with the story? I am more curious about your thoughts about the writing of this story and what the message is to the readers.
I think its just courtesy and I made an editor error by using the wrong form. Its a language thing like you probably wouldnt call your grandma “miss”. Fixed now.
Not wanting to change the subject, but does Dwale prefer to be referred to as “it” or as “them” and “they”?
The use of the latter in FurPlanet’s Update statement implies that Dwale is a writing team rather than an individual, which is confusing and inaccurate.
Hi Fred – language changes all the time, and yesterday’s slang is today’s new dictionary entry. “Them” is becoming a fairly ordinary term for one person.
If confusion is an issue, remember when Blotch was a “them” and you had to figure out that one name meant 2 people? Context always helps settle the issue.
This article cites zero instances of Islamophobia.
Rather, it speaks of a story where an unfortunate village is massacred by a self-righteous robot.
I pity the Muslims as they are smashed by this thought-provoking Crusade by the Allies.
If the story was constructed as anti-Muslim, it failed. Hard to hate children.
I’d encourage the reviewer to reconsider, or at the very least cite an example which essentially blackfaces the Muslims as bomb/truck/zoophile rapists and killers (which would be Islamophobic).
As it stands, the story smacks of the very Imperialism that the West has been guilty of, time to time, and therefore is morally right.
I haven’t read the story but I think Dwale makes a good case that the children and village aren’t represented as people but just as stereotypes.
I consider “Red Engines” to be anti-demonizing the enemy, not anti-Muslim. That Hamas TV program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers”, is certainly a prime example of demonizing the the enemy. In that case, of demonizing anything that isn’t pro-Arabic.
I don’t believe that the values expressed in “Tomorrow’s Pioneers” are representative of true Muslim values. I think that “Tomorrow’s Pioneers” and any fictional children’s TV like it can be opposed without being “anti-Muslim”; just like the 19th-century American attitude that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” (which many 19th-century Christians in America had) can be opposed without being anti-Christian.
To be specific, I consider “Red Engines” to be an example of anti-demonizing the enemy, not of anything anti-Islam. I’m pleased to have it in Dogs of War II.
Mr. Patten, “Pro-Arabic” is a nonsensical term to use here. “Arab” is an ethnicity. There are Christian Arabs. There are Jewish Arabs. There are atheist Arabs. Accordingly, there are surely Arabs who are deeply anti-Muslim.
The fact that you used the the term “pro-Arabic” as if it were interchangeable with “pro-Islamic” suggests that you are perhaps not the best person to judge what is or isn’t Islamophobic.
The raven is an allusion to Huginn, one of the familiars of Odin in the Norse pantheon. White supremacists use Norse symbols in their own style, and this appears to be one of those times. The editor’s comments appear to be defending his choice by painting 1 billion Muslims across the world as all the same and all cartoonishly evil, based on one thirty year old Iranian TV show. It’s not the 80s anymore; the WWE’s “Iron Sheik” is dead; we need to get rid of the lingering racism against Middle Easterners disguised as disdain for Islam.
To me, “Red Engines” is against the stereotype of Muslims as all cartoonishly evil — and against those who would make it look that way by demonizing the West as anti-Islamic, but acknowledging that such imagery does exist. At the end, everyone loses. I’m sorry that some people are interpreting the story as anti-Islamic rather than anti-hate imagery.
Something can be intended one way but fail to accomplish it’s goal and indeed become a part of the problem it intends to illuminate and dissipate. It is your job as an editor to ensure that, to the best of your ability, a story cannot be taken that way.
The fact you say ‘to me’ instead of ‘the author’s intent was’ tells me you did not even talk to them about how this story could be perceived, and did not attempt to make/request any edits that would have made the point of this story more clear. Beta reads with the group(s) involved, a forward, so many things could have avoided the unfortunate implications.
You should not be apologizing ‘to anyone offended’, which comes off as a non-apology. You should be apologizing for failing as this story (and anthology’s) editor in such a dangerous manner… Or not apologizing at all. It doesn’t seem like you’ve cared to learn anything from how this was received to avoid making such a mistake again, and that’s what’s truley troubling to me.
We all make mistakes, but what’s important is finding ways to learn from them, which I feel like hasn’t been done.
Hi Friday – I haven’t read this story either and I’m relying on Dwale’s opinion, but it sounds well-founded to find a problem with the story.
Keep in mind that others relied on Fred the same way in having the story in the anthology, so it surprised others to find a problem when this review was published.
For context, Fred is disabled in a hospital and doesnt easily leave. Reading and reviewing is a very important connection for him, and very much for fandom too, TBH… very few or no people are as prolific as him as a source for reviews and writing about writing. He’s like an elder statesman of several fandoms.
Fred grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s, and it reminds me that Western movies were a big thing then. It brings up cowboy and indian myths. I recently heard a very powerful, historic speech from James Baldwin during the civil rights era discussing how those were used to glorify colonial genocide etc. But to others its a valid genre.
The American Dream and the American Negro By JAMES BALDWIN –
“He talks of the old western ‘Cowboys vs. Indians’ movies and the point in which you realise that the “Indian is you!” This genre serves to comfort the white world, that they indeed are heroes and forever on the right side of history. As you grow up, you dishearteningly realise that, in fact, all your favourite superheroes were slyly misogynistic patriots, pregnant with imperial ambition.”
I like how the western was revisited long after:
Debunking the Myth of the American West – http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2001/4/01.04.10.x.html
I think it’s important stuff. While Fred may read more for genre and entertainment reasons and deserve gentle interaction with respect for all else he does. A collaborative rather than accusing approach really helps here. 🙂
“The raven is an allusion to Huginn, one of the familiars of Odin in the Norse pantheon. White supremacists use Norse symbols in their own style, and this appears to be one of those times.”
So “Spy-robot-bird has a well known Spy-bird name in mythology; and Nazis like Norse ideology. So implying the author is a Nazi?’
This isn’t an unremarkable happening. Not all references to norse runes and symbols are anything to worry about, but their use as “dogwhistles” is well known. First google hit:
If it’s merely a supporting detail to the rest of this review, there’s more going on than one nitpick can dismiss. If it’s ambiguous, of course it is, that’s the point when it is done. It might be more useful to just observe that this happens, but it’s fair to mention it’s a loaded symbol.
I haven’t read this anthology or this collection yet but I’m glad that Dwale has addressed this issue. I’ve interacted with them for few years now and I totally trust their opinion.
As someone who delights in using morally grey or outright morally deficient characters, I know there”s a way to show the writer at least knows right from wrong. That requires a deft paw, claw, or hoof equal to the challenge.
To be honest, I’ve seen far worse portrayals in Michael Z Williamson’s “The Weapon” and one of John Ringo’s “Oh John Ringo, No.” books (“Ghost”) of “Ebil Middle Eastern Terrierists.”
Granted those books were put out in 2005 and 2006 respectively, when nineleven and the London bus bombing were still lingering and people were still a bit irked and angry and you *could* get away with “Evil Middle Eastern Chappie” in something like “24” or “JAG” or “NCIS” or some Tom Clancy Novel.
I just see the short story as the poor kids caught up in ideology that churns innocents up and spits them out to feed it’s voracious hunger.