Fantastic History #57: Rehumanizing Chattel Slaves by Abby Goldsmith

Chattel slavery ranks high among humanity’s worst evils.

It overlaps with institutionalized torture and genocide, which make it difficult to explore through the lens of fantasy fiction. If you misrepresent chattel slavery, you are compounding injustice and spreading harmful ignorance. If you treat it lightly or gloss over it, you are misrepresenting it. And since the descendants of American slaves make up a significant portion of the reading public, any treatment of it in fiction deserves nuance and sensitivity, and a lot of research.

One of the defining features of American slavery was dehumanization. American slaves were considered a subspecies of humankind, not just a lower social class. That belief justified the treatment of chattel slaves as animals, to be bred, bought, and sold without regard for familial bonds, and without regard for the loyalties of love and friendship. To enforce this unnatural arrangement, armed violence against unarmed slaves was acceptable and commonplace.

Despite the vast gulf between masters and slaves, however, there was no erasing their shared humanity. Mixed families were undeniable. Sometimes a master owned his own children. Modern genetic tests, as well as the wide range of skin tones among descendants of American slaves, are evidence of the lie which dehumanization relied upon. As much as slave owners wanted to believe that their slaves were unlike themselves, they were wrong.

I wondered how much worse it might have been if mixing was impossible.

What if the schism between masters and slaves was based on a more substantial pretext than skin color? What if masters and slaves were, literally, two different species?

In my series, I cast the entire human race as chattel slaves. Planet Earth is like interior Africa at the start of the colonial era, isolated from a bustling galactic civilization. The rulers of the galaxy are distantly related to humankind, as well as to other “primitives.” But they consider humankind to be an inferior subspecies of themselves.

The Torth make the same mistake which white slave traders made, and the same mistake the Nazis made. They fall for the seductive ideology that they are members of an elite, superior race. The Torth see themselves as intrinsically more wholesome and more mentally advanced than their human targets. After all, the Torth wield total power as the only legal citizens of galactic civilization. They are far more technologically advanced than humankind. They rule planets. hey dominate interstellar travel. They have conquered and enslaved multiple alien civilizations. All the power they’ve gained makes it hard for anyone to question their morality, or their fitness to rule.

I needed the Torth to look indistinguishable from humans. They consider humanity to be a lesser subspecies of themselves, rather than alien beasts, and I wanted their reason for dehumanizing humans to be something more substantial than appearance. After all, visible traits are a flimsy excuse for dehumanization. I wanted my galactic-ruling civilization to seem smarter than that.

What if their claim to superiority is based on a bioengineered, inherited ability which they have made impossible for “lesser” species to inherit?

The Torth don’t need an internet because their minds are interconnected in a telepathic web that spans the galaxy. Like white slave-owners in the American South, who sent their sons to universities and who gave their daughters private tutors, but who did not knowingly share books or newspapers or literacy with slaves, the Torth forbid the sharing of knowledge with slaves.

Only Torth learn how to read glyphs. Only Torth learn how to pilot a flying transport, or how to navigate a streamship through a wormhole to another solar system. Slaves learn nothing except how to polish floors or harvest grains.

Knowledge is power. That fact was perhaps never more poignantly proven than during slavery in the United States. An educated slave was a direct, existential challenge to the notion that slaves were an inferior subspecies. Therefore, it was forbidden to teach literacy to slaves. If a slave could read, then that slave might read a newspaper and learn which runaways were being hunted, and by whom. They might give warning to their fellow slaves about impending battles or uprisings. They might communicate secret directions to an underground railroad.

They might gain a voice which could not be ignored.

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and others who escaped slavery wrote and orated powerfully about their personal experiences. These people were among the few slaves who defiantly learned literacy against the wishes of their owners. They were lucky enough to be positioned for a permanent escape to freedom. And once they gained freedom, they were brave enough to challenge the vested interests that ruled the civilization they lived in.

I think anyone who reads their works can only admire them. In gaining global attention, these former slaves shone an inescapable spotlight on what must be happening to a vast population in the American South who were unable to advocate for themselves.

I wanted to bring some of that defiant heroism into my series.

Torth collectively share knowledge with each other. The Megacosm is the backbone of their galactic civilization; something like a super-charged internet. It is the equivalent of books and newspapers during the era of American slavery. Torth regard humanity’s internet as a feeble, slow, primitive version of the mental network which they’ve collectively shared for a thousand generations, and which only they can access. Any Torth in the galaxy can instantly communicate with any other Torth. hey hide no secrets from each other. They don’t use spoken language.

In the same way that slave owners in early America assumed that slaves were incapable of erudition, the Torth assume that enslaved subspecies, such as humankind, are naturally incapable of using the Megacosm.

But if a reader is paying close attention, they might guess at an undercurrent in Torth society; a fear that they might be wrong. After all, why have the Torth outlawed the science of bioengineering?

They want to preclude any possibility of another species gaining telepathic abilities, or developing a communications network that might rival the Megacosm.

In my series, a group of slaves gain a window into the Megacosm through a Torth who goes renegade. Thomas rejects the privileges and benefits of being a slave owner. Having been raised by humans on Earth, Thomas has sympathy for his enslaved human foster family. He risks his life to set them free, and together, they escape Torth society and join an underground hideout full of runaway slaves.

Thomas provides the former slaves with education which is supposed to be meant only for Torth. Through his efforts, the former slaves begin to make use of super-weapons and spaceships. As knowledge spreads through the former slaves and rebels, they innovate on their own.

They found a rebel nation which energetically defies Torth laws against bioengineering and other sciences. One of their biggest gains is a “telepathy gas” which empowers former slaves to jack into the Megacosm.

The rebel nation is a melting pot of cultures, similar to how the slaves of the colonial United States were a mix of tribal nations. Their shared experience as slaves gives them a common language. This facilitates creativity, and their new forms of art and innovations even appeal to the stuffy Torth.

Soon there are secret Torth renegades who want to join the rebel nation. It is a slow trickle at first, since surveillance is a key component of the Megacosm. Torth are constantly monitored by their own peers. By choosing to join former slaves, renegade Torth must give up the Megacosm. Not only do they lose their edge in knowledge, but they also abandon their privileges as slave masters. And they must risk death to escape.

The risks are worth it to some renegade Torth. By the end of my series, the risks are worth it to many, as the Torth civilization begins to collapse from its own rotten values. They are no longer able to maintain the delusion of their innate superiority.


Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, a Writer’s Digest Books anthology, and other venues. She’s an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she received a personal critique from best-selling author George R.R. Martin. She’s also enjoyed dinners with best-selling authors Hugh Howey, Kevin J. Anderson, and Robert Jordan.

A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast from her home in Texas.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.