“Conquerors live in dread of the day when they are shown to be, not superior, but simply lucky” -N.K. Jemison, The Obelisk Gate.
Just like the Europeans have dominated and controlled most of the eastern and western world, Syl Anagist controlled for a time, most of The Stillness.
After experiencing hatred on the streets by a Sylanagistine, Kelenli explains the history of her people to Hoa and the other Niess experiments through earthtalk. She tells them how “Syl Anagist started out as part of Kakhiarar, then all of it, then all of Maecar too. All became Syl Anagist” (208). She clarifies that at that point, most of the stillness was controlled by Syl Anagist. However, some people remained free of Sylanagistine control. Some of these people were Thniess, who possessed magic far more advanced than that of the Sylanagistines.
The Sylanagistiens envied Thniess magic, but did not recognize or respect them as a group of people. As Kelenli explains, “It was hard to say their name with the proper pronunciation, so Sylanagistines called them Neiss.” She clarifies that the names “Thniess” and “Niess” mean different things, but the Sylanagistine name stuck. This shows the lack of respect the Sylanasitines had for Thniess.
It is a common practice of colonizers to fail to recognize groups of people as having their own culture and heritage as they chose to ignore their given names for something of their choosing that is recognizable to their culture. We have seen this repeated throughout our colonial history, and this tendency still remains today. Many people with non-anglo names feel pressure to simplify their names or use a nickname.
The Sylanagistines saw themselves as conquerors and did not feel obligated to respect any culture outside of their own, much like the Spaniards who initially invaded the Americas. When the Niess proved to have more efficient magic than the Sylanagistine, they reacted by spreading misconceptions of Niess people. Some of these stereotypes were that “niess irises gave them poor eyesight and perverse inclinations”, or “split Niess tongues could not speak the truth,” and then finally that “Niess sessapine were fundamentally different” and “less civilized”(210).
It is common of colonizers to refer to the people they are conquering as “barbaric”, “less civilized” or “savage”. The journals of Colombus, De Soto, and Cortéz all dub Native Americans in these terms. Part of this came from their worship of non-pagan gods. The conquistadors used this imagery and their religious beliefs to justify taking Native American land and mass genocide of these people.
The Sylanagistines use their eugenics-like “research” of the Niess to come to the conclusion that the Niess were “not the same kind of human as everyone else. Eventually: not as human as everyone else. Finally: not human at all” (210). They later used this reasoning to validate their horrible treatment of them.
European settlers in North, Central, and South America believed that people from Africa were a lower form of human than white people. In North America specifically, extensive “research” was done to support this claim. It was common to believe at this time that black people were fundamentally different from white people. They used their “research” as validation for enslaving and abusing African Americans.
Many white people believed African Americans were scientifically different until scientific advancements proved that race is a social construct. A very similar thing happened to the Niess people. Keleni explains that “once the Niess were gone, it became clear that the fabled Niess sessapinae didn’t exist” (211). Both our society and the Sylanagistine society are based on these social hierarchies, which is why they ignore scientific results that don’t suit their interests.
Rather than giving the Niess people dignity, the Sylanagistines decided to create artificial Niess people, in their twisted prejudiced vision of them. They intentionally made them different but failed to take the “human” out of them.
Western society dehumanizes people of other ethnic groups constantly with words, names, stereotypes, and policy. In the Trump era, this effect is only worsening. People are beginning to feel validated in their hatred. Their actions are becoming bolder and more extreme–and they face no repercussions for the damage they are spreading.
If the people who are currently in power had the means to demolish and recreate a whole race of people in their own demented vision I have no doubt that they would do it. Sitting U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith from Mississippi has made that perfectly clear by declaring that she would sit front row at a public lynching. Many of the people in power of the United States don’t see black and brown people as human. Perhaps the “fear of the conqueror” that is described in The Obelisk Gate is still very real for many people in power.
Regardless, it is interesting that imaging a society–like solar punk–without these oppressive hierarchies is nearly impossible. Perhaps the dynamic of the conqueror and the conquered is what has made an egalitarian society feel nearly impossible in our current, post-colonial world.