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Colored Futures
June 14, 2011 4:56 PM   Subscribe

"For a genre known for depicting obscure creatures, new concepts of civilization, and future predictions for humanity, sci-fi sure has a hard time being about more than white people." Multi-disciplinary artist Adriel Luis' list of "10 fantasmic films, books, and records to transport you to the unreal—while still letting you keep it real."
posted by artof.mulata (112 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
While the post by Mister Luis is itself light on involved speculation the comments are a goldmine. futurestates.tv is one of the gems I found there; it hosts a series of indie featurettes examining future trends for the U.S., many of which of which are made by POCs.
posted by artof.mulata at 5:00 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Paging sebarnes...
posted by hermitosis at 5:18 PM on June 14, 2011


Yay for "Robot Stories" getting exposure.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:22 PM on June 14, 2011


Awesome. Not what I expected at all! I was thinking it would be the same Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Wizard of Earthsea, 70-80s socially conscious scifi that's normally bandied about in these lists or askme questions. Delany has been my favorite writer for a long time, with a huge positive influence on my life, but it's really cool to see an almost wholly new list. I hadn't heard of any of the films, and I've only read the Charles Yu book. It's a... great internet list. And to think, I was going to cancel netflix today.

(I don't want to disparage any of the authors I listed or alluded too. But that's what comes up, right?)
posted by kittensofthenight at 5:24 PM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hell yeah Deltron 3030!
posted by infinitewindow at 5:42 PM on June 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


Both Pumzi and Robot Stories are on Netflix Instant (in the U.S., anyway).
posted by gerryblog at 5:48 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Check out The Carl Brandon Society recommendations for SF/F by and about POC plus resources for writer and fen of color!
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 5:53 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Big shout out to Nalo Hopkinson, particularly Brown Girl In The Ring.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 6:00 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was thinking it would be the same Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Wizard of Earthsea, 70-80s socially conscious scifi that's normally bandied about in these lists or askme questions.

Me, too. I was glad to see so much listed that I had never heard of.
posted by Forktine at 6:00 PM on June 14, 2011


Isn't there still a vibrant strain of Afro-Futurism, going from Sun Ra forward? Yes, there's a schism between (utopian, or at least socially conscious) AF and (libertarian, or at least individualistic) mainstream sci-fi, but they're part of the same skein.
posted by Nomyte at 6:28 PM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


the author explicitly stated that they weren't going to list Butler - not because she isn't great, but because she is already so widely known.
posted by jb at 6:50 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I listened to some of that Charles Yu book in audio form. Maybe it was the reader (awful American one) but it was more precious than funny and draaaaagged on and on without getting to a point.

That said, anything that displaces the terrible "70-80s socially conscious" scifi is OK by me.
posted by DU at 6:55 PM on June 14, 2011


That said, anything that displaces the terrible "70-80s socially conscious" scifi is OK by me.

Delaney is still awesome.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:03 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I found 60s/70s Delany to be awesome. Had problems getting through Stars in my Pocket - I just lost interest, put the book down, and never came back. (It may be because I had just finished Dhalgren, and that's enough to tire the most dogged reader.)

Honest question : what do y'all think of Lauren Beukes' Zoo City?
posted by suckerpunch at 7:10 PM on June 14, 2011


I keep noticing 'Robot Stories' on Netflix. Greg Pak, the director, is also a comic book writer (notably, e.g. Planet Hulk). I will have to get around to watching it one of these days.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:16 PM on June 14, 2011


sci-fi sure has a hard time being about more than white people.

Benny Russell would probably have to agree with you.
posted by chronkite at 7:31 PM on June 14, 2011


In the middle of Zoo City at the moment. I like the setting in Joburg. The 419 spam email at the beginning is a thing of immense beauty. The central premise is a bit too derivative of Pullman's Dark Materials, and the urban fantasy bits aren't really working for me at the moment and I say that as someone who has greatly enjoyed that sort of thing in the past.

But I'll see the book through. So far, there's been enough elements of wonder to overcome the problems and maybe things will turn around in the second half.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:17 PM on June 14, 2011


I just want to add:

Minister Faust's Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad. Awesome Afro-Canadian sci-fi. And Afro-Edmontonian.

Truly Great. One of my favourite sci-fi books.
posted by dr. moot at 8:18 PM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


What's a Nubian?

Not so much related to actual black people from Earth doing sci fi stuff, but as a child I was perturbed that there were no black people in Star Wars. There were plenty of black kids on Sesame Street, and I knew they were Americans, and people in Star Wars were American, so what happened to all the black kids? To think Han was this close to being black:

At one point, George Lucas had planned the character of Han Solo to be a huge green-skinned monster with no nose and gills. Then Lucas changed the idea of Han Solo to a black human. He auditioned several black actors and even musicians (including Billy Dee Williams) until finally settling on Glynn Turman. But after this he decided to make the role white and went with Harrison Ford.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:43 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's a Nubian?

They live on Plutonia.
posted by Nomyte at 8:47 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


as a child I was perturbed that there were no black people in Star Wars

What is Lando, chopped liver?
posted by nzero at 9:23 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


(I know, you meant Star Wars the movie, not the trilogy, but it was too easy)
posted by nzero at 9:24 PM on June 14, 2011


Milestone Media Comics. The entire line. Some of the best speculative metahuman fiction ever.
posted by humannaire at 9:55 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love comics but somehow I can't see The World's Greatest Speculative Metahuman Fiction atop any comic book I'd ever want to read unless it was meant as a joke.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 10:53 PM on June 14, 2011


futurestates.tv is one of the gems I found there; it hosts a series of indie featurettes examining future trends for the U.S., many of which of which are made by POCs.

Just want to add my vote for futurestates. Like any collection of short films the quality varies from piece to piece, but all or almost all of the films were made by non-white filmmakers (even if the casts are largely white actors in some cases) and one of the 'rules' of the series (admittedly, bent a few times) is no dystopias. A thought provoking series, for sure. The most famous one seems to be the one with Werner Herzog as the voice of a sentient plastic bag, but that was actually one of my least favorite.

The actual content varies all over, some of them are about homosexuality, housing, water shortages, a country run by a thinly-veiled version of Monsanto, etc., but a lot of them deal with issues of race to greater or lesser degrees; White probably the most directly.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:56 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


"sci-fi sure has a hard time being about more than white people"

That's like saying hip-hop has a hard time being about more than black people.
posted by TSOL at 10:57 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


TSOL: "sci-fi sure has a hard time being about more than white people"

That's like saying hip-hop has a hard time being about more than black people.


I disagree. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones a couple of days ago and the first thing I thought was, "Why don't white people place us in their dream worlds?" Then I immediately realized that we probably would show up as slaves, whores, and savages. Sure enough...

Which isn't to say that I'm not enjoying the series, but it does get a little tedious.

We exist. We're here. We're everywhere in the States and all over Western Europe. We exist in the creation of pop culture across the globe. We are a major facet of the creation of imaginative worldbuilding. If we aren't a greater part of the Speculative Fiction constructs to a greater degree then someone is desiring wrong.
posted by artof.mulata at 11:10 PM on June 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


If we aren't a greater part of the Speculative Fiction constructs to a greater degree then someone is desiring wrong.


Someone? Who?

If you want sci fi about black people, then write some.
posted by chronkite at 11:25 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


"sci-fi sure has a hard time being about more than white people"

That's like saying hip-hop has a hard time being about more than black people.


That's bullshit. From what I understand, hip-hop arose out of black urban culture. There's no reason that sci-fi needs to be coded the same way.

Someone? Who?

If you want sci fi about black people, then write some.


Why can't writers do what the Doctor Who writers do, with their color-blind casting?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:52 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


From what I understand, hip-hop arose out of black urban culture. There's no reason that sci-fi needs to be coded the same way.

From what I understand, sci fi arose out of white weirdo culture.

The analogy holds like crazy glue.
posted by chronkite at 11:56 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, as a quick experiment, name a few black astronauts without looking at wikipedia.

If you can't do this, you might want to as yourself why you care so much about fictional representation when you care not a whit about black people who have actually been in space.
posted by chronkite at 12:27 AM on June 15, 2011


I'm struggling to think of any books I've read with a non white protagonist, but in many cases that must just be my own bias, because I'm sure I've read books where the main character's skin colour is never actually specified (some Culture books maybe?).
posted by lucidium at 12:31 AM on June 15, 2011


chronkite I have to disagree again. The fact that SF arose from "white weirdo culture" doesn't exempt white authors from excluding non-whites from their narratives. They aren't free from our presence in the States and Europe in any way so why should they embellish us out of their fictions?

It's a strange mind that ignores the reality of their everyday surroundings, but it's one that's easy to understand. The history of exclusion for nonwhites from every aspect of culture is a long, but sorry one. If Sf is to look at possible futures then we must be included in those narratives. In fact, given the browning of The States and Europe, we are the future.

This is not to say that white authors need to craft nonwhites as their sole protagonists, but that they should be opening their tales to be more inclusive of the world that is coming. Admittedly the constructing of Aryan worlds is a tangent that can be explored, but is that really so creative? Haven't we all been reading that book for far too long?
posted by artof.mulata at 12:49 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is a complicated subject for sure, and I'm not sure people are giving it enough thought before commenting. But hey. Horses for courses. I may as well do exactly the same:

I think there needs to be a differentiation between characters who are black in appearance and characters who are culturally black. I realise the latter is difficult as culturally black means completely different things according to where in the world you live, socioeconomic status, etc but I think it needs to be examined.

Black in appearance is easier. If you're a SciFi author, then unless you've got good reason not to include other ethnicities or sexualities in your books then you should do it. I like to call this the Dumbledore Strategem. (Well now I do. I just thought of the phrase)

I can imagine that it's hard for white authors to feel comfortable writing in black characters. I'd be wary of introducing a black character into anything I wrote for fear of stereotyping / saying something unwittingly offensive. I think white writers need to get over this fear. What we're doing now is so much worse. Unless you're writing the script for "Friends in Space", get to it.

Culturally black is even more of a minefield, and I'm not sure how to even approach this subject. Sci-Fi is a fiction that deliberately or not, reflects our current societies. I'm not sure how you can accurately place ethnicity into modern science fiction without making the book about ethnicity. Greater minds than mine need to tackle this.

On the subject of YA. There's a YA book called Chess or Checkers or Go or something like that which is dystopian SciFi on the subject of race and on the National curriculum. The kids seem to like it. Wish I could remember what it's called. If it comes to me, I'll post.
posted by seanyboy at 12:49 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're right seanyboy; it is complicated, but the only way to overcome it is to attempt it.

As for culturally whatever versus figuratively whatever, well, this is speculative work, right? SF constantly attempts to create new cultural modes and arcs so who says what's black today is black tomorrow? Or Chinese or Jewish or whatever? I would like to think that if I got into a time machine and hopped a couple hundred years into the future I wouldn't be able to know what 'white' means via my own biased shorthand.

I think you should go for it, face the inevitable criticism, and move on a stronger writer. And if you remember that YA novel please do post the title so I can check it out.
posted by artof.mulata at 12:58 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


doesn't exempt white authors from excluding non-whites from their narratives. They aren't free from our presence in the States and Europe in any way so why should they embellish us out of their fictions?

Wait, what? Are you proposing that you know better than I do what I should write about? Paint? Sing songs about?

Like I said before, if you want more black people in your sci fi, then make some sci fi with black people in it. Stop being a consumer and change the world, if you think you can.

But to say an artist "should" focus on the group you identify with (and it's a pretty weak-ass way to self-identify, IMO..almost as bad as by sexual orientation, but I digress), is just a completely indefensible position.

What do you propose, quotas?
posted by chronkite at 1:03 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wanuri Kahiu, the filmmaker who made Pumzi is directing the film adaption of the amazing Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor.
posted by Wylla at 1:09 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hmm. Science fiction isn't really about people, anyway - it's about ideas.

Perhaps writers feel that time spent giving their characters strong identities will detract from the impact of the concepts they're trying to express.

Regarding Doctor Who, I don't believe that's really sci-fi, especially at the moment - I'd describe it more as "time travel comedy drama".
posted by dickasso at 1:10 AM on June 15, 2011


Frequently the Sci-Fi genre tells stories that are about things that are alien to us. Authors want to focus on that thing and not the baggage of our pedestrian world, and the authors dominant culture is simplified to become a simple blank canvas that doesn't distract from the point at issue.

This is why Akira is about crazy psychic kids who can create pocket universes and not the demographic shift of post-nuclear urban Japan.
posted by Winnemac at 1:19 AM on June 15, 2011


lucidium: I'm struggling to think of any books I've read with a non white protagonist, but in many cases that must just be my own bias, because I'm sure I've read books where the main character's skin colour is never actually specified (some Culture books maybe?).

I think some authors are very sly about mentioning it, and some don't mention skin color at all (which unfortunately tends to default to white in many people's minds), and some readers tend to ignore certain 'details' in favor of their internal picture of a character.

Perdido Street Station's main protagonist, Isaac, is black. I remember being extremely pleased when I crossed that line (took the author a long time before he mentioned it). I think the reason I was so pleased was by how quickly the author shattered that tiny "white is default" illusion I had built up.

chronkite: Like I said before, if you want more black people in your sci fi, then make some sci fi with black people in it. Stop being a consumer and change the world, if you think you can.

Honestly, I think that's a poor argument. That's like telling someone pointing out misogyny in comic books to stop complaining and make comic books themselves if they want good female representations. People can (and should!) criticize a genre's surprising lack of racial diversity, because a lack of racial diversity is a problem. Sometimes that includes a call to action for authors to correct it.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 1:26 AM on June 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Paulo Bacigalupi goes for it though. Chinese refugees of the future have it rough in "Yellow Card Man" and "The Windup Girl"
posted by Winnemac at 1:33 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


artof.mulata: I disagree. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones a couple of days ago and the first thing I thought was, "Why don't white people place us in their dream worlds?" Then I immediately realized that we probably would show up as slaves, whores, and savages. Sure enough...

The irony is that this is actually worse in the TV series than it is in the books. The Dothraki of the books are scary (don't get me wrong), but they are much more complex and interesting, and it's made absolutely clear that Danerys has to learn and adapt to their complex culture before she gets any respect at all. When you watch the end of next weeks episode, keep in mind that Danerys gets very little respect from those around her before the events that end the episode. The simplification of that part of the plot removed almost all of the Dothraki's complexity, and left us with brutes who have no word for thank-you. (the the books, they have elaborate, formalised speeches for thank you.) It comes through very clearly in the books that people who write the Dothraki off as savages are wrong, and that the people of the Seven Kingdoms are equally 'savage' and 'civilised', in different ways. On TV, not so much.

The book Dothraki are also monoethnic, and much more clearly modeled on Ghengis Khan and his successors. By trying to avoid a casting stereotype (Evil East Asian hordes! Yellow peril!) they seem to have walked right into an even worse one (an ethnicly diverse group of Dothraki - so now the only diverse group we see is the one all the other characters think of as 'savages').

They also cut out three minor black characters (a supplicant prince from overseas in Robert's court and two black women who own and run the city's largest brothel). This was, obviously, another attempt to remove stereotyping (getting rid of a naer-do-well black man and two prostitutes)...but it also removed the only characters who let us know that there are other kingdoms out there with their own cultures and ideas who don't care about the Seven Kingdoms, and two characters who play central, rather heroic roles in later parts of the story (without spoilers, that brothel is more than it seems to be).

In general, the books give much more of an idea that Westeros is generally monoethnic because this is a middle-ages-equivalent, and travel is very difficult. Only traders with their own boats go back and forth regularly between Westeros and other places, at great risk, and only wealthy people with good reasons would come from the Summer Islands (the closest part of the Africa-Equivalent) - no one seems to ever make it there from Yi-Ti (the China equivalent).

As the story gives the Westerosi characters more reason to travel, we will see more of people from other places...who hopefully haven't been cut out.

(Long post - I am a huge fan of the books, but agree with artof.mulata: the adaption has not treated the nonwhite characters very well.)
posted by Wylla at 1:36 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure I follow the criticism here. I fully expect authors to more often write about characters that reflect their own experiences and identities. Especially if the point of the story has nothing to do with ethnicity or gender. Why should an American writing about time travel have to research or accurately capture the thought processes of a Ukrainian when that is not the purpose of his book? That's why the character is also American; the book is about time travel, not Ukrainians.

The moral expectation that authors need to write about some ethnic group (and in some certain way, of course) is itself racist. No they don't. Science fiction authors have no moral obligation to depict your petty political viewpoints about American minority identities.
posted by dgaicun at 2:08 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


artof.mulata:

The danger of moving too far away from someone culturally is the science fiction begins to lose its heart. More to point, is that historically, science fiction hasn't done this. It's usually mired in the current social mores. Sure, there's some drift towards a utopian or dystopian version of the present, but thematically, it's an unusual SciFi novel that isn't a caricature of now.

I agree though. People should go for it.

On giving white characters a black appearance in speculative fiction:

I was walking in to work thinking about the Dumbledore strategem as applied to P.O.C, and I was thinking of how I would describe Martha Jones. And this is a complete failure on my part, I understand that, but I couldn't get a handle on it. No worries though. Freema Agyeman has a pretty bland look, so thought I'd try and describe Nikki Amuka-Bird. Couldn't do that either.

I just can't do it. I can't physically describe black people other than to say they're black. Everything else either sounds racist, and/or is too hung up on hair or skin tone. "She was very black. Probably African. He was lighter, probably white-afro-Caribbean mixed. She had dreadlocks. Because every black person in the future has dreadlocks."

This is an utter failure on my part, but it's enough to make me think twice about writing black characters into anything I write. I'm happy for people to categorise this as racism, because to a strong degree it is. Unfortunately, I don't know what to do with this, and I wonder how many other writers have had the same issue.
posted by seanyboy at 2:12 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


artof.mulata : On the book I wanted to mention. (For no other reason than it's SciFi and it's about race.)
Noughts & Crosses.
posted by seanyboy at 2:25 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's safe to say you aren't the only one who struggles with that. There's an older article - Transracial Writing for the Sincere - that I found particularly helpful (she starts off covering exactly what you described). There are now entire books on how to write from other ethnic, cultural, racial, etc. points of view, so I think there's enough resources out there to help someone confidently avoid stereotyping.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 2:32 AM on June 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


That essay is by Nisi Shawl (here's her blog)...and if you haven't read her book of short stories, Filter House, you should do so immediately.
One of the stories in that (a really simple story about a girl in a future Michigan wasteland, and why her mother gives her a haircut) is some of the most moving SF I've read in ages.
posted by Wylla at 3:07 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Shit white people like.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:29 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's confusion in this thread, and in discourse on "representation" in general, about the difference between a problem and a moral obligation.

It would indeed be very silly to say that GRRM has a moral obligation to put, say, fantasy Moorish people in his version of fantasy Europe, rather than limiting his depiction of African culture to the barbarian Dothraki. But you might say it'd be a good idea.

Likewise it would be silly to say that the genre of science fiction as a whole has committed some kind of sin by failing to include people of non-dominant real-world cultures. But you might reasonably say that the fact that there aren't so many such characters reflects a generalized bias, not terribly strong in any one author, but sufficiently pervasive that we need to go out of our way to find such characters. To describe this as a problem is reasonable, because some people want the characters in their fiction to be realistic, and that means reflecting the real variations in people - skin color being, I hope, not the most important one, but cultural background being very important indeed.

In science fiction in particular, we have the concept of "social science fiction," wherein some new technology overturns an old social order, and we read about the results of that. If the social order in question consists entirely of a single dominant culture, the story just isn't doing as good a job as it could.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:12 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well colour me silly, because I do think there is a moral obligation & the genre of science fiction has committed a sin.
posted by seanyboy at 4:41 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


subject_verb_remainder: "Perdido Street Station's main protagonist, Isaac, is black."

Because he's also described as kind of gross in his personal habits, and because I think it was on Dave while I was reading the book once, I've forever since imagined Isaac as basically being Dave Lister.

As to the idea that a writer shouldn't be criticised for writing from their own experiences: my whole adult life I've lived in towns and cities (Colchester, Manchester, London) where my friends, flatmates, neighbours, and people I just bump into in the street are of all colours and many cultures. If I were to sit down and write a sci-fi novel where the main cast was all white I wouldn't be writing what I know, I would be making a conscious decision to omit non-whites from the world I was creating. As such, I can't help but view all- or almost all-white sci-fi with the same suspicion and disappointment as all-male sci-fi.

Because I've read and seen so damn much of it, all- or mostly-dude sci-fi and fantasy has to work hard to gain my attention and respect; I lap up gay and trans fiction partly because oh-my-god a different perspective (no offence intended to the straight white guys of the world, but your perspective is fucking everywhere and I'm bored of it now) and partly because it's nice finally to see myself on the page. I don't even remotely blame black people or asian people or anyone for seeking people of their own colour and culture in fiction, and damn right they should raise a stink at the poor representation.

The paperback edition of The Player of Games depicts the main character as white (it looks absurdly pink in the image I found, but on my copy it looks white-guy white) despite the text noting, and making a minor plot point from, his black skin. Whoops.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:46 AM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's not that uncommon for a cover illustration to have a white person when the text describes a black protagonist. I remember some Arthur C. Clarke book I had where the cover showed a blonde white guy, while in the book there's a mention that our protagonist (from human colonies in space) has a skin color darker than some Earth-born guy from Africa.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:50 AM on June 15, 2011


So chronkite, let me get this straight. You seem to feel that it is an affront to suggest that there is something wrong with the fact that the overwhelming majority of speculative fiction is devoid of non-white peoples.

Yet, you can't seem to understand how this very situation might seem objectionable to non-white people. I've read this stuff since I could read--I love it, yet it has always been a thorn in my side that noone like me is ever represented. Or, I have to undergo mental gymnastics to appreciate stories that engage in blatant othering and racism (I'm looking at you Lovecraft and Tolkien!)

Really, rather than being flippant and contrarian ("why don't you write some if you don't like it!") why don't you attempt to empathize with and understand the viewpoint of those whom this affects?
posted by anansi at 4:54 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


rmd1023: "It's not that uncommon for a cover illustration to have a white person when the text describes a black protagonist."

I remember a Pratchett book where he made a point of describing his female mercenary character as not being dressed in the usual woman-in-fantasy furry knickers and bra but was instead wearing hard-wearing, unexciting leathers. The cover, of course, had her falling out of a costume apparently made from string.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 4:55 AM on June 15, 2011


More examples of cover "whitewashing" - Justine Larbalestier and even Octavia Butler have had this problem. The Larbalestier example is depressingly recent.
posted by Wylla at 4:58 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


On the topic of racially-tinged science fiction: Farnham's Freehold.
posted by dzkalman at 5:09 AM on June 15, 2011


And white males at that. I made a conscious decision back when I was a young writer, knee-high to Isaac Asimov, that I'd make a good one-third of my lead characters female. Reasoning: am I supposed to write convincingly about aliens without being able to write convincingly from a human female point of view? This has served me in good stead, I think.

I've had fun with it, too. I was good friends with a guy who regularly sold to ANALOG and published a dozen or so novels. Nice guy, decent writer, and we'd even sold a few collaborative stories. But he always wrote from a white male POV. In one of his novels he had a female character he needed to do something slightly irrational... I can't remember what it was. As a joke I suggested, straight-faced, that he say she was having her period. And that's what he did... *sigh*

I also made the decision to mix it up racially for the same reason. It's a damn good stretch for a writer to venture out of his (or even her) cultural or gender chauvinism. In one of my books I had three POV characters -- one black male, one Asian female, and one white female. I found that book difficult to write but it turned out well and is probably my favorite of my adult novels.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 5:18 AM on June 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's funny. I've often thought about sci fi as being very centrally about white people dealing with various cultural others, and especially blackness. It begins with the idea of the "alien race", which is, if you think about it, a contradiction in terms. The aliens of science fiction are most often, all too human, while at the same time allowing white people the freedom to biologize cultural and phenotypic difference (which is the lie at the heart of all racism).

But precisely because blackness itself is too threatening, and because speaking of the white mythology of blackness directly exposes all the foolish fears of a white audience/writer, science fiction liquidates blackness first. It breaks it down, and then reassembles it, piecewise, into the DNA of alien races whose blackness can be disavowed.

Hypersexualization, "earthiness", physical strength and athleticism, over-reproduction, the whole mythology, by being abstracted away from blackness itself, can be assumed as an "accurate" set of traits describing an alien race, without anyone ever questioning who it is that ascribes these traits to that race, for what reasons, etc.

Certainly alien racialization can function in many ways that don't provide cover for white fears and myths in this way, and in fact subvert them, but one of the core functions of science fiction often seems to be to make racism safe for public consumption.
posted by macross city flaneur at 5:46 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Why don't white people place us in their dream worlds?"

That is a great way to capture the issue. There are a gazillion SF books that mention that their future is full of mixed race people (often using language similar to some descriptions of Brazilian racial mixing, oddly), but very few where race matters in a nuanced and interesting way.

And all the books set in ye olde Europe, or alternate worlds clearly based on ye olde Europe (like Game of Thrones), that totally whitewash the place (except for token travelers and sidekicks from Africa and Asia) are really disappointing. Ye olde Europe was pretty mixed, actually -- the Moors were kicking ass in Iberia, all kinds of people were coming through what we now call Italy, and all kinds of people flowed back and forth through Turkey and across the Caucuses. Making it all whitebread fits the racial purity fantasies of Le Pen and the rest of the European far right, and makes for less interesting fictional landscapes.
posted by Forktine at 5:53 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The book Dothraki are also monoethnic, and much more clearly modeled on Ghengis Khan and his successors. By trying to avoid a casting stereotype (Evil East Asian hordes! Yellow peril!) they seem to have walked right into an even worse one (an ethnicly diverse group of Dothraki - so now the only diverse group we see is the one all the other characters think of as 'savages').

FWIW I actually think of the Dothraki as a mono-ethnic Mongol-type tribe and I haven't read the books. Everytime the white handmaiden character appears I rationalise her away as some kind of immigrant.

Ye olde Europe was pretty mixed, actually -- the Moors were kicking ass in Iberia, all kinds of people were coming through what we now call Italy, and all kinds of people flowed back and forth through Turkey and across the Caucuses. Making it all whitebread fits the racial purity fantasies of Le Pen and the rest of the European far right, and makes for less interesting fictional landscapes.

To be fair to GoT though, it seems like most of the action in the first book at least is set in an England equivalent, and that was pretty much whitebread at the time.
posted by Summer at 6:03 AM on June 15, 2011


macross city flaneur: Typical Klingon Lover attitude. If you love Klingons so much, why don't you move to Kronos. etc, etc. :-)

/agreeing with you.
posted by seanyboy at 6:13 AM on June 15, 2011


Everytime the white handmaiden character appears I rationalise her away as some kind of immigrant.

She's a slave, captured in one of the Dothraki's regular raids. </endGOTderail
posted by harriet vane at 6:20 AM on June 15, 2011


To be fair to GoT though, it seems like most of the action in the first book at least is set in an England equivalent, and that was pretty much whitebread at the time.

The novel setting is very loosley based on the Wars of the Roses, with Lannister and Stark standing in for Lancaster and York. That said, The Seven Kingdoms in the book are quite similar to the England of the time - there are diverse groups around, but most people who are not themselves merchants or diplomats come in contact with people from these groups very rarely unless they live in a port city, on a major international trade route, or in the capitol. In book/season 1, none of the point-of-view characters see any other port city but King's Landing.

The TV series (which I like), has walked into a problem in part because efforts to simplify the plot from the (huge, complicated) novels have resulted in the removal of a lot of that diversity. The Seven Kingdoms of the books has a lot of contact with merchants, members of court, and others who have some connections with overseas areas - there are foreigners all over King's Landing. A few are from the closest bit of the Africa-equivalent (The Summer Islands), a few are from or have been to Asshai (seemingly an Uzbekistan/Timurid Empire equivalent), but most are from the Free Cities (Asia Minor / Persia equivalents) - closest and easiest to get to.

On TV, you can count the 'foreign' characters outside of Danerys's plotline on one hand, because most of the minor characters are gone.
posted by Wylla at 6:33 AM on June 15, 2011


But to say an artist "should" focus on the group you identify with (and it's a pretty weak-ass way to self-identify, IMO..almost as bad as by sexual orientation, but I digress), is just a completely indefensible position.

Let's put it this way: should a male author include women in something he writes? Is there some moral imperative to include women characters? Obviously not. But the work of a man who systematically excluded women from everything he wrote would appear (to most of us) strange at least, even deeply impoverished imaginatively. As readers we'd probably conclude that he was emotionally inept and unless he was particularly good at making us believe in his world of "men without women," a poorer writer for it.

Similarly with the work of contemporary writers who can't imagine how to write non-white characters. Obviously, there's no moral imperative that any writer must write about non-white characters. A writer should write as they will. He or she might even produce a fine, if limited, body of work about nothing more than the lives of white people with white people. But from a contemporary author writing about contemporary lives we'd probably regard that work as, at least, a little provincial, a little emaciated. So how much more impoverished would we regard that writer who can't even imagine non-white characters in a world he or she wholly invents?
posted by octobersurprise at 7:11 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I been readin about you. . . how you worked for the blue skins. . . and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. . . and you done considerable for the purple skins. . . only there's skins you never bothered with. . . the black skins! I want to know how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern.
posted by Herodios at 7:51 AM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


But the work of a man who systematically excluded women from everything he wrote would appear (to most of us) strange at least, even deeply impoverished imaginatively. As readers we'd probably conclude that he was emotionally inept
It's been a while since I've read any of Asimov's memoirs, but IIRC there were at least a few paragraphs expounding on "Yeah, none of my early stuff included any female characters. Sorry. It was because I was emotionally inept."
posted by roystgnr at 8:07 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


Reasoning: am I supposed to write convincingly about aliens without being able to write convincingly from a human female point of view?

This is the crux of it, right here. I see this stuff and the weak excuses, and it's like you can design entire worlds that are accurate - this device works using air pressure to go into this chamber and it is 2.3 centimeters long so that when arcturus fires the weapon it punctures the hull and air begins to leak out. You set up scenes with futuristic technology where things integrate, the characters use the devices with and against one another. There are scientifically plausible explanations that have been researched, hell, many works brag about having consulted various scientists about the project. All these elements are foreign to a writer. But write a non-white, non-male character that matters....omg that's impossible! It's silly. You can go through your day and have a black president and see nonwhite people all around you, then when you go to write, mysteriously everybody except the white males disappear when it comes to characters who matter. Now why wouldn't I point out how odd that is?
posted by cashman at 8:07 AM on June 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


There are a gazillion SF books that mention that their future is full of mixed race people (often using language similar to some descriptions of Brazilian racial mixing, oddly), but very few where race matters in a nuanced and interesting way.
That's a serious limitation from the point of view of contemporary art... although it's better than doing race badly. (Nobody biting on the Farnham's Freehold hook? I think I can put together valid arguments for "it's not as bad as most people think" if anyone cares, but I don't think I can make it all the way up to "it's not a waste of your time to read")

But art aside, I kind of like the "race doesn't matter" treatment.

From a predictive standpoint it's a no-brainer except in near-present settings. Anyone worry much about those awful Irish or Krauts lately? The future will surely still include "Us" vs "Them" bigotry, but the definition of "Us" keeps expanding, and it's hard to imagine a world where aliens or AI or transhumans exist but people are still preoccupied with melanin levels.

From a moral standpoint... I like Dr. King's take on the subject.
posted by roystgnr at 8:24 AM on June 15, 2011


You can . . . have a black president

Yeah, there's a lot of black presidents in US media fiction, even before 2009, aren't there?

This is the sub-Star Trek model of effortless PC casting. Any time there's an Admiral (or president or judge, etc. ), they're either black or female. They parachute in, say a few lines that could have been delivered by a white guy in the same role and they're gone.

Easy to get your bones with blind casting of characters that appear high status in your future perfect world order, while the characters that are important to the story -- that we are to identify with -- continue to be the usual suspects.
posted by Herodios at 8:26 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]


biting on the Farnham's Freehold hook?

Hmm, well that's a black dominated future, but still told from a white guy perspective.

In that vein, there's also this:

Ray Bradbury, "Way in the Middle of the Air" (1950). After Mars is opened to colonization, most (all?) blacks in the still-jim-crow south emigrate to the red planet.

Ray Bradbury, "The Other Foot" (1951?) Year later, Mars is inhabited solely by the descendents of the folks who came to escape racial discrimation. A delegation from Earth (the first white men the children have ever seen, though they'd heard scarey stories. . . ) arrives bringing news of Earth's near-destruction by nuclear war and asking that the survivors be allowed to join them on Mars, even as second-class citizens.
posted by Herodios at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also wrt the Farnham's Freehold 'hook':

Long ago (like 40 years) I read an SF story -- Ace Double, possibly -- that told of a post WW-III world wherein the capitalist west and communist east of the northern hemisphere had long before exhausted themselves fighting each other, and the world came to be dominated by the major powers of the southern hemisphere, mainly sub-saharan Africans and south Asians.

Our protagonist, though, is a 'cork', which we learn is a racial slur for caucasians, now on the bottom of the 'race' totem pole. He experiences (comparatively mild) discrimation, harassment, low expectations, etc. "I never dreamed the new guy would be a cork", and so on. Not great, but an interesting attempt.

So like FF, the perspective is that of a white guy who is a member of a discriminated minority in a future black dominated world. Unlike, FF, he is of that society and has to make the best of it, not a time traveling visitor who gets to escape it (minus faithless wife and weak children).

I'll award a no-prize to whoever can help me remember the title and author.
posted by Herodios at 9:00 AM on June 15, 2011


Why don't they write about people like me, instead of about people like them?
Why don't they write from my perspective instead of their perspective?
Why don't they write about things that are important to me instead of things that are important to them?
Why don't they write the stories I want to read instead of the stories they want to write?
Why can't they be who I want them to be instead of who they are?
posted by shponglespore at 9:06 AM on June 15, 2011


Why don't they write about things that are important to me instead of things that are important to them?

I think the question is "Why are racial minorities not important to them?"
posted by cereselle at 9:13 AM on June 15, 2011 [5 favorites]


Actually, I'm going to disagree with the premise. I think SF does a pretty good job of being about more than white people ... considering it's still mostly white people writing it. That's the hurdle to get past, in my opinion: the depiction issue will solve itself once a broader array of people are creating those depictions.
posted by Amanojaku at 9:21 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also recommending Georg Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails and sequels. Combines hard-boild detective fiction with a cyberpunk future set in the Muslim Middle East.

Islam and Arabic culture are pretty prominently dealt with, and the leading characters are almost all non-white. They may be thieves, fixers and strippers living within the walled ghetto where anything goes, but outside the walls traditional culture and mores apply, and navigating the two is part of the protagonist Marid Audran's journey. Great stuff.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:22 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'll award a no-prize to whoever can help me remember the title and author.

Moorcock's The Land Leviathan?
posted by octobersurprise at 9:25 AM on June 15, 2011


More examples of cover "whitewashing" - Justine Larbalestier and even Octavia Butler have had this problem. The Larbalestier example is depressingly recent.

It's not just book covers: A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books - Ursula K. Le Guin.

(And the beginning of the end of my patronage of Sci Fi or Syfy or Syfilitic or whatever the hell they're calling themselves.)
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:35 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Easy to get your bones with blind casting of characters that appear high status in your future perfect world order, while the characters that are important to the story -- that we are to identify with -- continue to be the usual suspects.

This happens in recent futuristic sci fi (films) with women too. Women are given lots of nice titles, histories, some backstory, but when it comes time for them to do anything, kick some ass, they typically end up needing to be saved by the male characters.
posted by cashman at 9:35 AM on June 15, 2011


aliens like the taste of white people.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:52 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


On giving white characters a black appearance in speculative fiction

Well, yeah, if you're looking to define someone's race by a brief description of their physical features, it's going to be hard to do that without broaching the stereotypes that define racial appearance.

Why not signify characters' racial or cultural backgrounds through their interactions, not their appearance? How is the character perceived by different groups? How are they treated? Who do they identify with? People of color often engage in some degree of code switching. How do the character's actions and words change as they navigate different cultures? Are there particular subcultures in which the character, as a minority, participates? Are there any items that it is difficult for the character to find, or items which are subtly ill-suited to the character's needs?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:57 AM on June 15, 2011


I'll award a no-prize to whoever can help me remember the title and author.

Moorcock's The Land Leviathan?
posted by octobersurprise


Wow, fantastic guess! But unfortunately, that's not it. Similar backdrop in broad outline, but a very different story. I do recall reading the prequel, The Warlord of the Air, at the time. But the novel I'm thinking of was a possible future, not an alternate history.

Also written earlier and by an almost surely less prominent writer.
posted by Herodios at 9:59 AM on June 15, 2011


Also worth noting is that among black people I know who actually care about this stuff (which is very few) the most offence is usually caused when black characters get created by white guys. Absolutely impossible to get it right in the eyes of everyone.
posted by dickasso at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2011


Ack, forgot: What traditions do they maintain? What do they eat?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:00 AM on June 15, 2011


(In fact, those same people also get pretty irritated about white people discussing racism in general.)
posted by dickasso at 10:02 AM on June 15, 2011


I think the question is "Why are racial minorities not important to them?"

Or, "Why are racial minorities not as important to them, as an element of fiction, as they are to me?"

IMHO it would be the height of arrogance presume that an author has an obligation to write about whatever my pet topic is.
posted by shponglespore at 10:29 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I find it astounding that aside from my link to the Sisko/Benny Russell clip and a dismissive comment above about "sub-Star Trek" tokenism, no one here is talking at all about Star Trek.

You know, the sci fi universe that had, let's see, Uhuru, Geordi, Worf, Ben Sisko, Jake Sisko , Tuvok (black Vulcan! What, is there an Africa on Vulcan?), Travis Mayweather, and more. These aren't "admiral-types" that swoop in and drop a few lines, they are central and integral characters-stars of the series.

And how'd everybody do on the "name an actual black astronaut" quiz I gave above? Not so well, huh? I know I failed miserably at it, and I think that's a good thing. I literally don't give a shit what color you are, it's what you DO that counts.

And to say it's contrarian for me to suggest making some good racially diverse sci fi of your own is absolutely absurd.

Mr. Rogers got into television because he "hated it so", and I got into tattooing for the same reason. Much of what I saw sucked, and I knew I could do better.

I'll bet that this is the driving force behind most creative endeavors-discontent with the status quo. Of course, that means relinquishing any lingering victim mentality you might have going on, and that's a steep price indeed. It's fun and easy to blame others for your troubles, and it's hard to write good stories.

And even harder to actually get into actual space.
posted by chronkite at 10:32 AM on June 15, 2011


I think a factor in all of this is that in the early twentieth century, when science fiction was really being defined as a genre, there were plenty of racial minorities being portrayed. They were just being portrayed as horribly ugly stereotypes.

I think there was a time when authors realized that they did not want to do this anymore, but they hadn't seen science fiction without it. The easiest thing to do was to just leave them out of the stories altogether.

Just like with any other job, the large majority of science fiction writers stay fairly close to what has been done before. Creating a world not centered on white people when you've never read one before is hard. And if you try it, you are going to get a lot of discussion on it. That can be scary.

I would also venture to guess that the chances of getting published are lower if your book is trying to make a statement on race.
posted by Quonab at 10:53 AM on June 15, 2011


And how'd everybody do on the "name an actual black astronaut" quiz I gave above? Not so well, huh? I know I failed miserably at it, and I think that's a good thing. I literally don't give a shit what color you are, it's what you DO that counts.

Okay, okay, I'll bite. First off, "naming a black astronaut" has nothing to do with characters-of-color in science fiction. It's a derail. Second, yeah, I didn't do well, and I'm not proud of it. I'm not sure why you think it's such a good thing. Here's how I see that logic playing out:

given 1: If you do something of consequence, you will be noticed, regardless of skin color.
given 2: People can't name (i.e., didn't notice) black astronauts.
contrapositive 1: If you are not noticed, then regardless of skin color, you did not do something of consequence.
conclusion: Black astronauts have done nothing of consequence.

I'm gonna say that, based on how that logic plays out, there's something wrong with the premise.

Also: Fix it yourself? Life is short, there are only so many things a person can do. People are allowed to question or dislike the state of something without having to devote their lives to changing it. We can't all fit writing people-of-color into science fiction novels into our schedules. We're busy engineering sustainable energy, building high-speed rail, making the prison system more just, washing all of our clothes by hand, and growing all of our own food. Plus, while I think you want "write your own story" to be empowering, there is just a tinge of "not my problem, build your own lunch counter" to it.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:56 AM on June 15, 2011


I would also venture to guess that the chances of getting published are lower if your book is trying to make a statement on race.

Nah, not really. But the statement needs to still be good science fiction -- nobody wants to read a polemic, even one they agree with politically. And that's part of why "write it yourself" is both kind of true (as above, we need more diverse people writing this stuff ) and insufficient (just because you care about this doesn't mean you're capable of writing it).
posted by Amanojaku at 11:03 AM on June 15, 2011


Life is short

Oh, the irony.

So life is too short to write some stories, but it's not too short to squander reading stories that piss you off, and then complain about them on the internet.
posted by chronkite at 11:08 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


No seriously - the laziness is on the part of the writers, not on me. I can't do everything, man. I can't. I can't seek to get people of color represented in my profession, spend years and thousands getting degrees in one thing only to turn around and try to jump into every field (films, novels, commercials, and 70 other things) where there are problems, while also trying to have a semblance of a life. And that isn't even touching the barriers that are there for non-whites. That is a weak defense. Also, I cannot name any current astronauts, though I did name one previous one that isn't generally known. But as was said, it's a derail. It's science fiction, not space fiction.
posted by cashman at 11:20 AM on June 15, 2011


A derail?

It's the central issue! We're in the future! It's 2011! There are black people in space, and no one gives a fuck!
posted by chronkite at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2011


Minority Report. Paycheck. The Time Machine. 12 monkeys. Science Fiction.
posted by cashman at 11:33 AM on June 15, 2011


Of course, that means relinquishing any lingering victim mentality you might have going on, and that's a steep price indeed.

Since I've yet to see any evidence that anyone here thinks of themselves as a "victim," I'm gonna write off this little gem as you doing your own special thing.

I don't know, as near as I can tell here, your complaint seems to be outrage that anyone dare wonder why non-white people aren't/haven't been represented in SF more often. I can't imagine why just asking that question upsets you so or why it's such a forbidden question to ask. I mean, yes, it's true that writing non-white characters and selling books with non-white characters is a good way to make them more representative in SF, but we aren't dealing with an either/or proposition here. The right to talk about writing isn't reserved to professional writers only. Maybe you think such talk is pointless. If you do, then you're in luck! You can go elsewhere.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:48 AM on June 15, 2011


So life is too short to write some stories, but it's not too short to squander reading stories that piss you off, and then complain about them on the internet.

No, the stories do not piss me off. They just leave a couple things to be desired. And yeah, I'm gonna say that it takes a hell of a lot less time to read a few not-perfect books, and to make a couple internet comments, than it takes to up and write a good novel with a cast of whole characters. Geez.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:56 AM on June 15, 2011


"I just can't do it. I can't physically describe black people other than to say they're black. Everything else either sounds racist, and/or is too hung up on hair or skin tone."

You're too focused on the things that make them "black"; the things that make them different. Stop trying to describe them as black people. Try describing them as people.

"Well, yeah, if you're looking to define someone's race by a brief description of their physical features, it's going to be hard to do that without broaching the stereotypes that define racial appearance."

Yes. Thank you.

It's pretty hard for me as a writer, because, well, I'm one of those post-racial people you keep hearing about but imagine can't be real. But really, I don't think of myself as a particular race. In fact, I'm not a particular race; I'm a mixture. But all the same, I'm still aware of race, as this concept. It's fairly alien, but I have to keep it in mind when interacting with other people, because they see it, and it's real to them. And they like to inflict/impose it on me. So I have to translate.

When I write, I don't tend to see my characters as any race. That doesn't mean they default to vanilla, or to the same ethnic mix as I (the author) am. Like anything else in the story, I think, "Does this matter to the story? Is it relevant?" and if it's not, I tend to leave it out. But maybe I need to get more aggressive about identifying my characters? In the ways that evidenceofabsence says, like how they interact with others, and how they're perceived? But that's hard to do, because the universes I tend to be writing in are post-racial, because I am post-racial. It takes some outside imposition to, well, impose that kind of structure on my worlds. So am I doing the right thing by writing post-racially, for the future, or should I be translating for a not-yet post-racial audience?

I tried writing something once where all the characters, even minor ones, had a clearly defined racial mixture. It was terribly clumsy and again, entirely irrelevant to the plot. Maybe I should try it again now that I'm older and wiser.
posted by Eideteker at 12:09 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


So am I doing the right thing by writing post-racially, for the future, or should I be translating for a not-yet post-racial audience?

To some degree, I think you can describe the conflicts that arise between clashes of culture, which are the interesting conflicts and differences anyway. If those variations and conflicts have as one of many sources differences in racial makeup, well, now you have described race in a way that matters to your characters, because it informs how they treat people and are treated in return.

I would never suggest that you or any other writer needs to shoehorn this in to a story where it doesn't belong. It does seem strange to me that people who are world-building with multiple cultures and inflection points don't reflexively turn to race as a component of those inflections, because most of our history suggests that they would be.

There's a moment in Ender's Game where Alai, a Muslim of (I believe) Algerian extraction, and Ender are talking right before Ender leaves for his first army, and Alai whispers an Arabic blessing that Ender doesn't understand. But it's ok that he doesn't understand it, because he doesn't need to in order to understand the intent. It's a nice moment, rooted in a communication between cultures, and the book is better for it.

So I'd say that rather than getting more aggressive about identifying your characters, I'd think about how your characters might identify themselves. As you say, it's clear in your own life that race is real to people around you. Why wouldn't it be real to some of your characters on a deep level as well?
posted by Errant at 12:28 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's meaningful to say that a literary genre--an entity that, though composed of humans, lacks anything like a leader, and therefore makes no decisions--is "morally obligated" to do something. Social organisms aren't the type of entity that can agree to moral principles like "inclusiveness". Perhaps corporations can, being that they are defined by a body of law that can implement moral principles, but we're talking about this abstract thing that contains everyone who writes science fiction, and everyone who reads it.

There are systemic problems in the genre that have the effect of making it too ethnically homogeneous. It's fine and good to say that that's bad and it shouldn't be that way. But when you say it's a sin, or a moral failing, you're blaming somebody... but who? All the authors who fail to find a place for POC in each of their novels? OK, so... this person who's spent some great effort to write an novel and get it published... by missing out on one way it could be made better, they have sinned?
posted by LogicalDash at 12:36 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would say not to get caught up in semantics. The result is a problem. I'm not interested in precisely and accurately choosing which term to place blame, but it's annoying at best to encounter this (post subject) over and over again.
posted by cashman at 12:50 PM on June 15, 2011


There are systemic problems in the genre that have the effect of making it too ethnically homogeneous. It's fine and good to say that that's bad and it shouldn't be that way. But when you say it's a sin, or a moral failing, you're blaming somebody... but who? All the authors who fail to find a place for POC in each of their novels? OK, so... this person who's spent some great effort to write an novel and get it published... by missing out on one way it could be made better, they have sinned?

I wouldn't call it a sin. Let's call it a fuckup. Each novel that lacks POC and has a cast of more than about 2 characters has a failing, and the failing is because of a mistake on the part of the author. It doesn't mean they are bad people, necessarily.
posted by jeather at 12:58 PM on June 15, 2011


I'm not interested in precisely and accurately choosing which term to place blame

This is something you need to do in order to solve problems. If you can't be specific and detailed about what the problem is, you don't have any basis for designing a solution.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:07 PM on June 15, 2011


RE: African American Astronauts:
As usual, Wikuhpeedia has the specific info (as long as it's nerdy) in the specific format needed.

I must admit that even after reading this list, I didn't improve my score of two: Ronald McNair, killed in the Challenger crash; and Mae Jemison, who's had a fairly public post-NASA career, including appearances on ST:TNG.

Speaking of Star Trek:
I find it astounding that aside from my link to the Sisko/Benny Russell clip and a dismissive comment above about "sub-Star Trek" tokenism, no one here is talking at all about Star Trek. . . Uhuru, Geordi, Worf, Ben Sisko, Jake Sisko , Tuvok (black Vulcan! What, is there an Africa on Vulcan?), Travis Mayweather, and more.

OK what about it? Brother, I've been watching / talking about ST for FORTY FIVE YEARS. Ever since that giant green disco ball ship with Ron Howard's bro inside dwarfed (Ha!) the Enterprise on my Nana's TV set in 1966. I am sick to death of Star Trek (and that other Star **** thing even moreso). There is so much more to SF than these few media SF franchises.

However, if you insist, let's look at how they've done with female and minority characters:

Number One: A woman as second in command! Didn't make it onto the series. Rodenberry says he had to trade her to keep Spock and we've had no reason to doubt the story. The road to syndication is paved with crushed good intentions mixed with a slurry of compromise. Score: C+

Uhura: Nice start, then everyone got lazy. We never learn much about her, and after season one she doesn't do much but open hailing frequencies. She's supposed to be African, but except for The Man Trap and Charlie X in which she speaks Swahili, she's played pretty much as African American. Her last name is a made up word (though sincere) from the Swahili word for freedom and long after TOS was cancelled she got retconned a Swahili first name meaning star.

Supposedly there was to be an episode with Uhura and McCoy (a white US southerner, supposedly) stranded on a planet amid a culture much like the Jim Crow south, but with the races reversed. That might have been interesting, but it didn't happen, in part because of Rodenberry's departure from active participation after season two.

Uhura delivers one of the most subversive lines in TOS, though:
Crazed Sulu: I'll protect you fair maiden.
Uhura: Sorry, neither.
For that and for the fact that her mere one-dimensional presence on the screen in 1966 is a kind of victory: Score: A-

Sulu: Generic Asian guy. We know nothing about him, except that he's extremely westernized, and has a lot of hobbies. Oh, he did karate chop a couple guys, and saw a samurai on the Amusement Park Planet. Well after cancellation of TOS he gets retconned a Japanese first name, but if he's supposed to be Japanese, he has a last name that cannot be pronounced in his native language. He also was later retconned a San Francisco birthplace. Nice. Now if Takei had played the part as gay, we might have had something! Score: C+

Geordi: Like Uhura, he's supposed to be African, but played pretty much as African American. His name evokes New Orleans, not Nairobi. Like Uhura, we learn almost nothing about him. Like Uhura, his main role is to be black and spout technobabble. Score: B- (lower than Uhura, because we expected better by 1987)

Worf: An African American actor playing a space alien who was raised by Russians on Earth. Dorn is black, but Worf is not black. The writers put a lot on this character's shoulders, and Dorn bears it admirably, but there's not much African or African American there. Score: Incomplete

Tuvok: See Worf.
Score: C (Might be B- if he weren't on Voyager.)

Travis Mayweather: I don't know who this is: must be on Enterprise. Sounds like a C&W singer's name. Score: ?

Jake Sisko: Possibly the only successful, believable child part in US media SF. Relationship with his father works, too. Jake Sisko almost makes up for the execrable Will Robinson and Wesley Rodenberry Crusher. Black boy's burden? Score: A-

Ben Sisko: Once Avery Brooks stopped playing Sisko as Hawk, mkII the character really worked as an three dimensional African American in the future. His back story is consistent, good use is made of his baseball obsession, and Brooks brings little character traits like that little high-pitched laugh that Sisko makes when he's frustrated or offended. A very believable African American thing, especially in a 'military man' -- you got to keep a lid on it, no one respects an angry black man, right? I think all that 'emissary' crap just got in the way, but that's SF for you. Score: A (without reservation)

Best Black Guest on Star Trek: Dr. Richard Daystrom in the Ultimate Computer. The actor is African American, the character is African American, his deeds and personality traits are critical to the story, his motivations make some kind of sense, the actor gets to do some actual acting. And the character has a legacy: The Daystrom Institute is cited throughout the canon.

Honorable Mention: Paul Winfield as the Alien Captain in Darmok. He's a space alien, but he's also Paul Winfield! A much better result than his appearance in The Con of Wrath II.

Worst Black Guest on Star Trek: Ensign Haskell in Where Silence Has Lease. Ensign Haskell relieves Wesley on the bridge just long enough for Nagilum to decide he needs to see a human being die. Just. . . disgusting.

Dishonorable Mention: The red shirt who gets turned in to a cube in By Any Other Name (See Franklin Ajaye for more on this. . . )





And I think it's time to put down the Mountain Dew and Bugles for a while, yeah?
posted by Herodios at 1:07 PM on June 15, 2011 [9 favorites]


If you can't be specific and detailed about what the problem is, you don't have any basis for designing a solution.

I can be detailed about what the problem is. I have been. I am less excited about picking some term to lock onto so that the excuse becomes to wriggle out of the characterization of that term, and to dismiss the whole issue by saying "well THAT term doesn't apply".
posted by cashman at 1:18 PM on June 15, 2011


I don't know. I'm Chilean, my Mom's a typical Chilean woman (Mixed Spanish and Mapuche and probably Aymara), my Dad's an Ashkenazi Jew with Russian and German roots, I look like most of the people around me (i.e.: of my class), am fairly light skinned, have dark brown hair, don't really self-identify with any race in particular.
I've been reading Sci-Fi my whole life, I've never really wondered about the character's race, except where it's a plot point, and haven't really missed more racial plot points.
The term 'POC'? That annoys me.
posted by signal at 2:08 PM on June 15, 2011


Mountain Dew and Bugles huh?

I always wondered what you people ate.

Seriously though, I will agree with pretty much everything you said there re Star Trek characters, and the grades you gave them as well..it's a spotty record for sure but it's a start. As an intellectual exercise, I plan to also grade all the white folk. I'll bet they suck just as bad, under close examination.

I mean, I've NEVER felt represented in any kind of fiction..not my personality type (INTP) or profession. I'm just not the kind of guy that gets written about. Usually painters/graphic artists are portrayed in ludicrous beret-wearing caricature, if they are present at all.

If, for some insane reason, they've decided to include a visual artist in a story, sci fi or otherwise, it's been written, directed, acted, and edited by people who have no idea what they're talking about. The character is a vague, emotionally guided poofball who creates in sudden fits of inspiration, and the work they do is then also shown to be pretty much garbage.

And thinkers/introverts are played by Jeff Fucking Goldblum.

So, yeah, I feel your pain.
posted by chronkite at 2:49 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The term 'POC'? That annoys me."

signal, I don't think I've ever seen it self-applied non-ironically before now. It was kind of a, "Wait, really?" moment for me.
posted by Eideteker at 3:22 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I find it astounding that... no one here is talking at all about Star Trek.

Because we're talking about science fiction.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 3:26 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was a neat story I read - maybe in Bruce Sterling's Mozart In Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology - about a war between an Afro-Futurist country and possibly a white country? I'm being vague but I remember awesome descriptions and strange gorgeous missiles.
I loved 'The Ear, The Eye and The Arm' as a kid.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:10 PM on June 15, 2011


I won't post the mail LogicalDash sent because I know that is a touchy subject (posting memails) but it was really just a further discussion of the "getting caught up in semantics" point. I don't know why LogicalDash didn't post again in this thread. There was no arguing going on and clearly there is room for discussion in here. I forgot about the mail and I often check recent activity, so I'm just now remembering this.

To try to state it a different way, people have no problems getting out of responsibility by focusing on dismissing whatever specific charges are leveled their way. This is why Jay Smooth focused on the whole "don't make it about calling them a racist, make it about the racist behavior" aspect of when some celebrity does something ridiculous around race. Because then it becomes "well i'm not a racist, and here's a bunny with a pancake on its head, so your argument is moot".

So I think it's going down a dead end to focus on just exactly we want to call it - a sin (I'm not a sinner!), a misdeed, a fault, a flaw, a blemish - the point is the end result that most would agree is a problem. If you want to detail it all out and delineate just where the train jumps off the tracks, then look through the acceptable terms, go for it.
posted by cashman at 8:35 AM on June 18, 2011


+1 Tiptree Guest of Honor Nisi Shawl and collaborator on Writing the Other. To senyboy and others-- expand your mind, and ask yourself why cephalopods are not as scary to you as nonwhite characters!!!
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 4:02 PM on June 21, 2011


Way to misrepresent what I said, and misspell my name.
posted by seanyboy at 6:47 AM on June 22, 2011


To try to state it a different way, people have no problems getting out of responsibility by focusing on dismissing whatever specific charges are leveled their way. This is why Jay Smooth focused on the whole "don't make it about calling them a racist, make it about the racist behavior" aspect of when some celebrity does something ridiculous around race. Because then it becomes "well i'm not a racist, and here's a bunny with a pancake on its head, so your argument is moot".

You appear to be making my point for me.

If you charge an author with moral weakness, that gives them an identity issue to rail against. If their professional ethics are "entertain reader; sell copies," their response will be "I got paid, fuck off". That sort of author, you might not be able to reach, but if you can, you'll have to start from the bottom line of selling more books by writing better.

If they have some kind of social conscience, they might be inclined to listen to you, but you're putting it in the form of a verbal attack. People want to be thought well of, so when you attack their image by portraying them as morally weak, their first order of business will probably be to defend their image. "Look at the eight levels of social commentary in this book, sentient bunny with mind control pancake, your argument is invalid." Smart people act like this all the time, I've seen John Scalzi do it.

Incidentally, I am recently guilty of this: when you told me "not to get caught up in semantics," I recognized that as a line routinely used to categorize whatever point I'm trying to make in whatever category you want, and thereby dismiss my point without "really" dismissing my point. I reacted badly to that, and thought my reaction shouldn't clog up the thread, so I MeMailed you.

So it's to your benefit to get your specific criticism across with as little actual judgment as possible. This will increase your chance of getting across to the author in question and maybe even having a conversation about it.

More generally, working out semantic issues ahead of time helps to start conversations off the way you want to start them, and keep them on track.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:53 AM on June 24, 2011


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