Race and Science Fiction continues: the standard FAQ

Now, I’ve noticed a trend when this topic come s up of a set of basic excuses/rationalizations that always get rolled out when this topic comes up. Just to save time here’s a quick FAQ naming them and explaining why they don’t work.
*note: if I missed any of the standard excuses, let me know and I’ll put them up*

(a) Why do you even see race in this? whats wrong with you?

This I already covered here. I doubt if there is a need to update it yet

(b) This isn’t about race, its about the quality of writing

I immediately assume that means the person speaking has read little if any of the material whose quality they are commenting on. Either that or they really should not be ever put in the position to judge writing quality. That aside I tend to read this as meaning

The real problem is that only straight white males have what it takes to write intelligently in this genre

In which case please don’t bother to try and couch this idea in pseudo-reasonable terms. I can read. And I take as much offense at the idea that I’m too dumb to notice the subtext of the statement than I do at the statement itself.

Again, the quality of the work out there my minority voices in the genre speaks for itself in my opinion. I’m not saying all of it is good, but in terms of average quality they come out well above regular science fiction writing. Granted, this is an opinion and it could be wrong, but it is my experience that most of the bashing of these works tends to be done by people who have never looked beyond their covers. And maybe page 1.

(c) The publishers have books to sell and a predominantly white audience can only relate to white people

i.e. “Our audience happen to be the ones with the problem not us. We just appear to be as unenlightened as them because we must pander to their prejudices and we care more about money than we do about principles

You know, I wouldn’t really have a problem with this if they would come out and say it directly. I wouldn’t necessarily like the person saying it, but I could at least respect an attempt at honesty.

Its still an indictment of the general science fiction reading public and the open mindedness they claim to have inherited from/brought to the genre though. If they are as free of prejudice as they claim and this is really me being too sensitive then where could publishers have possibly gotten this idea from?

(d) Its hard for us to write about people who don’t look like us

So….. You are a science fiction writer who expects me to believe that you are capable of building entirely new universes with new alien cultures or maybe projecting into the future or past of humanity etc..
And at the same time you expect me to believe that you are incapable of writing with any kind of empathy or sensitivity about the people in the world around you based on differences in skin colour/gender/sexual orientation?

Either that’s a cop out or you aren’t a good enough writer for me to be paying attention to anyway. It isn’t as though there aren’t writers who are capable of pulling it off either(Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis spring immediately to mind but there are others). Hence I have a very hard time believing that this isn’t more about you than it is about some intrinsic inability of any writer to do this sensibly.

(e) That’s not true. The genre is VERY diverse in terms of writers. Look at ……….

Tobias Bucknell beat me to this one. In summary, its a silly statement. Stop making it and actually address the issue.

(f) What are you talking about? The genre does include lots of diversity. Just in the form of robots/little green men/elves etc.

Oh, yes, the old ‘the other as the alien’ bit. Now this has been used brilliantly in the past(Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler come to mind) it also tends to be used as one hell of a cop out by some writers.

For the record. Telling me that you view me as so alien that the only way you could address me was to make me something totally not human(and usually still a caricature, just with different biology) is really not something you should be trumpeting from the trees as some sign of how open minded you are.

If I were to write a story where I represented race relations by creating an all black universe and had white people represented as an evil rapacious alien species that smell bad and are totally devoid of rhythm I expect you might not necessarily see that as a sign of the diversity of my thinking process.

Well, that is the FAQ for now. Please feel free to remind me of any common arguments I forgot and they will probably be added to the list in time.

In which I return to talking about Race and Science fiction

Apparently one of my major peeves, Race and Science Fiction (which actually has its own category in this blog that you can look at to get an idea of where I stand on the issue) has surfaced again online in dramatic form. Thanks to Pam for pointing me in the direction of some of the relevant posts (and reminding me that Tobias Bucknell and ABM should have been on my blogroll a long time ago)

So, since this is an area I have some (read: a lot) of interest in and also one I haven’t really talked about for quite a while now, I feel some posts coming on especially now that I have so much reference material to work with.

Before I start though let us establish a few basics.

I am a Black African male with a physics degree who works with computers for a living and grew up spending a decent amount of reading time buried in science fiction and fantasy books as well as comics.

I continue to be a fan to this day

I am a therefore fan of genres which barely have room for people who look like me. Or are anything other than straight, white and male as a matter of fact.

To the extent that they do have room for us, we are frequently caricatures of human beings and not afforded any real depth of character.

It does not matter how much science fiction fans like to pretend like the genre is more liberal than others because of its scope, it isn’t. It definitely has the potential to be however at this point it time it is not there yet by a long shot. Its chances of getting there will also not be helped by wilfully delusional (predominantly white)fans and creators pretending that there is nothing wrong with the genre while an increasing number of fans and creators of colour repeatedly tell them there is. If we’re all saying it then its probably not because we met up in a back room somewhere to synchronize our stories. You might just try applying Occam’s razor and assuming we all say the same things because they are common to our experiences as people who love the genre but feel snubbed by it.

More on this later

Here we go again (race and scifi part ???)

Thanks to this post from Nalo I just found a comment on my Octavia Butler obituary that I must have missed the first time. I guess that’s what happens when I get lazy and start occasionally skipping my daily blog reading.

Since that quote was attributed to Nalo, she went ahead and answered it here and covered the topic pretty well. I still felt the need to address it though. I guess something in my ego just keeps me from just letting this slide.

Of course, the really amusing thing about that blog entry is how generic it was. Generally speaking, as Pam noted, there seems to be a generic white response to these kinds of complaints about genre writing. Namely, the assumption that any mention of the whitewashed nature of the genre most imply some sort of automatic dislike of white people. Usually this is just followed by some kind of MLK-lite suggestion that we judge the writers by the content of their works instead of the color of their skin. I have seen it over and over again in discussions of race and science fiction and comics. At this point I can pretty much see them coming.

What is really amusing about these statements is that they tend to reveal how little critical thought the person making them has really put into the issue.

Why do I say this? Simple. How exactly would a black person who hated white people get into a whitewashed genre to begin with? Who would they be reading?

Personally, I’ve been a science fiction fan for the better part of two decades. I already made a post about the books that most influenced me as a child. Long before I’d ever heard of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson etc. I was reading Asimov, Heinlen, Ben Bova, Andre Norton, John Brunner…. Obviously I have absolutely no idea what it means to relate to someone who does not look like me. Ok, bad sarcasm aside, the truth is that every genre fan of color must by definition be able to relate to people who are different from them. There is no other way to get into the genre. There just aren’t that many non-white people in it. The chances of there existing a black science fiction fan who has only read black authors and/or characters is so small I’d rather lay odds on that snowball in hell first. On the other hand, it would be remarkably easy to find white fans who have almost never read a science fiction book which didn’t have a white writer and/or character.

Hell, as far as I know there isn’t a stigma against putting white faces on a book because they might not sell as well. Which makes it remarkably interesting that the question being asked is why people who have to make a special effort to *not* read a genre story which requires them to identify with someone who doesn’t look like them are prejudiced. If anything, the question should be reversed.

Why is it that putting a black face on the cover of a book is automatically a bad thing?

Why are non-white authors such a rare thing?

Where are the non-white fans?

What keeps them out of a supposedly universal genre?

And why is it that those who do exist tend to cluster into their own communities?

What is the cause of this defensiveness that shows up chiefly among white fans whenever the racial makeup of the genre is discussed?

Like I said, that piece displayed an all too common lack of critical thinking about the issue. I understand its probably due to long standing unquestioned assumptions that people are not even aware they hold. Still, since cornute was kind enough to ask…..

We just lost a Giant………

Octavia Butler died on Saturday. I found out maybe an hour ago.

I’m looking for words to describe how this makes me feel but I keep coming up short. Better writers that me will have to deal with that.

Here’s what I will say. Like a lot of black science fiction fans I came across her work at a time when I was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of people who looked like me in a medium I enjoyed so much. As such she wasn’t just a great writer to me. She, and writers like her are symbols of the fact that the subtle limitations that the world tries to place on who I can be and what I can do with my life are illusions. For that I will forever be grateful.

Rest In Peace Miss Butler. You will be missed

Found it: Commentary on Steven Barnes’ “Lion’s Blood”

This was the last commentary essay I wrote on black science fiction in college. I posted the others up earlier but couldn’t find a copy of this one.

Luckily one of the advantages of liking to play around with linux distros as a hobby is the fact that I change and reinstall operating systems a lot. Which also means I try to keep backups of all my important stuff. Of course, I have to find them first, which was the cause of the original delay.

anyway, without further ado, here it is

With “Lion’s Blood”, Steven Barnes attempted to write an alternate history of alternate history of America that raises a lot of incredibly interesting questions. In his alternate world, Africans conquer Rome and are the ones who find America. Since they have all that land and require manpower to farm it, they begin to capture slaves from various parts of Europe. The central characters in this story are Kai, the son of a plantation owner and Aidan, a celtic slave who becomes Kai’s best friend. Using both of their perspectives. We are shown a view of slavery as it would have looked had it happened to white people. That premise alone makes this book worth reading. The way Barnes chooses to handle that premise only serves to make the book a more interesting read. It is definitely very disturbing in parts and there are creative decisions he took in constructing his history that I am not necessarily a huge fan of. I am also not especially happy with some of his decisions regarding Kai’s character. All of that aside, this is still a good read and a book which should be recommended to any white person claiming slavery was benign or a good thing for black people since Barnes pulls very few punches, especially in the earlier sections of the book.

It is going to be hard for me to discuss themes in this book, not because it isn’t full of them but because my reaction to it left me with more than enough questions and issues with the book that, in this case, I thought taking a closer look at the reaction it caused in me might be more interesting. There are several things about the book I find worthy of comment. First is Barnes’ description of the middle passage and slavery through Aidan’s eyes, a section of the book I think a lot people need to read. Second is his choice of Islam as the religion most of the Africans adopted and some of the interesting turns he takes in exploring religion. There is also his portrayal of Kai and his father as almost benign slave masters in certain places, which I find myself not entirely comfortable with.

The book opens up with a look at Aidan’s life in a little village learning how to be a fisherman from his father. We are shown enough of his life and his community for us to realize that he has a good life here. Immediately we grasp that picture, his world is torn apart by vikings with guns who kill his father and several other members of the village before the rest of them, including his mother and sister, are carried off to a larger ship, bound in chains and stacked next to each other like sardines. During the trip, we watch through Aidan’s eyes as his friends die and are thrown overboard, his mother is raped and miscarries and the survivors begin to form into a larger family in order to keep each other alive. After arriving in America, his family is split up and sold. He ends up with his mother and his sister ends up by herself. The language in which all of this is described is chosen to be as disturbing as possible, perhaps so white readers of the book, who will already empathize with Aidan’s family, gain a clearer understanding of the pain that comes with being in his position.

Religiously, Barnes makes some very interesting decisions and asks some interesting questions. He chooses to have almost all of the Africans be Muslim, except for the Zulus, who are regarded as bloodthirsty savages for the most part. I fail to understand his choice of Islam as opposed to a more traditionally African religious system, even that of the Egyptians. It makes very little sense to create a grand African civilization and then make its religious base an imported religion. However, it is worth noting that the book critiques certain Islamic practices by choosing to make Kai become a sufi an then having him question several Islamic beliefs. Another interesting set of questions is raised by Aidan’s view of slaves who leave behind their religions and convert to Islam. In his eyes, it is almost unpardonable that slaves choose to adopt the religion of their oppressors, even though in a lot of cases, it is done to gain extra freedoms for them and their family. Still, it does raise very interesting questions. Since Barnes’ beliefs seem to be more in line with eastern religions than christianity, it is easy to see this also as a question about the large numbers of black people all over the world who adopted christianity from slavers and colonizers.

As I mentioned earlier, I have issues with the way Barnes writes about Kai and his father, Ali because he turns them into benevolent slave masters. Ali seemingly believes that his slaves are human beings. He treats them with respect and allows them to practice their beliefs and retain their names. However, they are still his property and several members of the house do seriously maltreat them so his benevolence is highly suspect. I suspect Barnes may have written him in to show the impossibility of the concept of a benevolent slave master who respects the people he considers his property. Kai is probably a lot closer to what a person would truly have to be like in order to be maintain his principles and treat his slaves like real people. In the beginnings if his friendship with Aidan, he sees him as less of a person, almost a pet or plaything. However, as they get older and wiser, he begins to realize that he owns fellow human beings. This leads him to free his slaves at the cost of his social standing. I felt that part of Barnes’ point with him was to show that a really benevolent man couldn’t own other people even at the cost of most of what he held dear. Although, technically, Kai doesn’t lose everything but he is willing to kill his uncle in order to save Aidan and his family. In doing so, he gives of himself a lot more than most people would in his situation and gains very little in return.

“Lion’s Blood” is a very interesting and intricate book. Barnes’ future history is incredibly well researched and his characters ask questions that I have a hard time answering. It is definitely something I would recommend to anyone interested in taking a look at slavery from a totally different perspective to open up their minds.

I’m back!!!

hey people. Merry chrisrmas and a happy new year to you all

Sorry I’ve been gone for a while. First there was school and then there was me just being distracted by other things. I’m back now though.

Just in time for my return, we finally have Pam‘s long awaited post on race in science fiction and specifically what happened to the sci-fi channel’s adaptation of Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Earthsea’ books here.

She told me about this one a while ago and I’ve been waiting for it ever since. Please read it soon, that site is apparently going away. Especially since she’s a better writer than I am and it shows.

(Incidentally, Pam, that thing I promised you is supposed to ship tomorrow so be on the lookout)

Anyway, I’m back on schedule as of tomorrow. I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about yet, but I’ll try to surprise you.

commentary on Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Skin Folk’

skin folk

“Skin Folk” is Nalo Hopkinson’s third published work of fiction. Unlike her other works though, it is a collection of short stories. Her stories are all extremely engaging and attempt to cover a large range of issues in a fairy small space. The one theme that is prevalent in all of her stories is the concept of facades and the people inside our skins, hence the title. Obviously in a work by a black female author dealing with appearances, there is a strong focus in a lot of stories on issues dealing with race. In dealing with race, she also takes a close look at self-loathing among black people when it comes to both appearance and culture. Specifically our tendency to idolize ‘white’ features and culture over our own natural appearances and heritage. She also spends a fair amount of time examining that heritage by writing modern stories inspired by Carribean (and, by extension, West African) myth and storytelling. Another theme fairly common in her writing is that of human sexuality in general, the stigma that we have been taught to associate with it and how unhealthy the level of and repression is. Overall, these stories are mostly about discovering and being comfortable with what is in our own skins.

The first theme that really caught my attention was the continuous theme of the tendency in black people to reject our appearance and culture. The two stories which have this specific issue as their themes are “The Glass Bottle Trick” and “A Habit of Waste”. “The Glass Bottle Trick” is the story of a light skinned black woman who marries an extremely dark skinned man only to discover that he has a rather extreme color complex. The only reason he isn’t married to a white woman is the fact that all white people intimidate him. Therefore she is his closest replacement to a white woman among black people. He worships her skin and hates his own so much that he killed his two previous light skinned wives so they wouldn’t have dark shinned ‘monsters’ like him. At the end of the story, she discovers the bodies of his ex wives and accidentally releases their spirits to take their revenge on her husband and maybe her as well. “A Habit of Waste” is the story of a black woman with Carribean parents who trades in her body for that of a ‘more attractive’ white woman and attempts to live life as a white person only to end up missing what she left behind when she sees someone else proudly wearing what used to be her body. In the end, though, she returns to her roots and begins to embrace her culture and family again. In both of these stories, the color struck characters are driven by an intense self loathing to become as white as they can. He does it by marrying fair skinned women and living through them, she does it by actually becoming a white woman. Unfortunately, neither of them is any happier with themselves by the end of their stories.

A lot more stories in this book deal with the issue of sexuality. They examine both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in an attempt to look at and deal with the unhealthy stigma people tend to attach to human sexuality. In “Riding the Red”, “Slow Cold Chick”, “Fisherman” and “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” one of her central themes is sex. “Slow Cold Chick” and “Fisherman” her central female characters are unsure of themselves and their sexuality. Blaise, the female protagonist in the first story suppresses her desires because of her insecurity until they take physical form and begin to lash out at people, forcing her to learn how to take responsibility for what she wants, sexually and otherwise and to accept her bisexuality. The fisherman in her story is actually a woman who takes part in a traditionally male occupation, fishing. At at the end of the week, she accompanies the rest of the fishermen to a whorehouse where the story describes her first time with another woman. Again, it is mostly about her getting over her own insecurities over who she is attracted to and then other people getting over the fact that she doesn’t correspond to who they think she is. Both of these stories end with the women embracing their sexuality.

“Riding the Red” is an reinterpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which little red riding hood is a young woman, the wolf is a young man and the hunt is a mating dance. The grandmother in this story is a n old woman reminiscing on her youthful encounters and despairing her daughter’s prudishness. At the end of the story, she is waiting for the wolf to come by so she can dance for what may be the last time. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” is about a couple who only communicate through sex because they are too insecure about who they are and how they feel to communicate any other way. Because of this, they buy electronic ‘skins’ to make the sex more enjoyable but this pushes them further apart. In the end, the malfunctioning ‘skins’ lead to them breaking down and discussing the way they feel. This story, is more about the habit some people have of using sex as a replacement for communication,and how unhealthy this practice is.

Just like in her books, Hopkinson also tries to bring the tradition of myth and storytelling that she grew up with into a modern setting. In this book, that results in a series of modern fables in the form of “Tan- Tan and and Dry Bone”, “Greedy Choke Puppy” and “ Something to Hitch Meat To”. The first story is an addition to “Midnight Robber”, her previous book. In this story, Tan-Tan picks up trouble in the form of Dry Bone who, once he has been picked up, cant be put down. So she is forced to feed him while she starves until she figures out that she doesn’t have to carry him and lets him go. In the second story, a woman afraid of aging discovers that she is a succoyant, a person who can leave her skin at night and steal life from babies. In an attempt to remain young, she starts killing children around her until her grandmother is forced to kill her. The third story revolves around a young black man tired of the world in which he lives and the job he does. Finally at the peak of his frustration, he receives the gift of a magical adinkra symbol from Ananse that allows him to expose people’s true forms. In all of these fables, the central theme is again being comfortable with who you are. Tan-Tan feeds Dry Bone while she grows weaker because she is convinced she deserves the hardship of carrying him. Once she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve him, she figures out a way to get rid of him. In the succoyant’s case, she is so scared of growing old alone that she scares off the men who would be interested and resorts to killing children because she isn’t comfortable enough with herself to wait for her man to show up. In the third story, the man is being given the ability to look past and make other people see past appearances to what truly is.

In addition to being in incredibly well written set of science fiction stories, this is almost an inspirational self-help book to people on the importance of being comfortable with who you are in order that you can be more comfortable with who everyone else is Hopkinson succeeds really well in making me think and hopefully it will have the same effect on others who read it.