Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Race in Speculative Fiction

There's a big brouhaha -- possibly even a kerfuffle -- about race in speculative fiction building out there. Some of it seems pretty silly, or political pablum, to me, but here's part of the thread I pulled over here to avoid hijacking Editorial Ass's website.

Here's an anonymous rebuke to me:

Dal Jeanis--I hope you'll reconsider what you just wrote on this. As mentioned once previously in this comment thread, comparing "other" races to eg elves and ogres in itself shows that we have obviously NOT reached a point where there is no racism in literature. Depicting a character "of another race"--ie not white, since white IS our standard default--is far from a comprehensive solution to racism in literature. In those Victorian novels, for example, most "minority" characters are just like Fagin in Oliver--hurtful caricatures that buy into the worst stereotypes in order to "build character."

I'll have another post on it later, but here's my reply comment:

Okay, Anonymous 5:00 - My comment was clearly about SFF - speculative fiction, and specifically Hugo nominees, not "Victorian novels" in general. If you know enough Hugo-nominated Victorian novels in the last ten years to make a plural, please list them. I'll even accept Nebula, World Fantasy Awards, Stokers, Edgars and so on. Paranormal RITAs need not apply.

I read, study and write speculative fiction, and while no one can read everything that's out there, I'm very familiar with the best that gets published, since it's what I aspire to.

I refuse to allow anyone, especially anyone too cowardly to leave their name, to make blanket statements about the literature that I read. Especially ignorant statements based upon prejudice. You want to play, back it up with facts. So put up or shut up.

I'll even give you a single character to research. You tell me exactly how the very capable Stephen Black character in "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell" is a "hurtful stereotype", given the social context of being a black human being in 1800's England.

Do it without cribbing from Wikipedia either. Read the book and use quotes from the actual text.

Or backpedal graciously. Your choice.


NOTE - I said "even ignoring spec fiction genres where the races are completely different". So I was specifically walking away from the discussion of nonhuman races, whether cliche D&D types like ogres or fanfic Klingons, or exceptional and subtle examples such as those crafted by CJ Cherryh, Robert Sawyer, AE Van Vogt, David Brin, Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delany. I walked away from discussing all the spec fic stories where the races have real, biological differences that have full expression in behavior, rather than being primarily cosmetic such as those within our own species. Those are cool, awesome, deep stories, which allow a full and honest metaphorical examination of the subject of race.

I also didn't deal with the hard scifi fast-forward posthuman characters for whom race is a silly retro concept - you can't even really determine their species, since it's just a matter of convenient reference.

Spec fiction has grown up. Go insult an easier target, or at least read enough to have an informed opinion.

Or come over to my blog and discuss some more.

And here's the place for that!


Dal Jeanis said...

Some more nits -

1) There's no such thing as a "default" character to a mature writer, especially in a spec fic genre where the writer is inventing the whole culture.

2) What precisely would "no racism" look like in literature? How would you know it if you saw it?

moonrat said...

Hi Dal,

I was behind in my comment moderation, so I thought I'd drop by and let you know your comments finally went up.

My post was meant to address racism in book acquisitions (which manifest itself in the three ways I cite, one of which is racialized characters making token appearances in books by white authors, which are acquired in lieu of books by authors of color).

Per your points as you discuss here and elsewhere... It is wonderful that there is a passionate commitment within genres to create literary works of art that fail to succumb to the older pitfalls of racist and racialized publishing. I personally don't read enough SFF to comment intelligently on this. But from what I know of the genres I do work and read in, racism is far from a problem of the past, both in a top-down and a bottom-up way (as I discussed in my post).

Even the non-racist opinions/work of an author become moot when publishing professionals make repeat "conservative" decisions.

Dal Jeanis said...

Hey, Moonrat, Welcome! Love your blog!

I certainly don't claim strong knowledge of the genres I don't study - I can't even read all the SFF that is published, let alone all the literary and suspense and so on.

Most authors in SFF have a passion to create complex, believable worlds, in which they can examine whatever they feel are the most important themes and questions in life. [Which is some subset of the perrenial: "How, then, shall we live?"]

Surely, there will always be examples of (or allegories toward) racism in SFF literature, because the subject is a real feature of all known societies, and important to examine.

On the other hand, I'd argue that "conservative" decisions in mainstream publishing -- it's a minomer but I'll use your word -- means publishing whatever appears hot or well-platformed at the moment. I remember observing, a few years back, a spate of publications of Asian American writers about the time that Amy Tan was peaking. Whether there were numerically more than usual, or whether they merely got more press attention, I couldn't say.

If people will probably buy it in sufficient numbers, editors will probably publish it. And, given the current love of anything Obama-related, there's no reason that big numbers of authors of color couldn't move through the door at this moment in time. POC: Just position yourselves creatively, and link yourselves to the trend.

(I'd point out that it's also racism to lump all the white people together just as it is to link all the POC of any particular shade together. All other things being equal, with whites being roughly half the population and blacks roughly one eighth, there should be four times as many new white authors as new black authors. Are there? How would you know from the names or pseudonyms?)