What he said

I’ve been banging my head against a bit of a wall in some fandom related discussions for the last few days. Was planning on writing yet another longish piece about prejudicial behaviour and why it needs to stop.

But then I saw this piece from Jim Hines that quite effectively encapsulates everything I really needed to add and hadn’t added in my last post on this topic. So I’m just going to leave it here and say, yeah, what he said.

Oh, with one addition, “But Bob always tries to be colour-blind” doesn’t mean Bob isn’t behaving prejudicially. Colour-blindness would oppose affirmative action programs; and yet affirmative action is a good tool for fighting racism.

Edit: Check out Angry Astronomer’s blog for more details if you’re interested.

Yes, Racism is Still a Problem in SFF

I’m feeling pretty ill today – a weekend long bout of insomnia culminated in me not getting a wink of sleep pretty much at all last night and I’m in a foul mood. As such, fair warning, but there’s going to be some snark in this post and, unlike yesterday, probably very few extended tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare allusions.

I made the mistake of blundering down the rabbit hole of comments sections on SFF Fandom blogs last night and this morning. What I found sickened me. There’s big problems with discussions of race, ethnicity and, yes, racism in SFF. And what’s more, it’s not just restricted to certain well known agitators with pseudonyms that rhyme with Smocks Smay.

 Down the Rabbit Hole

My first mistake was reading into the comments of an article talking about the recent departure from SFWA of John C. Wright. I know, I know, don’t read the comments. Never read the comments! But I couldn’t help myself. Things took a turn for the surreal when Wright himself appeared in the comments thread and accused another person in the comments of being one of the Pod People from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and speaking in “Newspeak” because of that person’s membership in ” a faction known as Political Correctness.”

Now, a note, this particular conversation had nothing to do with race. It largely centered around Wright’s characterization of SFWA when he said: “Instead of men who treat each other with professionalism and respect, I find a mob of perpetually outraged gray-haired juveniles.”

So, yeah, it was a gender thing. And the gender thing is also a huge thing. But if this particular privileged white male is going to take jabs at the community when it gets sexist, I have an equal obligation to point out the racism I am becoming increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable with, within fandom.

Swarthy Cult-Fiends and Sallow Easterlings

In some ways one of the most difficult realizations of my early adulthood was recognizing the racism inherent in some of my favorite authors – notably H.P. Lovecraft (who was REALLY concerned with ideas of racial purity as demonstrable by “The Shadow over Innsmouth”) and J.R.R. Tolkien, who created a war in which tall, heroic, white (in the case of the Elves, super-white) people fought a war against sallow Easterners and dark orcs.

As time goes by it becomes more difficult for me to ignore the tones of yellow peril implicit in that construction.

But, even though these two authors probably did more to shape fantasy and horror than any others in the twentieth century, it’s easy for us to put them firmly in the past. Sure, there are race issues in those old books. But that was the time and it’s not like we’re racist. Right? Right?

The Yellow Peril Never Went Away

And yet, there exists, in print, a long series of novels set in a future wherein China has overrun the world. Africans have been exterminated by the heavily othered Chinese conquerors and Europeans are forced to integrate or face expulsion into a stygian hellscape of cannibalism and darkness.

Though lip-service is paid to putting antagonists and protagonists on both sides of this sprawling series of novels, it is made abundantly clear that the European characters stand in for change and dynamism. The Chinese characters for stasis and tradition.

In the first volume of this series, the author wrote an afterword in which he stated that his decision to use the laughably outmoded and inaccurate Wade-Giles transcription for the Mandarin speakers in the novel over the much more accurate Pinyin transliteration was because he found the former “far more elegant” to the latter which he refers to as having “harder forms”.

It’s worth noting that Pinyin was developed by Chinese people for the transcription of Mandarin in the second half of the 20th century, while Wade-Giles was the product of a British diplomat who served as part of the diplomatic corps to China during the Second Opium War.

This series is an especially egregious example, but let’s face it. Despite the high-minded rhetoric of exploring the bounds of the future many SFF narratives boil down to the same sad story.

The others are coming.

They have no cause to love us.

They will destroy what we hold dear.

Because they think differently from us.

And no two ideologies can ever exist side by side in peace.

(Note: I’m not calling all of these racist. However each of these examples depends upon an enemy who is entirely other and effectively uniformly antagonistic. There are many, many more.)

 Back to the Rabbit Hole

But this all serves mainly to contextualize my thoughts when I continued down the rabbit hole. Because I did a bunch more clicking, and a bunch more comment reading, and then I found this gem:

These two vast, {India and China} ancient societies withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation, so life was much the same from one millennium to the next. Centuries slid by with little to mark them beyond the feuding of maharajahs.

The evidence given for this sweeping generalization was a highly simplistic interpretation of the dismantling of the treasure fleet of Zheng He.

One could just as easily say of Europe that this vast, continent spanning and ancient society withstood the centuries by keeping down innovation through the application of religious persecution. After all, look at the Spanish Inquisition.

This view disregards that there were progressive and conservative governments in China and in India over the five thousand years of their recorded history. It disregards the Chinese invention of the compass (~1040 AD), gunpowder (9th century AD), the printing press (~220 AD) and paper (8 BC). It disregards the advanced state of classical Indian mathematics (the use of Zero, the development of Brahmagupta’s theorem, and a host of others). It is based on a Eurocentric view of the decadent east that has more to do with the effective deployment of European military power in Asia during the colonial period than anything legitimately from the history of either place.

One of the two authors of this work has also been criticized for writing a novel in which the protagonist, a woman of colour, “has inherited a mistrust of Afrocentrism, a profound and much-rehearsed disbelief in the significance of racism in shaping her career, and a deleterious approach to the various tokenistic women’s and minorities’ committees and functions that bedevil her academic life. ”

This, to me, reads altogether too much as, “there’s no racism here, and anybody who says otherwise is just one of those free-speech suppressing PC Pod People.”

I’ve written before here about the need to treat art as operating within the context of both the creator and of current culture. If our art is created by a person who, on one hand, advances a narrative that places an Eastern other as inferior to a progressive West; if that person then creates a protagonist who appears to exist to challenge the validity of affirmative action and to push forward the hackneyed belief that we live in a post-racial world, we should look at the latter through the lens of the former.

The only reason that we live in a world where racism isn’t as powerful as it was fifty years ago is because of fifty years of hard-fought battles and hard-won victories. Leaving the battle half-way to won and declaring racism is over doesn’t make it so.

There’s a huge debate about the place of politics in SFF right now.  A lot of it is predicated on a disagreement about the difference between free speech and consequence free speech.

More than a few people in Fandom would be happy for the debate to go away. After all, we want license to love the things we love. There is nothing harder than to look at something as dearly loved as the Lord of the Rings and to admit it has a race problem. This doesn’t mean that these individuals in Fandom are racist; it does mean that they would rather not feel forced to examine the racism that exists within the field. Doing so would invariably interfere with them loving the things they love. I still like reading Lovecraft (well, some Lovecraft) even though I know how truly disgusting his views are. I have to live with that – and it does interfere with my own comfort with those parts of my own fannishness.

I still like Star Wars.

But I like to think that the aspiration of the SFF community is to BE the future; to uphold an example of a better possible world. We do live in a more pluralistic world than fifty years ago. And Roddenberry was a part of that – SFF was a part of that. But we shouldn’t stop. We shouldn’t allow the conservatism of progressing age to distract us from the angels of our better nature. We have to improve ourselves. And self-improvement can be painful.

May the Fourth be With You – But also some hard truths

May the 4th be with you







There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the Star Wars casting announcement recently. Adam Shaftoe has an excellent take on the issue over at Page of Reviews, and for something a little more light-hearted check out Max Gladstone’s blog.

I grew up with Star Wars. When I was four I used to un-ironically introduce myself to strangers as “Luke.” (I left the Skywalker part with the baffling innocence of children, leading to much consternation for my parents who had to explain that I was actually named Simon.)

When the new trilogy came out I was even more forgiving than most. After camping out for hours to buy tickets for Phantom Menace I was disappointed. I was uncomfortable with the broad racial stereotypes of the Trade Federation and the Gungans, but, even at the age of 20 I was willing to give George Lucas a pass “just this once,” because Star Wars.

As such, I feel a bit like Marc Anthony when I say that I’m very disheartened about what the recent news coming out of the new trilogy reveals.

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The recent casting announcement included a grand total of two women (one new and one returning) and one person of color. On the other hand we see a lot of old white guys.

There are all kinds of reasons, from the perspective of culture and politics why this is disheartening. And Adam addressed those perfectly so I’ll leave that for now. But there’s another reason that I’m concerned with this casting choice.

It’s just bad storytelling.

The excuse I heard first to excuse the cultural and political concerns (and it took all of a picosecond for this excuse to rear its head on my Facebook wall) was that Star Wars is not set in this world. There are different rules for the Galaxy Far Far Away than there are for Earth. Perhaps the birth rate of women is just much lower. Perhaps the human-analogue species of Star Wars displays substantially reduced melanistic diversity and consequently people of colour are rarer too.

That’s grade A bullshit right there.

The fact of the matter is that Star Wars is a story created on earth by humans on earth and for humans on earth. Building characters is a deliberate process, and the choices we make about the characters we build always reflects some element of OUR world and our place in it.

Kameron Hurley knocked the ball out of the park with her article ‘We Have Always Fought‘ – which is currently nominated for the Hugo for Best Reated Work. I would like to strongly encourage anybody eligible to vote in the Hugo Awards to cast their vote for this article. It’s simply the best work of critical analysis I’ve seen specific to genre to the last decade.

Hurley’s argument, and it’s an exceptionally good one, is that our expectations regarding history are shaped by the narratives we create surrounding it.

Applying this to Star Wars, J.J. Abrams’ decision to return to 1980s style tokenism in Star Wars casting is structuring a narrative which isn’t reflective of the reality of modern western culture (which has become substantially more pluralistic and diverse over the intervening twenty years) and which frames a narrative strongly in line with the “history is made by white men” model.

This isn’t just bad politics. It’s bad storytelling.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones

Of course, there’s another problem. And that problem is J.J.’s marketing strategy. It’s possible that Star Wars will pass both the Bechdel and Mako standards with flying colours.

Really JJ?

Possible, but not very likely.

However we’ll probably never know until the film comes out, because of the god-damn mystery box. The same insufferable, click-baitey, pretentious marketing strategy that refused to admit that the antagonist in a Wrath of Khan remake was going to bee freaking Khan!

While Godzilla provides trailers and clips that let us know the broad strokes of the plot structure (that Godzilla will be called upon to fight other Kaiiju, that the movie will be a reflection upon the arrogance of humanity to believe we are the masters of nature), while Marvel lets us in on enough juicy tidbits of their films to build excitement for gambles like Guardians of the Galaxy, J.J. hides everything behind a wall of secrecy. He insists on details as simple as the names of characters counts as “spoilers.”

And so we only have his past work to fall back on for details. ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ white-washed the primary antagonist, turning him into a white British man. It did THAT (above and to the right) to Carol Marcus. It turned Kirk, Spock and Uhura into broad caricatures of their original series roles and it wrapped up this in a story that made no logical sense.

J.J. Abrams failed to understand Star Trek. He was tone deaf to what the Star Trek story meant. He was unable to understand what the story of ‘Wrath of Khan’ meant, for that matter.

We have his word that he is a fan of Star Wars. And, who knows, perhaps he’ll at least understand Star Wars. But with his childish insistence on secrecy we won’t know until it’s far too late.

You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

In some ways George Lucas got very lucky with Star Wars. It was the right film at the right time to inspire a lot of people. It became a touchstone for imaginative adventure for a generation and without it cinema would be a very different place.

Because of this, it’s very easy to give Star Wars a pass. We want license to love the things we love. And a lot of people love Star Wars; and not without reason.

But the truth is that we should also have the courage to say when the ambition of the things we love out-steps their value. We should have the conviction to call out the things we love when the falter and fail. And ultimately, though I hope it isn’t necessary, it may be necessary to put a knife into some of the things we loved in recognition that, regardless of what they once did they now cause more harm than good.

And if it comes to that, I know how I’ll eulogize Star Wars.

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.