In our last exciting episode we discussed weak tropes in SF, specifically Hollywood sci-fi. (Which is arguably a distinct genre, but save that for another day.) Most of these shortcomings have no consequences beyond SF itself. NASA understands realistic spacecraft physics, and people in the future will wear believable future clothing without thinking twice about it.
But in the comment thread, Ian M. brought up an issue with larger significance, the all too pervasive whiteness of SF. As it happens, this has been a matter of contentious debate in the SF discussosphere, a debate dubbed RaceFail '09. I was only vaguely aware of it, like events on an extrasolar planet. But like extrasolar planets it is topical to this blog, so here we go:
Rather than try and reconstruct an argument sprawling across cyberspace, I'll start with one part of it, triggered by a
(forthcoming?) new recent book by Patricia Wrede, The Thirteenth Child. I have read and liked a couple of her earlier books. This one is historical fantasy set in a parallel frontier 'Murrica, with surviving megafauna (mastodons and such), and magic. The setting would not send me running for a copy. I dislike magic, never got that excited by the American frontier thing, and don't think mastodons would be half as much fun in a book as they'd be in a movie or graphic novel where you can see them.
But what caused the uproar is what Wrede leaves out: In 'Columbia,' the First Nations aren't even zeroth nations, the New World having no human population till Columbus shows up. Wrede explains:
The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem ...I appreciate her problem. Noble Savages and just plain savages are equally boring. Her solution I sort of blink at. Even at the level I grew up with as a kid, it means no First Thanksgiving, no Indian scouts, no circling the wagons, no broken arrow or peace pipe. No corn (maize, to some of you), which has been so modified under cultivation that its wild precursors are uncertain. For that matter no Skraelings - so how come the King of Vinland didn't order the Pilgrims to convert to Lutheranism or move on?
Other commentators had a stronger reaction:
There are only two reasons I can think of to eliminate an entire race of people from alternate history fiction: to explore the impact it has on everything else, or because the author is a racist ass.With that we are, so to speak, off to the races. If you want to try and cut your way through the thicket, grab your machete and follow the link above, or maybe go here. Both linked pieces take the same side of the argument, for the simple reason that that's what I mostly came across in my own brief reconnaissance.
Now, what to make of it? My first, unthought reaction is that it feels like time travel to 'Murrica in the 1970s, which I already visited the old fashioned way. I am proudly 'Murrican, but one thing the Pilgrims brought over was boatloads of self righteousness. Along with that corn, we've been cultivating it ever since. Throwing accusations of racism so freely around comes fairly close to Godwin's Law.
But. Here is a post from a real Indian (i.e. not First Nations) about how problematic genre fantasy can be for someone from a nonwestern background. In micro form, you and anyone like you are mostly written out of it. The issues raised are valid, equally so for SF, even if a lot of the other people raising them online are obnoxious.
The question for me is, what are a writer's responsibilities to their audience? My struggling-to-get-published novel, Catherine of Lyonesse, is full of white people. Since it is set in a parallel Western Europe in the early 16th century, this is not implausible. Due to differences of time line, even a seaman interested in exploration has heard only rumors of an archipelago somewhere west across the Ocean Sea. That rumored land does have parallel First Nations, but my characters will only find out about them if I get to write a sequel.
A more immediately practical concern, for both my characters and for me, is the Monites, adherents of a monotheistic faith modeled on a real one currently much in the news. When the story first took form in my mind, many years ago, Islam was not much in the news. I could fight a para-Battle of Lepanto with hardly a thought to real-world political implications - at least I thought I could. Now that is impossible. Anything I say about 'Monites' will inevitably be read in contemporary context.
In this case the issue isn't precisely race (or strictly SF), but the distinction is barely visible in an ion microscope. I am left, and anyone writing in these genres is left, with a problem not unlike Wrede's. Dismissing entire peoples out of mind (or using them only as handy bad guys) is grotesque, and so is rigidly adhering to a don't-offend-anyone checklist. But the problem won't go away, so I'll throw it open to discussion.