Race and SF

During my review of the film Primer, I discussed an essay by Pam Noles and noted that I would get back to her central topic soon — after all, I was riffing on her issues about the underrepresentation of nonwhite people in science fiction and fantasy literature and media, but riffing in a very odd way. (You can read the Primer review if you want to know more.)

It’s taken me a while to get back to the issue, but now I’m ready to say something about it.

The first word that comes to my mind, as a white male writer hearing any discussion of race and its representation in literature, is the word “appropriation”. Now, this is one of those tricky little words that didn’t always mean something completely wicked and despicable, but in terms of race and art, it has become pretty much a deadly sin. Well, in some circles, anyway. Mainstream literature is one of those circles.

Here’s how it goes: an author living in, let’s say, London, writes a story set in Beijing, because, hey, it sounds like a funky place to set his story. He doesn’t do much research, and doesn’t, you know, talk to anyone who’s been there, or when he does, he does it so cursorily that not having done it would much differ from what he gets out of it. Then he proceeds to write this place, and the native people of it, as he imagines them from his specific, particular imagination– but of course, his specific, particular imagination didn’t just spring to being when the Muses kissed his forehead as a child. No, instead, it’s the result of having grown up with a certain specific cultural and political environment, and this informs his imagination and depiction of these people in this foreign place. So the nonwhite characters, to fill in the blanks, become caricatures of the stereotypes that have currency in the author’s culture. You get the imagined Other as he or she is imagined by the author’s society, and that burden is unmitigated by, you know, any attempt at all to ascertain where it goes wrong. Of course, what you get is a bunch of chinoiserie.

Now, somewhere along the way, during the explosion of identity politics in the academic world of the 90s, the meaning of appropriation seems to have undergone somewhat of a shift. Classmates in my writing class started mumbling about the risk of appropriation when one classmate started writing a kind of Nabakovesque Pillow Book modeled after the structure of the novel Pale Fire; many of my classmates, in fact, had worked in East Asia and were writing stories set there, and the word came up a lot. And then it came up when I started sharing the beginning of a novel I was working on at the time, something of a political/linguistics SF tragedy in which the main characters were living in the newly farmed tundra of what had become a sovereign Inuit nation north of Canada.

I baffled. What was all this business regarding “appropriation” about?

The discussions seemed to suggest to me that there was some kind of “right” to depict people of other races, and that some people in the world questioned whether one actually had the right to do so at all in one’s writing.

As an SF writer, of course, this seemed completely mad to me. I mean, we depict aliens, at least sometimes. We depict computers that have developed human feelings, or feelings and intelligence of a sort radically different from humans’, quite often. What the hell is so different about other humans? I mean, yes, skin color, which is a genetic predisposition — but I rarely describe characters’ appearance anyway; and culture, yes, but that can be researched and worked out in discussions with people from that culture.

Discussions turned to a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, one of her Coyote stories, in which she remade some “Native American” coyote tales (nobody bothered to check which Native American group specifically, as it seemed somehow extraneous to the political argument). People referred to this as theft, and not in the admiring way that sometimes invokes Eliot’s admiring accusation of “good poets”. I was stuck scratching my head. But nobody was making money from those stories. And Le Guin probably isn’t making much off the coyote stories either. Isn’t she just, you know, doing her own thing with them? Isn’t she being, you know, respectful enough? And it’s not like she destroyed the originals in order to make her own take on the coyote stories, is it? Aren’t stories, you know, the shared heritage of humanity? Don’t we happily and joyfully spread them across cultural and other boundaries?

Strangely, race was a major concern in terms of appropriation, but sex was not. Here I was, anxious that my protagonist be authentically female, and nobody was all that worried about that.

My instructor, Catherine Bush, seemed less baffled but just as sensible as I felt I was: she told us, in a careful explanation that was so careful I can remember only the main thrust of it, that she felt the difference between representation and “appropriation” was mainly one of respect. If one made the effort to research, to be respectful, to make clear when one’s work was indeed derivative in nature and to depict individual characters of marked difference from the author with a respect and not by relying on stupid racist stereotypes, then one was realistically avoiding appropriation.

This worked for me, since it was basically how I’d felt from the get-go. It meant basically, if you were doing a decent job as a writer, not trusting your preconceived notions, and really making an effort to build realistic, well-wrought, well-felt characters, you were not betraying your story, your readers, or yourself.

(Edit: I forgot to note: the reason I recount this experience is because, basically, I think that there is some small number of people who, for whatever reason, bought into this odd academic theory that representing characters of a race other than one’s own was, well, maybe okay when one was an angry nonwhite living in the tattered remnants of decolonization, but definitely not cool when you’re a “majority culture” writer. I think some writers avoid writing characters of other races not because they’re afraid that they can’t do it in a literal sense, but that in a political sense they “can’t” do it: that there might be backlash, accusations of appropriation, bitterness on no other grounds that that a white author dared to portray nonwhite characters.

I mean to say that I don’t think it’s always just a kind of ignorant racism-as-race-blindness that we’re dealing with here. Race is absolutely a political thing in many contexts, and writing is one of them. Sometimes politics isn’t rational, and I think there were trends in the literary-academic world that did encourage authors not just to step lightly when straying into “foreign territory”, so to speak, but sometimes encouraged them not to venture abroad at all — even the distance of the family next door, should they be another color than oneself. I vaguely remember criticisms of such appropriation as “theft” and “silencing”, and felt strongly that it wasn’t just the particular depiction that was being decried, but all attempts at transracial writing. And yeah, it was a few academic nutjobs, but like the treatment of religion in the mainstream media, the pronouncements nutjobs always get more airtime and attention.

That said, I think that’s more of a problem in academia and in the area of lit that’s most touched by academia, which is hoity-toity mainstream lit as spawned by Creative Writing programs. I think the neglect in SF is rooted in other reasons, and is being addressed now in part because SF has the ability to be quite sensible where mainstream lit is bound by its linkage to academia on the one hand and the literary elite on the other.)


Writing SF gives me, in some senses, a big break from this kind of worry. I mean, almost everything I write is set in the future. This gives me a certain kind of leeway which I don’t believe authors working in the mainstream enjoy to the same degree that we authors who work with the speculative genres do.

For example, I can write about Inuit cities on the Northern diked coasts flanked by tundra wheat farms above which a hot sun is shining. I still have to research a lot of language and culture stuff, and work hard at writing a passable future Inuit living in one of these cities, but there’s a lot of leeway as to how I can morph the culture and the people, since I’m playing with one or two hundred years of potentially constant change. There’s a vast freedom that is availed by this.

Given that, you’d think that a lot of SF, even way back through its history, would be among the most forward-thinking literature around. You’d think that, for example, you’d find black female presidents in America, multiracial spaceship crews, and the like. But actually, I can relate to what Pam Noles describes from childhood: a lot of SF, a lot of fantasy, it was chock full of white folks until very recently. The thing is, in some ways, I’m almost grateful for this, as a white male author. The reason is that, as imaginative as SF authors are supposed to be, back in the old days, they usually were imaginative in certain specific, constrained ways. The original Foundation trilogy is, for example, a sausage party of the most painful kind; I could only make it through the first book, and there was one woman in it, and she clapped her hands at a pretty piece of jewelry and then her role was fulfilled and over.

(I know, I know, I still ought to read the whole trilogy once through.)

When Asimov was asked about his neglect of female characters, he stated that he had no idea how to write a woman character, since he had so little experience with women. Some people hate that response, see it as a cop-out, and of course, I do too — it was a pathetic cop-out, and it’s similarly pathetic when people make a similar cop-out about race. But the point is, when someone is of the kind of mind that allows him to make such a cop-out, it’s probably better that he didn’t try to write a woman character at all. To Asimov’s credit, he got past that eventually and did write female characters, even some okay ones like Susan Calvin. (Who, by the way, was very definitely appropriated in the recent film I, Robot, since the original character was supposed to be neither young nor pretty.) But really, a lot of older SF seems to me to have been exclusionary of women, of non-whites, mainly because it was indeed a white-male playground. The examples of when they did stray from that are so embarrassing — in the form of HG Wells’ less-than-subtle quasi-racist conceptions of Morlocks and Eloi, for example, or what he really was talking about in The Island of Dr. Moreau — that really, I’m a little bit glad I don’t have to shudder at more chinoiserie and other embarrassments.

Of course, this all began to change not only because of new blood, authors like Samuel Delany (a black man) and Ursula Le Guin (a woman, and how strange it feels to state that “woman” as a “minority”, but she was at one time a minority among SF authors), but also because white writers began to be able to “appropriate” nonwhiteness in a creditable way and use it in their writing. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, which Noles sees as such an important work, was written by a white woman. Sensitivity and intelligence and most of all respect could, SF authors discovered, allow one to approach the issue of writing characters of a different color, or culture, than oneself!

Pam Noles argues, perhaps rightly, that enough hasn’t been done. I say perhaps because I don’t know, and part of this is because my interests in SF are pretty different from hers — I have little or no interest in TV SF, for example. I couldn’t cares less what depiction of race occurs in Firefly because, frankly, they lost me at “futuristic Western” — I don’t think this has so much to do with my “freedom to not care about race” as much as my freedom not to care about how important issues are dealt with in what is, after all, mostly just filler to take up time between advertisements. And that’s, yes, what I feel about most SF on TV these days, and most days, and most of my life. Earthsea, in my opinion, would have sucked not only because it was a whitened adaptation of a novel, but because it was bound to suck, being made for TV. I know, I know, that’s no excuse — but it is an explanation. There’s a reason I don’t have a TV in my home, after all. Maybe I’ve become exactly what I feared one Sunday afternoon in Montreal when, at the suddenly-discovered local SF club, I found the one guy I got along with was the older chap who spent much of his time mocking everyone else wryly for their love of TV shows and putting down people who were too fannish of TV shows. “Read a book if you wanna know what SF really is!” he said, and it sounds Harlan Ellisonesque, I know, but it also sounds a little like me now.

And the situation is a fair bit better in books, I think. Or maybe it’s my buying habits? On my bookshelf (and I’ll include the “extended bookshelf” that includes some boxes in my mother’s garage) there are SF books containing all kinds of intelligent, respectful transracial writing. India, the Caribbean, Japan, China, Brazil are depicted by authors of all kinds of backgrounds, and nonwhite characters find themselves in all kinds of places throughout the solar system in the deft hands of authors of several different shades of color.

As for my own writing, perhaps my leaving Canada has something to do with it, but I’m continually writing characters that are somehow very different from myself in outward appearances, in those “demographic” traits that everyone’s so interested in during this age of “identity”: a young lesbian in grieving; an Indo-Australian documentarian; a German expat mechanic living in Uzbekistan; a rough-and-tumble female Uzbek trucker; a bunch of very dark-skinned and of indeterminate ancestry since they were all reengineered to survive in a desolate post-ecological collapse Earth; Japanese, Korea, and white Russian teenagers in a foreign school (Korean character’s background was the easiest for me, not the Russian’s); a half-Korean, half-Indian American refugee in a Reunified Korea; a Thai Buddhist missionary monk in America; an Arab Texan kid hiding among the New England Amish; a female Japanese newswoman; a Persian Marxist gangster; an Indo-German data analyst-turned-cultmember; an Uzbek charismatic technophile; an Indian janitor/bovine-crusader (of sorts) living in Minnesota. When I do write “white” characters, they very often find themselves as minorities themselves, such as the protagonist in my Korean ghost-story novel (still in draft form) “Dead Abroad”, or the protagonist in my alternate history story “Poppy”, a slave of a Chinese master in a half-drafted alternate history which could best be described as Rudyard Kipling’s worst nightmare come true.

You know, I think my most recent story might well be the first time in ages that I’ve written about anything resembling a white, middle-class family living in a white, middle-class suburb! And of all things, they’re protagonists who exist mostly to get chopped down to size by activists who point out how awful their way of living actually is. Okay, there was that political Christmas story, but elves aren’t really human, and hanging Santa’s race would have provided unhelpful distraction — and even so, writing the Elves took some research on Northern-European language and so on.

It’s weird. I think I might try to write another white character sometime, or an African perhaps, or even a Canadian maybe… I suspect I haven’t actually written a black character, or a white Canadian, before. (The poetry book set in the Regional Isolate morphed into a vague idea for an NGO-vollunteer travelogue set in the same world, so “The Life of Philippe Echewo” was abandoned and I haven’t an African character in my collected works yet. But then, no such character has come and tapped me on the shoulder since Phillippe’s author, a black American poetess named, oh, what was it? I did abandoned her a long time ago.) shrug I think I’m just biased against North America generally, in my interests. That must be it.

Helpful readings for those in a dilemma like (or unlike) mine:

Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl
This post by Tobias S. Buckell which responds to responds to Noles’ original essay.
Noles’ response to responses to her essay. (And for whatever it’s worth, I happen to find “Die Whitey” an amusing category title.)