I sometimes forget about comics, sci-fi, and the internet. It’s kind of shocking, considering how much of my free time was spent with the comics internet in my twenties, three blogs and a lot of productivity ago. But, you know, times change, people change, interests change, and the world goes on; still, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the old saying goes.1
An article at Broken Frontier stumbled across my Twitter timeline today. Actually, I hadn’t even noticed the site of publication, as I was in a rush to get to the content. The article is titled Yes, but is it racist? Science Fiction and The Significance of 9%, and it’s written by a Josh Finney, whose work I haven’t encountered before. The article meanders around a few points but, at it’s core–the TL;DR version–the primary focus is that science fiction writers and science fiction fandom aren’t as awfully racist as people suggest because, um, market factors and write what you know and “some of my best friends are,” etc.
Let’s have some fun with some of the ideas presented, shall we? Everyone likes fun, right? Especially the hey-let’s-totally-abolish-any-talk-of-our-own-racism variety! Woo!
1. Write what you know. Of all the maxims I’ve heard regarding writing, “write what you know” remains my absolute favorite. I won’t bother breaking that one down in terms of actual writing advice, as others have already done it, and done it well. And, specific to the context of the genre conventions we’re talking about, any literal reading of the phrase would be pointless in stupid. Writers don’t exactly “know” what they’re writing about when they’re writing about dystopian futures filled with rayguns and jetpacks and aliens and, given some remaindered sci-fi novels I’ve seen on bookshelves, shooting rayguns while having aeronautical jetpack sex with sexy, sexy aliens. At this point, I think most folks are bright enough to realize the “write what you know” comes more from converting the individual experience into something else entirely where, by remaining true to an intellectual or emotional connection, a certain level of verisimilitude is forged. “Yes,” the reader says, “that is good and right and true,” even if it’s a cryogenically-thawed Tyrannosaur overcoming his short arms to become a piano virtuoso in a Texas roadhouse.
Here, though, I do think Finney gets it right: you shouldn’t write what you specifically don’t know. At the very best, you engage in some kind of voyeuristic cultural appropriation; at the very worst, you dredge up horrible stereotypes belying an undercurrent of racist ideology. Finney describes writing an in-progress book of his where the “story demanded” certain things of his protagonist, “an inner-city teen who goes from being a drug dealer to a refugee, to a soldier in the Second American Civil War. The hero being black is strictly a matter of form following function. The story could not be told any other way, nor should it have to.”
If we’re talking baby-steps-to-progress, I guess we might could be somewhat relieved to see that the future is not apparently lily-white in Finney’s universe, as it is with some authors.
But, really, that story “could not be told any other way?” I’d beg to differ, but what I’d have to say would be entirely disregarded, because…
2. The only people who get upset are those white PC liberal types. Finney makes it very clear that he has black friends/readers, and they are totally supporting him in this endeavor. The only pushback he’s received has been from the “overly sensitive, entirely white, politically correct hippy crowd.”
Now, for the record, I am entirely white, somewhat sensitive, and politically correct only in the sense that, well, I’m often correct, politically, so I do somewhat resemble this remark. I mean, I’m not puts-mayo-on-everything white, or doesn’t-know-what-a-washcloth-is-for white, or owns-a-box-set-of-Anne-Murray-albums white. I am, however, knows-all-the-words-to-SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER white, smells-like-a-dog-when-it-rains white, and no-one-crosses-the-street-or-pulls-their-kid-in-close-when-I-walk-by-no-matter-what-I’m-wearing white. Luckily, though, Finney highlights again the “write what you know thing” to show ” long-haired, hippy-type, pinko fags”2 like me what’s what:
But sometimes I wonder if this driving need to “protect” minorities from any and all possible affronts isn’t doing more harm than good. I’ve written Asians, Brits, rednecks, war vets, junkies, psychopaths, even artificial intelligences. And unless this reality is the Matrix, I can honestly say I have never been any of these things.
This is obviously going to kick it out of the sci-fi territory for a bit, but is there anything more tiring than someone setting themselves up as the lone-voice-of-reason-in-a-crazy-politically-correct-world? Finney calls back to this at the end, in his bio, where he is described as being one who “follows in the fine tradition of sci-fi novelists in that he’s a prickly son-of-a-bitch who’ll tell you exactly what’s on his mind.” And, if you’re here with me because you know me personally, or know me via Twitter, you may not know that I’m a huge nerd. I’ve spent a lot of time with other huge nerds in places where nerds congregate.3 Trust me when I say this: this is not a sci-fi novelist thing. This is a nerd thing. Anywhere you encounter nerds, you will encounter a larger percentage of “straight-talking-straight-shooting-maverick” types than you will elsewhere. It’s the conversational equivalent of a closet full of black t-shirts emblazoned with white text that proclaims how “crazy,” “insane,” or “evil” the wearer is. Whether anti-social, awkwardly-social, or trying-real-hard-to-be-Han-Solo, a good bit of nerdlings will embrace this kind of rhetoric the way they latch on to creepy Men’s Rights Activist language or Pick Up Artist language.
In the end, though, the article becomes even more tribal. Beyond even just the typical indicators of white privilege–it becomes terribly important to circle the spacewagons around the intergalactic convoy, and defend science fiction and it’s fandom from the outsiders attacking it:
So is science-fiction racist? This is sort of like asking if dreams are prejudiced. It’s not even a question. But to truly understand the discord currently raging across the spec-lit community, we need to take a hard look at what’s happening inside the Science Fiction Writer’s Association.
During the group’s election for president this year a moderately successful author named Theodore Beale ran for office. A self-described radical Christian Libertarian, Beale’s platform openly touted both his sexist and white-supremacist views. Predictably, Beale lost. Bad. Real bad. In fact, he barely achieved 9% of the vote. Then, to show everyone just what a classy guy he is, Beale exploded on Twitter, blaming his defeat on Jews, women, and “half-savages.”
Naturally, the press ate this up. Just go to Google and punch in these terms: sexist, racist, sci-fi. Be sure to wear a clean-suit because the amount of sludge you’ll be wading through is downright apocalyptic. Unfortunately, the press, just like Beale, is all too happy to portray all of us as a horde of unwashed trolls who hate women and minorities.
Why is it that a man who has been permanently expelled from the SFWA is being allowed to define a whole community’s image? Sure, he did win 9% of the vote. But guess what? According to an Associated Press poll conducted in 2012, roughly 51% of Americans were shown to harbor anti-black views. Maybe it’s time people stop waving their fingers at sci-fi writers and take a good look in the mirror. The numbers say we’re ahead of the curve. Way ahead.
So, is Beale racist? Um, shit yes. Overtly. Proudly, apparently. This line of thinking, though? Maybe I really am getting sensitive in my old age, but I can’t help but read this as another example of “But we’re the good whites! We’re not as awful as this chinless wonder over here! Ignore the racism we’re expressing!” By positing a worse example of overt racism, people will try to absolve themselves of their own racist ideologies, or the ideologies present in their own group (in this case, science fiction authors and fandom). Finney, too, addresses some of the problems inherent in much genre publishing directed towards a nerdier set: the fact that books not targeted towards a white, male, heterosexual audience find trouble in the marketplace. That bears out much more than his statement that the “aging white guys” of science fiction are “quantifiably less racist than the average American.”
But, hey, we can always blame the “comics press” for the shortcomings of diversity in the medium:
“As someone who has been writing high quality graphic novels with challenging stories and unique casts, I see red every time someone like Laura Hudson or Heidi MacDonald decries the lack of diversity in comics. My first thought is always, “Try opening your eyes!” There’s an entire community of talented creators who fit this criteria, yet the press won’t give them the time of day. Well, okay. Broken Frontier has been excellent about it, but hey, why do you think I chose to start writing here?”
I would have assumed it was because Comics Alliance‘s roster was full. Or perhaps cronyism is a better fit–remember, this is the site that was the last hold-out of boosterism when CrossGen was stiffing the people who created their books for them. Again, as I’ve been away from the comics internet for a while (reading mostly blogs of friends or sites like Comics Alliance), I’m not sure of the pedigree of the current crop of reviewers and columnists at the site, but I do remember in the mid-2000s that it was less a matter of other outlets not giving certain creators the “time of day,” but that the site itself consistently provided positive reviews to creators with whom the site had some kind of social or business-related connection with. At the very least, positive reviews of the column follow that same trend: it isn’t difficult to note that the first comment, praising Finney for being “willing to tackle the hard questions most journalists won’t touch” was posted by somebody with whom Finney doubly-connected–both as the co-founder of a publishing interest that carries Finney’s work, and as his spouse.
1 I maintain that the majority of stupid phrases like this that I know and use come from superhero comics. I want to say I learned this as a child from a Chris Claremont-penned issue of Uncanny X-Men.
2 Lyrics from Charlie Daniel’s “Uneasy Rider.” Really, though, I’m bald now, so I probably could have cut out the “long-haired” bit. I just had to include something like this because everything I type now requires some kind of karaoke reference.
3 So, um, the internet.