Archive for July, 2007

Why Writing Colorblind Is Writing White (a rant)

July 31, 2007

As a writer, you may write colorblind. You may pull out all the color and race and cultural tags for every single one of your characters, and thereby prove that they could be of any race!

Sure. Let’s go with that. Nobody in your book has a skin color, or any sort of physical description at all.

You really believe your reader’s not givng your characters a physical description? You think that one of the first markers they make, after size and gender, won’t be color? Pigment? One of the first things we, as largely visual creatures, fixate on in order to tell one person from another in a culturally diverse society (if everyone’s the same color, no, we won’t fixate on that as much; then it becomes about size and hair cuts and clothes, but if your society isn’t monochrome, we’re going to see color. Is your society monochrome?)

Come now.

Let’s leave aside the fact that by ignoring a character’s race, you’re choosing not to deal with a lot of the potential conflicts inherent in a story where you have people of wildly different backgrounds coming together. And by “race” I don’t just mean looks, either. I don’t just mean pigmentation, though that’s a marker we all fixate on because it’s one of the most easily perceived, right there next to clothing choices (hence, burquas and veils, top hats for “gentlemen,” wearing beards, turbans, kippahs, etc).

Clothing choices, of course, are *choices.* Cultural practices, except perhaps circumcision and tribal scarification, can be cast off by those trying to “fit in” with the predominate culture.

Permanenent things like color, hair type, any sort of ritual scarring or permanent body modification like footbinding, etc., cannot.

I’m going to say that again:

You can’t take away these cultural markers, this indicators of uniqueness, of culture, of ethnicity, of “difference” (or “sameness” if the culture is in the majority). More than that:

You can’t take away what these things mean within a society (barring long, long years of progressive work to change stereotypes or the actual political or social position of people who share these characteristics).

The great thing about being a writer who chooses to “write colorblind” is that you can totally wipe your hands of all responsibility. Just like this (I realize I’m being harsh on Scalzi here, but this pissed me off). I mean, you’re not being racist. The world in your head is totally diverse! It’s your readers who are racist if all they see is pale people (or dark people, or polka dotted people)!

Scalzi’s situation may be unique, or made purposely unique, by the sort of world he works in. He says that in the Old Man’s War universe, race doesn’t matter that much. He seems to be positing that happy colorblind utopia we’re all gunning for, and that a lot of people seem to think we actually live in (“Oh, ha ha, I just don’t see race! Or gender! I just see people! I’m a humanist!” You’re full of shit).

The problem with writing in “race-neutral” (what is that? Gray? Beige?) terms is you get the same problem you run into when you write in gender-neutral terms. As people raised in a racist, sexist, society, we’re going to norm a lot of stories, a lot of people, as white males. There are certainly ways you can code this differently, and every reader brings their own unique set of indicators to the reading experience, but I think the vast majority of people are going to sit down and code your world in whitewash unless they get some indication that it’s otherwise or they bring something non-majority to the table.

We have a default setting we’ve been programmed with, and it’s the default setting we’ve been pumped full of since birth: stories about bands of white brothers, fathers and sons, heroic male conquerors, Columbus, rich white presidents, men of Science, great white male writers; the men who run the world are white. The important people are white. We’re reading about important people, right? Unless we’re reading some kind of hippie women’s story set in some jungle where people don’t speak plain English.

Am I exaggerating? Very slightly. Certainly we learn about women. Marie Curie (quick, tell me what time period she lived in? No?). Virginia Wolf. Indira Ghandi. The Girl in that movie. You know, The Girl in every movie? Come on, you know her so well. She’s that *one* girl in *every* movie that’s chockfull of 10 male main characters and a slew of male secondary characters and some female prostitutes for the drug scene. You know, The Girl.

But these are presented to us as exceptions. “Oh yes, there were these people too.” (there was “the Girl). In February you learn, “Oh yes, there are these black people too.” (usually it is “The Black Person,” ie Martin Luther King)

To be honest, I still know more about Columbus and the heroic Pilgrims than I do about whatever tribe it is helped the Pilgrims not starve to death. No, I don’t even know the name of the tribe (did it start with a P?), but I could tell you the ships the heroic pilgrims sailed on.

Sure, I could look it up, but I’m talking about knee-jerk knowledge, knowledge so deep it’s become part of your subconscious, the stuff you learn by rote and exposure and have seen so much that it’s become unexamined truth.

These are historic holes, ways we view the world, that have been shaped by race and cultural and power and gender. The race and gender and rich land-owning elite in charge (I recently learned that some of the first US taxes were lobbied heavily by landowners on a number of everyday goods in order to keep the government from taxing land) determine what we care about and what’s important. We can fight against that, and learn more, and question everything, but we have to fight those unexamined truths every goddamn day.

I would love to ignore all of this stuff. I would love to pretend it didn’t exist. I would love to say it’s easy for me to write a matriarchal society where every single secondary character’s pronoun comes out smoothly and easily as “she.” I would love to say that I don’t have to keep a running tally of how many times I try to use the word “pale” when describing main characters who really don’t get all that pale(r), or that I don’t have to keep a check on how many characters in my primarily brown-and-black world end up disturbingly pale.

Yes, it gets easier to do, over time. You code new paths through. You make new realities.

But first you have to question and breakdown and challenge the old ones.

And you’re not going to do that by shrugging and telling yourself you’re just writing a monochrome world.

I suppose, of course, I could just ignore everyone’s hair type and skin color and cultural practices and pretend they live in a whitewash world where everyone is colorblind (which really means “Everyone is white.”). But if I ignore that, I ignore the history of these people. I ignore the struggles that they have with one another and with other people; other cultures. I ignore historical disputes and historical differences. I ignore the fact that certain foods are taboo to some people and loved by others, so they can all eat happily together without commenting on it. I lose conflict. I lose richness. I lose truth. Nobody thinks somebody else is going to blow up a building or try and mug them or must be a member of the ruling class based entirely on the food they’re eating, the way they wear their hair, or the color of their skin.

Perhaps it’s easier to write a world this way, no doubt. No doubt it’s a much easier world to live in. But it feels to me like a very fake sort of world, a very lackluster, colorless world.

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A Shadow in Summer: Now in Paperback

July 31, 2007

You can now pick up a cheap copy of Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer on bookstore shelves.

I did not lust after this book with ravenous passion of a bel dame, but I did enjoy much of what he did with it. My review/rant is here.

Please support Series Fantasy That Doesn’t Suck.

Sword & Sociology

July 31, 2007

As I’ve been ready Tobias Buckell’s Ragamuffin, it’s gotten me to think about what it is that makes fiction really great for me. Some of this I covered before when reviewing some of VanderMeer’s work, and the same issue is hitting me again with Ragamuffin, only in the opposite way.

See, so far this is a nice action-packed little dialogue-and-fight-scenes book, and there was this big rolicking chunk of it that I really enjoyed before this current lull (I’m over halfway done now), but… there’s seriously something missing for me. It’s got the kick ass female protagonist, and the interesting worlds and characters who are actually not white! and not Christian! Which is great!

But.

It’s falling into the same trap that I see a lot of SF books get accused of falling into, which is the: gee gosh bang wow look at all these neat ideas!

Oh, yeah, and there are these cool machine-people-superheros, but they don’t really care about anyone or themselves, because they are mechanically enhanced and have very little angst.

See, the problem with creating characters who don’t care about anybody and don’t reflect on their lives or tell you anything about them… it’s hard to love them.

I want to fall in love.

And the people, if not actual robots, end up being rather robotic, emotionally. Some of that I can get because they’re weirdly old and partially mechanized, but to me, it smacks of a real conscious desire to ignore the emotional and social ramifications of these sorts of technologies (I mean, look at Carnival! Uber-tech and characters who have intense emotions and huge backstory and everything! It can be done, see). What do really old people dream about? What’s their relationship with thier bodies like? What do they think about? Do they even care about people? Do they go through cathartic experiences, or is it all just one long day, and if it’s just one long day, what does that *feel* like? What does it *feel* like to be retrofitted to save humanity? Do you ever get drunk and hate yourself? Actively hate yourself, not just pass it off as being “nerves”? Do you still believe in what you’re doing?

Because here we have this plot clicking along, this very classic end-of-the-world-savior-from-tyranny thing, but… there’s no subplot. There’s no emotional core to this story. There’s no emotional hero’s journey, just people hopping in and out of machinery and neat ideas (which are neat, don’t get me wrong). But at the end of the day, I’m getting the feeling that it’s going to be one of those books I go, “Well, that was fun,” and set aside and forget about. The emotional ramifications of these techologies seems to be sitting somewhere on the backburner and handwaved. Some of this issue might be because we start headhopping early on and it’s a short book, so we can’t really follow anybody’s journey the whole way in any kind of bulk.

But.

I realize that a lot of this is just personal preference – I want to know what the protag *feels* about the fact that she gave up her womb to be a weapon for humanity (what significance is attached to this womb? Hers or her societys? You may think that’s a dumb question, but if you think that, you’re seriously suffering from an atrophied imagination). I want to know how it *feels* to be a clone. Is this one of those clone-belief systems where they’re like robots, or where they’re really like siblings? Did they grow up together? Did they laugh and play together? What did she lose when she lost them? Do mechanized people have dreams and memories? Is it really in the best interests of tech to erase or supress “non esstential” memories? What do our memories give us? Can they motivate us? What do we lose when we lose memories? No tech is perfect.

What does it mean to be a man or a woman in any of these societies? Are women “equal” or are wombs more prized and women made even more subserviant because most of humanity is subserviant to an alien race? (I would argue that, historically, you’d find that women are abused most when they’re part of a slave system, because they get abuse from their masters and from the frustrated men of thier own species – or would they? And why not, if so?). This is one of those societies that does that weird handwave “well, we’ll have women starship captains but we won’t ever really talk about sexism” things. There’s some passing references to racism, but most racism is speciesism (sp); ie humans are beasts who’ve recently been kinda sorta “emancipated” just like slaves after the civil war (“yeah, you’re free but we own everything and you still have to work for us!”).

At Clarion, somebody said what I actually write are “Sword & Sociology” stories. The magic is sort of wishy-washy whatever maybe sorta, there’s lots of blood, but mainly what I’m about is how these settings created these social practices, and how these practices shaped different aspects of the society and the people in them. Beliefs about religion and women and men and honor and dignity and wombs and what it is to be a man (and if it even matters) and who’s in charge and when and why and the significance of sand… that should all be in there. Your society doesn’t exist outside of or removed from the technology. Everything it does, including the ways that people think and feel and the personal relationships and conflicts they get into, are going to be informed by these beliefs and practices.

But when you’ve got primarily dialoge and fight scenes book, awesome and exciting as those are, you end up writing a book about people that it’s much more difficult to fall in love with (particularly if you head hop a lot) and who might be interesting, but not interesting enough to remember afterward because you don’t spend enough time with them and don’t go on an emotional journey with them.

I’m not saying that’s happening with this particular book (the shrug, whatever aftereffect), cause I’m not done yet and a proper review is coming, but I have a bad feeling about it. Which really sucks, because I picked this book up and put it back down three times in the bookstore and then came back and finally bought it because I was afriad somebody else would buy it; I wanted a book about Nashara (the ass-kicking heroine), but Nashara’s now cloned herself into a ship and more than half the book is now from other people’s POVs, and gosh-gee-whiz-bang ideas aren’t enough to keep me jumping up and down about it.

We’ll see how it goes.

Spoilers

July 31, 2007

Also, the Titanic sinks.

Remember, you were warned.

Why Am I So Tired?

July 30, 2007

Things are good-crazy, but that means there’s a lot of work to do, and man, sometimes it makes my brain hurt.

Ragamuffin

July 30, 2007

pg 105

“All ten of us were women, Jamar. We gave up our wombs and in return were fitted with quantum computers running intrusion devices that can overpower lamina and make it extensions of our minds. It would be like being one with your ship, but anywhere. Your mind replicates, copying itself endlessly until you have control of all it is in contact with.”

He looked at her, face pained. “Your wombs?”

“I saw what happened to the other nine when they attacked the Hongguo who intercepted our ship. They destroyed the Hongguo ship, but their bodies died as they took over the Hongguo ship’s lamina. It’s bomb. You can’t unexplode it, and when it happens, you are that lamina. You’re no longer human.”

Wait a minute. HAS HER WOMB BEEN REPLACED BY A BOMB? (is this the only place they could put it? A womb is not really a huge organ, you know. Did they take out her pancreas, too? Why not her pancreas? And her appendix? And half of her small intestine? Surely she lost a lot more than her womb? And why, as a clone, would she attach any significance to her womb? But then, how does their brand of cloning work? Do they birth their own clone babies in wombs or vats? This is what happens when there are big chunks of missing backstory)

Oh, you can bet I’m going to be writing up a review of this one.

Gummi Bear Death!

July 30, 2007

KEWL (yes, I’m supposed to be working… can you tell?).

One-Sentence Stories

July 30, 2007

When sharing music becomes foreplay, you know you have something beautiful.

He knows to keep an eye on my hands, as the length of my finger nails is in direct proportion to how content I am with my life.

You never wrote back, and today I stopped expecting you to.

Night after night I stare at my phone in anticipation until I realize you’re too busy doing blow in strange people’s houses to bother with me.

More here.

Why Star Wars Fans Hate Star Wars

July 30, 2007

One of the best fan rants ever:

Maybe I’ll put it like this. To be a Star Wars fan, one must possess the ability to see a million different failures and downfalls, and then somehow assemble them into a greater picture of perfection. Every true Star Wars fan is a Luke Skywalker, looking at his twisted, evil father, and somehow seeing good.

Purported American Apparel Tag

July 29, 2007

From here. Real or not, I’m still waiting for a day when this is a given, not a privilege or an employer’s recruitment bargaining chip.