Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pam Noles, Ursula LeGuin, and Science Fiction's Dirty Secret

Pam Noles has an essay on Infinite Matrix that you should read -- now -- if you haven't already. It's called "Shame", and it's about, in part, the failure of the science fiction/fantasy genre to adequately represent -- in most cases even to acknowledge -- any race other than the white one. (She expands upon it a little bit on Nalo Hopkinson's blog here). The essay pivots on the hatchet job the SciFi Channel did on Ursula K. LeGuin's astonishing Earthsea books. In those books, almost none of the characters were white; instead they ranged from a reddish-brown to onyx. Pam writes that coming across those books as a girl marked the first time that she really felt included in the genre she already loved. The SciFi Channel, of course, cast nearly every role with a white actor, with the lonely exception of Danny Glover (fulfilling the role of the Wise, Non-Threatening Black Man, the one usually played by Morgan Freeman). LeGuin herself has written about the offensiveness of this decision on Slate.com, in an essay entitled "A Whitewashed Earthsea."

It seems Pam's essay has sparked a bit of controversy. Rather than post links here, I'll refer you to her own post about it here. Behind one of the links that she lists you'll find someone lamenting the difficulty of writing a black character because he lacks identification. On a superficial level, I can sympathize with this fear. It's easy to worry about getting it wrong, and of being offensive or looking foolish, or both. I remember back in Clarion, one of the students wrote a story which featured a black character. Harlan Ellison, offering critiques via speakerphone (another story for another day), asked the writer if she was black. "No," she said, "but I grew up in a black neighborhood." Ellison shot back, "Yeah, I had a black guy carry my bags for me once. Nothing like identification."

At the time, I silently cheered Ellison for squashing what I took to be this woman's pretentious claim to understand the black experience sufficiently to write about it. Now, I think it was an unfair criticism, because it leads to this fear that we, as white writers -- or, in my case, a white male writer -- cannot write from the viewpoint of a member of another ethnicity or gender. I'll fine tune that point: the more alienated that culture, paradoxically, the lesser the crime. One could write comfortably about a sixteenth century Chinese soldier and not fear criticism; but write from the perspective of a black person, or of a woman, and the fear of judgement balloons like a tumor.

Serious writers have an obligation to empathize. If you can't do that -- if you can't make an effort to feel the experience of another person, no matter how cosmetically and culturally different, then who exactly are you writing about? Are you writing the same set of characters over and over again, only with different names and in different settings? Am I?

Recoiling for fear of fucking it up is unhealthy for the writer, unhealthy for the genre, and unfair to people who find themselves either under-represented or all-but excluded from the genre. It is also downright criminal for a category of fiction which styles itself as forward-thinking, and culturally literate. It's easy to make up another world and fill it with all manner of aliens or critters; less easy, I think, to write well and convincingly of the failures in our own culture. And don't tell me it's all done with metaphor. When I hear that the aliens are symbolic of black Americans, or Native Americans, or gay Americans, or even impoverished Americans, I feel a twinge of disgust. Step up and write about people.

Maybe this gets down to a longstanding problem I've had with genre; I think I've always been, and may always be, a closet realist.

Why do I have to read Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel Delany, or Walter Mosley to read about black people in the genre? Why do I have to read Douglas Clegg or Clive Barker to read about gays?

Pam's essay has me examing my own work all over again. If you're a writer, it should have you examing yours. If you're a reader, look at what you're being offered. They say that the appeal of SF/F is the constant newness it offers, the renewable sense of being off-kilter. How about really getting something new for a change?

38 Comments:

At 1:09 AM, Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Really well said, Nathan.

 
At 2:31 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

*applauds the post*

There's one other thing I don't like either though: The black Vulcans in the newer Star Trek.
You could argue that it was a mistake to never have a black Vulcan in the original series, but, well, now the mistake has been made. Vulcan is a hot world, and we have only seen white Vulcans so far. Apparently evolution didn't "deem it necessary to come up with" black people there (I know evolution doesn't plan :) ). So I consider it highly illogical that all of a sudden there are black Vulcans, just because having them is the politically correct thing to do, know what I mean?

 
At 11:39 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Here, here! My feeling has always been that writing is 1: Empathy, 2: Reserach. You start there, and you are emotionally honest, and you can write anything.

It's the people who say I Won't Even Try, be it because they think they can't or they don't care, that I find baffling. I read what they're saying, and I don't understand their fear. Attempt and fail. That's better than ignoring the landscape of life. I'm tired right now so I'm having a brain fart, but remember the white guy who did the series of stories set on a planet colonized by people from a Kenyan tribe? Came out in the 80s/90s. Good stories, some of them not quite On perhaps, and he got shit from a lot of places for doing it. But I give him massive points for making the attempt.

Among the MANY things that pissed me off about the SciFi adaptation is that the Magical Negro embodied by Danny Glover DOESN'T EVEN EXIST AS A CHARACTER IN THE BOOKS!!

Um, are we allowed to discuss our Harlan Stories in public? Has enough time passed? You know, if I didn't think feelings would be hurt (and possibly he'd come over to the house and rip me apart with his bare hands for violating his copyright), I'd TOTALLY turn those workshop tapes into a podcast thingie and put them up on the site...

And you're right. That was unfair of him. Have to tell you though, I didn't see it then.

Melantrys, I answer with a question. Whose evolution are you talking about? That's the first question. If you answer, I'll come back with another.

 
At 12:57 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

I think you're talking about Ian McDonald's Chaga series, the most recent of which is Tendeleo's Story. I think he's one of the genre's best writers, incidentally.

And yes, I think time enough has passed to tell the Ellison stories. Hell, we'd be doing him a service. Keeping the myth alive, and all that. Remember when we went to -- what was it, Epcot Center or something -- and went on the (cough cough) Star Trek ride (cough cough)? Somehow Ellison's name came up while we were talking to the ride employee, and he scowled. "Oh, Ellison," he said. "What a jerk!"

As I recall, we never got the story behind his low opinion, and we didn't need it. It was enough to know that we had stumbled across more of Harlan's roadkill.

 
At 3:58 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

Hey, you're supposed to comment on the wonderfulness of my blog, Nathan, not leave messages for me to come over to yours. :P

I was talking about the evolution of the Vulcan people. All you saw in the series were white Vulcans. And from reading the (officially approved, right?) books I never got the impression of there being black Vulcans either.
It's a whole different planet, so it wouldn't be impossible for evolution to just throw up one skin colour.

Of course there's also the odd evolution (genetic experiment gone bad?) that seems to be the reason why the Klingons went from bushy eyebrowed whites to blacks with more sophisticated masks. But at least they came up with an explanation there, know what I mean?

*yawns* Gawds, I think I'm getting sick; I feel like I was run over by a truck.

 
At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harlan has sometimes said really awful things to people. He criticized a writer friend of mine when she wrote about a place she hadn't ever been to (or could afford to go to) in person.

Now it's a legitimate gripe to say that "you're take on the subject/place doesn't read as authentic--it needs work"-- But to imply that you can't write about a place you've never been, or about serial killers unless you've been one, fairies or Martians unless you are one, well, for anyone who is writing sf/f/h that is an incredibly stupid stance to take. The same goes for males writing female characters and vice versa and one race writing about another.
Ellen Datlow

 
At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oops. That should have been "your"--I wish I could edit the post.
Ellen

 
At 2:49 PM, Blogger Ted said...

remember the white guy who did the series of stories set on a planet colonized by people from a Kenyan tribe?

I believe that's Mike Resnick's "Kirinyaga" series.

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Yes! It's the Resnick stories I was thinking about. Thanks, Ted. I liked those stories. Nathan, I keep meaning to look at the Chaga stories, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I will.

That was a surprise to see another of his victims in that most unexpected of places. You know I still have that videotape created on the Star Trek ride, right? I wonder if I can dupe it somehow and turn it into a thingie that could go on the website. That might be fun! Wouldn't that be FUN, Nathan? To have that Star Trek video starring First Officer *cough* and Captain *cough again* posted on the Internet(s) FOR ALL THE WORLD TO SEE? I like this idea. I'm going to call a few buddies who know more about tech stuff than I do and investigate the Possibilities...

Ellen, that sounds like an unfair hit by Ellison as well. I've sometimes wondered if, because his default setting is over the top, he's unable/unwilling to recognize the value of not going for the jugular every single time.

Melantrys, second question. Now that your answer has split the evolution of the fictional planet from the evolution of the real-world people who created the Trek universe throughout the decades ... Why is "it highly illogical that all of a sudden there are black Vulcans, just because having them is the politically correct thing to do"? Feel free to expand on the 'politically correct' part.

 
At 6:11 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

I've got no issues with regular political correctness, if that's what you're getting at....
As for the "black factor on the screen", well, Hollywood definitely has a problem even today with some things like, say, interracial couples. Or that Earthsea thing that was mentioned here.
On the other hand you get the impression that some feel they have to put... well, the p.c.-black guy/girl into their productions. And frankly I find that as annoying as the other way.
Black people (and Arabs, Indians, etc) should be in movies/series/books because it's the way of the world. They should neither be left out out of narrow-mindedness nor one obligatory black guy put in because "it's the thing to do these days". I hope you know what I mean.
That is using p.c. the wrong way around.
Besides, more often than not that sole black guy worthy enough to aid the heroes of the movie is a ghettoish, not too clever, but yet charmingly funny dude. Now, am I just having a twisted view on coloured people, or is that not the way they all are? ;)

I said "black factor on the screen" above because according to Melantrys's Law of Political Correctness Gone Runny there's also the "woman factor in language". Yes, there's "sexist" (male-ist?) words like mankind, but, hell, there's really more important issues than inventing words like "policeperson" to make a fuss about, like verbal sexual harrassment for instance.

 
At 12:03 AM, Blogger Gone said...

That's interesting, Melantrys, but it also kind of wanders far and away from your claim that black Vulcans showing up is illogical and an act of political correctness...

 
At 2:08 AM, Blogger Melantrys said...

No, it doesn't.
So many years of Star Trek. Two series after the Classic.
And in the fourth series there's suddenly this black Vulcan.
To me that looks too much like somebody sat down and thought "Dang, I think it's high time we had a black Vulcan as well."
I mean, come on, they have been hiding all the time, or what?
I'm not saying that the initial decision was right. But for reasons of continuity I'd have stuck with white Vulcans. It was just too late to suddenly discover the black ones.

 
At 9:26 AM, Blogger Jessi said...

If I'm thinking of the same Star Trek episode (and it's been a long time since I've watched any) the producers weren't looking to pc Vulcans for the show. A black Vulcan wasn't even a concept until the actor showed up for his audition. I saw an interview at some point where show somebody-or-others were talking about this. They cast the actor they did because his audition was so strong and that's how they wound up with a black Vulcan. (Per televised interview.)

Random person following the discussion. And thank you for having it, changing my views on how I need to approach my writing.

Jessi

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger Gone said...

>>I'm not saying that the initial decision was right. But for reasons of continuity I'd have stuck with white Vulcans. It was just too late to suddenly discover the black ones.<<

Hmmm... Well, going by that I suppose for reasons of continuity genre stories should have remained filled with white men conquering planets and slaying dragons and what not. Because, you know, it's just to late to suddenly discover those women and minorities hanging around, who are just going to ruin the whole thing. Far better, not to mention logical, to keep those blinders of continuity on! Darn those creators for evolving..

 
At 3:41 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

I was talking about one planet in the multiverse of Science Fiction, not about keeping the fucking genre whites only.
But I don't feel the urge to discuss this anymore, as you keep twisting what I'm saying.
I'm no writer; maybe I can't argue well enough.
Well, so be it.
Think of me whatever pleases you.

 
At 6:41 PM, Blogger colin said...

You've pretty much convinced me. I never, ever want to meet Harlan Ellison.

As for black vulcans, I don't find it jarring at all, certainly less jarring than the changes in Klingons between the original series and the next generation.

Maybe the vulcan branch of Star-Fleet was discriminating against black vulcans in the old days? (I'm aware this would fly in the face of much Star Trek lore about how nice the vulcans are... but it's one explanation. Add a smiley mark if you like.)

Good, thought-provoking blog, Mr. Ballingrud.

 
At 12:54 AM, Blogger Maines said...

Well, I'm that writer who was arrogant enough to write about a black character without being black. I was taken completely off guard by Harlan's comments (not least because he was a friend of my dad's, and so knew full well my race).

I'm not a space alien, either, nor a male, nor handicapped, nor a priest, nor a widow, nor any of a number of other things that describe characters I've written about. Never gotten any grief about any of those, but Harlan wasn't the only one to react with discomfort at my writing from the POV of a black character. (He was just the biggest asshole about it.) To say that one can't write a race one isn't a member of grants race a special status of alienness--it's approximately akin to saying that race makes us sooo different we can't possibly get inside each other's heads about anything, can't understand any part of each other's lives and experiences . . . and just a bit farther down that same path lurks the justification for racism ("they're just not like us; I'm uncomfortable around them"), slavery ("they're not the same as us, they don't understand things the way we do, they're more like our livestock"), and genocide ("they are other, so it's okay to get rid of them").

The story was not, by the way, in any respect about the Black Experience (if there is one monolithic Black Experience), but rather about the specific experience of specific events of one specific character whose specific characteristics include being black. Her being black certainly played a part in those events, as did her being a woman, as did her being a schoolteacher. Oops, I'm not a schoolteacher, so I shouldn't claim to grasp the schoolteacher experience. What on earth was I thinking?!

Yup, still pissed about it after all these years.

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Hi Becky. I remembered it was your story, of course, but I didn't feel it was appropriate to bring up your name without your consent.

As is probably evident from the content of my post, I feel embarrassed about having that reaction then. I think most of it was due to the fact that I thought whatever Ellison said was gospel. I was very young.

As far as Ellison goes: as Ellen noted above, he can be downright cruel in his critiques and in voicing his judgements, and I believe that his style has become so wedded to hyperbole that it's hard to take him seriously as a critic anymore. In the interests of full disclosure, though, I'll say that I still love the work he did in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, particularly with his essays; and that I think he did as much good work for racial consciousness in SF/F as any other writer one could name.

I think Ellison takes a scorched earth policy to his critiques, too; remember the three-tapes-worth of merciless, bloody criticism one of the stories in our workshop received? Which is to say, I'm willing to believe it was an off-the-cuff, ill-considered comment, and that given time to think about the consequences of someone taking it to heart, he wouldn't have said it.

 
At 2:47 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Hey Becky!

Nathan, personally I think he would have said it, anyway. His style is not to pull back on anything. I believe he's fully aware of what he does.

I wonder if part of what has to be factored in when it comes to that critique and a few of his others is the fact that he's hilarious. He says these vicious things, but he's so funny about it that (for me at the time, anyway, and sometimes still) recognizing the mean part it doesn't sink in until much later. His approach is like the anti-Kate. Remember her approach? Kate had this sweet, supportive, cuddly approach that sent you away floating on Happy Bubbles that don't burst until later. It was a couple of days before it hit me that she had spent a very long time explaining in detail why one of my stories was trite, and really I shouldn't have wasted her time with it, and I'd better not do something like that again. (It was the fairy godmother story, if you're wondering. She *really* hated that story.) Different approach, same sort of thing. Harlan's humor and Kate's support can delay recognition of the Edgy.

But at the same time, Ellison's capacity for kindness is enormous. The Harlan story I always tell is the two hours he spent talking me down from the brink of meltdown, even though it was 1 o'clock in the morning where he was. And I didn't realize I was about to crack until he heard something in what I was saying that alerted him to what was actually going on, he drew it out of me, and then he spent almost two hours just talking - advice, anecdotes, all sorts of stuff. (He did most of the talking because eventually I was just sniffling or laughing.) I have held that conversation in my heart from that day, and still tap into it every once in a while. I will never forget what he did for me, and that he took the time to do it.

Nathan, that critique you're talking about didn't take up ALL three tapes. Just one of them. And that's the one that makes me think not enough time has passed to share some of our Harlan stories in public. Maybe in another 10, 15 years.. Perhaps not even then, though. Just remembering that one knots up my stomach.

 
At 11:11 PM, Blogger Maines said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 2:02 AM, Blogger Nalo said...

to Melantrys, who said, "There's one other thing I don't like either though: The black Vulcans in the newer Star Trek."

Yeah, I felt that way about Tuvok (Shakur). What are the odds that Vulcan races would have evolved to look exactly like Terran races? But at least it meant that Tim Russ didn't have to have a rubber trilobite glued to his forehead every day on set:
http://members.tripod.com/~ds9promenade/worf.html

 
At 12:42 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

*falls onto her knees and makes worshipping motions*

Thanks, Nalo. I was starting to feel all alone out here.

Yeah, extensive makeup can be a bit of a trial for actors, eh? I once heard that the Minbari (Babylon 5) weren't too happy either cos they couldn't really hear much with their makeup on.

 
At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pam--really liked your essay. I would have emailed you but couldn't find your email anywhere!

Read your blog regularly, too.

Harlan stories. I just think it's sad he hasn't written anything lately.

I've got Harlan stories, but I'm with one of our other Clarion instructors--talking about him is just what the little bastard wants. No matter the context. LOL!

JeffV

 
At 3:19 PM, Blogger Gone said...

Is that VanderMeer? I'm going to assume it is, because the other person with Jeff and V in the name I know doesn't sign his name that way... Hey there! How are you doing? Dude, people in Oregon have been able to find my email. Some very upset guy in Indiana has been able to find my email. A lot of white nationalists in whatever country code ends with '.de' have been able to find my email. You're just not trying hard enough.

Hope all is going well!
Pam

 
At 4:01 PM, Blogger Gone said...

For the record, Nathan, *I* did not bring this back up. Which means I am in the clear and if anybody is further upset by what I say, IT IS NALO'S FAULT. I am INNOCENT. Woo!

So, Nalo! You troublemaker. This is my take on protests that the appearance of black Vulcans in the later Trek is an act of political correctness pandering to the masses that doesn't make logical sense. And to be clear, it is *specifically* the dismissal of black Vulcans (and the rest of the non-white humanoids that appear in later Trek) as politically correct drivel which sets off my Pavlovian drool. And to hedge even more, usually when I talk about this topic with somebody it's face to face, which brings in the conversational flow that comes with connecting directly with a person standing in front of you breathing and talking and flailing their arms around and all that. But this is the Internet(s), where that sort of normal communication approach is not possible. So this is probably going to appear more lecture-like than intended.

I think the brown alien humanoids showing up in Trek is "politically correct" idea exhibits a loss of cultural memory, combined with forgetting to split the fictional reality from the real world constraints the creators of that fiction had to work around. We are all products of when and where we exist. Awareness of that always has to be factored in when evaluating any creative work.

In the fictional world of Trek, we know that it is only logical that every single one of these humanoid planets (Federation, Klingon, Vulcan or otherwise) couldn't possibly be populated only with the white version of those humanoids. But that's all we saw in the original series. That's because in the real world of the people who created the original Trek, we know that there was a limit to how much of that Othering they could throw around on screen. Which is why on the main cast we get the white boy captain's black secretary, the Asian who drives the white boy captain's car, and that's pretty much it. Occasionally, someone of pigment showed up in the background of the Enterprise; I remember there was a guy in engineering, and a couple of people on the medical staff.

Still, the presence of Uhura and Sulu was a big huge positive deal for the time period. Remember, when the original series aired it was just a few years after the VRA had been passed, networks were still *extremely* cognizant of how content would play in the South, and overt segregation was still a reality throughout the land (despite what the newfangled laws claimed). The deliberate decision of the creative staff to have those two featured in the main cast pushed the envelope and broke through significant social norms.

So the creators have made their point about human social evolution with those two. Now they've got the rest of their fictional universe to deal with. What to do? They've got stuff to say there, too, but they can't do TOO much Othering among the alien humanoid characters, because that might set off the wrong kind of alarms. The creators chose to work around it. They chose to pull back when it came to dealing with the aliens, to hedge. All the humanoid aliens encountered are either white or any other color but brown. Blue was a fave, as I recall. Also green. Strong, legitimate arguments can be made that they took the wuss way out. Equally strong argument can be made that rather than being cowards, they were being practical.

Additionally, Spock becomes the 'safe' stand-in for racial invective on the ship. (I'm using an extreme shorthand here with Spock and not getting into other stuff surrounding his character due to time constraints, and Spock could be a dissertation all by himself. He's the only original series main cast member whose coding ranges, and every single one of them could be argued as absolutely correct. We never got another character like this in any of the other series. I think that's because later on, someone like him wasn't needed. But I'm not entirely sure on that last bit. Folks have argued that Data was more broadly coded than I think he was, and I'm coming around to seeing that thought flow.

Anyways, just because the creators played the game doesn't mean they couldn't make it quite clear where their sympathies were planted. That's why we get episodes such as the one about the warring planet where the people had bodies painted white on one side, black on the other. No points for subtlety, for sure, but no room for doubt, either. Though limited by real world rules on how much Othering they could reveal onstage in their fictional world, just like creators working in different forms/genres, they used that fictional universe to critique their real world. The black/white people come to mind at the moment, probably because I just love how over the top it was and have always remembered it clearly. There were a few other obvious message episodes like that throughout the show's run.

So. Trek goes away. Years pass. Trek comes back.

It's no longer the 1960s, and the rules are no longer 1960s rules. The creators are free to populate the humans with a range of human ethnicities, and present humanoid characters of colors that include brown. Which they do. It's a small thing, perhaps, to have black Vulcans walking around as if they've always been there, but it sends a powerful message. It says we don't have to pretend anymore. It says, we know you're smart enough to realize these people were here the whole time. It says how much progress has happened in 20 years that we can introduce these brown Vulcans without having to explain why.

There is no failure in logic involved in letting these people appear, finally, now that societal rules allow them to. Obviously, not just Vulcans.. They did it throughout the series. There was the planet of the metaphor people, for example. The one with Paul Winfield in it, where Troi talks about Juliet on the balcony. (I love that episode, too, but mainly because of how it made me think about the meaning of language that I hadn't really before, and I just adore Paul Winfield.) I've had folks tell me those aliens shouldn't count in this umbrella because they were more beast than humanoid. I can see their point, but have decided that they are wrong. As I am not yet the elected empress of the universe, I have magnanimously decided to allow these people to continue to have the right to their own opinions.

Not that the later versions of Trek get a complete pass on this general issue, however. There was the hilarity of the Planet Of The Black People episode, which involved a death match to claim the blonde white woman. Truly a WTF moment. And then there was the tragedy of the Planet of the Androgynous People Which We Hope Will Make You Stop Complaining That There Are No Gay People In Trek Because Here! A Whole PLANET Of Them! Not That We're Saying They're Gay Or Anything. Or God Forbid, Bisexual. I REALLY hated that episode because it was absolute cowardice. I hated it almost as much as I hated the Mark Twan/old-time San Francisco episodes. But for purposes of this "discussion" the planet of the andro people serves to demonstrate where the current-day societal boundary exists. Or at least where it existed on broadcast outlets that are not cable. The fear of edging up on "gay" in the 1980s Trek is predicated on the same fear of edging up on "not white" in the original Trek.

I knew a guy who did a whole paper on this work created/time created thing, but he wasn't talking about Trek. His was exploring the racial dynamics and evolution of French cinema over the span of many decades. I should say I think it was French cinema...it's been a while. I do remember how I hadn't seen any of the movies he was writing about, but I got the gist of what he was saying. It made me realize that this kind of dual cue, or perhaps more accurately, this slow unfolding, is replicated throughout all forms of creative expression. Be it race, gender, class issues or the like, pick your form, pick your issue, select a range of years, and you'll see this pattern revealed.

So! There's my This I Believe. Knock holes in it.

Yes, there's a reason I didn't bring up the old Trek v. later Trek Klingons. I have an entirely different track of thought to cover them.

 
At 6:11 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

Star Trek was having a lot of problems back in the days.
We could discuss the forced kiss between Kirk and Uhura and the outrage it created in some states. That was and is a thing that is totally beyond me. They were too chicken to even let them share a real kiss, they let them be forced by some alien, and people got angry?! Sheesh. I never got and never will get that way of thinking.
And I read that some people were having a problem with Spock because he looked so devillish...

One thing they indeed missed out on all the time is a thing that was thankfully mentioned in a lot of the books I read: the green tint to the skin of Vulcans caused by their green blood.

I do understand your point of view but I do not agree that all aliens should just be copies of us. It's Science Fiction; I think we should also create interesting new creatures, even if it is something as godawfully ridiculous as the walking pizza heap, the Horta. ;)

Look, this is fiction we are talking about. Don't you think that two people might be having a different approach to it and both be right?

This "I alone hold the truth" approach is rather... um... impolite, especially if it includes twisting a person's words into something totally different.
I never said or meant some of the things you put into my mouth before. And no matter how much we argue I'll never see my statement that the introduction of Tuvok so late in the history of the Vulcans was illogical as a statement aligning with some of the things you made of it.
And neither is it likely you will change my point of view (on that one species in the SciFi multiverse!).
Does that make me a latent racist? Hell, no! I am anything but!
But I really, really felt under attack for exactly that reason, and let me tell you, that is not a nice experience.

As an aside, in case you really don't know, .de stands for Germany.

 
At 12:36 AM, Blogger Nalo said...

Nathan, this response is long. My apologies, and if you decide to let it stand, thank you for your indulgence.

Melantrys, racism can be an individual act or feeling of hatred. I don't see where BGAFWT accused you of that. Racism is also a system; a filter, and we are all soaking in it, even as some of us are trying to dismantle it. Respectfully, if someone says to you, "hey, you've just stepped in dog shit," do you get angry at them for saying that you _are_ dog shit? That's a good way to make sure they never try again to show you something you may not have perceived.

BGAFWT, I get what you're saying. I hadn't thought about it that way. Tuvok still bugs me, though, in a way that Paul Winfield's alien in "Darmok" did not. (*Love* Paul Winfield!) In fact, it never occurred to me that some people would feel about the alien in the episode "Darmok" the way that I feel about the character of Tuvok. So thanks for telling me that. Anyway, I totally agree with you that the producers get to remake the show to be more inclusive and to reflect current sensibilities. I love the idea of giving Vulcans – or any of the sentient beings in Star Trek - races, and I love the idea of actors of different races getting to play Vulcans and other Star Trek characters. What bugs me about how the Tuvok character is imagined is that it doesn't go far *enough* in bringing race into the picture. The illogic (!) of implying that the physiognomy of Vulcan races has developed in the same way as that of human races kicks me out of the story every time. For that similarity to have happened, Vulcan and Earth would have to have had the exact same geophysical and evolutionary conditions. Or is the implication that Vulcans and humans are in fact the same race? If so, where did they develop? And so on. That's the way I'm trained to think as a science fiction writer, and I want that rigour from other people's stories, too. Mind you, I thought that way before I became a writer, much to the irritation of people around me who would say, "can't you just enjoy the story?" And I'd think, but I am enjoying it. This is my way of enjoying it.

Anyway, as much as I'm thrilled to see Tim Russ in the role and would not have wanted that changed, I wish that the creators of the show had thought more about what Vulcan races might look like, rather than just slapping Spock ears on a black man. That does feel like throwing a sop to those of us aware of issues of representation in an attempt to distract us instead of really tackling the issue. Race is not only about skin tone. What other variations could they have invented? And given that a television show, like many popular art forms, is both figure and ground (ie both story and the very real human beings living in our world who enact the story), how might the creators have re-imagined Vulcans in a way that would have allowed them to hire actors of any racial background without obscuring the races of the actors, as they seem to have done with Klingons. In the first few episodes of STNG, it looked to me as thought all the Klingon actors were black or dark-skinned, which just played into the unfortunate mirroring and magnification of racial stereotypes that was becoming Star Trek habit; white folks as base neutral, Romulans and Vulcans as the dispassionate, hyper-intelligent Asians of the universe, Ferengi as the Shylocks of the universe, and Klingons as the black gang-bangers of the universe. But it looks as though someone rethought the way that Klingons were shown in that first season. And how did they tackle it? Near as I can tell, by darkening the skin colour of all the actors who played Klingons. Well yeah, that's one way to deal with it. With Vulcans, they could have experimented with another way. I stopped watching Star Trek aeons ago; did they ever do an episode in which a human being assumes Vulcan racial tensions based on physiognomy, only to have a black and white Vulcan say, "what the hell are you talking about? Can't you see that we are the same? Whereas that guy over there, the Vulcan whose ear-tips flop over? He's a different race than we are, and boy are his people ever declasse."

Okay, now I'm writing fanfic. Stopping.

A black man as the alien in "Darmok" didn't pull me out of the story, because those aliens are tabula rasa – new to the series. Why not start with a black character? We've been accepting white characters as Star Trek aliens for decades. And yeah, maybe my seeing that as different from the Tuvok character is splitting hairs. I'll have to think more about that. I do give the Star Trek creators mad props for making one of Paul Winfield's lines be, "Shaka when the walls fell;" a reference to the epic and very African story of King Shaka Zulu. For me, that satisfies my demands for conscious treatment of both figure and ground. It mostly stays within the structure of the story, but breaks the fourth wall just enough to subtly say, "not only do we acknowledge that this is a black actor, we honour his background by giving him lines that reference blackness, and we honour the contributions of African cultures to world culture by implying that an epic African story is as appropriate to be a symbol of universal archetypes as one from any other world culture."

And now people may feel free to tell me that I'm reading too much in. But hey, like Pam, I'm just looking for my reflection.

Funny thing is, I didn't have any of this reaction to the character of Belana in Star Trek: Voyager. I wonder if it's because she was lighter skinned? It would really disturb me if that were why. Or maybe it's because it's already established that Klingons are dark-skinned. And because she's half human. It's all so complicated!

It occurs to me that this topic relates to the difficulty I'm currently having with how to write fantasy that reflects the cultural diversity of my world. But I've already taken up way too much space on Nathan's blog.

 
At 1:42 AM, Blogger Gone said...

Melantrys, if your sensitivities are such that asking you to clarify or defend your position was too hurtful to bear, I apologize for hurting your feelings.

If I believed I held the One True Truth, I certainly wouldn't have ended the last post with "knock holes into it," would I? I mean, think about it.

Meanwhile, if it's true that '.de' is Germany, I lost a bet. Now I've got an ethical quandry. I COULD let him know I've lost, or I could say nothing knowing that he won't look it up and will eventually forget about it. I shall work that out between myself and my higher power. (The bet was I thought it was entirely too cliche for the Nazi notes to be coming from Germany. At first I thought they were coming from Idaho, but when informed that no USA-based email addys end with .de, I figured it was Denmark. Obviously, I hadn't bothered to look it up, either.)

Nalo, there's SO much there to engage with in your note. But you're right, we have hijacked Nathan's blog enough with all this Trek talk. What I'm going to do is get into what you've brought up on my site sometime next week.

Except to say this first ... word on the Shaka when the walls fell,' for the same reasons you state. That's one of the things that made me hold that episode dear. It was a layered acknowledgement of omissions past and current, on a show that was so obsessed with referencing European history and literature you got to wondering if the rest of Earth's cultures ever managed to contribute anything of enough significance to be remembered in the future.

Okay, Nathan! You can have your blog back, now.

 
At 2:29 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Nalo, Pam, I was happy to play host. I'm thrilled to have you here. I haven't thought this much about Star Trek since, well ... since three days ago when one of my managers at Biltmore and I were quoting Kirk and Khan lines at each other all day, much to the disgust of everyone around us.

Melantrys, I take your point about stressing the fiction in SF, and having a wider variety of aliens; I would only say that Star Trek has always styled itself as a show with a social conscience, thereby demanding that we view it through a political lens. Given this, I think the show had a self-imposed obligation to change with the times. I agree with Pam that Star Trek in the 90s and 2000s (?) was operating under different restrictions that the original show, and had to take advantage of that. Furthermore, in a universe in which we are asked to believe in a race of left-half-black/right-half-white people warring with a right-half-black/left-half-white people (Space Sneetches!), demanding a governing logic to alien genetics seems a doomed endeavor. Add to that Nalo's points about the unliklihood of Vulcans evolving in precisely the same way humans did, and you come to the point where you have to accept that realism has been discarded from the recipe. Star Trek aliens are often meant to be stand-ins for our own cultural hang-ups. I think it would have been irresponsible of them to limit themselves in more recent years due to restrictions imposed upon them in the 60s. Sometimes realism has to take a back seat to story.

 
At 8:06 AM, Blogger Melantrys said...

Well, so far I haven't bled green but maybe the little Vulcan in me demands continuous logic and realism of a story. ;)

And as the most logical approach - considering the overall desert climate - to make them dark skinned with a hint of green maybe, depending on darkness of skin, was missed when they were created I will always insist on them staying the way they were to keep things logical.

Well, Pam, except for that sentence from your second last comment that you quoted you do have a rather aggressive style of argumentation, which I am totally not comfortable with (and which to me sounds like the other one's the sole bearer of truth). Thanks for the apology. :)

The domain is German, I can assure you that, I am German. Germany - Deutschland.
I am surprised though at you getting Nazi mail in English. But then again Germanizing the regular German internet vocabulary (which uses a big range of the English terms) doesn't necessarily mean they're not able to form a sensible English sentence (for a given value of sensible in that case...).
Yes, it's very clichée, isn't it?

Aaaahh, but this is drifting far off topic....

 
At 1:10 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

Um, if I may spam some more, I'd like to say something more to Nalo (and Pam as well).

Unhappy as it would make me, as I consider myself to be a person who habitually avoids dog shit, I would want to be told if I stepped into some.
But I think concerning this particular stretch of sidewalk a lot depends on perspective and the person who's walking it. So from where Pam was standing it might very well have looked as if I stepped into it, but actually I set my foot down an inch in front of it. Now, another person taking smaller or bigger steps might have stepped right into it and possibly even slipped and taken a fall and soiled himself so badly that the term "you are shit" would have fit.
*holds up feet for inspection*
Look. All clean.

I mean that in addition to what I said about there being equally right personal opinions about the whole topic, depending on how you - for yourself - define logic, continuity and whatnot, a lot also depends on the motivation for saying what you say. If the kind of people who wrote those emails to Pam like Star Trek they might very well also say that the Vulcans should have remained white, but for a totally different set of reasons.

Upon further reflection (or rather watching the news), no matter the unthinkingly white species of the early Star Trek, the Classic Series already defined something this stupid world may never reach. World peace and overall equality (even if they were too much a "child of their time" to show it any better). They defined the Federation of Planets, and I think it's sad that even the Federation of this one planet seems to remain an elusive fiction for all eternity.
We are nothing but vicious little brats, hitting each other over the heads with their shovels in the playground... Bah.

 
At 9:05 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

What a fascinating discussion. First up, let me toss in that the earlier Jeff V was not Valka. This Jeff is.

First up, about Harlan. When I went into Clarion I wasn't in awe of the man. I never did get my story critiqued by him on the phone, and in a way, I'm glad. Watching him tear everyone to shreds without even being there left and incredibly bad taste in my mouth. After reading his introduction to the Dan Simmons short story collection, it occurred to me that what he does is to make on person the hero of the group (in our case it was Aimee), and make one person the goat. To me that's just showboating, and not very helpful in honing your writing skill. I much, much, much prefer the Kate approach. She continued to give me invaluable advice YEARS after Clarion. With Harlan, the critique session was more like watching Christians get ripped apart by lions in the Roman coliseaum. I think it had very little to do with art. I understand that Harlan is a complex and controversial guy, but that experience is my primary point of reference on him.

About race in Star Trek...I always liked Tuvok on Voyager, and the fact that he was black didn't really register with me. Truly. I thought he was a good, convincing character, and my impression was that they cast Tim Russ because he was the best actor for the job (originally he tried out for TNG and the part of Geordi, but didn't make it). I don't get too bent out of shape by all the niggling scientific details. I'm willing to suspend disbelief. There weren't any black Vulcans in the original series, but now there are. I honestly don't see the problem there.

 
At 11:59 AM, Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Melantrys: It seems to me like you're sacrificing content to continuity -- not consistency, mind, but continuity. What I mean by this: the revelation that there are black Vulcans is not *inconsistent* with the established world; at no point (as I recall) is it stated in any of the series that *all* Vulcans are white. Sure, it is not stated that there *are* black Vulcans, but neither is it stated that there are Australian Aboriginal humans in the Trek future. The introduction of an Australian Aboriginal character would not lead us to complain about inconsistency in the representation of the Federation, so why should the introduction of a black Vulcan seem *inconsistent* with the representation of the Vulcans? Why take homogeny as the base-line rather than diversity? Is this really about consistency or is it just about continuity?

And as the most logical approach - considering the overall desert climate - to make them dark skinned with a hint of green maybe, depending on darkness of skin, was missed when they were created I will always insist on them staying the way they were to keep things logical.

You accept an implausible evolutionary homogeny (all-white species on a desert planet) admitting that it's maybe a bit daft but saying, well, if that's what happened in this world then that's what happened. It is fiction after all. Fair enough.

But I can easily construct a (far more plausible, I think) scenario in which variations in climate led to the emergence of different skin colour, BUT... the turbulent past of the Vulcans (at the point where they were still linked with the Romulans, say) resulted in genocide at a level which all but eradicated Vulcan racial diversity. Hell, a truly brutal holocaust, whole-scale enough to leave only a miniscule minority of black Vulcans, would actually tie in perfectly with the Vulcan adoption of logic as a means to control their baser impulses ("Never again."); and this scenario is even, I'd say, in keeping with the characterisation of Vulcan culture as intensely private, excluding outsiders, and somewhat repressed -- tending to deny unpleasant facts that don't sit well with their dispassionate, logical self-image. One might well expect Vulcans to (self-servingly) say nothing to this to non-Vulcans. Why should others be concerned with such things, after all?

So we haven't seen a black Vulcan up until now. *shrugs* One need only assume that the proportion of black Vulcans in the population at large is so small that we have not come across them (until Tuvok's appearance) for the same reason that no Trek spaceship has -- to my knowledge -- had a Mongolian captain in any of the series. Presumably there just aren't that many Mongolian captains or black Vulcans out there.

So... OK. Not having read any of the tie-in novels, I couldn't tell you just how plausible or problematic that scenario might be with the rest of Vulcan fictive history; but unless it is explicitly stated a priori that all Vulcans are white, then the appearance on the scene of a black Vulcan is not *inconsistent*, merely *unexpected*. It is not a breach in the extrapolative logic of the setting; it is only a breach in the continuity of its representation. In the absence of an explicit "Vulcan is a desert planet but actually all Vulcans are white because..." your assumption that this is the case is just that. Your assumption.

Sorry, I don't mean to be jumping on a "jump on Melantrys" bandwagon here, but if you're following me so far then maybe I can make it clear why Pam's reaction was strong enough for you to be taken aback. OK...

So what I'm saying is that your problem with Tuvok seems to be less about *consistency* than it is to do with *continuity*. You've come to your conclusions about the way the fictive world of Vulcan works and the explanation you've gone for is that it just does -- this is the way it was, is and ever will be. It's your perogative to take that as a "working theory" but not to impose that upon the text, I'd say. My "working theory" is, I think, just as consistent. The problem is that by imposing that assumption, by rejecting the sudden discontinuity of a black Vulcan popping up with no (explicit) rationale, you're basically disallowing racial diversity on the principle that "I haven't seen a black X" equals "There are no black X" equals "There can be no black X".

That's dangerous territory, and I'm not surprised that Pam called you on it, because it's bad logic presented as good and it's the type of exclusionary assumption that, in the real world, fuels prejudice. Hell, even in fiction, I think it's dead wrong. I mean, if we accept that as a principle and apply it throughout the Star Trek universe, well... there have been no gay Vulcans. Apparently evolution (or culture, depending on whether you see sexuality as innate predisposition or developmental idiosyncracy) didn't "come up with" gay people there either.

Or in Romulans, Klingons, Ferengi, Cardassians or, for that matter, Federation humanity. Would the introduction of a gay Klingon be cause for complaint on the grounds that no Klingon has hitherto been presented as gay? Would the introduction of a gay starship captain be disallowed also? After all, one might well argue that -- if we apply a Spock-like logic here -- the absence of homosexuality in the Federation is remarkable considering the presence of homosexuality in human history. Logically speaking, surely one must look for a reason for this absence? Logically speaking, the utopian social liberalism of the Federation is quite at odds with the absence of homosexuality. Logically speaking, it would be utterly inconsistent for such a society to hold homosexuality as so abhorrent and taboo that *not one* of the viewpoint characters in twenty-odd years worth of episodes would know a single openly gay character, whether serving in Starfleet or otherwise. Logically speaking, we have references to genetic experimentation and a period of barabarism and warfare if I remember right (c.f. Khan). Logically speaking then, surely one must question whether homosexuality has, perhaps, been entirely eradicated at some point in human history prior to the formation of the Federation, in the purging of "the gay gene" from the gene pool, or in the transformation of human culture (advances in psychology, perhaps) such that homosexual "tendencies" can be and are very quickly dealt with, so that the total homogeny of heterosexuality is maintained.

See, this is the problem with continuity. It's all very well to be a stickler for the details, to require that the history of a character or species doesn't suddenly change arbitrarily. Having Spock replaced by a black actor in series two of the original, or deciding in TNG that, no, the Romulans and Vulcans aren't actually related -- those would be the sort of breaches in continuity that make nonsense of a show, because the "established facts" become premises for what follows. But taking the absence of evidence as proof of a negative, taking the previous lack of a black Vulcan as an "established fact" that *there are no black Vulcans* is taking continuity too far, I think.

How far should we apply continuity? Well, here's a simple benchmark: are the absences of black Vulcans or gay humans products of political climate or extrapolative logic on the creator's part? I stress "on the creator's part" because it really doesn't matter a damn what retroactive schema you or I project onto the text. What matters is: Is this a conscious choice on the part(s) of the creator(s)? What are they going to do with it? Does it work? I see no evidence whatsoever that those absences are to be interpreted as meaningful. They introduced Tuvok with no comment on the prior absence of black Vulcans and no apparent desire to explore extra-species racial diversity as an idea. The absence of homosexuality, meanwhile, is so thorough that (even in the "issue-of-the-week" TNG!) there's not a hint of homosexuality ever having existed.

So, if these absences are not the products of aesthetic choice, could it possibly, maybe, be that they are the products of political climate, of -- not to mince words -- simple prejudice? Isn't it just that in classic Trek they had the black female receptionist -- sorry, communications officer -- and that pretty much filled the quota as far as the studios were concerned, regardless of how much the creators wanted to get their teeth into the Civil Rights issues of the day? Or that even in the 80's & 90's, our perennial tendency towards racial stereotyping permeates TNG and DS9 in their portrayals of greedy Ferengi, conniving Romulans, cruel Cardassians, and so on? So the use of all-white hyper-intellectualist Vulcans versus all-dark barbarian Klingons is hardly surprising. Hell, isn't the absence of black Vulcans in older Star Trek -- like the absence of gays in *all* Star Trek -- simply evidence that studios are basically, for want of a better term, chickenshit?

That's when, I think, you toss the continuity. Unless you're going to do something with that absence, that void in your fictive world where the black, or the gay, or whatever should be but isn't, unless you're going to grab that obsolete heritage of prejudice and twist it round to actually do something with it (I'd love to see a Star Trek episode with the balls to show humanity having eradicated homosexuality through designer babies, or revealing the untold genocide of Tuvok's people), if you're not going to do that then you're just accepting and perpetuating the prejudices of your predecessors. Unless you revise that continuity.

That's the choice at the end of the day, if you're not going to tackle the extrapolative logic head-on: either accept the prejudices of a previous generation as the founding principles of your fictive setting and continue to exclude whole fields of possibility, or revise that fictive setting so those prejudices no longer pervade it, no longer limit you to, say, casting only white actors as Vulcans. Which doesn't strike me as good for the work or good for society as a whole.

Anyway... apologies again, Melantrys. I hope you don't feel like I'm slamming you down (especially given the length of this post!). It's just that I can see, I think, why Pam was so vigorous in her challenge. I wouldn't use the dogshit metaphor that Nalo did. I'd tend to think more in terms of land-mines. Like... you do realise where you just put your foot? One little shift forward, following on that logical path, and things go blooey. Just... as I say... that's dangerous ground.

 
At 5:28 PM, Blogger Melantrys said...

Well, I am sure sorry to have started this.

Glad it at least entertained our host.

 
At 1:06 AM, Blogger Nalo said...

Yeah, on reflection, I realised that I'd left something out of my "dogshit" metaphor: as you said, it's perfectly reasonable to inspect the bottom of your shoe, and beg to disagree that you've stepped in anything. Thanks, Melantrys.

 
At 4:46 AM, Anonymous TheMadChick said...

Hm... I must confess that I, too, thought it strange to suddenly have a black Vulcan on Star Trek.
Did I take offence because he was black? No, I took offence because he was a different colour from what I thought was the only skin colour Vulcans had.
Does this make me a racist? I don't think so. Does this make me naive? Perhaps.

I've read all your comments very carefully and while I realize that the idea to bring Star Trek up to date and finally leave all stupid restrictions concerning racial prejudice, sexual preferences and feminist issues behind is a very good idea indeed... still I've got the feeling that Melantrys does have a point. Racial diversity in Vulcans still seems strange.

Perhaps this is because I'm not as intellectual as most of you guys and gals here. Or it is because I'm too naive in some respects, like a child in the body of a grown-up person.
Let me explain.
On the one hand, as I'm not stupid, I do see the merit of pointing out that the makers of Star Trek are "children of their times", bound to the restrictions their era imposes on them and that they are cowards if they LET themselves be restricted in such a way, as Star Trek supposedly is about freedom and equality. And I applaud any move towards rectifying the faults of the past.
This is what I call the "behind-the-scenes-approach". You know, realizing that Star Trek is a work of fiction made by some people at some film studio.

On the other hand, and this is where my childishness or whatever you want to call it comes in, the Star Trek universe is "real" to me.
You see, if I read a book or watch TV or go see a movie - even if there are elves and unicorns gambolling around the meadows - on some level I accept what I see as real.
And on that level I know that Vulcans all have a light skin colour. I don't want to call them "whites" as I never perceived them as white humans. They are Vulcans and they resemble Mr. Spock. I've seen all Vulkans there are to see and they all look like Mr. Spock.
Nobody told me explicitly that there weren't any dark-skinned Vulcans. That wasn't necessary. I SAW that there weren't any.
And then suddenly Tuvok came along. That was a bit strange.

While my approach to fiction (accepting it as real, I mean) might mean I need to have my head examined, I still think I'm entitled to my opinion.
And so is each and every one of you.
Without going for each other's throats, preferably.

Peace, dudes.
Now, shake hands and make up.
;o)

 
At 1:27 AM, Blogger nomototo said...

It's an outrage and I refuse to pay it!!!

 
At 11:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How fascinating. Logically speaking Tuvok is not an anomaly. In the origional series Spock is half human. If one adds the inter-breeding of alien races with 1960's envisioned racial equality on earth, not too many light years later a black vulcan is nothing to blink an eye at.(Do I get a free Abita for that Nate?). As for the SciFi-Le Guin debalacle, they are pandering to their demographic, not science fiction idealism.
When it comes to writing from an empathetic perspective( ie: a black person) I feel it is essential to good writing, but not to fill some agenda or attempt to be inclusive so you can sleep at night, but only because the story compels you to do so.

 

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