Editors note: Amazing Stories is always open to publishing guest editorials on subjects related to genre fiction and it’s fandom(s). Chris Nuttall, formerly a regular contributor to Amazing Stories, returns to share his thoughts on diversity in both fiction and in the real world.
This is the first of several guest editorials we will be publishing over the next several weeks.
A Character Who Happens to be Black
One of the charges leveled at the Sad Puppies is that they are against ‘diverse’ characters in books (and comics, movies, TV shows, etc.) The people who level these charges are, essentially, accusing the Sad Puppies of racism, that the only reason they could possibly have for objecting to these characters is their race (or gender, or sexuality, or whatever.) It is a fairly obvious rhetorical trap. By asserting that racism is the only reason to object to these characters, they brand the Sad Puppies as racists.
This does nothing for the state of discourse in science-fiction and fantasy. The people who level these charges seem to believe that the mere act of levelling these charges grants them credence. They do not have to prove the Sad Puppies are guilty; the Sad Puppies have to prove their innocence. This is, of course, a reversal of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle that is a core of our modern society – and utterly maddening for anyone on the receiving end. I can honestly say that I have put a number of commenters on my ‘don’t pay any attention’ list because, in my rather less than humble opinion, anyone who ignores the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle does not have the best interests of SF/FAN at heart.
But are the Sad Puppies truly racist?
There is no way to gauge what is in a person’s heart. Obviously not. Nor is it possible to avoid the fact that the word ‘racist’ has been redefined and abused so often that it is now effectively meaningless. A person who objects to the colour of a man’s skin is a racist (and a bloody idiot); a person who objects to a man’s conduct is not. I do not consider it racist to question cultural aspects that clash with my own, nor do I consider it racist to insist that such aspects be stopped if they have no place in a civilised society.
I have no concrete proof to offer that the Sad Puppies are not racists. But I do have a piece of evidence that should be taken into account.
It is hard to be sure, for obvious reasons, but I think a number of the readers who read ‘Sad Puppy’ authors also read my books. Amazon does have a habit of recommending my books to people who browse their pages, after all, so it’s fairly safe to say there’s some overlap. I can’t say how big the overlap is, of course, but it is there.
In the past year, I started two trilogies starring women of colour. The Vanguard trilogy (Vanguard, Fear God and Dread Naught, We Lead) featured Commander (later Captain) Susan Onarina, a mixed-race woman (half-British, half-Jamaican) from London. And The Zero Blessing starred Caitlyn Aguirre, a young black girl who grew up in a fantasy world.
And how many complaints do you think I got?
I did not pull a Heinlein, where he convinced us to like the hero of Starship Troopers from the start – and then, at the end, casually revealed that Rico was Filipino. Heinlein wrote in an era that was less tolerant than ours – witness how he sneakily gave Podkayne of Mars a mixed-race background that would have had certain people howling in outrage, if they’d noticed. No, I made it clear that Susan was from a mixed-race background from the start – and I definitely mentioned Cat’s skin colour. (She’s on the cover of the book.)
And I still didn’t get any complaints. Why might this be so?
There’s a piece of advice – also from Heinlein – that ran “don’t be a female politician, be a politician who happens to be female.’ His point was that the former type became tribal, putting female interests ahead of male … which drew lines between them and the rest of their constituents. (Why would male voters vote for a politician who couldn’t be trusted to take their interests into account?) The latter type, on the other hand, would be more capable of mustering support from right across the constituency. If you talk too much about your identity, to use a more modern expression, people who don’t like your identity (or identity politics in general) are not going to vote for you.
This is true of characters too. If all the character has going for him – or her – is a skin colour, or a gender, or a religion, or a race … what does the character have after exhausting the possibilities that offers? Not much, perhaps. The difference between Riri Williams and Kamala Khan is that the former is ‘Black and Female Tony Stark’ and the latter is a well-developed character in her own right. She may carry the ‘Ms. Marvel’ title, but she also stands alone.
Both Susan and Caitlyn start the books as disadvantaged characters. Susan is a poor girl from a poor family, growing up in a country that is very suspicious of immigrants – even coloured men who served Britain loyally. Her background is a problem for her, despite being smart enough to win a scholarship to a very prestigious school. Caitlyn, on the other hand, comes from a very wealthy and powerful family; she was born and raised in a city where hardly anyone cares about skin colour. Her problem is that she is effectively a squib, if I may borrow the Harry Potter term, in a world where everyone has at least some magic. She is not shunned and isolated because of the colour of her skin. She is shunned because most of her peers are scared that her powerlessness will rub off on them.
These are problems that resonate with many readers, regardless of their gender or the colour of their skin. To be disadvantaged because of something beyond your control … it isn’t fair or right. It doesn’t sit well with anyone. And yet, it must be carefully handled. It’s easy to get it wrong.
People in this situation have two choices. They can retreat into themselves, blaming the world for their woes (not always without reason). They can allow depression and bitterness to overcome them, lashing out at everyone within reach. These people can become very dangerous in their own right – a number of school shooters were supposed to have felt this way – or they can be manipulated by someone else. As Sarah Hoyt put it,
“excluded groups are always a risk in any system, because you’re going to get the brilliant young man or woman who can’t advance for some reason that has nothing to do with him or her: homosexuality; gender; race; handicap…whatever it turns out to be that the society considers bad.”
Or they can rise above it and prove themselves.
Susan does not despair, even though she sees less-capable naval officers being promoted ahead of her (including her immediate superior, who has a nasty case of combat jitters). She doesn’t waste time whining about how unfair the world is, although she does have cause to feel that the world is unfair. Instead, she sets out to do her job as best as she can – and, when crisis strikes, she rises to the occasion. And it pays off for her. No one could possibly argue that she doesn’t deserve her command.
Cat, being younger, does tend towards despair a time or two. But she keeps going anyway, despite bullying from her sisters, disappointment from her parents, resentment from less senior members of the family and the disdain of the outside world. She studies magic, she buries herself in ancient lore, she finds ways to push back, she works hard to develop the skills she does have … and it pays off for her. She isn’t a magician in the standard sense and never will be. But she does have talents of her own and those talents make her very important indeed, after she developed them.
Neither Cat nor Susan ever gave up. And that, I think, makes them likable.
Susan is a composite character, based on a handful of people I’ve met over the years. Cat, on the other hand, draws from a girl I met in university. She was around nineteen, when I met her, a black girl who wore a headscarf (I think her family was from Somalia.) And she couldn’t use her legs, not at all. She moved around in a hand-powered wheelchair. It wasn’t easy for her to get from place to place, even though the university was designed to be wheelchair-friendly. And she never gave up.
I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had, to be honest. She came from a traditional family, one that probably expected her to get married as soon as she graduated. And yet, she couldn’t get married. She had very little hope of a decent future, certainly not one in line with the traditional expectations of her culture. Somehow, she kept going anyway. And I found that admirable. (I like to think she graduated and went to work somewhere where they recognised her brainpower and made allowances for her limited mobility.)
There’s a character in one of the Draka books – I’ve forgotten his name. A brilliant nerd: spotty, overweight, hellishly unattractive to women and yet desperate for sex and companionship. And the Draka convince him to defect by offering him the sex and companionship he so desperately craves. It’s an understandable desire, isn’t it? How can anyone blame him for jumping at the call? And yet, he’s a traitor who went to work for a monstrous society that will enslave the entire world. How can he be considered a good guy? The way he was treated does not justify his actions. (The same could be said of Professor Snape.)
Many of the best stories, the most inspirational stories, are about people rising to the challenge and overcoming their circumstances. It doesn’t matter, in a very real sense, if the characters are climbing a mountain, engaging in combat or fighting a very personal battle for survival. The important thing is that they faced the challenge honestly and overcame it. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a black Navy SEAL or a widow struggling to make ends meet after her husband was drowned in a flood. All that matters is that they are seen to face a challenge and overcome it …
… And they do it through their own efforts.
I admit it, I’ve always disliked stories with endings where the protagonist gets everything handed to him (or her) on a plate. I don’t discount the role of luck in just about everything, but there is a difference between deserved luck and something that seemingly comes at random. The orphan whose dead father left her a large fortune – after most of the book is spent in drudgery – isn’t unsympathetic, but she isn’t very inspirational either.
And I’ve always disliked stories where the protagonist is clearly favoured by the writer.
It’s a common problem in message fiction, whatever the message. The designated heroes can do no wrong within the story, whatever the reader might think. (The most appalling example I can recall is probably the Left Behind books.) And when a character is touted as a ‘character of colour,’ it becomes easy to mock them. For example, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown features Zacharias Wythe, the first black Sorcerer Royal. On one hand, many of his enemies dislike him because of his skin; on the other, as I noted in my review, Zacharias is a decent man who’s out of his depth and there are plenty of reasons to want to remove him that have nothing to do with the colour of his skin. Those reasons – and reasons to dislike the female protagonist – are not discussed in the book. Reviewers who praised the book for its discussion of ‘microaggressions’ missed the point. Just because a character happens to be a ‘diversity’ character doesn’t mean he’s the right man in the right place.
A character is a mixture of attributes, which include skin colour, gender, sexuality and suchlike. But one of those attributes cannot be allowed to dominate the rest. That, I believe, was one of the Sad Puppy points; that characters – and authors – were being written and boosted because they ticked a diversity box, rather than being good characters and good authors in their own right. None of the Sad Puppies ever told me that I was writing a gimmicky character, or pandering to part of the readership at the cost of alienating everyone else. Because neither Cat nor Susan were coloured characters.
They were just characters who happened to be coloured.
Note: The views expressed in this guest editorial do not necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories, nor of its many individual contributors.
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