Monday, 4 May 2015

Making things that shouldn't matter not matter.

I was reading a post on an indie author facebook page today in which the author stated that sci-fi was inherently racist and sexist, and while it's a bold statement (and one that has been posed before many times) it may have some truth in it. Or it may not. Allow me to expand on my muddled and ill-thought-out point.

I must admit that I haven't read enough sci-fi to make a firm judgement on that statement, although I will agree that the majority of protagonists in the books that I have read are white males. Is this a reflection on the writers, the society they inhabit (or inhabited as the majority of sci-fi I read seems to be from before the 70's) or the publishers? I have no idea, and it's too damn complicated to go into here.

Well, I'll go into it a bit, and I'll start by looking at my own work.

Of the sci-fi novels I have written (The Binary Man, The Real Thing and Just One Day), all have had white male protagonists, although The Binary Man does effectively have three main characters, with the other two being a woman (Alice Howe) and Japanese by birth (Toshihiro Sato). Looking back on the story I can't recall race ever coming up as anything other than a brief initial description to add a bit of narrative juice (I chose Japan for his birthplace as I have visited the country a few times so can describe it with more confidence than most places, USA included), and Alice's gender only really came to the fore during a couple of minor plot points with Yannick and Mickey, before becoming irrelevant again. It was certainly never a hindrance, although she did require the clichéd "saving" by Yannick (but then again everyone did!). I must admit that my default protagonist always seems to be me before branching out (partly because so many of my ideas come from dreams, where I'm me, natch).

I have never considered race to be worth mentioning as a point of difference with regards to characters, and if any of my sci-fi had taken place further into the future then skin colour and birthplace would have been irrelevant anyway. If someone is born on Ganymede would they really have an issue with someone from a certain region of Earth? What if there were generational changes to bodies based on the location of human colonies, such as squat, hairy bodies from high gravity/low temperature worlds, or long gangly hairless bodies from the opposite conditions? Would that cause issues over and above other less drastic racial differences?
Are all races going to mix in the future to create a single skin colour? Maybe, or maybe not, but I would hope that in the face of a six legged insectoid silicon-based millipede, they would consider the human next to them as kin. My children are mixed race and trying to pigeonhole them is pointless (they’re just wonderful people). They play with kids of every culture and race with equal joy, and hopefully they will never learn the idiocy of prejudice.

I hope I’m expressing the point I’m trying to make well enough. Let me use an example: Red Dwarf had two black main characters in Lister and Cat, and it was never mentioned, either positively or negatively. Class was, and economic standing, and these are the things that will most likely endure (as great a shame as that is, and despite Star Trek’s moneyless wishing). Rimmer was born on Titan, which was mentioned, and Lister was born in Liverpool, which was mentioned, but skin colour wasn’t. Craig Charles (Lister) mentions this on the documentary accompanying the episode Dimension Jump.

“It’s a top rated BBC sitcom where two of its leading participants are of colour, and the colour of their skin is never mentioned, race is never an issue. It kind of says that in the future, where once we came from Africa one day we’ll come from everywhere. It’s all just a melting pot, and race won’t be an issue in the future.”

I tend to write dystopia, but having no racial issues is a utopian ideal that I happily put into my books.

With that in mind, I’d like to approach the idea of a protagonist’s gender in the same way, which is why the protagonist in my next sci-fi story is a woman. She is a woman, and this fact is irrelevant. Let me explain, or try to.

The premise of the story is a human one (I won’t go into more details as the plot is still in flux), not a gender specific one, so it makes no difference to make the protagonist a woman. Why do it then? It is most certainly not due to any notion of tokenism, but rather to make me less lazy in my writing. The character was initially a male early forties bodyguard with a beer gut, a colourful vocabulary and cybernetic eyes. None of this needs to change if the protagonist is a woman, but it adds something extra. It’s more interesting, and it’s less stereotypical from both perspectives. I’ve always hated stick-thin big-boobed sex fantasy heroines as much as square jawed ‘complicated’ heroes. How many heroines have you read with a saggy belly? Why would a woman who had been trained for as long as a man be any less capable of being a bodyguard? Ripley from Alien – come on now, she’s mighty, and not a ‘weak-at-the-knees’ romantic sub plot in sight (apart from a few glances between her and Hicks). Proof that going outside of the mould can produce some great results.

So yeah, after all of that rambling I’m no closer to knowing whether there truly is an issue or whether it is a trend, or coincidence, but I’m going to mix it up for its own joy anyway.

Introducing Verna Walden, bodyguard and badass, and heroine of (one of my) WIP. Enjoy!

PS – I know this is a contentious topic, and comments are welcome. Please note that any flippancy is not malicious, and I just love you all.

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