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i pity the fool

Every damned time the topic of diversity in SFF comes up, somebody says something about "Well, if the story demands that the character be queer/disabled/black/trans/female/postcolonial/feminist, that's one thing. But if you're just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you're bound by ideology, and that's bad art."

...
... ...
... ... ...

...because able Western white cis het male is the default. Because the viewpoint character being an able Western white cis het male totally doesn't inform the narrative, and has no influence in the way the world is presented, because that's the only viewpoint that really exists, and the rest of us are all flavor text. We're spices. We're here to be observed and consumed. To break up the monotony a little bit, or to provide an Issue that can be discussed in the course of the narrative. Because by writing crippled queer fat black Asian gay lesbian trans intersex non-neurotypical African Sikh Muslim Hindu Latino female whatever, we're sure as hell not reflecting the narrative, the experience of millions of real people who have a real existence and a narrative and a right to exist and tell stories and have voices and be heard.

And those people only can be in stories if they're their to illuminate some aspect of the crippled queer fat black Asian gay lesbian trans intersex non-neurotypical African Sikh Muslim Hindu Latino female whatever experience to the able Western white cis het male gaze****.

Because we sure as hell don't have our own stories to tell.

*facepalm*

You know what?

I am reminded of the old joke about Heaven being full of parties, and Saint Pete giving somebody the tour so he can decide who he wants to hang out with. And when they finally get to the one quiet room, the new recruit is all excited, and is like, "ZOMG WHO'S THIS!?"

And Saint Pete says, "Shhh! It's the Westboro Baptists! They think they're alone up here!"

...screw those guys. I know where the party is.

I invite all y'all to mention in comments recent***** books by authors or with protagonists of diverse backgrounds that are very worthy of further attention.

I'll start.

Karen Lord -- The Best of All Possible Worlds
Caitlin R. Kiernan -- The Drowning Girl: A Memoir
Ellen Klages -- The Green Glass Sea
Saladin Ahmed -- Throne of the Crescent Moon
Charles Yu -- How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

(and many more)



***A brief digression. If you will bear with me, please let me explain a bit about my relationship with the term "politically correct." As far as I know, it originated as a critique of Stalinist policies in the 1940s, and "political correctness" was then considered to mean "in line with Stalinish policies." But I first encountered it in the radical lesbian separatist/feminist movement of the 1980s--which is my native culture and the reason I claim I can't actually write insider stories for anybody who still exists except elisem, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Elizabeth Lynn**--and at that point it was an ironic usage that referred to being in line with the kind of anti-male, anti-het, anti-trans rhetoric--the kind of doctrinal purity--that is today described by the term "radfem."

I own me a lapel button that reads "Politically Incorrect." I bought it for twenty-five cents at the New England Women's Musical Retreat in 1982. I was nine years old*.

I have not entirely adapted to the modern Right Wing/antifemnist/ usage of "Politically Correct" to mean "people who don't suck at compassion." I feel a little appropriated, to tell you the truth. And a little put out.

Fuckers.

*My street cred. I shows U it.
**I went home again. It had turned into a convenience store.
****Charlie Stross calls these the 7Ps: pale protestant parochial patriarchal something penis people (ETA: "Pale Patriarchal Plutocratic Protestant Penis People of Power")
*****Let's say, this millenium

Comments

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So, I open my phone... mostly to discover that I have a lot of books on it that aren't from this millennium. Or that have protagonists who are from fictional enough worlds that their racial ethnic background doesn't really translate. (Say, most anything by Ursula K Leguin.)

But let us try Flora Segunda, by Ysabeau Wilce

(Of course, the next two books in queue - I actually have books in queue! - are Shattered Pillars and then Alif the Unseen, but I haven't yet read them.)

ETA: Oh, and yeah, it is kind of weird to see PC used without irony. (My early exposure was on the separatist side of things, as such, well, not mostly, anyway, just growing up in a queer neighborhood in Seattle. And every time I even think that, I feel like I should kiss the ground and give thanks, because darn, I mean, that's where I grew up.)

Edited at 2013-03-20 11:19 am (UTC)
That's the first time I've seen that joke tailored to "Westboro" Baptists...it's usually just "Baptists".

Which is why it's the only joke I can and do tell! (I AM a Baptist, but a very, very liberal one that thinks God actually has a sense of humour!)

Your post reminded me of the stink over the movie "Sucker Punch", where most of the fanboy commentary was confused and women either got it or not. I recall lots of fanboys moaning about women in their SF/F, rather like those commercials about "...You got peanut butter on my chocolate!!"

One of my favourite collections of SF stories was back in the late 1970's--I no longer recall the title (although I still have it at home), but it was the first set of SF stories I ever read where the leads were almost all entirely NOT Wonder Bread heterosexual American cowboys shot into space. Often, the stories wouldn't give you a real clue of the sexual identities of the leads/narrators until the very end. My fave was called "The Loverbirds", where these two aliens crash-land on Earth and have this inadvertent side power to inspire love in whomever saw them, so they became popular the world over. It's only at the end when one of the aliens attempts to communicate with a closetted-gay astronaut and indicates "...we're like YOU". Turned out the females of the alien race were entirely different (bigger, rounder; almost a different species) and the two 'loverbirds' were a gay couple trying to escape their own repressive planet.

Grey :)

I know enough Baptists to know that version is inaccurate. *g* (I've also heard it told with some version of "God-Botherers.")

Having been personally told I'm going to Hell on more than one occasion, I find it a joke with some utility.

Thanks for the books!
somebody says something about "Well, if the story demands that the character be queer/disabled/black/trans/female/postcolonial/feminist, that's one thing. But if you're just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you're bound by ideology, and that's bad art."

With the unspoken counterpoint that the lack of representation, hell, the provable CULLING of these people from the narrative allows for GOOD art.

Fuck that shit.

Also, mind if I plug a relevant kickstarter?
Fuck that shit, entirely.

I suspect I know the kickstarter you mean, and I'm all for it.
Off my bookshelves - in addition to the aforementioned Throne of the Crescent Moon, there's:

Tobias S. Buckell - pretty much everything except possibly his Halo tie-in. A particular nod to the Apocalypse Ocean, newest in his series (sufficiently standalone I am told for new readers, though i am not a new reader and can't swear to it)
N.K. Jemisin - a particular nod to The Killing Moon and the Shadowed Sun
Kij Johnson - Fudoki
MArtha Wells - Wheel of the Infinite
Nalo Hopkinson - the latest one I have is the New Moon's Arms, I'm behind.
Joseph Boyden - Three Day Road (a Cree sniper in WWI and (Mostly, i think) healing in its aftermath - on my to-read bookcase so I can't swear to its awesome)
Tomson Highway - Kiss of the Fur Queen (Two Cree brothers, the Canadian Residential Schools system, their lives after: Lit-fic with a scattering of what we'd call magic realism and the author would consider just how things are in their worldview. stunning.)
Kate Elliott - Cold Magic, Cold Fire (and soon Cold Steel)
Elizabeth E. Wein - All of the Arthurian/Aksumite series except the Winter Prince (I don't know if Code Name Verity contains diverse cast, I've been trying to stay unspoiled because even my spoiler-friendly peeps seem to be saying don't spoil it)
Hiromi Goto - Half World
Malinda Lo - Ash, Huntress
Numerous works by Our Hostess

And those are the easy picks done by looking around the room. No doubt I'll kick myself when I look at the shelves int he other room, too. And going to Amazon or a bookstore - this stuff isn't even hard to find anymore.
Never mind the other room, I missed Midnight Riot (Noted by someone else below) because it was behind the door and Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian just because I am a moron. Also Melissa Scott's Shadow Man.

Would Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword count?
My list includes comics and short story collections because that's most of what I've been reading lately!

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Animal Crackers by Gene Luen Yang
Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Glitter Kiss by Adrianne Ambrose & Monica Gallagher
August Moon by Diana Thung

Actually since you said books and not novels I'ma bust out some BOOKS OF POETRY:

Here, We Cross -- beautiful anthology of poems from Stone Telling's Queer issue.

The Moment of Change -- AMAZING anthology (we are talking WORK OF SCHOLARSHIP here) being the first antho of Feminist Speculative Poetry out there, edited by Rose Lemberg.
I should hav said "works," in point of fact.

Which would allow me to mention the entire discographies of Amal El-Mohtar, and Ken Liu...

Aliette de Bodard's Blood & Obsidian books!

Charlie Stross' 7 Ps:

Pale Patriarchal Plutocratic Protestant Penis People of Power

Thank you for writing this, btw.

Re: Charlie Stross' 7 Ps:

Excelsior. I could not remember them all, not google them up. Thanks!
Zoo City and Moxyland by Lauren Beukes.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

A special shout-out for Jo Graham's Numinous World trilogy: Black Ships, Stealing Fire and Hand of Isis, which include not only non-male, non-white, non-het characters, but a whole exploration of gender and identity over the course of their saga and even has at least one poly relationship. She's now in the midst of a Napoleonic Era trilogy, which takes her into pretty white territory, but is still very much exploring sexuality, gender and the essentials of identity.

And Le Guin is still at it! Her recent YA trilogy, The Annals of the Western Shore not only features non-white characters, but puts their faces on the covers!

I'm working my way through The Mongoliad by everyone. There are lots and lots of non-white characters and several central female characters in that.

Melissa Scott's dependable for characters outside the 7P box. Her Astreiant books (written with Lisa Barnett) are set in a world where much of the power resides in the hands of women in a way that is nicely startling.

Stephenson's Reamde has an African-American woman as one of its protagonists and several other non-white characters. Although I have some issues with his portrayal of women and the signifiers he's developed for "this is a woman," he's really put work into his depiction of women and I give him kudos for not just trying, but trying repeatedly and taking criticism and getting better at it.

Moving out of genre, at least somewhat, I'll mention Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. There's also Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books, which have race, gender, sexuality and mental health issues woven all through them.

I'm looking forward to lots of new recommendations!


Edited at 2013-03-20 12:33 pm (UTC)
"Eutopia," by Poul Anderson.

But you won't find out why until well into the tale :)

Historical note: though it's in many respects a standard crosstime travel story, the twist was considered shocking enough when it was written that it was in Dangerous Visions for that reason alone. And it's one entirely integral to the AH assumption -- Poul Anderson didn't just throw it in to be either PC or shocking.
It makes me a truly sad panda that we're knee deep in the 21st Century, and we still NEED to have this argument with people. It's like they completely forgot about the 70s and 80s and trying to break all of this shit down. I get exhausted just thinking about the amount of effort it takes to pretend there are no other people in this world. I often wonder how the hell do folks can live every day in this wilful state of ignorance/denial?

~signed, a Bipolar, Broke, Overweight, Canadian, mostly-white, Bisexual male of very little distinction (and probably still a sweaty little creep, besides)
(I tried to leave a comment just a bit ago, but got lost in login screens. Apologies if it double posts!)

I recently read and really enjoyed Karen Lord's book. I also recently read N.K. Jemisin's Killing Moon (Dreamblood) which had some interesting and diverse characters.
Healey's The Shattering remains one of my favorite books of recent years, and fits the bill (her current novel, When We Wake, is amazing and has a diverse cast of wonderfully realized characters, but the protagonist herself is heterosexual, cis, and white).
Immortals of Meluha and Secret of the Nagas, first two books in the Shiva Trilogy, by Amish Tripathi (book 3 has just come out).
Who Fears Death and Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okarafor
Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon
Of what I've been reading recently...

Well, setting aside our host's books, I read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, which is set in Nigeria and features three Nigerian and one African-American protagonist.
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard. And all (?) of her short work that I've read.

And a lot of stuff others have mentioned.
Jesse Bullington's The Enterprise of Death. It's not a *nice* book, and keeps startling me with the macabre. But it's about necromancers in Spain right after the expulsion of the Muslims. So, historical fantasy based on corpses. The main characters come from a variety of backgrounds that express the real and legitimate diversity of that time and place. (Also, it's macabre. Did I mention that?)
But there's no diversity in Medieval/Renaissance Europe! It was all white dudes! And there were only 200 of them!

Sounds like a neat book, actually.
Yeah, it really gets to me that the people who are chanting "You must be true to THE ART, and only put in characters that are appropriate for the story THE ART wants you to tell" so often just coincidentally end up reading, recommending, and writing books that are overwhelmingly about straight white dudes. Apparently THE ART is a bigot?

So, books with protagonists/authors of diverse backgrounds:

Breadcrumbs, a bittersweet and brilliant MG retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen story, in which the protagonist is a PoC child adopted by white parents, in a midwest town where almost no one else looks like her.
Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot), set in a London as diverse as it actually is, with a protagonist of mixed race.
Fox & Phoenix, a YA adventure fantasy novel of distinctly non-European derivation.
Liar, by Justine Larbelestier, has a mixed-race bisexual protagonist. (Also, there are maybe werewolves.)

From a different medium, Family Man is a webcomic (some of it also collected into graphic novels) with a Jewish-by-race, Christian-by-family not-quite-atheist protagonist in 1768 not-Germany. Also there are maybe werewolves. (Straight white man protagonist, yes, but there's a lot of complicated minority/Othering stuff going on with him and the eventual second protagonist, so I think it qualifies.)
The Amulet is a children's graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi that's strong, increasingly complex fantasy with great art.
Weirdly, the more true I am to The Art, the less 7Ps my work gets. The Art apparently wants stories about, like queer women from me! (And everyone else.)

And I am a card carrying woo-as-all-get-out "I write The Story as it is!" writer. And I guarantee the better I've gotten at that, the more diverse the backgrounds, outlooks, body-variables and other issues have gotten.

So I dunno. I guesx their Art is a dick.
Just a few
Isthar - by Cat Sparks, Kaaron Warren and Deborah Biancotti
the Princess books - Jim Hines
Clockwork Rocket - Greg Egan
God's War (and sequels) - Kameron Hurley
Nation - Terry Pratchett
Love and Romanpunk - Tansy Rayner Roberts
Anticopernicus - Adam Roberts

Just squeezing in:
Ash: a secret history - Mary Gentle

Anything by Laurie J. Marks.
word.
But I always through that the whole point of reading was the opportunity to learn about people who are not exactly like you? To have the opportunity to experience lives other than your own?

I also wonder if some readers just don't notice characters who are "other" and automatically make them like themselves in their heads. The Wasband was a huge fan of David Weber's Honor Harrington series. But somehow he had failed to notice (until I pointed it out to him, actually made him go back and read the descriptions) that Honor's best friend from school was black (she's described as having skin that matches the space black of her naval uniform). And because her best friend was black, that meant that her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, was also black. Despite reading and re-reading several books in the series, he'd totally failed to notice that the most powerful ruling family in that quadrant of space was non-white.
Witness the outcry of bigots against a black girl playing a black character in THE HUNGER GAMES.
Applauds.
I think that the author should craft the characters for the story, and if he or she does this, "diversity" will take care of itself, assuming that the author is aware of human diversity. Operating with a checklist and going, "Ok, I have a character who's black, good; ah, there's one who's gay, good; wait -- nobody's disabled, have to have someone disabled, even though my world has instant full-body regeneration tech" is just silly. Doing so cheapens and degrades one's Art; let characters be what your own desires and knowledge of the world tell you that they are. I've noticed, personally, that your characters seem to fit into their stories; if you're diversity-checking, then you're doing so very subtly. Maybe you just naturally assume that people are of diverse racial, ethnic, religious etc. origins? I know that I do ...

And I'm well aware of what the opposite would look like, and why it would feel wrong. I read a heck of a lot of Interwar Era (1920's-1930's) science fiction, because that's what I mostly run in Fantastic Worlds, and it is weird to compare their depiction of the society of the day with what I know it was like (my father was running around the streets of New York in that period, and told me lots of stories). Every major good-guy (from America or Britain, anyway) is a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, with anyone even as "exotic" as Catholic Irish or German Jewish being played for laughs as total stereotype, with virtually no identity beyond stereotypical (or, very rarely, anti-stereotypical) attributes; as for blacks or Hispanics, they exist purely as servants and field workers. This strikes me as more than a little bit weird, especially when I know that the writers themselves were often non-WASP's.

I dislike the term "politically correct" because it is based on a totalitarian assumption: that the speaker just knows what is politically "right" or "wrong" and that any disagreement with the speaker is to be construed as evidence of the sin of the dissident. In my experience, that is exactly how the term has historically been used, often to the extent of the speaker simply labelling a particular dissent "incorrect" rather than actually-addressing why he or she considers it to be false (in the logical sense of the term).

Among other things, this allows political correctness to be used to support bigotry, provided that the target group has become unfashionable. A good example of this is the way in which anti-Semitism is once more on the rise in Europe, to the cheers of politically-correct intellectuals who have decided that Zionism is politically-incorrect, and that it is acceptable to attack Jews in general for this.

This was true of political correctness from its Stalinist and Maoist beginnings: it was used to attack dissidents in a manner which rendered illegitimate their dissent. And that's how it's used today.

I also notice that a lot of people calling for "diversity" do not give credit to the science fiction of the last half-century for its extreme diversity of character, especially when the writers in question fail to be politically-correct in other matters. For instance, Poul Anderson, David Drake and David Weber have notably written about protagonists (and major supporting characters) with a wide variety of backgrounds, but most politically-correct fans don't like to acknowledge this because Poul Anderson wrote libertarian and the Davids write military science fiction.

In any case, once we get beyond the near future, the prejudices of the present day are very unlikely to remain meaningful. New forms of bigotry will doubtless replace them -- that's human nature.

Sadly.
But if you're just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you're bound by ideology, and that's bad art.

If you put diversity in a story just to be pc, then yes, it's likely to be bad art. There are *much* better reasons to go for diversity. Like, creating a true living world and a new perspective for the reader to sample. And the writer gets to see the world through different eyes -- isn't that one of the reasons we write?
I'm pretty sure nobody actually "puts diversity in a story just to be PC."

Just to thoroughly identify the straw man.
Because too many people use that as an excuse to erase me from existence.

You might be surprised to find out that I feel the same way, for a slightly different reason. If you look at my photo on Fantastic Worlds, you might instantly see the reason why.

http://fantasticworlds-jordan179.blogspot.com/

Both my wife and myself have faced discrimination, including personal attacks on the street and from government-supported agencies, for this reason. And no, it's not because we're white ...

... it's because we're fat. Which you (commendably) put on your list of diversities.

Know how many times it's annoyed me to hear a writer rhapsodize on about the wonderful physical shape of his main characters as if he were outlining a moral virtue? Or having only villains and idiots be even slightly overweight? And this includes many writers whose writing I otherwise love, which makes it all the more painful.

And no, I wasn't trying to "derail" you. I was pointing out that if one honestly believes in diversity, it takes care of itself: if one does not assume that the hero is white, for instance, then one can write the hero as white, black, brown, whatever fits one's vision. The notion that one has to make an effort to avoid having the main character be white-hetero-male is itself somewhat bigoted: it implies that there is someting wrong with being someone who isn't, but that by dint of great effort we can include them too. You don't see why that might not be just a little bit patronizing?
The societal default is white hetero male; it has a gravity well, and writing anything else is pushing uphill. We live in a kyriarchal society: it informs and infects all of us, whether we "honestly" believe in diversity or not.

(I don't have to believe in diversity. It's demonstrably real. It exists. It's a thing. I believe in representation.)

The thing you are accusing me of in your last paragraph is exactly the mindset I am arguing against: that there is something *wrong* with not being "the default," and that the story has to be about that character not being the default to have any validity.

Body type acceptance is indeed a major issue in fiction, and fat=evil is one of my least favorite tropes.

Edited at 2013-03-20 03:36 pm (UTC)
Lots of lovely reading ops here....I have a lot of these books but it's always lovely to see more.

PC was also somewhat ironically and not-so-ironically used in activist Democratic party politics during the 80s and 90s to exclude feminists/POC/anyone who didn't toe the line for the Carter/Clinton heterodoxy, at least that was the case in Oregon. In some circles it was more acceptable to be Republican than a supporter of, say, Jerry Brown, and any uppity woman who didn't play footsie with The Powers That Be got told to go off to the Citizen's Party or Barry Commoner or Ralph Nader (yes, I was told that to my face and this was after many years of working and striving to establish cred and holding local and statewide party offices. I was insufficiently politically pure and a lot of that had to do with being a moderate leftist rather than a right centrist). The only women/queer/people of color allowed in the big tent were those who didn't fight the Democratic Party's move to the right and those of us who were trying to fight that rightward trend were not-so-ironically told we were Politically Correct and to get the hell out.

Which led to the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000, because after a while, you keep pushing people out, then they decide to take their marbles and play elsewhere.

(chuckles bitterly. Things could have been drastically different. But my perspective is an insider view not shared by all.)
I've never known anyone put someone into a story because of 'diversity' either.
...But if you're just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you're bound by ideology, and that's bad art."

Or a third possibility ("Oh noes don't make me count to three!"): that the writer is just trying to get the reality part right. That part of the job where the description of stepping out the back door on a cold morning is so well-observed that the reader is transported to a moment in his life of breathing out fog and blinking against the slanting light.

But if the reader has never noticed the cold, the fogged breath, the angle of the light--if the reader hasn't been aware, really aware, that all moments aren't the same moment--he may call that description filler, artsy-fartsy shit, pretentious writing. Bad art.

Or maybe, the next time he steps out into a cold morning, that description will come back to him, illuminate and transform that moment for him, and he'll feel a little thrill of being connected to other people, places, and times. Every moment will cease to be the same moment, if only for a while. And the more often it happens, the longer the effect lasts, until awareness becomes a habit and a joy.

A writer who tries to get the reality part right is trying to deepen her or his relationship with the world, with the reader, with her or his own perceptions and beliefs. The reward for that is good art, not bad.
Gosh, you're smart.
Sherwood Smith's Banner of the Damned is the first fantasy novel I've come across where the protagonist is a for really Asexual character. (The story does suffer a little bit from trying to explain to normals- er- people whose orientation isn't "no thank you" what that actually means... but, hey, I'll take what I can get.)
Oh! I must get a copy of this book--as an asexual myself, I've never come across a book with an asexual character. Thus I am intrigued.
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