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History Through Two Lenses: On Watching Star Trek/TOS

Until very recently, my Star Trek literacy was shockingly low, at least by the standards of my uber-nerdy social group. I had conscientiously watched the two new JJ Abrams movies, more-casually watched two original movies (so casually, in fact, that while I’m sure that I’ve technically seen Wrath of Khan, I couldn’t tell you what the other one was), and caught a scattered handful of episodes from TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So when Husband and I found ourselves in search of a new show for our weeknight evenings, I suggested we start Star Trek from the beginning. If nothing else, I figured, it’d give us a nice long stretch before we had to worry about choosing another show.

We’re still in the earliest stages at this point, Season One of the original series, and I’ve already noticed my Star Trek literacy increasing. I know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is now; I also feel much better able to appreciate the satire of John Scalzi’s fabulous novel Redshirts. That said, I find that my purest enjoyment of the show is happening on the meta level — in fact, on two different meta levels. Whenever we hit hit one of those inevitable moments that cause people to roll their eyes at TOS, Husband cringes, turns to me and says “I promise it gets better!” And every time, I shrug and say “Sweetheart, I’m a storyteller and a sociologist. I’m fascinated by all of it.”

Some of the conscious liberal philosophy built into the original Star Trek seems to be fairly common knowledge even outside the Trekkie fan base. I already knew, for example, that TOS was the site of TV’s first interracial kiss. I also knew about Roddenberry’s carefully considered decision to make the bridge of the Enterprise a multiracial, multinational place, and I’d heard Nichelle Nichols’ fabulous retelling of her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he talked about the importance of the American people’s seeing a black actress playing something other than “a black role.” But there were other elements of show design and storytelling that I wasn’t aware of until I started watching. In the first pilot episode, which features an almost entirely different crew, we see that Roddenberry originally intended for the Enterprise to have a female first officer who (gasp!) wore the same uniform as the men.That level of equal treatment might not have made it into the later series (I’m looking at you, miniskirts and go-go boots), but there’s still plenty of ideology in TOS that I don’t think was par for the course in 1960s TV. One early episode, “The Arena,” boldly suggests that even “bad guys” rarely see their own actions as evil-for-evil’s-sake. Another, “The Menagerie,” features a character with substantial physical disabilities, who can’t easily communicate with his peers, as one of the judges in a court-martial, implying that his judgment is as sound as anyone else’s. The episode isn’t perfect — there’s some unexamined disabilism elsewhere, and the ending’s  pretty problematic — but coming more than 20 years before the passage of the ADA, it still seems very forward-thinking.

In addition to marking the places where the show was ahead of its time, I’m having fun picking out moments where the attempts at progressivism haven’t aged quite so well, or where it didn’t occur to the creators to question their base assumptions. There’s one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” where the walk-on heroine ends up living happily ever after because she just has to BELIEVE she’s beautiful to be desirable to men. In an era when women were still expected to wear makeup every day, I see what they were trying for, but it looks dated to modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Kirk’s endless string of nameless love affairs: I’ll just go out on a limb here and guess that even if Majel Barrett‘s first officer had remained a part of the series after the pilot, she would not have been engaging in such “wanton” behavior. As entertaining as the social commentary is, though, what I find most interesting is unpacking the plot tropes.

Unsurprisingly, TVTropes.com has a lot to say about Star Trek, but I found this passage particularly illustrative:

The show’s writing was good, the cast had great chemistry and the characters themselves were very memorable, to the point of creating three new archetypes: The Kirk, The Spock, and The McCoy. In fact, this series created so many new tropes that it has left an unmistakable mark on both television and pop culture ever since. Not to mention inspired a lot of mostly affectionate parodies.

Whenever I’m watching an episode, I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the norms of sci-fi storytelling developing before my eyes. In the evil twin episode, “The Enemy Within,” when a transporter malfunction basically splits Kirk into id and superego, “evil Kirk” spends most of his energy screaming and attacking people, making him eminently distinguishable from “good Kirk”; it’s only at the end of the episode that we begin to see the writers playing with the idea of not being able to tell them apart. When the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror,” where the Enterprise is forced to violate the Romulan “neutral zone” in a presumed act of war and then discovers that the Romulans look a little too much like Vulcans (certainly not an allegory about either the Cold War or the suspicion that fell on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor), after Kirk’s brilliance leads to their successfully outmaneuvering the other ship, the enemy captain blows up his own ship and crew after saying poignantly to Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

I recently discovered that one of my local nerd cronies is also doing her first TOS watchthrough right now; when we discussed it, she said that the thing she likes best about the show is that the stories don’t turn out the way she expects. Star Trek created so many storytelling tropes, she argued, that contemporary writers seeking to avoid cliches have no choice but to go in a different direction. I agree with this in part, but I also don’t think it’s the only explanation for the change; one recent episode got me thinking about how broader norms for “likeable” characters have changed in the last 50 years.

In the episode, “Court Martial,” Kirk is called to task by Starfleet High Command on charges of negligence causing the death of an Enterprise crewman. For most of the episode, we’re treated to video and computer evidence suggesting that Kirk genuinely made a mistake, pushing the wrong button in a tense situation and flushing the crewman out into space. But in the end, it becomes clear that the crewman faked his own death; blaming Kirk for an earlier incident that derailed his career, he was determined that The Great Hero should meet a similar fate. When we finished the episode, I looked at Husband and said “wouldn’t it be more interesting if Kirk really had made a mistake?” **

Thinking about it later, I remembered a film studies course I took in college where we learned about the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers from this era, whose famous movies include Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather and The Graduate, made a point of demonstrating the moral ambiguity of their protagonists, telling stories that weren’t so clearly “black and white”; the change is generally viewed as drawing its inspiration at least in part from the changing American zeitgeist after the Vietnam War.

Contemporary audiences are used to gray heroes. Whether we’re talking about Walter White, Greg House, or Tyrion Lannister, modern characters make complicated choices, and sometimes they do bad things. On purpose. But even though Rick Blaine let the Nazis drag Ugarte away at the beginning of Casablanca, and Rhett Butler slept with ladies of ill repute and ran the Union blockade, both of them ended up clearly on the side of the “good guys” by the ends of their stories. I suspect that earlier audiences weren’t so keen on ambiguity in their heroes.

So all in all, I’m enjoying my Star Trek education so far, and looking forward to seeing what other sci-fi tropes I can trace back to this universe — and for what it’s worth, the experience is confirming my earlier belief that it’s worth our time as storytellers to dig into the history of our genre. If nothing else, knowing what came before will stop you from being like a friend of mine who reportedly got about 100 pages into Lord of the Rings on a first reading and then threw it aside, saying, “This is the most cliched book I’ve ever read.”

Know your book’s genealogy: something can’t be a cliche if it came first. Go forth and read and watch and think, and your writing will be better for it.

**(For the record, Husband’s answer to my question about whether the other way of ending the story would be better was “You’re going to LOVE Next Gen.” I’m looking forward to it.)

History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

Worldbuilding: Basics of Social Stratification

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

Think fast: is your hero an underdog?

Modern readers, especially Western readers, are used to reading about unlikely heroes who save the world by triumphing over colossal odds. Think Harry Potter, the scrawny orphan with the abusive relatives; think Vin, the suspicious street kid from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn; think Lord of the Rings’s Frodo. This trope has been a part of storytelling around the world for a long time, and with good reason – since most people see themselves as the little guy, everyone likes seeing the little guy win. And especially in American culture, the idea of the “self-made” person who achieves their success through their own wits and determination has resonance outside the world of storytelling, too. However, if you want your fantasy world to be realistic, you may want to take another look at your hero’s social position.

For as long as people have lived in groups, those groups have had dominant and subordinate members. And for the most part (with a few exceptions), the people on top will be the ones who make the biggest changes, and the ones born on top will be the ones who stay there. So if you want to tell the story of a hero whose culture doesn’t expect them to be the one changing the world, you may want to get creative.

Social Stratification

This distinction between the people with power and the people without is what sociologists call stratification, the same word used in geology to describe layers of rock. Social stratification, unsurprisingly, refers to “layers” of people (like the upper, middle, and lower classes); in the modern world, the divisions between these layers are often invisible or unwritten, but in other times and places they’ve been laid out very clearly. In medieval Europe, whether you were born a member of the royalty, the nobility, the merchant class or the peasant class dictated pretty much everything about your life, and you weren’t likely to leave the class you were born into. George RR Martin acknowledges this in an interview where he talks about why the movers and shakers of his A Song of Ice and Fire world are all high-born people. Martin wanted his story to reflect the fact that in a real feudal society, a peasant wouldn’t have been able to walk up to a king and say anything she wanted. Except under extraordinary circumstances, she’d never have been able to get near him.

Obviously, the modern world doesn’t have feudal lords (at least, not in the same way), but an individual’s social identities and the conditions of their birth still affect their life chances in substantial ways. In any society, the rulers tend to make rules that favor people like them. This is why the election of President Obama was such a big deal, and why people got excited when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court. People believe that leaders who are like them are more likely to make decisions that benefit them – and they’re probably right. Tribalism is deeply rooted in human nature; drawing lines between “us” and “them,” and doing what we can to better the condition of “us,” has been benefitting people for a very long time (this is why a lot of rhetoric around the benefits of diversity focuses on how it encourages people to develop broader definitions of “us”). So the fact that people in power favor others like themselves over those who are different from them doesn’t make them evil; just human.

All the same, the effects are indisputable. Even in the 21st century, even in places like the United States with its narrative of “the American Dream,” significant upward social mobility (moving from a lower class to a higher one) is still very rare. Most people born into working-class and poor families remain in those classes as adults, far from the seats of power. And depending on what your other social identities are, gaining power and influence can be even more difficult.

So, what do you do if you want your fantasy story to have a realistic power structure, but you don’t want your intrepid hero to start out as the ruler of the world? Well, you’ve got a few options. Let’s look briefly at two of them: different types of power and different types of stratification.

Different Types of Power

Who holds the power in your society?

Okay, now who’s fighting them for it?

Even in the most tyrannical societies, it’s almost impossible for one group or person to hang on to control of everything. Your society probably has a government, the “state” that sociologist Max Weber identifies as the individual or individuals who “legitimately control the means of violence” – in other words, the ones who have final authority over armies, weapons of mass destruction, city guards and police. But where does that government get their money? (Think of the power of “special interests,” and the fight over campaign funding, in modern American politics.) Who holds the moral authority in your society? (In medieval Europe, kings and princes were extraordinarily powerful people, but when the Pope spoke, they listened.) Do you have magic-users whose special abilities might level the playing field? And what about celebrities? Whether you’re talking about a singer, a military leader, or just someone thrust into the spotlight by circumstances, anyone who has the affection of thousands or millions of followers is in a very powerful position indeed.

The three characters I mentioned at the beginning of this post are all able to take their “hero” positions because of their unique types of power.

  • Harry Potter’s not just a scrawny orphan; because of a random event that happened when he was a baby, he enters the wizarding world a major celebrity, which gives him an enormous amount of social power. Most of Harry’s actions throughout the books, including his quest to save the world, are set in motion not because of any special quality he has but because other, more powerful people have decided he can’t be ignored.
  • Mistborn’s Vin isn’t just an ordinary street kid: she has magic abilities that are vanishingly rare among people from her social class.
  • As for Frodo, he’s a little different. His power to save the world comes from the nature of the threat it faces: by making the One Ring into such a corrupting force, Tolkien came up with a situation where anyone who held (or even wanted) any kind of power couldn’t be the hero. The only guy who could save the world in this story was someone who desperately wanted nothing more than to be ordinary. So that’s another strategy.

Different Types of Stratification

If you want your hero to be an underdog instead of just someone with a different kind of power, you’ve got another way to play it. Stratification based on social identities is never simple. Every person’s got a number of identities (the sociological term for this phenomenon is intersectionality), and while some of those will likely make it easier to wield power, others will not. Many powerful black men, including popular actors and President Obama, have talked publicly about their experiences of casual racism at times when they weren’t recognized as being famous. A white woman has come close to winning the nomination for President of the United States, but there’s never been a “serious” candidate for that office who was gay, or who wasn’t a practicing Christian. In the modern United States, your odds of gaining and keeping power are still significantly higher the more you have in common with this list of traits:

  • Cisgendered maleness
  • Whiteness
  • Heterosexuality
  • Christian faith
  • Ablebodiedness (no physical, mental, or developmental disabilities)
  • Good health, including a lack of addictions and mental illness
  • Physical attractiveness, including not being too thin or too fat
  • Age between 25-60 (varies depending on the specific type of power)
  • Legally recognized, monogamous marriage
  • Fatherhood (within the bounds of marriage)
  • A college degree
  • A professional (white-collar) job
  • Financial security
  • Native English-speaking ability
  • Native-born American citizenship
  • No criminal history

Looking at this list, you can see more clearly how even if your character’s handed a lot of the right cards for power in their society (which, depending on your world, will probably vary from the ones listed above), they could still be an underdog. George RR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister is a wonderful example of this: he’s a brilliant man from one of the most powerful families in Westeros, but many people, including his father, fail to take him seriously or give him the credit he deserves because he also happens to be a dwarf. His sister Cersei wants nothing more than to rule the kingdom, but her gender gets in her way.

So, in short, if you want to tell a story about an underdog, there are a lot of different (and more realistic) ways to do it besides having your peasant girl march into the court and tell off the king. Depending on the norms of your society, there are probably half a hundred ways a character who’s born into the ruling class could still be an “underdog” because some part of them doesn’t match the model of who’s supposed to be holding power – and as we saw with the examples of Harry, Vin and Frodo, there are other ways besides power to bring someone to the center of the world, too (including plain old luck). Consider it a challenge that’ll help you build not only richer worlds, but more creative plots, too!

Not “Blannie,” Just Annie: Remakes, Reimaginings and Representation

At one of our Christmas dinners this year, I mentioned that I was planning to take Husband to go see the new Annie remake. Hearing that, a relative smiled and said innocuously, “Don’t you mean Blannie?” Which, of course, is a hashtag that’s been appearing on Twitter in discussions of the new movie, a compression of “black Annie.”

“No,” I said. “I mean the remake of Annie.”

As a kid, I was a big fan of movie musicals. I watched and rewatched The Wizard of Oz. I remember sitting transfixed on the living room floor by West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and on the edge of the couch a few years later with Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. And as was the case for most kids who grew up in the ’80s, the story of the spunky orphan and her bald benefactor took its turn on-stage in my house, too. One of my never-quite-realized childhood ambitions was to cast and recreate these shows using my friends and family, and I have a very clear memory of discussing with my mother whether my best-playmate uncle might be willing to take on the role of Rooster, orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan’s no-good brother.

I don’t remember where Husband and I saw our first trailer for the 2014 Annie, and I don’t remember if I’d heard anything about the movie before seeing it. But I do remember how excited I got, just hearing snippets of the familiar songs. This was a story that had a special place in my heart as a kid; I was thrilled to hear it’d be coming back to the big screen. And when I saw Quvenzhané Wallis’s grinning face, I thought: “Oh, wow, the new Annie’s black? That’s amazing!”

I’ll freely admit that I might have had a different reaction before I started graduate school, before I took courses on the sociology of race that were the first place I read about how few characters of color (or diverse characters of any kind) have historically appeared in children’s books. Even a few years ago, I might still have balked at the idea that a classic, much-loved story could be reimagined with a protagonist of a different race and keep the spirit of the original story. But now, after a year of thinking about how to increase the representation in my own work, after reading Writing the Other and looking at the numbers on protagonists of color and following the efforts of the team at We Need Diverse Books to increase all kinds of diversity in children’s stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more important things than respecting the canon.

It seems like the Marvel and DC universes provide a pretty good model for exactly this sort of thing. In 2011, the Ultimate Marvel universe killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, the first black (and second Hispanic) Spiderman; there was some backlash, but the loudest voices, including that of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, supported the impulse to make Spiderman a character who demonstrated that you didn’t have to be white to save the world. Both the Marvel and DC movie franchises are taking steps in the same direction, greenlighting films for, among others, an Aquaman played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, and Marvel’s first black superhero, the Black Panther.

These stories don’t take away from the ones that came before them. Having a new Wonder Woman movie that’ll bring a female superhero into the imaginations of 21st-century little girls doesn’t undo the fact that The Dark Knight was a good movie, or that Bruce Wayne’s Batman is a fun character. Having a black Spiderman doesn’t erase the white Spiderman: it just gives more kids the opportunity to pretend to be a superhero who looks like them. And kids do notice that stuff. This Washington Post article, by writer Amina Luqman, about how her son didn’t want to dress as Harry Potter for Halloween because “I’m not tan, I’m brown” just about broke my heart.

One response to the unveiling of Miles Morales (archived here), by opinion writer Alexandra Petri, repeats a commonly-used phrase from those who object to what they see as the “forced” diversification of contemporary characters: “It doesn’t matter what the character looks like so long as he tells a compelling story!” As Petri suggests, the people who say this are absolutely right; we should all be able to enjoy a compelling story. And sure, part of pretending is imagining yourself to be somebody else. But increasingly, research and popular opinion seem to be assembling around the notion that it shouldn’t always be kids from underrepresented groups who have to stretch their imaginations the furthest to see themselves in the heroes of their favorite stories.

Husband had never seen the 1982 Annie, and so we watched it together last week so he’d be properly contextualized for the new movie. Seeing it for the first time in 20+ years, I was struck by its cheesiness (the adults all look a little too happy to be real) and its increasingly improbable plot (Miss Hannigan doesn’t recognize her brother with a fake mustache? Annie gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks only because she happens to be the one who overhears when his assistant first comes to the orphanage? There’s a mansion and substantial grounds somewhere on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue?). I was also struck by the movie’s casual racism: Daddy Warbucks’ two bodyguards are “Punjab” and “the Asp”; respectively, a tall, dark-skinned, turbaned man who can “put a spell on [the dog]” and make toy airplanes fly with a wave of his hand, and a smaller East Asian gent whose main jobs seem to be driving Daddy Warbucks around and teaching Annie how to do karate chops. I still hold some affection for the movie, and I might even show it to my own kids someday, but I wouldn’t do so without unpacking those stereotypes a little. And I suspect I would feel differently if I looked less like Aileen Quinn, who played Annie, and more like Geoffrey Holder and Roger Minami, who played the bodyguards.

The writers of the 1982 Annie, and its Broadway predecessor, took their own liberties with the original story. The comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which debuted in 1924, expressed its creator’s strong objections to (among other things) unions, the New Deal, and communism. If creator Harold Gray had known that his spunky red-head would someday be portrayed meeting with FDR to help set up the New Deal, he might’ve come back from the dead to protest. Stories change to fit the times they’re told in.

It’s true that when I saw the new Annie this weekend, I didn’t see a little girl with red hair. But I saw girls somersaulting around their group home singing “A Hard Knock Life”; I saw adults hamming it up in ridiculous dance numbers; I saw the message that a good-hearted youngster can have a positive impact on the world; and I saw a spunky kid with a sparkling smile who sang “Tomorrow.”

So no, I didn’t go see “Blannie” this weekend; just a new version of Annie, written to introduce the story to 21st-century kids of all backgrounds. And this movie musical nerd was glad to add it to all the others in her library.

Who Do Your Characters Answer To? Creating Religion for Secondary Worlds

“The Glorious [Lion] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” — From C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Book 7 of the Narnia series

How should religion(s) look in the world of your story? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I’m reaching the part of my draft where my character joins the religion that will play a central role in his story for the rest of the series, and I’m realizing that although there are religions all over the place in secondary-world fantasy, I haven’t seen many critical discussions of how to develop religion for secondary worlds, and especially how secondary-world religion might look different from the religion(s) (and interactions between religions) that modern writers might be most familiar with. So, without further ado, I present a loosely-connected collection of my musings on the subject.

When I was developing the religions for my setting, the biggest thing I tried to remember was that at most times and places throughout human history, religion (or the lack thereof) hasn’t been viewed as separate from culture. Most people who’ve lived in the real world have been born into a belief system, and that belief system’s usually been shared by everyone they know. In small and/or homogeneous communities, the idea of “shopping around” for religions the way people sometimes do in the modern West wouldn’t make any sense at all. Historically, if you were a Hebrew, you worshiped the god of the Hebrews; if you were an Egyptian, you worshiped the gods of the Egyptians; if you were Japanese, you worshiped the gods of Japan. Throughout most of human history, religion and ethnicity have been overlapping concepts, and there are several major modern religions (Hinduism and Judaism come to mind) where many practitioners still see this as the case. One of the big ways Christianity and Islam are different from other major religions is that they seek out converts and preach that your ethnic background doesn’t matter, that their god is the god for everyone. Relatively speaking, this is a new and different idea.

So if you’ve got more than one major ethnic group in your world, especially people who don’t have much contact with each other, you’ll almost certainly want to develop more than one religion (and that’s before you consider opening the sects-and-heretics can of worms). And as you’re developing those religions, it might be useful to think outside the modern Western philosophical point that all religions are different paths to the same goal. This concept is particularly common among religious liberals (or slightly-patronizing monotheists; see the quote from CS Lewis’s The Last Battle that I included up above), but I don’t think it works very well for developing distinct religious groups. And here’s why.

For most common people, religion is first and foremost a problem-solver: you pray to your god(s) because you want or need things. And not all cultures have the same problems. An agricultural religion is going to look different than a hunter-gatherer religion, which will look different from a religion that developed in a spacefaring culture. That’s something to think about when you consider converts, too: I had a conversation with a medieval historian friend a few months ago where he pointed out that one of the main reasons Christianity caught on with the masses when the Roman Empire was sweeping across Europe was because the Christian god had clearly outfitted his people with better, fancier weapons and armor than the local gods. For all my talk about how different ethnic groups tended on a large scale to worship their own ethnic gods, religious conversion has been around for as long as different groups of people have been bumping into each other: remember, the first request YHWH makes of his people through Moses is to “have no other gods before me.” And although people convert for all sorts of reasons, one of the biggest is that the new religion speaks to something that the old one didn’t.

Which brings me to my second big point. In the real world, there’s no way to conclusively prove that any of the gods humans have ever worshipped are cultural constructions or real forces. When building your fantasy world, you’d better know the status of your gods. Whether they’re real may or may not be important… but whether they listen, that matters. If one god really does reward her people’s prayers with better stuff, she’s likely to start stacking up followers fast. If some gods listen/exist and others don’t, you have to ask yourself why the quiet ones continue to gather followers. Are there mundane patrons of the faith that make it worth people’s while to keep up the worship? Tricks by the clergy to make it look like their gods manifest in the temple the way the others do? People behave logically, and they behave in self-interested ways; what you have to decide is what logic and self-interest look like in your world.

Something else that’s likely different in a world with active gods is that there’s less focus on where the world came from. In most real-world historical religions, someone gets credit for creating the world; that belief’s probably harder to sustain in a world where your god(s) aren’t the only powerful force shaping the universe. If you feel like delving that deep into your history, you could sit down and decide whether any of the figures worshipped as gods in your contemporary setting actually had anything to do with the physical creation of the world (Brandon Sanderson’s books do some interesting things with this, and NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy presents a single belief system that does include active, acting creator gods), but if you want multiple belief systems, it can be difficult to have your rational religious folk buy the idea of a single grand creator.

In the world of my series, there are (very roughly) three main religious pantheons, whose worshippers all rub elbows in the capital. All of these religions are connected to beings with real power; all of the forces called “gods” have the ability to effect significant change on some part of existence. But none of them is all-powerful. So when their worshippers pray, they focus on specific things. My protagonist’s god draws worshippers by giving them a promise of strength and safety in a dangerous world; he doesn’t answer prayers about a good harvest or a warm body to share your bed in the inn. If those are your concerns, you’d best seek aid from someone else, whether mundane, magical or divine.

Traditional Greek-style polytheism, where Hera handles requests that touch on marriage, Athena handles war, and Apollo handles illness, seems pretty common in secondary-world fiction; I suspect in part that’s because it reads as “exotic” to many Western audiences, but it’s also a good way to get around the problem of none of your gods actually being all-powerful. However, it’s not the only way. In many parts of East Asia, people see Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as harmonious traditions that specialize in different parts of the human existence. As Stephen Prothero puts it in his book God is Not One, “According to a popular Chinese saying, ‘Every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe and Buddhist sandals.” Or, according to another, Chinese are Confucians at work, Daoists at leisure, and Buddhists at death.” Remember what I said up above, about sects and heretics? Just because religions didn’t develop to be part of a polytheistic system doesn’t mean that’s not how they’ll end up.

And, of course, there are monotheistic religions in fantasy worlds, too, the worship of R’hllor the Lord of Light from GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire being one highly-visible contemporary example. If you want this sort of god to have real power in your world, you probably want to think of them less as a bureaucratic entity with different departments’ having different specialties and more as a monarch (maybe a magic-using monarch). This individual asks for devotion from her people, and in exchange, she promises to take care of whatever they need. But she doesn’t hear similar appeals from people in the next country over… unless, that is, they want to give up their previous citizenship and swear loyalty to her instead.

Basically, what I’ve realized after pondering this for far too long is that when you’re developing fantasy religions, you need to start by thinking about the worshippers – why are they following this faith and not a different one? What need is it serving for them? (and before you ask, yes, the need to avoid being killed by powerful priests or the wrathful god himself definitely counts.) If there’s only one religion in your setting, how does it connect with the rest of the culture? If there are multiple religions, what do they think of each other? Do they coexist in non-overlapping ways (many tribal/ethnic gods), do they demonize each other (Christianity’s view of pre-Christian Europe), or do their worshippers decide over time that the two gods are part of the same pantheon, or even different faces of the same being (Hinduism)? And what do the gods themselves (if applicable) make of all this?

And that’s my spiel. Some actual reference books I can recommend for trying to get a handle on all this:

  • Smith, The World’s Religions: the classic comparative religion textbook, which argues that the point of all religion is to help people be nicer to one another.
  • Prothero, God Is Not One: runs through the major world religions (by population/influence) and talks about the “problem” that each one sees as its central challenge, and the “solution” that it offers.
  • Armstrong, The Great Transformation, about the rise of modern religion/philosophy (Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Greek thought) as a response to great conflict all around the world — an interesting book to read to make you realize that not all religions throughout history have had a moral message at their heart.

Designing Realistic Magic Academies

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

When I reread JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books these days, I have different questions than I did the first time around. Questions like: who are the great legendary heroes of British wizarding society that every kid learns about? What options does a talented student like Hermione Granger have for post-secondary education? Who taught Ron Weasley how to read?

Anyone who’s read or watched the Harry Potter saga knows quite a bit about Hogwarts. But even after reading all seven books, I’m still pretty confused about the education of 20th-century British wizards. And if you’re planning to create a school of magic for your fantasy world, there are some things you should think about to keep your readers from having this same confusion. Most importantly, you need to figure out the function of your school within its society. Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself this question: who is your school’s target audience?

At first glance, schools of magic would seem to be pretty common in fantasy fiction. Besides Rowling’s Hogwarts, there’s the Citadel in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and loads of others. However, most institutions of magical learning seem to operate on the trade school model: students are a slice of the general population, of various ages and backgrounds, who’ve come in search of highly specialized knowledge or training. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is presented as a general education program: all British witches and wizards between the ages of 11 and 17 are expected to pass through its doors. Like general schools in most parts of the world, it divides its students primarily by age, and students have relatively little choice in which courses they take for most of their academic career. Hogwarts students aren’t there to get a cosmetology certificate or a law degree: they’re just trying to graduate from high school.

If you’re thinking of creating a school on the Hogwarts model, the first thing you need to consider is the prevalence of formal education in your larger society. Although human societies have always had to train their children in how to be productive adults, and formal instruction for some elite portion of the population (on topics including literacy, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and science) has existed in almost every society throughout history, widespread education of “the masses” is a relatively new concept. Laws requiring formal schooling for all children regardless of their background first appeared in parts of Protestant Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; compulsory schooling didn’t become the general law in the United States until 1918 (though many states mandated it decades earlier).

But let’s set aside the question of prevalence: let’s say your story is set in a version of our modern real world, like Rowling’s is. That means that some sort of formal education for children is almost certainly mandatory in your society, at least through the mid-teenage years. So you know you’ve got a school system designed to serve the general population. Your next task is to think a bit about the people who designed the system, and figure out their most important goals. Because a quick look at the history of the modern Western educational system shows that the people putting together public schools have had different goals at different times, and these goals have all affected our complicated modern system.

Scholars of education pretty much agree that in the 21st century, the general Western education system has a few main purposes:

  • Instilling practical life skills. Although there are a lot of debates these days about what schools ought to be teaching students – how human sexuality should be discussed in school (or if it should be discussed at all), whether programming courses should be mandatory, whether teachers should make sure every high school graduate can balance a checkbook and change the oil in their car – there are a few skills the modern world takes for granted. If you’re an adult living in an industrialized country, it’s expected that you can read, write, and do basic math. That’s one reason standardized tests focus on these skills: someone who’s illiterate or innumerate will have a really hard time in the modern world.
  • Developing loyal citizens. The first public schools in Protestant Europe came about because religious leader Martin Luther thought it was important for all citizens to be able to read the Bible. In the United States, widespread public schooling became popular during the massive immigration of the 19th century, and one of its main goals was to teach immigrant children how to be Americans. The Pledge of Allegiance was developed with this goal in mind; ditto the story many American children still learn about President George Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a boy. Although many modern schools in the US and elsewhere try to take a more multicultural approach to their curricula, it’s still expected that schools will teach children about their country: geography, civics, and perhaps most importantly history. And what’s included in that history is a matter for constant debate in countries all over the world. Public schools put a country’s entire next generation in a room together to learn about the world. It’s unavoidable that part of that learning will involve establishing some basic norms about what it means to be American/Australian/Japanese/a British wizard.
  • Establishing cultural literacy. If you grew up in the United States, there are certain books you probably read in high school: The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you grew up in the English-speaking world, you probably have at least a passing acquaintance with Romeo & Juliet and The markers of what constitutes “an educated person” are different from one place to another, but education almost always includes more than facts and figures. And depending on which rank of society you’re planning to move in once you’ve finished your education, the amount of “culture” you’re expected to be familiar with could go beyond literature. You might be expected to speak a foreign language fluently, or to recognize classical music or fine art, or to know which fork to use at a fancy dinner party. Which brings me to the final role of formal education…
  • Gatekeeping and credentialism. As I say above, in much of the world throughout much of history, formal education was the domain of an elite few. As education expanded to the masses, that wealthy few began creating additional prestige markers to set themselves apart. For a while, it was only the elite who attended high school; then, it was only the elite who pursued bachelor’s degrees; now – well, you get the idea. This phenomenon, called credentialism, is one thing sociologists point to as a cause of “degree inflation” (where bachelor’s degrees are increasingly not sufficient education for a professional job). The harder it is to get credentials for a job – credentials that imply particular specialized cultural knowledge as much as they do practical knowledge – the longer that job will stay in the hands of the elite.

With these goals in front of us, we can see that Hogwarts has an odd curriculum for a modern comprehensive school. As far as we can tell from the books, it focuses very heavily on the acquisition of practical skills: like Martin’s Citadel and Rothfuss’s University, it feels much more like a trade school than a place for general education. I’m not suggesting that Rowling should’ve given us long accounts of Harry and his chums doing algebra and reading Dickens (or, y’know, 19th-century wizarding-world novels with titles like The Goblin Lord of London). But she could have given us a little more cultural backdrop than the one almost-universally-disliked History of Magic course that appears briefly in Order of the Phoenix.

If your school of magic is a specialized place where people go to learn the wizarding arts, then you can feel free to make the classes as content-focused as you want. But if you’re designing a place for general education, you’ll want to include at least a little of the other stuff. What cultural touchstones are young people in your magical society expected to be familiar with by graduation? What does “an educated person” look like? Who teaches students the basic intellectual survival skills? (These could be reading and fundamental math; they could also be something completely different.) And how do the elites in your society (because every society has people who’d rather not mingle with “the masses”) set themselves apart? Are there private magic academies that teach spells in ancient languages known only to the wealthy? Does your school have the equivalent of AP courses, or a PTA pushing the school to offer Mandarin to give their kindergartners a jump-start on the road to Harvard?

You don’t have to put it all in; you probably shouldn’t. Like all worldbuilding, a little in the text goes a long way. But thinking about it will help you build a better magic school, and with it, a better world.

Impossible Things: Redefining Ability and Disability in Genre Fiction

“You left my dragon back there! He can’t fly on his own! He’ll drown!” — Hiccup, How to Train Your Dragon 2

When Star Trek first appeared on TV in 1966, the decision was made to hide or disguise actor James Doohan’s missing finger. Although I couldn’t find a conclusive answer to whether the choice was Doohan’s or the producers’, it’s conventional wisdom among Star Trek fans that the shows’ creators felt that by the 23rd century, prosthetics would have advanced to the point where missing digits would be unthinkable.

By contrast, in 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon, not only does the dragon protagonist have a disability (after part of his tail is shot off, he can only fly with a prosthesis operated by his human buddy) but the human protagonist, Hiccup, loses his foot at the end of the film (a plot change from the books) and has his own prosthesis going forward. The movie has received quite a lot of press for its positive depiction of a main character with a disability, and it’s true that this is definitely a step in the right direction. However, in thinking about depictions of characters with disabilities in genre fiction, I’m coming to the conclusion that (surprise!) we’ve still got a ways to go.

I’ll start off with praise for a few authors who are making a clear effort to increase representation of people with disabilities in their fiction. Both series I’ve read by Tad Williams (Otherland and Shadowmarch) feature characters with disabilities in main roles. And say what you will about George RR Martin’s problems with race and gender, he does a very creditable job of presenting characters with a range of physical, developmental and mental differences. His core cast includes people with dwarfism and paraplegia, as well as someone who’s an amputee; he also has a major supporting character and several minor ones with developmental disabilities, which is even rarer in fiction. These characters’ differences are part of how they interact with the world, but none of them has disability as their only character aspect.

Once you move outside these series, though, the field gets a little thin. While driving home last night, Husband and I spent 45 minutes trying to list other genre fiction characters with disabilities, and here’s the sum total of the list we came up with, arranged in buckets from roughly most- to least-problematic:

Fairly troublesome:

  • Jake Sully from James Cameron’s Avatar — becomes a paraplegic due to a war wound; spends the movie lamenting his lot and (it’s suggested) chooses to give up his human body at least in part so that he has the capacity to walk
  • Luke Skywalker from Star Wars — has a hand amputated and immediately replaced with an identical prosthetic

A little troublesome:

  • Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: TNG — blind from birth, but uses technology to “see” in a range that goes beyond that available to people with standard human vision. Which means that he does process the world differently, but also that he sees everything that others do.
  • Professor X from The X-Men — becomes a paraplegic due to an accidental bullet wound (at least, according to X-Men: First Class); uses a wheelchair ALMOST all the time (except for portions of the new movie Days of Future Past, but I’ll come back to that).

Fairly well-depicted:

  • Drusilla from Buffy/Angel — is portrayed as having unspecified mental illness because she was “driven insane” by Angelus before being turned into a vampire
  • Felix Gaeta from Battlestar Galactica — has a leg amputated late in the series due to injury
  • Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica — has an eye taken out late in the series during imprisonment
  • Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Star Wars — becomes a de facto cyborg after amputation of multiple limbs and being set on fire.
  • Toph Beifong from Avatar: the Last Airbender –– blind (presumably) from birth, uses her Earthbending powers to get around by feeling vibrations in the ground

When I got home last night, I thought of a few more characters to add to the list. There’s Nemo from Finding Nemo, with his asymmetrical pectoral fins; there’s River Tam from the Firefly/Serenity universe, whose treatment at the hands of the Alliance caused both physical and mental damage to her brain; there’s G’Kar from Babylon 5, another character who loses an eye before the end of his series; there’s Jerome Morrow from Gattaca, a paraplegic. But coming up with a list of genre fiction characters with disabilities is undeniably tougher than coming up with characters who embody other underrepresented identities. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, the history of genre fiction has many examples of the wrong ways to include people of diverse races, genders, and sexualities in your storytelling — but for the most part, characters with disabilities just aren’t there at all.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue, and I have a few theories about what might be going on. First and foremost, I suspect that even for those most committed to increasing diversity on any level, disability/ability is still a social identity that goes largely unconsidered. When I participated in a professional development workshop a few years ago where we discussed “increasing diversity among college and university faculty,” people talked about gender, race, and sexuality; those who remembered to include class background clapped themselves on the back for their conscientiousness. Growing up in a small, homogeneous New England city, I knew a few people of color, and a few people who identified as something other than heterosexual, but I had no friends with disabilities. I vaguely remember a child in my elementary school who walked with leg braces; there was a developmentally disabled boy in my middle school class who had an aide to help him through his day, and a girl who had difficulty walking because of cerebral palsy; and that was it. I suspect that for many able-bodied people, particularly those who live outside major metropolitan areas, people with disabilities don’t have a big impact on their everyday experience — and part of the reason for this, in classic vicious circle style, is because people with disabilities are still underrepresented in popular media.

I recently ran across Mayzoon Zayid’s TED talk about her experience as a Palestinian-American woman with CP trying to break into acting, and her discussion of the invisibility of people with disabilities made a real impression on me. As she puts it,

Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user… People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.

Of course, Zayid’s point is that when people with disabilities do appear in movies and TV shows, most often they are played by actors who don’t share their disability (see: every single one of the characters listed above, along with Forrest Gump, the wheelchair user Artie from Glee, and Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character Raymond in Rain Man). However, I think a related problem is that (able-bodied) storytellers still tend to default to certain tropes when telling stories about people with disabilities. Author Susan Nussbaum captures this in an essay for The Huffington Post, where she says that as a person with a disability, she tends to “avoid books and movies with disabled characters in them” because

The vast majority of writers who have used disabled characters in their work are not people with disabilities themselves. Because disabled people have been peripheral for centuries, we’ve been shut out of the artistic process since the beginning. As a result, the disabled characters we’re presented with usually fit one or more of the following stereotypes: Victim, Villain, Inspiration, Monster. And the disabled character’s storyline is generally resolved in one of a few ways: Cure, Death, Institutionalization. It’s a well-worn formula that can be changed up in a number of ways, but it usually looks something like this: Disabled Victim + Self-involved non-disabled Protagonist = Cured Victim + Redeemed non-disabled Protagonist.

Basically,  Nussbaum argues that stories about a hero with a disability — who remains both the hero and disabled throughout the story — are still relatively rare.

The “cured” piece is one that I think genre fiction is particularly prone to, because part of the escapist nature of science fiction and fantasy stories is the idea that things can happen in those worlds that can’t happen in this one. I don’t believe that either the Star Trek writers or James Cameron and the rest of the Avatar team intended their message to be that people whose physical differences can’t be “fixed” are somehow doomed to live a miserable life — but when a TV show suggests that of course no one would opt to have nine fingers in the 23rd century, and that the cure for a paralyzed soldier’s depression is a new body that allows him to walk and run again, it’s hard not to go “hmm.” Given the raging real-world controversies around cochlear implants for deaf children and the effects of prenatal testing for Down Syndrome, I’m a little uncomfortable with any fictional world that suggests that people whose bodies or minds are in any way atypical will of course automatically be “fixed.”

The other piece of the “cured” trope, of course, is characters like Luke Skywalker (or How To Train Your Dragon‘s Hiccup) who have prosthetics that have no impact on the story or the character’s everyday life. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup runs and jumps and tumbles seemingly without a moment’s thought about the mechanical foot strapped to his leg: although I know that some prosthetic limbs give their wearers a huge amount of mobility, this did give me more than a moment’s pause. When working with human actors, I suspect at least part of the motivation for these choices is is not wanting to inconvenience the actor any more than necessary (or have to green-screen Mark Hamill’s hand away in every shot through the third movie). I wondered about this factor in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which presented what felt like a fairly flimsy excuse for why James McAvoy’s 1970s-era Professor X was able to walk around; I suspected it was primarily because the filmmakers wanted to include Xavier in action sequences, and doing so would have been much more difficult if they’d had to negotiate a 1970s-analog pre-ADA world.

And really, I think that’s the core of the trouble with ability/disability representation in genre fiction. Although the genres have opened up considerably in the last few decades, science fiction and fantasy stories are still expected to be stories about Big Damn Heroes: stories with swords and starships and big guns and powerful wizards. Our culture doesn’t think of people with disabilities as filling those roles; and if a protagonist interacts differently with the physical world — if Hiccup has to stop and adjust his foot before he can hop down off his dragon’s back — it will affect the way that hero swashbuckles, the same way it affects everything else.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that paradigm is ready for tweaking. I’ve mentioned before that my current novel project has a heroic role model whose physical differences make him quite unlike the “typical” hero/mentor figure. When I first conceived of the character this way, I found myself getting uncomfortable, the negative lizard-brain reaction described by Shawl and Ward in Writing the Other. My inner monologue went something like this: “No, Big Damn Heroes can’t have physical limitations! No one would take him seriously! No one would — except they can’t help but take him seriously. He’s the most fearsome warrior and most highly respected general in the world. …by gods, I have to write the character like this. I can’t pass up the opportunity.”

And so I will. And it’ll require rethinking some of the tropes about what heroic characters do and how they sound. And I think it’ll be interesting, and distinctive… and important. Because we need more diversity in our genres, and Jake Sully and Luke Skywalker and Geordi aren’t going to cut it forever. All of us genre authors talk a good talk about using our imaginations to reinvent the world: let’s go out there and imagine some different heroes.

Dumbledore’s Other Army: Orientation and Sexuality in Genre Fiction

In the second of my posts on representation in genre fiction, I’ve decided to tackle the visibility (or lack thereof) of LGBT characters in fantasy and sci-fi. This post contains one significant spoiler for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as relatively smaller spoilers for several other shows/books (most notably the new BSG and Babylon 5).

In some respects, it seems like the visibility of queer characters in genre fiction is improving faster than for some other underrepresented groups. I’ve read several books in the last few months that feature major gay or lesbian characters whose same-sex attractions are not the only relevant aspect of their identity (most notably Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty, reviewed here). There are some noteworthy queer characters in genre TV shows, too. The one that’s caught my attention most recently is Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, who even gets to be PG-sexual with her girlfriends on screen (a relatively big deal for the early 2000s), and there’s also Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5; these characters are especially notable for being bisexual (in action if not in label).

Of course, there are Jacqueline Carey’s Terre D’Ange books, focused on a culture where the expected default is bisexuality. And even the new edition of D&D jumped on the bandwagon a few weeks ago, including a paragraph in its chapter on character creation explicitly encouraging players to think about “how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior… You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”

So, queer folk have a presence in the SF/F canon, and it seems to slowly be growing.

And yet.

  • When Game of Thrones showed Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell being openly sexual on-screen, many of fans raised voices in protest, saying that “they totally weren’t gay in the books” (reminiscent of the fan outrage when Rue and Cinna from The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movies, in keeping with Suzanne Collins’ description of them in the books). Although GRRM has publicly stated that these characters are indeed supposed to be in a relationship, allusions to it in the text are always relatively subtle.
  • The new Battlestar Galactica has one “openly” gay character in its relatively large cast (and her sexuality is only discussed in the bonus TV movie): the tough-as-nails admiral Helena Cain, whose memorable actions include ordering the shooting of conscripts’ families to force their compliance. I agree with those who’ve said elsewhere that there’s no intrinsic problem with giving underrepresented identities to characters who do questionable things; having a particular group appear in your story only as saints and martyrs causes its own problems. But when the only member of a group appearing in the story spends most of their time doing questionable things… well, that makes me go hmm. BSG does have a second character, Felix Gaeta, who’s been officially identified as bisexual — but the scenes where he’s shown to be in a relationship with another man appear in a series of “webisodes” that aren’t included on the DVD box set or otherwise available to latecomers to the show. In fact, as far as viewers of the DVDs are concerned, Gaeta is altogether relationship-less.

In that vein, we could also talk about Dumbledore. Or Gobber the Belch from How to Train Your Dragon 2. These characters have been revealed by their creators to be gay… but it’s after-the-fact. Or outside the scope of the movies and books where they appeared. Good for the creators for giving some thought to representation… but not good enough.

Some people will continue to argue that “of course” series like these will be subtle with their representation of LGBT characters, because they’re designed for children and queer characters have no place in children’s fiction. But as this article from io9 points out, even children’s stories are full of references to love and romance. Nearly every Disney movie has boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy as its central theme. And as LGBT activists argue when talking about queer life in the “real world,” the question of who people love, date, and daydream about filters into many more aspects of life than just what happens in the bedroom.

Love interests are a central part of the stories we tell, regardless of what age those stories are aimed at. Short films like this one and this one are a step in the right direction, but if the rest of us are serious about making our sf/f worlds look more like the real world, there need to be more queer characters in our fiction who talk about their lives. Video game writer Anthony Burch wrote a great post on this, where he said in part:

I’ve been told once or twice that the bisexual or gay characters I wrote for Borderlands 2 were arbitrary and forced. This is one hundred percent true. I did not have any particular stories to tell about human sexuality — I just randomly chose a few characters and decided that they weren’t heterosexual. I had no “reason” to do so other than the belief that a cast of sexually diverse characters is better than a sexually homogenous one. Did it hurt the story? Maybe. Maybe it feels arbitrary that certain female characters mention their wives, or that certain male characters just happen to have several occasions to mention their boyfriends. … On the upside, though… while arbitrarily diverse casts might make the story worse, they make [the] world better. Not the in-fiction world, either; I mean, you know, the world. The actual one. The one you and I are in. Real life.”

Genre fiction is supposed to be about playing with wild and crazy ideas. When the real world  is consumed by the debate over whether boys should be able to marry boys, I think we as genre writers have some obligation to think about making it happen.

Race in Fantasy Fiction: What Do Multiracial Protagonists Look Like?

This is the first in what I anticipate will be a series of posts over the next month or so, in which I unpack my various thoughts about genre fiction’s handling of the identities Shawl & Ward talk about in their awesome book Writing the Other (reviewed here): race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and religion. For a while, I was debating which identity I wanted to tackle first, but given the last two novels I’ve read, I decided there was really only one obvious place to start. That’s because both books, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, feature multiracial protagonists in fantasy settings.

Of course, as any D&D player can tell you, “race” in fantasy (and SF, for that matter) most often means something qualitatively different from the way it’s used in the real world. Fantasy “races” are most often divided into groups like human, elf, dwarf, orc, dragon, goblin. I suspect the labeling convention probably sprung up in the days when the phrase “the races of man” was used to imply major substantive differences between humans from different parts of the world: this is the same baggage that leads to many of my Intro to Sociology students making the argument that we shouldn’t use the word “race” for humans at all, before I explain that even socially constructed concepts can continue to have weight in the real world. In everyday life, being a multiracial human (or anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into a social box) can lead to unique social situations like being asked by strangers to identify “what you really are,” or being told that “you have to pick one.” As with other aspects of the real world transposed into genre fiction, being multiracial in a fantasy novel ups the ante pretty quickly, changing the meaning from “a range of human geographical origins in your recent ancestry” to “a wide range of species in your recent ancestry.” In Addison’s Goblin Emperor, the two races in play are elf and goblin; in Hartman’s Seraphina, they’re human and dragon.

The two books take very different approaches to the concept, primarily I think because of their different intended audiences. Seraphina is intended as young adult fiction, and in large part, it’s a book about the struggles of being a kid who doesn’t fit in: specifically, being multiracial in a society where neither of the cultures you’re connected to fully accepts the other. When the book begins, the title character is living in human society (which means that she labels herself “half-dragon”: a fine example of how the dominant population gets to decide who’s called what) and passing for human. She has only a few markers of her dragon heritage, easily hidden under clothing — which is good, because marriage between humans and dragons is illegal, and dragons are very definitely second-class citizens in human society. Seraphina spends the book in constant terror of being discovered, particularly by her handsome young love interest. The book also spends a lot of time laying out the differences between humans and dragons, and features some really fantastic worldbuilding around the concept of what it would be like if house-sized lizards were able to take human form and live in human society. One aspect I particularly liked was the idea that since dragons aren’t as social as humans, social emotions like love are inherently foreign to them (and manifest in confusing ways when they take on human bodies). We have a very keen sense by the end of the book of the challenges of being caught between two cultures (and two biologies): holding aspects of both but not able to fully belong to either. There are definitely other themes at play here, too, most notably the importance of family (Seraphina has both human and dragon relatives who she loves dearly), but at its heart, this book is about the experience of a multiracial teenager coming to terms with her complex identity.

The Goblin Emperor is a very different kind of tale. As near as I can tell, it’s written as general-interest adult genre fiction, and so the odds that its target readers will be struggling to define their own identities are somewhat less. The title character, Maia, is a teenaged half-elf/half-goblin (first things first: I loved the fact that “human” — and too often defaulting to “white human” — was not one of his identities), unexpectedly thrust into the rulership of the elven kingdom of Ethuveraz when an airship crash kills his father and three older brothers. His multiracial identity plays a significant role in shaping the events of the story: because his parents’ marriage was arranged to seal a political alliance and his father was never happy with his mother, Maia has spent his childhood away from court and spends most of the book trying to figure out the rules of the enormously complex political world he’s been thrown into. Because he’s not of full elven blood, there are contingents within the court who think he’s unfit to rule and who take it as a matter of course that the realm will agree. But unlike Seraphina, this book doesn’t make Maia’s multiracial identity the single pole around which everything else revolves. Most of his problems come from his low self-esteem and country bumpkin-ness, not from the fact that he has goblin-gray skin.

A (brief) digression about the aspect of Goblin Emperor that impressed me most: the book has some very deep worldbuilding, particularly around language. Addison took some risks I’ve been hesitant to do in my own work around proper names and specialized terms, assuming that readers are able to keep track of foreign words (the emperor’s bodyguards, for instance, are “nohecharei”), titles (men, unmarried women, and married women each have three distinct forms of address depending on their social standing), and a long list of very similar names that aren’t always used consistently (and don’t match up with English-speaking readers’ sense of what male and female names should sound like, the young emperor Maia’s name being a prime example). It also hinted that the characters’ language used a different pronoun system than English, while using English to do so. All that goes to say that there was more going on in this book than just discussions of race, which sat well with me. I don’t know that I’d recommend Seraphina to adult friends; to those willing and able to keep a lexicon in their heads, I would recommend The Goblin Emperor in a moment.

I think the difference I felt between the two books is one I’ve talked about elsewhere here: the difference between writing a book that Addresses An Issue and writing a book About An Issue. Both books deal with the intricacies of having an identity that doesn’t fit into the prevailing system, but only Seraphina makes it the heart of the plot. I think I like it better when identity issues are only one of the things happening in a story or occupying a protagonist’s attention. As Nisi Shawl writes in Writing the Other, “[b]lack people don’t spend their whole lives thinking of themselves as black. We’re Ghanaians and editors and diabetics, and lots of other -ians and -ors and -ics.” (83)

That said, these books made me happy. Seeing multiracial characters who had relationships with both sides of their family (as opposed to Tanis Half-Elven from Dragonlance, whose story I lost interest in when I realized the authors had assumed the only way an elf and a human could possibly have a child together was through rape) gave me a feeling of progress, and made me feel like authors are thinking about the ways that worlds with different humanoid populations would interact in a more realistic sense (as I said to a friend when we were discussing worldbuilding a few months back, if you get groups of humans sharing space, the only two things you can pretty much guarantee will take place are violence and baby-making). I do think that in settings where “race” refers to species rather than phenotype or cultural background, authors need to be careful to avoid making all the humans white and having the other species stand in for people from other places (as I’ve said here before, the argument “but my setting’s based on medieval Europe” doesn’t hold water so well with readers anymore. Also, there were brown people in medieval Europe too).

I hope that more books like these come out in the next few years. I think that race is definitely one of the more visible points of critique for genre fiction, and one where we’re seeing slow and steady improvement in diversification both of people getting acclaim for their work and of protagonists. But there’s still work to do. There’s what one friend of mine called the “holy white savior” moment at the end of Game of Thrones Season 3; there’s the fact that black Spiderman isn’t going to get a movie; and let’s not even talk about Shyamalan’s Avatar: the Last Airbender. It seems to me the most important element here is to not let aliens and magical creatures stand in for having humans from different cultural and/or geographic backgrounds appear in your world. As Shawl puts it, what we want to avoid is “sf’s monochrome futures… where some nameless and never discussed plague has mysteriously killed off everyone with more than a hint of melanin in their skin.” (Writing the Other p. 76)

We’re on the right track. Let’s keep going.

Book Review (Part I): Writing the Other — A Practical Approach

How comfortable are you writing about characters who don’t share your gender? How about your race?

What about characters who are different from you in terms of ability/disability status, sexual orientation, age or religion?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that for most readers, if your identity in one of the above categories is NOT a dominant one (cisgendered man, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, under 40 and either nonreligious or vaguely Christian), the idea of putting characters in your stories who don’t share your identity isn’t strange to you, as long as the identity they have instead is the dominant one. Because if you grew up in the West and/or consume primarily American media, the characters you see in other people’s stories will statistically be mainly cisgendered white able-bodied vaguely-Christian straight men under 40. This is changing, but it’s still a big problem with the stories told in our culture. That’s why when I ran across the book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, I went ahead and ordered it without seeing much in the way of preview material. Like I’ve said here before, I strongly believe that thinking about the kinds of characters we put in our fiction is important, and if 7 years of graduate school taught me nothing else, it’s that even if I’m pretty sure I understand a topic, I can usually benefit from hearing one more opinion on it.

If you’re someone who thinks about this issues, I’d recommend shelling out the $9 for this book. It’s short — barely 100 pages — but it has some interesting exercises and really useful ways of thinking about the problem of increasing representation in your storytelling. I’ll put my own thoughts about how writers can work with the different categories they choose to focus on in a different post — here, I’m just going to gush for a moment about how great this book is.

Shawl and Ward start out by acknowledging a fact that tends to make educated liberals (and college students) uncomfortable: we all have biases, what the book calls “lizard-brain” thought patterns developed in response to messages from our culture and environment. It’s these automatic responses that cause many self-identified “open-minded white liberals” to get nervous when they’re the only white person in a crowd, or that made one of my first beta readers assume that a major supporting character in my series, a highly-respected warrior and military commander,  “must look like Liam Neeson, right? Tall and dashing?” (Not-quite-spoiler alert: he doesn’t look like Liam Neeson. In fact, one of his major distinguishing traits makes him not look or sound much like the stereotypical Big Damn Hero at all). These responses are powerful, but as the authors point out, they’re also bypassable. We as creators can have the reaction, examine it and then set it aside.

Some other things I particularly liked about this book:

  • The authors talk about how to create well-rounded secondary characters as well as well-rounded protagonists. This is a problem I’ve had in my own work; I’ll spend all kinds of time on the main cast, making sure that they’re not flat or stereotypical, and then I’ll need an extra character for a crowd scene and find myself describing  a blond guy, about 20, with all his limbs and a pretty girl on his arm. Even if you decide to bring in a “minority” character, you need to be careful not to incorporate the stereotype wholesale. As Shawl & Ward put it:

Generally, a secondary character has one main character trait. However, a secondary character shouldn’t be that one trait exclusively… For example, don’t make a secondary character’s main trait be his gayness and then portray him as a bitchy, effeminate San Francisco florist with a great collection of disco-diva CDs… How about a secondary character who’s a bitchy, straight florist who has a pet house rabbit and thinks rap music has gone way downhill since Public Enemy’s third CD? (p. 43-44)

  • They also give a list (probably at least in part familiar to TV-Tropes aficionados) of things not to do if you’re trying to be a thoughtful writer of characters who don’t share your identities. These include avoiding scenarios like “Sidekicks-R-Us” (i.e., the heroine’s black best friend who gets no character development and has nothing to do other than be the black best friend; Tasha Robinson has a great article on “strong female characters” and “Trinity Syndrome” that’s been making the rounds this past week) or “The dark hordes attacked!” (Yes, Tolkien wrote in a different time. No, a modern writer probably could not get away with this kind of generalizing).
  • And the suggestion I liked most of all — maybe because I gave this advice over and over again in a course I taught on the sociology of identity — is that if you want to write about people who are different than you, you should be prepared to do some research. Read nonfiction about the history of the group you’re interested in incorporating into your story. Read memoirs; go to museums; and TALK TO PEOPLE from the group. They give some good suggestions about how to pose respectful questions; they note that not all people who identify as owning the same label are going to feel the same way about ANYTHING related to that identity; and they even suggest ethnographic observation, going to a setting where people who share the identity you’re interested in will be the majority and you the writer may be in the minority.

And there’s more. So, in short, this book is awesome. I’d strongly recommend all you writers go check it out.