Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

I’ve been taking inventory of my books lately (as in the kind of inventory that leads to me cataloging and then arranging my personal library as if it were an actual library—an ordered life is a good life), and I’ve come to realize something rather embarrassing: the number of writers of color are pretty sparse on my shelves. I can literally count the SFF writers of color on one hand: Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, and Karen Lord.

I wish I could say, “But that’s just speculative fiction! The books I have outside my home genre are much more racially diverse!” Wrong again. Even there, I only have a little more than a dozen authors represented (of which Edwidge Danticat and Jewel Parker Rhodes might be included in my spec fic group as well, depending on how liberal your definition of the genre is). I own two of Danticat’s works, and my Butler is three books in one volume; every other author is represented only once on my shelves.

To put this disparity in perspective, I have roughly 1,000 books, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction combined (no, I have not read even nearly all of them—think more of Alaska Young’s Life Library). That leaves us with a ratio of roughly 1:50 for writers of color to the number of books I own.

I think there are a number of factors that have led to this little problem I’m having.

First, I read mostly on recommendations. Those recommendations come from family, friends, and bloggers and writers whose taste I trust. While this method is pretty good for general direction in finding something I’ll enjoy, it’s also a tad lazy and can easily lead to a “To Be Read” list that grows more and more insular over time. It’s comfortable, but comfort is not good soil for personal growth.

Second, I’ve focused mainly on finding and appreciating female authors in recent years. Here’s an interesting story. When I was in college I took a class that studied science fiction. Other than Mary Shelley and Judith Merril, there were no women included on the syllabus. The professor, bless his heart, acknowledged how heavily the required reading skewed male and explained that “women just weren’t writing science fiction until recently.” I appreciate that he took one step toward recognizing how unbalanced his syllabus was, but he took the easy way out and said, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Frankly, that excuse is fucking bullshit. It’s also a cop out because it absolves the excuser of any responsibility in what she reads, as if reading is somehow a passive activity that happens to us rather than something we decide to do and how. This excuse is as bullshit when it’s applied to writers of color as when it’s applied to writers of the womanly persuasion. Ever since then, I’ve been slowly cultivating a mountain of evidence to counter his claim.

Third, our cultural climate is still not particularly friendly to emerging voices from historically marginalized and/or silenced groups. The books I own by writers of color are excellent, but some of them almost don’t count, especially Butler and Delany. That’s not to say that they’re not deserving of their place in SFF canon—in fact, they are brilliant and absolutely deserving of canonical status. It just doesn’t take much effort to find them. You practically trip over them on your way into the genre because they’ve been held up as paragons of writers of both genre and color, which is a dubious honor in a culture that substitutes real diversity with exceptionalism—and exceptionalism leads very easily to that bullshit assumption I just mentioned—that “well, there just aren’t that many [insert members of monolithic-yet-marginalized group] producing.” My personal library is pretty strong evidence that I’ve been complicit in this culture, however well-meaning I’ve intended or imagined myself to be.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying anyone other than me has to diversify their shelves. What I am saying is that I don’t feel like I’m getting as much out of my reading habits as I easily could if I just made more of an effort, and this failure derives primarily from my lazy selection process. Just as I (or anyone, one would hope) would reassess and change failing behaviors in any other area of my life, I’ve decided to change my failing reading behavior.

As miraculous as Google is to this end, however, I still want recommendations—I’m just being more specific about it this time around. I’ve been following Aliette de Bodard, Saladin Ahmed, and Wesley Chu on Twitter, so I’ll probably start with their work. That’s a start, but only a small one. Carrie Cuinn put together a list of Asian and Asian American authors earlier this year, and I think this list can serve as another good starting place. (Also, if you’re not reading Carrie Cuinn*, you really ought to. She’s wicked smart, and her style is refreshingly crisp and poignant.) While I’m finding my way through these starting places, I’d like to hear from anyone reading this post what else I should be reading if I want to expand my perspective as both a reader and a writer. Latino(a) and American Indian authors are most definitely my weakest points, if you have any direction there. I’m not looking for a dissertation or anything, but recommended good starting places (including blogs, websites, or other online communities) are welcome.

 

*I am keenly aware that in a post asking for direction on reading writers of color I’ve recommended two white writers. Both John Green and Carrie Cuinn are excellent, and I stand behind my recommendations of them. These facts/opinions are both independent from and indicative of the fact/opinion that I need the recommendations I’ve asked for to be a better reader and a better writer.

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I wrote a story for you! It’s a short one—the kids call it “flash fiction”—and it’s all yours. And guess what? I’ll have another one for you next Monday! But that’s way in the future. Let’s enjoy this one now. I hope you like it!

“The Captain Eats a Steak”

Captain Chuck Williams had been a Big Goddamn Hero. All the headlines had said so, and he had them in hand to prove it.

“I think you’re remembering that wrong,” Alyson said suddenly from behind him. “First of all, you were not the only one embarking on this little mission to the Red Planet. Second of all, Big Goddamn Heroes tend not to be the type of people who get their pilots killed right away.” She pointed to the jagged, screwdriver-shaped hole about an inch above the arch of her right eyebrow.

Chuck looked away before she could turn her head to indicate another not-so-clean hole. “That happened after. And I’m on my own now, so what difference does it make how I remember it?”

Alyson shrugged and plopped down beside Chuck on the couch. She sighed and tapped the tops of her legs in boredom. “How long do you think now? You’re finally delirious—that has to be somewhere near the end, right? Why did you have to bring me back, anyway? I hated you. You hated me. You could’ve at least thought of your wife or something.”

“Why would he think of me? He left me to rot on Earth so that the rest of the world would write about what a courageous pioneer he was to set off for Mars. If you ask me, I think he knew at least a little bit that he was leaving me for good.” Chuck looked up to see his wife leaning against the post of the doorway. She looked as if she’d just stepped off the set of a 1950s sitcom: pale green A-line dress, double string of pearls, large blonde curls, and soft pink lips. She was the picture of loving, warm hospitality—except her eyes. The look behind her eyes spoke the volumes of emotion those pink lips had never uttered in their life together. “For God’s sake, he’s even put me in this ridiculous June Cleaver getup. I hate A-line dresses and he knows it. What the hell is going through your head, Chuck?”

Chuck sighed and immediately regretted it. His body ached with cold and lack of oxygen. The tips of his fingers seemed like they’d always been blue, and his lips cracked and bled in dryness. “It’s a pretty dress, though,” he said.

His wife shook her head and turned away, mumbling, “That’s not the point.”

Alyson took the tablet from his hand and began scrolling through the results of his last search. “Hey, captain, I wonder what the headlines say about you now.” Her fingers slid and tapped across the screen quickly, and a smirk flitted across her face. “Maybe it’s something like this?” She turned the tablet to face him again. She’d opened a word processor and typed in all caps a series of headlines he’d rather not see:

FORMER SPACE HERO KILLS CRAZY CREWMAN TOO LATE

WHAT WENT WRONG: WILLIAMS LOSES CONTROL OF CREW AND SHIP

CAPTAIN CHUCK WILLIAMS ONLY SURVIVOR ON BOTCHED MISSION TO MARS, NOT FOR LONG

CHUCK WILLIAMS GASPS FOR BREATH, TALKS TO GHOSTS, IS CRAZY

She turned the screen away again, her smirk having grown wider. “What do you think? Too biased maybe? Well, I just fly things—flew things—I’m no journalist.” Her fingers slid and tapped again until she turned the tablet to face Chuck again. “Maybe this is better?” The headlines were the same, but she’d changed the font to what looked like Old English type.

Fire burned in his muscles as he pushed himself up and toward the door. Fire burned in his lungs as he tried to breathe. Fire burned in his brain as he tried to shake Alyson from his head. She was dead. She’d been the first to die. He was talking to a dead person. His wife was alive. He needed to talk to her.

She was in the mess hall, and the pots and pans were suddenly very heavy when he walked through the door.

“What are you doing?” he rasped.

She kept him behind her and never turned to look at him, but he knew how she looked: slightly pursed pink lips, narrowed eyes, stiff cheeks. “The hero is hungry. The hero is dying. The hero needs a steak.”

Chuck reached for her hands before she could turn on the stove. “No, you can’t do that. It’ll eat up my oxygen. You’re just going to kill me faster.”

When she turned to him, he realized how wrong he’d been about how her face looked. Tears rolled down her cheeks in rivulets, and her pale skin turned red in rage. “You’re already dead, Chuck. And you’re such an asshole for it. What will a steak do? Shave a few minutes off your life? You’re looking at minutes anyway. What difference does it make how long it takes at this point? Just eat your fucking steak and die already.”

She was no longer in an A-line dress. She was in dark jeans and a white T-shirt. The moccasins she always wore around the house replaced the white high heels he’d originally seen. Her hair was dyed black and pulled into a loose ponytail. Her makeup was gone and no longer concealed the lines that age had worried into her skin. Only the tears continued to fall.

He watched as she grilled the steak, skipping the salt and butter. Now and then she would sniff or clear her throat, but she didn’t say another word while she cooked. When she was done, she slapped the slab of meat onto a plate and slid it across the counter to where she expected him to sit and eat it. “There,” she said. “That’s the best you’re getting as a last meal. See you around, Chuck.”

Then she turned back toward the door and disappeared.

Chuck looked at the plate she’d prepared for him. For a moment, it looked like one of the dried nutrient bricks—charred and blackened—they’d stocked the ship with before leaving on the mission. Only for a moment. Then, the smell of perfectly cooked meat wafted into his nose, mouth and lungs, and he felt rejuvenated. He cut a slice of the meat and bit into it. For just a moment, the taste of carbon stained his mouth and tongue. Then, the juice from the meat filled his consciousness and warmed him even to the tips of his fingers. The warmth overtook him, and he felt a smile stretch across his face.

When he was finished, his wife appeared again to take away his plate. The tears were gone, now, and the A-line dress swished around her knees again. She took his head in her free hand and kissed his forehead. “Go to sleep now, Chuck.”

The Big Goddamn Hero closed his eyes and rested his head against the cold metal counter, listening to the clink of dishes in the sink. As he fell asleep, he wondered what tomorrow’s headline would look like.

If you haven’t heard of Sam Sykes, I recommend* his work to you, both his novels and his blog. In particular, I recommend his most recent post, which has to do with the label “boy books.”

Like Sykes, I’m suspicious of labels, especially regarding books. I see their marketing value, because let’s face it: people hate making decisions. Labels help narrow down the choices people want to consider, which, ideally, leads to them buying something instead of walking out the store empty-handed. But labels can be abused to the point of actually harming the work they apply to. Take for instance science fiction and fantasy novels. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of people who’ve listened to all my measured, supported reasons for why a great deal of science fiction and fantasy have literary value and should be treated seriously only to respond with, “Okay, yeah, whatever, but you have to admit. It’s just not as good as normal fiction.” That’s usually the point when I put my head through a wall. Keeping all that in mind, there is only one reason I support using the label “boy book,” and I’m not even sure how good of a reason it is: it’s meant to help young boys feel like it’s okay to read.

Boys are told they don’t enjoy something as touchy-feely as reading the same way girls are told they’re no good in math and science. Of course, civilized, reasonable, rational people recognize that neither of these assertions is particularly true, and their perpetuation is a serious injustice that is still a long way from being fixed. Theoretically, labeling a book as one for boys could perhaps interest an underserved demographic. It’s a small step to breaking down the rigid expectations of the masculine gender, but it’s a step nonetheless.

Of course, I’ve heard this same argument applied to the Twilight books: “Yes, they’re horrible, but at least it’s gotten young people reading for once.” Having worked in a book store, I’m perfectly familiar with the people who lose their minds over Twilight. But trying to tell a Twihard their favorite series is the literary equivalent of an outhouse is like trying to tell a five-year-old that candy is in fact not food and that you need actual nutrition to stay healthy. So, my support for the label “boy book” is definitely tenuous.

Beyond luring young boys into the habit of reading books, I think the label has no value. In fact, for any other use, I find it divisive and insulting. While wondering what the label actually means, Sykes writes, “A boy book is a book that deals with habits or subjects that would appeal to boys. Violence, action, bloodshed, bodily functions or, in the case of this book, thinking about thinking.” I have to admit I was rather irate at the insinuation that a book about “thinking about thinking” made it more appealing to boys than girls. To clarify, I know this was not Sykes’s insinuation but rather that of the NPR reviewer, which really makes it all the more shocking.

Isn’t NPR supposed to be run by dirty liberal hippies? And one of their reviewers would actually go so far as to suggest that a book about thinking about thinking is inherently less appealing to girls/women? I hate feeling offended, so I wish I knew which book was being reviewed so that I could listen to this ninnyhammer for myself. I’d really like to regret calling him a ninnyhammer because that would mean he’s not and that he doesn’t actually have the caveman perspective that philosophical subjects are too boring/arduous for the delicate female mind.

In general, I find all the questions regarding what’s appealing to men and what’s appealing to women to be frustrating and overthought. Can’t we just like the things we like without it saying something more about our levels of estrogen and testosterone? Resist the pigeonholes, people!

 

*I have two criteria for recommending authors: I must have personally enjoyed their work, and they have to not be douchebags. Generally, I give authors the benefit of the doubt (that is, that they’re not douchebags) until I find out otherwise, but I had the pleasure of attending one of Sam Sykes’s readings and discovering that he does in fact meet the second criterion. But if I ever discover he, I don’t know, eats babies’ fingers, OFF THE LIST HE GOES!