Teahouse on the Tracks (Alastair Reynolds)
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Monday, 9 March 2009
On RaceFail

I've just spent a week in Nice, which is something of a tradition around this time of year (my wife's from that part of the world, and it's no great hardship to spend a few days in the Cote D'Azur at the tail-end of a rainy British winter. Being a good writer type, of course, I was also busy plugging away on the end-stages of the new book. There are worst places to work than the swish lobby of a delightful French hotel. I was also trying to read the entire BSFA novel short list, in preparation for a panel discussion later this month).

I arrived home and checked my usual favorite websites, including Niall Harrison's excellent Torque Control, which - along with Locus online - is one of the two main places where I indulge my laughably inadequate efforts to keep up with goings-on in the SF "world". I don't read too many blogs (a handful of friends' sites, and that's about it). Hence, I've been almost entirely ignorant about the ongoing RaceFail discussion, and remained so until Torque Control's handy summary of the main issues and sequence of events. I say "almost entirely" because with the hindsight of the Torque Control summary, I realise that I had in fact read the Guardian blog entry linked therein, without in any way grasping quite how incendiary it had/was about to become. 

Any attempt by me to encapsulate events is going to be crassly simplistic, and in any case,  I've only skimmed the surface of the various summaries floating around there. The gist of it is (I think) that a basically well-intentioned discussion on race in SF (not just the deficit of non-white characters, but the hostility or otherwise of the professional institution of SF to non-white readers and writers), went nuclear. Regrettable things appear to have been done by protagonists on the professional, as opposed to fan, side of the equation. None of the key players are individuals that I would consider to be anything more than distant professional acquaintances (most of them I haven't met or communicated with in any fashion), so I suppose it's relatively easy for me to take a stand; my professional career isn't tangled up in this. I don't think anyone involved in this is an idiot (far from it), so I hope bridges can be rebuilt, fences mended etc.

That's by the by, though. What's more interesting to me right now is how this whole discussion pertains to the kind of work I and my colleagues, most but not all of whom happen to be white and male, produce.

I confess I've not, as a whole, given a massive amount of thought to unconscious racism in my fiction. I've tried to be on guard against sexism, and I like to think that, in my way, I've made some efforts to populate my books with female characters who aren't all cut from the same male fantasy templates. (That's not to say I've always succeeded: Ilia Volyova, to a degree of worried bemusement on my side, has become something of a gun-totin' favorite among many of my male readers, despite my insistence that I always visualised her as a world-weary Judi Dench, rather than a pneumatic Angelina Jolie. Clearly she came over as more Lara Croft than I intended, which is evidence of nothing more than a writer failing to communicate their vision.)

I cannot, in all honesty, say that I've given anything like the same degree of attention to non-white characters. I always saw the characters in the Revelation Space universe as ethnically complex, something I tried to signify with the mish-mash French/Chinese naming system. I didn't really see any of them as black or white - just weird, primarily (I think I was mainly thinking about hairstyles). Then I did CENTURY RAIN, and at the time of writing it was absolutely clear to me that Custine, Floyd's sidekick and fellow jazzman, was going to be black. By the time I finished the book, however, it didn't really seem plausible that Custine could have been both black and a former high-ranking policeman in an alternate, somewhat more facist than our own, version of the nineteen fifties. So I simply deleted any of the indicators that might have given a clue as to Custine's skin colour, which were in any case few and far between.

Cop-out or necessary change due to plot demands? You decide.

I can't say that plotting had much impact on the portrayal of Tom Dreyfus in THE PREFECT. Dreyfus was always black (or non-white) in my mind, as he remains now. This isn't because I had some deep-seated desire to write about a black security operative in the twenty fifth century. My writing methods are a lot more haphazard than that; almost embarrassingly so. But hey, since we're all being candid:

There was a point early on in the writing of the book when I hadn't yet got Dreyfus entirely fixed in my mind's eye. I felt that he was possibly a little overweight, possibly a little careworn, possibly a man that it would be easy to underestimate - not Jack Bauer, so to speak. Then I happened to watch the film Phone Booth, and I was struck by Forest Whitaker's performance as the police captain in that film. He's a little sleepy-looking, has that lazy eye, but he comes through, and it's only his vigilance that saves the day. It wasn't suddenly a case that Dreyfus "became" Forest Whitaker in my head, but the character did snap rather effectively into focus, and Whitaker's performance was undoubtedly the catalyst for that. But at no point did I feel it necessary to insert any references to Dreyfus's skin colour. How would I have done that, anyway? I'm not sure. Maybe if I'd given him a different name, something that tipped off the reader as to his possible ancestry - something African, possibly.

"Something African" leads into another aspect of the portrayal of race in SF which I'm going to have to give some serious thought to in coming months. For quite some time now I've been germinating thoughts about a big new hard SF trilogy, something I'm calling the 11K sequence, because it's going to span (more or less) the next 11,000 years. It's going to be about space exploration and colonisation, done properly - no messing about with magic near-light spacedrives here. Inspired by Paul McAuley's recent THE QUIET WAR, I want to grab the bull by the horns and make a virtue of all the recent data that's been coming on in on our own solar system and the growing family of extrasolar planets.

I digress. The reason I mention the 11K sequence is that, along with my thoughts about the structure and themes of the sequence, I was also minded to give it a subtle African bias, positing the emergence of Africa as a spacefaring, technological super-state several centuries down the line. We've had North American dominated futures, after all, as well as Chinese, Japanese and South-American ones - so why not "do" Africa? It's not, I hope, quite as blatantly cynical as it sounds: over the last few months I've found myself fascinated and enthralled with African music, and to a large extent that's where my African focus is coming from - music, as it usually is with me. But there's a deeper issue there, I think, and I doubt that I'd have given it much thought were it not for RaceFail. What right do I, a white, middle class welshman, have to write about Africa - even if it is Africa several hundred years from now? Would that shade into cultural appropriation? Or should I just go for it and try not to fuck it up too badly?

If nothing else, the RaceFail discussion has got me thinking about this kind of issue, and I don't suppose that's necessarily a bad thing.

Posted by voxish at 12:15 AM MEST
Updated: Monday, 9 March 2009 1:20 PM MEST

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