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Friday, March 13, 2015

DIVERSITY IN SFR II: SEEING THE FUTURE WITHOUT BLINDERS


BLADE RUNNER's vision of Asian-dominated future L.A.

New co-blogger Greta van der Rol’s meaty first post on diversity in SFR gave us all a lot to think about. I was going to leave a comment, but found I had so much to say, I wanted to carry on the conversation here. 

One of the jobs we do as writers of science fiction is to predict what the world will look like in the future.  We take what we see here and now and project it decades or even millennia out to imagine what life will be like.  But that vision of the future will be disastrously limited if we continue to wear the same blinders we were given by the circumstances of our birth, our culture, our education or our lack of interaction with certain groups.

Sometimes in order to see a truly imaginative future, we need to be able to see the present clearly. We need to open our eyes and take notice. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of STAR TREK, had an agenda with his little television show. His stated aim was to have the bridge of the Enterprise reflect the diversity of the world he saw around him.  This was an outrageous concept at the time, though, as Greta indicated, it seems rather stilted and artificial now. Still, Roddenberry’s vision made a great deal of difference for a huge number of people, simply because he tried to reflect what he saw and project it into an optimistic future.

In the same way, director Ridley Scott took the economic and demographic pulse of the 1980s and envisioned a polyglot future L.A. dominated by Asian cultures for his classic SF thriller BLADE RUNNER. (How much of that was adapted directly from Phillip K. Dick’s original vision in the short story that served as the basis of the movie—“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”—I don’t remember. What is certain is that Scott made it visual--and unforgettable.) He looked into the future and he did not see the “American” culture as we knew it then—white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. He could already see the change.

In the Interstellar Rescue series universe that I’ve created, a slave-trading empire has stolen humans from Earth for generations. For nearly as long, the Rescue abolitionists have been fighting them, freeing slaves and returning them to Earth when they can.  Freed slaves who could not be returned have established colonies throughout the galaxy. Many of them are people of color, primarily of Asian and Indian extraction.  Why? Because the reality is they make up the greatest proportion of the Earth’s population.

So when I set out to recruit a crew for Sam Murphy’s pirate ship Shadowhawk for Book Three in the series (the space opera noir Fools Rush In), I drew from several compatible alien races (they had to be able to share atmosphere and basic foodstuffs, after all) and included lots of crew members with Asian and Indian last names.  Sam might be Caucasian, but the heroine of the story, Rescue agent Rayna Carver, is of African-American descent, the daughter of a couple Taken from outside Chicago and freed by Rescue.

Making my crew diverse was a calculation based on extrapolation—a reflection of current reality projected into my future. The fact that Rayna Carver is black is something else entirely.  She was born that way.

Rayna has been with me since Book One in the IR series, Unchained Memory, where she first appears as “Dozen” on the mining planet of Gallodon V. She leapt onto the page in all her energetic, scene-stealing glory and would not be silenced. I had very little to do with it.  My only job was to write it all down and try to be true to her character in all I did.  That hasn’t always been easy, but I do have my critique partner Linda Thomas and the members of the Cultural Expressions Book Club of Richmond, Virginia to keep me straight if I stray.  Did I mention they’re African-American?  

I had that advantage in writing Rayna’s character. I spend time with people who look like Rayna; I listen to them talk; I share their concerns. I might have been more intimidated if I set out to write, say, a Russian character. He might have ended up sounding like Boris Badenov. Or Chekov.

The one saving grace we have as writers of SFR is that the cultural identifiers that exist between groups today will largely be washed away in the future. Rayna doesn’t have the same cultural referents that her American parents had—she was raised in a colony of freed slaves and aliens called Terrine. But her strength, her courage, her smartass attitude? Yes, some of that we can attribute to generations of her ancestors who survived anything life threw at them.

Those qualities make Rayna the best character for the job. That’s the beauty of embracing diversity: it gives you so many more options to choose from. Why limit yourself or the future you’re building? Look around you. See the world with all its strengths and weaknesses, shades and variations, tongues and dialects. Project that into the future and see how far it takes you.

Cheers, Donna





3 comments:

  1. What a great post. Yes, we have to try to imagine the future. There are so many scenarios - and many, many of them are nothing like the Caucasian "western" society we are so used to. Although that's another possibility. In Elizabeth Moon's "Once a Hero" the bad guys are kind of Vikings in space. Because they were the kinds of people who colonized their planet.

    Thanks for giving us all something else to think about.

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  2. Great article, Donna. Though, I would have thought the order of Chekhov and Boris Badenov would have been reversed, long-time Trekker that you are. :D

    And someday Zjel and Rayna are going to have to do a joint interview. Hmmmm. Packing a Big Punch in a Petite Package?

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  3. Greta--I wouldn't mind to see the good guys be Vikings in space, actually! Though the real thing was pretty scary . . . And, yes, Laurie, I believe Ray would be up for an interview, if she can take time away from kicking ass and taking names.

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