Thursday, September 19, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Writing Race in SF/F

A little story from some 20 years ago:

My college roommate and I were watching Deep Space Nine, and in the episodes a small group of Bajorans were meeting with Cmdr. Sisko.  One of the leaders of the Bajorans was played by a black actor.

"That's cool," my roommate said, "They have African-American Bajorans."  Then after a moment he said,  "Of course, that's inaccurate.  He's Bajoran.  Bajor is a different planet, there's no Africa, there's no America."

Over the course of the series, we saw that the Bajorans were as racially diverse as humans are*, but we never learn any real details of that diversity.  And that's fine, because it didn't need to be directly addressed, it just was a part of their reality, easily achieved by color-blind casting.

Writing different races in secondary world fantasy, though, can be a challenge.  And I'm not even talking on a cultural level, though that's definitely an aspect.  I'm talking about purely on a level of clarity and description. 

Here's the exercise: describe a character whose race is different than the norm of the primary culture of your world, without using any geographic or geopolitical signifiers from our world.  Also, avoid words or terms that could be racially charged.  Now do five more. 

How do you feel about what you did? 

Now, one thing you can do is make distinctions between races and cultures in your world without getting too specific, and noting how the characters are aware of the cultural differences themselves. 

   "You reek of fish, you know," she said, her flat nose crinkling in disgust. Kaiana Nell was a dark haired, brown-skinned girl. Ruder people would call her a Napa: half Druth, half Napolic. She was a soldier's daughter, born out on the tropical islands during the Fifty Year War.
   Ruder people would call Veranix a "Dirty Quin" if his Racquin heritage were as clear on his face.  Of course, Racquin were only a little darker than 'regular' Druthalians. They just kept to the roads and kept to their own, for the most part.  Though Veranix, like Kaiana, was only half.  His father was a 'regular' Druth, born and raised in Maradaine, just blocks away from the University.  Veranix had inherited his father's fair skin and green eyes, and could speak in his father's Aventil neighborhood accent.  No one suspected he was anything but a local.

Did I hit the mark, or did I miss it?  Perhaps badly?  I think I've still got room for improvement.

But who doesn't?  Even George R. R. Martin has left a lot of room for interpretation.  It seems every time a new character is cast for Game of Thrones, I see intense debates on how the actor or actress does not match what various readers imagined for that character or that character's race.

*- Which makes a strange sense, in that-- save for their nose ridges-- Bajorans were indistinguishable from humans in appearance.  If you can accept that premise (as a time-and-budget saving reality on a TV show that couldn't hire actual alien actors), the rest follows. 


-= Skip =- said...

You may be starting on the wrong foot here. By "race" you mean something heavy with modern American overtones, specifically having to do with skin color. Try thinking about your question but eliminate color.

In my own writing I don't deal with race, I deal with nations. Or, if you prefer, with peoples. I use "nation" in its original Latin sense. While some may be lighter or darker, what distinguishes a nation is a whole complex of diet, language, customs, religion, law, etc.

Thus, I have dwarvish nations and elvish nations and human nations. The Franks are as much a nation as are the Carpati (a nation of elves in eastern Europe). Yes, there are variations in skin color, but that's only one signifier among many.

I don't know if that helps, but it certainly helped me when I stopped talking (internally) about the elvish race and started thinking in terms of elvish nations.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I see where you are coming from, and I agree. While my fantasy world is all-human (and thus "race" in the fantasy context of dwarves, elves, etc. doesn't apply), I do think about these things also in terms of nation and culture. But I think being aware-- and helping your readers be aware-- of the differences in physical appearance of the people in your world is crucial. If for no other reason than to prevent the presumption that everyone in the world is more or less the same in appearance. Also racial distinctions and cultural/national distinctions aren't necessarily the same. Case in point in my own world: the inhabitants of one continent to the far west of Druthal are all, in terms of race, essentially the same (and very different from Druthal). But in terms of culture/nation, there are three, each with their own distinct differences in diet, language, customs, etc.

Michael Caton said...

Oddly, it was always the LACK of racial diversity that stuck out to me in Star Trek, even when I was living in lily white Pennsylvania. Now in coastal California it just seems silly. Do we seriously think there will be LESS interracial reproduction in the future? On one hand, they're casting actors that their mostly-white audience will relate to (it's unfortunate, but I get that) and sometimes the actors they use for non-human extras are not white. Even though, oddly, most aliens (and most of Star Fleet) seem to be white. (Convergent evolution of Caucasians? Beetles I could believe, but come on.) I kind of view black Bajorans/Vulcans/etc. as like casting non-European actors in Shakespeare - I don't even take it as making any point inside or outside the story, that's just who the actors are. (Come to think of it, have there been Asian aliens with speaking roles in ST? I can't think of any examples.)

But this only makes the lack of diversity and of multi-racial characters more obvious, to the extent we're taking Star Trek as a possible future instead of a Game of Thrones fantasy. Wait, it's the year 2330 (or whatever) and you're telling me not only is Starfleet still white, but there aren't many multiracial humans? The modern U.S. Navy is more diverse than this! And why did they jump straight to multi-species characters? THAT is obviously intentionally making a point, which is useful and interesting, both inside and outside the story. Great, a half-Klingon faces discrimination and questioning looks. What about the half-black half-Filipino actor that Paramount and the writers somehow couldn't fit into the twenty-fourth century?

To the question of race in writing more broadly - it certainly can give a feeling of verisimilitude, but if someone has the chance to write race (in a supposed future world) and doesn't touch on the actual real-world hair triggers, I think they're wasting an opportunity unique to speculative fiction. You can be subtle like Asimov in the Currents of Space, where he wrote something that was clearly about mid-century segregation in the U.S. even if the color scheme was reversed. Case in point, in Elysium, people speaking Spanglish down on grimy Earth, security forces speaking German up on the space station. Ouch! But it gets people thinking who might not have thought before.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Caton-- this is, in fact, right on point with further thoughts I've been having in the new SF project I'm starting. My main character is totally mixed-race, to the point any current-day descriptives are grossly inaccurate. Her ancestry includes European, African, Asian, Hispanic, etc. So the challenge I'm facing there is finding the best way to demonstrate that clearly without it necessarily being a straight-telling "this is how it is" infodump.

"Come to think of it, have there been Asian aliens with speaking roles in ST? I can't think of any examples."

Off the top of my head, I can think of one (but only one), in Voyager's "Blink of an Eye", where Daniel Dae Kim played the alien astronaut who made first contact with Voyager.

USNessie said...

I think you're definitely heading in the right direction with this sample. The best way to characterize the differences between races or even simply people who live in different areas is to have the other characters notice or react to them.

In my Kingdom Come series, I wanted to make one particular character stand out to the others because he was from a duchy on the other side of the planet. Unfortunately, so far he just comes off as an Australian in the midst of Europeans.