Those who aren’t involved in the SF/F community online will probably be unaware of the huge imbroglio that’s roiled the blogosphere since January. The controversy revolves around race in speculative fiction–the lack of different ethnicities in books and films, or the lack of good roles for them even if they are included. White authors were gently (and not so gently) reminded that by not tackling race they were enforcing the white default, and were then encouraged/dissuaded from trying to write characters from different cultures. This discussion drew in professional authors and editors, expanded in noise level and vitriol and soon encompassed everything from cultural imperialism to to tokenism in the original Star Trek. Well meaning white authors were affronted by being accused of passive racism, people of color were in turn offended by their defenses and suggested solutions, and on it went, spiralling out of control.

This week, the SF author John Scalzi hosted a conversation on his mega-blog which has remained surprisingly polite and respectful. Mary Ann Mohanraj has written two posts that summarize Race Fail 09, and then put forward a cogent, lucid argument for people to use as guidelines in this matter. If you’re interested in dipping your toe in this jazuzzi you could do worse than start over here and here.

I agree with Ms. Mohanraj, but feel that her arguments apply to all aspects of people who are ‘other’. Were I to write from the point of view of a gay man, or woman, or someone afflicted by a disease like Alzeihmers, I would automatically be assuming to speak for that person, or at least one person from that community. Would I get it wrong, would I offend members of that community through ommisions or misunderstandings? Probably. But what other option do I have? Were I to write merely what I know, my books would be peopled solely with Brazilian British dudes in their late twenties.

I think this entire argument has served one excellent purpose though and that’s to raise the awareness of the SF/F community on this issue. Offended or not, race is now on everybody’s radar; I can only hope that in the future authors will at least write or not include people of different races in their novels with well thought out purpose. And if they choose to stretch themselves and include some people that are radically different from them? Well, then they’re simply proving that they are writing in the field they belong to–speculative fiction.

What’s interesting about SF/F is that it often includes races that are sentient and of a different species, like orcs in Tolkien’s world. How do we treat these races? Are the authors racist about them, in that we ascribe a set nature to every member of that group without fail? China Mieville, the brilliant author of Perdido Street Station, says this:

…the point about Tolkien and his heirs is that whether or not they are racist, whether or not their characters are racist, theirs are worlds in which racism is true, in that people really are defined by their race. If you are an Orc in Middle-Earth you are, definitionally, a shit; if you are an elf, you might be difficult to deal with but you are, definitionally, noble. What I tried to do with Perdido Street Station was create a world in which racism was very real but also wasn’t true. So because this is a world in which racial oppression and racial tension are factors, people are defined racially, and stereotyped. But it is racism that is causal, not race, and there are therefore hundreds and thousands of people who don’t fit the clichés; there’s even a little section (which probably reads as horribly didactic) in which someone is discussed as being very much not like the stereotype of their own race, and the way racists are able to rationalise that by saying, ‘Yes, but that’s Bob; he’s my friend, he’s different’.

I think much grief could be avoided if authors wrote characters of different ethnicities from themselves as people informed by their race and the world’s attitude toward them, but not necessarily defined by it. China strikes at the heart of the matter when he states that it’s racism that’s causal, not race.

Sarah Rees Brenan made a similar point in her blog while discussing how to write compelling female characters. She said:

Elizabeth Bennet couldn’t kick ass (particularly not in her bonnet), and was presumably a virgin but seemed perfectly au fait with the idea of attraction, and was clearly interested in two men besides Darcy during the course of the book. She liked long walks, was hugely embarrassed by her family, was funny and witty and occasionally an idiot prone to snap judgements. Her flaws and virtues were very different from Darcy’s, though they overlapped in several places. She was written as a female character with the stress on character rather than on female, and she reads as so alive she could leap off the page, and I love her.

Sarah’s post is entirely brilliant, and well worth the read; I’d advise everybody to head on over and check it out.

Finally! Stephen King said that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to writing what we know, but rather to what is true. It’s our job as writers to imagine the ‘other’; as long as we do our best to be honest in our attempts to recreate that which is different from us on the page, we’re heading in the right direction. He said:

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work.

When writing characters that are fundamentally different from ourselves, I think the key impulse (followed after by diligent research) should be to think of them as complex people first, and have that concept be a composite informed by their gender, sexual preference, race and religion–but not defined by any one of them.