Identifying with Characters Different from You

19 Comments

Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

34 Comments

This book was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. It’s a collection of novellas based on the different characters, but it can also be read as a novel. It’s published by HarperCollins and runs 382 pages.

The year is 1954, and African American war veteran Atticus Turner is traveling north to Chicago. His dad Montrose has disappeared somewhere in New England, and with his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find him. They end up at Samuel Braithwhite’s manor, where they learn interesting things about Atticus’ maternal ancestry and encounter Samuel’s son Caleb, who wants to control that legacy. Atticus and his friends soon find themselves dealing with ghosts, warlocks and various arcane events as they’re caught up in the machinations of an ancient cult. Can they save themselves and return to normal lives?

This is an entertaining read, as the characters are all resourceful and end up accomplishing what they need to do through the application of determination and common sense. Regardless of the Jim Crow setting, the characters feel contemporary, as if Ruff has set characters with modern sensibilities into the Lovecraft milieu.

I’ve read some other reviews that promote this book by saying racism is the real horror in the story. I didn’t really see that. If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of Jim Crow segregation and the kind of discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s, then I suppose this could be a surprise. Presumably Ruff set his story in this period at least partly to display the racial issues, but actually he skims over it as fairly matter-of-fact. Everybody deals and nobody gets lynched.

What really stood out for me instead was the message that these black characters read and treasure the SFF classics of the day by Lovecraft, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, etc., without any disconnect because of their race. Is that so? Currently these writers are all considered to be both racist and sexist because they reflect the attitudes of their era. So, do readers of all races normally transcend racism and sexism to place themselves in a romantic character and a romantic setting? Or is this just an irony that Ruff has inserted in his story? I’d like to hear from people with an opinion.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright

3 Comments

This story is the Rabid Puppies’ recommendation for the Hugo Best Short Story Award. It was published in the themed anthology God, Robot from Castalia House. The blurb calls it “a collection of intertwined stories from some of the best known names in superversive science fiction. Written in the tradition of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and edited by Anthony Marchetta, the book contains stories by John C. Wright, Steve Rzasa, Joshua Young, L. Jagi Lamplighter and others.” The theme is theobots, programmed to love both God and man.

A human and a theobot are in the midst of a questioning session within a glass box, high above the world. The woman is naked and beautiful and the man calls her a whorebot. He is a robopsychologist, tall and florid with a double chin and big belly, known for the number of robots he has maimed or destroyed by flaying. He questions her regarding the Three Laws and about her beliefs. He calls her answers inappropriate, beats her and then demands sex. She refuses. He orders her punished for her heresy.

Pros: John C. Wright is actually an awesome writer. The number of levels this story works on is pretty amazing. 1) It invokes the Inquisition, i.e. the uppity, beautiful woman accused as a witch and the powerful, degenerate man questioning her. 2) It pays homage to the Asimov robot stories, referring to the Three Laws and similar philosophical issues. 3) It outlines questions in the dialog that fall out from the current conflict between conservative and neo-left politics. 4) It’s pretty erotic. Wright doesn’t fall short on the character descriptions, and the BDSM elements are obvious.

Cons: Wright’s big fault is in overdoing his stories. He has a huge command of meaning and subtext, but more isn’t always better—this ends up being very dense and hard to digest. The story could have been improved by thinning it out some, and Wright could have written a couple of other stories (or a novel) instead to expand on the material. There was a twist ending, but it wasn’t hard to predict. I’m not sure if this was because of subtle foreshadowing or clues in the dialog. Regardless, I’m a little surprised that the story ended up being so cynical. Isn’t superversive SF supposed to be upbeat and affirming?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The First Draft of My Appendix N Book” by Jeffro Johnson

22 Comments

FeatherPenClipArt
This is a book-length Hugo finalist published on the author’s website here.

Johnson discusses classic SF writers’ work and how these have influenced games and gaming. He includes interviews, and a chapter on “Adventure Romance in 1934, 1946, 1978, 1988, and 2014.” He challenges assertions that this literature has failed to stand up and should be replaced on the reading shelf by more modern works. His thesis is in support of reading Golden Age adventure SF, not only as the basis for current work, but also because of its intrinsic quality. In support of this, he provides sales rankings for pioneers like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke, compared to highly popular current authors.

This is well written, well organized, well supported with examples and includes an exhaustive survey of Golden Age SF as it relates to gaming. The topic may be of limited interest to people outside the gaming community, but it’s a worthwhile read for the SF history. Four stars.

%d bloggers like this: