Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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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.

The politics of assimilation

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Since I mentioned the “post multicultural moment” that we might be existing in right now, I’m going to spend a few blogs in investigating the idea. Glancing at the history, I think maybe I should start by looking at the politics of assimilation. This ideology overlapped the colonial period and was popular in the US from about 1790 to 1920. It was also standard in other Western societies about this same time.

Assimilation is the policy that all of a society should have a uniform set of cultural values and practices that are held in common by its citizens. The process is often called the “melting pot,” as it results in a uniform mixture of cultures. It is blind to diversity, so there are no minorities. Everyone is expected to be an interchangeable cog in the cultural machine.

Generally, education is viewed as the way to accomplish this. The policy of assimilation still pervades our public schools, which is why the courts are willing to curtail Freedom of Speech around minor children. The schools are expected to socialize children with a particular set of skills and behavior patterns that will assist them in being successful when they enter society as independent adults. There are, of course, disagreements about what this set of skills and behavior patterns should be. Also, many parents are unwilling to have their children socialized according to the government plan. Hence the ongoing popularity of private schools and home schooling.

Assimilation as a government policy was applied to immigrants, as well as children in the schools. This meant that immigrants were expected to learn English as soon as possible and to accept the changes that living in the US brought. In general, immigrants were disrespected when they first arrived in the country. Groups as different as Irish, Italians and Asians all experienced discrimination, although people of color were more likely to experience this on a long-term basis. Ironically, during this period African Americans were barred from easy assimilation through laws mandating segregation.

The worst victims of the assimilation policy during this period were native cultures. After the Indian Wars ended in the US, the government outlawed traditional religious practices and sent Native American children to boarding schools where they learned English, Christianity and white culture. This was an attempt to force them to leave tribal customs behind and to destroy the tribal structures.

As a policy, assimilation does have its good points. It provides a uniform work force for industrialization and generally a good opportunity for immigrants who are willing to work hard and take advantage of opportunities. It has the drawbacks of destroying culture, preventing diversity and stamping out differing viewpoints.

How does this look in fiction?

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779 Not pretty, actually. I’ve been basing my blogs mostly on research and supporting statements, but now I’ll discuss my personal reactions a bit.

Example 1: I’ve been offended by an influx of this kind of writing into the hit CBS show The Good Wife this season. This year has seen the introduction of several new minority characters. That’s great—they’re wonderful characters. However, a new set of writers seem to have been itching to take down the powerful white characters on the show. Law firm Lockhart, Agos & Lee have to cater to minority job applicants after an investigation for discriminatory hiring practices. Peter Florrick and Eli Gold become sniveling apologists. Alicia Florrick falls into paralyzing depression. This doesn’t work—these are the characters that made the show what it was. The network has announced the show won’t be renewed for next year.

Example 2: I suspect Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory has been shaped by the discussion that took place in RaceFail2009. I already discussed some of the reasons I didn’t care for it in the review I did. It seems messy and forced. A seemingly athletic white female protagonist is described as “plump,” and has a lesbian relationship with an East Indian woman. The straight, white men are villains, inconsequential or stupid, while minority men fill the lead roles. I know these role reversals may be the point, but still it looks like a sexist, racist attack on straight, white men.

Example 3: Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary Mercy also seems to be infected with this kind of ideology. It’s harder to identify in this case, because of the all-female pronouns, but does anyone really think Breq is a man or that Seivarden is a woman? Seivarden is already struggling because of the disappearance of his wealthy and powerful family while he was in sleep storage. In this episode, he is bullied by other crew members into assuming blame for the ancient colonial tradition of privilege. Seivarden isn’t personally to blame for this. Again this looks to be a thinly veiled attack on (white) men.

Is this white guilt literature? Does the new ideology translate to advancing minority interests at the expense of white men? Somehow it looks a bit smug. I can consider these are points to illustrate how insidious privilege can be, but still this marks the resulting works as racist and sexist. The new ideology seems to be quite powerful, too. Both these novels were high in the reading list for Nebula consideration.

Inferring the new ideology

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55327_girl-writing_mdSince I haven’t found much to go on except the label “fascist” in relation to what’s happening in the social justice arena, I’ll try to identify some of the characteristics of the new ideology myself.

For a long time, the progressive standard has been inclusion. Most magazines and anthologies putting out calls for submissions these days include a diversity statement as part of it. Many institutions go so far as to foster talented minorities. However, the standard for what’s expected seems to be changing.

One clear trend is a movement by minorities to take ownership of their own story and to become activist against what they consider straight, white and/or male privilege. For example, here’s a 2008 blog by Willow, one of the participants in RaceFail2009. Willow expresses anger at the white casting in the Asian tale Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I agree was pretty poor as an example of cultural appropriation. Then she goes on to complain about the quandary of writing characters as persons-of-color (POC) as a POC herself. According to Willow, she has to write stereotypical characters in order for them to be recognized in a story as POC. If she just describes a character as “brown” for example, then all readers will assume the character is a white person with a tan. Because of this default, Willow says she “hates white people.”

Other writers characterize this as a “post-colonial legacy” where POC are losing their native language and culture to the dominant American/European/Western culture. The result seems to be a separatist movement, rather than acceptance of inclusion. As one commenter on Willow’s blog put it, “The ‘we’re all people!’ cry looks innocuous or even admirable at first glance, but the way it’s distilled in practice is more like “even foreigners can act like ordinary Americans!” — with ‘white’ standing in for ‘ordinary’, of course.” Another example of this is African American students in US universities demanding segregated spaces for racial minorities.

Another trend is for minority activists to demand apologies for the white and/or male privilege which leads to the situation of post-colonialism and cultural dominance. This somewhat fits the model of bullying where the activists attempt to attack and reduce privilege by harassing those they see as privileged. The apology cycle can lead to a certain transfer of power, as resignations at U. of Missouri show, but this was quickly answered by retaliatory budget restrictions in the state legislature. Eventual conflict with other minorities also seems destined to result, as anti-Semitism charges at Oberlin indicate.

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