Whiteness and Diversity

This post is a follow up to my earlier post on diversity and representation In short, while I think it's great that we're beginning to talk and write about race and representation in our fiction and field, I think we [1] need to expand our analysis of whiteness.

Whiteness in Science Fiction

I'm still working on figuring out what this means, and I'm sorry that I haven't developed my thinking sufficiently to be more clear on this. In light of that here are a collection of my thoughts on representation:

  • Whiteness is multiple and I think it's possible (and important) to depict whiteness and white characters critically and without recapitulating normalization. At the same time, it's important to avoid falling victim to a lot of the normalization to which uncritical representations of racial diversity often fall pray.
  • The theory around race and representation must deal with issues around assimilation. More diversity is useful, but to move forward on issues of representation, the field needs to better understand the process of assimilation. I want to see stories that help us unpack assimilation.
  • Whiteness is complex and a major problem with stories that "don't do race well," is not just that the characters aren't explicitly of color, but that whiteness isn't portrayed very well. This is part of the struggle of privilege, but not only does science fiction need to be better about diversity and representation of non-white characters, but we the thinking on whiteness needs to continue to evolve apace.

Diversity and Quotas

Discussions about diversity and representation in fiction often lead the under-informed to ask "So what, do you want to impose some sort of quota system? Does that mean diversity is more important than quality?"

The answer is almost always no.

I'd also like to point out that this is one of those cases where whiteness and systematic bias conspire to define "quality," in unuseful ways. But this is another argument for another time.

The canonical answer is: there's a great deal of amazing work written by people of color and a lot of great fiction that incorporates and addresses the experiences of people of color. This is great, and if we've learned anything in the last couple of years, it's that if you look for this work it's there. The real challenge revolves around cultivating that work so that there's more of it, and promoting [2] that work so that there's a large audience.

[1]The science fiction writing/reading/editing community.
[2]Promoting and marketing literature is by no means a solved problem under any conditions.

Representation and Race Futurism

I had an item on my list of blog posts to write for a couple of years to write something reflecting on "RaceFail," and finally a gave up, because I didn't want to write a book, I didn't know what to say, and I was more interested in the actual discourse itself than finding the "side of right," in a conversation that was both way too simple and way too complex all at once.

So rather than reboot the conversation, which has ended in some senses and continues on in others, I want to start writing a bit here about race and representation in fiction, but also discussing the way that conversations transpire online. Here's part one. I'll figure out some way to index them all together once they're posted and assembled.

I wrote this scene a while back where a character who grew up on a small [1] outpost visits a space ship. Given relativistic space travel, from the character's perspective, the crew of the space ship are 750 years old or so, despite being in their subjective early forties. That means the character's 31st-great-grandparents (roughly) were cousins of the people he's looking at.

He notices a few things: the people on the ship are all taller than he is and also taller than everyone from the outpost. He also notices that there's more more skin tone variation amongst the people on the ship than there is among the people in the outpost.

There are a bunches of problems with this story. Including the fact that its not finished and that there are parts of the execution that I think need a lot work. But this part, I quite like. For this story (and I think in general,) I've drawn the following conclusion:

  • Race is temporally constrained. We understand racial difference and our own racial experiences in terms of our current reality. This changes.
  • The aspects of race which are the result of lineage (skin color, bone structure,) are likely to change over time as lineages continue. We can assume that these kinds of changes will be pronounced in smaller populations over longer periods of time.

To a large extent the tension between the "outpost people" and the "ship people" is the core of the conflict in this story. I've been thinking in this story about the impact of colonialism (and race as a result) on societies and political outlook. It's almost certainly not perfect, but I enjoy the possibilities, the story has its moments, and I'm finding the theory building productive.

I'm circling around a point: in-story diversity, particularly, diversity that reflects late 20th/early 21st century notions of difference alone cannot further thought race and racism. In other words, diversity is not criticism. There are many ways to productively further the discussion of difference in (genre) fiction, lets not stop with representation.

I'll be writing more about this in the future. Comments are very welcome!

[1]Under a billion people.

Cyberpunk Sunset

I'm not sure where I picked up the link to this post on the current state of cyberpunk, but I find myself returning to it frequently and becoming incredibly frustrated with the presentation.

In essence the author argues that while the originators of the cyberpunk genre (i.e. Gibson and Sterling, the "White Men") have pronounced cyberpunk "over," the genre is in fact quite vibrant and a prime location for non-mainstream ("other") voices and per perspectives. Also, somehow, the author argues that by denying that cyberpunk continues to be relevant and active we're impinging the diversity that's actively occurring in the space.

My thoughts are pretty simple:

  • This is old news. People have been pronouncing cyberpunk dead since 1992 or thereabouts. And they've largely been right. Cyberpunk died, because the technological horizon 1980s (e.g. BBSs) developed in a particular way. In someways the cyberpunks got it right (there is a digital reality, there are digital natives, and unique digital social conventions.) In many ways no one got it right: more people are using the internet per-capita than anyone thought in 1984 and no one predicted that the internet would be as commercial as it is.

    In light of this the kinds of things that the people active in technology and in cyberpunk are thinking about and addressing have changed a lot. In many ways, Cory Doctorow is a pretty fitting heir to the cyberpunk lineage, but I think it's also true that the cyberpunk tradition has shifted it's focus into other issues and ideas.

    That interest in the present and the near future has always been a significant defining characteristic of cyberpunk, at least as relevant as the DIY and outsider aspect. In this respect, cyberpunk's critique was accepted and quite transformative for the genre.

    At the same time, the "hackers," and "cyberpunks," grew out of academia (e.g. Free Software) and not the punk movement.

  • The cyberpunks, even when (white) men were the front men for the (sub)genre, have always been outsiders. In the 80s were the "Young Turks" of the science fiction world. Samuel Delany's Nova is often cited a key cyberpunk-precursor, and there are some pretty important precursors in Stars in My Pocket, Dhalgren, and The Einstein Intervention.

  • I want to be sure to not forget about Melissa Scott while we're at it. Trouble and her Friends is a great example of using cyberpunk to explore subcultures and experiences of people (queers, PoC, etc.) on the margins. While Trouble is almost on the late end for "original" cyberpunk I think it counts. The blogger seems to think that only queers and PoC and others have only recently taken up cyberpunk, and that seems particularly shortsighted, and not particularly true.

  • One of the most troubling aspects of the argument is the assumption that if "cyberpunk" is over than no one can write cyberpunk anymore and that to declare such would be to silence all of the would be *punks.

    This is absurd.

    Not only is this not true, but it's also not how literature works. I'm also pretty sure that this is not consistent with the origins of cyberpunk, or the way the genre memes play out.

    What I think happened when cyberpunk stopped being on the cutting edge and we realized that a critique of the present required different science fictional method (I think that resurgence in "New Space Opera" in the 90s is part of this, as well as a hard-SF turn in the form of Beggers in Spain and a turn toward alternate histories.) As a result, what's happening cyberpunk has become something closer to fantasy.

    The division (and implications) of the difference between "fantasy" and/or "super soft science fiction" and the science fiction mainstream is at play and probably out side of the scope of this post.

So I'm not that sure where we're left? Am I missing something? Lets hear it out in comments!

Science Fiction Reading Progress

I've been mentioning what I've been reading as part of my weekly "accomplishment" posts, but I wanted to take the opportunity to write a slightly longer review and reflection of some recent reading.

After delaying for far too long, I've finally gotten through the April/May issue of Asimov's. There are probably all sorts of reasons why double issues make a lot of sense for publishers, but I have to say that I find them a bit grueling to read. Maybe it was just this particular issue, but I found that the balance between novellas and short stories wasn't terribly good, but maybe it was these stories, and my own tastes rather than anything wrong with the editing itself. There were some great stories: I loved Kristen Kathryn Rusch's story, and I thought the cover story was fun but weird in that way that I don't think Steampunk always works as well as it seems like it should. Michael Swanwick's and Mike Resnick's stories were high on the poignant-factor and low on the larger meaning but they worked.

I've still not read the June or August issues, and I'm going to try and start reading Clarkesworld. Here's hoping I still have time to do other things after periodical reading obligations.

I also read (in about two weeks) Excision by Iain M. Banks. As I was moving to the east coast I made the decision to start going through all of the late 80s and 90s era space opera that I had totally missed, and I can't quite recall why I chose Banks. I think there's something about the grandiosity of The Culture that I really quite like. I found the first two really hard to grok, and now they mostly make sense. I think if I could do it again [1] I'd read Use of Weapons, maybe Excision, I'd make Player of Games optional but definitely 3rd if anything and then Consider Phlebas. I think Phlebas is among the best, but without the context of the others its a bit too odd.

I've also been listening to podcasts: The Outer Alliance Podcast, FLOSS Weekly, FaiF, and Escape Pod. Good content, great pacing for my now daily walks, and it's good to stay in touch with all of that content. Podcasts were something I'd listened to a lot when I was exercising or driving alone. I've not driven very much in the last year, and my exercise routine has only recently started to become regular. So it's nice to get back in that habit.

What are you all reading? [2]

[1]And if I weren't such an ardent traditionalist about reading series of books in the order of their publication.
[2]And, admittedly, listening to.

On Romance

I don't read romance literature.

It's not my thing, which isn't saying much: there's a lot of literature that I don't tend to consider "my thing," for one reason or another. I don't really read fantasy, or horror, and I'm even picky within science fiction. There are enough books out there and there is only so much time. At least that's what I tell myself.

Nevertheless, Susan Groppi wrote a great post about coming out as a reader of romance that I found useful. I'm also reminded of comments that N. K. Jemison made about the in progress merging of the fantasy and romance genres (sorry if I've miss-cited this), and I've been thinking about how I view Romance fiction, and perhaps a bit more generally about genre fiction ghettos.

In general, I think Romance has merit, both because it's entrancing and I think fiction which captures people's imaginations and interest I worthwhile and important to not dismiss because it's commercial, or the readership/writers are largely women. There are potential problems with romance, at least insofar as we typically envision it: with strong hetero tendencies, an idealization of monogamy as a social practice and marriage as an institution, and the potential to accept a very conventional conceptualization of gender. I'm sure some romance literature has been able to engage and trouble these troupes productively, but I think it's a potential concern.

Having said that, I'm not sure that Romance has a lot of future as a genre. This is to say that I think many of the elements of romance--female characters, and an engagement with sexuality and relationships--will increasingly merge into other genres. Romance as an independent genre will linger on, but I think the "cool stuff happening in the Romance field," will probably eventually move out into corners of other genres: thriller, fantasy, maybe science fiction.

Actually, as I think about this, it's probably backwards. I think it's less that Romance doesn't have a future, as it is that the future of most popular literature lies in engaging with romance-elements and other aspects of romance stories the context of non-romance specific styles. This kind of thing is happening, and I think it'll probably continue to happen.

I wish I could speak with greater certainty about the reasons why romance literature enjoy higher readership, or what elements of romance stories can be transplanted to other genres, but I think these are probably questions which are beyond the scope of this post. Thanks for reading!

Fan Fiction is Criticism

Thanks to `Shaun Duke <http://skiffyandfanty.wordpress.com>`_ for inspiring this little rant.

I must confess that I'm mostly uninvolved in the world of fan fiction these days, though I have traveled in "fanish" circles at various points in my past. It's not because I don't think fans have interesting things to say about literature and media, or that I don't think what's happening in fandom important and fascinating. No, I'm mostly withdrawn because I have too much on my plate and participating in fandom doesn't really contribute to the specific goals I have at this moment. But I sometimes feel that way about social science.

In any case, I'd like to put forth the following arguments for viewing fan fiction as a form a literary criticism rather than a literary attempt in it's own right:

  • Fan fiction is a form of literary criticism. Sure it's casual, sure it's written in the forum of a story, but the fan fictioner and the critic both write from the same core interest in interpreting texts and using varying readings of texts to create larger understandings of our world.
  • The fact that fan fiction looks like a story, is mostly distracting to what's happening in these texts. Fan fiction, has always been written in communities. The people who read fan fiction are largely the people who write fan fiction. Fan fiction inspires
  • The quality of fan fiction is also largely irrelevant to the point of whether fan fiction is worthwhile. More so than other forms of writing, fan fiction is less about the technical merits of the text, and more about the discursive process under which the texts are created. Better quality writing makes better fan fiction, certainly but I don't think fan fiction centers on those kinds of values.
  • Copyright, and the "intellectual property" status of fan fiction is also sort of moot. It's true that if we're being honest fan fiction impinges upon the copyright of the original author. At the same time, fan fiction doesn't really hurt creators: people aren't confused that fan fiction is "real fiction," fan fiction by and large doesn't divert sales from "real fiction," and so forth. Sure, it's a bit weird for some others to find other people playing in their sand boxes, but the truth is that authors have never had a great deal of control over what happens to their work post-publication, so it's fair.

Additionally, I think that fan fiction accomplishes something that are incredibly powerful and worthwhile that "normal" fiction cannot accomplish. Writing fan fiction can be, I'd wager, an incredibly effective educational experience for new writers, particularly genre fiction writers. By providing a very fast feedback loop with an audience of readers and writers (and lovers of literature and story telling.) Not to mention the fact that because fan fiction tends to be somewhat ephemeral and there's a wealth of inspiration and impetus for fiction, fan writers can write a lot, and if they choose in a very productive sort of way.

And that is almost certainly a good thing.

The Meaning of Work

I've started to realize that, fundamentally, the questions I'm asking of the world and that I'm trying to address by learning more about technology, center on work and the meaning and process of working. Work lies at the intersection of the all the things that I seem to revisit endlessly: interfaces, collaboration technology, cooperatives and economics institutions, and open source software development. I'm not sure if I'm interested in work because it's the unifying theme of a bunch of different interests, or this is the base from which other interests spring.

I realize that this makes me an incredibly weird geek.

I was talking to caroline about our respective work environments, specifically about how we (and our coworkers) relocated (or didn't) for our jobs, and I was chagrined to realize that this novel that I've been working at (or not,) for way too long at this point spends some time revolving around these questions:

  • How does being stuck in a single place and time constrain one agency to effect the world around them?
  • What does labor look like in a mostly/quasi post-scarcity world?

Perhaps the most worrying thing about this project is that I started writing this story in late August of 2008. This was of course before the American/Financial Services economic crash that got me blogging and really thinking about issues outside of technology.

It's interesting, and perhaps outside the scope of this post, but I think it's interesting how since graduating from college, my "research" interests as they were, all work them into fiction (intentionally or otherwise.) I suppose I haven't written fiction about Free Software/open source, exactly, but I think there's a good enough reason for that. [1]

I'm left with two realizations. First, that this novel has been sitting on my plate for far too long, and there's no reason why I can't write the last 10/20 thousand words in the next few months and be done with the sucker. Second, I'm interested in thinking about how "being an academic" (or not) affects the way I (we?) approach learning more about the world and the process/rigor that I bring to those projects.

But we'll get to that later, I have writing to do.

[1]I write fiction as open source, in a lot of ways, so it doesn't seem too important to put it in the story as well.

Poems are Made out of Words

I remember having this epic fight conversation with a poet-friend from college about aesthetics and art and literature. I'm not sure exactly what brought it on, or particularly why I thought my side of the argument was in any way defensible, but it came back to me recently. So as I'm wont to do, here's a post in review of these thoughts.

Act One: Poems are Just Words

I think in the first iteration of the argument, I took the opinion that poems existed (mostly) to transcend the experience of the written word on the page. That the project of poetry was about getting past words and constructing some sort of image or transcendent experience, or something.

Did I mention that I wasn't a poet? I'm not. Not at all. I'm not even particularly good at reading poetry. I've sometimes written poems, and even I am a good enough reader to tell that they're crap.

In any-case, H.S.'s argument was that poems were just words on paper (or screens) [1] and that's it. That writing itself is an act of putting words together, and experimenting with how words come together in (quasi) fixed mediums. And nothing more.

I don't really know what my beef in this argument was. This was certainly before I started writing again. I guess my argument was that writing was simply an imperfect means of conveying an idea, and the real work and creativity of "being a writer" was really in coming up with good ideas and practical logic that illustrates your arguments.

And while that's true, from one perspective if you squint at things the right way, I don't think it's really true about writing as a whole, and certainly not creative projects. It might be true that that's a pretty good summary of academic writing, particularly entry level academic writing, but I'm not sure.

When I find writing that I'm impressed with, I keep coming back to the idea that it's just "words on the page," and somehow that makes. My skill--insofar as I have one--and the asset that makes me employable (I think) is the fact that I can turn ideas and thoughts (which are thick on the ground) into something useful and understandable by normal folk.

Act Two: Rethinking William Gibson

So, ok, lets be honest. I don't really like William Gibson's work very much. I thought Neuromancer expressed a social commentary that was totally obvious almost instantly, and it hadn't stood the test of time particularly well, and I felt it sort of read like the rehab journal of an addict who hadn't quite cleaned up entirely. This was just my reaction on reading it, and not a particularly well reasoned critique.

I mean I will acknowledge the book's impact, and I think I read it too late which probably accounts for my reaction. And although I responded so poorly to it, I don't really have a lot of a problem with literature that is of its time. In any case, I was thinking about Gibson recently, and casually comparing him to some other writers, and I found myself saying (of another writer of the cyberpunk ilk), pretty much without realizing it:

...which is fine, except [they] didn't have Gibson's literary chops. I mean Gibson's work is incredibly frustrating but his writing is superb.

And I sort of realized after I'd said the above, that I had inadvertently conceded the argument from Act One, years later. Sure there's a lot of idealism in writing, but writers aren't differentiated on the basis of how awesome their ideas are. It all comes down to how they put the words together.

The side effect of this transposition is that, somehow, I've started to be able to read (and enjoy) short stories more than I ever was before. And much to my surprise, I've been writing the end of this (damned) novel as a sequence of short stories. At least in how I've been thinking of it. I could go on with more and additional examples, but I think I better leave it at that for now. Thoughts? Anyone?

[1]Or in my case emacs buffers.