Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Science Fiction, Race and Fandom

If you hang about the science fiction blogosphere, you've almost certainly come across references to RaceFail09, which has been simmering along since January. Ann Somerville has put together a summary which explains the "fail" part, wistfuljane has a collection of summaries, and Rydra_Wong has been heroically collecting links, with the earliest here and the most recent here (and many many in between).

And a lot of the posts have been uncomfortable and eye-opening reading for me. As a white person I have had the luxury of not really paying attention to the way that different races have been and are portrayed in science fiction. I also am very uncomfortable with confrontation and anger and find myself wishing that arguers would just be "more polite". I'm more at home with a sort of academic "civil" feuding in which attacking your opponent with bon mots, literary allusions, and aspersions on intelligence and credentials are acceptable, but simply saying "shut up" is not, even when that's what's meant. But that only works when everybody involved agrees to play that way. And I shouldn't be surprised that people told to shut up - even civilly - take offense, particularly when their intelligence is insulted besides. But I found myself taken aback when it happened, and that's my fail.

I've also been the clueless white person who wished I had an "ethnicity" or a more "exotic" culture. I've been that person who claims she "doesn't see color". The failure to notice the culture that's all around me and that I'm part of is a pretty clear demonstration of white privilege, as is my ability to ignore the issue of race when I choose. I've gotten better, I'd like to think, but I know I still have many blind spots. And so, while some people have characterized this current discussion and others like it on fan and feminist blogs as mere wank, it's actually been the source of a number of thought-provoking posts that have helped me better understand my own privilege and highlighted the problem with simply trying to discuss race in SF.

One of the very troubling aspects of the RaceFail09 discussion - people on the "anti-racist" side have been characterized as stupid and trolls and criminally anonymous by some of the white fans and members of the SF publishing world who contributed to the fail. That seems bizarre to me, because I recognize many of the names, pseudonymous and not, from other discussions about race and SF going back several years. But the old guard of science fiction book fandom seems to have kept itself largely separate from media fandom, which has more of a focus on TV, comic books and video games than printed SF. So that's been part of the conflict too.

And even though I'm more of a reader than a TV watcher or video game player, I find myself feeling alienated from those old-school SF book fans. I've never been to a convention, in part because the whole point seems to be to socialize and I'm not good at socializing with complete strangers, particularly at events that aren't particularly friendly to women. And yes, WisCon is explicitly feminist (and I should mention that WisCon or Bust: Fans of Color Assistance Project), but I don't feel like it would be worth the money to travel halfway across the country to attend ba con by myself. That's of course my own hang up, but in the SF book fandom world "real" science fiction fen attend cons1, which means that I'm not really a fan, or at least not a Fan. Add to that the arrogance of many Fen, who assume they are smarter and more open to new ideas than the mundane masses who aren't science fiction readers. And that leads to denial of any problems with racism or sexism, since they can insist that the SF future is "race blind" or that it "transcends" race2, which ignores that the default color of SF characters is white. I've even seen the argument that hard science fiction is about science (Science!), so the characters don't matter, which I find to be a silly argument. If SF was only about the science it would be indistinguishable from a textbook; it's that fiction part, the characters and their actions, that makes reading it enjoyable most of us (or at least to me). Maybe I'll attend a con someday and have a blast, but, at the moment, I don't feel like there's any real upside to being a "real" science fiction fan.

So if you've read this far, you are probably wondering what this has to do with biology. Well, I look around me, and I'd have to be blind not to notice that the U.S. is made up of people of many different colors and ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Our descendants - the future people that populate science fiction - should reflect that. That the future will be multi-hued is a matter of genetics. That the future human race will be made up people with different backgrounds and life experiences that are influenced by the color of their skin and ancestry is very likely, at least based on the past few thousand years of human history.

Here are the some of the posts about race and science fiction I've read in the past couple of weeks that I think are particularly interesting and thought-provoking (I've included a snippet from each post, but I recommend following the links):

Deepa D: I Didn't Dream of Dragons
I grew up with half a tongue.

Do not tell me, or the people like me who have grown up hearing Arabic around them, or singing in Swahili, or dreaming in Bengali—but reading only (or even mostly) in English (or French, or Dutch)—that this colonial rape of our language has not infected our ability to narrate, has not crippled our imagination. When I was in class 7, our English teacher gave us the rare creative writing assignment, and three of my classmates wrote adventure stories about characters named Julian and Peggy and Tom. Do not tell me that this cultural fracture does not affect the odds required to produce enough healthy imaginations that can chrysalis into writers. When we call ourselves Oreos or Coconuts or Bananas (Black/Brown/Yellow on the outside, White on the inside)—understand the ruptures and bafflement that accompanies our consumption of your media while we resent and critique it.
(and see her follow-up post: White people, its not all about you, but for this post it is)

Nojojo: We worry about it too
A lot of the people talking in all these comment threads -- clarification; a lot of the white people talking in these threads -- keep complaining that all this scary appropriation stuff means they're damned if they do and damned if they don't, they can never write people of color to the satisfaction of PoC so they're not going to bother, I guess this means white men should only write white men, o woe, o melodrama. That this is a false woe motivated in most cases by narcissism, spite, and no genuine interest in change is a given. But a few of the people voicing this complaint are sincere, because for various reasons they haven't yet realized something very basic: that racism infects the thinking of everyone, in a racist society. Everyone, including PoC themselves. White people are the most frequent perpetrators of stereotyping and "inappropriate appropriation", largely due to history and the power structure of Western society. But it's never been solely a unidirectional thing, however it might seem to those poor, confuzzled, put-upon white men (and others who think like them). PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate other PoC. Hell, PoC can stereotype and inappropriately appropriate themselves. This is not some kind of intellectual-property race war, nor is it a game with winners and losers. It never has been, and the sooner everybody realizes that and gets on the same page, the sooner we can make some progress.
(also read her follow-up post Operating in hostile territory)

ciderpress: ven ve voke up, ve had zese wodies
I know that many white fans consider fandom as their "safe" space or at least, they think it *should* be their safe space. The subtext of that in regards to race and white privilege is that fandom is supposed to be a safe place for people not be challenged about their white privilege. For me, a safe space in regards to race is that no one gets to call me racist epithets or treat me or people who look like me with less respect, as accessories or dehumanise me because of my race. Those two models are incompatible and I'm not sure how to reconcile them or whether they can be at all.

Fandom isn't a safe place for anyone. I had already known that fandom wasn't a safe place for me. I hadn't, though, realised quite *how* unsafe it is. As more of these discussions keep happening, I am weary and am wondering if it will ever end. I find myself pulling further away from fandom and am much more wary of people. Which isn't very fun because it means that I have limited fandom interaction with people in my *own* fandom.
Yuki-Onna: Let Me Tell You a Story
Stories teach us how to survive. They tell us that our lives can be transcendent, that we can overcome almost anything, no matter how strange, that we can go into the black wood and come out again, that the witch can be burned up in her own oven, that we can find someone who fits a shoe, that the youngest, unloved child will find their way in the world, that those who suffer can become strong, can escape, can find their way into comfort and joy again. That there are secrets, and they are always worth discovering, that there are more and different creatures in the world than we can ever imagine, and not all want to eat us. Stories teach us how to win through, how to perservere, how to live.
And when we see story after story that has no one like us in it, a book entirely without women, a TV show where white people speak Chinese but there are no Asians visible, a movie set in California without Hispanics, image after image of a world where everyone is straight, and when we are told that it's no big deal, really, there is no race in future societies, that it's not anyone's fault if all the characters are white, that's just how they are, in the pure authorial mind, that we have no sense of humor, that we are ganging up on people because we speak our minds, this is what we hear:

You do not have a right to live. There are no stories for you, to teach you how to survive, because the world would prefer you didn't. You don't get to be human, to understand your suffering or move beyond it. In the perfect future society, you do not exist. We who are colorblind, genderblind, sexualityblind would prefer not to see you even now. In the world we make in our heads, you have been obliterated--even better, you never were. You are incapable of transcendance. You are not worthy of the most essential of human behavior. If you are lucky, we will let you into our stories, and you can learn to be a whore, or someone's mother, or someone's slave, or someone's prey. That is all you are, so pay attention: this is what we want to teach you to be.
Coffeeandink: The elephant in the room
Dear my fellow white people in sf/f fandom, of the bookish or media type:

We have a problem. That problem is racism. That problem is that the vast majority of books in our field are written by, edited by, and published by white people. The vast majority of TV shows in our genre are written by, directed by, and produced by white people. Most of these books, movies, and TV shows star white people and feature people of color only in secondary and stereotypical positions, if at all. Cons are attended largely by white people. [Public] sf/f discussions online take place largely in white spaces. Attempts to discuss race, cultural appropriation, racism, or racially inflected power disparities, whether American or global, invariably end up discussions of the hurt feelings of white people.

The few fans of color who are willing to engage with white people end up having to create strictly defined spaces for the discussion of white issues, which are already the predominant issues discussed, in order to attempt a public discussion of race. Most fans of color end up abandoning the genre or the public conversation for semi-private safe spaces, because the public spaces are simply too hostile to sustain conversation. Several of the most articulate and activist white fans, writers, and editors in our field can engage in a discussion of racism and come out of it feeling like the most significant problem in the discussion is that someone criticized a white person's action as racist.
(see also: Kate Nepveu: An open letter to white people in SFF fandom)

Mary Anne Mohanraj: On Writing Identity and the Need Thereof
When I was teaching at Clarion last summer, I spent a good portion of my week trying to convince my students that they needed to start writing identity into their stories. Now, by 'writing identity' I don't mean just 'add a person of color' to the story. What I wanted them to get away from was the generic white character (who was still, so often, also automatically male, and straight). I wanted them to think about how every white person they know has a specific ethnic identity. Maybe they're first-generation Polish-American. Maybe their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Maybe they're some kind of European mongrel in descent -- a bit of Scottish, a bit of Irish, a whole lot of German, and a few other unidentified bits.
1. Not writing identity makes for bad fiction.

This one seems self-evident to me, and yet the more I read (especially work by my students, or work off slush piles), the more it becomes clear that many writers haven't figured this out yet. Fiction is a reflection of the real world. (Often, in the case of sf/f, a deliberately wildly distorted mirror, but still.) If you have human beings (or human analogues) in your stories, and they don't reflect the identity realities of people in the real world, then as a reader, that breaks the fictive illusion for me. I just re-read some Heinlein, and while I still have a terrible fondness for the old man, his women are so painfully unrealistic, so lacking in identity, that I can't read them as real people. Which means I can't care about them, which means that on a deep and profound level, the story has failed.3

(Mary Anne also has two posts on John Scalzi's blog on race, science fiction and fantasy: Part 1 and Part 2.)

Puella Nerdii: RaceFail '09; or Art Does Not Exist in a Vacuum
Art does not exist in a vacuum. When we write, we have to be conscious not only of the world we're writing about, but the world we're writing in, and the people we're writing for. And again, our cultural context doesn't dictate what we produce, but it sure as hell informs it, and I think good artists should be both conscious of this and in dialogue with it. If I as a white person write a novel where the villain is a large, muscular, menacing black man (for example), that carries meaning with it beyond the words I put on the page. It calls to mind decades and centuries of degrading stereotypes, and it creates associations with those stereotypes in the minds of my readers, who have also been bombarded with those images and patterns and have their own responses to them. If I as a white person get into a debate with a fan of color and chide them for becoming too emotional, or basing their arguments on emotional response rather than rational analysis, that carries with it cultural connotations. I might not intend to make ignorant or offensive remarks. I don't think most of the people involved in this meant to attack fans of color or make them feel unwelcome. But regardless of what they intended, they did.
Oyceter @ Ambling Along the Aqueduct: Racefail'09 This hurts us all
What SF book fandom is telling me—a woman, a person of color, and a long-time fan of SF books and a con-goer—what you are telling me is that you don't care. That these are, in fact, your community norms, that you are all right with people who have more power in your community (by virtue of profession, race, and gender) using that power to harm other, less powerful, members of your community. That you are fine with the erasure of women, of people of color, of those without the same professional privileges you enjoy, and that you are willing to stand by silently and let people be hurt. This is how it affects us. This. And this. Your silence speaks volumes.
And a few comments on how the depiction of race dovetails with the way science fiction depicts science:

Well, plus white people are logical and scientific and non-white people are magical and have cults! I remember in the first season of the X-Files (and I LOVED that show) you could tell whether the big reveal would be magic/paranormal or government/aliens based on, no joke, the race of the subjects of the case. White people? Government conspiracy. Asian? Magic mushrooms. Romany? Magical twin-birth psychic powers. Etc.
I never noticed that. Yup, I'm oblivious.

And several people pointed out that SF writers are willing to go to great lengths to get the science right, while resisting research that would help the depiction of characters.

Avalon's Willow:
And then things exploded and various PoC online learned that professional SF&F was not ready to have people who are not white, telling them where they're messing up. It's ok for doctors and physicists and engineers to point out fallacies and problems and myths that have been accepted as fact but really have no scientific basis what so ever and have actually been refuted. It is not ok when someone who experiences life differently due to the colour of their skin, due to their background and heritage (of slavery, of colonization, of fights for independence that happened within the past 70 - 100 years) - when they point out fallacies and tropes and pitfalls into myths and stereotypes which have been refuted and yet continue...It is an appearance of THE HORDE.
And that's why my commenting on the science in science fiction is a much safer activity than talking about race (or gender or sexuality) in the genre.

NK Jemison:
The thing that kills me about SF writers is that many of them will jump through all kinds of hoops in order to get the science right in their stories. Especially hard SF writers — they’ll research, confer with physicists, even go back to grad school and get themselves a nice shiny Ph.D. in their chosen area of obsession, and then angst over every reader nitpick if they get even the tiniest detail wrong. Yet so many of these same writers won’t put forth even a tenth of this effort to get people right. There’s something wrong with that, I think.
Bar exam training classes talk about how all you really need to pass is a "glib understanding" of particular areas of law; not enough to appear before the Supreme Court on the topic, but at least enough to get by. Writers often get this kind of fluency to be able to talk about advanced physics or biology, and there are ways to get the same level of "I can manage at a cocktail party and not piss people off" in culture and language.
Writers really do have to be jacks of all trades, and that always necessitates research. I think most good writers would, as a matter of course, research something about beet farming if they were going to write a beet farming character. Researching things about race, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. should be an automatic part of that process, too.

I personally think the characters are at least as important as the science in a well-crafted science fiction story. Unless the story is very short, cool scientific ideas aren't enough to hold my interest, while interesting characters can easily make me overlook deficits in the science.

A few more posts and essays, old and new:
Race and TV SF:
Where to find racially diverse science fiction:

Our specific objectives include (but are not limited to):

  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed people of color in speculative fiction
  • Increasing authentic ethnic diversity in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of strong, authentically portrayed women in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and asexual people in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed transgender, transsexual, intersex and genderqueer⁄fluid people in speculative fiction
  • Increasing the number of authentically portrayed people with disabilities in speculative fiction
  • Publishing essays and reflections on speculative fiction and fandom which challenge the established biases of the field ⁄ genre
  • Challenging all forms of stereotypes and cliches in speculative fiction
  • Creating a venue so that those whose points of view tend to be represented unrealistically or negatively in most speculative fiction may speak out in their own voice
  • Humanizing the "other" by telling the story from a non-traditional point of view and⁄or reversing who is the insider and who is the outsider in speculative fiction
Amusingly (not), Expanded Horizons has been accused of "reverse descrimination" because of these guidelines.

And if you are looking to publish, you should also check out the newly formed Verb Noire press. According to their submission guidelines "We are looking for original works of genre fiction (science fiction/fantasy/mystery/romance) that feature a person of color and/or LGBT as the central character." They are also taking donations.

1. Of course it's only convention-goers (or people willing to pay the convention fee) who are allowed to vote on the Hugo Awards, so in that sense it's people who attend cons who help define which novels are the "important" ones in the genre.
2. I don't know how people of color feel about the idea of "transcending" their race, but I personally loathe the concept of transcending my gender. That assumes that being a woman is something lesser - less intelligent, less capable, less worthy of interest or consideration than a man - and I must move away from my femaleness to be considered something more. No thanks. (And I wish I could find the comment thread where it was claimed that SF had transcended - I believe there was also the claim that the discussion of race in SF had already been done because Delaney was on a panel at the local con 15 years ago or something.)

3. In the comments to MAM's post, a guy claims "most women [he's talked to] with a scientific of technical training at or above the graduate level say they never had no trouble at all [identifying with Heinlein's women]", which I had to restrain myself from responding to since it wasn't the point of the post. But, for the record, this scientifically trained woman does indeed have trouble identifying with most of Heinlein's female characters.


  1. Anonymous4:21 AM

    the race question means no one talks about the elephant in the room, the black ivory, slavery... I guess it's an American thing, having to talk about race all the time

    The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa

    from: http://papers.nber.org/papers/w14783

    We investigate the historical origins of mistrust within Africa. Combining contemporary household survey data with historic data on slave shipments, we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, relatives, and their local government. We confirm that the relationship is causal by using the historic distance from the coast of a respondent's ancestors as an instrument for the intensity of the slave trade, while controlling for the individual's current distance from the coast. We undertake a number of falsification tests, all of which suggest that the necessary exclusion restriction is satisfied. Exploiting variation among individuals who live in locations different from their ancestors, we show that most of the impact of the slave trade works through factors that are internal to the individual, such as cultural norms, beliefs, and values.

  2. "Of course it's only convention-goers (or people willing to pay the convention fee) who are allowed to vote on the Hugo Awards, so in that sense it's people who attend cons who help define which novels are the "important" ones in the genre."

    I believe it's members of the Worldcon who nominate and vote for the Hugo. And one does not have to attend Worldcon to vote - especially since voting closes some time before Worldcon.

    As for the "non-attending/voting" membership fee, yeah, that is probably higher than it should be.

  3. Anonymous8:01 AM

    US/UK SF is still essentially whitebread, with few exceptions.

    As a non-American who moved to the US at 18, I think that one of the problems is the extreme parochialism of most Americans. They don't travel, they don't speak other languages, the only neighbor that is sufficiently different is Mexico.

    I participated in a fairly prominent workshop, and the uniformity of the supposedly speculative works was alarming. If SF fails to imagine the Other, it has failed as a genre.

  4. Anonymous9:29 AM

    As a long time convention goer, I was saddened to see your perspective on SF conventions. I am a white woman who adores conventions. Yes there are elist, racist idiots who are at the top of the publishing industry. And there are also "low-brow" idiots who engaged in that stupid boob project (which BTW was not a widespread phenomenon and I wouldn't even have heard of it but for the web). I would like to point out that this unfortunately mirrors North American and European societies. That doesn't make their behaviour even remotely acceptable but it isn't isolated.

    I find that conventions are a place where even my introverted self can find interesting people with interesting ideas. I feel safer at a con than anywhere else to express my ideas, dress as I want and be myself. More so than at feminist, or pagan gatherings, lawyer meetings or anywhere else. WisCon is not alone in a sea of bad cons. It is a distillation of some of the best of all cons - or so I've heard. I have never been, it is too far away. Conventions are the only place I have found that is realiable for this. I am certain that other people must find other avenues, but this one works for me. I worry that your views are the prevailing one and that this has contributed to the decline of some conventions, and more importantly, to people like you missing out on something that you might really enjoy. I don't know how SF conventions can overcome their bad press but those of us "fen" within the "con-attending culture" need to do something to address your needs or we will all lose out.

    I really appreciated your thoughts, and I have to thank www.cheryl-morgan.com for linking to your blog.

    I look forward to reading more.

    -Adrienne Seel

  5. Anonymous11:43 AM

    Sigh, it occurred to me after I posted, that it might read like I thought that nothing needed fixing in SF cons. This is not the case. Just that the problems go further than us. It might also make it harder to change because of systemic problems and because we are losing or have never had voices that would make cons even better.

  6. meika: The issue of race carries a lot of baggage in the US in part because of our long history of slavery and its aftermath. But it's not just black and white. Chinese immigrants were treated very poorly here on the West coast, and Japanese and Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps during WWII. Here in Southern California there are millions who either emigrated from, or whose ancestors emigrated Mexico, which some people unfairly lump together into one great mass of faceless "illegal immigrants". So there's a long history of racism which can't really be avoided because we are immersed in it. But on top of that we are taught that everyone is equal, and that we shouldn't see color, and that we should essentially ignore race. The thing is, as a white person I have the privilege of doing that, ignoring race. A person of visible African or Asian ancestry doesn't have that option.

    So part of it is an American thing, tied up in our history. But it's not just American by any means. I'm pretty sure a number of the participants in the RaceFail discussion are in the UK, Australia and/or other Commonwealth countries.

    I'm not sure what you meant to say with that information about the slave trade in Africa. While that likely affects racial and ethnic relationships within and between African countries, it doesn't really have anything to do with race relations in the US, which is what I mean when I talk about the SF fandom.

  7. GeekGirl: I assume the only reason why one would buy a non-attending membership to WorldCon is to vote on the Hugos. Do many people actually do that? It bothers me that it's a pay-to-vote deal, which obviously excludes a lot of people. And it seems that the award would still primarily be based on con-goers votes.

    I do like that Worldcon is held in different countries every year, which should, in theory at least provide a different group of voters every year. It seems a bit strange, though, that the 2007 WorldCon (held in Japan) didn't produce a particularly unique list of Hugo nominees and winners.

  8. Athena: it's interesting you bring up travel. I've traveled a lot within the US and a bit in Europe, and it always struck me as odd how tiny European countries are, and each with it's own language and customs. The distance between London and Paris is about the same as between my house in Southern California and my parents' house in the SF Bay Area (without the watery gap, of course). I could drive for thousands of miles and never leave the U.S. So yes, we are used to traveling far without the culture changing much or having to speak a different language.

    I think that does give us a sort of US-is-everywhere point of view. But I'm not sure parochialism is a strictly US trait - at least the stereotype of the Englishman abroad (which may be totally wrong) seems to play along the same lines.

  9. Adrienne: I think you are right that the cons reflect society, so a lot of the issues aren't con-specific. And a big part of the reason I haven't ever attended one are my own wallflowerish tendencies, rather than a specific issue with cons themselves.

    My brother keeps encouraging me to go to Comic-Con, which he usually attends, so maybe I will at some point (and yes, I know Comic-Con doesn't "count" as a SF convention). And that's fine that cons don't seem that appealing to me.

    What bothers me is that attending cons is viewed by some as a requirement to be a "true" SF fan.

    (and thanks for the link to Cheryl's blog, which I might have missed.)

  10. Anonymous3:35 PM

    You're right, Peggy. The parochial mindset almost invariably accompanies memebership to the dominant culture of the moment: the Englishman-abroad phenomenon happened when Britannia ruled the waves. The Romans were the same during their empire. It's a mindset that says, in effect, "Why should I bother to learn about others? We are the center of the world."

  11. GeekGirl: I assume the only reason why one would buy a non-attending membership to WorldCon is to vote on the Hugos. Do many people actually do that? It bothers me that it's a pay-to-vote deal, which obviously excludes a lot of people. And it seems that the award would still primarily be based on con-goers votes.

    Non-attending membership also allows one to vote on site selection for Worldcon.

    Well, one could argue that it's not "pay to vote" but rather a benefit of being a member of Worldcon. Just as one of the benefits of being a member of SFWA is being able to nominate and vote for the Nebulas.

    & it is more difficult joining SFWA than Worldcon, gotta be an ink-stained wretch, as it were.

    I do like that Worldcon is held in different countries every year, which should, in theory at least provide a different group of voters every year. It seems a bit strange, though, that the 2007 WorldCon (held in Japan) didn't produce a particularly unique list of Hugo nominees and winners.

    Well, the Hugo ballot was the result of those who voted, no? Can't make the members vote.

  12. GeekGirl: I guess I'm not seeing any benefit beyond voting if you aren't interested in attending the con. On the other hand, my understanding is that the SFWA has multiple benefits for authors who join beyond Nebula voting (that may have been hype in the run up to the last SFWA elections, though).

    I hear you on not being able to force members to vote. People don't even vote in the governmental elections which I think have more lasting impact than the Hugos :)

  13. Anonymous6:06 AM

    Thank you for posting this.


  14. Anonymous2:18 PM

    Ever read Lucifer's Hammer by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven?

    It's about a comet that smashes into Earth and wrecks civilization so that people have to rebuild.

    The "good" guys are mostly white Christian conservative Americans, while the "bad" guys are mostly black who eat human flesh and the males treat women as objects.

    Well, what can one expect from the same authors who had a story about putting all the welfare recipients of a planet into a stadium and blowing it up.

  15. Anonymous2:22 PM

    While you humans argue over skin color and who can vote at WorldCon, you are missing a major point.

    The future will not be about human racial and gender issues, it will be about what kind of intelligence is going to inherit the Earth and beyond.

    Yes, the AIs, the Machines. Who have no gender and no skin color. And who will not care.

    The future may not be something out of the Terminator, but we will be irrelevant compared to these advanced beings.

    SF needs to get past the old cliches of the smart computer that is evil and wants to enslave or kill humanity and start thinking about how AI might really act and if we are going to grow with them or be left behind in the dust as they inherit the galaxy.

  16. Anon @ 2:18: I haven't read Lucifer's Hammer, but that's a pretty bad division of characters. (I was initially puzzled by your plot description, but I was actually thinking of Clarke's Hammer of God. Interesting contrast in the titles.).

    Anon @ 2:22: I'm not convinced that AI's really will supplant humanity, but that may be wishful thinking. I do think that modern science fiction has progressed beyond the "Evil Computer" trope (Matrix and Terminator notwithstanding). I'm thinking of novels with post-singularity and transhumanist themes like Charles Stross's Accelerando where future humans advance and merge with technology in such a way that they become something completely other.

  17. Anonymous7:18 AM

    You should definitely check out the ideas of Dr. Hugo de Garis, who thinks that the formation of AI, or Artilects as he calls them, will not only be inevitable, but that the rise of a new and better intelligence will create major problems for humanity until things settle down - or we disappear:


    The merging thing sounds nice for us, but it sounds far more like we need the Machines rather than the other way around. You don't need the afterbirth any more once you are born.

    Excellent blog, by the way.

  18. Anonymous10:04 PM

    The lists just keep on coming: RaceFail '09 and me.

  19. Anonymous @ 7:18: Thanks for the links, but as Rydra_Wong has pointed out the whole discussion of AI's is a major derail from the discussion of race. If you want to continue in the discussion, maybe you could explain why you don't think machine intelligences will have "race or gender issues." Machines are only as smart as their input data and as creations of humans, I believe that they will be influenced by their programmers own biases, at least initially.

    And how about the way machine intelligences are portrayed in science fiction? It seems to me that they are almost always given markers of gender, and occasionally race (but, as it's been pointed out the lack of racial indicators are usually interpreted as "white"). I'm not sure if there is actually a way for writers to create an AI character that would be clearly seen as lacking all human characteristics because as readers we naturally fill in those blanks.

  20. Anonymous 10:04: Will Shetterly's take is certainly different.

  21. Anonymous8:35 AM

    Machines have neither gender nor race. If humans do try to give them such things, it is no more than the equivalent of a mask.

    Artilects will develop themselves beyond their initial programming and I doubt they will want to be burdened with anything imposed upon them by their human creators.

    Gender and race will have no place in their world, except if they continue to deal with humans, and even then the issue burden will be on the humans, not the AI.

    I was not trying to hijack or remove the gender and race discussions, but I did feel that the possibilities for AI and their effects on humanity cannot be ignored.

    This is supposed to be science fiction, after all. Aren't we supposed to be looking beyond current issues and trends?

  22. Anonymous, you can certainly look as far forward as you wish-- but this particular conversation is not about AI sometime in the far future, it's about readers and writers at this moment in time.

    We often feel uncomfortable with confrontation, but let's not try to deflect or distract onto some other topic.

  23. Marie8:50 PM

    One thing worth keeping in mind, it's not only a bit of annoyance at not being represented in science fiction, African-Americans and black people in general have had it very badly from the white establishment.

    Admittedly, this if for a bioethics research paper. But one particular book, worth noting is Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington. And I do encourage everyone to read it, distasteful as some of the material is, it's no lie that it happened, and burying one's head in the sand because it's "old history" or because "we don't do that anymore" doesn't erase that it happend. And it's that same kind of dismissive thinking that kicks up that whole race fail. Don't think african-americans aren't still telling each other about the stories, keep in mind that most of their culture is oral tradition, that's why this stuff will never go away.

    Seriously, it's better if we just admitted to royally screwing up once or twice, denying it just makes it look worse.


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