Friday, January 20, 2006

Don't Ink and Drive: Writing and Responsibility

Still thinking -- which is probably dangerous -- about my previous post. Zoe commented that a writer who includes queer folks in the background runs the risk of seeming ham handed in their attempts at inclusion (or diversity or whatever you might want to call it.) This is a conversation I've had with other people (and on this blog, see below "The Whiteness of Space") about race/ethnicity, too.

There's a lot of validity in her concern. I grew up in the era of television "tokenism," where every show seemed to have to include the hero (white guy), the sidekick (black or other color guy), and the girlfriend (not guy). It was annoying, if only because the formula wherein the person of color was still stuck on the sidelines was never, ever violated.

On the flipside, I find TV shows (and movies and books) where there's a homogony of color (or gender or sexual preference) to be deeply, deeply frightening. It's the whole "Friends" phenomenon. How is it that these people who lived in New York City never seemed to know anyone of color? Or gay? And what does it say about them that they don't?

And does it matter?

Sure, people live like that. I would be forced to admit that ninety-percent of my close friends are white and straight. The "Friends" phenomenon is its own kind of truth, but I've always felt that a writer's responsibility is to see the whole picture – beyond the assumptions. Like, for instance, before I worked at the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center, I would have guessed that the majority of immigrants settling in Minnesota were Norwegian, and that Saint Paul’s (my home town) main settlers were Irish. Not true. Both of those are myths perpetrated by storytellers, like Garrison Keillor (and the later by our former governor Jesse Ventura.)

I'm not trying to imply that either of those men are racists, but my feeling is that sometimes by not going beyond what we *think* is true, we inadvertently paint a picture that's not complete.

So what? Fiction writing isn’t about the truth, is it?

I think it is.

I think, in particular, when writing about the future, we need to be awake and paying attention to our words on the page. Our silences -- the people we leave out -- speak volumes about what we think is true... and what we feel is valuable.

I say this as someone whose life was changed by reading science fiction. In 1953, Theodore Sturgeon wrote a short story called "The World Well Lost," and he taught me the power of thinking beyond our assumptions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Oh Look, Honey, the Gay Hustler is Cruising the Martians

I woke up this morning thinking a lot about something Melissa Scott once told me in an interview. We were discussing GLBT/queer content in science fiction and she pointed out that, particularly in cyberpunk, GLBT elements are often used as scare tactics -- a way to show the seedier side of life. You know you're in the deep, dark place because Jo-Jo sitting at the bar is a transsexual cyborg. Oh look, honey, the gay male hustler is getting cruised at the space station by the Martians. We must be in the dark underbelly of the future.

Where are the non-threatening, happy gay couples in space?

Of course, as a writer I understand that happy = boring. There's not a lot of drama when everyone gets along famously. But, I'm wondering if science fiction as a genre still hasn't shaken that idea that Melissa suggested nearly a decade ago -- that queerness is inherently "scary."

In the last year, I read nearly every paperback science fiction novel published in the United States (this is not an exaggeration, I was on a SF award committee). And, I have to tell you that the GLBT community was woefully under-represented.

In Elizabeth Bear’s series, we find out in the second novel that the main antagonist is a Family man, and has a husband in Toronto. Kudos to Bear for blindsiding me since my gaydar didn't go off on that one, and she did make me ask myself, "Why couldn't he be gay? Was I being heterosexist?" Shame on her for introducing the husband (and his very nice parrot) and killing them off at the end (often the usual fate for gay folks in the media.)

I would say, though, however, that Valens and his husband (of the above mentioned Scardown,) were, at least, nice men. They had a typical upper-middle class life in future Canada. Valens was of squishy moral character, but then so was the hero of the series.

So, at least some GLBT people in the future are non-threatening... but, then it's easy to be non-threatening when you're dead.

Then there’s Karin Lowachee's Cagebird. A difficult book, though a worthy one. However, there's no question that the gay people (and they're all men) in this book are broken, and broken very badly. They're broken in a way that is, sadly, very true to real life -- at least in my experience, but none-the-less this is far from the feel-good GLBT book of the year. There's some serious sickness here, and the sickness is wrapped up in being queer, and, specifically, in knowing that often in society one man's expression of love is another man's kink. This leads to ugliness and heartache. The book is about that, and about what that does to people.

I can’t think of a single other instance in a paperback novel this year in which there were even queer people present in the background. I don’t know what to think about that. Maybe people have been Will & Grace'd to death, and no one wants to even imagine a future with gay people in it. Or maybe GLBT people are no longer scary enough to even sit in the background so that the reader knows that we're not in Kansas any more.