“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I finished reading Christopher Nuttal’s editorial, “A Character Who Happens To Be Black” for the first time, I found myself remembering an oft told story about Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek.
At one point during the run of the series, Nichols, who was a singer as well, got an offer to be on Broadway, which was one of her greatest dreams as a performer. When this news was communicated to Doctor King, he went out of his way to seek her out at a party and said something along the lines of ‘Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become an symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.’
Do you think for a moment that it was a casual, offhand move that Gene Roddenberry just ”happened” to cast a black woman, an Asian man, two Jewish men, Canadian and a veteran southern character actor, mixed in an assortment of aliens on a starship in the 23rd century? Spoiler Alert; no, it was not.
I have no doubt that Mr. Nuttal had the best of intentions when he offered a defense of himself and the Sad Puppy movement against the charge of being racist. Instead, I am afraid he has done them and himself a huge disservice.
To be sure, I acknowledge that there is a difference between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies, whom some have either unfairly confused and/or found to be mutually interchangeable with each other. The Sad Puppies were established and propagated by authors Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Kate Paulk and others as a reaction against what they viewed as “message fiction” and progressive attitudes in modern sf and fantasy.
And I’m quite sure that they, along with Mr. Nuttal, feel that the more traditional forms of space adventure and epic fantasy have been overlooked or ignored by the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Awards.
Their views vastly contrast with The Rabid Puppies, primarily represented by Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day), John C. Wright and Lou Antonelli, they are unabashedly and enthusiastically racist in their worldview and their fiction. They believe a white male hegemony over all peoples of color, women and the LGBTQ community is the best course for the human race AND any aliens we may encounter, to put it mildly.
When he asks whether the Sad Puppies on the whole are racists, I submit that he is asking the wrong question altogether.
The true question is why are the members of the Sad Puppies movement being so resistant, or tone deaf about diversity in their works?
It is my belief that science fiction and fantasy are the two branches of literature whose stock and trade is all about chronicling the consequences of change. Those changes and the consequences they engender in individuals, classes and societies are the meat and bone of literature.
Mr. Nuttal, a native of Scotland, is a prolific (58 e –book novels and counting) and successful e-book author. To demonstrate his anti-racism credentials, he goes on to state that he has started two storylines, one epic fantasy (The Zero Blessing) and the other a space opera, (The Vanguard trilogy, Vanguard, Fear God and Dread Naught, We Lead) which feature black women as the primary protagonists.
He then boldly and proudly states that no one, NO ONE, complained about the fact that two women of color were the main protagonists in his books.
And why would they? Since his novels first appeared in 2011, Mr. Nuttal has been self published and published by CreateSpace, Amazon, 47North, Castilia House, Elsewhen Press, Twilight Times Books, and Paladin Timeless Books. His reading audience is there. They are obviously fervent fans of his works, so why in the world would they object?
And, while this in itself is a very noble thing to do and from what I read in his editorial, I have no reason to believe that he is deliberately acting in a racist manner in his fiction. But when he states that his main characters just happen to be black women, he effectively destroys the foundation of what he is trying to state.
Because, they just happen to be black women. And in the futures or in imaginary lands of his making, he implies that only the intentions and struggles of his characters are important and that the race or gender of your heroines does not and should not matter.
Oh really? Because that sort of attitude makes me wonder how much “message fiction” Mr. Nuttal has read recently.
So, I would like to recommend a few titles for him to check out that would fly in the face of these assertions:
At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
The Sun and the Moon by Vonda K. McIntyre
Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold
Timescape by Gregory Benford
Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker
I came up with this list of books right off the top of my head. I don’t know what sort of sf and fantasy Mr. Nuttal has read but if he has not read any of the suggested titles above, I highly recommend he do so.
But to drive the point further, let’s backtrack to Nichelle Nichols’ dilemma; why did she change her mind about Star Trek? She stayed because in the mid-1960’s, there were very few African Americans appearing regularly on network television. Among them were Ivan Dixon on Hogan’s Heroes, Bill Cosby on I Spy, Greg Morris on Mission Impossible, Diahann Carroll in Julia and Ms. Nichols. Dr. King encountered her at a Hollywood party and reminded her of this salient point. Of all the characters I listed above, she alone represented the future of black people and the human race on television. The little black AND white children were going see her and the message would be clear; this is the future and you can be part of it!
And while Star Trek may not have been a very successful television show during its initial run, its true genius became apparent in the years that followed. As the re-runs were more widely broadcast in afternoons and evening(s) in syndication, Gene Roddenberry’s vision of peaceful exploration mixed with the philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) embedded itself into the consciousness of a generation of kids.
I should know, because I was one of those kids.
So, the question I would pose to Mr. Nuttal (and to the Sad Puppies and their supporters as well) is this; if one of your readers were a black woman, how would you begin to explain or justify making the protagonists of your novels black without regard to their ethnicity or struggles?
Mr.Nuttal and his readers seem to feel as though these stories are a pair of comfortable old shoes; you slip into a fantasy world and galactic situation filled with the old familiar tropes; the long quest, the lusting after a mystical object everyone desires, the struggle for honor, the stolen starship and being pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents…and it seems to me that they aspire to nothing more than that.
Imagine if you will, what would happen if Mr. Nuttal had submitted his novels to a mainstream publisher? And if I were such an editor and his outline for The Vanguard Trilogy landed on my desk? After reading it and researching his background, I would immediately send him an email asking what inspired him to make his protagonist a black woman.
And when his response, based on his editorial, came back, I would seriously consider rejecting the outline completely.
Because of ‘political correctness”, you might ask?
No. When a writer, of any ethnicity, admits using characters of different ethnicities without even the slightest hint of any sort of context for doing so, it is the worst sort of cultural appropriation and is an insult to his readers as well. Using the “I don’t see color” explanation to pander his own world view about race may be satisfying to his bubble of readers ordering online, but I am quite willing to bet it would not pass muster at most publishing houses or with discerning and critical readers as well.
By erasing ethnicity, class or race as a factor in his characters, Mr. Nuttal is stating those centuries of history and culture, on which his future or fantasy worlds are built upon, don’t matter or worse, never happened. By homogenizing his black characters with his white male viewpoint, he is giving them the “gift” of being white and being as good as anyone else and calling for their heritage and culture is a bad thing and should essentially be swept under the rug. His attempt to do so does not make them equal, it diminishes them. It’s disingenuous at the very least and a patronizing example of white privilege at worse.
No person who is consciously aware of their ethnicity, culture and history would tolerate such a cleansing. By taking away their joy, you also take away their sorrow and their history. We are all human and that is the factor that should unites us, not divide us. By erasing our differences to make everyone the same, no one is special or an individual.
The divide between modern fantasists and the old guard of adventure tales is not a new phenomenon. From as far back at the late 1930’s, John W. Campbell, Jr ,the tough minded editor of Astounding and Unknown, demanded more intelligent and literate stories from his writers. Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Murray Leinster, Clifford D. Simak, Catherine L. Moore, Henry Kuttner and Theodore Sturgeon led the charge swept by the pure pulp writers of the previous decades.
They in turn were disrupted in the 1950’s by Horace L Gold’s Galaxy Magazine and the editors of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And were then surpassed by ‘the New Wave” writers of the 1960’s and 70’s. Who were followed by the Cyberpunks and Splatterpunks. And so forth and so on. Throughout recorded history, this pattern of innovation, subversion, regression and advancement is repeated again and again; in the sciences, social and political movements and especially in the arts.
Literature, and the currents and eddies of culture, class and personalities, have always and will be always be perpetually in motion. It is an ongoing collision of ideas and conflicts that cannot be stopped or controlled.
Here in America, right after the 2008 election and the subsequent re-election of Barack Obama, there was some hope that we had entered a post-racial era where it was thought that people with differing racial and ethnic backgrounds had finally reached some sort of comfort level with each other’s differences.
Can you imagine how I felt on the morning of November 9, 2016. About how wrong we all were? And of the nightmare of the days that came afterwards?
With a duplicitous, money grubbing, lying, racist, attention seeking grifter in the White House, the deplorable floodgates were suddenly widely open and we were inundated in white supremacists, fascists and all sorts of violence prone troublemakers. And on a sunny August afternoon in Charlottesville, Virginia, thirty two year old Heather Heyer paid the ultimate price for standing up to bullies and haters.
Clearly, despite all of the steps it has made forward, America has a long way to go.
But despite my country’s own failings towards me, I remain optimistic that in time, we can overcome these failings. I can cite the following incidents as examples:
A few weeks ago Ed Skrein, an actor of mixed heritage who is often cast as ethnically white, gave up a primo role in the screen reboot of Hellboy because the character, Major Ben Daimio, is of Asian descent and he felt, rightly so, that it should be played by someone of that ethnicity.
“It is clear that representing this character in culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voice in the Arts. I feel it is important to honor and respect that. Therefore I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately,” he stated. “Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family. It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality.”
He ended his statement by saying, “I hope it makes a difference.”
On a more personal note, I have found that my end of fandom, among those who go to literary and hybrid media conventions, have become even more socially and consciously aware of their faults and strengths since the emergence of the Rabid and Sad Puppies.
And once the challenge of both groups regarding the Hugo awards went public, the number of people who participated in the nomination and voting has risen dramatically.
And the majority of those people who became voting members and who cared to comment stated that they did so because they wanted to support diversity in imaginative fiction and in fandom.
The Hugo Award voting results for the past several years speak for themselves; no ardent Sad or Rabid Puppy fiction or non-fiction nominee has finished anywhere near winning a trophy.
So, to answer Mr. Nuttal’s original question; are the Sad Puppies racist?
In my opinion, while I have not yet encountered any of their works that are intentionally racist, they are guilty of perpetuating or substituting their own time worn stereotypes when they do deign to include people of color.
Diversity, empathy and understanding our differences are the keys to making better art and consequently, a better world.
And those differences make all the difference in this world and off world as well.
“The worst racism is perpetrated not through intent, but through thoughtless, unquestioning adherence to old, bad habits. We always need to ask ourselves where those habits come from, and whether it’s a good idea to keep perpetuating them. We need to ask whether or not they hurt more than they help…”
Author N.K. Jemisin
This guest editorial is Copyright © 2017 by Chris M. Barkley and is published with permission of the author.
Chris Barkley accidently discovered fandom when he found a notice about a local convention in the back of an issue of Analog in the summer of 1976. This directly led to hosting a public access radio show devoted to sf and fantasy, Bad Moon Rising (1976-1983), writing for notable fanzines such as Challenger and File 770, and working at various positions at the twenty-eight Worldcons he has attended.
Since 1998, Chris Barkley has been mostly known as an fan-activist, and has been successful in seeking several changes and advancements in several Hugo Award categories.
He has been a professional bookseller since 1993, online and until recently for the nationally renowned Joseph Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ohio. Currently he is living in Cincinnati, Ohio and is hard at work on several writing projects assisted by his longtime partner Juli Marr and their editorial staff of four cats, Kyrpton, Luna, Nova and Miss (”If You’re Nasty”) Jackson.
Chris Barkley can be contacted at: www.facebook.com/chis.barkley
An interview with Chris by Jim C. Hines can be read here.
Editor’s note: this post was edited to remove a sentence at the request of the author. 9/17/2017