Tag Archive | diversity

Pining for Commander WASP and his sidekick, Biff; or, your sf/f golden age not the only one

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly,  illustration by P. J. Monahan

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly, illustration by P. J. Monahan

Once again while I was merrily surfing to some of my favorite web sites (when I should have been writing), I came across a link to a ridiculous and judgmental comment on the state of science fiction. More specifically, it was intended as an indictment of the reading tastes of “fans these days” while nostalgically lamenting that the genre is no longer defined solely by Heinlein’s juvenile novels and Niven’s hard SF novels. This is a complaint that I’ve written about more than a few times, but these guys keep finding new ways to make their really bad arguments, and I just can’t sit idly by while the misrepresent both the genre that I love, and the people who love it. This particular person, unlike some of the folks who have inspired me to write on this topic before is not my age or older. He’s young enough that all of those Heinlein juveniles were written more than a decade before his birth, and the Niven books he thinks are definitive were written when he was in diapers and such.

I realize that this means he’s still old enough to look down his nose at fans in their 20s and dismiss them as clueless kids.

Anyway, I’m not linking to the diatribe for reasons. I do think that it is very telling that he cites Hidden Figures as an example of what’s wrong with modern sci fi (never mind that it is historical non-fiction). When I first saw the screen cap of what he said, I had to do some research to figure out who he was. I’d never heard of him. And in the course of doing that, I found that this is a topic he has ranted about many times. And in those longer rants, he asserts again and again not just that he thinks the writings of Heinlein and Niven are the best (which he is perfectly free to believe), but that they defined science fiction—and specifically that Heinlein is the origin of the genre.

Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne (and others) may have a bone to pick with that assertion.

He also talks a lot about how the perfect protagonist for science fiction stories in Heinlein’s “competent man.”

I get it. I literally grew up on Heinlein. I’ve mentioned that my mom is one of the biggest fans of Heinlein’s stories from the 50s who as ever walked the earth. From the time I was an infant until I was old enough to read myself, Mom would read to me from whatever book she had checked out from the library or picked up at the used bookstore. I read every Heinlein book I could get my hands on during the late 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. And yeah, as a teen-ager in the 1970s, I started reading Larry Niven’s books—not as enthusiastically; I admit I was a bit more taken with Asimov, LeGuin, Pournelle, L’Engle, and Bradbury during those years. But I still liked Niven.

It’s true that Heinlein and Niven were very influential writers who inspired many fans to become writers themselves, and so on. But science fiction wasn’t just those two authors even at that time, and there was a lot of science fiction that existed before either of them wrote their first story.

Also, a lot of their stories haven’t aged particularly well. It happens. It’s called the passage of time. The text may be the same, but we, as people, change over time. Society changes. Our understanding of what certain things about society mean changes.

The image I included above is an illustration for a novel called The Blind Spot, written by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. It was serialized in a number of issues of Argosy All-Story Weekly beginning in May of 1921. It was eventually published in book form in 1951 (it took so long because one of the authors died shortly after publication, and it just took a long time to sort out who had legal right to agree to a re-print), at which point the Forward was written by Forrest J Ackerman, who had been at one time the literary agent of such classic sci fi luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. Van Vogt. At the second ever Worldcon (Chicon I, 1940) at the very first Masquerade ever held at a Worldcon, the second place costume was a person dressed as one of the characters from The Blind Spot. As late as the 1950s, sci fi writers, editors, and reviewers were referring to The Blind Spot as one of the honored classics of science fiction.

By the 1990s, the opinion had changed considerably. The Blind Spot is available on Project Gutenberg. I gave it a whirl. I mean, all those famous sci fi writers of the 1940s and 50s said it was fabulous, right?

Writing styles have changed over the years, so part of why it is difficult to slog through it is just how slow the action is and how dense some parts of the prose are. But, first, it isn’t science fiction. The titular Blind Spot is a place where periodically a magic hole opens to another world. Now, a lot of science fiction does include portals or gateways that aren’t always explained, but the other side of the portal is a temple in this other world, and various people, some of them immortal, hang out in this temple because of prophecies about the opening of the temple and how people who go through it will ascend to god-like powers and so forth. The plot involves necromancy, spirit writing, an immortal queen, the transmutation of people into spirits, and a mystical intelligent flame that enforces the sacred law.

In the pulp era they didn’t have the same kind of rigid genre definitions we’re used to today, so a weird tale like this with elements of magic and psychic powers and a hint at Lovecraftian horror was common. But that’s the thing. This is a story that for several decades was held up as a defining example of the genre. Yet by the 1990s it was being described as a “beloved book devoid of all merit.”

Because we changed. What we are willing to suspend our disbelief for in 2019 is considerably different than the expectations of readers in 1921. Their are spots in the opening chapters of this book when many paragraphs are spent describing how a couple of characters take a train through San Francisco, cross the bay in a ferry, take another train in Oakland, then hire a cab. Modern readers expect if you’re spending that many paragraphs talking about transit that it will eventually figure into the plot, right?

I sincerely doubt that the guy who is upset that the sci fi field doesn’t look like the way he remembers those Heinlein juveniles would think that The Blind Spot is fabulous. Although, given some of his comments about what he perceives as being wrong in what modern fans like, he might like some of the casual racism.

Even in the 50s, science fiction protagonists weren’t confined solely to blond-haired, blue-eyed lantern-jawed Anglo-Saxon Protestant heroes who always beat the bad guys and got the girl. Certainly by the time Niven was writing his most famous books, the genre was more diverse than that.

It’s okay to have personal preferences, but science fiction is supposed to be about leaping into the future. You can’t do that if you have fossilized your brain in the past.

Weekend Update 12/29/2018: Empty Seat in District 9, First Kisses, and Double Dads

I miss seeing Kermit the Frog in the reporter sketches…

Once again some news stories either broke after I had finished this week’s Friday Five or new developments related to stories I’ve posted about before. Further, these are the kinds of stories where I have some opinion that I feel must be expressed. So, for this last Saturday in 2018, I’ve got three topics for your consideration. One story is political, while the second two are about love (though there are, of course social/political aspects).

The first one also involves me geeking out about two of my favorite topics: Parliamentary Procedure and the Constitution. And since it is politics and you’ve already had plenty of that this year, please feel free to scroll down to the First Kisses and Double Dads sections. I promise this update ends on a happy and adorable note!

Empty Seat in District 9

I have posted lots of links (and written some longish posts) about the Blue Wave that happened in the midterm elections. Well, that story is still developing. One of the issues is related that the misreporting that happens pretty much every election night in America: networks and the reports, anchors, and analysts that work for them all like to declare winners on election night, so they can then spend time explaining what this means. The problem here is that there are often a lot of ballots left to count in every district of every state on the morning after election night. And sometimes races which don’t appear close on election night turn out to be very tight. This is why on the morning after election day news services all over the place were declaring that the Blue Wave was just a ripple, when it fact, once all ballots were counted and elections were certified, it turned out to be more of a tsunami.

To wit: on election night is seemed the Democrats had only taken a net 20 seats from Republicans in the House of Representatives, but by the end of November, when nearly all of the elections were actually certified, it turned out to be 40 seats. A lot of races that networks had decided were likely Republican actually were won by Democrats.

And then there is the 9th District of North Carolina: House won’t seat North Carolina Republican amid ongoing election fraud dispute. Why won’t they be seating him, well, it’s simple: he hasn’t officially won, yet: North Carolina De-Certifies NC-09 Republican Win For Potential Fraud – By the time this is all over, we could have yet another win in the Democratic column..

Here’s what we know. During the primary, before the actual mid-term election, voters in one region of the state began reporting receiving absentee ballots that they had not asked for. Then reports came in of people showing up at the doors of some people who had absentee ballots and offering to take them to turn in for them. Turns out there was an extensive operation to steal absentee ballots, filling out and forging signatures on blank ones when they could and discarding those that had been properly filled out but didn’t vote for the Republican. And the crazy thing is that the people running it kept records of their activities! North Carolina election-fraud investigation centers on operative with criminal history who worked for GOP congressional candidate.

North Carolina law requires the election board to, if election fraud is proven, void the election and call a special election. The law also authorizes the election board to void even if fraud isn’t proven if the there is sufficient cause to doubt the integrity of the outcome. Because the investigation was ongoing, the margin of “victory” is only 905 votes, and the number of illegally diverted in at least in the hundreds, the Election Board voted unanimously to not certify a winner in the race. One wrinkle: the vote was on Friday, the last day of operation for the current Election Board, which had to dissolve because of another, unrelated, lawsuit. The new governor has to appoint a new board. At one point the outgoing governor was discussing appointing a temporary board, but decided that it was unlikely any decision of temporary appointees would survive any court challenge.

This means that the investigation into the fraud won’t be concluded before the new Congress meets next week.

Now a lot of people have been sharing on social media the claim that a Supreme Court case from 1969, Powell v. McCormack, prohibits the new Congress from refusing to seat the so-called winner of the District 9 race. And that’s where my nerdiness got triggered. Powell v. McCormack was a complicated ruling about two statements in the Constitution, both from Section 5 of Article 1: “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members…” and from the next sentence: “Each House may…, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.” It is true that the Court ruled that the House couldn’t vote to expel a member without first allowing said member to be sworn in a seated. But the Court also said that this only applied to members “only after a member-elect had been elected under the laws of the state in which the congressional district was located.”

Under the laws of North Carolina, the person isn’t elected until the Election Board certifies the results. It doesn’t matter that one candidate has declared himself the victor by 905 votes. It sure as heck doesn’t matter if a bunch of television talking heads declared him the winner on election night. He does not become a member-elect until the North Carolina Election Board certifies him as the winner. The Board unanimously voted that not to certify. North Carolina law requires a new election if fraud is proven, and allows a new election if fraud seems likely.

The Blue Wave may actually turn out to be one victory bigger than we thought!

First Kisses

The U.S. Navy has a tradition that when a ship has been deployed for an extended time, that upon return to shore, there is a symbolic first kiss of a spouse welcoming home one of the sailors. The ships hold a raffle to determine who will be the sailor who does this. Naval spouses are typically on hand to meet the ship, and there is usually a whole lot of kissing and hugging and joyful welcoming that happens after that first kiss. This happens all the time, so it should be no big deal, right? Well: Gay Sailor’s Homecoming Kiss Prompts Wrath from Local News Viewers, Jubilation from Social Media.

First, this is hardly the first time a same sex couple has been the first kiss for a returning ship. Queer people have been allowed to serve opening in the U.S. military since September 20, 2011. The very first same sex married military couple were married on that very day. These two guys are hardly the first same sex couple to win that silly first kiss lottery (that is believed to be a lesbian couple back in December of 2011), and not the first to go viral. So I’m not exactly sure why this one blew up the way it did.

Same-sex Navy couple faces backlash for re-creating iconic WWII kiss: ‘We’re just showing our love for each other’. Is it because they’re an interracial couple? Was it the recreation of that old WWII photo? Who knows?

I’ll just leave it at: if you object to a pair of spouses kissing after being separated from months, you don’t ever get to claim you’re not a bigot.

Double Dads

For the first time ever, Nickelodeon’s ‘Double Dare’ features a family with two dads. So, Nickelodeon is considered a kid’s programming network, and the Double Dare game show is one of its most popular programs. In the show, families compete in what is essentially a trivia contest, where the family can perform a physical challenge rather than answer the question in order to win a round.

What I liked about how this story was how casually it was handled. The host asked them how they had become a family, the dads responded that six years ago they adopted their two sons, and then the host said, “And now you’re on Double Dare as Team Double Dads.”

That was it. And you know what? That’s all it needed to be.

Adoption by same sex couples is still under very active attack from many bigots, so I want to remind everyone that letting queer couples adopt children doesn’t mean that straight couples are being denied those kids. There is a serious shortage of qualified foster parents and adoptive parents. The Foster Care Crisis: The Shortage Of Foster Parents In America. For lots of kids without parents, the alternative to a gay or lesbian couple or a single parent adopting them isn’t a straight couple, it’s no family at all. Officials currently estimate that 65,000+, or about 4 percent of all adopted children live with gay or lesbian parents at this time.

Adoption questions aside, there are a lot of children being raised by queer parents. It’s a difficult number to nail down, because even now it isn’t always safe for people to openly declare their sexual orientation. Most of the studies indicate that at least 160,000 families headed by a gay or lesbian person include children under the age of 18. One reason for that is that lots of queer people, particularly in conservative states, make a go at straight marriage, wind up with kids, and then come out of the closet afterword. So a lot of kids are being raised by their divorced queer parent (with or without a queer step-parent).

A bigger take-away is to remember this: Most kids don’t live in a so-called traditional family; only 46% of kids live in a family led by two heterosexual parents in their first marriage. And there isn’t anything wrong with that.

Besides, why shouldn’t people get to cheer on these adorkable dads and their adorable sons:

No true Martian… or, the myth of the true fan

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

I find that if I dither over a blog post I feel strongly about, eventually someone else writes something on the topic that says some of what I want to say much better than I have been. I don’t find the phenomenon frustrating, in fact often the publication of these posts help me hone in on an aspect of the topic which I feel most strongly about in such a way that I can express the idea better. This week, there were multiple posts on the topic of what constitutes a “real fan” that are worth sharing. For instance, Camestros Felapton posted: You don’t control who gets to be fans in which he talks about people who, when faced with evidence that a majority of people like things that they don’t, look for ways to exclude those people from fandom:

“It’s the same con-game as used by Palin, Sad Puppies and most recently by Vox Day… declaring themselves the champions of the ‘real’ fans or the ‘real’ people. If you are leftwing or heck, just want to read comics with more realistic women in them, then magically you aren’t real anymore and your purchases don’t count.”

Many years ago this phenomenon was referred to, in fannish circles, as the True Fan Fallacy. Who gets to decide who is a true fan and who isn’t? But it isn’t just in fandom where it happens (which is one of the point Camestros makes in the above linked post).

From a fairly early age I was frequently teased, harassed, dismissed, and/or bullied for not being a “normal boy.” I was called sissy by other kids, and I was called a faggot and a sissy by various adults—including teachers and pastors—because I was interested in things or acted in ways they didn’t think a boy ought to. Then I was accused of not being a real Christian when I pointed out contradictions between things some religious leaders said and the actual words of Christ recorded in the Bible. Then I was accused of not being a real American for a wide variety of reasons (my favorite is still being told I wasn’t a real American because I believed in the separation of Church and state—you know, a concept championed among the Founding Father’s by both the author of the Declaration of Independence {Thomas Jefferson} and the author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights {James Madison}, and further actually enshrined in the Constitution itself!

Just as this last year I found myself being accused by some people of not being a real Star Wars fan because I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi? Me! Who saw the original Star Wars in theatres on Opening Night as a teen-ager in 1977, and then scraped together money from my part-time job to go see it in the theatre twelve more times that summer. And then stood in line over night to see Empire Strikes Back and two years later again for Return of the Jedi on their opening days. I’m not a real Star Wars fan, though, because I disagree with these man-babies who actually think the original trilogy, which was all about a Rebellion against an Empire, wasn’t political???

And yes, I understand that my invoking my history with the original trilogy sounds an awful lot like gatekeeping. But here’s the thing—I don’t believe that anyone who wasn’t alive back then and didn’t see the movies the same way I did are not fans. I admit that I’m giving those who are so clueless as to think the original trilogy wasn’t about politics some serious side-eye, but I’m not saying they aren’t fans of the original series.

I have a good friend who was barely one year old when the original movie came out—and he’s one of the most passionate Star Wars fans I know. It doesn’t matter that he came to the movies later than me. It doesn’t matter than he and I disagree about some things in the various movies. He’s a fan, and the myth of Luke and Leia and Han and Chewie and Obi Wan belong to him just as much as they belong to me.

This discussion of who is a real fan and who isn’t lately centers around stories where white straight men aren’t the only characters who get to be heroes. Guys are upset that a black man, or a woman, or a non-white woman may get to have major roles in the story. And heaven forfend if some of these characters in the spotlight are queer!

Back in 1983 I was sitting in a theatre on opening day for the Return of the Jedi and I was very confused early on in the movie. Why, oh why, was Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like alien, so lasciviously interested in two different mammalian female characters? I mean, I realize that in a universe with many sentient races, there will be some characters no matter what species who get off on putting any other sentients in leashes, but what possible reason would Jabba have to put Leia in that damn metal bra? It made absolutely no sense to me at all.

I understand that thousands (or maybe millions) of straight fanboys in the audience didn’t notice that discrepancy. I understand that it jumped out at me because I’m a queer guy and I wasn’t distracted by Carrie Fischer’s bared midriff. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valid quibble for me to have with the movie.

Also, for each of the original movies that I saw in those theatres, at every single showing it wasn’t just guys in the audience. There were just as many girls and women in each crowd as there were boys and men. And even in the very whitebread part of the Pacific Northwest where I was living at the time, it wasn’t exclusively white people in those audiences, either. Furthermore, I wasn’t, by any means, the only person sitting in all of those theatres back in 1977 who went home to fantasize about Luke and Han hooking up romantically.

Queer folks, and women, and people of color have been fans of sf/f for as long as there has been science fiction and fantasy. We love those stories and those characters and those worlds just as much as any other fan. We’re buying books and going to movies and watching the series because we actually enjoy those books and movies and series. We’re not pretending. I don’t have the time to watch movies I don’t really like, and I certainly don’t want to spend money on books that I don’t enjoy reading.

You don’t have to like the same things I do, just as I don’t have to like the same things you do. But if the only fiction you object to winning awards is stuff that is written by people of color or women or queer people (and you insist that those authors’ sales are the results of “affirmative action” or “virtue signalling”) you aren’t fooling anybody. Everyone can see your bigotry, and we’re not impressed.

Stock characters exist for many reasons

Stock characters: comic, victim, braggart, pretender, fool. (

Stock characters: comic, victim, braggart, pretender, fool. (Click to embiggen)

One of the things I’ve been getting used to since the move is the new bus route. I used to ride the Rapidride D line, and now I’m on the E. My old bus commute was usually just under half an hour. The new one is usually about 45 minutes going in, but usually at least an hour coming home. Of course, when I was walking home it took more than an hour, so the time isn’t all that different.

But the crowd on the E is very different than the D. There are always interesting people on the bus, of course, but since most of the E route goes down Aurora Ave (aka Highway 99, aka the old Pacific Coast Highway), well, there are a lot more marginal people on the bus.

And everyday on at least one trip I wind up sitting near & seeing a couple (a guy and a gal who are obviously together) who dress, act, and talk like a particular movie cliche. Note: it’s seldom the same couple! I have seen one couple twice (and the female half of the couple two other times, once hanging out with a different couple who matched the trope).

What trope am I talking about? The couple who are dating/romanatically involved in some way and are also a pair of less-than-bright petty criminals who have gotten into something way over their heads which will cause no measure of awful problems for the actual protagonist in the movie. That couple.

And seriously, if I transcribed their dialogue–often a monologue because usually one of them is very talkative and the other either nods and says “uh huh” if the talkative one is the male, or sits there stone-faced and occasionly grunts or mutters something if the talkative one is the female–it would sound like comedic dialog written for a ludicrously incompetent criminal. Monday night there were three sets, though not at the same time. And one of the freaky parts was how similar the guys were.

In the first couple, the guy was wearing a Seahawks baseball cap and carrying a filterless cigarette. While the gal babbled, he kept adjusting is hat and fiddling with the cigarette. He would pack the tobacco in the cigarette a little denser crimping one end a bit more, then tamp that end on his knee or his cellphone, then crimp the other end tighter and flipping it to do some more. Meanwhile he would randomly lift his cap and reposition it on his head, sometimes seemingly exactly as before, and sometimes he would flip it so the bill was in back, then several fidgets later he’d put the bill in front again. Every now and then he’d stick the unlit cigarette in his mouth as he did something with his phone.

In the second couple, the guy was wearing a UW Huskies baseball cap and fidgeting with a filtered short cigarette (I kept hoping he’d pull out the pack and confirm my suspicion that it was a Marlboro Red, which would have nailed the stereotype further…). He would put the cigarette in one side of his mouth, then adjust his cap. Half a minute later, he’d take the cigarette out of his mouth and flip it around in his fingers a few times. Then he’d stick it in the other side of his mouth and pull off the cap, smooth his hair, then put the cap back on. And so on. He flipped his hat front to back once, then later flipped it back.

The third couple had the additional trope that both of them were burdened with backpacks and such that were, technically, each bigger than them. The guy was wearing a Mariner’s baseball cap, bill forwards, with a filterless cigarette behind one ear. As they were getting situated in their seats, he flipped the hat front to back, and moved the cigarette to the other ear. As they talked, he kept adjusting the hat–each time pulling the cigarette from behind his ear and moving it to the other side. There probably would have been some more flips, but as we approached a bus stop with several people waiting, she suddenly jumped up, very agitated, and ran to the back door. I thought that she had seen someone waiting at the stop that she didn’t want to ride the bus with, but as the bus stopped, the guy (who had gathered up his backpack, her duffle, and this rolling suitcase with two more backpacks attached and ran over behind her) started shouting for the driver to open the back door. As soon as the doors opened, she leapt out, landing in a little strip of landscaping beside the pharmacy there, and proceeded to puke her guts out. He followed with their stuff, and seemed to be offering some comfort as the bus pulled away.

Those were just one bus ride. As I said, I’ve seen couples like them at least once a day, four days a week, for seven weeks, now. The ages of the couples have varied quite a lot, as had the apparent ethnicity of each member of each couple. But there have been a lot of similarities in mannerisms, the sort of things one or the other talks about way more loudly than someone ought about cheating drug dealers and such in a public place, and so on.

The late, great author Terrie Pratchett observed on more than one occasion that there are really only a small number of people in the world, you just keep meeting some of them again and again and again in different bodies. This phenomenon (which is at least partially the result of social and economic circumstances that cross cultures and time periods) is one reason stock characters exist in fiction. But there is a difference between a stock character such as the morally impair braggart or the gullible minion and a racist/sexist/homophobic stereotype.

For storytelling purpose, you sometimes need a stock character to move the plot along or add a bit of verisimilitude to a scene. You don’t want or need to put a lot of effort into these characters’ backgrounds, but you do want to make sure you aren’t just pulling a bigoted stereotype out of the drawer when you do it. This may be helped with a sensitivity reader, beta readers in general, or an editor. But the burden shouldn’t fall solely on them.

Any character you put in a scene, no matter how minor, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Is there a reason you made the character one apparent gender rather than another? Does anything change if you change the gender?
  • If you mention race is there a reason you made them that ethnicity? If you didn’t mention it, but realize you are imagining them a specific ethnicity, why? And does it change anything if you change it?
  • If you mention any physical characteristic or their clothing, is there a reason?
  • If you mention apparent sexual orientation, again, why? If not, how are you imagining them? Why?

Having all of the characters apparently white, heterosexual, and cisgender serves an agenda, whether you mean it to or not, because the real world (yes, in every era of history and every part of the world) has characters of different races/ethnic groups, different economic classes, different sexual orientations, and different genders. If you aren’t including them in the world, you’re promoting an agenda. Is that what you want?

And if the only time certain marginalized groups are mentioned, they fall into lazy stereotypes (petty criminals are people of color, nurses are always women, doctors are always white men, et cetera), you’re also promoting that agenda. Is that what you want?

Handling feedback, critique, and suggestions for your book

“Not every book is for every reader.”—Meg White Clayton

“Not every book is for every reader.”—Meg White Clayton

Earlier in the week I wrote about responding to reviews (short version: don’t be a jerk) and dealing with diversity critiques (stop, listen, learn), so I might as well talk about the process of deciding whether and how to incorporate feedback into your story in a more general sense.

Most advice I’ve read about using feedback as a guide for revision assumes that every writer feels compelled to immediately change their story to comply with every suggestion, and that most of us need pep talks to remember the story is ours. There’s nothing wrong with such pep talks, but my experience has been that many writers (myself included) are more inclined to dismiss most advice, critique, and suggestions unless such feedback comes from someone we know and trust.

Be open. Don’t dismiss feedback out of hand, and resist the urge to argue or explain.

Yes, if you are attending a writing workshop taught by an author you have long admired, and bonding with your fellow students, you’re likely to take every single piece of advice to heart, even the contradictory ones, and tie yourself in knots trying to rewrite your story to address every issue. Similarly, if you have a critique group you trust, you may find yourself in a similar situation after they go over a story. In that circumstance it is important to remember the Neil Gaiman quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

People are making suggestions because the story isn’t working for them. Some of the suggestions are contradictory because the people offering them are misidentifying the root cause. Before discarding contradictory advice, see if you can find an intersection. For instance, one time I received feedback on a draft novel from three people whose opinion I trust. One was quite insistent that I needed to add some dream sequences or some other sort of mystical experience to more explicitly explain why the reclusive shrine-guardian was compelled to undertake a quest to save the world. Another thought I should remove several characters (including the shrine guardian) that (in their opinion) weren’t contributing to the main plot, because there were just too many things going on, and clearly the center of the action was the cursed thief. The third person wanted me to split off the shape-shifting fortuneteller (and a few other characters) into their own book.

The intersection of those comments was a fundamental issue all three readers were missing: the novel doesn’t have one protagonist, it has three protagonists whose fates are intertwined and that all come together in the end. Now the reason these readers were missing that detail was not because they were dense or didn’t appreciate the story; they were missing it because I as the author hadn’t made it clear. It was not working in the story. I needed to fix it, but the fix did not involve removing characters, or adding dream sequences, or splitting the book in two. The fix also didn’t require massive rewrites. The fix required dropping a few scenes that weren’t carrying their weight, replacing them with some that did more, and making tweaks to several others.

Look for the unobvious connection. Just because advice seems contradictory doesn’t mean it is wrong.

Sometimes the feedback you get appears to come from a different planet. I’ve mentioned before the reader who complained about my happy endings. The story that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for that reader was a tale which ends with two of the main characters saying good-bye as one is going to escort the corpses of several murder victims on their journey to their families. The story had featured some graphic violence long before getting to that scene. While the killer had been caught and was going to be facing justice, and some of the characters had survived, given how many didn’t and where I set the final scene (literally next to some coffins) I had trouble thinking of it as a happy ending.

I’m a person who fundamentally believes in hope. I’m never going to write stories that will appeal to the sort of reader who insists that happy endings never happen for anyone. That particular story had already been published, so it was a bit late to revise it. But I still found the feedback worthwhile. It was worth asking myself if I had written something earlier in the story that had led this reader—who was really looking to read something grim and dark—to think that that’s what this one was going to be. Did I raise an expectation that I failed to deliver?

Maybe I did. A lesson I took away from that was to remember to look for those unintended expectations. Everyone has heard the famous advice about the gun on the mantlepiece: if you show the reader a gun on the scene, the gun needs to figure in the plot before the story is over. The advice doesn’t just refer to guns, it means that when you draw the reader’s attention to things, people, or events that seem to signify certain dramatic possibilities, that something needs to come of it. That isn’t to say that I must write stories that meet the reader’s expectations, just to make certain that I don’t mislead the reader midway through the story. Yeah, misdirection is okay as long as you play fair (that’s a topic for an entire blog post on its own), and you don’t want to telegraph the ending to the reader, but don’t play bait-and-switch.

Don’t blame the messenger. Maybe the person giving you the weird sounding feedback is absolutely the only being in the universe who will misread your story this way, but don’t forget that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

I’ve gotten feedback that left me feeling confused and conflicted about whether my story is worth telling. That might be a good time to follow the advice I read in a magazine article decades ago (and have long forgotten who wrote): sit down and write out an explanation of what is wrong with each part of the critique to don’t like. Do not ever send this to the person, repeat any of it to the person, or post it. Instead, set your reply and this story aside and go work on something else. Later, when you can look at this story objectively, pull out your explanation and go through your story. Is everything you say in the explanation in the story? Is it clear in the story? Chances are that some things you have assumed the reader will infer aren’t as obvious as you though. Sometimes you’ll discover that you never actually mentioned one very important fact for your plot. You thought you did, but it isn’t actually there. Now destroy that explanation/argument you wrote, and rewrite your story.

Argue with yourself, not the reader. Figure out what is missing, and add it in.

Many times I’ve written scenes that never wind up in the story. Sometimes I write them because I’m not certain what to do next, then later I realize that scene isn’t necessary. Sometimes I write them because I’m trying to figure out something that I plan to have happened in the past or off screen, but I need to be able to have characters who lived through the events react accordingly later. And sometimes I write a scene because I received suggestions or critiques that I either wasn’t certain I agreed with, or was quite certain I disagreed with but it kept coming up from multiple people. So I tried writing the scene that followed the suggestion. Usually what happened is not that the new scene went into my story and replaced a bunch of other stuff, but rather, in the course of writing the scene, I figured out something else about the story. Just trying to write it the way other people wanted it to go clarified where the story actually needed to go.

Give it a try. Every writer writes stuff that eventually we decide not to use or to change significantly. Don’t be afraid to spend some time giving alternatives a go.

Trust the story. Recognize that you will stumble and sometimes fall. It doesn’t matter how many times you do that, if you keep getting back up and get moving. So stop thinking about the story, and go write it!

What if someone says my book is racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ et cetera?

“Listening to hear not listening to speak.”

“Listening to hear not listening to speak.”

Yesterday I posted about responding to reviews and how generally you shouldn’t ever respond to a negative review with more than “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” I also had some advice about responding to positive reviews and questions about your book or story. But that was about responding to reviews of your work from a quality and plot context. But what do you do when someone says, for instance, they feel a particular character perpetuates negative stereotypes about a particular ethnic group (or a sexual minority, or a specific culture, or a specific gender, or a specific sexual minority, and so on)? First and foremost, do not, I repeat, do not argue with the person.

It’s the most natural thing to do, because you know you don’t have a bigoted bone in your body, so of course you aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semetic or whatever the person has just said. So of course you feel the need to defend yourself. But you’re wrong. That’s because what you think they mean is that you are a horrible bigot, but that isn’t what’s going on here. What the person is actually trying to communicate is this: “I felt devalued or erased by some of the content of your story.” Nothing you say can change the feelings they had when they read your book. So the first sense in which it is wrong to argue is that you see this as an attack on you, whereas they are explaining how attacks on them that society has been subjecting them to their entire lives are being unintentionally aided and abetted by your story.

The other sense in which you are wrong is the belief that you don’t have any bigotry at all. Because all of us do. It is impossible to grow up in human society without absorbing a lot of prejudice. Including prejudice aimed at ourselves. Queer people have to overcome a lot of internalized homophobia just to come out of the closet. Women learn and internalize misogyny and sexism. Ethnic minorities learn and internal racial prejudice, and so forth. So it doesn’t matter how much you feel you aren’t bigoted, there is going to be some unconscious prejudices boiling around inside. And problematic content isn’t usually about overt bigotry, but is often more subtle.

So, when someone confronts you about any unintentional bigotry in your work, you need to do three things:

  • Stop
  • Listen
  • Learn

It is tempting, even if you stop yourself from getting defensive, to respond to this sort of criticism as just another kind of negative review and say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it” then try to change the subject. But this is a different category of discourse entirely. And quite often the people who bring this criticism to you did enjoy most of your story. That’s why they’re taking the time to tell you about this problem. So a better response would be, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you in this way.” If you can say that sincerely, you might also say that you didn’t intend to do that, but don’t let it become an attempt to prove they’re wrong. Better to say, “I’ll try to do better.”

If the person wants to explain to you what it was in your work that made them feel this way, listen. Don’t argue, listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk in more detail about it, that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’ve someone won the argument. As uncomfortable as it is for you to hear that something you wrote made someone feel de-valued, it is just as uncomfortable (and riskier) for them to bring it up. Dealing with every day discrimination and microagressions means that members of marginalized communities have already had to defend themselves and explain how they are hurt by discrimination thousands of times. And they don’t have the energy to try to educate you in depth on the issue.

Which is where we get to the learning. Once it has been brought to your attention that some readers feel this way (which you never intended) while reading your work, it’s your job to decide how to do better. I love quoting the advice “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” That’s part of a Neil Gaiman quote. One of the truths Gaiman is getting at is that if one reader feels a particular way about your work, many other readers will, too. The rest of Neil’s quote talks about fixing problems, and fixing it is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. They’ve told you how it made them feel. If you don’t want some of your audience feeling that way, you have to decide how you’re going to fix that going forward.

I want to emphasize that I know this process isn’t easy. The first time someone told me a story I wrote had sexist bits in it I became extremely defensive and reacted like a complete jerk. I was wrong to do that. Fortunately, I also spent some time, after I acted like a jerk, re-reading the story and trying to see it from the reader’s point of view.

And she was right. There were several little things I had done just because that’s what women characters do in that situation in millions of books and television episodes and movies that we’ve all watched. And it was a simple matter to make some very minor changes to get rid of them. I didn’t become suddenly a sexism-free writer after that. I found myself a couple years later being asked by someone why after six chapters into a book I was writing, not one single female character had appeared or had a line of dialog—in a story that was set in a ordinary public school in a small modern American city. There were a number of women and girls in my imaginary world, some of whom were going to figure in the plot later, but for whatever reason, I had omitted them in the opening chapters. This, by the way, was the incident I’ve mentioned before that prompted me to re-read a whole bunch of my work applying the Bechdel–Wallace test1, and finding myself very embarrassed at how many of my stories failed it.

And even though since then, I have tried to educate myself on it, and made several changes to the way I tell some stories, I still find problems. I was editing a scene in one of my currently still-in-progress novels not that long ago when I happened upon a line of dialog that I barely remembered writing, and it was a very clichéd and sexist line. I changed it. Now not only is it not sexist, I think it’s funnier.

Again, not every such criticism is going to be spot-on. A few years ago I got a long angry letter about how a story I wrote perpetrated hate against religious people. The rant included accusations that I had been “brainwashed by the femi-nazis” so I wasn’t inclined to take it completely to heart. I asked some religious acquaintances to read the story (without mentioning the negative review) to give me feedback on the portrayal of religion and the various religious people in the story. Not that if they disagreed that proved the reviewer wrong, it was just two more perspectives from people who I trusted.

I ultimately had to make the decision about whether the story perpetuated anti-religious bigotry.

That’s all we can do: try to learn, try to see things from other perspectives, and find people we trust to check our conclusions from time to time. Members of particular marginalized groups can disagree. A few years back I and another gay male sci fi fan and writer got into a really long discussion about whether something I had written perpetuated negative stereotypes about gay men3. We never came to a complete meeting of minds on the topic.

There’s an excellent post over at Patheo by Libby Anne which makes really good reading on this topic: What to Do If Someone Calls You Sexist: A Short Primer. And it doesn’t just apply to sexism.


Footnotes:

1. Based on a 1985 comic strip from the series Dykes to Watch For by Allison Bechdel, in which one woman asks another if she wants to go to the movie, and the second woman explains that she has a rule, she will only go to a movie if “…one, it has at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about something other than a man.” Then she confesses that the last movie she’d been able to go to was Alien, because there is one scene where the two women on the spaceship crew talk about the monster. But only the one. Bechdel herself expressed some discomfort with people naming the test after her, since she said she got the idea for the rule from a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.2

2. If a movie or book passes the test, that doesn’t prove that said work isn’t sexist. All the Bechdel-Wallace test is assess whether women appear in the work to specific degree. That fact that so many works fail to achieve even this level of inclusion is just sad.

3. Remember, it is not a valid defense against an observation of bigotry to be a member of the marginalized group in question, any more than claiming to have a friend in the group absolves you of all culpability. Internalized homophobia can manifest in even the most woke queer person.

No one else can tell the stories I have to tell

“Don’t forget, no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

“Don’t forget, no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

There are lots of stories boiling over in the real world that I have strong urges to comment on. Some of them are about Facebook’s advertising platform violating the Fair Housing Act, some are about the FBI director violating the Hatch Act, some are about inappropriate use of force against protestors who happen to be racial minorites while white armed criminals are acquitted, and so on. All of those stories are important, all of them involve real people and real harm, and all of them are worthy of some consideration.

But part of the reason I filled out my ballot as soon as it arrived (and let me just say again that I am so happy my state went all mail-in some years ago) was in hopes that I would stop obsessing quite so much at all the outrageous things going on in the world. I have a couple of important writing goals to finish before NaNoWriMo starts. I have hefty writing goals for NaNoWriMo itself. This is the third year in a row that one of my goals for the year is to spend less time and energy being outraged and more time writing and enjoying life.

This horrible year just keeps getting me wound up so much that some days I can’t seem to get anything done. And I’m not the only one (don’t just read Scalzi’s post, take a few moments to read the moderated comments to that post).

It’s not just about deadlines. I have stories to tell, stories I think need to be told… Read More…

The heartland isn’t, and other myths of diversity

When the Grist published this in 2014, they captioned it: “Obama famously denied that there’s a red America and blue America, but it turns out he was wrong. There’s red America, a sparsely populated but vast landscape of rural and suburban areas, and there’s blue America, the “urban archipelago” upon which the left’s constituencies — single women, minorities, cosmopolitans — cluster.”  (Original image source: 2012 election results, by county, Mark Newman, University of Michigan)

When the Grist published this in 2014, they captioned it: “Obama famously denied that there’s a red America and blue America, but it turns out he was wrong. There’s red America, a sparsely populated but vast landscape of rural and suburban areas, and there’s blue America, the “urban archipelago” upon which the left’s constituencies — single women, minorities, cosmopolitans — cluster.”
(Original image source: 2012 election results, by county, Mark Newman, University of Michigan)

In 2004 my state had one of the closest races for Governor ever. On election night, it appeared that the Republican candidate, former state senator Dino Rossi, was the winner—but by only 261 votes. When all counties had finished counting ballots (but before the results were certified), former state Attorney General Christine Gregoire had pulled ahead of Rossi by a mere 42 votes. At one point during the recounts1 her lead was only 10 votes, but when things were officially certified, her lead had reached 129 votes.

The Republican National Committee paid a lot of money to finance a legal challenge to the certified count, insisting that lots of illegal ballots had been counted. The case is famous for the result that after spending millions and sorting through all the voter rolls the Republicans did find exactly 4 illegally cast ballots: all four of them had been cast for Dino Rossi, because each of the illegal ballots had been cast by ex-convicts who had not had their right to vote restored2. Each of them had voted for Rossi because they are angry at Gregoire for (essentially) doing a very good job during her years in the state’s Justice Department.

In other words, the Republicans spent a lot of money proving their guy’s loss was worse than it appeared, and ironically revealed to the public that the Democratic candidate was perceived as much tougher on crime than the Republican, at least in the eyes of some criminals.

Throughout the next four years3 certain angry people in our state kept insisting that the election had been stolen by evil democratic minions in King County, mostly because they couldn’t understand that winning in the mostly populous county in the state by about 70% is going to beat winning in a bunch of the least populous counties by less than 60%. And boy, did I get an earful from some of my ultra-conservative relatives about all the “crooked liberals” in Seattle at the next several holiday gatherings.

Seven out of ten states have a larger percentage of  rural population than the national average. (Click to embiggen)

Seven out of ten states have a larger percentage of rural population than the national average. (Click to embiggen)

This is by far not the only time I’ve heard conservative people claim that when any election doesn’t go their way it’s because of ballot-stuffing in the cities. It’s hard for people to grasp the sheer scale of the differences in population density. Many counties in the U.S. have population densities of 1 or 2 people per square mile, while cities can reach densities of more than 50,000 per square mile (the New York City metropolitan area, for instance). It’s also hard to grasp the difference in ideology. People who live in rural areas are far more likely to vote Republican and otherwise support conservative politics. People who live in cities are far more likely to lean the other way. It’s not just that they’re leaning, it’s also how far they lean. You’re much more likely to find a majority of moderate conservatives in the suburbs than in small towns and unincorporated communities, for instance. And you’re much more likely to find the sorts of arch-conservatives who embrace the alt-right label those small towns and unincorporated communities4.

There are many reasons for this divide. One simple one is migration. People growing up in those communities who don’t feel as welcome are more likely to move to the city. People who feel out of place in their small towns who go to cities (usually to attend college or look for work) discover not that everyone in the city agrees with them, but they can find communities or social circles where their differences are accepted and affirmed, and decide not to go back. Those of us who are queer understand this quite well, though we aren’t the only ones.

Another difference is a natural consequence of the density. Living a city, it is impossible not to come into contact on a daily basis with people who are culturally, ethnically, religiously, and/or politically different than you. You interact with them, seeing that that are just people like yourself, merely with different experiences and beliefs. You learn to empathize with those perspectives. For a lot of us, it makes us more open to the other points of view than we may have been before.

This was all brought to mind recently when an acquaintance was freaking out a bit about this article: More Americans move to cities in past decade-Census. It wasn’t that he didn’t know that more of the population of the country lives in cities than in non-urban areas. What freaked him out was how many more do. He though it the city-country divide was something like 60-40. It’s not. It’s 80-20.

Let me repeat that: 80% of the U.S. populations lives in cities, suburbs, and large- and medium-sized towns. Only 20% live outside of those urban areas.

Some articles about this topic get confusing, because not everyone agrees on where the dividing line between urban dweller and not should be. The Census Bureau uses the following definitions:

  • Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people;
  • Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people;
  • “Rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.

Some people want to quibble with that definition and divide the line differently. I’ve also seen some articles that include the urban clusters population in the rural, thus defining what most folks would agree is a quite large town as “rural.”

We also have a lot of misconceptions about how diverse communities are, racially and otherwise. This article talks a bit about that with some fun observations: ‘Normal America’ Is Not A Small Town Of White People.

There is also the phenomenon of entire states that are far more rural than others (and the source of the second map I linked): 2012: Nearly three out of ten Americans live in a rural area or a small city. But in most states, the percentage of rural residents is far greater.

Politicians of certain stripes are fond of talking about “real Americans” which is sometimes code for white, straight, and at least pseudo-Christian5. But it also often refers to people who live in small towns or on farms, with the implication that that makes up the majority of the population. Which gets us back to the reason many conservatives who don’t live in the largest cities think those cities are doing questionable things with ballot boxes. A lot of them don’t even understand that the majority of the population lives in cities. They think the urban dwellers are a minority somehow oppressing them.

It’s also why most of them don’t realize that their small communities are being subsidized by the taxes paid by city dwellers, not the other way around. But that’s a whole other can of worms.


Footnotes:

1. Which could have been avoided, because there were several thousand voters in my county who cast write-in votes for a former County Executive whom Gregoire had defeated in the primary, not aware that the state Constitution specifically forbids write-in votes to be certified for a candidate who lost in the Primary.

2. In Washington state, if you have been convicted of a felony you lose your right to vote. After you have served your time, you may petition to have your voting rights restored. But you have to actually file and make a court appearance to do it.

3. Four years later in the Rossi-Gregoire rematch she won by a more decisive 53% to 47%.

4. Not that you don’t find very liberal people in small towns, nor very conservative ones in the heart of the city. There are always outliers everywhere.

5. By which I mean people who give lip service to being Christians, and get foaming at the mouth angry if someone objects to a Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse, but otherwise don’t act as if they understand a single word Jesus ever said.

It’s about time – why Star Trek’s Sulu reveal is overdue

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

So the new Star Trek movie opens in general release in less than ten days, and word is out that the film includes a brief appearance of Sulu’s husband and their adopted child. George Takei (who originated the role of Sulu way back in 1966 when the episode “The Man Trap” first introduced audiences to the voyages of the starship Enterprise) has said this is unfortunate, because it violates the original vision of the character. George has become, over the last few years, America’s favorite gay (metaphorical) uncle, and frequently his comments on pop culture, queer rights, homophobia, and related topics are spot on. But he’s completely wrong here.

Make no mistake, George isn’t saying that Roddenberry didn’t want queer people in the future. George has spoken before about the conversations he had in the sixties with Roddenberry about addressing sexual orientation in the story. Roddenberry thought it would be a bridge too far for the networks. Roddenberry had already fought tooth and nail to get an African-American woman and a Japanese-American man on the regular cast in prominent roles—and he felt he was already skating on thin ice. Also, if you look at some of the writing Roddenberry did in the notes to other writers working on the series and on the first motion picture, you’ll find references to Kirk, at least, having had affairs with men at least at one point in his past. So it isn’t that George thinks Roddenberry and the original vision of Star Trek without queers, it’s that George thinks that Sulu was obviously straight in the original, and that a better option would be to introduce a new character.

There are more than a few problems with this line of reasoning. The most important is simply this: if the first unambiguously queer character introduced into the Star Trek universe is a minor character that no one has ever heard of before, that leads to automatic tokenism. The audience will, regardless of their own feelings about queer people in real life, naturally see this new character as the gay crewman. He won’t be seen as an integral part of the universe who just happens to be gay, he’ll be seen as the character being added for no other purpose than to check off a list. If, on the other hand, a character who is clearly integral to the story is revealed to have been queer all along, that his or her colleagues have known about the same sex spouse all along and none thought anything was odd or remarkable about it, that shows that Star Trek is the future Roddenberry envisioned: where people are accepted on the merits of their character above all else.

The less philosophical problem with George’s argument is the assertion that this is a radical re-imagining of the character of Sulu that throws out everything we already knew about him. I’m sorry, George, I love you, but there is nothing in the way that you played Mr. Sulu in the original series, nor in the scenes, dialog, and actions that we ever saw on-screen, that precludes him being queer. Sure, that’s that one deleted scene from Star Trek: the Motion Picture where Sulu tried to awkwardly come on to Lieutenant Ilia—but first, it’s a deleted scene, so isn’t really canon, and second, a bisexual or pansexual Sulu is still a queer Sulu who might well end up falling in love with a man and deciding to settle down.

I’m not trying to knock George Takei’s acting skills, here. I’m just saying that queer people and straight people often don’t act any differently in the vast majority of day-to-day situations. There are many reasons that a metric ton of Chekov/Sulu fanfic was written long before the motion pictures or the reboot movies existed, for instance.

Finally, if you think that Roddenberry’s original vision is the only way the story of the Star Trek universe should move forward, we should circle back to those odd notes of Roddenberry’s about Kirk’s sexual past. Roddenberry was an adherent of a belief that was prevalent among some liberal thinkers in the sixties that sexual orientation was merely a social construct. That every human was really, deep down, bisexual or pansexual, and any proclivities otherwise were merely the result of social conditioning. That view isn’t accepted any longer; medical science indicates something those of us who have grown up queer in a homophobic society have been saying for a long time, the sexual orientation is an innate quality. Some people are innately hetero, some innately bisexual or pansexual, et cetera.

But if we must rigorously adhere to Roddenberry’s original vision, then having Sulu in one timeline prefer men, and in another be ambiguous is perfectly fine.

Ultimately, I think that Simon Pegg and the current producers are right: the original series is silent on Sulu’s orientation. This isn’t a change or contradiction of anything we knew about the character before. And having a major character who is already part of the canon revealed to have a same sex spouse is the better way for Star Trek to embody a bit of Vulcan philosophy: that the universe is made up of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Invisible or tragically dead… reflections on representation

lovingmemoryI was catching up on some podcasts last week, specifically going back through episodes that I had started but not finished. I was listening to Cabbages & Kings, which is a sci fi/fantasy podcast that focuses on books and other written stories, with a focus on the things readers love about the experience of reading. In that specific episode the host, Jonah Sutton-Moore, was discussing queer romance in sf/f with Carl Engle-Laird who is an editor at Tor Books and is bisexual. It was a good episode, but I was shocked when Engle-Laird said that he had only recently learned about the Tragic Queer Trope/Cliché, and specifically that he had learned about it after he had already selected two books for publication in which the only queer character in the story dies. He says something along the lines, “I had just learned about this cliché and the pain it causes so many people, and I was about to publish two books that fit it and realize there’s trouble coming my way.”

The host of the podcast shared a similar story, about how he had reviewed a book in which the two main characters, who happen to be lesbian, overcome the obstacles of the plot and apparently live happily ever after. In the review he had expressed some surprise at how many rave reviews he’d read of the book before reading it himself. Not because the book wasn’t good, he didn’t see that it was a breakout book as so many reviews described. People reading his blog had to tell him that what felt groundbreaking about the book was the fact that the queer characters not only lived to the end of the book, but actually got a happy ending.

I’m not shocked that the straight host of a sci fi podcast was unaware of the prevalence of the phenomena described at TV Tropes as Bury Your Gays and Gayngst, or a bit more honestly explicitly at places like Another Dead Lesbian or The Curse of the Tragic Lesbian Ending and so on. I was disappointed, but not shocked.

It was the queer editor not knowing about this cliché that shocked me.

And I want to be clear, this isn’t meant to be a slam at either the podcast host nor his interviewee. I’ve been listening to this podcast for months, I like it (heck, I nominated it in the fancast category for the Hugos this year!), I listened to several more episodes after the shocking moment (and I’m all caught up again!), and will continue to recommend it.

But I’m still always disappointed when people in the business are unaware of just how unwelcoming to queer people most pop culture is in general, and sci fi/fantasy is in particular.

I realize that it is hard for non-queer people to grasp this, since they are so used to seeing themselves reflected in every show. Any time I’ve talked about a specific instance of “Bury Your Gays” with non-queer friends, their first reaction is always to explain to me that other people die in the book/movie/series. It isn’t that queer characters should never die. The problem is that nearly every queer character depicted in a relationship in pop culture either dies, or is left alone, bereft, and grieving over the death of the only other queer character in the story at the end.

All. The. Time.

That’s on the rare occasions that queer characters in relationships are included at all. Most often, queer characters simply aren’t in the stories. In those rare cases where queers are included, they are unattached romantically without any plot line other than to be the funny/eccentric sidekick to a straight character, or they die. And quite often it is a senseless death that exists for no reason other than to shock the viewer and give one of the surviving characters a reason to grieve and motivation to accomplish their goal.

One of several infographics at jcwelker.com/post/141225630214/vandelrio-nonadraws-this-is-my-final-project

One of several infographics at jcwelker.com/post/141225630214/vandelrio-nonadraws-this-is-my-final-project

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a couple of statistics for you. According to GLAAD, out of the 881 regular characters appearing in all of the primetime network shows during the fall of 2015, 35 of them were lesbian or bisexual women. We are now just a bit over 80 days into 2016, and since January 1, eight of those fictional women who love women have been killed on screen. That’s nearly one quarter (22.85%) of all the women who love women that have been allowed to appear on television screens this year killed.

Imagine, for a moment, if in the last three months 22% of all the regular characters on every single show on network TV had been killed off on screen. That’s 194 characters, almost 2.5 a night. Seriously, if regular characters were being killed off on every television show at that rate, people would be up in arms. They would be sending angry messages to networks executives asking why there is so much more violence in every show. The Daily Show and/or John Oliver would have some epic comedic rants about the murderous spree that all of the network producers had gone on, and those rants would be viral on Youtube.

Right?

If one quarter of all regular characters on network television shows were killed off every 80 days, then every show would have effectively a complete cast turnover every television season. And that makes no sense for a continuing story over multiple seasons, so no show-runners in their right minds would do that.

Fictional murders, senseless deaths on screen, et cetera are not random acts of violence. They are decisions that show runners and writers and network executives make. People are making the decision to kill off queer characters at a much higher rate than any other category of fictional character. Just as a lot of us have called bullshit on writers, producers, and executives who claim they can’t add a queer character to an existing series or franchise until the “right story” comes along, it is at best self-delusion when the decision-makers try to claim that it is just a coincidence that they kill off queer characters at such a high rate.

It is sometimes argued that the only reason that we notice when queer characters are killed off is because there are so few of them to begin with, therefore each loss is especially keenly felt. But that ignores the disproportionate rate of the deaths. Yes, if a quarter of all characters appearing in regular recurring roles in all shows were killed every 80 days, we could argue that the only problem is how few queer characters there are. Even if that were the only reason, the lack of representation itself would still be a problem, as I’ve argued before: Invisible no more: rooting out exclusion as a storyteller.

The truth is that both the lack of representation, and the excessive rate of disposal of the few examples of representation we ever get are symptoms of a deeper problem. Author Junot Diaz summed up the real issue best:

You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?”

There is an agenda to deny us representation—to pretend we don’t exist at all if possible, or to make certain we are perceived as monsters, freaks, or tragedies if we must be acknowledged. Whether a particular storyteller consciously agrees with that agenda or not, whenever you leave us out, or kill us off without thinking about the message it sends, or sit by silently while someone else does those things, you are serving that agenda.

Maybe you should think about that for a bit.

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