I’m reading a series right now that I’m really enjoying — except for its portrayal of race, particularly through the lens of its first-person narration. It’s textbook depersonalizing, fetishistic, racefail — accurate for the time and the character’s head space, but not exactly sunshine and roses for the reader. And I’m torn: On the one hand, I think it’s completely legitimate to write period-appropriate world views. Someone living 200 years ago is not going to have the values of a person living now. On the other, when it comes to speculative fiction, I can’t help but feel like it’s a “Fireflycation” of the environment: taking the grit, the grime, the shiny bits and pieces of these things you want to use but then ignoring everything else.
Joss Whedon’s beloved, canceled space opera Firefly used elements of Chinese language and culture in its mythology, with nary an actual East Asian person to be found in the principal or guest cast. The excuse being what…? That it’s the near-future? A non-Earth? If you’re already going the extra mile to create this universe, then you can create the East Asian equivalent to populate it. Nothing is stopping you.
And that’s sort of how I feel about genre fiction: When you’re already taking leaps…involving vampires, werewolves, airships and zombies, is it really some sort of deal-breaker to be culturally sensitive? Does “It’s not period appropriate for these characters to be enlightened” really matter when they’re doing all sorts of other period inappropriate things?
What I love about the parameters of sci-fi, fantasy and beyond is that, well, there aren’t parameters. You don’t have to Other someone different, because, odds are, everybody’s different somehow. It’s the Mos Eisley cantina scene on a grandiose genre scale. So it always sticks in my craw a little when authors use the default settings for race and ethnicity. i.e. George R.R. Martin’s portrayal of the dark-skinned, tribal Dothraki as savages. Sure, the “civilized’ Lannisters are just as savage…but that’s not the point. The point is, you made all of this stuff up, so why not change the programming? It’s why N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon was one of my surprising hit reads of the year: “Wait, the racial dynamics are completely flipped around?! OMGYAY.”
So, I don’t know. Do you ding a book or a TV show you like for its less-than PC elements? Do you take it in stride and buy into the idea that it’s in-character to be, as the Avenue Q song goes, “a little bit racist”? I don’t expect my media to be perfect, because people aren’t perfect. But I’d like to always believe in possibility and potential. In other words, you can’t take the sky from me and I’m holding on to my sunshine and roses, too.