fiction theory

The artist is not afraid

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You're hurting my head again, SF/F
default3, writing!wench
I imagine some kind of buzz is getting started concerning just how much FAIL is inherent in Patricia Wrede's new novel The Thirteenth Child in which she decides to retell the history of the Americas by erasing the people who were here long before Europeans decided to come. Instead of finding people, the Europeans who come over find magical animals and as a bonus, none of those troublesome native peoples who so stubbornly refused to see that they were dirty, ugly, and wrong and standing in the way of shiny new WHITE progress!

There are probably a lot of people who are saying things about this much better than I am. And there is some very useful links about the entire situation compiled by naraht on DW.

But the smartest and most accurate comment is from holyschist on DW who said:

Basically, to imagine an America (perhaps a world) without genocide and slavery, she erased the victims.

I can't believe that there were people who read this novel and thought that somehow it was okay to do this. Seriously. There were editors and agents and thinking human beings who all green lighted this project. And this is not to say that the novel probably wasn't well written or even interesting. I'm sure it is. I'm sure Patricia Wrede got all the mechanics right.

But saying a novel can't be hurtful and wrong if it's well written is like saying a gun isn't a weapon because it's pretty. You can put flowers and hearts and chrome on it all you want and it will still blow a person's brains out when you pull the trigger.

Same with literature. You can write a spectacular book and still hurt so many people with it. I believe that deepad said as much in "I Didn't Dream Of Dragons" (the link takes you to DW, not LJ because her LJ has been f-locked). But of course, if RaceFail09 taught us anything, it's that a bunch of people aren't listening

The discussion at about the book and papersky's review of it is kind of disheartening. Well, some of it. Some people are definitely speaking up and saying that they were very bothered by what's going on.

Some are getting defensive, which is to be expected. I find it especially disgusting that somehow Lois McMaster Bujold thinks that somehow she comes out on top by saying we can't change the past and then listing a few charities and magically, she's done her part to change racism. Because it's always nice when White Ladies fix racism with the click of a button. The problem just needs you to throw some money at it and then nobody can accuse you of having racist attitudes because you donated to charity.

I get smacking urges as a historian whenever I see someone saying this kind of crap:

The past is beyond anyone’s reach, and history is fractal -- one sperm over, and we would all have been our siblings, and our own self-centered universes would never have sprung into being at all

Because it's bullshit. The past is not beyond the reach of people who are still getting smacked in the face by it, the people who are getting fucking erased in mainstream literature. It is not beyond the reach of those who are using it to their advantage. The people who have the privilege of being able to revise the books, texts, and mainstream narrative of How Things Came To Be The Way They Are.

Nor is history fractal. History is a living thing (cliched, but pretty true) and it can be edited, changed, revised, but it is not fractal.

Think of it like this: in math, two points make a line. If you move any of those points, the line changes and becomes different. The past is a point. And yes, it is possible to move that point, at least in the way that actually matters.

No, you can't time travel. But you can tell people something different happened, you can change perception. And in the human world? Perception is reality. What actually happened in the past takes a backseat to what we are told happened and what we believe happened. This is why our criminal justice system is so problematic, because when we put somebody on trial, we're not really making a decision on objective truth. We're making a decision on whether a jury believes the evidence is sufficient to put them in jail. Whether they actually did or did not commit that crime often doesn't matter.

It is not the past, but completely 100% objective truth, that is beyond anyone's reach. Which is why it is so incumbent upon us, if we know that none of us is going to be entirely accurate, to make sure that our inaccuracies aren't hurting anyone. That is why we must realize the limits of our perceptions, our realities, and do our best to make sure that our narrow views aren't costing someone else dearly.

This is why it matters if you write an AU in which you wipe out one group of people and then decide that it's okay, because you'll have another stand in as your People of Color because somehow, they're interchangeable.

And on a biological note: no, one sperm over and you would not be your sibling. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You might be a different gender, have different looks, etc - but you wouldn't be your sibling. Because your sibling came from both a different sperm and a different egg all coming together at a different time and gestating under different conditions than you did.

So, again, the stupid is burning. And this is just another reason why:

a) authors (especially well known ones) should really stay out of comment threads, bulletin boards, LJ discussions and other places like that. Because the chances of looking like an ass just multiply exponentially.


b) is not actually a site for SF/F. It's a site for a clique of certain SF/F folk to hang out and do what they want (including posting reviews of completely irrelevant TV shows that aren't even SF/F because it's their favoritest show ever and they're special snowflakes) and pretend like it's supposed to be a cool SF/F site.

But that's all kind of irrelevant. What matters is that I speak up and that I make it clear why I'm so terribly offended.

As a woman? I know all too well how easy it is to be erased even when you're a queen. I know how easy it is for historians who are uncomfortable with acknowledging sexism and the ways in which women have been abused to just simply pretend they weren't there. I know about the first time a male history student boldly proclaimed that "women just didn't matter to history until recently" and the utter rage I felt because not only did he say it, but so many others agreed.

As a queer person? I know about being explained away, denied. I know how easy it is for historical queer figures to be swept under the rug, or stripped of their obvious sexuality. I know about English teachers in high school who posited the theory that Oscar Wilde wasn't really gay, that his trial was just political and all the accusations were false and he really was straight. Because of course, enjoying a play written by a gay man would be wrong.

I think it's even more heinous to write this kind of thing as YA. Because I'd really hate to be the kid who is Native American or First Nations or derives lineage from there and has to realize that they couldn't be in that book, because in Wrede's world, they don't exist.

Just for the record, I wouldn't exist either in that universe. And not because of some inkling of Magical Indian Princess blood. I mean my grandfather, my father, me would all not exist at all. Not to mention many members of my extended family and many, many friends of mine.

This book just erased my grandfather and his entire people. Cut him off and said that his people and his family and his past and his heritage weren't as interesting or worthy of consideration and respect as a bunch of Europeans coming over and discovering magic mammoths. Because heavens forfend that, in the quest to imagine a world without slavery or genocide or conquest, you erase the offenders instead of the victims.

And let's not even consider the possibility of writing a novel where Europeans live and keep their hands to themselves and the people of the Americas get to ride the magic mammoths and have awesome adventures? Because that would require considering them as interesting and worthy of respect as Europeans, and obviously, that isn't happening.

So thanks for that, Patricia Wrede. It's nice to imagine a world where I couldn't possibly exist. It's like every other fantasy novel I've read where women or bisexuals either don't exist or don't matter, except this time it's with race.

Also? I hope that Lois McMaster Bujold is kidding about the entire idea for this story starting with Wrede watching Walking With Mammoths on the Discovery Channel. I really do. Because I hope this author did not just erase an entire people, contribute another book to the piles of books that completely insult and demean Native Americans and marginalize them further, and posit a world where I'm not worthy to exist because she saw something on the Discovery Channel. Please tell me that this did not all get started because somebody said "Ooh, mammoths are cool!" and then couldn't think of ANY OTHER WAY to possibly put mammoths and people together without erasing Native Americans.

Because that would just extinguish my remaining faith in the SF/F establishment and take a few hit points off my faith in humanity in general.
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(here via naraht/emily_shore)

Generally, this post is Full of Win. :D is not actually a site for SF/F. It's a site for a clique of certain SF/F folk to hang out and do what they want (including posting reviews of completely irrelevant TV shows that aren't even SF/F because it's their favoritest show ever and they're special snowflakes) and pretend like it's supposed to be a cool SF/F site.
ZOMG I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE! I was disappointed in well before PN/TNH failed themselves out of the galaxy earlier this year. I have no beef with them making a site for their own folk; I'd just much rather they didn't bill themselves as The One True SFF Community that will Replace All That Went Before.

Also: And on a biological note: no, one sperm over and you would not be your sibling. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You might be a different gender, have different looks, etc - but you wouldn't be your sibling. Because your sibling came from both a different sperm and a different egg all coming together at a different time and gestating under different conditions than you did.

Please to be posting this as a comment @ the Tor thread?? It gave me a great LOL to see that Bujold was failing at science as well as everything else.

Edited at 2009-05-09 09:04 pm (UTC)

Re: (here via naraht/emily_shore)

I'd just much rather they didn't bill themselves as The One True SFF Community that will Replace All That Went Before.

Yeah, I know, right? I think that really is what I've been trying to articulate for a while about why puts me off. Because I don't mind someone trying to build a shiny new Best SF/F Site Ever, but I'd prefer if they did it with all SF/F fans and writers in mind, not just a group of them.

A site that is associated with a big publisher could do so much to grow the SF/F field beyond it's current boundaries. It could be such a vector for encouraging diversity and spotlighting new and innovative literature being written not just in America and the UK, but in other countries. It could also, at the very least, pretend like it's trying to find new and exciting writers. It could be growing SF/F into something new and bright.

But no. And that tells me that the site would rather let Elizabeth Bear post reviews of an irrelevant TV show and support the publication and sales of a book that adds to centuries of the erasure of many peoples because at the end of the day, this SF/F is not meant for me. It's meant for The Too-Cool-For-You Kids who are lucky enough to be White, Straight, and Established.

Which is fine. But at least they could do us the courtesy of putting it on the label, you know?

Please to be posting this as a comment @ the Tor thread?? It gave me a great LOL to see that Bujold was failing at science as well as everything else.

I'm seriously considering it, but I have my doubts that Bujold will be at all willing to listen or do anything but get defensive. And that's sad. I'm tired of putting authors on my shit list.

Great post. Thank you.

Excellent post. I love this. It's omg. Awesome.

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requested response

Hello, Fiction_Theory, total stranger off the Internet.

I am here by your explicit invitation: I have read your post all the way through.

It's been an interesting week. Yeah, I, too, am wondering by now why I didn't see using this premise was going to be a problem. The white-privilege theory has been gone into at length by other posters, so I won't recap it here. But what I wonder is how much of it is that I come out of the science fiction, and not the fantasy side of the genre. SF stories have been rearranging the world through time travel or alternate history -- including quite a number before that used a premise of an empty NorAm -- for decades, not to mention all the many ways the entire planet has been devastated or blown up. (One of the very first SF novels I ever read, back when, was _When Worlds Collide_. Gave me nightmares, at age 9.) But it never once occurred to me to take it personally.

I did use to sit in my third grade class and try to imagine what would happen in a nuclear attack, which I took very personally; but that wasn't a response to *fiction*.

The other and more hopeful point is that never before have so many Readers of Color existed to *have* the conversation, or been able to communicate with each other to do so. When I went to my first midwestern convention in 1968, there was exactly one black fan, male; it's only in late years that I've had cause to wonder how brave he must have been to venture in. Octavia Butler, at a library program, once described a young black reader meeting her as a black SF writer, and saying in some wonder, "I didn't know we *did* that!" As far as I can tell, the biggest single factor driving the current shift and growth in diversity in genre readers has been the invention of the Internet.

This is the first occasion I know of that a book out of the former tradition has intersected the new audience.

My comment on the parent thread over at Tor about boggling at tribal websites isn't due to my race -- it's due to my age. I was even *more* boggled to learn that every capital ship in the US Navy has a website. Do you all take the Internet for granted *already*? I asked the acquaintance who'd first told me this, a few years back, who actually does study current Native American affairs academically, if the Net was making a discernible difference in communication and empowerment for these folks; at the time the answer was "working on it", but I'll bet that's shifted along by now.

Re: reproductive biology: if ferex, a Y-bearing, trisomy-23 sperm had intercepted the egg that would otherwise have been me, back in February of 1949, the person conceived would not have been "me" in any recognizable fashion. One can share half or more (or less) of one's genes with any sibling. It does not make one that sibling. That boy would have had an entirely different life from mine and, given the Down's Syndrome, not at all unlikely given the ages of my parents, would probably be dead by now. The universe that he constructed in his head, over his life, would bear little resemblance to the one I've constructed in mine. My parents' lives would also have been very different, subsequently. My career, my books, and my children would never have existed. All from one tiny, microscopic change.

I think any alternate history requires a more massive suspension of disbelief/generation of complexity than any FTL scheme. And yet people fool with the genre in apparently endless fascination.

If there is anything else you wish to say to me, I'll stop in tomorrow and read it.

bests, Lois.

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I don't think I came up with that summary, but I'm glad it works for you.

I love alternate history, and I've loved Wrede's books, but this premise just makes me too queasy to even want to read it, even for critical purposes. I'm not writing off Wrede (or Bujold, necessarily) forever, but I don't think I need to stick my head in a blender with this particular book.

I don't think I came up with that summary, but I'm glad it works for you.

Do you know who did, because I'd love to make sure I credit that person correctly. I'd hate to take something and not give people their due.

I'm not writing off Wrede (or Bujold, necessarily) forever, but I don't think I need to stick my head in a blender with this particular book.

Well, Wrede (so far as I know) hasn't said much. It's been lots of LMB going on. As for writing off the books, I'll confess that I'm not really a reader of YA and that I've really read a lot of LMB to begin with.

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A) You're welcome. I'm just glad that so many people have felt free to comment and express themselves here.

B) Go thank the people who brought the Awesome Sauce to the party with some Awesome Chips to go with the Awesome Dip. Because they totally have made my *year* with the things they're saying.

I cannot begin to address all that is wrong with this statement, just plain historically wrong, which probably then is the reason so much alternate history is just wrong also, and not history of any kind, alternate or fiction.

Just because somebody lives in a bubble and doesn't even notice that it is a bubble within which s/he is, doesn't mean the rest of the world exists like that.

I've put up an entry from my weekend experience that addresses LMB's assumptions in, ah-hem -- well AJ's got a great sense of irony and humor, so I'll just say it -- in spades. I'm sure I shouldn't have, but this just croggled me so much, that my own impulse to respond was as powerful as LMB -- whose books I have admired and enjoyed so much in the past.

The AJ here is Arthur Jafe Fielder, the subject of the entry, who, includes in his long film work résumé, Daughters of the Dust. He's also a champion intellectual, as well as an artist. He loves sf/f. After this presentation I told him about this latest business and he boggled. "Didn't even Octavia Butler make a difference?"

Sometimes it feels as though sf/f is composed of dinosaurs, who of course then, adore megafauna so much that people who really are there need to be erased in order so we can enjoy the great joys of megafauna all over again -- that scared real humans to death, if there happened to be any humans without massive firepower in the same spaces as megabeasties.

Love, C.

Dancin with a steak on my crotch in front of a pack of grizzlies

By the Gods.

I am exhausted...reading all these responses takes it out of one. Allow me to introduce myself...(and please forgive my lack of commas - my keyboard is being a little impertinent.)I'm an avid reader of science fiction...fantasy...all sorts of genres - my comic collection back in the day was something of fanboy legend (at least in my mind) I've run 2 successful comics stores and volunteered countless hours at sci-fi...anime and other types of conventions all over the country. geekdom knows no bounds my friends. Of course - I am also a person of the most diverse and evolved sense of the word. I am of a dizzying and mixed heritage...but I shall focus on my basics..Navajo...Mexican and Puerto Rican. of course - this makes me stunning...(humor - people!)

Allow me to say that...any storyline that annihilates my heritage in that fashion (this masterpiece of cultural & literary eugenics...)is beyond not cool in my eyes. Yet eerily enough - I do not feel an urge to beat this woman with her own pants...and I DO enjoy beating racists with their pants. While my blood has strong elements of Dine...Taino and Mayan roots...I am sadly ignorant of much of my culture...and do not feel a fair representative of my people. This is a sad element of my past that I am working to rectify as much as I am able. Of course..what would be sadder - would be exclusion of these cultures from our planet...and it mystifies me as to how this loss would deny these fine fictional Europeans the experience or ability to inflict any sort of oppression.

let the flamin begin!!! (kidding again...)

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First, I think you may need to anticipate that there will be
some very negative responses to your reply. Because this is an issue that a lot of people are upset about and while I respect everyone's right to agree or disagree, I think you and I will end up agreeing to disagree on this one.

I get that there's differences between entire races of real people and entire fictional universes, but to immediately write off a concept as racist based on surface analogies

There's big, big differences. Because these things that we're talking about in literature and SF/F are things that extend into the real world. It isn't just that this one book did this one thing that people didn't like.

It's like Native American/First Nations children can't find books that represent them in mainstream literature. It's that they've been flooded with poorly researched stories that don't tell the truth, or that minimize them and act as though they were just some little blip on the radar in the face of European development.

It's that all of this is a symptom of racist attitudes that still exist in our society, that affect real things in people's lives. Like, how they get treated by law enforcement officers, and their chances at getting a job or a good education, and so on and so forth.

This is not just based on surface analogies. This is based on the fact that this book is contributing to something that has been very real and very hurtful to a lot of people. The reason, at it's core, that it upsets me is because this book, like so many others, erases Native Americans/First Nations peoples from history as though they didn't matter. As though their existence is negligible and doesn't matter.

Yes, this one book posits "what if they weren't there". But so has basically every other book, including history books and textbooks and other fictional books that glorify cowboys and settlers and white people and cast the Native Americans as savages, as impediments to progress.

I think maybe reading some of the comments around here in the threads that are far, far smarter than mine that may clarify the issue. This isn't just coming from me. This is coming from people who have read the book, from PoC who were hurt and offended.

Um, oops, I just wiped out all the European people. Does that make me a racist?

No, it wouldn't, but not for the reasons you think.

I can only think of one other book that has dared to imagine a world without Europe (Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson). I can point to stacks and stacks of books where Europe is the only continent that matters (want me to start alphabetically or chronologically), and apparently even aliens that come to Earth feel that only Europe is worth paying attention to, that the millions of people in China, in India and so on and so forth don't matter.

Also, stirring up lots of controversy may have had the opposite effect: I hadn't heard about this book, now I want to read it.

Well, I didn't stir up the controversy. And so far, I've not seen anyone from my side of the argument who has called for a boycott or blacklisting Patricia Wrede or anything like that.

For me (I can only speak for myself), the point of this was to voice why I was hurt, why hearing about this book hurt me. Why not seeing the reviewer at even bring up the problems inherent in so easily imagining an America without the Native Americans hurt me. This is why I wrote this entry.

And if Ms. Bujold hadn't jumped in and said the things she said, I imagine that none of this would have gotten started and this entry might have remained another obscure offering on the internet.

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my one comment here...

I will make this one comment and say nada more here.

I'm a black man, I've never been to a con where non whites were even close to a double digit percentage of the population. I've been to cons in MA, CA, VA, TN, TX, & NY.

I've also corresponded with Lois for about a decade. I've talked to her at several cons. If Lois is racist she's missed her calling and should be in Hollyweird making $20million a flick. I've dealt with all shades of racist from skinheads to the subtle sneerers, she doesn't have a single revelatory mannerism, habit of speech or inflection of voice.

I also work in SF/F, there are certainly some racists, and some others with undesirable personalities.


Fantastic post. I'm here via metafandom and have been largely absent from fandom for a while now, so actually the events of RaceFail09 and the content of this book in particular are news to me. Really damn frustrating, eye-opening news to me. WTF, people? Y'know, I work in a bookshop, and after reading your post and related links and comments, I think that during my next shift I'm going to make sure that any copies of The Thirteenth Child we have in stock are not on any prominent displays. . . . Okay, that's a bit immature but, seriously, this infuriates me! I am rather incoherent with rage though, so I'm grateful there are people like you who are so very eloquent and speaking up against this. Especially that whole mid-section -- i.e. The past is not beyond the reach of people who are still getting smacked in the face by it -- because, yes, exactly. *wants to smack people with their own egregious books*

If walking with Mammoths was the inspiration for this book, um, did she somehow miss the fact that Mammoths lived in Eurasia as well as the Americas?

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