Steampunks, we've got some 'splaining to do
In a nut-shell: An author named Lavie Tidhar (with whom, incidentally, Poor Mojo's Giant Squid and this fair weblog's core editorial staff share billing in the upcoming Steampunk III anthology) tweeted this the other day:
Hoo-boy did *that* piss folks off! There was the wailing and the groan and the gnashing of teeth and the boycott-threatening and the etc.
For context: Lavie is the author of at least three steampunk novels and more than few noted short stories, as well as non-fiction on steampunk as a genre. This specific tweet was kicked off by his brain while he was drafting "A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich
" (scroll down to see it; the top of the page is Lavie's response to the teeth-gnashing wails, etc.) Now, Lavie didn't precisely go so far as apologizing here, but that strikes me as perfectly appropriate, because he doesn't really have anything to apologize for.
Listen: Steampunk sits on precarious moral foundations, and if you believe that part of the point of fiction is to write *moral* fiction--to speak to how humans *do* behave vs. how they *should* behave--then this is maybe sorta important. Science fiction/fantasy (and especially urban fantasy) notoriously have a Race Problem, which is that they kinda fail to acknowledge our real-world Race Problem. In terms of any *specific* story this is fine; no one wants every damn space opera to be a Very Special Episode of Diff'rent Strokes. But when you add it up, the general absence of an accurate treatment of race across the genre becomes as glaring as the sea of pasty white faces hunched over their keyboards.
*Pause.* Yes, I know, there are tons of counter examples viz. race in SF/F, even from the squarest, least offensive, most middle-of-the-road SF we've made. But, seriously, if someone says "You know, we're kinda all writing stories that somehow ignore the Western World's central conflict for the last several hundred years" and your reply is "What about Uhura! Star Trek had the first interracial kiss on television!" then you're sorta saying that the biggest accomplishment white male writers could imagine for an African-American woman in the distant future would be to get to voluntarily kiss a powerful white guy, which is . . . um . . . I mean, that's sort of insanely offensive. Or, more to the point, that's sort of *exactly what I'm talking about.*
All of this is magnified x100 in Steampunk, because we're *grounding* our stories in an America and Europe that was miserable to folks descended from Africans, crumbling for folks descended from Conquistadors, basically all but collapsed for the Native People of the Americas, contemptuous Asians and the Muslims responsible for the maintenance and advancement of human knowledge throughout the European Dark Ages, and on the verge of launching an unprecedented campaign to rid the world of every living Jew.
Which, in a way, brings us back to Lavie's little dieselpunk faux encyclopedia entry, linked above, which I urge you to read because it is *wicked* and *fun*!
In the end, no one is asking any of us to dwell on *any* of this. As readers, that's your prerogative. You work hard, and you just want to relax and read something fun. I get that. Lavie gets that. Everyone gets that. That's totally cool; go buy a different book.
But how in the world can you expect a human with a shred of conscience to dwell in that world for weeks, months, years--as a writer must--kitted out with a 21st century notion of justice and equality, and *not* address it at all, ever? And not even *acknowledge* it during his or her writing breaks? Why is the response to lash out and threaten that writer's livelihood, and that of other authors who happen to write for the same house? What is the terrible thing that Lavie is saying that shouldn't be permissible to say? That it might be a little gross to unquestioningly lionize a period where progress for the self-appointed "ideal" few was fueled by the blood of the "degenerate"?
I bring all of this up because I write fantasy and SF and steampunk in part *because* I can't help but talk about race and religion, and these are great places to talk about it. Most pale 21st Century Americans get super squicked out and quiet if you try and talk about the racial disparity in modern prison populations, but they can really dig in and talk a blue-streak if we talk about made-up persecution of androids. It might seem nuts, but doing the latter makes room in the conversation to talk about the former openly. I've spoken at steampunk conventions and always been shocked and gratified by how open fans are to talking about just these very uncomfortable topics. Meanwhile, I've often been *shocked* by the things humans will write in a letter or email, or will post online *right next to their actual name and photograph.* This isn't about anonymous trolls or drive-by haters. There's something else that happens when we code our feelings into words, and when it's gloomy and I'm down, I start to worry that the whack shit people tweet to the world is what's in their heart, not the thoughtful things they say to my face.
What I'm saying right now will sound trite--especially after the twitter freakout by white folks who read the Hunger Games then flipped when they realized Prim is black--but I firmly believe that for every sub-literate tweeter there are a dozen white people whose hearts are turned when they mourn that made-up little black girl. That few degrees of twist will be the seed for a racial conscience that will guide them when they are hiring, when they are firing, when they are voting, when they are purchasing.
And that's the business we're in, me and Mojo and Fritz and Lavie. And so I want to draw your attention here and point you to Lavie's fake encyclopedia entry, salvaged from an alternate Now in which both he and I would be unconcieved ash, if even that. It really is a neat little romp (I say that without irony or sarcasm) and includes little runs like this:
DICK, PHILIP K. (KINDRED)
American author of pulp fiction. His novel The Man in the High Castle (1962) posits a world in which Germany lost the War (see also FALSE REALITY, HITLER LOST). All known copies of the novel have been destroyed. The author perished in a rehabilitation camp shortly after.
A JEW creation, born out of OCCULT PRACTICES and DEGENERATE SCIENCE. A mechanical man.
BLACK RACE, THE
Devolved race, mostly extinct – some are kept (alongside JEWS, GYPSIES, SLAVS, CHINAMEN etc. etc.) in specialized zoos. Perhaps the best way to see them is at the Berlin Zoologischer Garten, where many rare examples of near-extinct lower races can be seen in their native habitat, including such rare specimens as PYGMIES, AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES and the IRISH.
. . .