Scribbler’s Saga #99 – Sidestep into SF

Posted: February 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

Plato’s Stepchildren – why we sometimes hide in Metaphor

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Jeanine Cummins…what a mess! The politics of the American Dirt situation will largely take care of themselves elsewhere. There is one possible future remedy for other similar books (in this case the book is irrevocably the book, as it should be)…do the Science Fiction version. And that we can discuss here.

Let That be Your Last Battlefield – six weeks later, a possible respite from the hate mail….

As much as we would like to hear about every author fighting for their books in every circumstance, we do still need readers. The eternal balancing act between vision and the audience. In that regard, Science Fiction as a genre has a long history of acting like the safety valve for all kinds of stories Larger Society deems too radioactive. And the next book with lofty intentions like this could come out as SF and likely escape notice.

Far Beyond the Stars – Sorry, Benny, the issue isn’t in the rearview, yet…

Why? First off, there’s all kinds of real bias against the genre. To my limited knowledge awaiting final video proof, Oprah has never in her thirty years as Queen of TV used her book club platform to promote a real Science Fiction property that wasn’t made huge elsewhere. Oprah doesn’t have to promote anything she doesn’t like and in a classic case of confirmation bias will design her show and empire initially to attract viewers with similar views as herself. And to do the best she can to broaden her appeal by sending out professionals to do market surveys.

If we assume that Oprah is the sort of woman put off by the rockets, lasers, ships, lightsabers and really huge explosions common to the genre, then it follows that enough of her viewers and readers react the same way. Certainly, we’re describing my mother who never really got my enjoyment of the genre. What this means is that people who do mainstream novels need Oprah for their anointing and the rest of us need to figure how to land about a tenth the money and wait years, if ever, for the movie deal.

There are other factors determining how Science Fiction became one of publishing’s more interesting redheaded stepchildren. Originally marketed to boys, the genre gave them what they wanted which was the ships, rockets, lasers, lightsabers and explosions. I’m hearing St. Paul in First Corinthians – “when I was a child I thought and spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put aside childish things” – in the oddity of how my favorite books that didn’t have spies in them were suddenly derided as being for children.

Here’s what we learned from classic Science Fiction while getting called geeks. Environmental concerns? Phillip Wylie pretty much played out every nightmare scenario in one book called The End of the Dream. Reactors boil rivers. Other rivers catch fire (I’m guessing inspired by that real-world time when the Ohio River ignited near Cleveland). Carbon monoxide inversion events pretty much wipe out Manhattan. You get the idea…a spectacular book, especially when your first experience of it is the book on tape.

And we pair this with Harry Harrison taking a break from The Stainless Steel Rat to give us Make Room! Make Room! later filmed as Soylent Green. The author may have underestimated the planetary ecosystem’s ability to house and feed humans asserting 300 million Americans would be too much, but the thesis of what happens when we reach that breaking point is still worth reading.

Or I could talk about learning about Libertarianism and some nonstandard family relationships from Robert Heinlein. Generally, you might read Frederick Pohl as a Liberal antidote to Heinlein. Certainly, you have to read The Cool War for Pohl’s two-point takedown of the CIA and as a thematic counterpoint to, say, Starship Troopers.

All of this was and is possible because when you deride the genre as juvenile or low culture, no one cares. A related phenomenon is that with all situations being deemed imaginary and relying heavily on metaphor instead of coming out and directly stating a controversial opinion the easily offended can be brushed off saying – “relax, it’s just Science Fiction.”

Before going into how this would play out for the imaginary SF version of American Dirt, let’s discuss how three episodes of Star Trek handled the depiction of racism (diagonally related to the current issues). Some used metaphor. Others went straight at it to varying degrees of success getting in under the radar.

We start with the TOS episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” One of the photos for this post shows why the episode was and is important. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) kissed Kirk (William Shatner) onscreen at the end of 1968. Predictably directly addressing the issue with what is now deemed the second ever interracial kiss on English speaking TV (a BBC show asserts having done it six months earlier) caused a lot of people to lose their shit.

The hate mail flowed in from the South. The supporting mail from everywhere else also landed heavy. Nichelle Nichols has since then continuously retold her favorite piece of hate mail from that time. A gent from the South wrote in leading with I don’t approve, but then finishing with, if I may paraphrase, “but, Uhura’s hot!” John Sayles expressed a similar amusement in his movie Lone Star – “what a wonderful thing it is that it sometimes takes one prejudice to combat another.”

Exactly six weeks later in the dreaded and much derided TOS Third Season (fans love to bash the season about like we also like bashing Star Wars: Phantom Menace, tips for fitting in FYI), we got a more metaphorical approach to – “Hey, racism is bad and stupid to boot.” The TOS episode “Let That be Your Last Battlefield.” Again, the photo says everything.

No one then or now was ever fooled that The Five-Year Mission had suddenly changed tack. People are smarter than we look. The beauty of an episode about two guys who are both black and white at the same time fighting to the death because they have nothing else left is all metaphor. Heavy reliance on metaphor is a hallmark of Science Fiction and if that same southern gent was as equally pissed off by the follow up, History doesn’t record him writing a second hate letter. I like to think that he told himself that the second anti-racism episode in six weeks was all imaginary and he would wake up from the dream in due course.

Lastly, we come to my favorite regular hour of Star Trek, a DS-9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is whisked away by his later revealed cousins and other relatives among the Bajoran Wormhole People, aka the Prophets, to 1950’s New York. He takes the place of Benny, a science fiction writer at a pulp magazine tasked with writing the story of the space station.

When Benny gets his ass beat by two cops played by the actors normally playing the series villains, we learn that in 1999 the franchise clearly believes that the coast is clear. We don’t have to use metaphor to discuss racism instead just choosing to tell a story about the issue. Times had changed so it seemed.

As for how writing an SF novel helps the next American Dirt. First off, the author doesn’t have to worry about the main part of the backlash that might leave only Oprah standing if it breaks gloomy. Once it becomes SF, the story ceases to be about Hispanics and Anglos and a border described as tragic all around.

Sure, the people who piously police our books saying variations of – “this protagonist doesn’t reflect any of my immigrant relatives.” – or – “this author purports to want to humanize us, but relies on every stereotype about Hispanics that we’re tired of.” – are going to know immediately what Ms. Cummins is trying to say. But, the reply will always be – “yes, but replacing Hispanics with ________s allows the author the wiggle room to get X, Y and Z wrong about everything because the story is now about how two fictional societies with similar economic and cultural disparities interact across the short interstellar distances between the planets.”

The shift into SF also allows the protagonist to remain as is. According to the liner notes (I’ll get back to you when I read the book, possibly when the dust settles), the woman owns a record store and comes from a socioeconomic class that wouldn’t normally go across the border. She makes the mistake of flirting with the wrong cartel drug lord while her husband writes unflattering journalism about him, which results in a mass family wipe out at a quinceañera. I recognized this character archetype immediately.

This woman shares thematic space with every Disney princess that must be driven into the forest and seek protection from the Dwarves or be raised in secret by the Fairies to protect her from Maleficient. Or you could bring up Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper where a fictional Edward VI switches places with a pauper lookalike, losing status to regain it and become a better king. And I’ll give you a coin toss between the Biblical Book of Job or Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo as the last example of the protagonist that starts out comfortable and loses everything in order to gain more at the end of the story.

It becomes obvious that the detractors may be right according to one point of view, a woman that has more in common with Snow White really won’t reflect their cousins. By design. However, Ms. Cummins isn’t just writing to reveal the immigration situation from a point of view of things as they are.

She’s also trying to get people that look a whole lot like me to ease up and be nicer because normal people don’t cross dangerous borders on the merest of whims. Therefore, it makes sense to subconsciously tap into a more fairytale character archetype of the person whom we don’t expect to cross the border. Why? Because the thousand-year-old storytelling tradition I saw immediately because I do know how to read has always worked in the past.

In hindsight, this is where the imaginary SF version helps out. When the story ceases to be about Hispanics and Anglos, the detractors might just go with it because the fairytale princess escaping Planet Y for greener and safer pastures on Planet X makes for a potentially great story (It still could suck, we’ll see). Could Ms. Cummins have shifted gears learning from past blowups, though? Hard to say.

I’ve pretty much buried the lead here because there are a few skills that Ms. Cummins hasn’t had to practice. Worldbuilding, for instance. The two planets or nearby star systems with such disparate economics have to be thought out, named and put onto the page in order to disguise and prevent offense. Let’s see that means Planet________ has just recovered from Social Ill_______ and her people jealously eye the perceived wealth of nearby Planet_________.

For your information, the underlines are more about a failure of imagination than sensitivity, the names initially proposed read like Roald Dahl taking someone’s piss on a hangover day. If I had to actually write it, I’d come up with something…I always do. My point, I do worldbuilding every day and I still might draw blanks at first. What could Ms. Cummins do, coming new to the genre? Basically, you write like you read in so many ways.

There you have it, how it might’ve worked if American Dirt had been reworked as Science Fiction somewhere in the middle of the process. Less sales. No Oprah, unless I’m wrong. No presold film deal. And no one cares, unless Ms. Cummins really trips over her shoelaces trying SF when it doesn’t come naturally to her. All for a story that slips under the radar to influence people in unexpected ways, which sometimes just has to do.

As for what good SF races sound like, especially Roald Dahl at the top of his game…VERMICIOUS KNIDS! Enjoy that mic drop and have a good evening.

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