Racism, Future: Sci-Fi Authors Riff

By Jef Catapang

If you read a fair share of sci-fi (written by someone other than Octavia E. Butler), you might be prone to feeling like all this flesh-wringing about race will be looked upon as nothing more than a quaint marker of our times. A lot of sci-fi teaches us that race just won’t be an issue in the future. Besides, if there is still such thing as racism in the future it will be directed at robots, so who cares? Not us. It doesn’t matter how sexy you are, robots. We’re not buying it.

To get a deeper sense of how science fiction has dealt with the possibilities of human interaction and diversity, we called up some of Canada’s most intelligent and most out-there imaginations to talk sci-fi, race and the future of us.

Derwin Mak

The Shrine of the Siren Stone(in which an otaku anime-nerd falls in love with a Japanese girl dressed as a French maid who turns out to be an android)

On why scientific developments won’t change racism:

The concept of race is rather hard to define to begin with. Even though all the scientific research shows that people have the same DNA, that we have the same ancestors, there will always be some differences. I’m not saying those differences are good or bad, they’re just there and people will notice them.

On why ‘first contact’ won’t bring about world peace:

Often science fiction authors will say that we’ll all suddenly become one unified human race as we realize that we’re not alone. I’m going to take the opposite approach and say that the arrival of aliens will not make us see ourselves any more unified than we already were.

A good example is when the Europeans came to North America. That did not end the squabbling or the warfare amongst the Native American or Canadian First Nations tribes. They still fought against each other, and indeed, they even sought out alliances between the English, French and the Spanish against each other. So I don’t think that the arrival of aliens will make human ethnic groups feel like they have any more or less in common than they do now. Unless, of course, we end up being common prey.

Suzette Mayr

Moon Honey (in which an 18-year-old white waitress suddenly turns Black)

On everyone being beige in the future:

When I go to Toronto, I’m always struck by all these mixed-race couples, children, and people that I see. That it’s actually in ads now, which to me suggests some sort of acceptance in the mainstream of this as being normal—in quotation marks. You don’t see it as much in Calgary. You see it on the street but you don’t necessarily see it reflected in the media. And I remember someone telling me statistics about Japanese-Canadians, about how they’re gradually kind of disappearing as they’re inter-marrying with other races. My feeling is that perhaps what will happen is we’ll have this blending as we go. On the other hand, there’s tons of Islamophobia. I think about the Tea Party, and all the kind of stuff that’s happening in the United States, which suggests a return to segregation rather than an inter-mixing.

On our increasing capability to control what our bodies look like:

Weirder and weirder things are happening for beauty. People are altering their faces and looking more and more like cats. I wonder—there’s a certain kind of aesthetic that goes with bi-racial Asian people that seems to be fetishized and seen as beautiful. And what about these lips that people are getting, these kind of big lips? I don’t know. Are people wanting lips like Black people?

On why racism is here to stay:

There will always be an underclass and there will always be racial undertones associated with that. Think about the historical movement towards the prairie, where the desirables and the so-called whites were English people or Scottish people, and then the Irish came and they were black. And once they were integrated, well, the Italians were black. Then the Ukranians and now it’s the visible minorities. I think that’s just the way we’re genetically engineered: to be mean to somebody, to find justification to exploit somebody else or treat somebody else poorly.

Terence M. Green

Shadow of Ashland (in which Leo Noland travels from Toronto to Kentucky, and through time, to learn about his family and himself)

On why James Cameron is wrong:

One of the big feature films of the last few years was Avatar, which suggested that there’s always going to be racism and tribalism. I wasn’t convinced. They made [the villain] so stereotyped that I couldn’t get over it. I thought surely we’ll progress a little bit more than that.

On whether sci-fi is right and we’re going to treat new races of sentient A.I. lifeforms like Cylon scum:

One of the things that sci-fi does a lot of is the cautionary tale. If this goes on, Fahrenheit 451 will happen, we’ll burn the books. If this goes on, 1984 will happen, Brave New World will happen. Science fiction does two things: it takes the present and extrapolates, and once it gets to the future, it speculates. Usually they take the worst possible things that are going on and then they tell you how horrible it’s going to turn out. It makes for a better story—you’ve got to have suspense and drama and you’ve got to create conflict. Sometimes they overdo it.

Minister Faust

The Alchemists of Kush(in which two Sudanese “lost boys” come under the guardianship of mystic madmen)

On technological development and POCs:

Even if Ray Kurzweil’s concept of the singularity isn’t completely right, even if he’s only partly right, it is true that the more technological change we have, the more our societies are going to change. Sometimes that’s for the better.

One of the leaders of cell phone communication is Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese technologist who became a billionaire and created a foundation, which is one of the leading proponents of democratization. It just built the largest mobile phone network across the African continent. Now more people in Kenya, proportionately, use cell phones than do in Canada or the United States, and they use them in ways that would be novel for us. We don’t use cell phones here as debit cards. They do.

Coloured people, the majority of humanity, we’re making some great strides and progress. It’s thrilling to see India and China become the new space race. Two coloured countries are sending people into space? That’s exciting.

Something nice about Star Trek:

Whatever the script problems are with Star Trek (2009), it’s loads of fun. It’s got the very best character stuff for Kirk, and also the very best [character stuff], by a factor of about a million, for Uhura. J.J. Abrams made the Black woman the standard of beauty in that movie, which is unprecedented to my knowledge—the only exception I can think of might be Jackie Brown, which is a film that I hate.

Mostly, white Hollywood directors put in African women who are the antithesis of the European standards of beauty. They’ll have Meg Ryan, as an example, as the European standard, and the director will insert an overweight, short, West African woman to be a counterpoint. Her fleshiness, her shortness and probably her swearing, whatever, will make the white woman look all the better. This is the standard. It’s in Glee. It’s in one show after another.

So J.J. Abrams and the screenwriters had Uhura as the strong, sexy, intelligent woman that all the guys want to date. And Star Trek, in bare bones terms, it’s a white movie. Other people will like it, but it’s a white movie. Can you think of any other white movie where the Black woman is the object of interest, and she’s amazing? It’s the normalization of it that’s so wonderful.

Hiromi Goto

Half World (in which Melanie Tamaki must save her parents, who have been whisked to the Half World by Mr. Glueskin)

On how so much sci-fi skirts the race issue altogether:

I’ve noticed that a great many writers treat race as if it doesn’t really matter anymore, it’s like the talk about race is a done deal, it’s over. Frankly, I feel like that’s a cheat. Race is an actual, very complicated, reality. It makes for a more streamlined plot if you get rid of that. I understand that as a writer. As a reader of science fiction though, who is a woman of colour, and a feminist, it’s interesting. I think we can do better.

On why uploading our consciousnesses into a computer might affect our conception of identity. (And why that might not be as awesome as it sounds):

I don’t think identity is static. It’s in a state of flux. Take for instance how we’re constantly aging. Elements of change are always present in our experiential lives. So I really can’t see that going away. It could shift in a radical way if we were all to be part of a cloud identity, but I still think there will be parts of us that will strive to sort that out.

I think we need to work more on learning to integrate and live alongside difference. Given human history, I would have some concern that a hive mind would be an awfully powerful position to be a colonizer of individuals and of races and of religions. And you know, power in the wrong hands can do great, great harm.

Kenneth Tam

The Human Equation (in which we return to Earth after 700 years, on a quest fuelled by a false religion)

 On representation for representation’s sake:

It started with Star Trek. Looking at the bridge of a Starfleet vessel and seeing different races, human or otherwise, represented, then seeing similar diversity in my home led me to grow up believing that was simply the way the world worked. That my dad was one of few non-white people in St. John's at the time (he was one of seven 'Blacks' in the province when he first arrived for university) was completely lost on me—just as it seemed lost on my neighbours and friends. As far as I could tell, then and now, no one cared. He married a white girl he met at university. That's how I grew up, so unsurprisingly I've always appreciated future-based sci-fi that shows me the same, especially after my eyes opened to the amount of difficulty race relations has caused the world.

The sci-fi I know well, and the books I write, at least until recently, generally follows this pattern—a respect for all races and creeds, without strife. It's an approach that hasn't gone out of style. I love that the actor who played the terrorist in Iron Man also played the Captain of the USS Kelvin in the Star Trek reboot. A recent episode of Doctor Who seemed to put an Indian Space Agency in charge of defending Earth from an incoming ship on a collision course. I think it brilliant that, even if there were focus groups or memos, they reflect the expectations of sci-fi fans: to see humanity as one species struggling, surviving, and achieving together.

One for the team:

Questions can certainly be raised as to whether sci-fi's habit of creating outside villains is a good thing—whether establishing a new “other” for us to fear represents progress, or just passing the buck—but I do think it has merit. I'm not yet so enlightened as to demand oneness with all possible life forms in the cosmos. My focus is rather selfishly on the life forms of this planet. Humans aren't nearly as invincible as some of us like to think, so it seems wise to remind people that there are greater things to worry about than the variety within our species. Because if hostile aliens arrive, or an epidemic appears, or something else entirely happens, I'd rather we face it together as “Team Humanity”.

Yes, I realize that's a crap team name.