Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages

A few years ago, I shared parts of my SF saga (glimpsed in Planetfall) with several dozen readers in a closed list. Their first view of the Koredháni, the major culture in the story, was the formidable Meráni Yehán:

My consort’s people are lean, sharp-featured, great-eyed. Intricate jewelry circles their arms, adorns their long manes. A spiral-shaped brand glimmers on the breastbone of one of the adult men. Two are striplings, a girl whose breasts have just budded and a boy with the roundness of childhood still on his limbs. They range loosely behind an erect, dark woman with white hair still glinting with copper threads and eyes the color of stormy seas.

Stopping two paces in front of me, she smiles calmly and briefly inclines her head. “Ánassa Tásri-e Sóran-Kerís… Meráni kóren, tanegír adhríti Yehán.”* The night-hued voice, the voice that sailed into my mind like a sleek canoe to help me reel him back from the starry void.

*”Long Shadow Tásri-e Sóran-Kerís… I am Meráni, leader of hearth Yehán.”

Right away, one reader asked: “How do you ‘see’ Meráni and her husbands?” (Yes, women lead all the households, many are polyandrous, and the co-husbands consider themselves brothers; they also have nanobiotech, star drives and both gene and planetary engineering – and have used their technology to leave practically no footprint on their adopted planet).

I replied, “Except for the seafoam eyes, she looks like Entity (Tina Turner) in Beyond Thunderdome. Her four husbands look like a Celt, a Native American, an Arab and an African. And Ánassa looks like Lao Ma (Jacqueline Kim) in The Debt.” This was so with no deliberation on my part. That’s how they looked to me from the moment I conceived them.

There was dead silence on the list for a day or so. Then I got an avalanche of private e-mails, with photos attached. Without exception, the e-mails told how they felt that the story had become truly theirs. Unbeknownst to me, and not easily discernible from the names, half my readers were non-white.

This led to another outcome: everyone stopped assuming that the characters in my story were white (in fact, none were, given the Koredháni reproductive constraints). In a tiny way, I had jogged everyone’s mindset away from instinctively following a convention. This led to an unexpected gift that has never ceased to amaze and delight me. After the photos, I also got a flood of illustrations to my saga from two readers who are artists. Their depictions were so true to my characters that I can no longer see them in any other way – and if the saga ever sees the light of day, I will try to include them in the manuscript.

I was born and raised in a country that was racially and culturally homogeneous, but had always been a migratory passage as well as the nexus of two multicultural empires – Alexandrian and Byzantine. My history courses were peopled by Persians, Egyptians, Nubians, Gauls, Huns. When I came to the US at 18, I marveled at the human colors, shapes and accents, and the individual and collective backstories that came with them. And when I started writing fiction, my characters came in all hues without any conscious effort on my part. How could it be otherwise, with the swirling kaleidoscope inside and around me?

Yet even today, the default assumption of SF/F denizens continues to be that everyone is bleach-white unless explicitly specified otherwise. This is not confined to Anglosaxon cubicleers who write faux-Victorian steampunk. The Japanese give saucer-round eyes to most of their manga characters (these, along with the breathless falsetto voices, are very disquieting on female characters with exaggerated secondary gender attributes). Manoj Nelliyattu (aka Night) Shyamalan, a Tamil who must have more than a drop of Dravidian in him, cast bleached actors in all the main roles for his disastrous Last Airbender.

I still remember starting a story by Arthur C. Clarke that postulated a long-generation starship in which the social structure was identical to fifties middle-class suburbia. Having read his “bouncing breasts of female astronauts distract men in zero-G” screed I already thought him blinkered, but this clinched it. I put the story down unfinished and never read anything by him again. How is it possible for self-defined visionaries to continue showing societies inhabited by people of a single hue in nuclear patriarchal families? Only if you build a mind cage and put yourself willingly in it can you continue extrapolating in this impoverished, impoverishing mode.

Readers want to find themselves in stories. They want protagonists who look like them, who carry at least a bit of their particular culture and history. And when enough unbleached people appear in a genre, they stop being sidekicks or tokens and become the unique, memorable persons they have the capacity to be: Ursula Le Guin’s copper-skinned, hawk-featured Ged and her Inuit-like Gethenian hero/ine Therem Harth rem ir Estraven; Poul Anderson’s half-Dutch, half-Javanese Nicholas van Rijn; Alma Alexander’s sworn women friends in alternative China; Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec priest Acatl; Xena’s rainbow of lovers; the Scorpion King and his almond-eyed sorceress partner (which put Dwayne Johnson on the snacho list).

There’s an object lesson in my experience with my readers. We don’t have to accept every culture and cultural custom as equally valid for ourselves individually. Personally, I would not be happy in any fundamentalist and/or coercive world and would be unlikely to read with pleasure a story that depicted such a culture positively (cautionary tales are a different category). But we cannot become citizens of the universe if we do not first become citizens of the world: if we do not allow ourselves to register the dizzying richness and variety that surrounds us – and use this knowledge, carefully but fearlessly, to create genuinely new worlds worthy of remembrance.

Images: Tina Turner as Entity in Beyond Thunderdome;
Ged, Wizard of Earthsea by Laurie Prindle;
Meráni, tanegír Yehán, by Heather D. Oliver.

20 Responses to “Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages”

  1. ZarPaulus says:

    There are some stories (mostly literature) where humanity has somehow become homogeneous, and they tend to be “medium tan”, I’m pretty sure that’s biologically unfeasible. Of course it seems a bit unlikely that the current ethnicities that humans are divided into will remain in a few thousand years. Granted I can see a few situations where the majority of our descendants could end up bleached (live in space stations or ships, live on planets that don’t receive a lot of ultraviolet radiation, live in dystopian cyberpunk arcologies…)

  2. Athena says:

    There is no real biological division as long as all humans can interbreed (cultural issues are obviously another story). As for melanin, we will still need it even if we live in “bleaching” environment: to hear (it’s in our cochleae), to see (it’s in our irises; albinos often suffer from various forms of blindness) and for brain function (it’s in the substantia nigra, whose loss causes Parkinson’s disease). In such circumstances the melanocytes will probably persist in the cell population but will turn down their melanin expression.

  3. Caliban says:

    When I teach my course on SF, I try to point out both how SF has the potential, and on occasion the actuality, of transgressing such boundaries, and yet how often it fails. I hardly need to point out to Athena how well Star Trek exemplifies this. Kirk’s kiss with Uhuru (forced by psychic bullies, like he needed that excuse) was groundbreaking, to the point that network executives hesitated; Nichelle Nichols was understandably underwhelmed by her role and wanted to quit, but was talked out of it by Martin Luther King, Jr., who submitted that (at that time) Uhuru was the most empowered black woman on television! And yet it was still white men in power most of the time; it wasn’t really until Deep Space 9 that we got a non-marginalized major black character (on The Next Generation, all major black actors were either aliens or, in the case of Geordi, simultaneously “handicapped” and turned into a Magic Negro (that’s a technical term, folks with his visor). And where the hell are all the people of Indian and Chinese descent? They’re 1/5 of the world.

    And that’s just Star Trek. One can go on and on about the mixed record of the rest of SF…

  4. Athena says:

    Indeed. Nichelle Nichols’ role was painful to watch, as was Majel Barrett’s — especially when we learned that the latter had been demoted from her original role of a black-haired starship captain. I still recall an episode in which Uhura met an alien shapeshifter disguised as a human and yearningly asked him something in untranslated Swahili. That was one of the few moments when, for me at least, the United Confederation of Planets became something more than a club of (naturally or cosmetically) bleached Southern Californians.

    The paucity of Chinese and both Asian and American Indians among the main characters is particularly striking in ST; they have token Arab and decent Japanese representation. It was a great pity that the most boring and new-age-nonsense iteration (Voyager) was the one that was finally kaleidoscopic: female captain and chief engineer; Native American second-in-command; black Vulcan and Chinese bridge crew.

    In that respect, the ST reboot is a total regression. It has a single woman who also happens to be the only major black character, taking care of what the producers undoubtedly consider “the PC complaints” in one fell swoop. Worse yet, I have the awful feeling that if she’s allowed to survive the inevitable sequels (can’t have the bromancing boyz distracted! — pace Clarke), she will be demoted to the unrequited adoring doormat. Already, she was allowed to do far less than the men and never demonstrated her stated prowess.

  5. Colin says:

    I know I always bring things back to video games, but this time…well, I’m going to do exactly that, actually.

    I love the Mass Effect games. The epic saga of one starship crew saving the galaxy from an unknowable race of doomsday machines against all odds…I mean, really, there’s very little for me not to love. But what’s really interesting about it is the character creator.

    Now, BioWare (the game’s developer) has a history of fairly involved character creation engines that let you design your character basically however you can imagine them. Mass Effect took it to another level, though, because of the staggering range of options; you can literally construct every aspect of the character’s features, including their facial measurements, if you’re that devoted to it (and it needs to be said that I have one friend who set all the slider bars to the absolute ends of the spectrum to create something that looks like Frankenbigfoot – he does this in every game). More importantly, by that point in video game development, the technology had advanced to a level where the faces looked astoundingly real. Anyway, months after I created my original character (who is the character I ported into the second game, as well as the one I’ll be using for the third), I saw the characters my friends had designed.

    Almost to a man, every one of them was either designed to look like their creator, or, failing that, was lily white. That alone didn’t surprise me. But what threw me off was when they saw my character and said, “wait…why is yours a black guy?”

    I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know why my Commander Shepard has darker skin than theirs. I honestly don’t. It’s just how I see him, how I’ve always seen him. I think they just couldn’t conceive of why I’d create a main character whose race is different from my own. And I still don’t know what to tell them.

    I don’t know if most people can’t envision, in sci-fi, a great hero looking anything different from themselves, or if they’ve been societally conditioned to think a certain way about it. But I do know that it made me think.

  6. intrigued_scribe says:

    Yet even today, the default assumption of SF/F denizens continues to be that everyone is bleach-white unless explicitly specified otherwise.

    Spot-on summation, especially where a lot of the Hollywood films being churned out these days are concerned, and The Last Airbender and Sci Fi’s attempt at an Earthsea adaptation stand as prime examples of that. That in mind, it never fails to strike as highly refreshing when works successfully depart from that to establish diversity — and in doing so, create strong characters who are unique and compelling in their own right, from the novels of Ursula LeGuin to the Embers universe.

    Beautifully written, thought-provoking and incisive as always. 🙂

  7. Athena says:

    Mentioned in the same breath as Le Guin? *blushes delightedly*

    The SciFi Earthsea adaptation was horrible and the Ghibli studio mishmash was little better. This case was particularly inexcusable because Le Guin had been ambiguous about the hues of her characters. We’re talking serious bleaching here! And to add injury to insult, both managed to make a thrilling saga boring. They essentially turned gold into lead.

  8. Athena says:

    That is indeed interesting, Colin. It’s worth pondering why you were so much in the minority. Equally interesting would have been if even one of them had built a female character. There is some gender crossing in Second Life avatars, I understand. But it’s worthwhile considering if any video player “to a man” would ever choose a woman as his hero, even if she were Lara Croft or the equivalent.

  9. Colin says:

    Since I play through the games (and most games) multiple times, I did have a female character as well, but that’s largely because I like having a complete experience. The only other female character I know of for certain was created by a female friend of mine, which kind of proves your point, although there was one friend who definitely went with a female character simply because they thought her voice actor was better (although I honestly can’t remember which friend it was, so that makes it difficult to determine whether the player was a man or a woman).

    MMO’s are a bit of a different breed. A lot of WoW players I know use female characters, but MMO’s are in some way more impersonal and less intimate than long quest-driven single-player games. You don’t really identify with your WoW characters nearly as much as you would characters in other games, I think.

  10. Sue Lange says:

    Enjoyed the talk at Readercon, enjoy the read here.

    I’m pretty sure we are going to end up all tan eventually. Not sure why we can’t.

  11. Athena says:

    Very glad you did — I had a wonderful time as well! As for our hue, we started tan, too, it seems.

  12. Michael says:

    Thanks for sharing this Athena. It’s important.

    Interestingly enough, your “Readers want to find themselves in stories” line triggered a different thought for me. As a gay man, who has now been out since the early 1970s, and who has been an avid sci-fi reader since junior high, I still look for gay people and miss them…even when the story is centuries in the future.

    Granted, one could write a lengthy bibliography of novels which DO include LGBT people, and LGBT sci-fi is something of a sub-genre. However, my people don’t show up as a matter of course in most mainstream sci-fi.

    On the other hand, maybe I DON’T want them to “just show up” as if it made no difference. Now that I thing of it, the writer who’s exporation of male homosexuality I admire more than any other’s is Karen Lowachee in her Warchild/Burndive/Cagebird series.

    Maybe because she used sci-fi as a vehicle to explore present-day prejudices about homosexuality.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

    Blessed Be,

  13. Athena says:

    This was a shortened variation of the talk I gave to Readercon last Friday (I also participated in two panels). I think you point out to a crucial dilemma: Is it best for Others to be assimilated without fundamentally changing the system? Or is it better to stand out, forcing the system to change?

  14. Eloise says:

    Just a little aside towards an interesting article:,0

    And since I happen to think of it, I’d like to add that in Castle (the TV show, that is), we have a refreshing example of a multicoloured cast that is impressively professional. Gotta love it.


    Eloise 🙂

  15. Athena says:

    Well, except they don’t have any Asians in the Castle cast. No Hindu, Chinese or Malay in sight! Same, incidentally, in Serenity — yet they used Mandarin terms, which implies a strong Chinese presence in that universe.

  16. Viergacht says:

    This topic intrigues me greatly, because I’m writing (in a very amateur way, in the sense I have no expectations of actually being published) a fantasy novel with a mostly humanoid but non-human cast. When you’re setting a story in a sort of quasi-Tolkienesque setting it’s even harder to get readers out of this “everyone is white” mindset. If you’ll let me babble on for a moment – My main character is a satyr, and I’d always pictured him as very dark-skinned (with a few white spots) not because I was trying to rainbow up the cast, but just because that’s how he appeared in my mind. I never thought too much about it until a beta reader came down on my like the proverbial ton of bricks because he wasn’t human, so obviously I’m equating dark-skinned people with animals. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. It’s true the other lead character seems to be a pale, male human, but they’re in fact not human either, and a female (sort of) in disguise. Then another beta reader accused me of being a misogynist because of that. This is the point when I stopped letting people beta read it. I never meant it to be a polemic in any way, just an amusing fantasy world. It makes me wonder if part of the whitewashing of speculative fantasy is this sort of misdirected rage at the draft stage, to where a writer feels like saying, “Screw it then, they’re all pasty Europeans!”.

  17. Athena says:

    Is your satyr a hero or a villain? If he’s the only villain and also happens to be the only one with dark skin, that may become problematic. Some writers have done the “Ok, so they’re all pasty Europeans” but it’s an easy out. Also, if your beta readers were pro or semi-pro, you have to pay attention. If it’s just for your own amusement, other people’s thoughts are irrelevant. But if you hear a similar opinion from more than one person, you must pay attention: they’re responding to a pattern.

  18. Viergacht says:

    He starts out as a cynic and a scoundrel, but he’s had a hard life. It’s kind of difficult to compress into a few sentences, but his family and homeland were completely destroyed in war, and he’s a person who doesn’t have anything left to aspire to, or so he thinks. He evolves morally during the course of the book, finds something worth fighting for, but he is at no point a villain. He’s a good guy.

    He’s also by no means the only dark-skinned person in the story! Satyrs, humans, and centaurs (the main humanoid races, everyone else has scales or fur) come in every shade people do in reality, and satyrs specifically are admirable. I think what was going through this person’s head was “dark skin + half-goat = author thinks black people are animals”. Which is . . . god, no. Just no. NO.

    It mainly just made me sad that someone would jump to that conclusion and intentionally blind themselves to anything else going on. I did pay attention to what they said, I just don’t understand how they could come to it. It was nothing the character did, I think, just the fact of his existence. I thought he would look rather splendid, actually. Look at this drawing a friend did of him – Handsome fellow! Ah well.

    The beta readers were not pros, just people in an online critique group. These are also folks who got very upset when I had a werewolf character in a short story not be affected by the full moon because werewolves are “supposed” to only change during the full moon, so I take anything of that nature with a grain of salt. I was just a little surprised since it seemed to be coming out of left field. It was also a bit amusing, considering I’m a genetic mutt with gender issues, but apparently online I come across as a lily-white dude. I got the feeling, though, they all seemed to be very young. I know when I was younger I had very strict ideas of how things ‘should’ be and got angry when I thought an author was violating some sort of unspoken law.

    Anyways, thanks for letting me rant.

  19. Athena says:

    Both his depiction and your description make him sound interesting. As for people on the internet — virtual communities do not share assumptions or context. And people who do online critiquing are often young (who else has time?) with little direct experience, so they compensate by sloganeering.

    If you want valuable feedback, join a local writers’ group.

  20. Viergacht says:

    Thanks – I think he’s interested, but I’m a bit prejudiced.

    I haven’t been able to find a local writer’s group. They’ve closed most of the bookstores near me and I don’t drive, so it’s a hassle to go a ways. Pretty much stuck with the internet, at the moment. The one I used to be in was taken over by this extremely arrogant fellow who’d been in charge of another group, basically marching in, casting scorn on sci fi and fantasy genres (he wrote in the Manly and Proper Genre of historical fiction) and sneering at the writing prompt method we’d been using as homework suitable only for children such as ourselves. I happened to be a very young looking 26 at the time and took quite a bit of offense at this. Ah well.