Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Improbable Convergent Evolution of Caucasians in Science Fiction

Yes Captain. I too am puzzled as to how white people evolved independently on every planet we go to; not only that, but how over time Khan appears to be a kind of deep space Michael Jackson. From

This is an expanded version of a comment at writer Marshall Maresca's blog. Maresca's original post is Perils of the Writer: Writing Race in SFF. In it he addresses that interesting convention, the occasional African-American alien in Star Trek:
My college roommate and I were watching Deep Space Nine, and in the episodes a small group of Bajorans were meeting with Cmdr. Sisko. One of the leaders of the Bajorans was played by a black actor.

"That's cool," my roommate said, "They have African-American Bajorans." Then after a moment he said, "Of course, that's inaccurate. He's Bajoran. Bajor is a different planet, there's no Africa, there's no America."

Over the course of the series, we saw that the Bajorans were as racially diverse as humans are*, but we never learn any real details of that diversity. And that's fine, because it didn't need to be directly addressed, it just was a part of their reality, easily achieved by color-blind casting.
Oddly, it was always the lack of racial diversity that stuck out to me in Star Trek. Does anyone seriously think there will be fewer multiracial people in the future? On one hand, Star Trek (and every other science fiction show and movie) is casting actors that their mostly-white audience will relate to; it's unfortunate, but I understand why. ST does have the occasional non-white regular cast member, and an occasional extra or non-recurring non-human played by not white actors, like the Bajoran Maresca mentions. But to the extent that we consider Star Trek to be in any way a plausible future as opposed to a Game of Thrones fantasy, then how amazing is it that not only are most of the aliens we meet humanoid, but they're Caucasian! Incredible! (Literally. Crabs I could believe, but extraterrestrial white people? Come on. I know that makeup and effects cost money so not everyone can be a Tholian, but there are plenty of non-white actors.)

In truth, I kind of view black Bajorans/Vulcans/etc. the same way that I view non-European actors in Shakespeare - in and of itself, you don't really take these casting decisions as making any point inside or outside the story, that's just who the actors are, and you forget about it. Did it really affect Voyager's storyline after the debut that Tuvok was a black Vulcan? Was there some interesting or painful chapter of history on Vulcan that this built into his character? And come to think of it, have there been Asian aliens with speaking roles in ST? I can't think of any examples. (If you tell me the Vulcans and Romulans count as Asians because they correspond to China and Japan in the original Gene Roddenberry one-alien-race equals one-nationality scheme, I'll punch you. I really will.)

The problem is that token aliens only make the lack of diversity and specifically, multi-racial characters in science fiction film and TV more obvious. Wait, it's the year 2330 (or whatever) and you're telling me not only is Starfleet still mostly white, but there aren't many multiracial humans? The modern U.S. Navy is more diverse than this! And why did they jump straight to multi-species characters? That is obviously intentionally making a point, which is useful and interesting, both inside and outside the story. Great, a half-Klingon faces discrimination and questioning looks, and some viewers will identify with that. What about a half-black half-Filipino actor that Paramount and the writers somehow couldn't fit into the twenty-fourth century? Those actors are absolutely out there.* Again, I imagine Paramount would make no bones about saying, "We cast people the audience will identify with." It's the audience's accepting this as being remotely representative of the future that's mystifying. "Not every science fiction show and movie has to be Fifth Element," people might say, and that's certainly true, but then you can't complain if you see people using 8-track tape players in the future either.

To the question of race in writing more broadly - it certainly can give a feeling of verisimilitude, but if someone has the chance to write race (in a supposed future world) and doesn't touch on the actual real-world hair triggers, I think they're wasting an opportunity unique to speculative fiction. Most alien races are just science fiction demi-humans; for all many writers do with them, just go ahead and put elves on Alpha Centauri and be more honest about it! But if you actually want to use your aliens for something, you can be District Nine. Even if you insist on Caucasian aliens, you can still be Alien Nation. If you don't have aliens, you can be subtle like Asimov in The Currents of Space, where he wrote something that was clearly about mid-century segregation in the U.S. even if the color scheme was reversed. Case in point, in Elysium, people speaking Spanglish down on grimy Earth, security forces speaking German up on the space station. (Ouch! This German-American saw that and said "Oh no you didn't!") But it gets people thinking who might not have thought before. My own "debut" novel (that is, the one I'm furthest along on) takes place far enough in the future that any descendants of ethnic groups we might recognize are distant myths, although the characters are definitely not Caucasian-looking. The protagonist is a member of an occasionally-persecuted sometimes-tolerated minority religion; he's a powerful man but still sighs at the bizarre, annoying, sometimes dangerous blood libels that persist against them. Any takers on who this is about?

*Of course you can name lots of multiracial entertainers who have been successful - Keanu Reeves, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Moon Bloodgood, Vanessa Williams and Dean Cain for starters - and many more are certainly coming. The interesting thing is that there is no narrative and therefore easily-understood character for "multiracial" to fit into, so these people are still either white or black. (Fine, Moon Bloodgood was Native American in Terminator Salvation. But still not hapa.) I would argue that the believability of multiracial actors in other roles by people who know their background is a positive but, but these actors are mostly thought of in the same terms that all American race issues are still mostly framed: white or black, no option for other.

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