I saw a thread asking about diversity, specifically non-white characters in SF. A response mentioned Rod in “Tunnel In The Sky” and that there was an essay saying that although his race is never mentioned specifically, “it is obvious in retrospect” that he is black.
I think this is horsecrap. In fact, I cannot find a single reason to believe it at all that doesn’t make the situation worse. Here’s my basic premise:
- Human beings create mythologies that place them as central to existence.
- SF is modern mythology
- There is great pain around the issue of race in America, and the mythology of black inferiority was the standard accepted belief until the late 20th century.
- Human beings re-write their personal or national history to make it less painful.
Look, I adored Mr. Heinlein’s writing. And meeting and working with him was one of the high points of my life. But he was just a man of his time, and times were bad. If you don’t grasp that, I have to wonder what you make of differential incarceration and inherited worth statistics. In fact, no, I don’t wonder at all.
Let me examine this:
1) There is a Zulu girl, Caroline, who is described clearly. Rod mentions at one point that Caroline reminds her of his sister. There are a half-dozen reasons she might do that: her intelligence, energy, speech patterns, aggression, whatever. On what planet would the notion “she reminds me of my sister” mean race? A planet on which race is the most important indicator? What does that imply about the person who says it? Writes it? What is the label for a person who would only be reminded of a member of his family if the other person is the same race?
- Rod is also described as “getting a tan” at one point. Right. A Zulu (or someone as dark as one) would think “I’m getting a tan” without other comment.
- The covers of every edition of that book had white guys on it. Blame the artist, right. No! Blame the art department. No…the marketers. Or, like happened with “Streetlethal” its all the fault of the truck drivers who put the books on the stands. No, wait, it’s the fans! But…if you ask the fans, they’ll say that THEY don’t care what race the characters are. Which means…IT’S NOBODY’S FAULT. Its just a big mistake, don’t you see?
- Mr. Heinlein understood very very well that young people need role models to guide their growth. IF you think that the fans would reject a black hero, and gave a damn about nurturing those excluded young minds…then you create a strong secondary character. If you care. If you don’t care, fine, that’s o.k. But you don’t get to go back and try to rehabilitate an ugly omission later.
- If I was to believe this story: that Rod’s race wasn’t mentioned clearly, because of the era in which the book was written…IF you care about those young readers and believe that white readers really wouldn’t have accepted a black hero, you have to know that that means that it would be harder for them to extract the valuable lessons if they have to jump a conceptual hurdle (“he looks different!” or “he’s one of those people descended from slaves, and that means X and/or Y.”) IF YOU CARE you at some point say: “listen, you changed the race of my character. Change it back.” If you don’t, you make some clear, widely-distributed public comment. If you don’t…you don’t care. And if you don’t care…why should I think you are any different, on that count, from Hollywood excluding black people or Washington having an all-white Senate? Why in the world shouldn’t I conclude that this was the way society worked, and anything else is trying to pretend the playing field was remotely level?
- SF fans would love to believe that their beloved genre was immune to the same human sicknesses we can see all over the world, through every strata of society. But no. For whatever reason, the mystery field (for instance) has been much more open to diversity, with iconic black characters like Coffin Ed Johnson, Gravedigger Jones, Alex Cross, Shaft, Virgil Tibbs and more. Heck, Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan for that matter. Why more open? I can’t say, really, but its noticible.
- If I had to make a guess (and this is HIGHLY speculative)…knowing that John W. Campbell, a dear friend of Mr. Heinlein, was an out and out racist, I’m gonna bet that Mr. Heinlein had a more nuanced view of things. Was of the CONSCIOUS opinion that we couldn’t be sure, even as he pulled against the Bell Curve idea held by Campbell that blacks couldn’t create a technologically advanced civilization. If I had to guess, I’d take a look at the very few black characters he DID create, and notice that a disproportionate number of them seemed to be African. That’s interesting, as most of his heroes and characters are just Americans. Why might he do that? Well…there is a theory I’ve heard among the race-is-destiny crowd that I’m sure they consider very “liberal.” It is that, well, maybe Africans are just as smart, but only the DUMB ones were caught and enslaved…that theory could lead to a tendency to represent Africans more than African-Americans…but as I said, that is the kind of speculation that has zero evidence. It just makes the hair on the back of my neck twitch. Just a bit..
- In short, if your clearest depiction of black people is “Farnham’s Freehold”, a book that makes “The Turner Diaries” look like “Roots”, you need something more than vague inference to balance that scale. Mr. Heinlein’s work was central to my early development, and I searched desperately for anything that looked like me. And to have people say that I should have just looked harder is pretty insulting to that young reader. And to have editors say that maybe there weren’t black characters because “black people aren’t interested in SF” is horribly self-serving. I’d say that we love SF as much or more than any white people, because those of us who read it read it IN SPITE OF the fact that we weren’t represented, since representation seems to be so critically important. After all, it was the fans who demanded all the characters be like them (if human), right? No? Then we’re back in that circle-jerk: everyone saying its someone else’s fault. If you believe that, I have a bridge for you. If a problem exists that is behavior-based, and its no one’s conscious fault, then its everyone’s unconscious tendency.
Trying to make the Golden Age of SF seem more inclusive is a sad struggle. It wasn’t. Move on and lets do better in the future. Our heroes were wonderful…but they were only human. And humans are tribal.