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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

The Role of the Other in Creative Destruction

with Bill Kowaleski

[Bill K.] Keyshawn and Dr. Landis emerged as characters about ten years ago, at a time when I was reading a lot of new science fiction. I was dismayed by how lily-white, heterosexual, and suburban most of the characters were.

I suppose writers were creating stories from their own experiences, but they were also excluding too many people. So I made the “black” characters prominent and non-stereotypical: Dr. Landis is a world-renowned physicist and Keyshawn, with a white girlfriend and a nerdy personality, is anything but a stereotypical gang-banger.

Keyshawn’s father was an important part of Brighter Than the Stars and, there, I told the story of his part in the great migration of black people from the South to the industrial northern cities.

The alien species in both books are, of course, projections of humans with certain traits exaggerated: different traits for each species. The Green Band herd that you will soon meet provides me a way to emphasize the fear of the “other” that leads to so much prejudice.

One significant difference between Brighter Than the Stars and Creative Destruction is that I tried to give gay characters a more prominent role in Creative Destruction. This is another group largely neglected in science fiction and even in Bewildering Stories. We’ll see how readers react to that.

As for Near Zero: at first, I thought “This piece is so good it makes mine look amateurish in comparison.” But now I, like some others, am getting a little worn down by its relentless bleakness. Creative Destruction does have a sort of happy ending, and hardly anyone dies. It’s light in that regard, but I hope it won’t be considered insubstantial.

[Don W.] Thank you, Bill K.! Speaking as one of your readers, I hasten to assure you that Creative Destruction has been accomplishing quite clearly what you set out to do, namely to normalize the role of the “other.”

I’m especially impressed by what I detect as an underlying good humor. The novel deals with serious subjects, but it doesn’t take itself so seriously that it descends into hand-wringing anxiety. I’m sure readers of good will are staying “on the page with you,” as I like to say.

Creative Destruction and Near Zero are both social satires but, beyond that, they’re of different orders. You’re writing more in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Samuel Butler; the author of Near Zero writes more like George Orwell.

Orwell’s 1984 satirized Stalinism and quickly became a handbook for propagandists. Near Zero appears to satirize a pervasive cultural cynicism. Whom will Near Zero inspire, and to do what? Readers will wait and see, no doubt with intense curiosity.

The guiding principle in both rhetoric and morality is that people are identified by who and what they are; they are characterized by what they do. And identification by ethnicity and gender in fiction depends on the medium. Illustrations supply important information in children’s literature, but adults don’t need it. Physical descriptions in prose either have a function in a story’s plot or they’re merely stereotypes. Thankfully, Creative Destruction carefully avoids the bizarre results of stereotypes described in “When East Isn’t East.”

Racial and gender stereotypes became literally visible in television in the mid-20th century. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1960) — which would come to define science fiction in the visual medium — heralded cultural change in a way that was bound to frighten the living daylights out of television executives: “A generic white male captain surrounded by ethnic diversity? What will our advertisers think?!”

And how true: an engineer who speaks with a Scottish accent. Well, okay, half of the engineers in the British navy were Scottish, but even so... And an actor with a German name playing a Russian? And a Japanese-American?! And a communications officer who is black?! Well, okay, she is beautiful, but even so, what will viewers think?!

None other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself encouraged Nichelle Nichols to stay with the show even though she had only a minor role as Lt. Uhura. He saw what Star Trek was doing, and she was carrying the flag.

Strong roles for black males appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation with Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) and Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton). But they are both depicted as “other”: Worf is Klingon. LaForge is blind but wears a visor that, ironically, gives him superhuman eyesight. Star Trek: Voyager’s Tuvok (Tim Russ) plays the role of the reasoner introduced by Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock. But once again, the reasoner and the black actor are portrayed as “other”; Tuvok, like Mr. Spock, is Vulcan. Only in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine do black actors begin to assume major roles as “not other,” notably Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton).

Heterosexual relations in science fiction have been typically sketchy and, usually, comical. Homosexuality has been practically invisible. What dramatic function could it have? If it were depicted as similar to heterosexuality, wouldn’t the writers be accused of negative stereotyping? Star Trek: Discovery tried depicting a homosexual relationship but soon wrote it out of the script. Understandably; it was merely decoration and had no dramatic function in any plot.

Women have had the most difficult history of all. Beginning with the miniskirts of the 1960’s, they played mostly minor roles or as femmes fatales in Star Trek. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, they became mostly mother figures, e.g. Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis). Another “reasoner,” Guinan, appears occasionally in a significant role, and Whoopi Goldberg portends the later appearance of Tim Russ as Tuvok, in Voyager. But she, too, is a space alien and thereby “other.”

In Star Trek: Voyager, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is the first female captain. She is counterpointed by a woman in another position of authority: B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), who is conveniently half-Klingon. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, strong female roles finally become standard, even though only Keiko O’Brien (Rosalind Chao) is human; the rest are still “other,” e.g. Bajoran, Trill, Klingon, Romulan or Cardassian. But so what? Viewers could relax and admire the costumes. By the time of Voyager, the franchise had already achieved its goal: when everybody is the “other,” nobody is.

In an episode of STNG, Counselor Troi is forced to make a decision that determines the fate of the starship Enterprise. Would that Lt. Uhura could also have taken the captain’s chair for one episode. Only thirty years later would such a story come as no surprise. In the 1960’s, the U.S. was struggling — often encountering violence and, ultimately, with mixed success — to bring the country out of the century-long post-Civil War era.

To today’s older readers, Creative Destruction may now seem a little quaint in its promotion of oppressed minorities; the Star Trek franchise has already tilled that difficult ground. But we must beware of complacency and self-congratulation; civilization requires teaching younger generations the lessons of the past.

In Antiquity, “the other” constituted classes of society; people either owned property or were property. Equality as a divine right came as a social revolution and at great sacrifice. The lesson must be retold ever and again, lest the pagan gods re-emerge with their “golden calf” illusions of wealth and power. Creative Destruction carries the flag.

Responses welcome!

date Copyright © April 27, 2020 by Bewildering Stories

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