Why writers should stop using ‘redneck’ as an ethnic slur, and probably won’t.

Redneck meme

“Redneck” is a staple of internet memes, but it’s old and tired.

Science fiction is awash with discussion about diversity. Almost since its inception, the genre has been dominated by Anglo-European men. (Oddly enough, modern sci-fi was invented by a woman, Mary Shelley, with her novel, Frankenstein.) In the past few decades, however, more women and some African-Americans, e.g., Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and N.K. Jemisin, have added their voices to the chorus. Recently, writers from China, notably Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin, have earned attention.

The emergence of female and minority voices, as well as LGBTQ writers, perplexes many and irks a few traditionalists, who decry stories that veer from the dominant tropes of sci-fi—ray guns, space ships, alien invasions, and so on—and take on social issues that reflect life as it’s lived in their communities. Reactionaries, such as the SadPuppies and RabidPuppies, resort to name-calling and worse to tamp down a trend unlikely to go away.

One facet of the trend toward diversity is pressure to avoid racial or ethnic slurs. Of course, if a word you’d never use in polite company is necessary for characterization or to move the plot forward, it should be available, like any other word. Too often, however, these words are used thoughtlessly or for shock value. More often than not, they’re unnecessary. However, ignorant storytellers label this reticence self-censorship or political correctness, meaning avoidance for fear of offending some group or individual. Well, duh! Using a word simply to offend is offensive. What would your grandma think?

However, there’s one word that has not, as yet, entered the lexicon of slurs that include n—, c—, or s—. The word is “redneck.” This fact was brought home to me in an interview of Charles Murray, a conservative thinker at the DC-based American Enterprise Institute. “Try to think of any kind of ethnic slur that you can get away with at a dinner party you attend without getting immediate pushback,” Murray says. He referred to a friend who had recently moved to West Virginia. The friend’s urbane social circle thought his new neighbors “would be dumb, illiterate, [and] have missing teeth.” Continue reading

Are we creating the dystopia we’ve always feared?

Utopia, Texas, sign

Utopia, Texas. Image courtesy University of Houston, Clear Lake.

This weekend’s opening of Star Trek: Beyond and last week’s nomination of Donald Trump to the presidency puts an interesting spin on the utopia versus dystopia debate in the speculative fiction universe, at least for this writer. Star Trek and Trump appear unrelated, but they represent threads of American thinking about the future. Do we believe things are getting better or getting worse?

Technically, the words “utopia” and “dystopia” refer to an environment of governance, one positive, the other negative. A better pair of words for understanding the choice are “optimism” and “pessimism.” The original Star Trek series represents the former. After watching Kirk and Spock save the universe, nerds like myself wanted to go on a mission to discover new worlds or make the cool things we saw. The show was a product of its time (Vietnam, civil rights, the Cold War, the War on Poverty), but its premise came out of a core American value: That life could be better, delivered by amazing technology in a society that rejected poverty, racism, and armed conflict once and for all. The show expressed a core tenet of America’s genius: a profound, pervasive optimism. Continue reading

Review: Augments of Change salient in a time of racial tension

Augments of Change cover

Augments of Change

America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.

The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.

Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought. Continue reading

Reading: Zillah Harmonia, a Carbon Run Story

RoseThis spring, I took a short story writing class through Hugo House, a Seattle non-profit dedicated to teaching and promoting poetry and literature. I wrote two stories during the eight-week class, and I’ve produced an audio version of one of them, “Zillah Harmonia“. In a future decade when fixing the environment is the world’s top priority, an elderly homeowner must decide whether to fight a citation that might mean the loss of her home. The story is told in the Carbon Run world, which I’ve created in three yet-to-be-published novels. Let me know what you think.

BTW, I’ll publish an audio version of the second story, titled “Living in Infamy,” later this summer.

My equipment for audio story recording and production

audio equipment

Audio equipment I use for recording short stories.

I thought I’d share my equipment and software setup for my audio storytelling project to satisfy all the gear heads and hope-to-be sound jockeys embarking on the great audio publishing journey. My gear is fairly minimal for pro-sounding results, but my equipment is not required to put your toe in the water. In the most elemental setup, you can record your voice via your laptop or phone mic and do some basic editing in any number of lightweight editing software packages. But if you want credible, well-crafted sound, upgrading to relatively inexpensive pro equipment is the way to go. Here’s the list, referencing the photo above. You can purchase most, if not all, this equipment in professional audio catalogs, such as Broadcast Supply and Guitar Center, as well as Amazon.

TASCAM DR-40 Linear PCM Recorder ($169) – This is one step up from a basic digital audio recorder marketed to musicians, but excellent for voice recording. The audio is recorded to an MPG or WAV file to an SD card for easy transfer to a work station for editing. I purchased it primarily because of its ability to take XLR connectors from a robust standard microphone cable. Take note of the silvery things at the top. That’s actually a stereo condenser microphone, which is fine for music demos and voice in a very quiet environment. I prefer a different mic, explained later in this post. Continue reading

Reading: A War Beyond War, And I Am the Only Soldier

I’ve been inspired by fellow writers, particularly my friend Ramona Ridgewell, to experiment with making my short stories available online as audio readings. It’s sort of a no-brainer, given my background in radio and skills in audio production, and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time as a way to promote myself and (hopefully) upcoming novels. I’m using the SoundCloud audio distribution service.

My first audio story (the word “audiobook” doesn’t seem to fit) is called “A War Beyond War, And I Am the Only Soldier.” You can download a free PDF version of the story here. Dominic de la Traversée is a young monk in a 13th century French monastery who undergoes a frightening transformation as he fights for the existence of our perceived universe. I wrote the original story in 2007, and it was published in an anthology called Satirica. The music is by Cory Gray, and it’s available at the Free Music Archive.

I’d love to know what you think of this project. I’ve got a couple more stories in my queue. Do you think I should record those as well?

The Girl in the Road: Literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay

The Girl in the Road cover image

Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road is literary fiction with a sci-fi sensibility.

As a writer who likes to look at speculative fiction through the lens of climate change, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to read Monica Byrne‘s debut novel, The Girl in the Road, published in 2014. Though its portrait of two women connected across time and space is classified as science fiction by some, the novel has few of the trappings of sci-fi, apart from some gadgets and a sea-spanning platform that generates energy. This is literary fiction with a sci-fi overlay. However, the most pleasantly shocking aspect of this amazing story is how it subverts the received view of technology and economic colonialism as strictly a north-south phenomenon. In The Girl in the Road, these phenomenon are shifted 90 degrees to show it as a universal experience.

The novel interweaves two stories of women making harrowing journeys, both set in a future a few decades from now. Mariama is a West African slave girl who escapes and hitches a ride on a truck bound for Ethiopia with a cargo that’s not what it seems. In this world, the ancient kingdom, the only one never conquered by a European power, is dominated by India (China hovers nearby), which is practicing a colonialism not far different from the British Raj, though with money, rather than guns. The other journey is made by Meena from the far side of the Indian Ocean. Her destination is also the Horn of Africa, and over an accidental road made by a sea-crossing machine that generates energy from wave action. Continue reading

Meeting Don McQuinn and the sound of indie publishing

Don McQuinn

Don McQuinn

Author Don McQuinn is a perfect example of a sci-fi and fantasy writer who made it into the big time and then took control of his own destiny. Don and I met earlier this month at a Greek restaurant in suburban Seattle, not far from his home and mine. The vigorous former Marine and octogenarian has been a published writer since 1980, and he found fame with his Moondark Saga (Warrior, Wanderer, Witch) and his Captain Lannat series (With Full Honors, The Prisoner Within). But the world of books is cruel, and after a few bestsellers, his work fell out of print, and income dried up. A heart attack in 1998 took its toll, as well as other family-related health crises.

Once a writer, always a writer, and Don applied a Marine’s “gung ho” attitude to the emerging opportunities of digital media. With the help of supportive family, Don dived into electronic publishing, acquiring the rights from his former publisher and issuing ebook versions of his Moondark Saga, including a repackaging of the books into bundles. He’s also written well-regarded women’s fiction focused on post-traumatic stress disorder. Though he describes the income from these efforts as modest, he’s living proof of an established author’s ability to rescue himself/herself from midlist hell and out-of-print perdition through independent publishing. Continue reading

Should you hire a sensitivity reader to scrutinize your novel?

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When you write about things outside your experience, do you know what you’re talking about?

You’ve just finished a novel certain to win a Pulitzer Prize, and you’re particularly proud of one character, an individual not of your race, sexual orientation, and gender. You’ve struck a blow for diversity in literature, one of your core values. Blogger and consultant Mikki Kendall has a suggestion: If you think you’ve done a good job, get a second opinion. Hire a “sensitivity reader.”

Her idea is timely, given the national debate over transgender issues, racism in the justice system, and the possibility of a woman getting elected as president. And publishers want fiction with non-traditional characters, judging by literary agents’ Twitter postings with the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag.

A self-described “diversity consultant for fiction,” Kendall is a black woman in Chicago who identifies with the gender she was born with, that is, “cisgender.” In her post, she thunders against writers who perpetuate gender, racial, and other stereotypes and refuse to recognize what she believes is the harm they do to individuals and communities represented in those characters. “Art” is not an excuse to hurt people, deliberately or accidentally, “[b]ecause your bigoted depiction of them is a key component of the kind of gatekeeping that locks marginalized communities out.”

Kendall does not cite examples, but the point is on target: Writers, like all humans, have blind spots, and even well-intentioned writers can screw things up for people they may be trying to help. To mitigate the danger, she advises hiring or at least showing the work to someone from the community you attempt to portray to ensure you haven’t encouraged the thing you’re combating.

On the surface, it’s a fine idea, but on reflection, I find it troubling.

Full disclosure: I’m a white, middle-aged male from lower middle-class background living in a privileged, rich, two-thirds-white city. I fit the stereotype of The Man pretty well. While I have libertarian sensibilities, I also vote almost exclusively Democratic, caucused for Bernie Sanders, and I’ve served on two non-profit boards, one of them as president. Maybe I don’t fit the stereotype as well as I thought.

Kendall’s first advice is Fiction 101: Do your research. If you don’t come from a perspective you hope to portray, or at least have significant experience with it, then read, talk, learn. Failure to conduct due diligence is simply lazy. However, a writer doesn’t have to hire a diversity specialist to check their work. In the modern publishing world, writers, particularly new writers, should hire a trained, experienced editor before self-publishing or submitting the work to agents or legacy publishers. I’m always amazed at the crap my editor finds, beyond stereotyped, one-dimensional, hackneyed characters, though you can’t assume an editor is automatically sensitive to these things. Again, due diligence is the key.

More important, however, is your motivation for hiring or recruiting a reader sensitive to portrayals of non-traditional characters. Are you doing it because you care about accuracy and moving society into a more tolerant future? Or are you afraid of defending your choices as a writer, and hope a reader can scrub your text of offense? Or perhaps you are crass enough to seek out an editor to squash text bugs because they might hurt sales?

Success at handling characters with backgrounds alien to your own starts with your inner voice. Is your choice for this character essential to the narrative? If I make this man Hispanic, or this individual trans-gender, what difference does it make in their lives and their relationships? If you do it just because you think its smart or popular, you’re pandering to the market. If you do it because it’s necessary to your ultimate storytelling goals, then go for it.

It’s too easy, I think, for writers to chase publishing trends or the issue of the day, instead of trusting their instincts about what they want to say. Employing a sensitivity reader might result in wise perspective, but it may be a reflection of a writer’s lack of self-confidence, or a fear that readers might reject controversial ideas, or trepidation at the prospect of swimming against the cultural tide. A writer should accept that he or she WILL offend somebody sometime. It’s the world you’ve chosen.

The Hugo Awards are dead, and the xPuppies killed them

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The Hugo Awards have lost all credibility with readers, and may now be shunned by publishers.

You wouldn’t normally think of puppies as monsters bent on destroying the world, but this week, they did. The organizers of the Hugo Awards, the most prestigious fan-driven award in science fiction, announced the nominees for its 2016 awards. The SadPuppies and the RabidPuppies, the reactionaries angry at the awards for challenging their literary worldview, successfully gamed the nominations with their choices.

One of the choices, championed by the RabidPuppies, is a piece of absurdist dinosaur erotica titled Space Raptor Butt Invasion, authored by the pseudonymous Dr. Chuck Tingle.

Another title, reflecting the mini-dogs’ hatred of anti-racists, environmentalists, socialists, and all left-leaning people they label “Social Justice Warriors,” nominated a work titled, “SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police.” The foreword was written by ultra-conservative Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who said, “feminism is cancer.”

The xPuppies have a chip on their shoulder the size of the Death Star. They believe the Hugo Awards, a decades old institution which has honored the likes of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein, tends to reward leftist points of view at the expense of “good,” certainly old-fashioned, shoot-em-up space opera where the usually white guy blows away the bad guy. Nuance, thoughtfulness, and a recognition of the facts of American life are for sissies, in their world.

They see themselves as reformers while ignoring pleas by credible authors to remove their books from the xPuppies’ nomination lists and flinging names at opponents like schoolyard bullies.

All this wouldn’t matter, except for the fact that science fiction readers worldwide depend on the Hugo Awards as a mark of quality. While some of the xPup-inees are worthy, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, and sci-fi master Jerry Pournelle for his editing, the nomination ballot-stuffing by the xPuppies has permanently damaged the Hugos’ credibility. How can any discerning reader look at the phrase “Hugo Award-nominated” or “Hugo Award-winning,” not think of Butt Invasion, and not drop the potential purchase like a hot potato?

Likewise, how can any publisher associate itself with these kinds of brand-threatening shenanigans? They’re risk-averse enough as it is. Why take the chance with printing the Hugo rocket ship logo on its project without thinking of two years’ worth of Hugo train wrecks?

A second year of “No Award” winners will put the final nails into the Hugos’ coffin because it would demonstrate readers’ lack of faith in the award.

Hope is not completely lost, however. WorldCon, which manages the Hugos, has a chance to fix the problem with proposed nominations rules changes, though they won’t take effect until 2017, assuming they’re approved. If not, they might as well kill the awards program altogether. No one will believe in it anymore.