Even the Best Books Aren’t Perfect

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of about half a dozen “comfort reads” that I return to repeatedly. It’s a sort of prequel to her space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. Really two books combined, it details how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, married, and the events surrounding his conception and birth which heavily influenced who he was in the series. But much as I love Miles, I don’t read it for him. I read it for Cordelia, Miles’ mother. She’s an amazing woman, one of those characters who help me define who I want to be in life. She falls in love with an “enemy”, leaves her planet and family to be with him on his (to her) backward and barbaric planet, and is dropped into the highest levels of politics, civil war, intrigue and assassination. Through it all she maintains an outward calm, and dispenses wisdom, kindness, and common sense to all those around her. All while being completely bad-ass, and without being even a little bit Mary Sueish.

But as much as I love, adore, and continually re-read this book (and many other Bujold books too), there are a couple of problems with it. There are two big ones. The first is a lack of racial diversity, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today (it’s an important point, and worth noting, but not one I usually feel qualified to write about. I’m sure others have written about it somewhere on the web however).

The other problem is also an issue of representation, but it’s an issue of sexuality not race. There’s a scene where a political enemy of Cordelia’s husband Aral is trying to blow up their (very happy) marriage by telling her “scandalous” things about his sexual history. The enemy misjudges his target pretty thoroughly, as what he (and much of the Barrayaran society) considers scandalous, Cordelia considers entirely normal and perfectly logical. Particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender roles. The whole scene is a couple of pages, and it’s generally clever and wonderful and satisfying in that “ha! take THAT you unmitigated ass” sort of way. But right in the middle is this:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

And there’s the problem. Here, written bluntly out in black and white is an incredibly bi-phobic statement, one which is often used by narrow-minded people of all sexualities to justify to themselves why they won’t date/marry/love bisexuals, no matter how delightful the person might be otherwise. They want a monogamous commitment. Bi people aren’t capable of commitment, or we’re greedy, or we’re born cheaters, or whatever.

This is all complete tripe of course. Bisexuals are monogamous, non-monogamous, equally attracted to both sexes, or attracted to a whole range along the gender spectrum, or mostly attracted to one gender with the occasional crush on the other, or sometimes even asexual (though then they’re usually referred to as bi-romantic I believe). We can be bisexual without ever experiencing a relationship or a sexual encounter with one whole gender. There is no one way to be bisexual. But the important point here is, bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. Lemme repeat: Bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. 

Nor is bisexuality something you “used to be.” Bisexuality is not a “phase” we grow out of. This myth stems from the tendency for lesbians and gays to identify as bisexuals on their way to their true sexual identity in an effort to soften the “blow” to those around them. But they’re no more bisexuals than closeted LGBT people are straight. And their misappropriation of the label doesn’t negate the truth of it as an identity for actual bisexuals, and I sure wish people would quit trying to use them as examples to prove it’s all a phase and we’ll grow out of it, one way or another. Thank you, but no I won’t.

One of the things that makes me saddest about this little bit of ignorance (for, given her writing on other topics relating to sexuality I do believe this bi-phobia grows from ignorance on the author’s part, not malice) is what a missed opportunity it is. Here Bujold has set up a major supporting character from a very popular SF series, and he’s bisexual. But also happily married, successful, and his life is not ABOUT bisexuality. It informs his past, which has repercussions on his life during the course of this book. But with this one line, she completely negates all the good that was possible. She blatantly states that his bisexuality was a “phase” and he no longer “counts” as bisexual because he’s monogamously married to a woman. It’s such a tiny mistake to have made, and yet so very damaging to a certain portion of her readers.

This is one of the things that terrifies me so much about writing. If one of my favorite authors — a woman whose writing I admire and wish to emulate and a multi-award winning novelist — can make such an egregious mistake in representation, then what’s to keep me from making one just as bad? I want to write good representation in the characters I create, but I often feel paralyzed by doubt. I read and read and read stories and theory and advice by those whose lived realities I would like to reflect in some way in my fiction. And yet it is still possible, nay even probable, that I’ll make a misstep as grievous as this one, or perhaps even worse.

Writing is a scary business, especially when writing from a perspective not your own.

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#DiversityInSFF

So, there’s this hashtag that’s been going around Twitter for a few days now, #DiversityInSFF. It’s great, a place where people are talking about the need for greater and greater levels of diversity (both of characters and of authors) in Science Fiction and Fantasy. There has also been a certain amount of plugging for the many great books, movies, games, projects, authors, etc that are already there in SF/F but which may not be as well known as other works. There’s also been discussion of how much more needs to be done in this arena, and why such work needs to be done. It’s really been pretty awesome, and I’ve already got at least one big list of authors to check out between now and…whenever.

You see, I’ve been actively trying to diversify my reading-material for a while now. I don’t just want to read about diverse characters though, I want to read stories by a range of different authors. I want all the different styles and viewpoints that come from authors with wide and varied cultural back-grounds. I want LGBT stories told by LGBT people. Not because I think straight/white/male authors can’t write convincing, authentic, sympathetic minority characters (they so clearly can since they’re doing it all the time now!). I want to widen the range of my listening to hear the voices it’s harder to hear sometimes. The marginalized and silenced voices. The voices of those whose stories have been stolen, co-opted and twisted by others. And I want to find those voices within the confines of the genres I love best, two of which are Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

I started reading SF/F as a child when my mother (a huge SF/F reader as well) first gave me her copies of The Chronicles of Narnia at about age 7. As I got older, I moved on to other authors, a huge list by now. But recently I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern in my reading, and one I’m not too happy about despite the unconsciousness of it. You see, almost all of the books I’ve read in SF/F have been written by white authors. Many are women, and a few are even queer women, but I’d be hard-put to think of a single book I had read by a POC, male or female, before I began searching them out. Even then, my list isn’t too long. I’ve set out to change that, but it’s been a bit of a challenge.

In fact, I feel like this has been far more challenging than it should be. I don’t feel that I should have to actively search to find diverse authors in the SF/F shelves of a bookstore or library because there are so few shelved there and not in “Special” sections. I shouldn’t need to carefully research authors to find out which ones are POC, or Queer, or whatever because in order sell books to a “mainstream” SF/F audience they’ve had to hide who they are from the casual glance. When I pick 5 new authors off of a shelf, I should have a reasonable chance that at least half of them are not S/W/M authors. I should be able to pick books based solely on the interest generated by the cover-blurb and be reasonably assured of having a diverse reading-list.

Of course, that’s NOT how the world currently is. Currently, I do need to do all those bits of careful research and specifically directing my book-searches. I find this extremely irritating (partially from laziness, but at least partially from outrage) and I do want to promote anything that changes this status-quo. Which brings us back to the discussion in the #DiversityInSFF hashtag. The Diversity under discussion there is about more than just race; it’s gender, sex, orientation, race, neurotypicality and disability and any other axis of diversity the participants could envision. I’m most interested in the race and orientation aspects, as I already read a fair variety of gender-diverse authors. But the more diversity, the better, I think.

I think I’ll leave this with two links: One is a new blog whose objective is to collect and curate information about Diversity in SF/F and the other is a blog post written by a Twitter-friend who made a list of 100 Diverse Speculative Fiction Authors.

Links and Thoughts

A blog post on a day other than Sunday! Gasp!

I know. You’re all in shock, this is a blog post, and it’s not Sunday. But fear not! It won’t be a “real” blog post today. Today will be mainly some news and short announcements.

First, my very first guest blogger will be appearing right here in this very space! Ok, not this space, but on this blog in a space very similar to this one. Her name is Maria Zannini, and she writes Science Fiction and Fantasy with a touch of Romance. Check out her blog to find out more, and come back on October 24th to see what she has to say!

Secondly, there is a contest you should be aware of if you are a writer who participates in Nanowrimo (which is only a month away! Eek!). It is hosted by my very good friend Lori, and is her Nano Contest! You can read about it at her blog, but basically it is a random lottery for Nano winners. So, if you think you can write 50,000 words in 30 days, and think you’d like a signed copy of one of Lori’s books (and who wouldn’t, right?) you should enter the contest! Read the rest of this entry »