Rehabilitating Problems of the Past and Separating the Art from the Artist

Science fiction has always been a progressive genre abounding with enlightened themes: racial, sexual and gender equality; tolerance and acceptance of diversity; the end of exploitation, classism and discrimination; the need for humankind to come together rather than split apart; the ability of technology to advance our societies. As well, science fiction has always served up both subtle and not-so-subtle critiques of racism, sexism, militarism, imperialism, colonialism and exploitation. Therefore, it should be somewhat surprising that science fiction also has a dark underbelly, both at the individual and systemic levels. But it does.

Some of the worst examples of this insensitivity or lack of tolerance are from a time when social attitudes generally were less than what we might hope now, but some are more recent.

H P Lovecraft (1890–1937), whose blend of cosmic horror and science fiction gave us the still-influential Cthulhu mythos and pioneered the Weird Fiction subgenre, was an out-and-out racist whose views bled into his work, with just one example being his 1912 poem ‘On the Creation of N*****s,’ in which black Americans are described as ‘beasts wrought in semi-human figure, filled with vice.’

There exists an underground network of ‘white supremacist science fiction,’ which is primarily distributed by far-right activist imprints and white nationalist organisations. Their most high-profile fan is undoubtedly Steve Bannon, former aide to US President Donald Trump, who frequently refers to it in ways that betray his familiarity with it.

The ubiquity of sexist books covers, both historically and contemporaneously: half-naked women being abducted by aliens, stereotypical damsels in distress in suggestive poses, scantily-clad warrior women, and chainmail bikinis. Recently, issue #200 of the bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFFWA) featured just such an image. In that very same issue of the SFFWA bulletin, a column by authors Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg discussed female editors in science fiction, which morphed into a commentary on the appearances/attractiveness of the named editors, including a reference to one in her bathing suit. In the next issue, Resnick and Malzberg took umbrage at criticisms of their column, portraying themselves as victims of censorship and bemoaning ‘liberal fascists.’

John W Campbell (1910–1971), a founding figure of modern science fiction who as editor of Astounding Science Fiction launched the careers of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Robert A Heinlein (amongst others), was a white supremacist who wrote and published essays supporting slavery and segregation.

A tendency amongst some writers to portray capitalistic alien and otherworldly races as racist Jewish stereotypes with shrill voices, hook-noses, and ‘arcane’ customs. Perhaps the worst example is the Ferengi from Star Trek. Short humanoids with prominent ears and noses, Ferengi men wear distinctive head coverings, their women are rarely seen, and they’re depicted as being extremely greedy and legalistic.

The rabid-right Sad Puppy movement, which tried to ‘game’ the Hugo Awards from 2013-2016 in order to advance its racist and misogynistic belief that science fiction was pandering to writers-of-colour and women-writers, in which its supporters joined the World Science Fiction Society voting body en masse in order to block the nomination of liberal works of science fiction in favour of those that shared their agenda.

Then there are those ‘unclassifiable’ figures whose views and opinions either changed over time or contradicted each other. For example, Robert Heinlein has been read as a supporter of fascism, libertarianism and progressivism. And while he believed in racial equality, he also supported and worked for Barry Goldwater, the hard-right Republican candidate who voted against the Civil Rights Act, during his 1964 election campaign.

Another example lies in Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950). The conventional view is that Burroughs was a racist and imperialist, with certain examples from his works supporting this. However, he was full of contradictions: he wrote ‘The Black Man’s Burden,’ a parody of Kipling’s divisive poem that showed a contrarian view of imperialism; in his Mars series, which featured a Civil War veteran as its protagonist, he had said protagonist fall in love with and marry a ‘red’ Martian woman; on Barsoom itself, the setting for his Mars series, the ‘blacks’ were considered the purist race.

These examples of science fiction’s negative side are depressing indeed. The question then is: what do we about them? There are no easy answers to this question, as the past cannot be rewritten, and a fragment of society will unfortunately always show prejudice. However, the past doesn’t necessarily dictate the future and prejudice should never go unchallenged.

One solution is to acknowledge the work of problematic past figures and draw a line between it and their prejudiced views. This process takes many forms, with one of the most visible being the renaming of awards: when an award is named after someone inextricably linked to prejudiced views, offence can understandably be taken by both the intended targets of such views and anyone with a functioning sense of empathy. As Somalian-American author Sofia Samatar said in her acceptance speech for the 2014 World Fantasy Award, whose trophy was modelled on avowed racist H P Lovecraft:

It is awkward to accept the award as a woman of colour. I am unable to be 100 percent thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and many other people would feel the same way. I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. This is not about reading an author but about using that person’s image to represent an international award.

Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor summed up this awkwardness, and the insensitivity of the World Fantasy Award’s trophy, much more succinctly when she won it in 2011:

A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honours as a writer.

That a recipient of hate shouldn’t have to accept an award bearing the likeness or name of someone who wholeheartedly supported this hate is so self-evident as to go without saying, and the science fiction community should be attuned to the hurt, conflict and awkwardness that such awards inflict. Sadly, a segment of said community disagrees, arguing in the service of their agenda that the call to rename such awards isn’t a recognition of the sensitivities of those who have experienced hatred because of their race, sexual preference or gender, but is instead an attempt to expunge from history the work of those writers that such awards are named after. In other words, rather than acknowledge the prejudice that such writers espoused, they twist the argument regarding the renaming of awards so that it instead resembles a form of censorship.

The second part of Sofia Samatar’s acceptance speech—I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. This is not about reading an author but about using that person’s image to represent an international award—makes plain that censorship isn’t the intention behind renaming awards. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that we can separate the art from the artist, and that we can admire the former while criticising the latter. Luckily, the segment of the science fiction community that conflates separation with censorship is in the minority: the vast majority understands the difference and supports the push to acknowledge and rectify the hurt that such awards have caused. We see this in the fact that the points made by Samatar and Okorafor, and those of other women-writers and writers-of-colour, were taken seriously enough to result in a change to the World Fantasy Award’s trophy so that it no longer bears Lovecraft’s likeness. More importantly, this call for change has spread to other awards, with a concerted push to rename the John W Campbell award in recompense of his stridently racist views.

Another solution to science fiction’s negative side is to challenge the views of prejudiced authors through the reappropriation of their work. Although various writers and directors have applied this technique to a number of different authors—with the most well known perhaps being Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), in which the pro-fascist source material is turned into an anti-fascist satire—nowhere has it proved more successful than when applied to H P Lovecraft’s work. There are numerous reasons for this—chief amongst them his legacy and the fact that his racism was central to much of his work—and there are literally hundreds of novels and short stories that reappropriate his mythos to challenge his racism. Amongst them, two stand out in particular: Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016).

The Ballad of Black Tom is a reworking of Lovecraft’s story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ (1927), which was one of his most blatantly racist works. Although the villain of the story is ostensibly Robert Sudyam, an elderly occult magician, Lovecraft spends more time vilifying Brooklyn’s immigrant inhabitants than criticising Sudyam’s villainy, describing how ‘Asian dregs,’ the ‘last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers’ and ‘negro elements’ have turned Brooklyn into a slum-like ‘maze of hybrid squalor’ and a ‘tangle of material and spiritual putrescence.’ In The Ballad of Black Tom, though, LaValle challenges this racism by retelling the story via Charles Thomas Tester, a young black musician from Brooklyn. Over the course of the book, we see through Tester’s eyes just how hard life must have been for a person-of-colour in early-twentieth-century America, experiencing racism, police brutality, discrimination, poverty and a lack of opportunity on an almost daily basis and thus delivering unto them a tenuous and fearful existence. And herein lies the power of LaValle’s book, because rather than what Lovecraft called ‘dregs’ and ‘devil-worshippers,’ we see them for what they really are: victims of a system designed to subjugate them.

Lovecraft Country is very different: rather than a reworking of an existing Lovecraft story, it is instead a wholly original story that transplants Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into 1950s Jim Crow-era America. Centred on Attics Turner—a black veteran of the Korean War—and his extended family, it tells of how they are drawn into a decades-long plot by occult magicians to harness the power of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. As the magicians’ machinations deepen, Atticus and his family are forced to travel around America, encountering a variety of racist behaviours directed their way while simultaneously coming to terms with the cosmic horrors unfolding around them. This juxtaposition is the main point of Lovecraft Country, as through it Ruff is asking an important question: which is more terrifying, the fictional horrors created by someone like Lovecraft, or the real horror of institutionalised racism? For most people-of-colour in that era, and sadly for many of them today, the real evil isn’t some supernatural force but rather the racist living next door and the system that keeps you down. In fact, it could be said that the reason why Atticus and his family ultimately emerge triumphant over the supernatural horrors of Lovecraft Country, is because the horrific racism of their everyday lives has fostered in them a strength of will that helps inure them to it.

These two movements within the science fiction community are ultimately part of a broader trend that challenges the genre’s negative side: raising awareness of the discrimination and prejudice faced by women-writers, writers-of-colour and minority-writers. While the fight continues, this trend is making the community a much more accepting and tolerant place, with the aforementioned writers being given long-overdue recognition that they are as integral a part of it as anyone. There is more to this trend than just recognition of their place, however, for it also allows a commensurate recognition of their works and their voices, broadening science fiction’s horizons, appeal and artistic and intellectual complexity.

This can only be a good thing, because the vast majority of science fiction has always belonged to the positive side. In fact, it is fair to say that science fiction has actually made the world a better place: it has inspired technological and scientific advances that have improved the lives of people worldwide; it has highlighted, and provided some solutions to, societal, cultural and environmental problems that might have otherwise simmered away until they reached boiling point; it has inspired wonder and awe, and shown us ways to be our best selves; and it has often provided a safe space for those who either don’t exactly fit into or feel somewhat ostracised from regular society.

Indeed, in a Star Trek episode from 1968, science fiction even delivered the first onscreen interracial kiss, which might not seem like such a big deal nowadays but was ground breaking back then.

(Originally published in Aurealis #137, February 2021)

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