Monday, November 15, 2010

Space - for a dark place it can be very white.

"It's about us, finding out who you are. It's about being Tauron, being part of a family." 
Joseph Adama, "Rebirth" Caprica

It was when I started following the Caprica cancellation twitter feed that I noticed something.

There were tweets, angry tweets. I knew that because they were in English and English is my first and last language. But then I noticed that the tweets were also streaming in in other languages. There was some French, maybe some Italian and there was some Spanish, and then, slow at first but growing as the news spread, there was a whole lot of Spanish.

I started following some of the links coming off the feed. They led to some passionate articles analysing the reasons behind the SY-FY decision to yank Caprica off-screen three quarters of the way through its season.

When I came across one by Teresa Jusino - "Writer. Badass. Geek Girl Extraordinaire" - at the outpouring of Spanish in the twitter feed was given a context that I had, to that point, been totally oblivious to.
Sadly, there isn’t a lot in sci-fi for cultural minorities to latch onto. When I met Edward James Olmos at Wizard World Philly two years ago, I told him “Forgive my language, but it’s so f#@king cool that there’s a hispanic admiral on Galactica!” He leaned in, smiled, and said “It is pretty f#@king cool, isn’t it.” Yes, it was, and with Caprica we got to delve deeper into Tauron culture, which was one of the few outlets sci-fi fans got for a non-Anglo sensibility. Granted, it was a hodgepodge of Eastern European Jew, Hispanic, and Ancient Greek, but it spoke to all of us who struggle to straddle cultures.
R.I.P. Caprica: We Hardly Frakking Knew You - Teresa Jusino

Jusino's observation of the significance of Olmos in the role of Admiral, and of the lack of non-Anglo sensibility in sci-fi in general, got me thinking about the genre TV I love - and how, so often, it fails to reflect today's reality, let alone a future reality.

I'd been enjoying Caprica and its progenitor BSG for the detail of its world building, for the texture of society and culture it was creating, for the exploration of themes that sprang directly out of contemporary issues such as war, torture, religion.

Race, it seemed to me, was being addressed allegorically, on a species level. The 12 colonies had created a new life-form in the Cylons, they had exploited them, the Cylons had rebelled and an inter-species war had followed.

Whilst various ethnic groups were represented as the colonists, to be honest I saw Edward James Olmos playing Admiral Adama as just a fine actor in a great part.

Such is the "luxury" of being "colourblind" when your colour is white.

When I read Jusino's article I was reminded, in an ouch kind of way, of Stephen Colbert's wickedly pointed schtick about being "colourblind" - such as when he asks Morgan Freeman whether it had been Freeman or Matt Damon who played Nelson Mandela in Invictus, because Colbert just doesn't "see" colour.

Jusino's articulation of how important it was for those who "straddle cultures" to see that straddling represented explicitly, in casting choices, in themes and story elements that explore difference and inclusion and exclusion and culture, well suddenly that Caprica twitter feed coming in from Spanish speaking America, from Argentina, from Brazil and Chile made perfect sense.

And it made me even crankier about this show that was being yanked. A show that, while not perfect, was ticking a lot of the boxes that sci-fi ought to tick. That was about society and culture and religion and creation and destruction and family and the future.

It also got me noodling around the internet looking for more commentary on the subject of sci-fi as a white space.

I set out thinking I'd probably want to spend some time looking at Deep Space 9, a show that boldly went where Trek has been far too loath to go ever since.

However, it didn't take me long to stumble across the Earthsea adaptation debacle.

"Do you remember that old saying? "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again?"" 
Amanda Graystone, "The Imperfections of Memory", Caprica 

Back in 2004 the then SciFi channel adapted Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series. I was not familiar with either the books or the series and was therefore pretty ignorant about what had happened in the journey from book to miniseries.

To say the author was underwhelmed by the result is itself an understatement.

Le Guin writing for described it as a "whitewash" that had recast her vision of people of many and varied colours and turned it into a white space:
My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn't even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn't they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future? 
A Whitewashed Earthsea  How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books.
Le Guin has written extensively about the bleaching of her Earthsea universe and has collected links to her own and others articles on the subject.

It was whilst following the links from Le Guin's site that I came across the writing of Pam Noles - "Black. Geek. And Fine With That" - and her marvellous blog And We Shall March.

There was also a link to one of Noles' articles at The Infinite Matrix. The article was triggered by the bleaching of Earthsea but became larger than that. In it Noles looks back over her long and conflicted love for sci-fi and genre, and is entitled, simply Shame.

It is simultaneously a passionate affirmation of Noles' love for sci-fi & genre, the "weird stuff" as her mother termed it, and a clear-eyed honest assessment of the genre's failings. She recalls watching Sci-fi as a child, defending its whiteness from her parents queries, whilst longing to "see" herself depicted in the words and images of these future worlds.

Noles questions how Hollywood was able to whitewash Le Guin while the genre press remained silent.
If Hollywood has taken a groundbreaking, universally acclaimed, multicultural novel that has been in print for over thirty years and turned it into a white-boy romp, that is a news story. 
Pam Noles, Shame

"So Say We All"
Various, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica

Fans, and that's what we geek fanciers are - fans, have a right to expect more from our writers, from our creators and producers and TV executives.

And fans, such as Jusino and Noble have every right to want to give up, to just walk away, in disgust at the long, long failure to deliver.

But ... but ... but ....

That's the seditiously seductive thrill of SFF. That hope about the future. That maybe, just maybe, the next one will get the mix right; will get the balance of story and action, character and plot, tek and heart, colour and culture right.

Until then, maybe we should all take Pam Noles' Dad's advice to his daughter, now an adult and still in thrall to the "weird stuff" -

Dad's advice was cryptic only if you fail to understand that he knows precisely what it means to look directly into the face of what you love while saying you are wrong.
"I think you should try," my Dad said to me. Then he added a caution. "Be ready."
I am.
Pam Noles, Shame.  

So say we all!

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