A recent conversation in the Couch household:
“So, um, I’m reading this book…”
“It’s about these far future humans who encounter unknown aliens in another system.”
“So, these aliens… they’re kind of like humans, except they’re asymmetrical.”
“Well, because they evolved outside of gravity or something like that, but anyway…”
“Well, yeah, but anyway, these aliens… they have a caste system…”
“A caste system? Shit… even in space.”
“Are the darker ones at the bottom?”
“Hijole. They’re not going to make this into a movie are they?” (He thinks everything I read is going to be made into a movie.)
“Oh, no! Oh god no. At least, I hope not… But I didn’t even tell you the worst part.”
“The, er, bottom castes are BasicallyBlueCollarWorkersWhoDoTheHardDirtyConstruction JobsAndThey’reCalledBrowniesAndTheyCallTheWhitesAboveThemMasters.”
“It was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards.”
“Puta madre. Those are some shit awards, then.”
Characterization is one area where Hard SF often fails due to its efforts to strengthen the enamel of genre constructs and systematize SF elements. Those annoying characters with their motivations and feelings and drama—if they’re too simple, they won’t interest readers, but if they’re too complex, they don’t foster the mechanized tone.
Hard SF, dammit, wants systems. Needs them.
Enter The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), the first of the Niven and Pournelle series Moties, which sounds like a slang term for pubic lice. An earnest attempt by the authors to tell a first-contact, space opera tale with Hard SF elements. The scope as grandiose as the face of God, the tale covers a lot of mechanical space, with its talk about Alderson drives and solar sails and Langston Field generators, but it also covers a lot of diplomatic space. Which brings us to the problem of character:
During a routine mission in the year 3017, Commander Roderick Blaine and his crew of the INSS MacArthur make first contact with aliens. These aliens, which the crew calls “Moties” after the system they inhabit, are asymmetrical, hermaphroditic, and technologically advanced, thanks to their strict caste system based on biological characteristics. But their specialized engineers aren’t aware of the existence of Langston fields, so they remain trapped in the Mote system with only one Alderson point that they cannot use. Commander Blaine isn’t sure if this is a bad thing.
Within Motie society are several occupational classes, all based on color and cognitive ability:
- Engineers- called “The Browns” by Blaine’s crew. They can fix everything, but have limited language capabilities.
- Watchmakers- termed “Brownies” by Blaine’s crew, which are little, nonverbal beings who escape captivity on the MacArthur and cannot be located for most of the story, although they seem to get into everything and cause all kinds of confusion. But keep them away from water or– wait, that’s Gremlins.
- Mediators- a.k.a. “Brown and Whites,” who primarily communicate and behave as diplomats with their human contacts.
- Warriors – the strangest looking of the society, bred specifically for battle. Their existence is concealed from the humans for most of the novel.
- The Masters- which Blaine’s crew terms “The Whites.” But they never call them “The Whities.”
Systematizing an alien race in such a way conforms to the already established practices of stereotyped characterization in Hard SF. Less important than the elements of mechanical and celestial physics, characters move and speak like wooden dolls, most often conforming to the gender and ethnic stereotypes of the day. Some authors might even adopt simplistic pop psychology to explain motivations, but still, sometimes the machines have more personality (and page time) than the people.
But if you’re writing a sophisticated space opera within the boundaries of Hard SF, how do you fit nuanced diplomacy within the rigors of explainable science?
Answer: Ask Kim Stanley Robinson. (It probably involves the four temperaments, a couple of mood disorders, and a constitutional congress).
Niven and Pournelle arrived too soon for that. Here’s the recipe they used:
- Use a system that already exists, preferably one that people have seen.
In other words, copy Star Trek. Need more nuance, but don’t want to get all prosy? Ditch the cardboard ethnic stereotypes and adopt cardboard ethnic stereotypes from television. Larry and Jerry’s choice: Star Trek: The O.G. Base your Top Dog off of Captain Kirk and people will automatically imagine his soft-lit eyes and forceful, staccato tone. We’ve seen 79 episodes of this guy already, so no context or expatiation required. Plus, all standard James T. models come with a free Scottish engineer and a strong-until-she-swoons woman. You can wipe your hands of two more characters with this technique.
- Apply physics to biological developments as much as possible.
Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, these Motie folks first evolved outside of a gravity well, so limbs and spines are all kinds of wacky. (Yet, they’re bipedal like us. Odd.) And since the Motie body doesn’t have to devote its adaptations to gravity, their bodies are free to develop more functional physical forms, such as one large strong arm for construction work, two smaller arms on one side for nurturing young. Apparently, a lack of gravity leads to a more specialized workforce. WE DON’T NEED COLLEGE, WE JUST NEED TO GET RID OF GRAVITY!
- And then apply those biological developments to personality and cognition.
Those little dark guys that are part of the fix-it class don’t need to talk or think much to do their jobs. That’s an excellent character decision and not racist at all.
Of the negative reviews I’ve read, a tiny percentage barely hint at its racism. Instead, most socially-minded reviews complain about the female character. Yes, I said THE female character. Her name is Sally and she’s hilarious. She thinks funny things like, “but still she missed what she thought of as girl talk. Marriage and babies and housekeeping and scandals: they were part of civilized life” (p. 246).
Sally also likes to clown on the Moties. Check out the humdingers she tries on her Motie guide:
Motie: But you marry to raise children. Who raises children born without marriages?
Sally: There are charities.
Motie: Pills? How do they work? Hormones?
Sally: That’s right.
Motie: But a proper woman doesn’t use them.
Sally: No. (p 487)
Sally is hilarious.
Sally’s not the only problem, though. Other systemic social problems leer from every corner of this meticulously ordered novel. While the Star Trek stuff is an obvious tribute (and possibly a good-natured jab at its poor science), Larry and Jerry failed to learn from Roddenberry’s struggles to develop his diverse cast. While many ethnic groups are present in Mote, all conform to generic stereotypes, from the isolated, paranoid Arabic crewman, to the Irish crewmates who believe the missing Motie Watchmakers are Gaelic faeries from olden times. (Don’t feed the Watchmakers! Wait, that’s Gremlins again.)
And, if you still don’t see the racist parallels, the Moties speak in clicks, like some of the tribes in southern Africa. But Larry and Jerry don’t bother to research the proper way to annotate those clicks. They just spell them out: “Fyunch(click).”
It was pointed out to me after my Stand on Zanzibar post that I might be trying to rush history faster than it actually occurred. (Feminism a ‘70s thing and not a ‘60s thing? Balderdash! I thought.) But this is 1974, which seems a little late for an acclaimed SF novel to harbor such antiquated stereotypes. SF is supposed to be ahead of the progress game.
It is possible to read this book and not notice the inherent racism. “Brownie” only meant dessert for most of my life. That’s White privilege– the privilege to not have to think about this kind of stuff. The privilege to be insulated from the knowledge and concern about non-White disparagement. But boy, do some White people get all huffy if you dare suggest they might have overlooked other perspectives.
[UPDATE: Fritz Leiber JUST used “brownie” as an ethnic slur in The Wanderer (1964). Don’t tell me Larry and Jerry never read Leiber. This is so fyunch(click)ing racist now.]
A perfect example of the need for diverse SF, because the whitewashed perspective, even when not coming from an unintentionally hurtful place, is so potentially ignorant, so potentially unthoughtful of how things might be interpreted. I can’t imagine a person of color wanting to finish this novel. I might not have noticed it myself if I didn’t share a household with a person who has been called “brownie” numerous times.
Heinlein guided. Heinlein recommended. Need I say more?