Saturday, March 15, 2014


When one submits one's work to critique by other writers, it can be interesting to see what sort of prism the reviewers may look though.

My Big Long Fantasy-Project-- long both in physical terms and in terms of how long I've worked on it-- falls more or less into the category of the "post-apocalyptic" novel.  A catastrophe destroys the infrastructure of civilization and reduces humankind down to numbers with which a writer can deal more easily.  Five hundred years after the cataclysm, the bigger cities still harbor a polyglot of peoples from different cultures. Of the novel's four central heroes, two are Caucasian.  The other two are respectively two different types of "Indians"-- that is, one is descended from the subcontinent of India while the other is what is now most often called a "Native American."

At one point, during a critique of a selection of the novel, one critiquer-- I'll call her "Shirley"-- came up with an angle on the reading that assailed the basic logic of the novel rather than the selection as such.

Shirley's argument was that in our own era, we are currently witnessing (or think that we are witnessing) a much greater interfusion of what were once theoretically separate races than has ever been the case before, due to the breakdown of taboos against racial mingling.

Therefore, in Shirley's view, the cataclysm would have only furthered this trend. She suggested that five hundred years in our future, cataclysm or no cataclysm, there would be no people who looked exactly as we do today.  My recollection is that she felt everyone would look more or less "coffee-colored."

I will mention, in the interests of disclosure, that Shirley was a Caucasian who had married a Hispanic man, and that they did not have children. This circumstance, indeed, would have been the logical culmination of her views of enhanced racial intermingling.  To be sure, "Hispanic" is not a race at all, and isn't even a unified ethnicity (if there is such a thing).  However, historically the taboos against cultural intermingling have taken the same forms as those restricting racial intermingling.  Wikipedia comments:

Paradoxically, it is common for [Hispanics] to be stereotyped as being exclusively non-white due merely to their Spanish-speaking country of origin, regardless of whether their ancestry is European or not.
Now, Shirley may well prove to be right as to what WILL happen in the far future, though of course neither she nor I will ever know what transpires five hundred years hence.  But that's not my concern here.

My concern is: Even if a modern writer believes that the current divisions of race and ethnicity will not survive five more centuries-- does he want to alter everything he writes to fit that belief?

I don't think so.  A novel of the future has to take care not to perpetuate the people of the future as being little more than modern-day figures given futuristic dress.  If a STAR TREK episode features a person who's supposed to be a descendant of Earth's Native Americans in Captain Kirk's time, the episode's writer should acknowledge some process by which that descendant managed to hold onto his particular subculture-- perhaps positing, as has often been done, a planet colonized only by a particular race or ethnicity.

Now, I can always assume that my cataclysm has the same effect, preventing the sort of cultural intermingling Shirley advocated, perhaps causing pockets of ethnic concentration, so that the passage of centuries makes no difference. But that bit of logic-chopping is of secondary importance to me. 

Logic is secondary in my scenario because it's *thematically* important to my novel that various characters should still recapitulate the ethnic forms with which we are familiar.  And this is as true for my two "white" characters as for the "nonwhite" ones, even though only one of the former pair has an identifiable cultural origin (British). 

I don't have anything against a writer who might choose to describe a fictional evolution of humankind into the "coffee-colored" status.  But for me, the images of East Indian, Britisher, and Native American all carry strong symbolic freight, and can be profitably used to comment not on the real future-- which none of us today will know-- but on the present, on the ways in which we moderns create our cultural myths.  To recapitulate our cultural heritage in a futuristic context is to gain a greater understanding of how our cultures work today.

To repeat what comics-writer Don McGregor adroitly said of cultural heritage:

"People use [heritage] to feel a level of superiority, when it was MEANT to give them...Identity!"

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