Mohanraj, Rosenbaum, Bujold

      41 Comments on Mohanraj, Rosenbaum, Bujold

So. Since I had a thing to say about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and (oh dear) the RaceFail conversation, I thought perhaps I’d separate it out from the Book Report I keep meaning to write about the latest book and write it as its own note. This one won’t have spoilers for Book Four, nor will (imao) the plot spoilers for the series really spoil anyone’s enjoyment. On the other hand, while the plot spoilers shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the series, it’s possible that the discussion will. Because the reason why I wanted to write a bit about RaceFail and the Sharing Knife was because to a very limited extent, the RaceFail discussion did ruin my enjoyment of the series. Not ruin, but, let’s say, work to the detriment of…

I don’t know if Gentle Readers read Mary Ann Mohanraj over at John Scalzi’s Whatever on specfic (and other) writers and race and so on; it’s a fascinating document, right-headed if I can call it that, and persuasive, and all kindsa good stuff. And then there’s Benjamin Rosenbaum, who I linked to a day or two ago and who knocked me out again with a note on Identity and Othering in “The Ant King and Other Stories”, in which he took a quantitative look at his own stories and found things that he didn’t know. Just to be clear, because some responses I’ve seen have missed the point and thought he was seeking to impose a sort of quota on other writers, and that didn’t seem to be the point at all. He was showing (I thought effectively) how difficult it is for a writer to escape the water we are all swimming in, even when he is clearly attempting to do so. Anyway, if you haven’t read those two posts, I strongly advise reading or at least skimming them, as they are what ruined my enjoyment of The Sharing Knife. Well, not ruined. As I said.

Editing this note to add that realio trulio, if you are trying to seriously engage with this post without reading and referencing those essays, you are doing both me and yourself a disservice. I have been surprised by how pleasant it has been to be linked by Ms. Bujold and have new Gentle Readers who have all been great, but still: this is a note about how those essays affected my experience of reading The Sharing Knife, not so much about the series of books itself. End later editing (Last day of April, 2009)

See, here’s the thing: the world of The Sharing Knife is a fictionalized fantasy version of frontier America. The characters start in the north and follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans, and then come back to the North overland. It’s not the Alvin Maker world; the cities and rivers have different names and do not necessarily match up to our world. On the other hand, it’s clearly an American fantasy world, in the economy, the language (with suitable Fantasy modifications), the technology and the social structures. The elves (which are called Lakewalkers) are not only elves but a fantasy version of Native Americans. And there are no Black people. No Mexicans. No Cajuns. No French. No Dutch.

The travelers never run into a community where a different language is spoken. They do find that the food changes a bit from region to region, mostly because of the local game, but they don’t come across ethnic foods, nor is there any real disagreement about what is tasty and what isn’t. That’s generally true of cultures as well: there are regional cultures, which are dictated by natural features, but there aren’t ethnic cultures, dictated by tradition, taboo and taste. Or, rather, there are two cultures: farmer and Lakewalker, or human and elf, or White and Red.

I was reading the new book at around the same time as I was reading those notes I linked to, and when I went back to the Bujold, I couldn’t help noticing that it was, in many ways, utterly what they were talking about. I don’t mean to say that either would hold up the books as racist, necessarily, just that I think they would be willing to hold them up as examples of works that come out of a racist society and perpetuate not only the feeling among racial minorities in America that the specfic community is hostile to them, but to the ongoing actual exclusion of minority viewpoints in the worldview of specfic readers and publishers.

And as I read the book, an African-American in my imagination kept saying what happened to my people? Where’s my history? Ain’t I part of America? And I pointed out to that imaginary fellow that really, the book would not have been improved by a digression into the racial politics of the fantasy world. He wasn’t impressed. I don’t think he agreed with me, or rather, he seemed to think that improved might mean different things for him and me. And he seemed to think that asking him to sacrifice his entire culture, history and family to my idea of improved wasn’t altogether fair. I pointed out to him that my own culture, history and family weren’t really represented; there were no immigrants in the stories, nor religious minorities within the two main cultures. He shrugged, this imaginary fellow. If I were willing to give up the House of David, that was my choice, he implied, but that choice didn’t give me the right to choose for him, or it wouldn’t if he weren’t a figment of my imagination.

Now, let me say straight away that part of the problem of racism in society is people having imaginary conversations with imaginary people of other racial and ethnic groups, rather than having real conversations with real people. I could easily project my resentment against the imaginary unsympathetic fellow onto a real person whose only connection to the imaginary one is skin color. I know that my imaginary conversation is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And furthermore, I really don’t think that the series would be improved by introducing racial and ethnic diversity. I am a fiend for narrative, as I have often said, and I have enough problems with the leisurely pace of this series; three more pages at every stop detailing the combination of geography and culture that produces the local color would have got so far up my nose I wouldn’t have been able to smell the daffodils that I got for Daffodil day and which are really lovely. Have I mentioned how much I love daffodils? They totally symbolize Spring to me. Particularly the ACS fund-raiser, which has become an important part of my yearly cycle.

Oh, right. Have you noticed how much easier it is to talk about flowers?

Anyway, when I read Ms. Mohanraj’s essay, I thought that it wasn’t just about combating racism in our society through writing and publishing, but also about producing more stories that suited her taste. Among the bits of advice she gives is this: Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. She describes this as helping to make characters vivid as opposed to generic, which is in some sense true, but it’s not as if the terms vivid and generic are objective terms that exist independent of the reader’s taste. To stic with Ms. Bujold’s works, I can see how people might consider Miles Vorkosigan generic white: although there are elements of Russian culture in the Barrayaran ruling caste culture, on the whole there’s nothing very specifically ethnic either in that culture or in his place in it. There is a Greek-speaking minority, and we get a couple of references and representatives, but not much and easily forgotten. And so on. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but I think there’s a real sense in which, given the Vorkosigan universe, there are lots of characters including Miles himself who could come off as generic white. And yet, lots of people (including YHB) find Miles to be vivid. In my case, it’s because I’m a fiend for narrative, and he’s very… active.

What I’m saying is that while I largely agree with Ms. Mohanraj that it’s a good idea to imagine an ethnic identity when inventing a character, I also tend to (from my position of white privilege) like plenty of books just fine in which most characters are either generic white or unmarked. And I think that’s a matter of my own Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation, which are my own taste, and (what with people being different one to another, which is what makes the world interesting and fun, after all), I neither expect other people to cater to my taste nor do I want to give up my taste for other people’s expectations.

Which is where Mr. Rosenbaum’s note comes in. Although I found interesting the ways in which cultural stereotypes creep in on an author all unbeknownst like, the thing that really struck me was the way that the accumulation of choices, each of which are individually plausible or even good choices, can be detrimental to the—well, to the author’s vision of the work, to the condition of the field, to society at large, to the feelings of individual humans of a variety of backgrounds. I think that (nearly) each of the stories Mr. Rosenbaum wrote were the result of choices that not only seemed good at the time but actually were good choices viewed in themselves. The result, though, was those pie charts with all that pink.

Now. To go back to YHB and The Sharing Knife. Reading the essays I linked to did ruin the books for me (no, it didn’t ruin them, but you know) in an interesting way. I still maintain that the books would not have been improved by following Ms. Mohanraj’s advice. That is, I think that any attempt to impose the right-minded thinking that Ms. Mohanraj (and Mr. Rosenbaum) explicate would have worked to the disadvantage of the particular work in question. While, at the same time, having the book work in the way that it does, missing the ethnic and cultural diversity or even markers that are missing and that YHB didn’t notice were missing throughout the first three books, well, it adds to the cumulative effect. If it was a lousy series, and nobody read it, then it might not matter. But it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good series (altho’ I have other issues with it as well) and it’s selling just fine, and those things are true in part because it’s so much easier to erase minority viewpoints and just go on without them. In the short term. In fiction.

Anyway. I’d be curious to know the reactions of Gentle Readers to these angles; I am far from a deep thinking about race or fiction, and I suspect I’ve got hold of the wrong end of several different sticks here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

41 thoughts on “Mohanraj, Rosenbaum, Bujold

  1. Dan P

    I really don’t think that the series would be improved by introducing racial and ethnic diversity.

    Okay, this? Sounds a lot like an argument that came up in the Scalzi threads (and everywhere-the-heck-else) that is most charitably described as “lazy.” The argument goes, “if you tacked a politically correct racialist message onto every great work of SF/F, you’d ruin them all.” (It has a hinge-joint with, “I don’t even notice who wrote the books or what the characters’ backgrounds are, I simply prefer only the best books.”) Now, you’re not making that argument, but you are standing very close to it; you may take a small amount of splash damage.

    So: I have not read The Sharing Knife. I find Bujold enjoyable enough, but not so much as to have read the whole Vorkosigad. What I read you describing, though, sounds to me like bad worldbuilding. An alternate colonial-period North America with all the indigenous peoples and all the colonists all speaking the same native language is just plain dumb, no way around it — never mind more interesting details like ethnic markers.

    The solution you propose — tacking on the occasional three-page Historical Ethnic Note — is a strawman, and it surprises me to see it from you. No, the solution would be for Bujold to write a smarter book from the first draft on. An accomplished writer such as herself would certainly be able to see, in later drafts, where the three-page HENs were dragging down the pace, right? The underlying cultural background would inform the characters and plot, probably improving the latter and clearing up that bit of sinus trouble for you. 🙂

    This is what I see Mohanraj getting at, although I will gladly admit that I may be interpreting somewhat and not working strictly from the plain text of her posts. As I read it, the bit you quote about making all the characters’ backgrounds explicit is advice, not prescription. Her plea to improve the quality of new-made SF/F is entirely valid as that of a critic of SF/F arguing to standards; moreso, it performs the valuable service of explaining to authors, in nice, I’ll-walk-you-through-it language, a very large and very common blind spot that can make their work look stupid, at best, to a significant population of their readers. I’m not really seeing the downside.

    To backpedal a little: I know this is a mite heated for the usual tone of conversation here, and I want to reiterate that most of that heat has been generated by other, more volatile comments. I’m probably misunderstanding you in some way, and will be glad to be corrected.

  2. textjunkie

    Thanks for writing this! I like the pulling together of the two essays and your own thoughts on the Bujold books, though I don’t understand your conclusion. It sounds like Bujold is exactly an example of the problem being discussed.

    I also tend to (from my position of white privilege) like plenty of books just fine in which most characters are either generic white or unmarked.

    Well, yeah, and that’s exactly the point. It’s easier to both write and read books where the characters are more or less like you. And that’s exactly what both Mohanraj and Rosenbaum are commenting on, and on how to counteract it with the majority group (in white western culture). It’s like how sex scenes in mainstream SF are now more likely to be gay or bisexual than they were in books from 30 years ago; we still all enjoy reading about straight heterosexual sex (I would bet), but the writing patterns are changing.

    I have to agree with Dan P, that following Mohanraj’s advice WELL would not destroy the books. 3 paragraphs of exposition about every new environment would slow down the pace, but a “show, don’t tell” policy would not. Think of well-written world-building (which Bujold may be an example of, I don’t know); it’s not all Tolkein-heavy on description of funky trees and landscapes, is it? Usually bits and pieces are woven into the narrative so the action is fine but the reader knows that They Aren’t In Kansas Anymore, because something just happened or was seen or referred to or used that isn’t usually found in Kansas. Same thing for ethnic diversity. Characters do stuff that indicates they are not all one homogenous culture.

    I just thank heavens I don’t have to write fiction. 😉 Because I do tend to assume characters in books are “just like me” until proven otherwise, and if I tried to write multi-ethnic scene they’d all just be white females with funny names and accents. 😉

  3. Chris Cobb

    There are two separate issues getting tangled together here.

    One is technical: What makes a good story?

    One is ethical: is it important for writers, and particularly specfic writers, to include ethnic diversity, or at least ethnic details, in their works?

    The posts from Dan P. and textjunkie argue that world-building is an essential part of what makes a work of speculative fiction good, and that including the details of ethnicity in the world of speculative fiction will make it a more interesting world. Looked at from this perspective, there would be no conflict between the technical/aesthetic question and the ethical question: addressing ethnicity is a win/win for the writer, at least if the writer is not “lazy.”

    Vardibidian, who styles himself “a fiend for narrative,” adverts to the contrary that there could well be occasions on which the introduction of complex details of ethnicity would not enhance the story. Plot, one might infer, has its own imperatives of pace and appropriate complexity, and those imperatives may not readily accommodate a particular type of world-building in every case. In those cases, the writer would have to face the ethical imperative straight on: is it worth it to make my work as a story-teller more difficult in order to accomplish an ethically significant goal, especially given that it might actually hurt the quality of my story? What “quality” means, of course, is also variable. Ms. Bujold has made many choices in her approach to story-telling that make it unlikely that she could sell a book to me, but my tastes bear little resemblance to those of mass-market fantasy readers in general.

    Nevertheless, It seems to me that some tension does exist even above the level of marketing issues. Stories are, by their nature, deliberately organized selections out of the totality of reality: that is what makes narrative possible. The author cannot include everything and must, therefore, exercise judgment about what to include and what not to include, given the needs of the story. That may or may not include a concern for ethnicity. I certainly concede textjunkie’s point that some particularizing of characters and ethnicity of setting should be part of the work of any good writer, but how far does one have to go to be adequate in this respect? In Bujold’s case, she is coming in for criticism not because she has created characters who are utterly without ethnicity (at least that’s what I draw from V.’s description), but because she has (deliberately or unthinkingly) greatly reduced the ethnic richness of the historical setting that she has chosen. Could a historically meaningful level of ethnic diversity be restored without requiring the story to be recast, possibly to its detriment as an entertaining narrative? That, I would submit, is the question in this particular case, which goes beyond the problem of hack writers composing stories with “Generic White Male” as the hero and never thinking twice about it.

    Now, I would argue that Bujold has not, in fact, exercised good judgment in reducing the scope of ethnicity in this particular story. If you are going to write spec fic with an American frontier setting, I think you can’t ignore its ethnic diversity and still have a really good work: it’s just going to be inadequate to the world. Now, if you want to write a spec fic story that is specifically about the interaction of two races, you can surely make a good story out of it, but you shouldn’t set it on the American frontier! Why not just create a different setting altogether? Spec fic offers that option. If you are really attracted to the frontier setting, then you owe it to your reader and to yourself to do it a bit more justice than that. To put the last point another way, I think there is an ethical obligation for historical fiction (some of which is speculative, some not) to take its history somewhat seriously (unless it is a deliberately unserious work) that does not, and cannot obtain for spec fic in general, since spec fic by design frees the writer from historical obligations. Bujold’s poor judgment has not prevented her from creating a popular series that is selling well, apparently. That shouldn’t make her immune from criticism.

    It might be a source of concern that these books have become popular, and maybe in time people in general will view them as inadequate and lose interest in them. But bad writing of many kinds has and will continue to sell perfectly well, so I wouldn’t expect to see this issue affect sales any differently. Therefore, the ethical burden to do better is on the writers, and on the readers who are sensitive enough to these issues to offer constructive criticism.

  4. Vardibidian

    I had written a rather lengthy response to Dan P’s comment, and then, as I wasn’t quite finished, cleverly saved it onto a thumb drive, and then even more cleverly left the thumb drive at my desk. So. Y’all are spared that version, and here’s another. I hope I’ll make this one shorter, as well.

    Let me begin this one, too, by admitting to a certain laziness, so it’s a fair cop on that front. My snark was intended to be aimed at Ms. Bujold’s series, rather than at the concept of inclusiveness or diversity. To clarify: I think The Sharing Knife is the weakest of her series, largely because of a regrettable tendency to waste my time with pages of local color every time the riverboat (or wagon train) gets to a new location, telling me of the local vegetation and livestock, climate, economic outlook and architectural style. However, there are walloping good action sequences, some interesting characters and interactions, a rather sweet romance, and some other Sources of Reader Pleasure. In the books as they actually are, for me as I am at the moment, the Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation balance very closely; it may be a smidge on the irritating side, but not enough for me to stop reading them. But—it is much easier for me to imagine ethnic, cultural, racial and linguistic diversity simply adding three more pages to the local color that is already there than to imagine them really integrated into the work. Those (imaginary) three pages would (in my imagination) be massive Sources of Reader Irritation, and tip the work well over the fence into the N.G. pasture, no matter that there would also be both a new Source of Reader Pleasure and a removal of the existing Source of Reader Irritation (that is, the absence of such diversity). Now, it is possible that ethnic, cultural, racial and linguistic diversity would be worked into the book in such a way that the book itself would be fundamentally changed, and there would no increase in Irritation, but frankly, given the book’s existing flaws, I don’t see it. I may as well imagine the book with no flaws at all. That book would certainly be better.

    Now, I think it’s fair, given what I actually wrote, for Dan P to warn me of the splash from the if you tacked a politically correct racialist message onto every… argument, but herewith my Parka of Justification: what YHB means is that each individual work and author, each with its own flaws and virtues, needs to be taken individually. Most works would probably benefit from the author having taken Ms. Mohanraj’s advice, I think. But not all. And she goes to some length to give people an out, of sorts. But where I feel I differ from Ms. Mohanraj is in our Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation; I am (as I keep saying) a fiend for narrative, and I am irritated by character development that doesn’t further the plot. I get very little pleasure out of mimesis, or out of spelling the word mimesis correctly, which I don’t think I’ve done there. Anyway. I think Chris has nailed my view pretty closely, although I would have said more crudely that I think there are trade-offs, and boosting one Source of Reader Pleasure can come at the cost of simultaneously boosting a Source of Reader Irritation, not just viewed across a field of readers, but in a single reader, in YHB’s own self, f’r’ex. I am inclined to think that those trade-offs should be made individually, by the creator, judging for her own talents, interests and skills, and what the work is like, and what the reader is like.

    There is a bit of a tendency, within Ms. Mohanraj’s essay and others I have read, to take as an assumption that her own Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation are inherent. I doubt she really believes this, but I suspect that she forgets that she doesn’t believe it when she is writing an essay like that. So there’s this underlying sense that, as Chris puts it, addressing ethnicity is a win/win. I don’t think that’s true in general, and I certainly don’t think that’s true in specific. I think it is very difficult to compare actual works to imaginary works; the flaws in the former are so much more obvious. But even more than that, I think that Ms. Mohanraj is to some extent, and I am sure inadvertently, conflating good and to my taste. I’m never sure that good has any other meaning than to my taste, but if you are using the word that way, you need to be aware that making a book better may also mean making it worse, from the point of somebody who has different Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation. And I don’t think that Ms. Mohanraj intends to imply that people should all have the same Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation.

    Digression: except that I think she does want to persuade people to be Irritated by the sort of absence that I saw in The Sharing Knife. Certainly, what I was writing about was an increase in that absence as a particular Source of YHB’s Irritation as a result of reading the essay. I think that’s on the whole a good thing, using moral suasion to that purpose, but that’s a long way from expecting uniformity, which, again, I think would horrify her. As with Democracy, persuading people to share your views is essential, but fully succeeding in all aspects would be horrific. End Digression.

    Now, my real point, I think, was that even if the tacked a message on every… argument wasn’t wrongheaded on the face of it, it doesn’t address the actual harm done to actual humans by the cumulative effect of all of those choices. As Chris points out, it’s an ethical issue independent of a technical issue. When we look at Sources of Reader Irritation, there are some (like my reaction to character study) that have very little real-world effect. And there are some that have quite a bit.

    Well, and this reply is already longer than the one I left at the office. And more defensive, too, I think, and I didn’t want to be. Let me try, without being too defensive, to sum up: (1) I was unclear in my original note about why I felt that addressing ethnicity in the Sharing Knife series would work to its detriment; (ii) I maintain my claim that there exist works, and this is an example, that can follow Ms. Mohanraj’s good advice only to their cost; and (C) Mr. Rosenbaum’s analysis provides insight (YHB feels) into the cumulative ethical effect of choices made for technical reasons, such that technical advice (such as that of Ms. Mohanraj) has an ethical element.

    Whew. I do want to address the different claims of historical and pseudo-historical fiction, but that may be the subject of another post. Certainly of another day.


  5. Benjamin Rosenbaum

    Well, I haven’t read the Bujold book, and like Dan P. the argument that it stands at the knife-edge of a trade-off seems unconvincing to me; it’s hard to imagine how, if you already had to slog through pages of cultural and local exposition, the book could not have been well served by making the cultures and localities in question more different from one another. But that’s neither here nor there, I think, because I actually agree with the general point V. is making.

    There are a set of technical, local trade-offs, and they do come into conflict with broader goals, and there is no easy answer to that, and my intent in cataloging my own book was to encourage people to wrestle with it, rather than come up with a final answer. While it’s hard for me to believe that Bujold’s book is one, it is certainly possible to imagine that many books are at a kind of local maximum, in which the balance between virtues gained and lost by marking and adding specificity to characters is such that the quality of the book could not be improved without drastic, wholesale changes making it, in essence, a different book, and yet the book as it stands has a negative effect on other, broader goals.

    There are conflicts between aesthetic and social goals that cannot be easily resolved, at least not for me, by either saying “Art is all that matters, screw everything else,” nor “how could you even contemplate being evil just to write a better book?”, nor “just write better and the problem will go away.” Sometimes none of these answers serves. I try to put my hope in the last one when I can, but it doesn’t always serve.

    It has not escaped my attention that there is a certain irony in me writing an analytical post supporting Mary Anne’s call for concrete specificity as a win-win tool for political and aesthetic ends, because I am a writer very enamored of non-specificity. Much of what I write partakes of parable; I often push “tell, don’t show” to its limits. Quite a few of my characters don’t even have names, never mind genders, ages, races, or sexualities. In “The Orange”, the orange who rules the world is eaten by the unnamed narrator. All we know about the narrator is that they shop at Safeway and own a fruit basket. I am pretty damn certain the story would not be improved by giving that character more racial, ethnic, religious, class, gender, or cultural specificity, however much that might help the pie charts.

    But that doesn’t render the pie charts meaningless, either. One of the reasons I like the quantitative approach is it does not only address the micro-level question “what could I have done better here?” but also the more global question, “what is it that, in the aggregate, I am doing?”

  6. Matt Hulan

    It seems to me that a great deal of the success of a story depends on appropriateness of scope. If you’re writing a short story about an aardvark and an avocado discussing quantum mechanics (and why not) having tea on an apricot seed, then you probably don’t need a world rich with the triumphs and defeats of everyday life.

    But if you’re writing an epic, and the hero runs through a downtown street scene, guns a-blazing, why not write the scene from the point of view of the clerk of the mom & pop store that had the windows blown out? The owner of the barber shop that has to pry the bullets out of the pole outside, again? There’s lots of folks in the real world, lots of angles to take on a scene.


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  8. dance (pronetolaughter)

    Coming in late with a contrary opinion—I just commented on race in The Sharing Knife over at Tor, and that made me google to see if other people had discussed Bujold in the context of RaceFail ’09 (I am not within fandom, but browsed a lot of the links via the Scalzi posts). Sorry this is long.

    Actually I would say that Bujold does a very good job Writing the Other. Yeah, so the world she constructed only has Native Americans and whites—so what? She’s not obliged to replicate the frontier entirely just because she’s inspired by it, and her origin myth handles the language issue. As a black person reading the series, I was overjoyed to see some attention given to Native Americans, not asking where black people were. It never even crossed my mind to consider the Lakewalkers as elves. The centrality of the cultural clash and racial conflict to the plot is well-handled, IMO, and she absolutely lives up to Mohanraj’s instruction to write characters first. She doesn’t compromise her world, it’s not token diversity, it is integral to the story. As I said at Tor, she’s got the cultural clash between nomadic and settler peoples, a woman married to a visibly brown-skinned man (“copper”, I believe), repeated concern over how Dag and Fawn’s [biracial!] children will fit into this world, the constantly lurking threat of mob violence against Dag (and its reality in Beguilement), the loss of Fawn and Whit’s naivété about these issues, the problem of the Lakewalkers at the river camp in Passage wondering whether to move further away and how best to co-exist, and all of those elements and the conversations around them truly and accurately reflect the experience of race in this world. IMO.

    I also think that the Vorkosigan series shows lots of skills Writing the Other. First of all, disability creates an Other as much (or more) than race does. I don’t think Barrayar is generic white AT ALL—it’s very clearly a strongly traditional culture, Russian/Soviet-inflected, with specific dances, words, customs, etc, even if the Greek minority is mostly background. Compare it to Beta, which is a very different experience of whiteness, clearly US-inflected. It’s a very reasonable portrayal of what might be in 2000 years if we had taken the Cold War to the planets. (The Cetagandans might be Chinese-inflected, but I only thought of that just now). Similarly, the Curse of Chalion books reflect some very specific European cultures as opposed to generic Europeanness. Exactly what Mohanraj suggested as the first step.

    I am an academic, and I study the history of race. I wonder whether perhaps I read the books differently because I am more practiced in looking for these things? Though I’m open to the idea that I’m just giving Bujold a pass because I love her books.

  9. Vardibidian

    Thank you for the comment! And I have to say that I am particularly glad to have your perspective, not only as a black person (ever so much better than having that conversation with the imaginary black person in my mind) but as an academic who likes Ms. Bujold’s books and can look at them in that context. And, you know, good to have another Gentle Reader here at the Tohu Bohu; please stick around and argue with me.

    And certainly, looking back on what I wrote up there, I was unfairly dismissive of the way that Ms. Bujold handles the racial issues she takes up, particularly the issue of mixed-race children. On the other hand, I maintain the opinion that the world has only two cultures, White and Red, and that the Frontier setting makes that problematic for me, even though it’s a fantasy version of that setting. People are of course going to be disturbed or not about difference aspects of different things, so it’s very good for me to hear that the, let’s say, reduction of diversity as a possible Source of Reader Irritation was wildly outweighed for you by the handling of race (with the Lakewalkers standing in for Native Americans) as a Source of Reader Pleasure.

    And this is one of the big problems, for me, with discussions of this kind. You find the idea that Barrayar is generic white kinda crazy, what with this that and the other thing; I find Barrayar interesting, and therefore not generic, but it’s easy for me to imagine somebody, genuinely and not crazily, saying that the the mirror dance, the groats, the vows with hands placed between hands, the prefixes and all that stuff simply don’t add up to much of anything, the way that individual hairs on a head don’t make a fellow less bald.

    And yet. I don’t know. There’s a sense in which I wish I could force Mr. Rosenbaum and Ms. Mohanraj to read the whole Sharing Knife series and report back to me. But it may not be the best use of their time.


  10. dance (pronetolaughter)

    Sorry! Thinking more about this, and responding a little more directly to the things in your post. Hope you don’t mind a random long-winded interloper.

    I don’t mean to say that Bujold is totally unproblematic vis-a-vis RaceFail, or that we couldn’t find issues doing a line-by-line reading like Rosenbaum did (and that was a great post!), but by and large I think her books are more a model to follow than not.

    If it wasn’t already clear, I think The Sharing Knife is ALL about racial politics. So the question of whether inserting them would ruin the book is irrelevant.

    Bujold actually makes the racial politics *more* fraught than in the real world, in that there is really a significant biological difference between the two races, rather than just skin color. Race is more than just a social construction in the world she created.

    The Lakewalkers may be a rather romanticized version of Native Americans treated as a single group (rather than the multiple cultures they had in reality), but hey, that’s better than invisible. And they express lots of minority viewpoints taken directly from racial politics today—be separatists or live together? Will we lose our culture to this larger group? Can falling in love mean betraying your people?

    I would say that Bujold successfully avoids tokenism—this is easier because she simplified the world and is only depicting two main cultures, but instead of having a single character accidentally fulfill a stereotype, she has enough characters from each culture that many different types of people can be represented. E.g., if Dag were the only Lakewalker in the book, she might be guilty of the Magic Negro problem. But since there are clearly lots of other Lakewalkers doing different things, engaged with as real characters, she’s not just tokenizing him. Similarly, there are some totally xenophobic [racist] farmers (Reed and Rush), but plenty who aren’t.

    Re generic whiteness: I read Mohanraj differently than you—it is true that all the examples she gives of adding ethnicity draw on contemporary facts of ethnicity. But I read her most important demand there as specificity, not incorporating elements from today. So I would say that Bujold’s specificity and vividness about the different cultures on each planet (e.g., teamwork in the quaddies, money in Jackson’s Whole) responds to that call. It doesn’t matter if Russia has no tradition of killing disabled infants—that’s still creating a vivid ethnic and cultural tradition for Barrayer, along with the mirror dance, the hardscrabble life in the mountains, the marriage go-between, the notion and naming of Vor itself. Cordelia had to adapt when she moved to Barrayer. Even The Sharing Knife, which comes closest to generic whiteness, has some specificity: sure, to Dag, all farmers are the same, but the book clearly shows differences between the riverfolk, artisans, urban and rural, even if they aren’t demonstrated via food or language. Mohanraj would have to settle this debate about what she meant, but that’s my perspective.

  11. dance (pronetolaughter)

    Sorry, I hadn’t read your reply before my second post. (Next time, refresh). Wasn’t expecting such a quick reply on an old post.

    I think this totally gets at the heart of the matter:
    the, let’s say, reduction of diversity as a possible Source of Reader Irritation was wildly *outweighed* for you by the handling of race (with the Lakewalkers standing in for Native Americans) as a Source of Reader Pleasure.

    It’s a question of weight and balance. On its own, Barrayar might be generic white, but constantly balanced against Beta as it is (and I started the series with Cordelia’s Honor, where the theme is established very strongly and then just re-occurs in the Miles books), then it’s far less generic.

    Similarly, Bujold erased complexity on both sides in The Sharing Knife—the settlers are wildly oversimplified, and so are the Lakewalkers—but the key tension of the frontier remains, and to me that’s what’s more important. It’s still balanced. Because you can’t invoke a common understanding of The Frontier and pretend the Indians weren’t there—if it weren’t a wild, dangerous, place and movement out wasn’t displacing other people, it wouldn’t be The Frontier. By definition.

    I think worlds have to be judged within the context of the book, rather than by our own history.

    Lots of sci-fi clearly projects the contemporary world forward—it becomes a problem when they do it inconsistently. If you are saying today’s US evolved into [X], then China and India can’t just vanish into nothingness without explanation. To erase them undermines the internal logic of the book, it makes the basic premise totally implausible. The author set up an expectation and failed to follow through on it. (and actually, the Vorkosigan series may suffer from this problem, or only meet it halfway—next time I re-read it, I’ll try to look for it.)

    Bujold is clearly inspired by the frontier, but just as clearly *not* writing an alternative history. The presence of black settlers, or conflict between German and Danish immigrants in Minnesota was important to *our* history, but not structurally fundamental to the whole notion of the frontier as Native Americans were. Since she’s not writing our history, I don’t see the simplification as a problem. Her origin myth, with the magic lords dominating the workers—there’s no way the US could have turned into that. The geography, which people thought matched up with the US map in the Tor thread, seems to be much smaller in travel time (Bujold commented on this issue at the Tor thread, by the way), and farmers are as native to the land as Lakewalkers. A smaller world has fewer types of people—I’m fine with that. All the internal logic fits together.

    Now, without an origin myth clearly differentiating this imaginary place from the US, then there would be a big hole in the plausibility and it would be much more legit to challenge her on the absence of blacks, Swedes, French. Perhaps she has not done as good a job as she could have of re-invoking the origin myth in the 2nd and 3rd books, after clearly explaining it in the 1st.

    Likewise, if she had invoked the notion of the frontier with no Lakewalkers, and mimicked riverboats and Davy Crockett with no Lakewalkers (and I don’t think a Davy Crockett personality could have arisen in a US with no Indians), then I would see a problem. Because the internal logic would be inconsistent. Similarly, if someone wanted to be inspired by the fancy plantations of the antebellum South but erase slavery, it would be a problem, because the source of their inspiration would never have existed without slavery.

  12. Dan P

    Just wanted to stick my head back in to say that it’s great to get another view on The Sharing Knife than the one that V. presented in the original post. It sounds almost like an entirely different book! (The fact that the same book could sound like two different ones when described by two people is probably instructive of something that makes the world interesting and fun.) So, thanks to dance (pronetolaughter) for coming by.

  13. Jed

    I just very belatedly read this entry and the comments; then I was calling Mary Anne for unrelated reasons, so I figured I would ask her what she thought.

    I gave her a very very abbreviated summary of the gist of this discussion; she said that she likely didn’t have time to stop by to participate herself, but said I could pass along some comments.

    Her main comment is that she adores Bujold. She said that she’s read almost everything that Bujold has written, usually on the order of about 20 times.

    Most of her other comments were more or less in line with what dance wrote in comments here — generally to the effect that she feels Bujold generally does a good job with specificity of culture, and with diversity within a given portrayed culture, and with disability issues.

  14. Vardibidian

    Well, and thank you for putting the question to her. I’m glad to hear that people generally do not find the Sharing Knife series to be problematic, or Ms. Bujold’s work generally.

    I so rarely find myself in the position of making other people defend Ms. Bujold’s books. I mean, I love her books. Ms. Mohanraj and I share the habit of happily rereading them. And I will very very happily concede that my reaction to the combination of Ms. Mohanraj’s essay and the final book of the Sharing Knife series was an overreaction. So that’s good.

    And I want to echo Dan P’s thanks to dance (prone to laughter); I think one of the things that is interesting about both literature generally and racial issues within literature discussions is how books can often seem utterly different, depending on what you are talking about. In my note, I talked mostly about what wasn’t in the book: slaves (or children thereof), Mexicans, French, Spanish, Dutch. That lack seemed very large to me, in the context of Ms. Mohanraj’s essay. To d (ptl), the lack seemed smaller, because of how pleased he was by what was in the book: (pseudo-) Native Americans, a mixed marriage, individual and institutional racism, bi-racial characters, and a variety of attitudes toward race that seemed to him recognizable and positive. I’m not surprised it seemed like a different book. But that’s the way of it: good things and bad things, positives and negatives, absences and presences. It would be crazy to suggest that any book should have everything that’s good; the question that came to my mind was whether the absences in this case outweighed the presences, and as well whether the absences in connection with other absences in other books by other authors over which Ms. Bujold had no control had enough of a negative impact on people in the real world to be worrisome. And I still think it’s a question.

    Also, I should really write a note to begin a conversation about the different claims of historical and pseudo-historical fiction, because the latest comment is really interesting.


  15. dance (pronetolaughter)

    Sorry—you know, you had a great ending point and I was going to let this go, but it spurred some more thoughts, and maybe a different way of explaining how I see it (I think I’m just adding an academic layer on what I said before, I hope it’s not too repetitive).

    I would absolutely say that the presences outweigh the absences. I think Bujold is operating on a more important and more sophisticated level than just reflecting our history.

    To me, the absences that you point out are just details. There is not an English-only movement in the US because people think it’s an ugly language or hate spelling things with accents, but because Spanish symbolizes immigration without assimilation, in their view. In Britain, that same movement might be against Hindi/Urdu. The French hate the use of English words. But whether Spanish or Hindi or English is the target is really pretty irrelevant—it doesn’t change the roots of the movement, which is fear of losing the home culture. The presences that I see—what Bujold reflects in her books—are not the details or the surface level of race, but the SYSTEM, the substructures, how race really works, the fundamental tendency of people to fear and attack difference, etc. She’s going to the heart of the matter, rather than getting distracted by what it *looks* like to us.

    And I’m willing to categorically say that illustrating an abstract and deep understanding of race is more important and valuable than reflecting the details of how race manifested itself in our particular history (although ideally speculative fiction as a whole would reflect both, and allow authors to find their strengths).

    I actually think that a focus on the details might be a little bit dangerous, in that if all an author takes away from RaceFail ’09 was a demand to see “people like me” in their novels, then that risks just encouraging token inclusion that can be equally as unsatisfactory as absence. Librarians have lots of stories about black children asking for books with black characters, but “like me” is about so much more than the color of the skin. The same ideas in a different context will still resonate, even with children who couldn’t articulate the abstractions. I think the librarian who really understands should be saying, “here’s Octavia Butler, but also, you know, try Bujold.”

  16. Vardibidian

    Don’t feel like you need to let me have the last word, more thoughts should lead to more comments, as far as I’m concerned.

    I do see your point, and it’s quite persuasive. I think to some extent we see things differently because I see the books as being much more clearly about the American Frontier, despite being about a fantasy version of that. Of course, you have on your side the statements of the author, and I have on mine a lot of people who are looking for specific one-to-one correspondences, so I’m not looking real good there… Anyway, I’ve written more about that idea in a taxonomic travesty of a new entry.

    I also want to bring back the notion that there is a cumulative effect at work here. I know that seems to make Ms. Bujold responsible for other people whitewashing blacks (and French and Mexicans) out of the American Frontier in books that she didn’t write, but still, those works exist, and the book exists in that context.

    That leads me to question your categorical statement. I do think that under-representation, over the field, makes a huge difference, even if a lot of the works within the field tackle the abstract and deep issues. I suppose, to harp on your example, the concern that I take away from RaceFail09 is that the kid, having read Octavia Butler and a handful of others, will put Ms. Bujold in the category of none of us in this book, either, which would be sad, since we are agreed that there is a good deal in her works for that kid. But even worse is that the kid is likely, after a fair amount of sampling, to say that all those books written by white people, or even all those books that the kid doesn’t know are written by black people, are all missing all the people like him. So my concern is that despite the things this series does well, and without regard to its flaws, this is a book which (to me) goes into the big category.


  17. dance (pronetolaughter)

    [apologies for being a slow responder—and I’m brewing over the category post and will comment there eventually]

    I think we are reading “people like him” differently—“likeness” cannot be reduced to skin color or an ethnic name. A few more examples. I read Horizon somewhere in the middle of all these comments (I think I had to wait through 3 requests), so it’s on my mind.

    This is just more details on how *I* read the books and what I mean by claiming that Bujold has captured the abstract understanding of what race is and how it works.

    Calla and Indigo:

    There’s that moment of meeting—Fawn describes C&I as striking and different, but it’s Dag who has to tell her they are half-bloods (he might even be surprised she can’t see this). I venture to suggest that every educated black person in the US has had that moment, where we see people as black or half-black but non-black people have no experience in reading a body that way, or do not think to recognize the markers they see as black. That’s a moment that would resonate with the hypothetical black child of my previous post (and probably with lots of people of color).

    In Passage, when Berry is resisting taking Fawn and Dag on the boat, Bujold writes “Dag…bestirred himself…”. Those three words beautifully connote how tiring it is to always be moving through the world as a person of color, to be negotiating, to be reassuring people that dark skin is not a threat, etc (I liked that moment specially, but this theme runs throughout). More resonance. (that one might also engage the white teenager in the hoodie)

    When the Lakewalkers see Dag riding next to the glass wagon (Passage), but assume he is by himself, any member of an interracial family (whether by mixed marriage or transracial adoption) is going to recognize that one, as well as his choice to just let it go and avoid an awkward conversation, and his ability to make that choice.

    I think those types of examples, as well as the ones I mentioned earlier, will resonate with a black child such that he/she will never even ask the question of “but where are the black people?” Because that’s a question you only ask when you are unsatisfied with something. I think the person of color will see himself and his/her daily experience reflected in this book, in many ways.

    In addition, these ways of writing race have a wider reach. If we are judging on cumulative effect and putting Bujold’s work into context, then I think writing race such that she might actually educate people who have never thought about race to recognize how it works, *still* might (arguably) benefit the black child as much as some token inclusion of black people would.

    This bit is more academic, not something to resonate with a child:

    There’s a classic (rather racist) trope of the “tragic mulatto”, the half-breed caught between two cultures who can never fit in anywhere and is doomed, and often suicides, if not reduced to prostitution.

    It would have been so easy for Bujold to make Calla that character and fall into that trap, and that type of story can offer a lot of rich drama and tension to a novel, but she doesn’t: 1) there are multiple other “half bloods” doing fine (pretty much Indigo, the child of the rich lady at the market, and Fawn’s children-to-be) and 2) even Calla totally winds up NOT doomed and NOT tragic at all and totally accepting of both her sides, with a happy foot in each world. In fact, Bujold goes out of her way in the epilogue to update us on Calla, a minor character who I personally was not very interested in and didn’t particularly like (even though I am also the daughter of an interracial marriage—but Calla’s mere existence is not enough to resonate with me—experiences resonate, not descriptions, and I didn’t care about Calla because I am not all angsty and self-hating about being biracial. Others may have a different experience).

    Part of the mulatta trope (tragic or not) is also about sexuality—stereotypically, a good white man bewitched (and ruined) by the enticing and exotic body of the half-breed (or sometimes voodoo was involved). Again, Bujold draws upon and demolishes that stereotype, with all the bit about how Calla tried to beguile Sage, and how Sage’s family reacts to Calla, but then it’s actually true love.

    So, if those are the things that she can do well, I’m not inclined to critique her at all for it. I don’t think we can rightfully ask an author to do anything more.

  18. Jacob

    Can I just say about this thread that I wish all debate on the internet were like this. This has been fascinating and a great example of strangers debating civilly and at a really high level of discourse. I love the specificity of dance (pronetolaughter)’s last post. Thanks, all.

  19. Vardibidian

    I’m not inclined to submit this to rydra_wong, just because I (as I wrote in my previous note about RaceFail) I don’t really think of myself as part of the specfic community, but rather as somebody outside that group who happens to read and discuss specfic a lot. Also, honestly, I’m a bit shy of the possibility of the Internet happening here at this Tohu Bohu—I am superthrilled that you came and I hope you stick around and continue to comment (you have clearly beat me in an argument, so you are a valuable source of correction, which is much of the point of the whole blog), and it’s always possible that anybody else who follows such a link would provide more great examples of strangers debating civilly, but honestly… my cost-benefit alarm keeps beeping when I think about it.

    And rather than responding to the content in your post, I think I’m going to just admit defeat. My gut was telling me that the streamlined two-race illustration was not sufficient, but my gut has been wrong before. And, as I say, I like Ms. Bujold’s stuff, so losing the argument is winning the ouvre, right?


  20. dance (pronetolaughter)

    I see your point about the downside of indexing.

    I have put Tohu Bohu in my RSS reader, and have very much enjoyed this discussion. Although, I tend to think of the goal of a debate not to “defeat” anything, but rather to keep bringing out the layers and layers of meaning. To figure out what questions need to be asked and why, rather than to settle on a “right” answer to them. Writing here very much helped me figure out my questions, but I’ll be taking your questions to the next book I read as well.

    I should note, also, that despite being a voracious reader and being raised to cheer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar over Larry Bird and for Debi Thomas (black ice skater) because she was black and so forth, I was never that child who said “I want a book with some black people in it.” That I remember, anyhow. Possibly because I had a lot of books (if not specfic) with black people in them, but I distinctly remember putting down Octavia Butler because I didn’t want to go there when I was reading for pleasure. And avoiding Pride and Prejudice for a long while because I figured it was about race and I was never in the mood. So, you know, I’m a bit biased in my judgments here.

  21. Vardibidian

    Speaking of which… I was wondering if Ms. Bujold would wind up reading our little discussion, and it turns out she did, and linked to it, too. I think Ms. Bujold believes YHB is a newbie writer, which of course I am not (neither a newbie nor a writer, kthx), but she appears to have, on the whole, been pleased and gratified by the eventual direction of the conversation. So that’s all right.

    I will, however, once again add that just because the writer insists that a work “is neither alternate history nor future history” does not mean that it it won’t be read that way, or that it is a major misreading to take connections between the actual world and the fictional one. But I wrote more about that in the categories post later on. Authors who write pseudo-Medieval works without religious conflict are responsible for that omission, even if the history and geography is realio trulio pseudo, and the swords talk. I’m not saying that omission is always the wrong choice (in fact, the whole fucking point of the note in the first place is that I don’t think it’s always the wrong choice), but the author is still responsible for it.

    All of which is to repeat myself, interminably, but then for some reason I am imagining a magnificent crowd of fans following her link to this Tohu Bohu, primed to expect that I am ill-disposed to their favorite author. They won’t have looked at YHB’s LibraryThing author cloud nor at any of the rest of the site, so I’m vaguely hoping that (a) they will read the whole comments section, which is the bulk of the page and what Ms. Bujold was really linking to, anyway, (2) they will at least read this last comment, or (iii) they will be yet another figment of my imagination (I sure do write about those a lot, don’t I?).


  22. Cat Faber

    FWIW, I just came here from Bujold’s blog, looking for the part of the comments where she said someone “Got It” to see what “Got it” meant to her. Her post certainly made *me* want to read through the comments before doing anything else; I can’t guarantee that others will respond the same way, of course.

    I enjoyed your post and the subsequent comments/conversation, and am glad I came. I hope to check back now and then. 🙂

  23. renee

    I’m in agreement with catfaber. I’ve very much enjoyed the debate but find it interesting that most of the posters seem to believe the novel is meant to be an alternate history/future of America. I’ve read it as an Australian and never ever saw it as anything than a versions of colonial settlement vrs a native world. Why complicate it? You don’t need your dutch/spanish/greek ethnicity in there to make the points of cross cultural issues. I adore her work for it’s complexity, issues explored and turns of phrase. I hate authors who pad things out so you end up slogging through a huge book that only detracts from the real goinings on between the characters.

  24. jekni

    I’m also Australian and therefore didn’t recognise any part of Bujold’s “Wide Green World” as belonging to any part of ‘our’ world. I didn’t even get any of the colonial settlement thing that Renee mentions – I just saw the two different peoples in a world that bore no resemblance to anything I’ve come across before. (I have to confess to knowing almost nothing of USian history, frontier or otherwise, beyond the absolute basics.) Which is just a roundabout way of saying I didn’t notice any ‘lack’- immigrants, other races, religions, whatever – because I wasn’t expecting them to be there. I guess it’s all in your expectations, isn’t it?

  25. renee

    jekni, I guess the colonial thing has plaed a lot in my mind lately as I’m reading aseries of journals by australian colonial women. You’re right about how it’s all about expectations.

  26. Dan P

    As the first commenter to have stirred this particular pot, I want to apologize for having been distracted from my main point by responding to particulars about a series that I haven’t read. In case it isn’t clear from what I said above, I’ve been happy to be corrected — by V. about the emphasis of the original question posed, by the working writers who’ve clarified questions of craft involved, and not least by dance (pronetolaughter) about other, well-supported readings of The Sharing Knife in particular.

  27. Vampirecat

    I came over from Bujold’s site to read the discussion. Speaking as a Filipina, though one who’s somewhat familiar with U.S. history, I didn’t expect to see any references to other (black, Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Filipino, etc.) cultures in the Sharing Knife books. I thought it was quite clear that the Sharing Knife books weren’t an alternate history of the U.S. While the flatboats gave it a distinctly American flavor, there were no immigrants or clashing foreign interests. Suffice that Dag had copper skin, but the Lakewalkers weren’t homogeneously depicted as the Noble Native. The farmers weren’t encroaching whites, either.

    I think if Bujold had included other cultures, she’d have written an entirely different book/series, one which would have had a more traditionally political slant, in the sense of governments. Since she’d originally set out to write a romance/fantasy, the tight focus on two cultures–both of which are native to the setting of the Sharing Knife books as explained in origin myth–served the purpose of her story well.

    I suspect it all comes down to the background a reader brings to a story. I was shocked when someone referred to me as “a woman of color” since I never thought of myself that way. I found myself empathizing with Fawn as a small-town girl visiting the “big city” for the first time. I didn’t feel alienated that she was white and I’m not.

  28. Clei

    One of the (many) things speculative fiction has going for it is the ability to take a specific cultural issue (like race relations) and provide new perspective on it. Specfic achieves this by taking the issue, stripping it of its historical and cultural identifiers, and placing it in an entirely new context. This allows the reader to come at the issue without any preconceptions (and with less baggage) and thereby gain a new point of view. Adding cultural and ethnic diversity in this context means specifically not adding in traits identifiable to current (and real world) history. Mind you, I am not suggesting everything be generic, just diverse in different ways from that which the reader encounters in real life. In my view, the Sharing Knife world successfully achieves just that. I’ve only brushed by RaceFail, so I have only seen a small portion of posts. But what I have seen seldom places the responsibility equally between author and reader. I thought the posters who felt that the Sharing Knife world was not diverse enough because the real US frontier had more cultural diversity were bringing their own cultural prejudices to bear. As other posters have pointed out, not all frontiers and colonial situations have the same history as the US. I’ve often wondered why ‘generic’ seems to equal ‘white’ in so many of these arguments. I read a story in which the characters were not described physically, except in generic terms – tall, strong, delicate, etc. This was a story described by a reviewer as ‘generic white’ but the ‘whiteness’ was brought in by the reader, not the author.

  29. Chris Cobb

    Specfic achieves this by taking the issue, stripping it of its historical and cultural identifiers, and placing it in an entirely new context.

    I don’t think that anyone in this discussion thread so far would take issue with this assertion. Rather, the discussion has been working through the question of what happens when a work of speculative fiction removes an issue from only some of its historical and cultural identifiers, leaving others in place.

    I thought the posters who felt that the Sharing Knife world was not diverse enough because the real US frontier had more cultural diversity were bringing their own cultural prejudices to bear.

    Yet reports from readers (and I am trying to comment more carefully than I have done earlier from the position of one who has not read) indicate that The Sharing Knife seeks to evoke the American frontier in certain respects, while nevertheless signaling that the world is not the American frontier? If the work is inviting readers to think about the work in relation to the American frontier, should those readers be censured for bringing their own cultural prejudices/historical understanding of the frontier to bear when they do so? Should the author’s design be subject to criticism for attempting to have it both ways? I can’t quite frame those questions neutrally, but I do think that both are complicated, and I believe that the effects of evoking history and myth in speculative fiction are complicated and far from perfectly understood by writers, readers, or critics.

  30. Clei

    Chris Cobb said: “If the work is inviting readers to think about the work in relation to the American frontier, should those readers be censured for bringing their own cultural prejudices/historical understanding of the frontier to bear when they do so?”

    My question is does the work invite readers to compare it to the US frontier? I don’t think using flatboats, and other technological and geographical realities necessarily is meant to invoke a comparison with a specific historical period. Most fantasies use medieval tropes, but are not attempting to create a one-to-one comparison to medieval societies. Perhaps because US frontier tropes have been used so seldom (if ever, TSK is a first for me), they stand out.

    One interesting thing about TSK is that there isn’t a clear determination of which group has the power. At first glance, one might be led to assume the Lakewalkers (looking and living similarly to many Native American societies) are the oppressed group. Dance(pronetolaughter) makes those points quite eloquently.

    However, Ms. Bujold plays with expectations by making the Lakewalkers the descendents of the powerful elite. The Farmers were brought into the frontier for the purpose of providing physical comforts for the Lakewalker patrols, such as shelter, food, and places for re-supply. And the Lakewalkers expect to get these items for free, I might add. That stems directly out of the ancestor Lakewalker “lords” treating the “non-magic” farmers as servants, rather than equals. But the Farmer populations have grown and are now taking matters into their own hands by expanding into non-approved areas. They attribute Lakewalker attempts to limit population expansion as based on a Lakewalker desire to maintain dominance.

    One can clearly see the structure of a societal tipping point where the oppressed minority becomes the majority and begins to take power from the (now) minority elite. There is no comparison there to the US frontier (but perhaps to present day US). Because Ms. Bujold has mixed all these different cultural, historical, and time-based elements so thoroughly, I would say her work does not remove only one aspect of a real historical period, while leaving others in place. It’s much more complicated than that.

    Chris Cobb also said: “…I believe that the effects of evoking history and myth in speculative fiction are complicated and far from perfectly understood by writers, readers, or critics.”

    I agree. I just don’t see too many commenters on this issue discussing reader responsibility for bringing their own cultural preconceptions into situations that may not call for them. I thought it worthwhile, then, to remind us all that we readers bear equal responsibility for bringing our prejudices to the reading of a work of fiction as the authors do for bringing prejudices to the writing of it.

  31. Vardibidian

    I’ll chime in briefly to say that I’m not ignoring y’all, but that I have found that when my inclination is to respond by saying what I’ve already said, it’s probably better not to repeat myself but to let go.

    I’ve said plenty, here and in that other thread, and until somebody comes along and persuades me that either what I’ve said was wrong (that is the last version standing, not the stuff at the top, which I hope was clear existed for the primary purpose of beginning the conversation, and bits of which were refined, clarified, changed, retracted, and so on, through the comments above and on the other thread) or that further repeating my point would be somehow more persuasive, I’ll just let what’s here stand.

    Er, except… I will add that I know it’s a pain, when you’ve followed a link to a truly outrageously long thread, to be guided elsewhere for even more reading, but really, I would ask that any of y’all who have not read Mary Anne Mohanraj’s essay over on John Scalzi’s Whatever and also Benjamin Rosenbaums essay on his own blog do so. Not only because commenting on this note without reading those essays seems far worse than commenting on this without reading The Sharing Knife, as the latter was simply a specific case of the question brought up by the two essays, but also because the essays are far better than this note at doing some fundamental persuasion about What the World Is Like, and I would much rather see those notes addressed and attacked, criticized and corrected and clarified, interrogated and inspected and included and increased than see my own, which even after getting great benefit from such behavior is still (clearly) not doing much good in the world.


  32. Jed

    Sorry if you’ve already linked to this from another entry — I am, as usual, behind on my blog reading — but I just came across a very long and interesting discussion of Thirteenth Child, by Patricia Wrede, featuring an alternate fantasy version of North America that doesn’t have any human residents when the Europeans arrive.

    Jo Walton blogged a review of the book a week ago, and then commenters had a huge discussion of the problematic politics of the book, especially in the context of the real-world tendency of a lot of white American culture to try to more or less pretend that America was in fact devoid of human life when the Europeans got here.

    I’ve only skimmed the discussion, but I found it pretty eye-opening in various ways, and thought it was relevant enough to your entry here to be worth posting a link, especially because Bujold is one of the commenters.

    I didn’t follow very many of the links that the commenters posted, but I did particularly like one related discussion by Rush-That-Speaks in LJ, musing on the extensive after-the-fact erasure of native peoples from white American culture and history in the real world.

  33. James Davis Nicoll

    The travelers never run into a community where a different language is spoken. They do find that the food changes a bit from region to region, mostly because of the local game, but they don’t come across ethnic foods, nor is there any real disagreement about what is tasty and what isn’t. That’s generally true of cultures as well: there are regional cultures, which are dictated by natural features, but there aren’t ethnic cultures, dictated by tradition, taboo and taste. Or, rather, there are two cultures: farmer and Lakewalker, or human and elf, or White and Red.

    I don’t know what your policy on spoilers is so I will rot13 the following (see I don’t know what your policy on rot13 is, either, so feel free to nuke this.

    Gurer’f bar srjre tebhc guna lbh znl guvax. Gur frggvat vf cbfg-ncbpnylcgvp, gur Ynxrjnyxref ner gur qrfpraqragf bs gur unaqshy bs fheivibef sebz crbcyr erfcbafvoyr sbe gur pngnfgebcur naq gur snezref ner gur qrfpraqragf bs gur unaqshy bs crnfnagf jub fheivirq. Gurl’er obgu sebz gur fnzr bevtvangvat phygher, gubhtu, whfg qvssrerag cnegf bs gur fbpvny urvenepul.

    Gur Ynxrjnyxref nera’g fb zhpu ryirf nf VPOZ zvffvyrzra jub unir frg gurzfryirf hc nf abovyvgl bire n fznyy tebhc bs snezref gurl sbhaq va cbfg-JJVVV Aroenfxn naq gurl’ir pynvz gur ebyr bs gur neovgref bs jub vf nyybjrq gb xabj jung nobhg snyybhg orpnhfr nf gur crbcyr erfcbafvoyr sbe gurer orvat fb znal enqvbybtvpny ubgfcbgf, gurl ner zber dhnyvsvrq gb haqrefgnaq gur vffhrf vaibyirq.

  34. Vardibidian


    I saw that thread, and I have to say, I like it here better. But yes, many of the same issues came up, and Rush-that-Speaks lays out beautifully not only the issue of the Missing Race (which is what was bothering me in this series) but also the ways in which we (for various values of we) set up cultural norms that teach us blindness and ignorance. Which is why (I surmise) that dance (prone to laughter) was so happy to see the Lakewalkers as Native Americans in the series.

    Which brings us to Mr. Nicoll (sorry for the formality, but we’ve just met, and I’m that way. I clearly ought to have said explicitly at several points that I know that the connection between the world of The Sharing Knife and the American Frontier is not a direct correlation but an evocation. The Lakewalkers are not direct descendants of the HoHoKam any more than they are actual elves. And that does make a difference, certainly. On the other hand, they function as pseudo-Indians in the evoked frontier myth. Which is how both dance and I read them, albeit of course very differently in other ways, and where a great deal of the power of the series comes from.

    But thank you and welcome–very nice of you to rot the spoilers. My general policy is that I will spoil in my Book Reports if that’s what strikes me to talk about, but try not to in other notes, unless they are clearly marked.


  35. dance (pronetolaughter)

    Which is why (I surmise) that dance (prone to laughter) was so happy to see the Lakewalkers as Native Americans in the series.

    Yes, absolutely. And beyond shocked that the original Tor thread on TSK that I linked long ago, written contemporaneously with RaceFail ’09, was full of knowledgeable people actively questing for historical parallels who COULDN’T SEE THE BIGGEST ONE OF ALL because Native Americans are just *that* invisible in our mindset. That’s really why I went googling and landed here—surely everyone couldn’t be that blind. (And I’m even more wowed by the Australian above who didn’t even pick up a colonial settlement reflection, seeing as how Australia had a similar settler vs. indigenous people on the frontier pattern.)

    Though, you know, I listed on LMB’s blog all the elements about the Lakewalkers that signified “Indians” and it kinda added up to a stereotype. Although, I think demonstrating a structural understanding of race such that the stereotype is not the whole of the ethnic characterization vastly mitigates the problem—but without that? hmm…beyond happy to give TSK to a black, or especially biracial child, not so sure if I would push it on a Navajo or Klamath child.

    Checking back because I just found that other thread. And associated links. I like it here better too.


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