Thursday, 20 July 2017

Finding new battlefields

This isn't an especially 40k-related post despite the title, but it touches on it a bit.

Recently it has been announced that the creators of Game of Thrones are working on a new series called 'Confederate' which is set in an alternate reality where slavery is still legal. They say it details the events leading up to a Third American Civil War, in an America where the southern states successfully ceded from the Union. The BBC has a piece on the reaction to this announcement and the almost inevitable backlash.

Now here's the first thing, and it's the thing that most directly relates to 40k too if you like- just because a writer or other creator chooses to set their story in a particular world doesn't mean that they think that world is a good place to be. We've all read the occasional obnoxious chin-stroking think-piece by a hack journalist desperate for some clicks who suddenly comes to the universe-shattering conclusion that the Imperium is a Fascist dictatorship and therefore assumes that anyone who plays 40k must be a KKK member or jackbooted wannabe blackshirt. The point of a setting is that it's just that- a setting, a stage, a place you can tell your story, and often the worse things are in that setting, the more story hooks are lying around.

The converse is also true- there are some stories where a world that is obviously meant to be 'better' than ours comes under threat. When the writers of Star Trek have the Borg turn up and assimilate an entire Federation planet, or the Cylons wipe the Twelve Colonies out of existence, the writers aren't saying this is a great thing to have happened- they're saying it's an interesting story. Big, crucial, difference. All but the most trivial (or very, very weird) stories need some form of conflict or crisis to drive the narrative, and that means that something good will be threatened, or something bad will need to be challenged.

There's a second, more insidious argument being deployed by the critics of 'Confederate' though, and it's the one which, as an aspiring writer, I find most chilling. Several people (check that BBC article for examples, I'm not linking them) have complained that 'two white guys' can't tell a story about slavery because they aren't black. Well excuse the hell out of me, but as a white male I'm going to write stories about who and whatever I damn well please. In fact, there's a cute little Catch-22 waiting for us here- for some time now, people have been complaining that there aren't enough strong female characters in big Hollywood movies, or enough black characters, or enough of whatever particular group you'd care to mention. But by the previous rule- that you have to be member of a particular group before you're qualified to write stories about it- that means all those white male screenwriters or novelists aren't allowed to write those stories. And of course if you're a white woman, you can't write about black women. If you're a black man, you can't write about black women. And so on and so on. "Only a Ginger..."

Of course I'm applying reductio ad absurdum here. After all, if we applied this 'rule' that strictly no one person could ever write a book at all unless it was set in a very odd society indeed. (and of course such a book would immediately be open to flak for 'lack of diversity') But the simple fact is that this argument is absurd. My own novel, The Wake of Manadar, features plenty of strong female characters and I was fully aware when writing it that I wasn't female, which is why I got women to read it and call me out on anything that wasn't quite right. I'm sure most other authors do the same thing, even if it's just checking with their partner or their editor. The idea that a major TV series on HBO might get all the way into full production without plenty of input and feedback from all manner of diverse people is patently daft. And yet, in the increasingly angry, judgmental, holier-than-thou world we seem to be living in, some people see fit to criticize a creative work based solely on the premise and the race of the people behind it.

There's a word for that. It begins with an 'R'.

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