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iD: something from the butcher’s block

Over the last few days, Twitter has been all, well, a-twitter about diversity in science fiction. Most of that has to do with this piece in The Guardian, which begins thusly:

Science fiction loves a good paradox. Here’s one for you: how can a genre that dreams up alien cultures and mythic races in such minute detail seemingly ignore the ethnic, religious, gender and sexual diversity right here on the home planet, here in the real world?

In other words, for a school of writing that swims so deeply in the unconventional, why is science fiction and fantasy so darned conventional?

Those are all good questions, and they reflect frustrations I’ve felt myself. The piece also quotes Cheryl Morgan, a class-act lady who I was lucky enough to have lunch with this summer. She was really nice about how I basically hacked up a hairball in front of her when I choked on my naengmyeon, effectively re-enacting the moment in The Ring when Naomi Watts chokes on electrode. Because no lunch with a well-respected editor and blogger is complete without total mortification. After lunch, she casually informed me that, without having read it, she was already impressed with iD for one reason: it had a non-white man on a genre cover sold in England.

“I don’t think you know what a big deal that is,” she said.

I didn’t.

Part of that has to do with the fact that my publishers at Angry Robot were eager to put Javier on the book’s cover. They listened to me when I told them I wanted him to be unmistakably non-white. When Martin Bland finished work on the cover, I even asked them to do a non-dithering HEX scan of it so I’d know without any doubts what the dominant colour of Javier’s skin was. (I’m annoying about my covers. I was annoying with vN, too. Thankfully, I have patient editors and Martin Bland does great work.) I interpreted their willingness to put Javier on the cover as business as usual. Apparently, it’s not. It’s one of the reasons I’m lucky to be with Angry Robot. But really, it shouldn’t be an issue. For anybody. Ever. Period.

On the other hand, learning this made me think about a scene I’d cut from iD. It was a scene I’d always liked, but which I knew didn’t fit in the narrative once I looked over the manuscript during the editing phase. But, to make a couple of points about about diversity in SF and the editing process, I thought I’d share it with you today. SPOILERS AHEAD. If you have not read iD and you think you’d like to, consider scrolling up now. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

To set the scene, what follows takes place during the Caribbean Odyssey portion of the novel. Or, as I like to think of it, “the James Bond part.” (Seriously, I probably listened to “You Only Live Twice” about a hundred times while writing this. Also, we watched a bunch of Bond movies as I wrote it. It’s why this book moves faster than the last one.) Javier sets out to get his groove back by seducing a random human aboard the cruise ship, knowing that he will eventually have to seduce Chris Holberton in order to get the nitrogen-doped diamond quantum storage device. (See what I mean about James Bond? Someone at Broccoli, please call me.) Javier doubts himself because of what happened with Reverend Mitch Powell. He was failsafed, and raped, and he needs to re-assert himself and re-discover his sexuality within the limits of the failsafe — which usually helps him feel good about fucking human beings, but which he also wants to be free of. In the published novel, he has a peaceful, healing threesome with an elderly Chinese woman and her Hispanic manservant. It’s really sweet, if I say so myself. But in earlier drafts, things went…differently.

***

Javier took Manuel to his loft. He said something about it being the best suite on the boat, because it was. Manuel had never seen anything like it. He was nervous. He drank all the water Javier gave him, and asked for more. Then he asked for alcohol. Javier suspected  that he might be a virgin.

Javier asked him if he wanted to go out on the terrace. There was a whirlpool out there, and Manuel could warm up. When Manuel said he had no spare shorts, Javier told him that didn’t matter. Then he started undressing. You had to lead humans. Take control of the situation, before they took it for themselves. Fuck them, before they fucked you.

It was all going fine. Manuel had a bunch of rum in him. Good rum, too, by the taste of it. Javier got that second-hand. Manuel was a sloppy kisser, but most men were. One minute he was all delicate little boy kisses, and the next he was in Javier’s lap, licking the inside of his mouth. Then he pulled away. He stared. His eyes roved up and down, like those of a spooked horse. The exact opposite of the jaguar’s precise but heavy glare.

“I just want to see you,” he said. “I wanted to see you. That’s why I came to your room.”

Powell. Powell had said those words. Powell had said those words the night before it all ended. Powell had stared at him and gotten hard and almost fucked him. Almost raped him. But what he did the next day was so much worse.

Unsought, images of Powell clouded his memory. Some over-eager pattern matching, maybe. The words conjured the pictures. They all popped up together like some fibrous tumour of picspam: Powell’s dark and unfeeling eyes, Powell’s smile, Powell’s hands on him, Powell’s body under his. The scars on Powell’s skin, that Javier desperately wanted to add to.

His vision pixelated. Manuel’s face became a thousand bricks of coloured light. Javier watched it move and change like some supervillain watching a video wall.

“What’s wrong?” Manuel asked.

Javier didn’t know. Or, he did know, but he couldn’t explain. “This just happens, sometimes,” he said. “It’s not you. It’s me.”

“Are you bluescreening?”

“No.” How could he answer? There was no answer. No real answer, anyway.

“So, what, you’re broken?”

“No, I’m not broken.”

“Then why did you stop?”

His vision came trickling back. There was important visual information, here. Manuel’s face: disappointment, hurt, insecurity. He really didn’t do this very often. It was a compliment, he thought. Only now it wasn’t.

“Are you telling me you can’t fuck me because you’ve got a fucking glitch?

It was one of the most important advantages vN had over human lovers. The male models in particular. They could never under-perform. Never disappoint. It held great value to humans. There was nothing more demoralizing than watching someone’s erection die in front of you, or inside of you, or near you. That moment made every word uttered by needling mothers or teasing classmates or former lovers into flesh. In that moment, everything they’d ever heard about how ugly they were, or how unloveable, or how useless, suddenly became true, with visible evidence to prove it. But that moment, that thing that happened to all men at some moment or another, whether by age or habit or infirmity or occasion, it never happened to vN. Ever.

Except now. To Javier.

“I just got confused, for a second,” he said. “You reminded me of someone. It was just a syntax error.”

Manuel jumped out of the whirlpool. He was dead, now, too. “If I wanted to fuck a bucket of bolts, I’d visit an autoshop.”

“It’s not your fault-”

“You’re right! It’s not!” Manuel tore his underwear stepping into it. He hitched it up, ragged as it was, and found his trousers. He stuffed his socks down his back pockets. “It’s some crazy designer’s fault. Some fucking nerd who couldn’t get his code together.”

He put his shirt on inside-out. He grabbed his jacket. Javier stood up. “Don’t go,” he said. “I just need to try again.”

“I didn’t come up here because I wanted to try,” Manuel said. “Oh, and while we’re on the subject of your glitches, you should quit speaking Spanish. Just stop. It doesn’t sound right. It sounds like speech competition in some gringo high school.”

Javier had nothing to say to that. He’d always thought his Spanish was fine. But then again, he would. It was the default.

“They made you all to look like us,” Manuel said, “but you don’t. You’re not dark enough. Your nose is wrong. Your eyes are wrong. You’re not from anywhere, are you? I’m from Guadalajara. I’m from somewhere. But you, you’re just the guy they thought looked Latino or Hispanic or whatever shade of brown those perverts thought people wanted to fuck most.”

“Including you,” Javier said. “You were one of them.”

“And you’re a fucking tourist!” Manuel slid on his shoes. “You’ll never be one of us. You go on as many posadas and walk as many caminos and break as many piñatas as you want, check off all the clichés as you want, but you’re not part of that.” Manuel pointed off into the Gulf. “You’re not part of anything,” he said, and left.

***

So, there are a few things going on, here. In preparing for the book, I tried to think about how, and if, Javier would identify as Latino. He’s a self-replicating humanoid. A robot. He looks non-white, and he speaks Spanish, but he wasn’t raised in any one place by one family with which he could share any traditional values, foods, beliefs, texts, or any of the other elements that make up a culture. For me it’s a tragic part of his character: he should have access to a socially-constructed cultural identity that would sustain and comfort him during his itinerant lifestyle, but he doesn’t. He’s cut off. Rootless. And so are his children. I wrote this scene to reflect that.

And I wrote it to reflect the reality I saw among migrant workers and their kids when I was a teenager doing brief stints of camp counselling for kids in Wapato, WA. While the parents brought in the apples from farms around Yakima, the kids spent time swimming and fingerpainting. They might not have stayed in any one home for very long, but they had soccer, and Selena, and the other things that kids build friendships on. I was never very good with the kids — I grew up an only child, and I’m not what you’d call “fun” — but I did speak decent Spanish, so I was often called upon to communicate things the other counsellors couldn’t. (This was also why my managers at Value Village liked me. I could talk to operations staff, and they couldn’t. Which basically tells you everything you need to know about what it was like working there.) That language was what linked us. That’s how we built trust. What directions of mine they followed had solely to do with my ability to roll an R. I imagine the importance of language is why my aunt has encouraged the two children she adopted from Mexico to continue speaking Spanish in their home, even going so far as to co-found a bilingual school for gifted kids.

But my own anecdata wasn’t enough, so I went digging. The thing is, there is no one Latino identity. People from Honduras and people from Mexico are different. People who trace their lineage through the Nahua (or any of the Central and South American tribes) are different from the ones who trace it through Spain. Researchers at Pew say that 51% of Hispanics don’t identify with census labels because they aren’t nuanced enough. And that nuanced identity is not just about colour, or language, or religion. It’s a fluid thing that is constantly changing shape. You know, like all forms of identity ever. So I wanted to bring that to light in this scene. 

So why did I cut it from the novel?

First, because this scene doesn’t do anything for the plot. It doesn’t move anything forward. And because the first third had moved sluggishly enough, I didn’t want to slow things down even further here. Second, because it’s another heartbreak after a series of heartbreaks. I wanted this part of the story to be the moment at which things started to look up for Javier. He’d already suffered such huge losses, and reading the book over again I wanted to give him a win instead. Ultimately, I was happy with what replaced this scene. But I still miss the exploration of identity that we get here. And so I decided to share it with you. Thank you for reading.

One ResponseLeave one →

  1. Thank you for this fascinating look behind the curtains. I read vN and iD after discovering them through Scalzi’s Big Idea; they’ve been simultaneously fascinating, engrossing, and disturbing. You’re raising some very powerful and real questions about identity, humanity, and Otherness.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. You can buy her novels here. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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