November 11, 2016

The Importance of Diversity in Sci-Fi Worldbuilding

The word “Firefly” appears in a dozen Amazon reviews for Sacred Planet by Austin Rogers. That’s because from a debut science fiction author whose very book blurb reads, “Fans of Firefly will feel at home in the world of Dominion,” the comparison to Joss Whedon’s Western space romp is no accident; it’s the result of a Firefly fan capitalizing on the love of the series combined with knowing exactly how to channel Whedonesque characters without flaw. Hey, they say to write what you know.
Successive pulses rain down on Sierra Falco’s space yacht, each one a blow to the fragile balance of the galaxy itself. When the Carinian prime minister’s daughter’s ship is destroyed by a shadowy enemy, the political peace ties between superpowers are destabilized. Enter Captain Davin of the Fossa, a smuggler who’s about to cash in by selling the rescued Prima Figlia to the highest bidder — her father, right? Because Davin’s not a bad guy, but he has a thieving crew to feed. Off in Sagittarian space, a futuristic warrior accomplishes his greatest ambition, defeating all other competitors to become the emperor’s champion, only to make a sacrifice in exchange that he will never be able to live with. Kastor is my favorite character. Forced by his ambition to make a devastating choice, he grapples with the same problem over and over, failing to really recover and ever get what he wants when it conflicts with his orders. Poor guy.
The first scene of Sacred Planet reads like a script for an episode of Firefly, or to be more specific, the script to the second scene of the pilot, where Captain Mal Reynolds comes across some serious booty on an abandoned shuttle. Meet Captain Davin, who on page one gazed upon the beautiful sight of a massive heap of scrap metal prime for the picking. Sydney Strange is basically Zoe but a lesbian and the pilot, and Jai is basically Wash but not a pilot, and Jabron is basically Jane. Really. Everything from joking about the frozen bodies floating through their treasure trove to getting excited about the mysterious contents of a “preserve bag” from the wreckage is irreverent and edgy enough to be fan fiction, if not for the bigger picture — a huge worldbuilding scope and a larger cast well beyond the crew of the Serentity — I mean the Fossa.
The princess Davin rescues from the preserve bag, Sierra Falco, promises to be worth a whole lot more than her weight in gold, because she’s a pawn in the political justification of an interplanetary war, hence the attempt to assassinate her, destroying her space yacht. Davin’s devotion to cold hard cash struggles against his morality, and I gotta hand it to the author, that fight was not over easy and, sorry for the vague half spoiler, doesn’t really end well for anybody. It’s not the happiest of endings.
Much more interesting to me, however, was the unparalleled and incomparable Sagittarian warrior Kastor, who immediately after becoming the emperor’s champion becomes an unexpected victim of personal tragedy that I just couldn’t get over. So many tears.
I liked the compelling political drama more than the extended battle scenes. It’s a matter of opinion, but I’m a fan of politics and scheming. There’s a writing takeaway from this, however: many of the reviews for Sacred Planet either say that there isn’t enough action, or there’s enough action but still too much politics. How do you please everyone when it’s a matter of subjectivity?
The answer is give it your best, by which I mean, if you’re writing a political drama because that’s what you enjoy, don’t try to please everyone, but make it the best it can be. If you’re including action scenes because you love to read a good fight, get the action right. Research how to pull off these kinds of scenes, and take note of writing techniques when you read scenes you like in other books. The problem in Sacred Planet is that, while every review will tell you the writing is exquisitely beautiful at all times, it’s always eloquent, but not always effective. The action scenes in Sacred Planet are not as effective as they could be.
Here’s a hint for writing a good action scene: Keep them on their toes. Vary sentence lengths, vary sentence structure, and vary tone. Create excitement, but don’t aim for an exciting tone with every sentence. Use active voice, sentences where the subject is the agent of the action verb, rather than passive voice — but don’t get caught in the simplest sentence structure of “subject, predicate” for every sentence in a paragraph. It’s easy to lull readers even in a paragraph describing interstellar violence or a fight to the death on top of a flying hover vehicle if sentences are all the same length, structure and tone.
Sacred Planet also brought up a greater issue for me when it comes to worldbuilding. In spite of fleshed out political, social, religious and philosophical systems, and made more visible in contrast to how well the world is built, the potential for gender equality in the future in Sacred Planet is surprisingly and laughably short-sighted to a point that may not defy suspension of disbelief, but at the least stands up to it with the strength of half a Neville Longbottom. I always hate people who review fiction negatively based on social issues, but that isn’t going to stop me today. It wasn’t so much a missed opportunity for feminism but an omission that affected my enjoyment of female characters Emma, Sierra, Pollaena, Jade and Guarlain, while Strange and Seraphina are the only exceptions in a seemingly accidentally patriarchal cast, which is why I’ll make an exception. First, I have to say that I appreciate one aspect of the presentation of women: the hypersexuality of Jade and Strange struck me as powerful and respectful. While Jade is sexualized by the male hero in a way that gives her power, Strange is a lesbian in space, and men respect and even revere her when they see her with her ‘bitches,’ and I applaud that.
It’s just that all of the characters who have any power — whether at the conference table, on the smuggler ship or in parliament — were men. I imagine it’s an accident of the author’s default expectations of the gender of the prime minister, cabinet, ship captain, trader, CEO, more than a pessimistic expectation that in hundreds of years not much will have changed for women.
While I enjoyed the genetically engineered Sagittarian paired mates with their almost equally strong female partners — and it is incredibly believable if that isn’t an oxymoron that the male characters in each pair would still be physically stronger, more dominant, and more successful — there was a missed opportunity to give a more interesting plot line to the female character. I will be a little bit vague to avoid spoilers, but this part of the diatribe is really intended for those who have read the book. Twice in Sacred Planet these pairs — a male noble warrior of great strength and ambition with a female counterpart genetically engineered to be sexually compatible and still a warrior with military experience in her own right — face violent conflicts in which the male survives. The second time, I can only imagine not much would need to be changed for the woman to survive instead and for her to be the one to seek revenge for the rest of the story. It would have slightly made up for the weak female character of Princess Sierra, who has plenty of room for development but along such a stale track as a girl who has to prove she’s as capable as men. What if she had been an equal, say inheritor of her father’s position, and her development needed to be something new, different and more creative? I think all this is merely a difficulty in thinking outside the patriarchal box to have women as prime ministers and captains of smuggler ships, but in a new author so insightful and full of potential, it’s disappointing.
I considered four stars because my honest review is very critical, but I loved this book. Sacred Planet is strong enough to survive fierce scrutiny, and I will read the next in the Dominion Series with anticipation.
Writing Takeaways: Let’s talk about diversity.
It can be hard to think outside the box, address stereotypes and do the opposite of the expected, but the best storytelling channels the unexpected every time.
1. Assign race/gender/sexual orientation/age at random.
You’re outlining a new novel or sitting down to discover the first chapter. It’s time to decide who your protagonist is, who they interact with first, who their antagonist will be, what kinds of characters pop into the story for a brief cameo or a starring role, love interest or thief of the heart, mentor or assassin. Some of these people have job titles and positions of power, roles in society and in smaller groups. They need names and possibly hair colors when you write about them. Can you challenge the image that comes to mind immediately when you invent a character who is a doctor, a teacher, the president of the United States, a homeless person, a cashier at Safeway, or a stay-at-home parent? We talk about challenging these ideas every day in real life. Consider the impact the unexpected can have on your writing. I didn’t say always do the opposite; just assign race and gender, some of the time, if possible, at random. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of the first chapter of your first novel and realizing all of your characters are men. Okay, there may be worse things than that, but it’s hard to break the mold sometimes, and harder to break it once you have a strong image of your characters down on paper.
2. Do the unexpected. Paint a different picture.
Sometimes the problem isn’t even our preconceived notions of the gender of the character, we just tend toward the male pronoun “he” for most any unnamed character, whether they’re a bartender, security guard, shoplifter or fitness trainer. Is there any doubt you can easily picture a female bartender or gym instructor? No, but if the character isn’t important enough to be named, we tend to use the male pronoun, for example, “The bartender didn’t bother to argue with me; he just handed me the draft,” or, “The random security guard I chose to relay the order put his hand to his ear and repeated my words.” Would it add the unexpected to just use the female pronoun? Half the time? All the time? Just once? I also think you picture something more clear when you read, “The security guard put her hand to her ear.” — Ten bucks says her hair was in a ponytail. Did you picture anything that specific when the security guard was male? The unexpected almost always amplifies your writing, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Don’t think of switching genders as an exercise in over-the-top political correctness — consider when it can be harnessed to add something new and unexpected to your writing. And a general writing rule to add some pizazz is to always aim for the unexpected. Broccoli.
Or not.
3. Consider social and political themes of your book early.
The best order of operations for writing a novel would be write the story, then develop themes, in that order. The best novels subtly amplify themes already present organically from the first draft. But that doesn’t mean you can’t brainstorm some notes from the very beginning. What kinds of assumptions have your characters made about one another, and what kinds of problems are they fighting to solve? What impact would your novel have on the world if it were assigned reading for every single high school on the planet? What messages are you sending out? Are all of your characters white? Just checking. Keep a running note going in Evernote or on your desk of the kinds of ideas you want to put into the world and the kinds you may not. Once you have your story plotted, consider how you can include these concerns seamlessly into the central concerns of your central characters.
I’ll give you an example of how I failed at this: I started writing my first novel, Stars and Stopped Clocks, seven years ago. Assassins try to murder Ilan Potestas, the count of Invernali — at least in the first iteration — by throwing a fireball at him. A few drafts and years later, I decided it would be way cooler if the assassins had guns and tried to shoot Ilan. Today the ripple effects of working magical firearms through my novel have had a devastating impact on how my novel seems to address an issue dear to my heart: gun safety in America. I’m still working out how to stop glorifying guns in my novel that largely argues for universal access to education and technology and may make it sound like I’m talking about universal access to guns. I’m so not.
It’s going to take work to replot my novel in a way that’s consistent with my values and the impact I want to make on the world. I highly recommend that you keep a writing journal that reflects daily on where your story is going. If you identify social messages in your writing early, you can make sure they stay in your control. Brainstorm the repercussions of the values asserted in your novel from the beginning so you don’t have such heavy lifting to do later.
Writing and execution are the strongest points of a good story. Austin Rogers’ debut novel gets the execution right. Set in the future of our own epic, sweeping galaxy, Sacred Planet toes the balance between small scale character adventures and the big picture intergalactic war of which humanity is on the brink. I loved it.

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