Is today’s Star Trek fiction guilty of “lazy” quasi-racism?
In what is generally a favorable write-up of Star Trek: Seekers #1 – Second Nature, reviewer Steve Donoghue of Open Letters Monthly makes an observation I find troubling:
“In this first volume in the Star Trek Seekers series, Second Nature, Captain Terrell heads a somewhat predictably multi-racial crew — there’s a Vulcan, a Trill, an Arkenite, a Denobulan, etc. — and, unfortunately, Mack tends to lean on these race-implications just as so many Star Trek fiction writers have done before him. (It lends itself to an egregious laziness that would be condemned as simple racism if it were being applied to people from Lithuania instead of Alpha Centauri; countless times, Mack designates these characters by their races – “the Vulcan” this, or “the Trill” that).”
Considering how eagerly I and other Star Trek authors of recent years have strived to create a more inclusive portrait of humanity and of diverse ideologies and lifestyles in the novels, this note of his gave me great pause.
Have we been guilty of perpetrating a “lazy” and “casual” form of racism by using species identifiers in our prose? I know that I and some other authors do it to avoid pronoun confusion in scenes where several characters are of the same sex, and to avoid resorting to physical attributes (“the blonde,” “the tall man,” etc), or overusing the proper names to the point of distraction.
But now I’m curious. Does Mr. Donoghue have a point? Are writers of speculative fiction (including but not limited to Star Trek) committing a sin against the inclusive philosophy many of us consider important by using species identification as a form of literary short-hand? Or is this reviewer overreacting to an innocuous trope of the speculative fiction genre?
I’m not looking to pick a fight or incite people to pile onto Mr. Donoghue. This is a serious inquiry: How can we improve this aspect of SF and Star Trek fiction without creating clunky prose problems in the process? Or is this not even really a problem at all?
One Response to “Is today’s Star Trek fiction guilty of “lazy” quasi-racism?”
If you constantly called the bridge crew on the Enterprise the Asian, the Russian, the Scot, the American, the African and the Vulcan it wouldn’t be racist, it would just be a weird writing crutch. Calling someone by their ethnic heritage is just as valid a way to ID them as their gender, hair color, etc. None of those words are offensive unless you attach an adjective with a negative or stereotypical connotation. But again, that also falls under the umbrella of bad writing.
I haven’t read Seekers, but I don’t think any of the current Trek authors are typically guilty of this sort of lazy writing.
On the other hand, it’s a fine line when you’re writing Star Trek between describing a character properly and giving needless description that your readers already know. You don’t need to mention Kirk or Uhura’s skin color, but should you mention Worf’s forehead ridges? Do you have to mention the ears and haircuts of every Vulcan or can you just say a character is a Vulcan? Should you be sure to mention that a Bolian is blue? Talk about Chakotay’s tattoos in every book? What about the weird forehead tattoos on Halkans?