Barb (rahirah) wrote,
Barb
rahirah

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On Being Ahead of One's Time, Until Time Catches Up

I foolishly made a comment on Facebook the other day, to the effect that I used to love the Pern books, but couldn't enjoy them any longer, because [reasons.] This ticked off a bunch of Pern fans. Which was my fault; I shouldn't have made a negative comment on an "I love Pern!" post. ([personal profile] slaymesoftly, I'm really sorry.) I decided that trying to explain why I thought the Infamous Tent Peg Interview was believable even though it wasn't corroborated, and how even if the fan who reported it was lying through his teeth, there was more than enough well-documented gender-and-class-and-sexuality-related stuff in Anne McCaffery's work to make me itchy regardless, was not a hill I wanted to die on (particularly in someone else's space.) So I made a vague and hopefully polite "YMMV" response and exited stage right.

One of the people who found my comment annoying responded with the double whammy of "Lol who gets upset about a ~fantasy~ series?" and "Lol the books are ~of their time!~ If you think Pern is bad, you should read Heinlein!" While the first one makes me roll my eyes, it's the second one I want to talk about. As it happens, I have read Heinlein, and Asimov, and Clarke, and Smith, etc., not to mention quite a lot of even older non-SF fiction. I'm very familiar with putting books and authors into the context of the time in which they were written. It's why I can still enjoy 90% of the original Doctor Doolittle Books despite some pretty appalling-by-today's-standards racism, but I can't enjoy Albert Payson Terhune's dog stories, which were written at about the same time, and also contain appalling-by-today's-standards racism. The difference is, Hugh Lofting was trying to write sympathetic, heroic non-white characters, who were invaluable friends and allies of the main character. Terhune was writing villains who were villains because they were lower-class and non-white. By today's standards, they both produced awful stereotypical caricatures, but the intent of the two authors could not have been farther apart. Both authors were "of their time." But there's a huge variation in people who are "of their time." There's a huge variation in readers as well. Just because I can stomach a particular book doesn't mean that everyone can or should have to.

One big reason that the Pern books bother me more than other books of the same era is that their "time" is awfully damned long. It's true that the series started in the 1960s, but it continued well into the 2000s. Pern is hardly the only series in this situation. There's another far less well-known series, The Sector General books by James White, which had some similar issues. Sector General was a space hospital serving dozens of alien races, and the gimmick of the series was that the doctors had access to mind recordings of great alien doctors. So a human who had to treat an alien could zap a mental overlay from a doctor of that species into his own head. And it was always "his" own head. The series began in 1957, so unsurprisingly, the author wrote all the doctors as male. A decade or more later, and several books into the series, cue a bunch of fan letters asking why Nurse Murchison, who was obviously as smart and medically capable as the male characters, wasn't on track to become a Diagnostician the same way Dr. Conway was. So the author introduced a retcon to the effect that women couldn't become Diagnosticians, because their minds were incapable of handling the alien overlay.

In the original 1960s Star Trek series, there were no female captains. In one episode, it was strongly implied that this was Starfleet policy. As the decades rolled on, and the franchise started to create series set before TOS, they had to decide how to handle the backstory. Was Janice Lester denied command because she was a woman, or because she was unstable, or both? In this case, the Powers That Be waved their retcon wand and said, "There have always been female captains, DUH!" (I'm fairly certain that, having finally bitten the bullet and introduced a gay character, that they'll do the same there. There have always been queer officers in Starfleet, DUH.)

It's a lot more difficult to find a series where an issue comes up which the author never intended to address, or even considered an issue, and yet, when it's raised, the author bites the bullet and tackles it head on. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Stephen Brust's Vlad Taltos series, which started out as a flash-bang witty fantasy series about an assassin. Several books in, rumor has it that a friend of the author's was killed in real life. That incident made him reassess his own character, and the series suddenly took a deeper, darker tone, and Vlad became a deeper, richer character.

The bottom line is, if you write anything long enough, the world is going to catch up to you, and very likely pass you by. It can be hard to deal with, especially for authors who are used to being seen as ahead of their time. But when that happens, you have a choice. You can double down on the Objectionable Thing, say that it's just the way this particular world is. Or you can say well, the Objectionable Thing wasn't really a Thing at all; it just looked like that in the first book. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! OR you can look at your world and your characters and say, yeah, the characters ARE sexist/racist/stone cold killers/whatever. And that sucks, because I didn't mean them to be. But the good thing is, if Objectionable Thing is due to the characters being wrong, instead of being Just The Way The World Is, then the characters can change. And so can the world.

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